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Silent E: Teaching Kids the Whole Truth

Silent E: Teaching Kids the Whole Truth - All About Reading

Today we’re going to bust another phonics myth. You have probably heard this one…

“Silent E makes the vowel say its name.”

And if you look at the following word pairs, that rule does appear to be true.

tap --> tape
fin --> fine
mad --> made

In each example, Silent E changes the short vowel into a long vowel (in other words, the vowel says its name). Dozens of popular phonics programs teach this, and it is one of the most common reading and spelling “rules” taught to beginning learners.

This would be a good rule if it were the whole truth.

The Truth about Silent E

But that’s where the problem arises: after kids learn this rule, they encounter hundreds of words that don’t fit into this easy pattern. They start to see words all around them, such as horse, love, and puddle, in which Silent E doesn’t make the preceding vowel long…and then they start to doubt what they are being taught.

Some students are naturally intuitive when it comes to language patterns, and they can fill in the gaps and move on. But many students take the “rule” at face value and think that the problem is with them—that they just can’t figure out English.

This situation is frustrating and unnecessary, because…

Silent E Has Many Jobs

The chart below shows seven jobs of Silent E, along with sample words.

Jobs of the Silent E Chart

Click to download and print this Silent E infographic!

Saying “Silent E makes the vowel say its own name” is like saying “dogs are black.”

Would your child believe you very long if you tried to convince him that all dogs are black? While it is true that some dogs are black, it is not true that all dogs are black. Dogs can be brown, white, sable, yellow, or mixed.

In a similar vein, not all Silent E’s do the same job. Sometimes they make the preceding vowel long, but they can also do six other jobs.

Teaching the Truth about Silent E

When students know the truth—the full story about Silent E and all of its jobs—they aren’t thrown off when they see Silent E at the end of a word. If it doesn’t make the preceding vowel long, there are other options to explain its existence. Students can trust their education, instead of being misled by a myth.

Knowing the truth also opens the door to some interesting word discussions. For example, did you know that Silent E can do two jobs in a single word? Check out the word race—Silent E makes the A long and makes the C soft. Other examples in which Silent E has two jobs include hive, mice, trace, page, and cage. That’s pretty neat!

How We Teach Silent E

In the All About Reading and All About Spelling programs, we teach all the jobs of Silent E. (In AAS, the jobs are numbered differently because we lumped some together in the “Handyman E” category.) We teach the jobs step by step, one lesson at a time, so students can master the concepts at their own pace.

Are you interested in seeing some sample lessons? Click to download!

All About Reading Level 2 Lesson 14

Download “The First Job of Silent E”

All About Reading Level 2, Lesson 14 sample lesson

All About Reading Level 2 Lesson 39

Download “Soft C and the Second Job of Silent E”

All About Reading Level 2, Lesson 39 sample lesson

All About Reading Level 3 Lesson 8

Download “Pickle Syllables and the Fifth Job of Silent E”

All About Reading Level 3, Lesson 8 sample lesson

Were you ever taught the various jobs of Silent E?


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Garrison

says:

Do you teach the syllable types? I think I see that you go from open and closed to r-controlled, thus skipping vce. Didn’t OG intend for vce syllable type to be taught in the first three?

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Garrion,
All About Reading and All About Spelling both teach six syllable types. They are closed, open, vowel-consonant-E (Name Game), vowel team, R-controlled (Bossy R), and consonant + LE (Pickle). The VCE syllable is the third syllable type taught in both programs.

The VCE syllable type is called “Name Game” syllable All About Reading. The curriculum developers found this name easier children to remember and less confusing as VCE and C+LE look and sound similar. AAR also calls the C+LE syllable type “Pickle” syllable, and uses “Bossy R” rather than R-Controlled.

