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Understood.org posted a summary article about the 14 Phonic Rules and the chatter about it highlights something problematic about using rules in Orton-Gillingham instruction: For each rule there is a litany of exceptions.

“I hate schwas!”
“But what about putt?”
“Well, then shouldn’t druid should sound like droot?”
“Breath doesn’t take the long e sound…”

This is familiar to teachers of Orton-Gillingham.  We try to get a student to learn a rule and the first question they often have is not about an application of that rule, but an exception.  This is not only unsettling to the teacher, but it also undermines the integrity of the material and the confidence of the Learner.

Understood.org writes:

Any vowel can make the schwa sound; it sounds like uh. Words like banana, vitamin, item, and another have the schwa sound.

The schwa is only found in words with more than one syllable, but never in the “accented” syllable. The schwa is the most common sound in the English language!

Here’s the problem with that rule:

The schwa sound can actually be two sounds: a short and relaxed  “uh” or a short “ih”. If we teach that schwa is just one sound, Learners will be confused about the variances that they hear in words like “domino” and “laundromat” from region to region and speaker to speaker.  To discuss these variances as lazy speech is not only inaccurate, it can be insulting and alienating. Instead, it makes sense to address, from the very beginning, the variances of schwa that are possible and that a learner will probably hear ”uh” more than “ih”.

English is incredibly variable and convoluted.  With the primary influence of more than a dozen languages and secondary influence of hundreds of others, it should not be surprising to know that “a” can be said at least six distinct ways and the “long a” sound can be spelled more than 35 ways. As expert practitioners, we can’t agree on the number of phonemes in the English language. And we have identified almost 600 orthographic patterns–not just the hundred or so that we teach. How can such a complicated language be distilled to “14 easy rules” to memorize?

When we approach encoding and decoding with rules, we set the Learner up to “memorize” – which is a very limited and ineffectual approach to learning.

When we approach encoding and decoding as a cognitive process that involves understanding probabilities and possibilities, we establish the logic of the hierarchical structure and give them tools to navigate that structure for any word – not just the words that follow the rules.

This requires that we prepare Learners for the challenge that lies ahead in recognizing possibilities and probabilities–instead of promising them an easy process.

In being honest about the hard work to be done, we do two things: 1) we maintain a sense of integrity and confidence about the approach; 2) we respectfully acknowledge why encoding and decoding is vastly complicated.  This removes the Learner’s burden of feeling that one needs to simply “try harder” or “be smarter.” “Ugh…there are only 14 rules and I still don’t get it…”

A perfect example of why rules don’t work is the schwa rule.  

It is more helpful to let the learner know that schwa can possibly appear in one syllable words and accented syllables – but that most of the time, it appears in multisyllable words and in unaccented syllables.

“The” and “a” both have schwas.  The schwa can also appear in accented syllable. In fact, a schwa appears in the first accented syllable of banana–one of the examples used in the rule!  

Treating schwas like a rule doesn’t work. To call a observable pattern a rule is to suggest a level of consistency that does not exist in English.  Many rules are merely the most common patterns. Other patterns, as well as exceptions, often exist.

Instead of asking “What is the schwa rule?”, it is cognitively more appropriate – and therefore a richer and more effective learning experience – to teach the Learner about the possibilities and probabilities of schwa.  Then, ask the Learner the highest probabilities of when the schwa will inherently implying that there are occasions when this occurs.

It makes sense to question why we distill the logic of English into over simplified rules.  It makes more sense to to discuss possibilities and probabilities that prepare Learners for the complex thought and effort of encoding and decoding.  It is not that they can’t grasp a mere 14 rules.