Part 3 of “Our Third Grade Curriculum”: Spelling and Phonics

I have posted a long vowel chart with all the letter combinations I could think of that formed those sounds:  Long Vowel Chart.

Today M1, my third grader, and I did a brief, oral phonics review.  I started with the letter A, and I asked her to tell me all the sounds she could think of that the letter A made and word examples.  Next came B.  Then C.  And so on.  We proceeded through the entire alphabet in this manner.

  • “A says short ‘a’ like cat, long ‘a’ like cake, ‘a’ as in ball…”
  • “B says /b/…”
  • “C says /s/ like city, /k/ cat…”

Some days, we reverse that a bit.  I will say a sound, and she must then list all the letter or letter combinations that can say that sound, giving me word examples.

  •  Me:  “What makes the sound of long A?”
    M1:   “‘A’ as in ‘a’, ‘ay’ as in ‘day’, ‘ea’ as in ‘steak’, ‘eigh’ as in eight, ‘a consonant e’ as in ‘make’,  ‘ai’ as in ‘daisy’, ‘ei’ (veil), and ‘ey’ as in ‘they’, and I can’t remember the rest!”
  • Me:  “How about the sound /h/?”
    M1:  “An ‘h’ as in ‘heat’ and ‘wh’ as in ‘who’.”
  • Me:  “And how about /k/?”
    M1:  “A ‘ck’ as in ‘back’, ‘ch’ as in ‘Christmas’, ‘c’ as in car, and ‘k’ as in kitten.”

About a year ago I decided to embark on my own phonics and spelling curriculum for my daughters.  We had already finished consonants and short vowels.  We had worked through an Abeka first grade phonics primer and supplemented with Explode The Code books.  I had just bought Spelling Workout, and we had started through it.  Well, when we hit long vowel sound a , I just knew I couldn’t take it any longer.  Only one lesson devoted to long vowel sound A.  Only ten words; only two letter combinations , “a_e” and “ai”.  Sure, later in the book, “vowel pairs” were introduced and “ay” was introduced.  But what about “eigh”, “ey”, and “ea”, which all can say long vowel sound A?   Abeka phonics, Explode the Code phonics, and Spelling Workout do not present the letter combinations that can make the vowel sounds together as a group.  They are spaced too far out in sequence and may even be in separate books.  Some consonants make more than one sound (or even two sounds), and the possible sounds were presented in disparate lessons–and maybe only the most common sound was presented. Mary learned “s” says /s/ as in “yes.”  Later on she learned that “s” can say /z/ as in hers.  Certain brains don’t learn this way.  These brains want to know all the ways to do it all at once.  Why not present it this way?  Each curriculum has some great strengths, but they just don’t seem to put it all together.  Not comprehensive and not logically sequential! Or if it’s comprehensive, it’s not logical.  Or if it’s logical, it’s not comprehensive.  That it be logical, sequential, and comprehensive is important to me.

You see, M1’s father, a highly intelligent orthopedic surgeon (basing this biased statement on grades, board scores, and absolute level of smart-alecness), struggled in early elementary language arts.  Hated it.  Struggled with the material.  Struggled with his teachers.  A terrible reader and speller until sixth grade.  Then at 11 years old, his reading miraculously kicked in, escalating him from the absolute lowest reading class to the highest reading class.  He remembers distinctly the feeling of reading all coming together for him.  Spelling, on the other hand, well, it continues to stink!  He doesn’t know the combinations of letters that can come together to make the sounds.  Sure, he knows some, but as his reading skills developed past the point where phonics and spelling were being taught formally, he has huge gaps.  Clearly not in understanding or reasoning.

