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The Not So Lonely County Road to Phonics

The Not So Lonely County Road to Phonics

Back in the day when my son, Cheyenne, was half way through first grade in our local public school, I was one day sitting around resting from work, minding my own business, (which is rare for me, not sitting around resting, but minding my own business that is) when I got a call from “Gramma”. (My mom and Cheyenne’s Grandmother, Pauline). “Hi,”Teaching Phonics in Rural Public Schools she says, “we need to talk.” (Uh oh, I’m thinking.”)

“Why? What’s up?”
“I’m concerned about the quality of Cheyenne’s education.”
“Oh, what’s there to be concerned about?”
“He is not learning how to read.”
“Well…he’s only in the first grade.” I reply incredulously.
“From what I’ve researched, he should be well on his way by now.” She says adamantly.
“Oh, well I think…”
“Listen, I have heard great reports about the achievements of Mrs. Zier’s students down through the years.”
“Mrs Zier?”
“Yes, she teaches first through third grade down in Roberts public school, she has been teaching Orton Spalding phonics for twenty some years and has a reputation for turning out children that are highly motivated and excel in school and getting college scholarships.”
“Huh? Orton Spalding phonics…I don’t…”
“Listen, she has received numerous prestigious awards on a statewide and national level. She has also been voted best teacher by her students several years in a row.”
“Well that’s cool but Roberts is like twelve miles from here at the Ranch…six miles of it on county roads.”
“Is there something more important for you to do than make sure your son gets a good education?”
“Well, no but..”
“Listen, all I’m asking you to do is to go down to Roberts and observe her class, then make your decision after that.”
“So you want me to just waltz on into her class and…”
“I’ve already made arrangements with her, you are more than welcome and she is expecting you.”
“Well, um, I don’t know, I…”
“Tomorrow, eight o’clock room 109, check in at the front desk, they will be expecting you as well.”
“Well I was supposed to go to..”
“This is something you should do for Cheyenne, and I want you to do it for him.”
“Just show up dear.”

Teaching Phonics with Flash CardsNext morning finds me driving down the lonesome county road with snow blowing and swirling, making drifts that my old Ford pickup bucks through, my windshield defroster working hard to keep up with the ice.

I’m late, I walk tentatively into the school wondering what I’m doing here. The secretary at the front desk sizes me up and greets me with “Hi! You must be Verlynn!”
“Yup, I…”
“Mrs. Zier is expecting you, just down the hall on your right, class is already under way so just go in and take a seat.”
“Okay, thanks.”

Thinking I’m probably not going to enjoy this very much, I quietly enter the room and scrunch up in an old fashioned student desk chair at the back of the class. What I see is amazing, incredible. The students are so engaged they don’t even notice me. Mrs Zier is showing them a flash card (which I perceive as just the letter A in the alphabet) and several of the students are holding their hands up as if to say, “choose me! pick me!” And wonder of wonders, they are all, every one of them, smiling and paying attention.

Mrs. Zier chooses a precious little girl and says “Okay, yes Mary.”
Mary says, ” a’, ay, ah! Have a ball!”
“Very good, you all know these quite well now…how about this one?” She holds up a card that has on it: IE. The students again enthusiastically raise their hands. “Yes Michael?”
“eye, ee.” Piece of pie!” The class all goes “That we like to eat backwards!” all of them giggle and think this is hilarious. I’m stumped. What the? (Turns out that what is so funny is that the phonogram is spelled IE but the pronunciation is ‘e’ [long e as in ‘piece’] and ‘i’ [long i as in ‘pie’])

So Mrs. Zier has invented mnemonics for the phonics. Catch phrases to help the students remember the order of use frequency of the sounds of the phonograms. In spelling or reading if the student goes to the first sound of the phonogram they will more often than not be right to sound out or spell a word.

Mrs. Zier holds up another flash card, which I perceive to be nothing more that the alphabet letter C. “Yes Barbara?” Little Barbara says “K, Sss. “Cat in the City.”
“Very good Barbara! Now everybody take out your spelling notebooks and we will start the dictation of some new words for you to spell and sharpen your pencils if need be.”

As the students prepare for this exercise, Mrs. Zier comes back to where I’m sitting, I stand up to meet her and she says…”Hi Verlynn, nice to meet you…so…what do you think?”
“I’m sold.” I grin.
“So we’ll be seeing Cheyenne in class soon?”
“As soon as possible, he’ll be here with bells on.”

And so began our journey into phonemic awareness…by the end of the first grade Joseph could sound out as well as spell most any word that was presented to him. It was rather like a miracle, well worth the drive down that now not so lonely county road.

photo credit: Alex Rabb via photopin cc

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About Verlynn Dean Adamson

Verlynn Dean Adamson is an artist, writer, retired finish carpenter and long time advocate of literacy. He holds degrees from the University of Montana System including a BS degree in Psychology from the University of Montana in Missoula, a BA degree in Art from Montana State University Bozeman in conjunction with Montana State University Billings where he did post graduate work in Sculpting. He is an occasional contributing writer for The Big Sky Journal and is currently working on his 'life-time achievement' bronze sculpture in his studio. For fun he paints the Montana landscape in plein-air and has been featured in many art shows down through the years around the country; he dabbles in fly-fishing, delights in walkabouts in the valley thickets of his beloved Willow Creek and 'ski-abouts' in the vast prairie coulees and Aspen groves that border his earthly home located in the lovely foothills below the Beartooth Mountain Front near Red Lodge, Montana.

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