Homeschool Corner

Unlock that key in your dictionary!

by Mary Pecci

The debate between the phonics and whole word reading methods has been a knock-down, drag-out debate. We need a game changer.

Since our written language is based on a phonetic code, (and not a hieroglyphic code, such as Chinese) it would seem to be “no contest” when it comes to the debate.

However, this is the logjam. There is such a wide variety of sounds for many of the letters and letter combinations in our phonetic system that it confuses many children (e.g., “ea” as in seat, head, great, learn, heart; “a” as in cat, want, father, away; “ch” as in chin, school, machine; etc., not to mention the exceptions to the phonics rules). What also weighs into the equation is the influx of “sight” words—words that can’t be sounded out phonetically. Some of these are words that have been absorbed into our written language from other languages without transposing them phonetically, as is done with the Spanish language (e.g., spaghetti: Italian; bouquet: French, etc.).

Therefore, in order to jump through these hoops and fly under the radar, many have opted for the whole word method as the better choice. Yet, reading scores continue to plummet as does the rise of special education classes.

So which choice is right? The key is to get to the ground level and simplify our phonics system.

After many years as a reading specialist “on the firing line” teaching reading to students with every possible type of reading disability, including dyslexia, I have discovered that when just one sound is taught for each letter or letter combination, nearly ninety percent of the phonics information required for reading is covered. And here’s the irony of it all. When the students have ninety percent of “reliable” phonics information at their fingertips, they can easily figure out the ten percent of exceptions on their own, as will be shown. However, when an attempt is made to teach that ten percent, it just confuses the whole process.

The following is the ninety percent of “reliable” phonics information students need to read, which, as you can see, is minimal and will be easy to learn and easy to apply to words:

Consonants: b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, w, x, y, z

Consonant Blends: These are easy because consonant sounds are already known and only practice is needed to blend them together. Ex. bl. fr, sp, tw, etc.

Consonant Digraphs: ch, sh, th, wh

Vowel Rules:

1. When there is one vowel, it has a short sound: at, et, it, ot, ut

2. “e” on the end gives the vowel a long sound: ate, ete, ite, ote, ute

3. When there are two vowels together, the first one is long and the second one is silent: ai, ee, ea, ie, oa, oe, ui, ue

Phonic Components:

ay, oo, ew, ar, oy, oi, ow, ou, ound, ight, igh, alk, er, ir, ur, all, eight, eigh, aw, au, aught, ought, ange, tion, sion

When children are taught to sound out words using only this “reliable” information, they will immediately recognize an exception to the rule. For example, when they know that “ai” makes the sound heard in the word “mail,” they will automatically sound out the word “said” as “sād.”

Here’s the game changer. We’re going to get the best of both phonics and whole word methods because, although every word will be sounded out, we will use literature-based readers that use “real English” text to provide a meaningful context within which to decode words—rather than phonics readers that use “decodable text” without meaningful context. For example, a student will read, “I heard every word you said,” rather than something like “Sid slid and hid a lid.” Now when a child hits an unphonetic word, s/he can simply “twist” it into the meaningful context of the sentence, based on the left-to-right phonics clues (example: s a i d). This also avoids “sight” words because every word is decoded with left-to-right phonics clues.

“Twisting” words into the meaningful context of a sentence is no problem for primary school children in grades K-2 (we have all experienced their proficiency in completing our sentences when there is a pause) because their verbal vocabulary contains thousands of words more than their reading vocabulary. It is estimated that children enter school with about 5,000 words in their verbal vocabulary, while many have a zero-word reading vocabulary.

In rare cases when a child is unable to “twist” the mispronunciation of an unphonetic word into the meaningful context of a sentence based on the left-to-right phonics clues, the teacher will just tell him the word and then point out the left-to-right phonics clues in the word, e.g., friend: f r i e n d.

Now here’s what drives the outcome. When children enter third grade, their reading vocabulary is nearly equal to their verbal vocabulary, and their reading vocabulary begins to pull up their verbal vocabulary. The more they read, the more words they incorporate into their verbal vocabulary. Oftentimes, this is where the problem begins because they will come across words that are not in their verbal vocabulary; many of these words are unphonetic or they have no idea how to pronounce them or what they mean.

What then?

Now it’s time to shake things up and unlock that key in your dictionary!

Next to each word in the dictionary is the phonetic respelling and the definition. For example, vignette (vin yet’), bouquet (bō kā’), enough (i nuf’), etc. There is meaningful context in the literature-based readers and the key in your dictionary: (kof), (ruf), (thō).

Now you’ve released the students from the phonics trap of endless exceptions, freed them to enjoy the ease and stimulation of literature-based text, and brought about a truce between the phonics and whole word reading debate.

By following a few simple rules and learning how to unlock the key in their dictionary, every child can succeed.

Biographical information

Mary F. Pecci is the author of SUPER SEATWORK- WORD SKILLS, which provides step-by-step directions for teaching dictionary skills, and includes a wide variety of child-friendly fill-in exercises, tests, and reviews, which assure success. Pecci has also written At Last! A Reading Method for EVERY Child! and PECCI BEGINNING READERS, which are listed in 100 Top Picks for Homeschool Curriculum, by Cathy Duffy. At Last! is now on DVDs, which demonstrate every technique as you go through the book (see FREE excerpts at In addition, she has produced SUPER SEATWORK SERIES and SUPER SPELLING - Book One. Check out her website and 20% discounts at

Copyright, 2015. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine, Summer 2015. Read the magazine free at or read it on the go and download the free apps at to read the magazine on your mobile devices.