Monday, October 22, 2012

One spelling, different sounds

I wrote this post and then thought that it would be easier to listen to than to read, so here's the link to the audio file.

As I was asked to post the transcript, here it is below:

In this audio file I’m going to talk about how spellings in English can represent different sounds.
In written English spellings can represent different sounds and this is something that people can find troublesome to teach.
Fluent readers rarely even notice this feature, until, that is, they come up against a word they’ve never seen before, visit a place whose name they don’t recognise, or come across someone’s name they are unsure how to pronounce. However, teachers and parents notice it all the time and, if the forums on MumsNet or the TES are to be believed, are utterly baffled about how to go about teaching it.
Amusingly, this particularity of the language could be witnessed at first hand  yesterday on the ‘Today’ programme on Radio 4, when Evan Davis was introducing a guest by the name of Niall Crowley. Davis wanted to call him /n/ /ie/ /l/   /k/ /r/ /ow/ /l/ /ee/; whereas, in fact, his name is /n/ e/e/ /l/  /k/ /r/ /oe/ /l/ /ee/.
Another example of this is the place name ‘Broughton’. Broughton is a place in Northamptonshire and is pronounced /b/ /r/ /ow/ /t/ /ǝ/ /n/. In Milton Keynes, however, there is also a place of the same spelling that is pronounced /b/ /r/ /or/ /t/ /ǝ/ /n/. So, the spelling ough can be /ow/ and it can also be /or/.
The question is how would you know this? To which the answer is that you wouldn’t unless someone in the know told you. Now, here’s the thing: this is only likely to happen in the case of fluent readers with examples such as the ones I’ve given above. In virtually all other cases where this happens in everyday reading, as I’ve already indicated, fluent readers don’t even notice this aspect of the language. For example, when reading the sentence ‘Last night I ate a tasty steak.’ a fluent reader would have no problem with the spelling in the word ‘steak’. Of course, in this word, the ea spelling represents the sound /ae/. In other words, though, it can be the sound /ee/ (‘seat’) or /e/ (‘head’). So, how do we know that in ‘steak’ it’s /ae/. Well, firstly, as fluent readers, we process all the information in the word so fast (in milliseconds) that our brain isn’t aware of what we’re doing above the level of consciousness. We are also simultaneously processing meaning: ‘Last night I ate a tasty ‘stek’ or a ‘steek’ just doesn’t make sense and our brains ‘know’ this before we ‘know’ it (are consciously aware of it). There are also orthographical patterns in the language that are so common (and insistent!), they ‘demand’ a certain response. For example, the spelling a most usually represents the sound /a/ but when we see it positioned in front of the spelling ll for /l/, we immediately read it as /or/ (‘ball’, ‘tall’, etc.).
The problem for beginning readers and for people who are having trouble learning to read is that they are rarely explicitly taught that, in most cases, a spelling can represent/stand for/be more than one sound. Why this should be, goodness only knows because this is by no means a difficult concept to grasp. We live in a world of symbolic tools: signs, symbols, graphs, musical notation, etc. Spellings are no different. Even quite young children have no difficulty in understanding that a circle can represent different things: a ball, a pizza, a moon. Exactly the same is the case for, say, the spelling o: it can be /o/ in ‘hot’, and it can also be /oe/ in ‘no’.
Neither are many beginning readers or poor readers given the skills and the systematic code knowledge to enable them to engage successfully with this aspect of the code. If they read the name ‘Gemma’ as /g/ /e/ /m/ /a/, it won’t be recognisable as a name they are familiar with and, in this case, they should be being taught to ask themselves what the potential problem is. If we teach them that the spelling g can be /g/ but in some words it can also be /j/, then /j/ /e //m/ /a/, which in turn becomes normalised as /g/ /e//m/ /ǝ/, is likely to make sense.
Good quality phonics teaching does NOT involve teaching code knowledge alone. It also requires that learners understand how the code works – how the spelling system relates to the sounds of the language – and that they are given the skills necessary for them to use the knowledge they have.
Of course, as always, to teach children these elements of conceptual understanding, of code knowledge and the skills needed, teachers themselves need to know exactly how the system of spellings and sounds works, or there will be huge potential for confusing children.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Broadcasting grouse!

