How Do You Teach Phonics?

Hello friends! It's been a couple of days since I returned from my workshop on spelling and I have had some trouble deciding what to blog about first because I have SO MANY things to share with you! Vocabulary, phonics, root words, morphology- to name just a few! This is the first of many posts!

Since introducing letters and sounds seems to be one of the most common things that teachers do in the early years, I've decided to explore the main principle behind phonics instruction. Upper elementary teachers, don't despair! I will also be sharing how this same information pertains to your slightly older children!

First, a little background about my workshop... it was given by Pete Bowers of WordWorks Literacy Centre, Kingston, ON, Canada. It was definitely one of the most enriching and inspiring professional development sessions to which I have ever been!
Click on the image to read more workshop details!

The objectives of the workshop were to:

  1. Understand how English Spelling works: exploring the concepts, conventions and terms that underlie English spelling.
  2. How to Investigate and Teach English Spelling in the Classroom: practical teaching tools and strategies to help teachers and students become independent problem-solvers of how word work.
These two objectives concisely summarize the many ideas and concepts that we discussed over the 3 days. I'd like to consider the first objective...

One of the most popular beliefs about how English spelling works is The Alphabetic Principle which basically states that the English alphabet is a system of one-to-one letter-sound correspondences, and the function of letters is to represent sound, or phonemes. Words are composed of letters that represent sounds, therefore, if a child learns these correspondences they will be able to read and spell words. The Alphabetic Principle is the main reason why so many people teach phonics in their classrooms.

For YEARS I taught my students letter-sound correspondences, and had them reading and spelling lots of "phonetic" words. When we met up with a word (usually referred to as "irregular") that could not be sounded out, I would share a trick, or mnemonic device, to help my students remember it. Isn't that what all good teachers do? I mean, English is a language full of exceptions, right?

Well, what if I told you that the primary job of English spelling is to represent MEANING and that letters can serve more than a phonemic role is words? You'd have a hard time agreeing with me, right? OK, I get it- we teachers have been inundated with phonics resources that tell us that letters (only) represent sounds.

Let's consider two examples of "irregular words" taken directly from a Real Spelling resource video, <two>  and <who>.

As you can see, the letters in these words do not evenly represent the sounds that are pronounced in the words, therefore, they must be irregular, right? Uh, no, not really.

In the word <two> the <w> is actually signaling a connection in meaning to other words with the <tw> letter string, like <twin>, <twice>, even <twix> as in my favorite candy! (I'm sure you can think of more.) What do all those words have in common? They refer to the meaning of 2! 2 babies, 2 times, 2 cookies smothered in caramel and chocolate (sorry, couldn't resist). The <w> is serving a purpose, just not a phonemic one! It's what's called an "etymological marker", or a "meaning marker" in simpler terms. Furthermore, the <w> also helps to distinguish <two> from its homophones, <to> and <too>!

Now consider the <w> in <who>. Here <w> is not working alone; it is part of the digraph, <wh>. The Alphabetic Principle overemphasizes a one-to-one condition with regard to letters and does not truly take into account the validity and abundance of digraphs in English. The <w> cannot and should not be considered in isolation. When considering the <wh> digraph, the pronunciation of the word <who> is completely within reason as it can actually represent two phonemes, /w/ and /h/.

So, if these two "irregular words" can be explained, then maybe there are more. Maybe the Alphabetic Principle isn't really accurate. At least this is what I thought when I initially encountered Real Spelling. For the past three years I have been learning more and more about the real nature of the English spelling system and my participation in the workshop with Pete helped me to consolidate a lot of what I've been learning. There is more to spelling than meets the eye, or maybe I should say what we've collectively been taught for the past several years. Please read the following comment in response to one of my previous posts, left by Gina Cooke, a professor of linguistics (it did not show up on my blog as its Wordpress formatting didn't seem to jive):

linguisteducatorexchange ( has left a new comment on your post "Spelling, Love it or Hate it?": 

Very provocative, Karli! You raise an important question: how folks feel about spelling -- important because folks often have very strong feelngs about spelling (their own and others'), but those feelings are rarely informed by linguistic evidence from the writing system itself.

I imagine that people's responses will vary depending on what is meant by "spelling."

Education has traditionally been very product-driven: rather than attempting to develop an understanding, teachers are largely encouraged to choose a specific program, approach, or set of materials. Words Their Way gets some things right, but like any program for spelling on the market, it operates from a fundamentally flawed perception of how English spelling works: it privileges phonology, and chalks anything it can't explain up to being an irregular. 

By calling some words "oddball" words, WTW creates a sense in children (and in teachers) that their writing system is flawed, odd, and can't be trusted. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The beauty of Real Spelling is that it offers not a curriculum or a program, but an understanding. What Pete offers is access to that understanding, and the free tools with which to test and deepen it.

We have spelling instruction backwards: we start with sound and expect to end up making sense, and we start with memorization and expect understanding. We start with red marks and expect scholarship. Instead, if we start with meaning, understanding, and rigorous scholarship, we can expect to support our memories and our conventional correctness, and to deepen our understanding.

We can never expect to be better at teaching something than we are willing to study it, including spelling. Good for you for making the trip to study with Pete! 

Gina makes some interesting and valid points! I hope I have piqued your curiosity on the subject of spelling. I encourage you to check out the links to WordWorks Literacy Centre and Real Spelling as they are loaded with tons of FREE resources. In creating a thoughtful classroom, my intention is to always seek what is accurate and most meaningful for the sake of my students. I hope you'll follow as I explore and share ideas regarding the true role of phonology, along with the other more critical components of the English spelling system.

Signature photo ScreenShot2013-04-26at54143PM.png


  1. It sounds like it was such a beneficial workshop. Please continue to share these great resources and ideas. I nominated you for the Liebster Award. Visit my blog for details.


  2. Hi Karli,
    I nominated you for a Leister Blog Award. Please read my post to learn more about it.

    :) Wendy
    Read With Me ABC


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