Ashley Swegles

says:

Iv went back and forth with this alot. Wouldn’t it be easier to learn words by memory? As an adult I don’t remember any of the rules, I just read from memory and I’m a good reader.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Ashley,
Research strongly suggests that proficient readers do not read from memorizing words as we think, but rather they have internalized the rules and patterns of language so well that they are unaware of it. This is why we can read nonsense words like plunt and yat instantly, even though we never learned them.

There is something called the “Curse of Knowledge” that sometimes comes into play as we teach. Our blog article on it may be helpful for you, but basically, it is that when we know something on a mastery level, we often forget all the steps and incremental pieces that went into learning it.

It is estimated that students need to be able to read and comprehend at least 8000 words to be able to successfully read novels, newspapers, and other media. That is a lot of words to learn all by memory, and since there are well over 100,000 words that can be used in English, students also need skills for how to approach words they do not know.

You may wish to look into what research says about the science of reading and how children learn to read well. If you have questions or need more information, please let me know.

Cheryl T. Kreutter

says:

If rules are myths, why would one spend time teaching all 6 of them? Also, if the goal of reading is comprehension, how can we integrate other variables involved in reading with decoding/encoding?

Something to keep in mind with Orton-Gillingham is there is no empirical research that supports its effectiveness. In fact, despite 90 years of use, there is little other than testimonial evidence that this approach has been successful. The O-G based approach was found to be no more effective than other types of intervention in improving reading comprehension among third and fifth grade struggling readers despite a year of instruction using the approach. A study included in the National Reading Panel (NRP) report even demonstrated a substantial negative impact on comprehension a year after students participated in an O-G-based intervention.
National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching children to read: an evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (p. 2-160)

Merry

says: Customer Service

Hi Cheryl,

Thanks for your comments! As we explain above, the myth is thinking Silent E only has one job, rather than understanding all of the ways Silent E can work. AAR and AAS give students complete information on how Silent E functions.

With regard to the National Reading Panel report, page 2-119 explains that they found that all phonics-based approaches they studied (including the Orton-Gillingham approach) “produced significantly greater growth in reading than control group programs.” They further explain a likely reason for the lower score that O-G programs received was that students received classroom-wide instruction instead of one-on-one instruction. These students were already identified as struggling readers and low achievers—that type of student especially needs one-on-one instruction that can be tailored to the student, which is one of the hallmarks of the Orton-Gillingham approach! On page 2-156, you can see that the one O-G study that came out negative was with low-achieving 5th graders that received classroom-wide instruction instead of individualized instruction.

True Orton-Gillingham-based instruction needs to be multisensory, sequential, incremental, cumulative, individualized, phonogram-based, and explicit.

All About Reading incorporates both the Orton-Gillingham Approach and the findings of the National Reading Panel. Please see our blog article, 12 Reasons Teachers Love All About Reading and All About Spelling where you can read more about the research-based methods that All About Reading and All About Spelling incorporate.

And here is information on How to Teach Reading Comprehension.

I hope this helps!

Sibongile

says:

Thank you very much I really appreciate. I was not aware of the 6 rules of silent E. I was familiar with the E rule which states silent e change the short vowel into a long vowel.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Sibongile. I was also taught that Silent E changes the vowel sound, but not taught the other jobs. My kids are much better off than I was knowing all the jobs of Silent E!

namita saraf

says:

Great concept is share here.where i can find this whole concepts of handbook as i m teaching my daughter at homeso sometimes you know i dont have answers to her questions

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Namita,
There is a lot of complexity in English. We cover all these concepts in-depth and step-by-step in our All About Reading and All About Spelling programs.

Kate

says:

Silent e does not make C and G soft ever. The rule is that when e, i, and y come after C or G it is usually a soft sound. Has nothing to do with the e being silent. There are irregulars in every English rule taught. What research or data are you basing your 7 rules on? In all my years teaching phonics and attending a multitude of seminars and workshops, I’ve never heard of this.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Kate,
Thank you for pointing out that C says it’s soft /s/ sound before E, I, or Y, and G may say it’s soft /j/ sound before E, I, or Y. All About Reading and All About Spelling teach these rules in detail.