The anti-phonics crackpots have been out again this weekend. On Saturday, Mike Lloyd-Jones made me smile when he pointed out the spurious logic of one anti-phonics writer of a letter to the Guardian newspaper. The writer attempted to discredit phonics by using the kind of invented spelling that phonics advocates have by now become used to: ‘fonics’ and ‘krazie’.
As Mike points out so cogently:
"What is actually amusing about this attempt at humour is that it concedes the very point it’s trying to attack.  We can understand this letter because we know that letters in words are used to represent the sounds we hear in those words and we can use our phonic knowledge to read it because it is written using phonemically plausible spelling…"
Yesterday (Sunday) saw a similarly crude attempt to invalidate the reasoning behind phonics teaching, this time by the BBC. Paddy O’Connell introduced the piece on ‘Broadcasting House’ by saying that ‘teachers and parents have been poring over the first results of new reading tests for half a million year 1 children. The tests in England and Wales involve phonics in which six-year-olds are encouraged to spell words on the basis of sounds rather than recognising just the letters in the written word.’
To begin with, other than their own children’s results, ‘parents certainly are not ‘poring over the results’ because they have not been made public. Secondly, the ‘tests’, as he referred to them, were not taken by any children in Wales. Thirdly, the children were asked to read the words and not 'spell' them, as O’Connell stated. This is, of course, a typical example of the kind of shoddy journalism we have come to expect from people writing or broadcasting on the subject of phonics.
The programme went on to invite listeners to send in sentences made up any of the following nonsense words: dar, veng, quoam, yurk, doit, ploob, spunch, grint, pronk, gax, zort, koob, zog, vot, jound, terg, jape, snemp. Naturally, there was no effort on the part of the programme to contextualise this nor to state clearly that nonsense words constituted only a part of the phonics screening check brought in by the government last year.
At the end of the programme, someone proffered the following contribution: ‘Michael Gove is a terrible terg. Fancy calling a phonics decoding test with made up words a reading test. Yerk! What kind of pointless pronk is that. I’d like to spunch him.’
As Mike pointed out in his response to the Guardian writer, this kind of thing ‘concedes the very point it’s trying to attack’. Any literate person, for which read any person who is able to decode the words on the page, will be able to read what is written and will, from the contextual clues in the sentences, interpret the terms ‘terg’, ‘yerk’ and ‘pronk’ to signify the writer’s disapproval of Gove and of the check.
Despite the fact that children as young as six-years-old are, on average, understand the meanings of as many as 10,000 words* (many more words than they are able to read at this point), there will often be many words, real or made-up, they don’t recognise. Some of these words may be of the kind favoured by Edward Lear or Roald Dahl. (It's ironic, isn't it, that many of the anti-phonics fanatics are the most fervid champions of Carroll, Dahl, and Lear.) Adults will also come across unknown words in the writings of, amongst others, Philip Dick, the great science fiction writer. Nevertheless, to understand words in print, the first thing a reader needs to be able to do is decode - translate spellings into sounds in words. If then a word is not within the individual’s vocabulary, the reader can ask someone who is more likely to know the meaning, consult a dictionary, or guess from the context.
What anti-phonics campaigners are ideologically blind to is the fact that to be able to derive meaning from print, a person has to be able to decode. English is much more complex than most other alphabetic languages and thus harder to learn. It must, therefore, be taught systematically from simple to more complex by well-trained teaching professionals. When that doesn’t happen, we have what we have been left with for the best part of the last century, a long tail of people who aren’t able to read the kinds of things that everyone in such a print-rich environment as ours needs every day.

*William O'Grady in How Children Learn Language (Cambridge Approaches to Linguistics) says that the figure is nearer 14,000 words and that, from around that time, children learn as many as twenty new words a day.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

The English language and borrowing

Readers might find interesting a rather neat posting from Mr Verb a couple of days ago on the subject of English and borrowing.
The posting includes a picture of a T-shirt, inscribed with the words:
The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that the English language is as pure as a crib-house whore. It not only borrows words from other languages; it has on occasion chased other languages down dark alley-ways, clubbed them unconscious and rifled their pockets for new vocabulary.

Now to get hold of that T-shirt!