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Phonics: when singer rhymes with finger

I love conversations about how people pronounce words differently and knew I was onto an entertaining twitter thread when I saw a few responses to this tweet. However, reading through the thread made me feel more and more depressed about how people view phonics.  Almost every comment was about whether the girls were wrong or right rather than how we can use what they know to improve their reading and spelling. So here’s my (way too long for Twitter) response.

1. The only reason to underline graphemes in a word analysis activity is to convince students that the graphemes (letters and combinations of letters) represent the sounds they say out loud. Therefore, if your students already grasp that concept, there’s no reason to do that exercise. I would avoid that activity altogether and use word building with puzzle pieces (as per TRT and TST) to accomplish the same thing whilst developing a personal spelling script.

2. If the student can read and spell singer, it doesn’t matter whether they add a /g/ after the /ng/ or not. It’s simply their accent. Do correct an obvious mispronunciation that will get in the way of correct spelling. i.e. ‘fantaxtic’ rather than ‘fantastic’. When I say, “correct” I don’t mean changing their dialect or accent to something more standard. I do mean ask them to be bilingual when it comes to writing. If they say ‘aks’ in everyday speech, suggest ‘ask’ as their spelling voice.

If KS3 and post-16 learners are resistant to using a more standard writing voice we need to be honest about the expectations of many employers. However, it’s also worth suggesting that if they want a world of work where non-standard English is just fine, then they need to become the bosses. They need to start the businesses and form their company expectations around written language. We shouldn’t assume that our learners will always be the employees rather than the employers.

3. If they can’t read singer, start with the root word and add endings: sing, ring, sting, string etc. Then work on words that don’t have a clear root: finger, anger, ginger. Also, don’t make them memorise any rules around whether they’re going to say /g/ or /dge/ because talking about “soft g followed by e” clearly doesn’t work with most of these words. However, you might want to look at words like whinge manage, range, etc. Talk about how we say words with a <ge> on the root and how that sound stays the same when we add endings: whinger, manager, ranger. They’re always listening for a word they know so don’t overload them with obscure words that happen to fit the pattern. KS3 and post-16 learners might like ‘malingerer’ and ‘astringent’ but KS1 children are unlikely to find them useful.

The most expedient thing for the student to do whilst reading is to try it both ways and listen for a real word that fits the sentence they’re reading. I’m thinking of ‘whinger’ versus ‘winger’. Decode, then check for meaning in context. If they struggle, write a short text about a whinging winger. That’s where a brief decodable text for older strugglers can be both fun and useful.

4. If they can’t spell singer, again, start with the root and add endings. Even if they naturally add the /g/ in the middle, their spelling voice will likely be ‘sing’+’er’. What about ‘finger’? Point out the handful of words where you hear /ng/+/g/. There’s no need to make it more complicated than that. If they say ‘singer’ to rhyme with ‘finger’ then that’s on their list.

If I were making a puzzle for ‘singer’, I’d start with ‘sing’ and use the same pieces even if some of my students rhymed it with ‘finger’.

s  i  ng  er

If I were making a puzzle for ‘finger’, I’d do it this way:

f  i  n  g  er

The action of going from /n/ to /g/ will create the /ng/ pronunciation. I suggest this because of words like ‘think’ or ‘bank’:

th  i  n  k        b  a  n  k

I don’t talk about <n> as a way to write /ng/ because just saying the individual /n/ and /k/ will produce something very close to an /ng/ sound. It’s easier on memory and the quirky brained students will be less likely to come up with plausible but wrong spellings like

thingk & bangk

5. Please don’t say that X programme says Y therefore it’s Y. A good phonics based literacy programme will flex with learner accent and acknowledge the difference between phonics and phonetics. One is a tool for learning to read and spell and the other is a field of study. Teachers who understand how the code works via phonics will make accommodations for the benefit of precious and limited student memory.

6. (optional) How do you say ‘thingummies’? This post caused that word to pop into my head so I’ve happily included its full context here. Probably not suitable for KS3 and post-16 but still a favourite of mine. Enjoy!

Twice Times

There were Two Little Bears who lived in a Wood,
And one of them was Bad and the other was Good.
Good Bear learnt his Twice Times One –
But Bad Bear left all his buttons undone.They lived in a Tree when the weather was hot,
And one of them was Good, and the other was Not.
Good Bear learnt his Twice Times Two –
But Bad Bear’s thingummies were worn right through.They lived in a Cave when the weather was cold,
And they Did, and they Didn’t Do, what they were told.
Good Bear learnt his Twice Times Three –
But Bad Bear never had his hand-ker-chee.They lived in the Wood with a Kind Old Aunt,
And one said “Yes’m,” and the other said “Shan’t!”
Good Bear learnt his Twice Times Four –
But Bad Bear’s knicketies were terrible tore.And then quite suddenly (just like Us)
One got Better and the other got Wuss.
Good Bear muddled his Twice Times Three –
But Bad Bear coughed in his hand-ker-chee!Good Bear muddled his Twice Times Two –
But Bad Bear’s thingummies looked like new.
Good Bear muddled his Twice Times One –
But Bad Bear never left his buttons undone.There may be a Moral, though some say not;
I think there’s a moral, though I don’t know what.
But if one gets better, as the other gets wuss,
These Two Little Bears are just like Us.
For Christopher remembers up to Twice Times Ten …
But I keep forgetting where I put my pen.** So I have had to write this one in pencil.

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