In words like chance and gorge, the C and G are followed by an E and they give their soft sounds. And, the E in both is silent. If the purpose of the silent E in these words is not to make the C and G say their soft sounds, then why do these words have a silent E? The purpose of teaching multiple jobs for silent E like this is to remove the confusion as to why so many words have a silent E even though they do not have a long vowel.

One of my daughters had a terrible time with silent Es because the program we used didn’t give a reason like these jobs for why some words have a silent E. She thought they were just added randomly to some words, and so she would do things such as spelling the word back “backe”. After just a few months of All About Spelling, she no longer had trouble with when to use a silent E.

Both All About Reading and All About Spelling are Orton-Gillingham based. Marie Rippel, author and creator of the programs, is a member of the International Dyslexia Association and has instructed graduate-level courses in Orton-Gillingham Literacy Training offered through Nicolet College in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. She has previously served on the Board of Directors of the Literacy Task Force in Wisconsin and tutored students for more than 20 years.

Sheryl Manolakos

says:

Great

Jennifer Harris

says:

This is a wonderful resource! Our 4 year old loves the Silent E song, but my husband and I couldn’t answer his question of why “love” breaks the rule. Now we can! Thank you!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Jennifer! I, too, found learning ALL the possible jobs of silent E made teaching my children so much easier!

Elise Wile

says:

This is so very illuminating! I was just preparing a list of r-control words for my first graders, and couldn’t figure out why there is an e at the end of more, tore, chore, bore, gore, etc. Is there a specific rule for that?

Kristen

says:

That is interesting because it’s not a soft sound like socks. It kind of sounds long. Maybe teach kids when it’s together with an r, it always sounds like or/ore. Those are the same and the e is silent in ore.

Olymtmom

says:

Hello, thank you for this printable Silent E chart. I’m having a difficult time explaining the pickle syllable rule to my child and what to look for when dividing a word into syllables. Open and closed syllables and syllable division using the one or two consonant rule seem more obvious to my child. Any additional explanation would be greatly appreciated. Thank you 😊

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Are you using All About Reading or All About Spelling? Both of these programs have detailed lessons on the Pickle Syllable (or Consonant-LE syllable as it is called in All About Spelling). It is found in Lessons 8 and 10 of All About Reading Level 3, or Steps 5 and 6 of All About Spelling Level 3.

In short, the rule for this syllable type is, “When a word ends in a consonant then LE, count back three tiles from the end and divide.” Here are three examples:

maple – Count back three tiles and divide the word as ma-ple. Then it becomes clear the first syllable is open, so the A is long.

rubble – Count back three tiles and divide the word as rub-ble. The first syllable is closed, so the U is short.

feeble – Count back three tiles and divide the word as fee-ble. The first syllable is a Vowel Team syllable, so the vowel team EE says its typical sound.

I hope this helps. Let me know if you have additional questions.

Ron

says:

We need a place for adults to communicate the issue with learning. How does one over come the issues in spelling and gramma?
How does etymology help spelling? What tools should a adult use to help with gramma and spelling?
Do you have a contact for adult student to fix their learning gaps. Adults need help to, what do we do to help adults?

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Ron,
Our materials can be and have been used to successfully teach adults to succeed with reading and spelling. More than anything, however, students of all ages need teachers to help them be successful with mastering reading and spelling. These subjects cannot be mastered without someone to notice not only the errors but also the cause of the error and to help the student understand that. The feedback a caring teacher gives is invaluable!

Our materials are designed to be easy to use without special training or previous teaching experience. Check out How We Make Reading and Spelling Easy to Teach.

If you have additional questions on how to adapt our materials for adult learners, please let me know.

shabana

says:

Great information

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you, Shabana.

jerry miller

says:

Thank you for your great post!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Jerry!

