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The OnTrack Reading Marking System for Coding Words

This Perspectives article will cover the simple method of marking up words used in both the OnTrack Reading Advanced Code Phonics Workbook, and in the separate OnTrack Reading Homeschooling Method. Only words of one syllable will be discussed in this article.

Note: The marking system is best used with pen and paper. It is difficult to reproduce here on the website without resorting to some fancy tricks with a wordprocessor, converting to a PDF, etc. This will become obvious in the following discussion.

There are just three components of the marking system used in the OnTrack Reading programs, the single-underline for marking digraphs, the numbers 2, 3, and 4 for marking the sound of the phonogram when it is not the first option, and the double underline for marking letters and phonograms that don't correspond to traditional phonograms.

The Single-Underline

The only use of the single-underline is to mark the digraphs (phonograms with two or more letters) in the word. Here are some examples, with a space thrown in between each phonogram to make adjacent digraphs easier to mark:

t r u s t         ("trust" has five phonograms and no digraphs)
th r u s t
th r u sh
ch ar m
ch ar m ed
wr a p
wr ea th
b r ea the
t a p e         (the "a" and "e" are each part of the "a-e" split vowel digraph)
h o p e
h o p i ng    (the "o" would also have the number "2" placed above it)
h o pp i ng
c u t e
c u t er       (the "u" would also have the number "2" placed above it)
c u t e s t    (the "u" would also have the number "2" placed above it)

The numbering referred to above will be covered in the next section of this article. The digraphs in tapehope and cute are called split vowel digraphs in the OnTrack Reading programs. It can be quite helpful, initially, to link the two underlines with a little "smiley" to help remind the child that together they represent one sound and should be considered a single phonogram.

The Numbers 2, 3, and 4

There are 84 phonograms that are formally taught in the OnTrack Reading programs, whether it be the Advanced Code Workbook, or the Homeschooling Program, or the Phonogram Flash Cards. The easiest way to get a quick feel for the sounds associated with each phonogram is to view the Preview of the entire set available on lulu.com here. (Click the "Preview" link under the picture.)

As the phonograms are taught, the preferred order of the sounds are learned. For example, the phonogram ea is taught as /ee/e/ae/, as in eat, headand great. In the OnTrack Reading programs the sounds /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, and /u/ are referred to as the First Vowel Sounds, the same sounds most of us were taught as the "short" vowel sounds. The sounds /ae/, /ee/, /ie/, /oe/, and /ue/ are referred to as the Second Vowel Sounds and are the sounds we were taught as the "long" sounds. Changing the terminology in this way makes it easy to extend the numbering system, so that the Third Vowel Sound of the phonogram a becomes /o/, as in want.

The most common sound for each phonogram is usually the first sound and the least common is the last sound, so the child is usually best off attempting the sounds in the order taught when he is attempting to decode an unfamiliar word.

Here are a few examples using the numbering system. Remember, the first sound is never numbered, so if there is no number over a phonogram, it's the first sound that is associated with it.

ch e s t     (No numbers. Each phonogram is the first sound.)
ch oo l   (The "ch" is marked with a 2 above it, for the /k/ sound.)
ch e f       (The "ch" is marked with a 3 above it, for the /sh/ sound.)
ch ow      (No numbers are needed.)
c r ow      (The "ow" is marked with a 2, for the /oe/ sound.)
thng      (No numbers are needed.)
th i s        (The "th" is marked with a 2, for the /the/ sound.)
th i n        (No numbers are needed.)
th i n k     (The "n" is marked with a 2, for the /ng/ sound.)
h a l t       (The "a" is marked with a 3, for the /o/ sound.)

Incidentally, the only time the numbering system is used is to analyze a newly encountered word, or one that needs review later. It is helpful to demonstrate to a child that most words really are composed of phonograms that fall within the scope of the method that he's been taught. However, coding for the sake of coding is probably a waste of time, time that could better be spent reading and learning. 

The Double Underline

The only other coding convention used in the OnTrack Reading programs is the double-underline. It is used in two ways, but has only one purpose: to indicate the presence of an unusual phonogram. A phonogram can be "unusual" in two different ways:

1) It can simply be an extraneous letter, or even a digraph, that represents no sound in the word. For example, the letter "w" in the word "two," or in the word "sword," is extraneous. It's not part of a digraph, and it represents no sound in either word.

2) It can be a phonogram that represents a sound, but the sound being represented is an unusual one for that particular phonogram. For example, the digraph ee in the word been represents the /e/ sound, instead of the /ee/ sound that it represents in nearly every other English word. Rather than teach a second sound for the phonogram ee, one that would never be useful again in decoding unfamiliar word, it makes more sense to treat the phonogram ee in been as having an unusual pronunciation, i.e., one that shouldn't be taught. Thus, we code it by double-underlining the phonogram ee (a clear warning that something abnormal is afoot), but, since it does represent a sound, we place an "e" under the double-underline to indicate that in this one word, it's the /e/ sound.

Now consider a word like "people." It could be coded two ways. Either the "eo" is a digraph, in which case it would be double-underlined with "ee" placed under the lines, or the "o" alone could be double-underlined to represent an extraneous letter, while the phonogram e is numbered with a 2 over it, indicating it to be the Second Vowel Sound. But which way makes the most sense? The answer is to consider whether "eo" should be a phonogram. It does appear in the word "leopard," but there it would represent the /e/ sound, not the /ee/ sound. If it were also found in several other words as representing the /e/ sound (it doesn't) then it would make sense to treat "people" as having a digraph "eo", but in this case it appears that the letter "o" should be double-underlined in both cases. 

Incidentally, one advantage of the double-underline convention is that it draws a child's attention to something that must be memorized, without being able to rely upon an established sound/symbol relationship. He just has to remember it's there.

Summing Up

That's it for the marking system. Underline digraphs, number the second, third, or fourth sounds, and double-underline the unusual spellings that have not been, and should not be, taught as part of a systematic phonics code.

The main time words are marked up using the marking system is when they are either being explained to a child, or when a child is attempting to explain the coding of a particular word. For example, in both the OnTrack Reading Homeschooling Program and in the traditional Spalding Method, when a word is introduced for the first time, the child writes it down in his notebook, including any necessary markings. Of course, the marking systems of the two methods are not the same. The OnTrack Reading marking system is much easier for a child to understand and use because all of the marking conventions, the underline, the numbers, and the double-underline each have only one consistent meaning.