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Rationale for the Coding Changes

By Rodney Everson • Updated Jul 27th, 2023

OnTrack Reading Phonics Program

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Below is the reasoning underlying the modifications I made to the original 70 phonograms in The Writing Road to Reading. They are included on the pdf titled "Teaching the Revised List of 84 Phonograms" that was discussed on the page Phonogram Revisions.

Each of the changes will be discussed, starting with the single vowel letters.

Phonograms a, e, i, o and u

Coding change: Drop the underlining of long vowel sounds and number them with a 2 instead. This allows single underlining to be used to indicate only phonograms with more than one letter and also encourages the child to think of all the possible options in numerical order.

Sound changes: The reason for adding the /ee/ sound to phonogram i was made on the page The Easiest Change. The reason for adding the /oo/ sound to phonogram u is because it does stand for an /oo/ sound in words like truth, flu, lucid, fluid and many others. The reason it is designated with the number 3 is that a child is better off trying the /ue/ sound and then immediately trying the /oo/ sound if he doesn’t automatically drop into that sound when the /ue/ sound proves difficult to enunciate. It is a fact that we use the /ue/ sound when enunciation is easy, but drop to /oo/ when enunciation of /ue/ proves to be a bit of a tongue twister.

Phonograms c and g

Coding change: While the rule governing the proper pronunciation of the phonogram c is quite reliable, and should be taught, the rule governing the phonogram g is not so reliable. Also, young children don't easily apply "if-then" rules, so numbering the second sound of each phonogram is preferred over reliance upon a rule.

Phonogram n

Sound change: In almost all words where the sound /ng/ is followed either by the sound /c/ or the sound /g/, the sound /ng/ is spelled with the phonogram n. That is, we do not write ingk, thangks, angkle, angchor or Ingca, nor do we write fingger, angger, longger or hungger. In each and every case we use the phonogram n. This should be taught and the second sound of phonogram n should be numbered with a 2 as usual.

Phonogram y

Sound changes: The addition of the /ee/ (happy) sound was discussed on the page The Easiest Change. The reasoning behind dropping the teaching of a consonant /yuh/ sound when a word begins with the phonogram y is that a child can easily be taught to say a quick /ee/ sound and when he blends the result, he will easily get the word. For example, take the word yard. If a child says /ee/…/ar/…/d/, he will get the correct result as long as he is instructed to say the first sound in a quick, short burst rather than dragging it out. He should also be told that this quick /ee/ is a consonant sound.

Coding change: When the ending /ee/ sound in words like happy and silly are acknowledged, they then vastly outnumber the words where the phonogram y represents the /ie/ and /i/ sounds, so the numbering should reflect that. Conveniently, it can then be pointed out that the phonogram y represents the same sounds as the phonogram i, but the order is reversed (/ee/ie/i/ versus /i/ie/ee/)

Phonograms ar, or and er

Sound changes: Ms. Spalding already acknowledges the sounds /ar/, /or/ and /er/ by teaching the phonograms ar, or and er. I advocate introducing an /err/ sound as well (pronounced in the Midwest as "air," but I also realize that in some areas of the U.S. and in other English-speaking countries, an /err/ sound is either confusing or unnecessary. The way to tell if it should be used is to compare the words marry, merry and Mary. In the Midwest, if someone says he is going to "marry merry Mary," he pronounces all three words nearly identically, if not exactly identically, and therefore teaching spellings of an /err/ sound makes sense.

So, assuming the use of an /err/ (merry) sound, the phonogram ar has four pronunciations as indicated by the suggested changes and they should be numbered as such. The phonogram or has two and the phonogram er also has two. The main reason for doing all this is to encourage a young child to see the spellings ar, er and or as phonograms at all times, rather than one sound here but two sounds there, which can be exceptionally confusing both to learn and to teach. As with many of my suggested changes, these come directly from my experience working with young children considered learning disabled. Clarity and consistency are important with these children.

Phonogram wor

Sound change: Dropped as a phonogram. There is no good justification for the spelling "wor" being designated as a phonogram. It stands for two sounds, not one, and the only reason for emphasizing its existence at all is that the combined spellings "w+or" result in a consistent pattern where the phonogram or always represents the /er/ sound. The same case could be made for designating the spelling "war" as a phonogram, and for that matter patterns like "ack," "eck," and "ick" could also be phonograms if the purpose of a phonogram becomes one of indicating patterns of English print.

