[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J31, 2002/2, pp17-19]
[Also on this page: Book review by John J Reilly.]
[Steve Bett: see Journals, Newsletters, Personal View, Web links.]
[Patrick Groff: see Journals, Newsletters, Bulletins.]

Introduction to Decodable Words
by Steve Bett

An alphabetic code refers to the assignments between a set of abstract sound segments that are critical in distinguishing the meaning of words (phonemes) and a set of visual symbols that can represent them on paper or other substrate. All languages are 100% phonemic or sound based. Written languages are phonemic to the extent that there is a one to one relationship between phonemes of the spoken language and the symbols used to visualize it. Children seem to naturally acquire the spoken language used around them. If the written language were structured in a similar way, they might acquire it as easily.

Acquiring speech and mastering speech requires lots of practice. A similar amount of practice would be required to master the written language. Groff's essay is about providing the right kind of practice materials.

I have a problem with calling the phonic code the combination of (1) the regular associations between sounds and symbols and (2) the exception rules. There is nothing phonic about an exception. Exception rules do keep a notation systematic or predictable. It is usually the reassignment of a sound in a certain environment or position in a word. In Spanglish, for instance, an exception is made for the representation of the schwa sound before (r). The unstressed mid lax vowel is normally (a) but before (r) and in a terminal position after a voiced (th) it is changed to an (e), the mother - tha mather - the mather. Spanglish tries to minimize the number of exceptions to the basic alphabetic code and keep the number under ten. Regularized English had over 100 exception rules.

"The chief priest wore a colored collar" would be transcribed "Tha chief priest wor a cullard collar." After incorporating the exception rule, the sentence would be rendered "The chief priest wor a cullered collar." In this sentence there is no net gain in TO similarity. However, across the board it does help.

The anti-phonic exception rule allows spelling to deviate from the established sound signs. In order to eliminate code overlaps - perhaps the most annoying feature of traditional English orthography, Axel Wijk had to add 100 exception rules. Wijk still had multiple spellings in his regularized English. It was reader friendly but not speller friendly.

Reader friendly text in a phonics class involves avoiding spellings that represent exceptions to the phonics rules and using stories composed of words that reinforce the relationships between sound and symbol covered in the phonic rules. Some of the sound symbol relationships are shown in the chart below.

Decodable Words Versus Predictable Text.

Patrick Groff.

Professor of Education Emeritus, San Diego State University.

The idea of "decodable words" is one of the basic principles of direct, intensive, systematic, early, and comprehensive (DISEC) instruction of a prearranged hierarchy of discrete phonics information. Soon after the alphabetic code (the concept that each speech sound in a language can be represented by a letter) was conceived, a method of teaching this phonics information to novice readers was devised.

The most logical practice to this effect has been to bring to beginning readers' conscious awareness the speech sounds in the language. This phonemic awareness is accomplished by showing fledgling readers a letter, while at the same time pronouncing a speech sound that the letter commonly represents. Then, the learners look at the letter in question, and repeat the given speech sound. These speech sound-letter correspondences are called phonics rules.

Soundaeaarbhhw ks/gskw
Letteraarbh whxqu
where six

kwlMŋpθ ðvnjʒ
qulmngpth thvwyzh
petthinthevalvewow yellvision

Regularity in the TO is needed to be effective in getting neophyte readers ready (a) to look at letters in the serial order in which they appear in familiar words, (b) to attach appropriate speech sounds to each letter (or letter cluster) in words, and (c) to blend together the speech sounds generated so as to produce an approximate pronunciation of a recognizable word. Beginning readers readily can infer the authentic pronunciation of a familiar written word if they gain access to its approximate pronunciation, it is found experimentally.

This process of written word recognition is called "decoding." A "decodable" word therefore is a familiar one that a learner has been prepared ahead of time to sound-out (attach speech sounds to each of) its letters. Decodable texts thus are ones that contain only familiar words that students have previously been prepared to decode through the application of phonics rules. It is discovered empirically that beginning readers are more successful in accurately reading decodable texts than they are in reading texts that contain words students have had no prior DISEC phonics instruction on how to identify.

As opposed to decoding written words through the application of phonics rules, the experimentally discredited Whole Language (WL) approach to teaching children to identify written words uses what WL experts call "predictable texts." In this regard, the "Whole" in WL refers to the WL principle that children new to reading best learn to recognize written words within the context of whole words, sentences, paragraphs, and stories. To understand adequately the meaning of "predictable" in predictable texts, as WL exploits the term, it is necessary to explain at some length what constitutes WL reading instruction.

Instead of emphasizing young students' attainment of knowledge of phonics rules, and how to apply them to read words, WL reading instruction concentrates on a different procedure. This is encouraging children to use the contexts of written sentences, paragraphs, and stories to guess at the identities of their words. Rather than teaching children a comprehensive amount of phonics information, and how to apply it to decode words, WL instructors reduce the number of phonics rules children learn to a bare minimum.

In this respect, it often is recommended by WL luminaries that children's knowledge of only the consonant speech sound-letter correspondences that occur at the beginnings of words is necessary. This WL doctrine stipulates that application of a highly limited amount of phonics knowledge, along with guessing at the names of written words from sentence, paragraph, and story contexts, is the most time-effective way for beginning readers to master written word recognition skills. However, the vast majority of critical surveys of what relevant experimental investigations have to say on this issue reveal something else. It is that this WI, doctrine, along with its other unique ones, is not corroborated by empirical findings.

