I was checking traffic to our website a while ago and discovered something a bit surprising. The page Explaining Split Vowel Digraphs where I explain how to teach a child about split vowel digraphs, like the i-e in tide, or the o-e in tone, was getting a lot more visitors from Great Britain than from the U.S. Apparently the English use the term split digraph much more than we Americans do. Here “Silent-e” or “Magic-e” or even “Bossy-e” seem to be preferred.
The British are making the better choice. Once a child learns what a digraph is, it’s a simple step to tell him that some of them are split apart and a consonant tucked in between them. Meanwhile, our American choices can confuse a young child.
Consider the phrasing silent-e. So the ending letter e in tide is silent, but isn’t that also true of the ending letter e in tie? In fact, aren’t all letters silent? Letters represent spoken sounds, but they aren’t sounds themselves. Words mean something to children, and they all certainly know by age five what the word silent means. Why teach them something so inconsistent? Just explain that the digraph ie in tie is the /ie/ sound and show them how we split the digraph ie in words like tide, slide, time, and many others. Then extend that information to the other split vowels, a-e, e-e, o-e, and u-e.
And then consider magic-e. What does the word magic mean to a five-year-old? It's magic, It's amazing, and You won't understand how it happens! So, when we tell a child it's a magic-e, we're certainly implying that he won't understand how it works, right? Isn't that exactly what he's come to understand about magic?
And then there's bossy-e. That ending e is so bossy that it tells the letter two letters back to say it’s own name. Of course, letters don't say anything, and we read from left to right, not back and forth. There’s just got to be a way to avoid telling a child that it's a split digraph, right? But why?
They're All Poor Choices
There is no reason to avoid adding the descriptive term split in front of the word digraph, a word they should already know. But maybe that's the problem? Maybe they haven't been told what a digraph is yet? If so, that's a poor curriculum decision on someone's part. Incidentally, the only digraphs that are split are those that represent vowel sounds, which is why the OnTrack Reading curriculum uses the term split vowel digraph.
It's telling that when you do a search for either "silent-e" or "magic-e" or "bossy-e" you get pages and pages of colorful worksheets and even songs. And yet the two items you can download from Explaining Split Vowel Digraphs (a short story introducing split vowel digraphs and a simple game to use for practice) are all that I ever used after introducing the split vowel concept. They're also both included in the OnTrack Reading Phonics Workbook. I worked with many challenged readers and that was sufficient. It's really not a difficult concept for a young child to understand and put into practice.
What To Do?
If you're a teacher who agrees with this and your school has chosen a curriculum filled with song and dance about Silent-e or Magic-e or Bossy-e, about all you can do is get the information about split vowel digraphs relayed to your students as best you can. In the long run, perhaps you'll be on a committee choosing the next reading curriculum and can exert some influence then.
If you're a principal, though, or are already on a curriculum committee, you can use this information to guide you toward programs that are constructed well enough that they don't have to rely upon concepts like silent, or magic, or bossy letters when explaining concepts to a young child. Five-year-olds can understand digraphs if you explain them and they certainly know what split means by then.
And if you're a teacher in a college training new teachers, please. Enough with the pictures, games, and guessing. First, teach your young charges about the phonics of the English language (because many were never taught it well.) Then teach them how to share that information with their future students effectively.