Too many rules and exceptions!

As the Science of Reading pushes awareness of how to teach reading and spelling, people are jumping on the bandwagon. Publishers also see an opportunity to make money, so they are cranking out a “phonics-based “ curriculum with all the bells and whistles that attract curriculum committees.  Many don’t realize that teaching remedial reading is not for the faint of heart and isn’t an easy process. To teach English language structure, we need to understand English language structure.  Pulling out a curriculum and teaching isn’t enough; I believe we need to know where words came from and how they evolved. I am seeing a plethora of exceptions and rules to make up for the lack of background knowledge. No wonder experts and opponents of Orton Gillingham lack confidence in our instruction. There, I said it. I know this won’t be a popular article, but I think we need to talk about it. 

Let's look at the word rule as a noun. How does the dictionary define this word? The Cambridge Dictionary defines it like this: 

Now let’s look at what they say about the word exception.

So based on these definitions, I am sure you are saying, “Yes, this is exactly why we call them rules and exceptions.”  However, I want us to think more deeply about how it applies to our teaching. 

I am seeing the list of “rules” and “exceptions” growing and growing. My preferred words are “patterns” and “generalizations.” Locking yourself into a rule and contradicting it with an exception just muddies the waters. Understanding the etymology of a word will eliminate the use of “exception” for so many words. I also like the use of “holdouts” for words that don’t follow patterns. 

Are you still reading? I know I sound extreme.  I will demonstrate some typical “rules and exceptions” and how you can make everything easier! 

I hear these phonemes/graphemes treated as a rule; I would prefer to think of them as generalizations and patterns. The verbiage tends to be excessive and finite!

What I hear about open and closed syllables:

Open syllables have long vowels, and closed syllables have short vowels. 

Consider this: 

Closed syllables end with a consonant(s), and usually, the vowel is short; open syllables end in a vowel which is usually long. This covers “exceptions” and schwa.

I think this is where we dig ourselves into a hole, and we often can’t crawl out. By limiting syllables to only long or short vowels, we create unnecessary exceptions. Syllable division is not a perfect science but a means to the end: getting our students to read the word! Learn to flex the vowel sound to include long, short, and schwa sounds. Once you understand the advantage of teaching this way, you can better explain it to your students. By using the word “usually,” you add a buffer for words that don’t have the expected vowel sounds but do follow the pattern. Confused? If you’d taught that closed syllables end in one or more consonants and have short vowels, you’ve boxed yourself in when you come across words such as old, mild, and stroll. By saying closed syllables usually have short vowels, you will eliminate so many other “exceptions”!   

What I hear about-ck:

At the end of a one-syllable word after one short vowel.  

At the end of a word or syllable after one short vowel. 

Consider this: After a short vowel.

Do we really need to say, at the end of a one-syllable word? Keep it simple, short, and sweet! Eliminating the additional verbiage makes it easier for students. By saying “after,” we know it can’t be at the beginning, and it will make sense when you teach suffix endings like -et, and final stable syllables like -ckle. Holdouts to this rule include trek, a borrowed word, and tic, a shortening of a longer word. You will revisit this pattern when you get to two-syllable words that don't use -ck, like the ending -ic, and -ac.

What I hear about -tch:

At the end of a one-syllable word after a short vowel.

Consider this:

After a short vowel. By saying “after,” we know it can’t be at the beginning. It will make sense when you teach suffix endings like -et and -en.  Teach Old English words rich, much, and such earlier when you teach -ch, rather than exceptions to the -tch pattern. There are few two-syllable words ending in /ch/, like ostrich and attach. Talk about those when teaching syllable types. 

What I hear about -dge:

At the end of a one-syllable word after a short vowel. 

Consider this:

At the end of a word after a short vowel

This will help discern the words that contain roots such as logic. I like teaching the -et words at this time, too, not as exceptions but as a pattern (e.g., budget, fidget).

I don’t think we should ever call a grapheme placement a rule. By this, I mean we may see a vowel pair in the middle of a word like <oa> in foam, but by saying the “rule” is in the middle of the word, we immediately eliminate words such as oath and cocoa. Wouldn’t it be better to teach <oa> as a pattern often seen in the middle of a word? 

Silent e can raise my blood pressure. Why do so many call it the Magic e rule? First off, it is not magic; it doesn’t jump over consonants; it is a marker indicating the previous vowel may be long. Teach that silent e is at the end of many English words and tell them why! Such as, English words don’t end in <v>,  to cover give and the others. No exceptions, just history and the constraints of English. So many folks get stuck when they move on to soft c and g and have no way to explain words such as dance and fringe. Learn why the <e> is silent, be able to teach your students all the patterns of silent e, and stop referring to them as exceptions! Read more about silent <e> here

So what really is a rule? I think the endings rules fall into this category. Double, drop, change. Words that don’t follow the patterns are few, and always come with a historical or tactical explanation, such as we don’t double <x> as in boxes or boxing. I go step by step through the endings rules in this book. You can read more about the endings rules here

I have just hit the high points; the list of “rules” is now excessive. With every rule comes an exception. I personally believe it is cognitive overload for struggling readers. Keep the verbiage simple and the oral clutter limited; I think you will notice a difference. As I scroll through my Facebook groups, I see many inquiries about the rule for a grapheme/phoneme. The answer is always in the etymology of the word; as I said earlier, learn the structure and history of English; I guarantee you will be better at teaching English spelling and reading. I would love to hear from you about how understanding the language has made you a better instructor! 

Below is a list of recommended readings.

Happy learning! 

The American Way of Spelling by Richard L. Venezky

American English Spelling by DW Cummings

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter

The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson 

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Pat - May 6, 2023

Excellent points! You’ve put into words what I’ve been thinking/feeling for quite some time.
Laughing Ogre Press replied:
Thank you, Pat, for taking the time to respond to the article! I am happy I hit the mark for you. Pam

Mary - December 29, 2022

Thank you for information!!!

So helpful to not forget how to teach.
Laughing Ogre Press replied:
Mary, thank you for taking the time to leave a comment. I am happy you found the information helpful!

Emily Laidlaw - December 29, 2022

Very well said!
Laughing Ogre Press replied:
Thanks, Emily; I appreciate that!

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