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How To Teach Those “So-Called” Exceptions
to the Phonics Rules (and Easily Decode “Non-Decodable” Words!)

Did you know that if you had a fever and cough, it could be the plague,
or pneumonia…
or maybe just the flu?
Actually, it could be a lot of things.

Because doctors know that the plague is the least likely cause of your symptoms and that the flu is the most likely, they will probably go with the flu first, and then work their way through the alternative options, as needed.

As medicine is not an exact science, doctors must often work through a series of options to determine what treatment will be most effective with their patients. They make these decisions based on a hierarchy of likelihood to determine what is most likely, next most likely, and least likely to be successful.

Like medicine, the English language and is not an exact science, and while phonics is the key to learning how to read, it’s often takes a binary form, with words either falling under the “rule” or the “exception.” However, by targeting instruction to earlier-developing, “feeling” based centers in the brain and aligning letter behavior with kid behavior, their most and next-most likely sounds become easily predictable, even for kinders….and even in those “so-called” exceptions!

A good word doctor who is armed with the Secrets can “treat” these so-called exceptions in much the same way that doctors treat their patients. And in doing so, a critical-thinking playground begins to emerge as beginning and struggling readers gain power over text.

First, it’s important to realize that there are only so many different sounds that a letter or letter pattern can make, and their not random, even though they may sometimes appear so. Just like the saying, The apple won’t fall too far from the tree,” letters won’t stray too far from their sounds! For example, you will never see the letter q say “mmm,” or the letter k say “duh,” or the tion pattern say “ing!”

Secret Stories® Brain Based Phonics

 

Contrary to popular belief, letters don’t just lose their little ‘letter-minds’ and run amok! All they do (and it’s usually the vowels that do it!) is make sounds that they are perfectly capable of making— but it just might be their next-most likely ones! Watch the video clip below to see what I mean!

 

When working with patients, doctors must ask themselves, “How many different ways can I look at this? How many different ways can I solve it?” Beginning and struggling readers must also employ this kind of diagnostic thinking when attempting to sound out unknown words, asking themselves, “What else can it be?….  What else could I try?” Engaging in this type of analytical, problem-solving is often referred to as “thinking outside the box,” and the key to doing it effectively is to first know what’s IN the box!

Thinking Outside the Box to Decode Words and So-Called “Exceptions!”

phonics exceptions

This is why knowing the Secrets is so important for beginning and struggling readers, as the Secret Stories® equip them with everything that’s IN the box so that they are more easily able to think outside it— something that working with text demands!

The ou/ow Secret….

Ou ow play really rough and someone always gets hurt and says— “Oooowww!” 

(as in words like: our, round, how, now)

But, flying overhead is Superhero O, who happens to be o & w‘s all-time, favorite superhero, ever!

If ow ever spots Superhero O flying overhead, they stop dead in their tracks, and yell—

“O! O! O!” 

…which is why ow can also say O! (It’s “default” sound)

(as in words like: blow, flow, glow, mow)

 

 

The Secret (and default sound for ow) makes sounding out most words with this common pattern easy, even for kinders, which means that words like: how, now, about, around, etc, commonly found on sight word need NOT be memorized! As with the Secret, kids can just READ them! Plus, kids can learn the ou/ow Secret in an instant, even if they haven’t mastered all of the individual letter sounds yet, as it still makes sense. Memorizing a sight word however, can take some students forever… especially those with little to no home support, as they are less likely to use it enough to make it stick. And even more importantly, knowing a sight word allows learners to read one word, whereas knowing a Secret empowers them to read and write thousands!

Now let’s consider a word like you

The ou isn’t doing what it should, according to the Secret. Still, the sound it IS making in the word hasn’t really strayed too far away… at least not so far that a good word doctor couldn’t easily figure it out! And here’s how…

A “Hierarchy of Likelihood” Approach to Decoding (a.k.a. Thinking Outside the Box)

1.  First, try the most likely Secret Stories sound for ou (as in house)….. NOPE, it didn’t work!

2.  Next, try the individual sounds for the letters and ….. BINGO!!! We got the word!!

In this case, we got it on the second try.

Now, had we not struck gold on our first “out-of-the-box” attempt, we could have worked our way further down the list of possible sound options and turned this puzzle into a sort of problem-solving/critical thinking game….

