Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Learning to read made éśé!

I have just read about and watched the latest in a long line of doomed attempts to solve the problem of the complexities of the English alphabetic code. It’s called ‘Learning To Read Made Easy’ and you can get a flavour of it here. Like its predecessors, it is doomed because the authors don’t understand how the English writing system (or any writing system, for that matter) works in relation to the sounds of the language.

I’ll take first the programme’s most seductive 'innovation' (to people who don’t know better): the introduction of diacritics or ‘glyphs’ for spellings that represent more than one sound. In doing so, the authors ignore or forget that accents in English vary from place to place. Setting in stone the pronunciation of a word according to one accent isn’t going to work for another. Take the word ‘book’ for example. In some parts of the country, the spelling oo is pronounced in the same way as the oul in ‘should’; on the other hand, many people say the word to rhyme with ‘moon’. The answer provided by LTRME is to put a ‘glyph’ over the spelling oo to indicate that it doesn’t ‘make’ its ‘usual’ sound. As you can see, I’m problematising the words ‘make’ and ‘usual’ here because letters don’t make sounds and what is ‘usual’ depends on one’s accent of English.

This kind of approach was tried many years ago by the grandson of the inventor of shorthand Isaac Pitman, James Pitman. James Pitman, invented a system of teaching children to read called i.t.a., which retained all the spellings in which one letter represented one sound and then invented other symbols to represent the remaining sounds. [Actually, even though it didn't work, it was a better idea than the one LTRMA have come up with and I wrote about it here.]

In Pitman’s system there were forty-four symbols to represent forty-four sounds in English. All of this sounds as if it might be a brilliant way of overcoming the undeniable complexity of the English code – except that, again, people around the country have different accents and Pitman’s system was fixed to represent one accent of English. The other problem was that, once having learned the system, the children had then to unlearn it and adapt to our accepted, orthodox spelling system. ‘Learning to read made easy’ fails on both of the same counts, as well as which it is never a good idea to teach something that has then to be unlearned.

Here’s how the English code works: 
  • Letters are symbols that represent sounds: ‘it is necessary for a writing system to represent the sounds of the language.’* 
  • A sound can be spelled with one, two, three or four letters: m a t, sh i p, l igh t, eigh
  • Sounds can be spelled in multiple ways. For example, we can spell the sound /oe/ as g o, c oa t, s l ow, th ough, t oe, h o m e and mould. This is what makes the English spelling system difficult to teach and learn unless there is a clear understanding of how it works  
  • Many spellings represent more than one sound. For example, the spelling o can represent the sound /o/ in hot, /oe/ in most, /oo/ in to and /u/ in monkey.

3    The authors of LTRME understand none of this and yet these concepts are NOT hard to grasp and they should not present us with any difficulty as long as we teach the code from simple to complex, starting with one-to-ones (one spelling to one sound) and increasing the complexity as we go.

To demonstrate just how confusing LTRME is, let’s take one of the words in their promotional video: ‘technique’. The first thing the authors do is to drop the so-called ‘silent’ h from the spelling ch. Making this move may appear to work, though why it’s necessary when there are so many words in which the sound /k/ is spelled ch (‘chemist’, choir, ‘mechanic’, etc.) is not explained. Tomorrow, I will explain why teaching ‘silent’ letters is confusing for children and why it doesn’t work.

The next revision the authors make to ‘technique’ is to place a ‘glyph’ over the spelling i. Now, the problem here (as in point 4 above) is that i can be /i/ in ‘sit’; it can be /ie/ in ‘kind’ and it can be /ee/ as in ‘ski’. Putting a glyph on it doesn’t indicate which of the two latter sounds it can be, taking it for granted that the authors assume that i represents the ‘usual’ sound /i/ in ‘sit’.

HMS Pandora - in this case an aptly named shipwreck!
The last modification to the word ‘technique’ they make is to drop the ue from the spelling que representing the sound /k/. But immediately we have a problem, a problem their ‘system’ is supposed to eliminate. They have already told us that the spelling c represents the sound /k/! Now, we have another spelling (q) for /k/! The trouble with attempts at spelling reform and with ill-thought out programmes like this is that they quickly founder on the rocks of the complexity of the English language – no sooner do they ‘solve’ one problem than another pops up elsewhere. 

The truth is that ways of approaching the difficulties of teaching and learning to read and write in English are not well served by systems that attempt to dodge the complexities and then quickly dissolve into an incoherent mess.


*Daniels, P. T., and Bright, W., Eds, (1996), ‘The Study of Writing Systems’ on The World’s Writing Systems, OUP, Oxford.

4 comments:

  1. Any change to our spelling system would effectively cut us off from our past as succeeding generation would find it increasingly difficult to read books that hadn't been translated into 'nuspel'.

    Interestingly, this is exactly what the Turks did after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. When the Young Turks adopted the Roman alphabet, the works that defined their culture became the preserve of an educated elite who could still read their previous script, which was based on Arabic. The intent was to Europeanise Turkey, but it could be argued that it has left them in a cultural limbo.

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  2. Hi Tom and thanks for your comment.
    It's ironic, isn't it, that Ataturk planned the modernisation of the Turkish script, changing it from Arabic to a Latin alphabet in the interests of trying to eradicate illiteracy, only to disconnect the 'nuspelers' from their cultural heritage?
    Best wishes,
    John

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  3. John,
    Does the 'l' in the word 'walk' combine with the 'a' to spell /aw/ or does it join the 'k' to spell /k/? I favour the former, since it influences the sound.
    Eoin

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  4. Hi Eoin,
    Thanks for writing in.
    How we code words is somewhat arbitrary, though it's probably best to try and be as consistent as possible. With that in mind, I'd go with w al k for the sounds /w/ /aw/ /k/ ('walk'). It's common to combine a vowel spelling with a consonant spelling (le, er, ar, etc, etc.) but the possible spelling lk just looks rather strange to my eyes.
    Best wishes,
    John

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