I was looking around for a structured phonics curriculum and integrated reading programme for home use and I jumped onto Explode the Code bandwagon just based off its Amazon reviews. I was actually pretty surprised that my 5yo kiddo, who was struggling with basic language acquisition skills, finally learnt to read just from doing written exercises from its workbooks. Seeing how well it worked for her, I delved deeper into understanding phonics and how to approach it. I also wondered why first of all, the curriculum was called Explode the Code – what is this code? And why do we need to explode it?
So apparently, for all of you who are beginners of phonics instruction (like me), there are actually several types of phonics-based curriculums. A prevailing type used locally by popular enrichment centers is called ‘synthetic phonics’. In synthetic phonics, code refers to the sound(s) attached to an alphabet or a group of alphabets. More technically, there are altogether about 74 sounds (that when combined form about 90 percent of the words in the English language) and these 74 sounds are also referred to as grapheme or phonogram. So for example, the basic code or phonogram for the letter ‘s’ is /s/ like in ‘snake’ or ‘cows’; but it also has an advance code or phonogram which is /z/ like in ‘visit’ or ‘was’. So the alphabet ‘s’ actually has 2 phonograms. Synthetic phonics instructions teaches a child, in a systematic and structured way, when to employ the /s/ or /z/ code so that from the beginning of their journey in language acquisition, it is devoid of confusion.
For those of you who taught your child to read, how many times did you have to tell your kid, oh the way this word sounded was an exception, or that spelling was an exception when you came across words that did not seem to fit a pattern. There is actually a consistent logic to all these exceptions. Synthetic phonic instructions serves to make all the rules of English explicit to children to help them master listening, reading, writing, comprehension and reasoning skills.
For the longest time, this type of phonic instruction has been reserved for students who were struggling learners or dyslexic. In Singapore at least, you can mostly find it taught at places like ‘I Can Read’ or learning centers catered for dyslexic learners. Correct me if I am wrong, but I have rarely seen it in action in mainstream schools. Many advocates of synthetic phonics, however, argue that this type of language instruction should be made accessible to all children and as early as possible. The alarming low rates of literacy among English language native speakers was in fact, evidence of the failures in the current rote and guesswork methods of teaching English language. The prevalent way its being taught tend to primarily benefit visual and intuitive learners (which should describe many of you who learnt to read organically without any help). How about children who cannot acquire a language intuitively – do we just hope for the best? Every year one waits, is another year of the child falling even more behind. You would know how to spot this type of child because they just don’t seem to get it or get frustrated easily when learning to read.
I am no linguist, so here is a good article to understand the core skills children learn from synthetic phonics instruction. Only after we were into Book 3 of Explode the Code did I realise that the curriculum uses synthetic phonics.
Explode the Code is segmented into 3 series:
- Primer series: Get Ready for the Code A, Get Set for the Code B and Go for the Code C. As these titles suggest they are foundational books for children who are beginners of synthetic phonics. These books would help them get ready to start decoding which happens in the 2nd series . These 3 books focus solely on the basic alphabetic code ie. all the consonants of the alphabet and its corresponding basic code/sound/phonogram. Each lesson concentrates on a single alphabet and its basic code and the activities revolve mostly around listening skills and some writing skills.
- Explode the code books 1 through 8: Once a child knows the basic alphabetic codes, they are ready to move onto learning how to decode (orally segmenting and blending) groups of CVC and CVCC/CCVC/CCVe letters.
- Beyond the Code comprehension and reasoning skills books 1 through 4 : This series is targeted for kids aged 7 and up who are already skilled at reading but need more help in comprehension and reasoning skills. Its not too different to Comprehension lessons taught at primary school except that there is more explicit and systematic instruction on advanced phonetic patterns.
Most parents typically jump ahead to the second series but our daughter had issues with mastering the basic alphabetic code. She always had trouble with rhyming, remembering nursery rhymes, and could not recognise alphabets, let alone know how to correspond them to their sounds. I knew this early on but dismissed it as, oh she will eventually master it. I could not ignore it anymore after it was flagged to us by her school teachers and at first, I felt disheartened. I was wondering what I did wrong as a parent – did I not give her a strong enough foundation? Did I not read to her enough books? Whatever it was between blaming myself and our fast-paced school system, I got to work and researched till my eyes bled.
At first we started off with Montessori’s pink language series but it was just not connecting with her and I sold that off and started her on the Explode the Code curriculum. I also bought the teacher’s manual that accompanied each book (which on hindsight was actually unnecessary). We did one lesson in the book per day and it took about 15 mins to 30 mins. We took about 6 months to finish the primer series and one month each to complete Books 1 through 2. Sometime around Book 2, she started being able to read simple one to three sentences per page story books. We are currently at Book 3, where we are learning to decode long vowels, blending CCVe words, digraphs, trigraphs and diphthongs.
It seems to me that with each completed Explode the Code book, her reading confidence soared. Her teachers at school remarked that her improvement has been tremendous. She was even able to spell accurately just from listening to how a word sounds (her school does not do spelling tests). It confirmed to me that when we actually bother to make explicit the logic of patterns in English, the process is a lot easier for the child to master the language.
The activities in Explode the Code could be considered repetitive, and for children who can’t sit still for even 10 minutes, it might prove difficult. This is the reason I have not introduced it yet to the triplets who are younger and unable to focus for long periods. For them, I plan to use another curriculum called Logic of English: Foundations which is very similar to Explode the Code but employs more multi-sensory approaches and I think is actually a more superior curriculum to Explode the Code. I found out about this curriculum from a US-based homeschooling website.
I went ahead to buy the Foundations curriculum after reading Denise Eide’s Uncovering the Logic of English. We are just about to get started on the curriculum so I will save a review of that in about a month or two. So far we have done Lessons 1-3 and they enjoyed it immensely. It also incorporates writing skills and conveys them in a way that makes sense and is fun for very young children. I was actually surprised that the triplets were able to write letters ‘a’ and ‘s’ which are typically difficult letters to write for 3 year olds. Anyway, check back into this blog in a month or two for another review. We are probably stopping Explode the Code with Livia and employing Logic of English full-time with the triplets.
I have to add a disclaimer that along with Explode the Code, I also taught my 5 year old the first 100 words of the Fry word list (which I have stopped doing after she mastered about 60 words). I found learning simple sight words alongside phonics instruction helped her to read quicker. So that when she reads a sentence like this: ‘The boy went to the market’, she wouldn’t be stuck trying to sound out simple words like ‘the’, ‘went’, ‘to’ and could zoom past them. I am continuing her with learning sight words but we are switching to Denise Eide’s Sounding out the Sight Words which uses phonic principles instead of rote memorising.
I bought Explode the Code through Amazon. They are certainly not cheap but if you have a 5-7yo child really struggling with language acquisition, I highly recommend Explode the Code. At the end of the day it is a lot cheaper than sending them off to enrichment classes. The only caveat is, you would have to sit with him/her for 15-30 minutes a day to complete each lesson. Its not meant for a child to complete alone without supervision. For a child who is unable to sit or focus for long, you might want to complete only half a lesson or just do one page a day, whatever works. The only negative review of it is, I think Logic of English is a way more superior curriculum and I wished I found it sooner. However, Logic of English is a lot more expensive and much more technical whereas Explode the Code is a bit more straightforward and accessible to parents who lack the academic understanding of phonics.