With the development of vaccines for the coronavirus and distribution underway, there may be an end to distance learning just around the corner. This said, there are still many children struggling with their reading and parents assisting their children with schooling. Learning to read is not the same for everyone.

Reading text is a human-created skill and not a natural skill for our brains to process. Therefore, depending on acquisition of a long spectrum of skills, some children have no problems learning to read while others struggle. To add to the confusion, English is a blend of several different languages and rules, making it even harder to understand.

There are those few people in our country who spend their time studying our language and all the rules that apply, yet most of us do not aspire to be linguists. Webster, back in the 1800s, brought us a complete rule book of most of the words and rules behind their spellings. There was a time when teachers were expected to know all those rules prior to starting to teach.

Over the years we have relied on textbook publishers to provide those rules embedded in their curriculum. Many of us do not always pick up on the rules or remember them because the curriculum moves on quickly. When challenged why a word is spelled a certain way we dismiss it and say something like “the English language just has some odd spellings.” In most cases, there is a reason behind that spelling, whether it be from the root of the word or the language the word was adopted from.

Having kids read to adults is always beneficial — well, most of the time. What do we find ourselves saying to a child when they come to a word they do not recognize? The most popular response is “sound the word out.” The only problem is that the only English words that can easily be sounded out are one-syllable, short vowel words. In the English language you have to be able to identify the vowel sounds in words, many of which contain multiple letters, and then you are able to blend the word and hopefully get the sounds close enough that you are able to recognize the word from your auditory vocabulary or lexicon.

No worries — here is some help. This will be enough to get you by without having to become a linguist. There are six basic syllable rules that most English words follow, or at least follow closely enough that you can get an approximation, and then recognize the word. The same six rules also help with spelling.

Here they are — open syllable (go, me), closed syllable (cat, fin), vowel team, “r”- controlled (first, far, or), vowel/consonant/silent “e” (same, case) and consonant “-le” (little, able). Common blends, digraphs and diphthongs can also cause confusion. Blends are connected letters where you can hear all the letter sounds. Digraphs are a cluster of consonants that create a new sound, and diphthongs are a cluster of letters with at least one vowel. These are the most commonly found word parts in elementary texts. The letter “y” is sometimes considered a vowel but there is a reason. English words don’t end in the letter “i” so they use “y” (my, sky, by).

A great activity for students to do is sort single syllable words into each of the above groups. This allows them to work with words along with looking for vowel sounds. This activity only focuses on vowel sounds. The objective is to identify the vowel sound in each word or syllable, and then blend the sounds together to get an approximation close enough that they can recognize the word or are able to spell the word closely enough to be able to recognize it. Happy word discovery.


Scott Smith is a Umatilla County educator with 40-plus years of experience. He taught at McNary Heights Elementary School and then for Eastern Oregon University in its teacher education program at Blue Mountain Community College. He serves on the Decoding Dyslexia Oregon board as its parent/teacher liaison.

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