In his ‘Personal take on synthetic phonics’, Alexandre V. Borovik sheds some interesting light on how, as a child, he learned to read in Russian, which is written in Cyrillic script, an alphabet writing system.
What most interested me about the article was how one day, as a young boy, Borovik, while ‘sitting in a quiet corner with Vladimir Suteev’s book ПοД Гρибом’, realised that letters were representations of sounds. The title of the book “Pod Grimon” means in English ‘Under the mushroom’ and it doesn’t take a linguistic genius to see that the title in Russian is comprised of two words and that in both words one letter represents one sound. Borovik goes on to describe the moment when he realised what the game was about: “So this is how they are doing that”, he says he thought to himself and promptly announced the fact that he had ‘read a book’ to his apparently unimpressed mother.
This is the kind of simple one-to-one mapping that makes learning to read very easy indeed. Although, as he points out, Russian isn’t quite as straightforward as this, it is much easier to learn than the more complex mapping relationships in English. Even easier are the alphabetic writing systems used in Italian and Spanish, which, as I have argued before, is why most children in those countries learn to read quickly and without difficulty.
It is not, therefore, surprising that the more transparent the writing system in representing the sounds of any given language, the easier it is to learn, and, presumably, the more children that will be able, with often minimal help, to work out the system for themselves. In contrast, the more complex the mapping relationships, as in English, the fewer children are able to do this, even though we know very well that some do.
Where Borovik’s argument doesn’t stand up is when he writes about teaching children to read in English. He’s quite right to support ‘synthetic phonics’, of course, though there’s no question in my mind that linguistic phonics is far superior. Where he muddies the waters is in discussing i.t.a., the Initial Teaching Alphabet, developed by Sir James Pitman, grandson of the originator of modern shorthand Sir Isaac Pitman. I.t.a. was a very clever idea. Pitman took all the basic vowel and consonant sounds which were already represented by one letter. He then invented a symbol for every one of the remaining sounds. Brilliant! A system in which all forty-four sounds of English are represented by a single spelling!
There were, however, two major problems. The first was that once having learned the i.t.a. system, children had to make the transition to conventional orthography, a task which many found very hard to make. The second problem was even more momentous: to use such a system, one has to decide on one accent of the language on which to base the writing system, which means that for all other accents the system works more or less imperfectly.
Borovik claims rightly that English is non-transparent but wrongly that it is non-phonetic. This latter kind of argument is the one we often hear from opponents of phonics. How can a language be non-phonetic? All words are comprised of sounds and sounds are represented by spellings. The problem with learning to read and write in English is that, not only are there, relatively speaking, lots of sounds, but the writing system is complex and, unless taught by people who understand exactly how it works, difficult to learn.
This is why, as I consistently argue on this blog, all teachers of reading and spelling need to be properly trained in an area which may not be ‘rocket science’ but is one that requires considerable professional expertise.
Thanks to Susan Godsland on the Reading Reform Foundation website for drawing my attention to Borovik’s piece.