Naomi Yu

says:

Thankyou for sharing this. It’s great to know the whole story.
However I still teach the magic e rule to my ESL students when I need them to start comprehending this long vowel pattern. I also explain that some words ending in v don’t follow this rule because they are words they will see in their speaking textbooks again and again from beginner level (love, have, live). Also, I teach the soft c and g rule as a separate phonics rule as the truth is that the silent e in these words does still indeed make the vowel long. I teach that the c and g are (usually) made soft not only before the silent e, but the letter e generally (cement, celery) + the letters i (icy, city) and y (cycle, cylinder).
As great as this chart is for adults, it’s aloooot of information for a little person to remember. Especially an ESL learner. Simple, general rules building on each other, like magic e, then the ‘v’ issue, then (later) the ‘th’ rule etc… seem better suited for my scenario.
As always thankyou for the detailed info though. As a teacher it’s great to consider these articles and how they apply in my personal small group ESL setting.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You bring up such a great point, Naomi!

Yes, when teaching students just learning to read and spell, you cannot just throw all this information at them at once. It is information overload! (Marie describes it as overwhelming the student’s funnel, see our blog post How the “Funnel Concept” Affects Learning.)

All About Reading and All About Spelling approach the many jobs of Silent E in much the same way you have described, slowly over time, with space to master each concept before the next is introduced. Level 2 of All About Reading just teaches the first four jobs, spread out over the entire level. And, as you mentioned, soft C and G when followed by E, I, or Y, is taught with the second job of silent E.

This blog post is an overview of the complete picture of silent E, which is helpful for teachers and for reviewing. But each job should be taught separately and students should be comfortable with one before the next is added.

Thank you for sharing your insights!

Naomi Yu

says:

Thankyou for replying and giving more info about how these rules are covered in the All About Reading curriculum. It looks like a really great program.

Loveth Paul

says:

This is so helpful. Thanks for sharing

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m glad this was helpful! You’re welcome.

Alodia Abarca Igloso

says:

thank you so much for sharing. this is so important to me and a great help in my teaching in Elementary

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Alodia. I’m glad this is a help for you in teaching!

Sheetal Sanghvi

says:

Biggg thank you for such informative, educative and interesting posts and printables.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Oh, you are very welcome, Sheetal! Thank you.

Melissa

says:

This is soo helpful. There are so many rule, so having an attractive infograph with examples has helped our sons.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

I’m pleased to hear that this infographic has been helpful for your sons, Melissa! Thank you.

Jacquelyn gunsser

says:

Just found this site really enjoyed this

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Thank you, Jacquelyn!

jooliet

says:

Yes! This is great thanks. The split digraph rule is not the only thing to consider.

claire

says:

i love your program

Jennifer Griffin

says:

Thank you!

Jennifer Griffin

says:

We are on level 2, lesson 42. I thought I read somewhere that the silent e cannot jump 2 consonants to make the vowel say a long sound. Is this true? I have searched the manual and cannot find where I thought I read this.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Jennifer,
We teach words where a silent E makes a vowel long over two consonants in All About Reading level 2 lesson 49. We have the teacher build the word taste for the students and then say:
“In this word, Silent E asks the A to say its name. Usually, there is just one consonant between the vowel and Silent E, but sometimes there are two consonants between them.”

Only a few words will have the -aste ending where the A will be long, so it’s not a common pattern at all but it does happen. However, I have seen other places (not All About Reading or All About Spelling) that teach this “rule”.

Tami

says:

In teaching Level 5 lessons 12 and 14, “engine”, and “square”, the book says they are both Handyman E. To me they both look like exceptions to the other rules. Can you help clarify that for me? I don’t remember where we first learned Handyman E and I can’t find it explained. Thank you!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Tami,
The Handyman job of Silent E in All About Spelling includes words that would otherwise be a “rule-breaker” or exception. So, these two words do go in that category.

For many students, the “air” sound of the AR in square is close enough to the long A sound that they want to put it into Job #1 category, and that is fine! However, for many regional accents, long A and “air” are far enough apart in sound that square is a Handyman E job.

