Wednesday 11 July 2012

Reading Post 3 of 7: Charlotte Mason Reading: Stage 2, Word Building & Phonics (part 2 of 2)

Have you ever thought that Charlotte Mason did not ever mention phonics instruction in her writings?  Or maybe that she just barely touched on it?  I know I used to!  

But then I realized the Charlotte Mason had a very pervasive phonics program in place, she just called it by a different name - the catch phrase of “phonics” had not yet been invented.  She called it “learning the power of the letters.”  This phrase permeates her reading lessons from beginning to end.  

Charlotte Mason began more advanced phonetic instruction at the end of her “word building” exercises.  So, if you haven’t yet read my previous post on word building, please do so now!  The first phonetic exercises follow the same exact process.  

The quotes in this post will all be taken from Charlotte Mason’s v. 1 pages 203-204.  You may read along here if you wish:  Scroll down to “Word-making with Long Vowels, etc.”  

STAGE 2, WORD BUILDING.  STEP 3:  Introduce Blends

Charlotte Mason writes, speaking of word building:  
Then the same sort of thing with final 'ng'––'ing,' 'ang,' 'ong,' 'ung'; as in ring, fang, long, sung: initial 'th,' as then, that: final 'th,' as with, pith, hath, lath, and so on, through endless combinations which will suggest themselves.

If you haven’t read my previous post on word building, you’ll need to go back and read about the many aspects of creating words with your child!  Make sure your child masters short and long vowel sounds.  Then, come back here and do the same sort of things with phonetic blends.  The “endless combinations which will suggest themselves” makes it clear that Charlotte Mason intended teachers to teach all of the phonetic sounds eventually, as they suggested themselves (in a child's later reading lesson).  To get started, you teach a few as a finale to your word building lessons.  

Which phonetic blends do I teach first, you may ask?  Well, to me it looks like she begins with the consonant-sounding blends, which are the most obvious:  

Each of the above combinations makes its own distinct sound - there is no other letter that the child has learned yet that can make that sound.  

More advanced (end of words):
ff, ll, ss, zz

Use the same process as you did earlier with building short and long vowel words.  Use letter tiles; work on visualization; early spelling; phonemic awareness; continue to use words the child already knows. 

One additional material you may want to make:  letter tiles for each phonogram you teach.  (You could make these all at once to save time).  I think it's important for the child to realize that each phonogram is a unit that makes a distinct sound, just like each letter makes its distinct sound.  You can accomplish this with phonogram tiles.  An easy way to make these is to cut thick cardboard to the desired size (2-3 inch squares should work, or whatever size your current letter tiles are), print letter teams in pencil, then paint over them with puffy paint, glitter glue, or glue & sand.  Here are some cursive letter tiles I made for my son (although if I was doing it over I would stick with print - Charlotte Mason waited until 1st grade to introduce cursive). 

Once you’ve gotten these major beginning phonetic combinations down (or maybe even before you’ve gotten through this beginning list), I would like to suggest that Charlotte Mason would prefer you to move on to “Reading at Sight” lessons (next post!).  But lest you think this means she doesn’t want you to teach your child phonics, notice this quote:

This process (Reading at Sight) should go on side by side with the other––the learning of the powers of the letters (Phonics instruction!!); for the more variety you can throw into his reading lessons, the more will the child enjoy them.

Ah-ha!  So here we have it - you will continue phonics instruction every other day (she’ll start calling it “spelling lessons”) once you start “Reading At Sight” lessons, which I will begin to describe in my next post.  

Why move so soon to “Reading At Sight” lessons?  Why not learn all of the phonetic combinations first?  Here is Charlotte Mason’s answer:  

Lessons in word-making help him to take intelligent interest in words; but his progress in the art of reading depends chiefly on the 'reading at sight' lessons.

Also, Charlotte Mason felt that reading could not happen entirely on a phonetic basis:  

If words were always made on a given pattern in English, if the same letter always represented the same sounds, learning to read would be an easy matter; for the child would soon acquire the few elements of which all words would, in that case, be composed. But many of our English words are, each, a law unto itself: there is nothing for it, but the child must learn to know them at sight; he must recognise 'which,' precisely as he recognises 'B,' because he has seen it before, been made to look at it with interest, so that the pattern of the word is stamped upon his retentive brain.

I will admit that it is true that MOST words can be describe phonetically, especially with advanced phonetic combinations.  But here is what Charlotte Mason has to say about this:  

By way of illustration, consider the delicate differences of sound represented by the letter 'o'...  to analyse and classify the sounds of 'o' in 'for,' 'symbols,' 'know,' 'order,' 'to,' 'not,' and 'words,' is a curious, not especially useful, study for a philologist, but a laborious and inappropriate one for a child. It is time we faced the fact that the letters which compose an English word are full of philological interest, and that their study will be a valuable part of education by-and-by; but meantime, sound and letter-sign are so loosely wedded in English, that to base the teaching of reading on the sounds of the letters only, is to lay up for the child much analytic labour, much mental confusion, due to the irregularities of the language; and some little moral strain in making the sound of a letter in a given word fall under any of the 'sounds' he has been taught. (p. 215)

So we see that Charlotte Mason believes that focusing solely on phonics as a basis for teaching to read is inadequate.  However, she does believe in teaching phonics (along side of “reading at sight” which will be the next post), and thus we are left needing to educate ourselves about which phonetic combinations we are to teach!!  

Here is how I, personally, felt about this fact:  Wait just a minute!  Where do I find out more about phonetic combinations?  I’m just a Mom - I haven’t had any classes in teaching reading - how do I know what to teach?  

