Breaking the Rules to Teach Your Child to Read

We have lived with the notion of rules for so long that it is difficult to conceive of life without them. It is even more difficult to believe that the memorized rules do not guide the reading process in the way we have been led to believe.

For example, if you pose the question, “What sound does ” ph” make?” the immediate response is ” f. ” It would seem that the rule has triumphed. It was ingrained into us and as the instructional process demands, it instantly pops into mind when requested. Nevertheless, when we see words like ” uphill ” or ” shepherd, ” we do not pause for a moment to consider whether they should be pronounced ” ufill ” or ” sheferd .” That’s because good readers correctly rely not on the rules they had to memorize, but on the far more sophisticated, unconscious rules that have been spawned by their hidden abilities.

The unquestioned acceptance of rules, however, is a powerful force and one that unfortunately keeps us from seeing not only their limitations, but also their disadvantages. For a start, for many children, the memorization of hundreds of rules is simply not going to happen. So, vast amounts of teaching time are spent in a wasteful manner.

Equally important, many of the rules interfere with the development of skills critical to fluent reading. For example, consider the silent e rule-one of the bedrocks in early reading instruction. It is the one that says with words ending in “e” such as home, the preceding vowel makes a “long” sound (or as it is sometimes phrased, ” it says its name” ). But a beginning reader cannot know that the silent e rule is operative until he or she gets to the end of a word and sees the final “e.” This happens after he or she has gone through the process of sounding out each letter and then, at the end, realizing that the resulting word does not “make sense.” At that point, the child has to invoke the rule and scan back in a right-to-left direction to start the word all over again. The intermixing of left-to-right and right-to-left scanning disrupts the acquisition of the automatic left-to-right scanning strategies required for effective reading.

The disruption is significant, but with visual skills off the radar screen, it isn’t even seen as a blip in the process.