Modifying the Spalding Phonogram Set

One of the more longstanding phonogram sets is the one devised by Ms. Romalda Spalding in The Writing Road to Reading, first published in 1957 and reprinted in several editions since. Two aspects of her original phonogram set are troublesome today. One problem arises because of changes in pronunciation over the years. The second problem is that the Spalding phonograms are meant to be used only in conjuction with that curriculum set forth in her book. That is, they can't be used, on their own, to describe all of the sounds in words.

The OnTrack Reading Phonogram Flash Card Set addresses both of those problems, first by adjusting some of the pronunciations to reflect modern-day usages, and second, by adding fifteen additional phonograms and dropping one from her original set of 70 phonograms, resulting in an 84-phonogram set.

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Changing Pronunciations

The one change in pronunciation that has clearly occurred, or at least differs from how Ms. Spalding perceived it at the time, is the /ee/ sound found at the end of words like happy, jockey, and collie. In the original Spalding Method the phonograms y, ey, and ie were not taught as representing /ee/ sounds. Instead, the pronunciation of words like happy, jockey, and valley were explained as sounding like they each end with an /i/ sound. Thus, we end up trying to convince young children that we're really saying happi, jocki, and valli. As explained elsewhere on my website on the page The Easiest Change, modifying the sounds associated with a few phonograms yields a more child-friendly result.

Without going into a lot of detail here, a few other changes were made to reflect modern, acknowledged, pronunciations, like adding the /oo/ sound to the phonogram u to handle words like truth, for example. The rest of the changes are discussed here.

Adding to the Spalding Phonograms

Why add phonograms at all? Well, the problem with Ms. Spalding's phonogram set is that it can't be used to explain the structure of a significant number of words without also making use of several rules that are included in her method. In other words, to use her phonogram set, one must essentially use her entire method. Her phonogram set alone does not suffice for explaining the sound/symbol relationships in many English words.

To take one example, the Spalding Method doesn't treat digraphs like the ce in since and chance as a phonogram, which it most certainly is if we are to assign symbols to sounds in those words in any sensible manner. Instead, she concocted five "rules for the ending e" and, instead of using phonograms to explain the ce phonogram, she underlines the letter c with a single-underline, and the letter e with a double-underline, then places the number 3 under the double-underline and explains the situation by referring to one of her formal spelling rules, Rule 2 in this case. See why one must know more than just her phonogram structure to mark the code in a word?

Clearly, if all one wants is a phonogram set that accurately depicts the vast majority of English words, without having to also learn an associated curriculum, then adding the phonogram ce is essential. The alternative is to expect everyone using a set of phonograms such as Spalding's to also have to learn the associated rules that are used to explain the hundreds (thousands?) of words that utilize her rule-based system instead of just learning a few additional, and easy-to-learn, phonograms.

A Second Example: Doubled Consonants

Ms. Spalding apparently had great respect for the system of syllabification that was unfortunately bestowed upon us by Noah Webster almost two hundred years ago. I say "unfortunately" because the result since has been a proliferation of reading strategies for decoding multisyllable words that are quite difficult to teach in a way that a young child can understand. In fact, most adults today who are familiar with those strategies probably learned them only when they were finally called upon to teach a strategy to their students in school. For that matter, most adults today could not articulate a particular strategy for decoding an unfamiliar multisyllable word. Put another way, most adults today didn't rely upon any particular syllabification strategy to learn to read longer words. In essence, they were forced to devise their own methods. (For a far more child-friendly approach, see the OnTrack Reading Multisyllable Method.) But I digress.

One of Webster's unfortunate choices was to split the common doubled consonant into two sounds, rather than the one sound that the doubled consonant typically represents, the bb in rabbit, for example. Ironically, many older adults probably think there's actually two /b/ sounds in rabbit because they were actually taught phonics in school, and most of the phonics methods taught us to think of rabbit as rab...bit. That is, we were taught to split the /b/ sound and repeat it when we wrote the second syllable.

But there just aren't two /b/ sounds in rabbit, just as there aren't two in habit. There's only one /b/ sound in each word, but we use the phonogram bb in one and the phonogram b in the other. Why try to convince a six-year-old child that rabbit has two /b/ sounds when all we have to do is tell him that the one sound he actually does hear is spelled with the very-easy-to-learn digraph bb instead? It's so easy to learn, in fact, that it's not even included in the 84-card OnTrack Reading Phonogram Set. Once a child knows that the phonogram b represents the /b/ sound, all it takes is informing him that the phonogram bb he finds in many words is also the /b/ sound. Now, if it were to represent a different sound, that would be another matter, but it doesn't.

