Friday, July 16, 2010

Masha Bell rings the wrong note on reading and spelling - again.

Masha Bell has been at it again! She claims that the reason children are failing to learn to read and spell is because the English language is too complex. See the Telegraph (08/07/2010).
Is she right? Well, in one sense, she is. Reading and spelling in English is certainly harder to learn than, say, Spanish or Italian. I'm being a little bit simplistic but in languages like Spanish and Italian the sounds of the language are represented in the writing system mostly by one single letter. This makes it very easy indeed to learn to read and write in those languages. English, largely because of its history, is more complex and this, claims Bell, is why there are so many children leaving school functionally illiterate.
Is she right about the need to 'simplify' the spelling system? The short answer is no! She contends that English is unique in that ‘identical letters make different sounds’. This, of course, is nonsense. Anyone learning to speak Spanish quickly comes to apprehend that the letter [c] can represent the sound /k/ or /th/ or /s/, depending on the variety of Spanish one is learning.
Much more fundamentally, what Masha Bell doesn’t seem to be able to grasp is that the writing system is a representation of the sounds in the language. Letters do not and never have ‘made sounds’. People make sounds and the writing system has been developed to represent them. Like music, mathematics and so on, it is a symbolic system.
Because English is more complex doesn’t mean that it can’t be taught very successfully; but, in order to teach it successfully, teachers need to understand how the writing system works in relation to the sounds of the language.
First, children need to be taught that letters, singly or in combination, stand for the sounds in our speech.
Second, they need to learn that a sound can be denoted by a single letter spelling (as in d o g), by a two-letter spelling (as in sh o p), a three-letter spelling (as in n igh t), or a four-letter spelling (as in w eigh t).
Third, they need to understand that sounds can be spelt in multiple ways: thus the sound ‘ee’ can be spelt in the following different ways: m ee t, s ea t, k ey, h a pp y, ch ie f, sh e, s k i, s w e d e (the split spelling), and r e c ei ve. This may seem a lot but the list is finite and predictable. If the four or five most common spellings are taught first and others are added in later, success is guaranteed.
Fourth, most spellings in English can represent more than one sound but this really isn’t a problem. The spelling can be ‘o’ in ‘pot’, or ‘oe’ in ‘go’. Again, if pupils are taught this and learn to try one if the other doesn’t work, they are likely to have success. And yes, I know, [o] can also be ‘oo’ and ‘u’ in lots of commonly encountered words.
The point is this: if teaching practitioners are given training in understanding exactly how the writing system relates to the sounds of the language and they are taught which skills pupils need to learn, their pupils will learn to read and spell with a high degree of proficiency.
And, Masha, for a hundred and one other reasons, you are never going to persuade people to change the spelling system.

9 comments:

steve said...

In the article in the Telegraph that you referenced, Masha never says "identical letters make different sounds". She has probably said it elsewhere when trying to mimic the language often used by classroom teachers rather than the more accurate "Identical graphemes are associated with more than one phoneme".

Masha favors reducing the irregularity found in English spelling.

For teaching purposes, phonics teachers also simplify English by teaching only the high frequency spelling patterns. It makes sense to focus on about 4 spelling patterns per phoneme rather than 14 but this is a simplification.

I don't think the traditional writing system can be taught.

One can certainly teach the high frequency spelling patterns and make it possible for new spellers to invent plausible spellings for words they can pronounce.
Beyond this, the system has to be memorized.

John said...