Engine is more of an exception or oddball, as the -ine ending in words almost always says long E (magazine, figurine, saltine) or long I (whine, combine, define). If it would help your student, you could teach engine as a rule-breaker, however.

Val

says:

After going over the first two jobs of silent E, my kid spelled “childe” instead of “child”. I am an EEL so I wasn’t sire how to explain to him it was wrong. Should I go over the rules with him and as this word does not “check” any of those boxes, it is why we do not spell it with an “e” in the end? Thank you very much!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Val,
The letter I is long in the word child because of the “Find Gold” rule. When I or O are followed by two consonants in a one-syllable word, they may say their long sound. Note that this is a may rule, as I and O aren’t always long when followed by two consonants in a one-syllable word (for example, both has a long O but moth does not).

You may need to introduce your student to the idea that there are many ways to spell the long vowel sounds. Our A Handy Guide to Long Vowel Sounds blog post discusses them. Silent E is just one of the many ways to make the long I sound.

Are you using All About Spelling with him? You can let him know that he’ll learn about how to spell words like child in level 2 step 14.

Amel

says:

Hello
Could we say that old words have always long O sound? Are there any exceptions, please?
What about oll, olt, olk words? Do they have always long o sound? Are there any exceptions, please?
What about Words that end in AY ? Do they have always long A ? Are there any exceptions, please?
Thank you in advance.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Amel,
Great questions!

When O is followed by two consonants, it often says it’s long sound (long O). We see this especially when O is followed by L and one other consonant, such as in the words old, roll, colt, and folk. You will see it in some words without the L as well, as in post. However, this is an “often” not an always rule. Doll, for example, does not have the long O sound. This is what we call the Find Gold rule.

AY is a phonogram that says the long A sound regardless of whether it is at the end of a word or not. The only exception I know of is the word “says”, which is a rule breaker. It is a rule breaker because the AY does not say the long A sound.

You may find our blog posts on How to Teach Phonograms and A Handy Guide to Long Vowel Sounds helpful.

Clarice

says:

Cause of the exceptions table is ‘teibl” and unforgetable is not? Live verb and life?

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Clarice,
I’m not sure what you asking here. Table, unforgettable, live, and life are not exceptions. The silent E is performing one of the jobs discussed in the blog post in each of these words. Did you have any questions I can help you with?

Clarice

says:

Great lesson. Congrats from Brasil.

Gael

says:

Really interesting information thank you ?

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

You’re welcome, Gael.

Judy Almond

says:

Would love your newsletter!

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Sure thing, Judy! I signed you up.

Mbonimpa Banabas

says:

hi

Beth Ferguson

says:

This email came at the perfect time. We are on Level 2 in the R controlled vowel lessons. Today we did /or/ and my son was identifying the types of syllables in the words. He asked a very good question, and one that I didn’t have an answer for. We got to the word “more” and he identified the correct type of syllable, but then he asked why isn’t it just spelled “mor” like for? And for a second I started running through all the rules in my head and finally I was like-that is a really good question. We looked up the etymology of the word to see if that gave us any insight, but sadly no help. Is it just an exception? I was super excited to see that he is really thinking and applying what he is learning. I attribute this to your All About Spelling program. This is giving my 13 year old the spelling tools he so desperately wants to have.

Robin E.

says: Customer Service

Beth,
I’m sorry for the delay in getting back to you on this.

Your son is thinking about words and that is great! It’ll make such an impact with his reading and spelling. He’s very observant!

The hard truth is that in English there are approximately 250 ways to spell about 45 sounds. Sigh. That means many sounds will have more than one way to spell them, and which is used can be due to a rule or etymology, but it also can be just because that is how it has been done in history.

In the case of for, there is also a homophone fore. The two different spellings reflect the two very different meanings. One of the Jobs of Silent E is to differentiate between homophones like by/bye and aw/awe.