Limiting the Scope of a Phonogram

The ideal phonogram would be one symbol representing one and only one sound. Obviously, English spellings violate that ideal in multiple ways. For example, the phonogram c represents the /k/ sound in cat, and also the /s/ sound in cent. Going in the other direction, the sound /s/ is spelled many more ways than just with the phonogram s, including ss, c, ce, se, etc. One of the other necessary "inventions"in English was digraphs. We needed digraphs like sh, th, ch, ow, and oy because we only had 26 letters to represent over 40 sounds.

Ideally, however, given the messy situation we have to work with, nothing should be taught as a phonogram unless it represents a single sound in at least some words. The OnTrack Reading Phonogram Set contains three phonograms that violate this ideal. They are the phonogram x (which usually represents two sounds simultaneously, /k/s/) and the phonograms qu and le which each represent two sounds, /k/w/ and /u/l/, respectively, but are still best taught as phonograms regardless. The reason for both qu and le being taught as phonograms is the same: splitting them up is more difficult to explain to a child than leaving them together as a phonogram.

Ms. Spalding's 70-item phonogram set ignored this limitation in a peculiar way. She added wor to her stack of phonograms, presumably because of the consistent pattern that occurs where the /or/ sound is converted to an /er/ sound when the phonogram or is preceded by the phonogram w. Instead of just adding the sound /er/ as a pronunciation option for the phonogram or, she chose to create a phonogram wor that represents the two sounds /w/ and /er/. This sort of expansion of the definition of a phonogram should be avoided, for soon other patterns like war, ing, ung, ack, ick, etch, and itch will all end up being included on someone's list of phonograms. Ideally, each phonogram should represent just one sound in any particular word. The phonogram wor is not included in the 84-phonogram set.

The Schwa and the Spalding Method

Ms. Spalding detested the schwa sound, and I don't think that's putting it too strongly. In her own words, regarding whether to teach the /u/ sound so prevalent in words like silent (typically pronounced silunt) and travel (pronounced travul): "Unless we think /e/ in each of these words, neither spelling nor speech is apt to be precise."

I happen to agree with her, especially for spelling purposes. A child should think of silent as "si-lent," not "si-lunt," if he is ever to hope to spell it accurately in the future. For that reason, the OnTrack Reading Phonogram Set does not list the /u/ sound as an option for the phonograms a, e, i, or o.

The Logic Underlying the OnTrack Reading Phonogram Set

A teaching set of English phonograms should have each of the following attributes:

1. It should be based on a logic that explains every sound in nearly every English word.

2. It should teach the sounds for the phonograms that accurately reflect modern-day pronunciations, but should not accommodate the schwa sound.

3. It should be as limited in scope as possible so that a young child can easily learn it.

4. The sounds associated with each phonogram should be limited to those that commonly occur in many words, or that occur in at least a few very common words that a child is likely to encounter early on in his reading experience.

5. The order of the phonogram set should enable a child to begin reading before learning the entire phonogram set, if possible.

6. The logic underlying the phonogram set should be easily, and logically, extended to phonograms not included in the set. That is, it should make it clear what a phonogram actually is, and the function it serves in the written word, so that a child can easily determine whether a word might contain a phonogram that has not yet been explicitly taught.

7. The phonogram structure, both the 84-item set, and the extended set learned over time, should be capable of completely describing nearly every English word.

8. It should accommodate an easy-to-learn method for describing the inevitable exceptions to the underlying logic that are bound to occur in some English words.

Summing Up

The OnTrack Reading Phonogram Flash Cards (available here) teach a set of 84 phonograms that satisfies each of the above conditions, with one exception. The split vowel digraphs, a-e, e-e, i-e, o-e, and u-e are not included in the set, but must be explained by reference to common words. Here is the way to do that. And please avoid the use of phrases like "magic-e," "silent-e," and "bossy-e" that just risk confusing a child instead of explaining the situation clearly. It's not that difficult to teach a child the concept of a split vowel digraph.

Incidentally, doubled consonants aren't included in the 84-phonogram set. The first time a child sees "mm" or "dd" or "tt" in a word, just underline the digraph and tell him it's the same sound as he's already learned for those letters.

With the above two considerations included, teaching a child the first 50 phonograms and their associated sounds in the same order as they are presented on the backs of the cards will prepare him to begin to learn many common English words. The actual teaching of the phonograms and their usage by a child will be taken up in the next article.