My many observations of WL teaching of reading in action, plus my extensive perusal of the writings of leaders of the WL movement, reveal other reasons why this form of reading tutelage is relatively time-ineffective. In WL classrooms, the entire class of illiterate children first sit as a group on a rug facing their teacher, who reads aloud to them, several times, an easy to understand story. Much time is devoted to stimulating children to engage in open-ended discussions of the story's simplistic content, to expressing idiosyncratic reactions as to concepts and meanings in it, to repeating words and sentences the teacher has read aloud, and to acting-out the story's narrative.

Following these activities, the WL teacher displays an enlarged copy of the story previously read aloud. The children, who are unschooled in how letters represent speech sounds, are directed to "follow along," as the teacher again and again reads aloud the given story. Occasionally, the WL teacher will stop, point out an individual word in a story, and request the pupils to repeat it. Sometimes, an explanatory remark will be made by the teacher about the initial consonant speech sound-letter correspondence of these words.

However, it is impossible to know in this procedure to what extent the entire class of children actually is looking at words in the story being read aloud. It is my impression that it is customary for some children to not even look in the direction of the enlarged copy of the story on display. Also problematical is whether any child who repeats a word in the story, upon a request by the teacher, is looking at it.

The next order of activities in the WL reading development approach is to break up the entire class into smaller-sized groups, and reiterate with each group what transpired before. Whole Language dogma claims that this rearrangement of students allows the teacher ample opportunity to discover, and remedy if necessary, how well children are progressing toward the acquisition of reading ability.

At the end of this second stage of WL reading instruction, it is held that children are satisfactorily prepared to read independently the story in question. Accordingly, they are sent back to their seats to carry out that assignment. Now, WL teachers busy themselves with engaging children on a one-on-one basis. Experts in WL reading instruction express great pride in the latter accomplishment, although pertinent experimental findings do not validate it as a time-effective instructional strategy.

The stories involved in all the above WL procedures are ones selected because they are "predictable texts." That is to say, the stories are deliberately written so that they repeat many times certain words, phrases, or sentences. A WL principle is that words, phrases, and sentences in these texts become predictable, i.e., foreseeable or logically calculable by beginning readers, if these pupils look at them a given number of times.

For anyone familiar with the history of reading instruction in the U.S., WL assumptions about the efficacy of predictable texts clearly are borrowings from the now notorious "look-say" method of reading instruction (that nonetheless was highly popular for generations in America's public schools). Look-say reading instruction textbooks also downgrade the importance of teaching phonics rules in a DISEC manner.

This method's foremost presumption is that the time it takes for novice readers to recognize written words via phonics instruction could be shortened significantly. It was held that if nonreaders were repetitively shown whole written words, until they were recognized as "sight" words, this would speed up their overall acquisition of reading ability. Sight words are ones children recognize rapidly, without sounding-out their letters.

It now is well-established experimentally that the look-say methodology has fatal flaws. Children taught in this manner somehow are able to remember the identities of a relatively small number of words. However, they soon suffer an overload on their memory systems, and begin guessing wildly at the names of words in sentences. Co-instantaneously, pupils' ability to accurately comprehend what they have read is badly affected.

This latter fault in WL reading teaching is hoped to be compensated for by urging beginning readers to add, omit, or substitute words or concepts in written materials - as they see fit. However, that is a vain expectation, as objective examinations of the results of WL reading instruction reveal. In California, for example, WL reading teaching recently was more popular than in any other state. As a consequence, the standardized reading test scores of young children in this state devolved to the lowest in the nation.

Direct Instruction - A method of instruction developed by Siegfred Engelmann, Oregon State University, in the 1960s. Teacher is in control of the interaction telling, showing, demonstrating, and prompting rapid active responding of the learners. Teacher follows field tested scripts and employs frequent systematic assessment to insure mastery.

[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J31, 2002/2, p19]
[John J Reilly: see Journals, Web links.]

Book Review by John Reilly.

God Help All Little Children Read, Write, and Spell - Modular English by Ian Duck.
1st Books, 2000 ISBN: 1-58820-179-1 174 Pages, $9.95 Paperback, $3.95 E-book

Ian Duck is a quantum physicist at Rice University in Texas. In this brief, polemical book, he makes a case for reforming the traditional spelling of English, proposes his own transcription scheme, and outlines a celebrity-driven reform program. The issues he discusses are familiar from the reform debates of the last 100 years, but it's interesting to see a single individual's solution. The book represents the kind of narrowcast pamphleteering that hardly anyone was in a position to do before the advent of print-on-demand publishing. One hopes we see more of it in the future.

The author has done his bit as a volunteer literacy tutor. Though the book is barren of citation, he is obviously familiar with the literature about the "literacy underclass."

The system that the author proposes, "Modular English," is based on the usage of letters and letter combinations in small, common words. Again, the system is not terribly different from others devised during the 20th century. A sample shows where the author came down on most of the debates that vex would-be reformers:


"Yae, thoe Ie wok throo thuh valee uv thuh shadoe uv deth, Ie wil feer noe eevl; for Thow art with mee: Thie rod and Thie staf thae komfirt mee."


Yey, tho I wok thru the vally av the shaddo av deth, I wil fir no ievl; for thau aart with mi: thai rod aend thai staff they cumfert mi.


yA, thO Y wok thrw Da vqIE av Da SqdO av deT, Y wil fir nO Eval; for thow crt wiD mE: DY rcd qnd DY stqf DA cumfart mE.

Back to the top.