Thank you for your comment, Steve.
First, Masha Bell is tilting at wondmills. No-one is going to change the spelling system and there are plenty of people who think there's good evidence for spelling system suiting the English language very well (Chomsky, for instance).
That being the case, we need a system that is capable teaching young children to read and spell successfully. If taught from simple to complex over a period of time (Key Stage 1), this is entirely possible to realise.
If learners are taught how (the concepts), the skills and the code knowledge, for most children, it isn't necessary to teach all of the code.
In any case, there are NOT fourteen ways of spelling every sound in the language. There are lots of ways of spelling the sound 'or', for example, but there are many fewer than that for most other sounds: cf 'ie', 'oe' and 'oo' (in 'book' - southern pron).
And, of course, there is memory involved. The memory involved is knowing that the way we spell the 'm' in 'mat' is with and not any other spelling, etc, etc, This is easily within the ability of humans to manage - but only if taught properly.
As for 'new spellers', I don't understand what you mean here. A new speller would be a person who coins a new word and then spells it: i.e. assigns a spelling to each sound in the new word - something people do all the time.

AllanJC said...

John, u say "teachers need to understand how the writing system works in relation to the sounds of the language". This is an obvious statement, but it also begs the question on whether our spelling needs to be upgraded. It is not a defense of the status quo.

What we ar (sic) trying to teach is literacy. Spelling is but a tool to help us reach that goal. Tools can be, and should be, updated and sharpened when possible. The peeler i used tonite on the potatoes is much mor efficient than the nife my mother used many moons ago. Our spelling is not a sacred cow, or an icon to be preserved in a museum, but an aid which should make our basic universal-literacy aim easier to attain. As a human-made tool, it can be modernized.

We waste a lot of teaching time coping with the difficulties our spelling unnecessarily imposes on us and our students.

U also say "[children] should understand that sounds can be spelt in multiple ways," and mention some of the dozen or so ways we spell the long e. Why should they hav to put up with this imposition? Finnish children dont hav to.

Surely having our children learning to read by the end of their first school year, and thereby gaining great confidence to proceed on their own in mastering new words, and also releasing time to the learning of other subjects, is worth much mor than hanging on to a clapped-out spelling "system"!

John said...

Dear AllanJC,
Thanks once again for your comment.
To begin with, Sounds-Write isn't simply a spelling programme. It's a reading and spelling programme and it is remarkably effective, as you can see if you'd care to look at the data we have provided on our website.
We also take the world as we find it and this means that there is not the remotest possibility that the publishing houses, newspaper and print industries, the legal and medical professions, as well as all the other institutions that have invested in the current spelling system are going to change it. Many proposals have been offered in the past; none has ever got past first base. And, we're not even talking about one country! English is an international language and, although there are some minor variations in accepted spelling, by and large, there is broad consensus on what constitutes international standard English.
It would be wonderful if we had a simpler spelling system - but we don't, and in my opinion, it's a pipe dream to believe it's going to happen any time soon. We are where we are.
In addition, whether you or I like it or not, considerable importance is put on people's ability to write and if that writing includes solecisms of one sort or another, other people make judgements about the writer.
On the basis of the evidence we have collected and which we continue to see evidence of in schools that have adopted the Sounds-Write programme, we very strongly believe that it is entirely possible to teach young children to read and spell using the current system.

steve said...

John: ...No-one is going to change the spelling system and there are plenty of people who think there's good evidence for spelling system suiting the English language very well (Chomsky, for instance).

SB: We don't have a good track record for updating our spelling since 1755. Webster made a few minor changes to Johnson's spellings in the early 1800's but this was not done systematically and probably did not make the written language easier to spell. Other European languages have been updated (often more than once). The updates or reforms were usually designed to eliminate letters that had gone silent and to bring the written language more in line with the spoken language.

When interviewed, a majority of the English speaking population says they would like to see about 100 words respelled. Chomsky did not say that the traditional spelling was the "most" suited for the English language only that it did a decent job of representing morphemes. Like everyone else, he probably would support a change in the spelling of 100 or so words.

John: That being the case, we need a system that is capable teaching young children to read and spell successfully. If taught from simple to complex over a period of time (Key Stage 1), this is entirely possible to realise.

SB: There are several approaches that work well in pilot programs but I don't know of any that have been successful when scaled up. Writing to read programs have been able to teach everyone in the class to read at a 3rd grade level by the second year.

