Wednesday, April 23, 2014

No non-phonetic words, Shakespeare and St George!

I just got the following comment on my blog posting The English writing system’ (26/04/2014) from Bruce Price, who describes himself as an ‘writer, artist, [and] education activist:
Rudolf Flesch and Denise Eide say that English is 98% phonetic, more or less. They get to this number by conceding every debatable point.
But I think this blog post makes the more profound point that EVERY English word stands for sounds and is therefore phonetic.
I wrote a piece a few years back called "Is English a Phonetic Language? Of course! 100%." (On CanadaFreePress.) I thought this was a better tactical position. If you try to be nice to the Whole Word crew, they'll claim that English is only 20% phonetic.
I try to explain to them that a genuinely non-phonetic word would be something like QG7R pronounced "shuffleboard." Now, THAT is a non-phonetic word. 
But English doesn't have any such words! 

I don’t normally promote comments to full postings but I liked the point Bruce was making so much, I thought it deserved to be more widely read. You can read Bruce's piece here. And well worth the trouble it is too.

I laughed out loud when I read in his posting that someone had actually 'set up a movement to teach Spanish with sight words' and that 'you can this minute find lists on the internet of “English-Spanish Dolch Sight Words.” By this device, kids can be made illiterate in two languages at once'! There's also a lovely rejoinder to those who would campaign to make English spelling 'phonetic'.

So, on St George's Day and the day on which we commonly celebrate Shakespeare's birthday (450, today, by the way), thank you Bruce for getting me at least off to a good start!

8 comments:

  1. He misses the point that Qg7R could be an English word spelling shuffleboard, if custom made it so. Thus being assigned as a representation of a spoken word it would become part of the phonetic language. Yes, written English is phonetic, but this isn't always terribly helpful to the novice.

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  2. I think the point he was making is good. Written English is phonetic and, if approached in the right way, it is easy to teach and to learn, especially for novices.

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  3. English as a written language is kinder to experts than novices. It takes up to three years to learn to read English accurately while it takes less than 1 year to be accurate in Finnish. http://community.tes.co.uk/reading_theory_and_practice/b/weblog/archive/2014/04/22/perils-and-eccentricities.aspx

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  4. It all depends how you define phonetic; if you use a strict definition of 'one letter per phoneme such that each letter has exactly one pronunciation', English clearly does not meet this definition as there are around 80 phonemes but only 26 letters, letters are sometimes silent and the sound associated with a letter or particular group of letters varies from word to word.

    If we use a broad definition of 'the sound of a particular letter varies depending on context in such a way that someone unfamiliar with a word cannot definitively guess the pronunciation, English would meet this definition, but then again so would French.

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  5. Hi Adrian,
    Why would anyone use your 'strict definition'? I'm afraid you've got the way the writing system works in English back to front! There are forty-four (or so, depending on accent) sounds in English. The writing (spelling) system was invented to represent those sounds.
    No linguist would agree with your assertion that there are eighty sounds in the language but, because there are more sounds than there are single letter spellings to represent the forty-four sounds, many letters are combined to represent sounds and many spellings represent more than one sound.
    The English alphabet code is complex, which is why it takes time and patience to teach it. It is also why teachers need to be taught how it works.
    If you read some of my many posts on this subject, you should get a clear idea of how the code works and what the problems are to do with teaching it. For starters, see this: http://literacyblog.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/the-english-writing-system.html
    and this http://literacyblog.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/one-spelling-different-sounds.html

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  6. There doesn't need to be a strict definition, just an accurate one, which you give in your explanation, John: "Many letters are combined to represent sounds and many spellings represent more than one sound." In this situation it is not possible for the reader to know which alternative of the letter/sound correspondence they are dealing with, or for the writer to know which alternative letter representation to use in spelling. Most readers master this through experience, and get very good at recognising in which wider contexts certain combinations apply. Phonics can't teach it.

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  7. Hi Ruth,
    You said: 'In this situation it is not possible for the reader to know which alternative of the letter/sound correspondence they are dealing with, or for the writer to know which alternative letter representation to use in spelling. Most readers master this through experience, and get very good at recognising in which wider contexts certain combinations apply. Phonics can't teach it.'
    That's just where you're wrong! When the spelling has been taught as one of the sounds representing the sound /ae/ (as in 'great') and it has been taught as /ee/ in 'seat', it is pointed out explicitly that can be /ae/ and it can also be /ee/. Later still it can be introduced as /e/ in words like 'head' and 'bread'.
    So, if one doesn't work, the pupil already has the knowledge to try another option to see what makes sense in context.
    Even very young children understand that symbols in the world around them can stand for more than one thing. A circle can be a zero, it can be a moon, an orange, etc, etc. This is so easy to teach, I'm amazed that you think phonics can't teach it.
    Thousands of Sounds-Write-trained teachers have been teaching this aspect of the code very successfully since we began training twelve years ago.

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  8. The article "Is English a phonetic language? Of course. 100%" is best found on Canada Free Press. Here's a link:

    http://canadafreepress.com/index.php/article/is-english-a-phonetic-language-of-course.-100

    It is amazing the lengths that some people go to to try to keep pushing Whole Word in its various guises. So many lovely little sophistries. Finally, however, if you want kids to read, teach them the alphabet, then the sounds, then the blends.
    Here's that case made by seven experts in a little video:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-JV0tPGn-Ws

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