Fortunately, through recommendations, I’ve discovered the following helpful information:  

In English, we use not only the 26 letters of the alphabet as our basic phonetic building blocks, but also combinations of letters.  Up to 4 letters can be put together to come up with just 1 sound!  These are called “phonograms,” and there are 70(ish) of them!  Some of them, such as the ones I already listed above, make consonant sounds.  Others make vowel sounds.  

I highly recommend the book the book The ABCs and All their Tricks (jump in on the chapters labeled “Vowel Teams” and “Consonant Teams” for beginning phonetic combinations; advanced combinations follow).  This book goes beyond the rules and explains the “why” behind the phonetic sounds.  If you are going to try to teach phonics on your own, without a packaged curriculum, Charlotte Mason style, it’s a great idea to educate yourself about “the powers of the letters” using this book.  Plus, it has some “word family” lists which you can use in your reading lessons (more about that in future posts!) 

You could use Florence Akin's 1913 Word Mastery , from Don’ Potter’s website.  Starting at about page 41 she begins to teach various phonetic combinations, in word family format.  So this would be a good, simple resource.  Don't read straight from the book, though - continue to have the child use his letters to build the word (for now).  Use the word building process.   

Alternatively, you can get more information about phonograms from the program Spell to Write and Read (which is not entirely Charlotte Mason, since it disassociates phonics instruction from reading lessons, but it definitely has some strengths).  

“The Alphabet Code and How it Works” from Don Potter’s website is a nice summary.  Also, these cards list all of the phonetic sounds there are in words, and which letters can make them:

Finally, you may be thinking, “Can I just teach my child a separate phonics curriculum?  Do I have to follow Charlotte Mason’s recommendations?”  My answer is-- Yes and No.  

Yes - You should absolutely do what is best for your family.  Some people will just not be comfortable doing this themselves for various reasons, and that is entirely OK!  If you feel that way, there is nothing wrong with choosing a good phonics curriculum to use along with your reading lessons.  Don’t stress yourself out!  

No - Charlotte Mason designed her reading lesson sequence to be wholistic.  She based her phonics lessons around the reading texts the child was studying (more on this in my next post).  She believed you should start with the word and move backwards to the phonics - that the word would be much more interesting to the child than a tiny phonogram.  Thus, she used the (hopefully very interesting) words the child was learning to teach phonics, rather than the other way around (using phonics to teach the words).  If you agree with this philosophy, you’ll want to follow her methodology.  (If you don’t agree with this philosophy, may I suggest Spell to Write and Read, which starts with the phonics and ends with the words?  But maybe read my next post first?)    

I’m looking forward to my next post, which will get into...  Reading At Sight Lessons! 


  1. My lovely friend Lorraine has this resource to recommend. Her recommendations are always gems!

    "One thing I might suggest is that you beg, borrow, steal, or buy a copy of the Bluedorn's book _Handy English Encoder Decoder_.

    "I had already purchased The ABC's and All Their Tricks, and I liked it for a bit, and even suggested it myself, but it didn't take long to realize that it didn't discuss 'all' their tricks.

    "The Encoder Decoder has never failed to answer a question, however.

    "Both resources might be of value, but 1) a rhyming dictionary (available online or in book format - we have used both since we found one at our library book sale one year) and 2) the Encoder Decoder are what I personally recommend most.

    Thanks again, Lorraine!

  2. We are going to begin introducing our 5 year old to readIng/phonics this coming winter, and appreciate you sharing your insights. Looking forward to your next installment! Blessings to you!

  3. When I was a teenager, I used Writing Road to Reading to teach my youngest brother to read. The downside was my youngest brother got dragged through a lot of tedium. The upside was that I was familiar enough with the phonograms to be confident teaching them incidentally to my own children. I think CM's sequence makes so much sense--first the basic sounds, then word building with the simplest words, then the advanced stuff incidentally to reading interesting books. So much better than tedious word lists or dreary phonetic readers! The only downside I do see with my older kids is they have a few weaknesses in spelling with the advanced phonograms (e.g. ough) but then at second grade that is probably to be expected and we are working on those through copywork and advanced word-building lessons. They can read anything. (I didn't do too involved of CM lessons with them because once they had the letter sounds they preferred to puzzle it out independently with their own books, but I think the principle is the same--just the intensity of the lesson that needs to vary with the aptitude of the child). I have two new pre-readers coming up (letter sounds mostly down but not quite ready for word building) and I am eager to see how things go with them.

    1. It's great to hear about your experience! Yes, I think advanced word-building lessons really are necessary (in most cases) with a Charlotte Mason approach. We'll see in a future post that she encouraged mothers to use pretty advanced "readers" (Parables of Nature, anyone?) just for the sake of encountering hard words. Whew! This is certainly not "easy" on Mom, but hopefully worth it in the long run.

  4. Jennifer,

    I am so glad that I ran across your blog on phonics! Starting this fall I am doing a K year with my ds and will be using Delightful Reading. I have read Charlotte's writings on teaching reading several times and have always felt like I should have a book of all the rules and not have to rely on a curriculum. Both of those books are now on my "wish list".


  5. Sooo...when is your reading at sight lessons post coming out? I didn't see a link (please let me know if I missed it on your blog somewhere!) and am waiting with bated breath. :)
    I came across this series of articles via the AO forum and it has been very helpful!

  6. Hopefully soon! I have so much less time now that school has started, and our life has gotten very busy in addition to that. I've begun working on it - but each one takes a while! :) I'm glad you're looking forward to it!