Phonogram ed

Sound change: As indicated, at times the spelling "ed" is two sounds, not one. This usually occurs when the ending of the word is spelled "ded" or "ted," but also occurs infrequently in words like rugged and wicked. The suffix ed is definitely a confusing one for young children, and this is one of the hardest suffixes for them to learn to decode reliably. The main reason for suggesting this change is to preserve the consistency of the definition of a phonogram, that is, that it represents one sound, unless a strong reason exists to do otherwise as is the case, for example, with the phonograms qu and le.

Phonogram ew

Coding change: The reason for changing the order of preference so that the /ue/ sound is designated as the initial choice is that, as discussed here earlier, a young child is far better off attempting to say the /ue/ sound first because in most cases if the actual sound is /oo/, he will probably end up at the right sound anyway. This is definitely not true if the child starts with the /oo/ sound and needs to get to /ue/.

Phonogram ui

Sound change: The reason for this change is that suit, fruit and juice are now pronounced with /oo/ sounds, not /ue/ sounds in U.S. English. It’s possible that this is not the case in other English-speaking countries.

Phonogram ough

Sound changes: Teaching a child two extra “sounds” for the phonogram ough is justified by the four words, rough, tough, enough and cough plus their derivations. This is an insufficient reason to confuse the meaning of phonogram by again designating as phonograms print patterns with two sounds, rather than one. (See the note below for handling these words.)

Coding change: The reason for the suggested notation change is to parallel the sounds of the other two phonograms for the /ow/ sound. The phonogram ow is /ow/, /oe/ and the phonogram ou is /ow/, /oe/, /oo/, /u/. This makes the phonogram ough represent /ow/, /oe/, /oo/, /aw/.

Note: The words rough, tough, enough, laugh and cough (and their derivatives like laughter) are handled by teaching the phonogram ugh as the /f/ sound. It's not included in the 84 phonograms, however, because all of the words in which that phonogram appears are well down the Ayres List. Instead, it's treated as an additional phonogram to be learned much later in the curriculum, or by example when it's encountered in reading (as will most likely be the case.)

Phonogram ey

Coding change: The reason for the sound change was given on the page The Easiest Change. Once the /i/ sound is dropped and replaced with an /ee/ sound in words like valley and hockey, the words in which the phonogram ey represents the /ee/ sound far outnumber those where it represents the /ae/ sound, such as they and obey. This notation change reflects the fact that a child should try the /ee/ sound first.

Phonogram ie

Coding change: Again, the reason for the sound change was given on the page The Easiest Change. Here the reasoning behind the notation change is a bit shaky because there are probably more words where the phonogram ie represents the /ee/ sound. However, referring to it as /ie/,/ee/ reflects the actual spelling of the phonogram, easing the task of memorizing its sounds.

Phonogram ei

Sound change: The reason for changing the third sound to /e/ (heifer) from /i/ (forfeit) is two fold. First, the change makes the word heifer fit the structure; it is no longer an exception. And second, all of the examples where the phonogram ei is taught as an /i/ sound actually contain schwas, rather than /i/ sounds. As with all words containing schwas, the child is just taught to say the precise sound represented by the phonogram rather than an /u/. Thus, patient is pati/e/nt, not patiunt and reward is r/ee/ward, not ruward. Similarly, it would be a trivial task to explain that forfeit is forf/e/t, not forfut or forfit.

Summing Up

The changes presented above are changes to the 70 original phonograms in WRTR. Any one, or all, of them could be implemented if you decide to do so, even though you decide not to use the rest of the modifications described on the OnTrack Reading list of 84 phonograms. For example, to implement the suggestion on teaching "wor" as a phonogram, you just don't teach it. To change the sound of the phonogram ui from /ue/ (which it isn't) to /oo/ (which it is), you just tell your child it's /oo/ when you teach it. In other words, you can judge each suggested change on its own merits and modify as you please.

However, if you incorporate all of the changes above with the additions to the phonograms I suggest (bringing the total taught to 84) and with the new coding of the ubiquitous ending "e" that I also suggest, you will have a far easier, and more consistent, method of coding words in the end. Plus, you will have set up a system of coding/decoding which will be easy to combine with the OnTrack Reading Multisyllable Method.

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