If this could be replicated, then the typical results that motivate spelling reformers would be erased.
Currently, it takes over 2 years longer to teach written English as Spanish, Italian, and most other European languages.

Currently, 20% of those who start school fail to achieve functional literacy in 6 years. No other alphabetical written language seems to have such a persistent pattern of failure.

John: If learners are taught how (the concepts), the skills and the code knowledge, for most children, it isn't necessary to teach all of the code.

In any case, there are NOT fourteen ways of spelling every sound in the language. There are lots of ways of spelling the sound 'or', for example, but there are many fewer than that for most other sounds: cf 'ie', 'oe' and 'oo' (in 'book' - southern pron).

SB: 14 is the average number of ways to spell a phoneme. The number is from G. Dewey (1971) Teachers College Press.
In English Spelling: Roadblock to Reading, Dewey finds 561 ways to spell 41 phonemes (p. 8). That would be an average of 13.6 spellings per phoneme.

Among the 14 spellings there are 4 or so high frequency ways. The rest are rare but can be found in dictionaries with over 70,000 words.

John: And, of course, there is memory involved. The memory involved is knowing that the way we spell the 'm' in 'mat' is with and not any other spelling, etc, etc, This is easily within the ability of humans to manage - but only if taught properly.

SB: For the child in the lowest quartile to be successful, written English must be taught properly. In a highly phonemic notation like Italian, a grandmother can teach a grandchild to read in a few months. Italian probably does not have to be taught "properly" because most of it is logical.

John: As for 'new spellers', I don't understand what you mean here. [...]

SB: Are you equally confused with the term "new reader"? If so I will have to find another way to reference beginners.

AllanJC said...

John: U ar rite! "We are where we are"! But we dont hav to stay there!

Comments such as yours help to keep us where we ar! They remind me of deck chairs and sinking ships! Our literacy rate requires stern basic remedial work, not testing new teaching programs dealing with symptoms.

It was mainly business which drove the change to decimal currency, in spite of objections from the traditionalists and pessimists. This has eased money calculations, not by devising new teaching methods, but by dealing with a basic problem. I remember how teaching long division of money suddenly became so much easier!

In 2006 the KPMG Foundation published a study, "The long-term costs of literacy difficulties", which estimated the total costs to the public purse to age 37, arising from failure to read in the primary school years, at £1.73 billion to £2.05 billion a year.

When business people and governments take this on board, justifying your claim that it is entirely possible to teach young children to read and spell using the current spelling "system" will be sorely tested.

Robert said...

John Wrote, "Much more fundamentally, what Masha Bell doesn’t seem to be able to grasp is that the writing system is a representation of the sounds in the language. Letters do not and never have ‘made sounds’. People make sounds and the writing system has been developed to represent them. Like music, mathematics and so on, it is a symbolic system."
This extract detracts from John's argument, because it is nit-picking. Masha knows quite well that letters do not make sounds in the same way that people make sounds.

Robert said...

The main obstacles to spelling reform are nationalism and inertia.
If New-English is developed (maybe by introducing the OE letter 'thet' [Ð, ð for th]), as recommended by David Cowley in his books such as 'How We'd Talk if the English had won in 1066', as ðe national language of ðe English folk, ðen spelling changes would follow in Ancwe (Ancillary world English/Anglo-Norman conventional written English), e.g., ðe general use of color and labor by UK newspapers.

Anonymous said...

What a lot of waffle. The usual stuff espoused by those who really don't get it. The reason we have such poor literacy rates has very little to do with the English alphabet code. It is more about poor teacher (and policy maker, eg, the sort of stuff reflected by the responses here!) knowledge of how that code works; a Victorian factory school system where it's ok to put 30 children into one class as they start school with one teacher and frequently illiterate TAs; and a constructivist approach to education that is based on a philosophy that children initiate their own learning rather than be taught the skills and knowledge they require to deal with a 'man made' (and not natural) system of communication.