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  • Writer's pictureAnn Sullivan

Magic e... is it?

Updated: Jul 23, 2022

Let’s get one thing clear… it’s not (magic that is).

That aside, we have to ask ourselves whether or not it is useful to use ‘magic e’ as a teaching strategy when reading and spelling with our pupils.

In order for it to be useful, any rule should work. I would also argue that it should work 100% of the time otherwise the pupil is set up to fail and also required to learn a list of all the ‘exception words’. This defeats the object - learning the list requires significant cognitive effort from the pupils, something that is a limited resource in pupils with complex learning needs. If the pupil is able to learn a long list of exceptions, then they are not likely to have difficulties learning to read in the first place.

So, let’s look closely at ‘magic e’… it relates to the split vowel digraph (not a term I would use with the pupils) i.e. the o-e a-e e-e u-e i-e sound spellings in words such as home, lane, eve, tune and time. The jaunty trick is that in these words the ‘e’ on the end performs a magic trick and makes the vowel earlier in the word ‘say its name’ i.e. it’s letter name, which it sort of does in words like home.

So that appears to work rather nicely; what’s the problem, Ann?

The problem is the many exceptions.

Here are just a few examples:

love o-e represents an ‘u’ sound gone o-e represents an ‘o’ sound move o-e represents an ‘oo’ sound

I don’t really need to spend much time making a case that this trick isn’t a good choice of strategy for pupils to use (i.e. be taught) because it isn’t fool-proof and won’t get them the right word every time. It is also worth noting that these are high frequency words, so pupils are going to encounter them a lot – putting them in the position of frequently attempting to operate a rule that doesn’t work.

Instead, let’s keep it simple.

We’re teaching them:

  • that letters (sound spellings) represent spoken sounds (phonemes) in written words,

  • all the sound spellings that relate to all of the sounds (systematically) and

  • to be excellent blenders, segmenters and phoneme manipulators.

That’s all they need.

When they meet a word with the o-e sound spelling in, we support them to work out which sound it represents in that word and blend to get a meaningful word.

When they want to spell a word with the /o-e/ sound in, we support them to segment, access all the sounds in sequence and match a sound spelling.

The dynamic blending strategy for reading and sequential segmenting strategy for spelling are all the pupil needs, if taught in the context of learning the relationship between all the sounds and all their matching sound spellings and mastering the key skills of blending, segmenting and phoneme manipulation.

The most important part of this is you, their teacher*. The key element is how you support the pupil to work out the word if they can't immediately do so. You know what they currently can do and what they currently know, and so where the gaps are – the skill is to supply only the precise bit of information they don’t have or support the skill they need to use and let them get on with reading or spelling the word.

I haven’t included 'magic e' or, in fact, any other rules in my programme and, I have to say, it is wonderfully liberating for both pupils and teachers.

* I use the word teacher as a shorthand for any adult in the position of teaching a child, whatever their role or job title.

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