3.  Try the sounds of other Secret Stories patterns with o or  u, like the Secrets for oo, oi/oy or ous. For example, in the word could, the ou is making the default-sound for oo (as in book) and kids who know the oo Secret might try that sound as one more possible option.

oo phonics story

And of course, you can also pull out the handy “Head-Bop” Trick in a pinch to help kids easily figure out those otherwise non-decodable words, like: of, come, love, some, what, was, etc.. (You can read more about this trick here.)

sight word activities

thinking vowels head bop

 

4.  It’s the PLAGUE!  It requires a specialist! When we’ve exhausted all options and have no more tricks up our sleeve, we must surrender to the word, which means we have to memorize it!

Why Not Just Memorize Tricky Sight Words?

Here’s why— because it is within this “figuring-out” (a.k.a. analytical/critical-thinking) process that deep learning lies! Not just learning how to read, but learning how to think! Our brain is a pattern-making machine, and this patterning process of thinking-through all available options is its natural way of doing things. “If not this, then that…” Our brain is continually patterning-out the best  available options in everything that we do.

Secret Stories® Brain Based Phonics
 

We think, “I’ll park in the front, but if I can’t find a space, I’ll try the back, and if that doesn’t work, I’ll try the next lot over. If I can’t find anything there, then I’m giving up and going home, as I’m too tired to walk that far.” We don’t think— “I’ll park in the front, but if I can’t find a space, then I don’t know what I’ll do!” (This is similar to the way in which kids often handle words that are exceptions, which is to throw their hands up in surrender the minute that letters don’t do exactly what they should in a word.)

Seth Godwin, author of Looking for Patterns (Where they don’t Exist! writes,

“Human beings are pattern-making machines. That’s a key to our survival instinct— we seek out patterns and use them to predict the future. Which is great, except when the pattern isn’t there, then our pattern-making machinery is busy picking things out that truly don’t matter.” 

The Brain is a Pattern-Making Machine

Our brains are hardwired to look for patterns, and the Secrets are patterns— not abstract letter patterns, but patterns of behavior that are designed to mimic learners’ own behavior.  The ability to classify incoming information quickly into categories (based on the patterns we know) means the brain can use easier rules to deal with the new input, which is less stressful than always having to deal with things that haven’t been seen before. Knowing the Secrets equips inexperienced beginning and struggling learners to identify the best course of action when sounding out new words, and not knowing the Secrets means having to say, “It just is… It just does… You just have to remember….” when they can’t read or spell a word.

Secret Stories® Brain Based Phonics

Another benefit to reading words rather than just memorizing them is that it sparks more optimal brain circuitry, as evidenced by numerous studies, including a recent one by Stanford University Professor, Bruce McCandliss, which you can read more about here. 

 

Secret Stories® Brain Based Phonics— Stanford University Sight Word Brain Study
Stanford Brain Study on Sight Words Post

Just to be clear, some words are just better to memorize, as mentioned when discussing the word could, up above. But most are not, especially if they now the Secrets and can easily read them! Consider that every sight word that a learner memorizes is one less opportunity to reinforce their “sounding-out” (decoding) skills that you work so hard to teach, and more importantly, one less opportunity to flex their “critical thinking/problem solving” muscles!

Now before you read any further, watch this video.


It’s easy for teachers to empathize with Ricky’s struggle to read words like: boughs, through, rough, cough and enough. Like many students in our guided reading groups, Ricky diligently attempts to decode what seem to him to be ‘un-decodable’ words and becomes understandably frustrated in the process. Ultimately, Ricky just closes the book and gives up, convinced that the sounds letters make just don’t make sense. Many of our students feel the same way.

Secret Stories® Brain Based Phonics

 

How To Think Like a “Word Doctor” to Decode Text

In the same way that a doctor works through various options to heal a patient, we can do the same to “heal” the words that are stumping Ricky…. or at least to help make them more “figureoutable!” ( I know it’s not a word, but I really like it!)

First, we need to know another Secret…

Secret Stories® Brain Based Phonics
Click Here to Learn the gh Secret

The gh Secret

Gh will make different sounds, depending on where they are in line (i.e. in a word)

When they are at the FRONT, they’re glad!

There, they make the hard g sound, saying….

 “Gosh, this is Great!  We’re going to Get to Go first and Get in before anyone else Goes!” 

(ghost, ghoul, ghastly, etc…)

When they are in the MIDDLE, and surrounded by lots of other letters,

they are silent and are too afraid to say anything and make NO SOUND at all

(sight, thought, straight, etc…)

When they are at the END, they’re not at all happy and they always complain.