It seems crazy that, I on the other hand, following the exact same curriculum and having the exact same teachers as my husband, excelled at both reading and spelling.  In fact, I won my school’s fifth grade spelling bee.  I was always in the highest reading classes.  My husband and I attended the exact same elementary school!  We both did great in college and medical school?  What gives?  Why were our elementary language arts experiences so polar opposite?  As M1’s brain seems to follow her father’s brain wave patterns, alarm bells were going off all around me as we struggled through Abeka, Explode the Code, and Spelling Workout.  It wasn’t working for her.  As I searched and learned, I stumbled across Uncovering the Logic of English by Denise Eide.  Lines from her book jumped out at me:

Logical students do not tolerate inconsistent rules.  The smattering of phonics usually given to them is not only unhelpful; it is damaging…But why don’t all students struggle?…Though intuition [in young, learning students] is a great strength, their logical/literal counterparts who are attuned to detail should not be marginalized.  Teaching both [all] sounds right from the beginning allows all students to succeed and prevents student and teacher frustration by eliminating unnecessary exceptions…If they [students] can learn advanced mathematics, physics, chemistry, business structures, and even other languages, they can easily learn the 104 pieces that explain English.” (pp 27 and 28, 1st edition)

Aha!  Intuition versus logic.  I am intuitive.  It’ll work out fine.  Brandon is not.  Show me how it will work out fine.

Rather than waste time and money on a new, published curriculum, I decided that with the internet, the books we already owned, and the couple of books I purchased to help me understand phonics, we could master phonics and spelling in a logical, sequential way.  To make sure I wasn’t missing anything due to my independent streak and superiority complex, in addition to Uncovering the Logic of English by Denise Eide, I bought Handy English Encoder Decoder by Harvey Bluedorn.  I read Uncovering the Logic of English from cover to cover right away.  Absolutely wonderful.  It will be my checklist as I continue homeschooling my three children.  My girls will have a great grasp of the English phonics and spelling system if I make sure and hit each point in this book.  I don’t plan to do it in one year.  I plan to layer it in from first grade through probably fifth or sixth grade–unless the child masters it all early.  Layer, layer, layer.  My first grader doesn’t really get it, but as we repeat it each year, I believe she will grasp more each time.  M1, my third grader, seems to be really grasping it.

I continue to use Spelling Workout, Explode the Code, and internet sources for worksheets in each area that we cover.  And I peruse them routinely to make sure I’m not excluding anything I need to cover.  I have Spelling Workout B, and I will not purchase the next books in this series.  However, I did buy all of the Explode the Code books, and I will continue picking and choosing what I need from them throughout the upcoming years.  Although I wish the curriculum was more sequential and grouped topics differently, I really like the lessons and do feel they are pretty comprehensive.  I use the words from the lessons as spelling “tests.”

Let me here point out that I don’t see the point of separating spelling from phonics.  I absolutely see the difference between decoding (reading and phonics) and encoding (spelling), but something in me doesn’t think they should be separated.  However, from my own experience (n=2, this means sample size of 2, which does not really make it a good study!), I clearly see that decoding and early phonics come first.  My first grader is an awesome decoder but not so great encoder–YET.  I firmly believe it is developmental and will come as I feed the machine.  Again, no sources to quote.  Somebody may be able to enlighten me.  I am pleased with my third grader’s interest and progression in spelling and phonics.

In upcoming posts, I will post the tables that I have/am constructing for us to learn from.  We have been hammering the long vowels intermittently for the last year to year and a half.  If you think that’s too long, perhaps you’ve oversimplified long vowels.  The more complicated long vowel spelling patterns she has seen–but we have not focused on.  But when we see a word in a poem or read-aloud, I point out the unique spelling pattern and show it to her on the chart.

And early on, we really liked our set of pretty complete flashcards.  We used those quite a bit last year.  We have one set just for vowels and one set for consonants.  I found once she knew these, she had mastered a lot.

Our phonics/spelling also includes segments in the past and in the future on:  consonants, blends, diphthongs, “r” controlled words, schwa sounds, syllables, some rules, and some etymology (as it applies to helping us understand phonics/spelling).  I will post our summaries in future posts.

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