Here, they make the fff sound, saying….

“This is no ffun! We’re so ffar away it’ll take fforever ffor us to get to the ffront!”

(rough, enough, cough, etc…) 

Now let’s play “Word Doctor”….

A Reading/ Phonics Word Doctor

bough

No problem with the ou as it is doing just what it should (see ou/ow poster up above)

But gh is a different story, as it is not making the sound that it should, which is “fff.”  So let’s try one of the only TWO other sounds that it can make, and voila! We got it! The gh is silent! The gh Secret is everything that’s IN the box when it comes to all of the possible sounds that gh can make, making it easy for learners to deduce the next most likely options when it doesn’t do exactly what it should!

 

rough

Like in the word you (mentioned at the top of the post), ou is not making the sound that it should, but by simply trying the individual sounds for both and u, we can easily get the word! In this case, ou is making the short u sound. And thankfully, gh is doing exactly what it should when it’s at the end of a word!

cough

Just as with the word rough,  ou is not making the sound that it should, but is making one of their individual sounds, instead. This time, it’s the short o sound. And again, the gh is doing exactly what it should.

enough

Once more the ou is not making the sound that it should, but it IS doing the next most likely thing, based on our “hierarchy of likelihood” (way up above at top of post), just as it did in the words you, rough and cough.  In this case, it’s making the short u sound. And once again,  gh is doing what it should.

through

Now this one’s a little trickier— bordering between being “fun to figure out” and “just easier to memorize,”  I would probably go with the latter, but it is gratifying to know that with a little “out of the box” thinking, we CAN crack this word, should we chose to!

The ou is not making the sound that it should, nor is it making the o or u sound, but just like the word you that was mentioned at the top of this post, it is making the most likely sound of its “cousin” oo … and by cousin, I mean another similar Secret that looks like it could be a possible relative, as it shares a common relative, which is o.  (The sound for oo can be seen in the oo poster way up above.)

And then we have the same problem with gh that we had with a couple of the other words up above— nothing that a good word doctor can’t fix, as gh is just being difficult and refusing to talk, as is his prerogative. However, it does require an extra analytical step to crack the word, which may be one too many to make it worthwhile. Thus, it merits the time, energy and space in the brain that’s required memorize.

Secret Stories® Brain Based Phonics

This video clip shows a group of first graders playing “Word Doctor” and applying some critical analysis and diagnostic thinking to the word light. While they can already read the word, they bothered by the fact that i is bothering to say his name when there Mommy E® or Babysitter Vowel® in sight!


Patterning IS Thinking

Brain Based Reading

The following excerpt is taken from 12 Design Principles Based on Brain-based Learning Research by Jeffery Lackney, Ph. D.

Pattern making is pleasing to the brain. The brain takes great pleasure in taking random and chaotic information and ordering it. The implications for learning and instruction is that presenting a learner with random and unordered information provides the maximum opportunity for the brain to order this information and form meaningful patterns that will be remembered. Setting up a learning environment in this way mirrors real life that is often random and chaotic.

The brain, when allowed to express its pattern-making behavior, creates coherency and meaning. Learning is best accomplished when the learning activity is connected directly to physical experience. We remember best when facts and skills are embedded in natural, spatial memory, in real-life activity, in experiential learning. We learn by doing. facilitated in an environment of total immersion in a multitude of complex interactive experiences.


Hmmmm…. that sounds a lot like the class in the video!

The Superhero Vowels® and their “Short & Lazy” Sound Disguises

Secret Stories Phonics Posters

For a quick overview of the Superhero Vowels® and their “short & lazy” sound disguises, watch the video below.

And the last little doctor tool that I want to share before signing off is about the vowels, as they are the most likely culprits when words just won’t sound-out correctly! Vowels are the “eyes, ears, nose and throat” of a word, which is why good word doctors should always check them out first! They offer the best window into what’s most likely wrong. Sometimes it’s an issue with a Secret (as with the words we’ve seen in this post) but other times fixing the problem requires having a few “vowel-fixing” tricks up your sleeve— something that every good word should have!

decoding exception words
Learn more word doctor strategies, including, the “Thinking Vowels/Head-Bop” and the “Hungry Thing” to crack tricky vowel sounds here and watch the video down below!

How to Read Words that are Exceptions

How to Decode “Undecodable” Words So Kids Don’t Have to MEMORIZE Them

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