Monday, May 30, 2016

The Oxford Roald Dahl Dictionary and the Scripps National Spelling Bee

As it’s half-term, I thought I’d draw readers attention to a couple of items you might have missed.

First up, the Oxford University Press have just published the Oxford Roald Dahl Dictionary. It’s been produced by Susan Rennie, a lecturer in English and Scots
language at the University of Glasgow, where she works on a wide and very interesting range of projects, which include a Scot's Thesaurus and work on the newly re-discovered Boswell's Dictionary of the Scots Language. You can read more about her work here and here.

The Dahl dictionary is a cornucopia of rich vocabulary, both real and made up by Dahl. Just about any word you can think of that has turned up in one of the Dahl books is contained in this dictionary, along with the sentence, a definition and the book in which it appeared.

And, for those of you who are sick and fed up with people trying to foist on you heaps of ‘alien’ words, look no further than the almost endless variety produced by Dahl’s inventive mind. Whether you’re a muggle-wump who likes mudburgers, a maidmashing meatdripper partial to mouldy muckleberries, or a nincompoop after a nishnobbler, you will be sure to tickle the interests of children and provide yourself with an endless array of grist to your phonics mill.

And, talking of strange words, you might be interested in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which for third time in succession has resulted in a tie.

Reported on by USA Today, the winners this year were Nihar Jangar from Texas and Jairam Hathwar from New York. From an entry list of 285 competitors, the two contestants had fought their way through thirty-nine rounds of the competition to share the trophy and prize money of $45,000 in cash. Their winning words were: ‘feldenkrais’, which is apparently a somatic educational system designed by Moshé Feldenkrais; and, ‘gesellschaft’, which is German for ‘community and society’.

These days competitors are so well rehearsed in spelling words with Greek and Latin roots that the organisers of the event have introduced more obscure words that are less well embedded in English, such as Afrikaans, Irish Gaelic, Danish and even Mayan.

Believe it or not, Jairam’s favourite way of relaxing is to play golf with his dad. Both boys, whose parents are recent migrants from southern India, continue an astonishing run of success by Indian American entrants and both are aiming to become doctors.

If you have time to read more about the Spelling Bee, I've posted a number of pieces about it in the past, which you can select from here.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Linguistic v traditional phonics - an afterword

Thanks to reminder in a tweet from Maggie Downie, I’m adding a further point to my previous post ‘Linguistic v traditional phonics’.

As I’m always arguing, linguistic phonics gives primacy to the spoken language. The reason is because all children grow up learning the spoken language naturally, which is not the case with written language!

As I argued in the other posts, teaching children that words are comprised of the sounds in their language and that every one of those sounds has been assigned a spelling at some point in the past makes perfect psychological sense: “Oh that’s what this game is all about! Why didn’t someone tell me that before?” is the response I often get when teaching older pupils for whom this is revelation.

Now, here’s a claim I want to make: linguistic phonics is perfect for teaching any variety of English, regardless of accent (!) and this is why: it all depends on one simple idea - many spellings represent more than one sound. Moreover, it’s a very easy concept to understand. Show a four-year-old child a picture of a circle and ask them what it could be. They’ll give you innumerable examples: an orange, a ball, a face, a pizza, etc, etc. If they can understand that, they can understand that the spelling [ea] can be /ee/ in 'seat', /ae/ in 'great', and /e/ in 'bread'.

If you understand that, you can adapt your teaching of phonics to any accent of English:
If you’re teaching the word ‘bath’ in North Staffordshire, the spelling [a] represents the sound /a/ in ‘hat’. It is /a/ for the people living there and also in many other places in the UK. However, for a large number of other people who live across a great swathe of the South, the [a] represents the sound /ar/ as ‘father’.
So, it can be /a/ and it can also be /ar/. If one doesn't work, what do you do? Try the other! As long as teaching is grounded in the forty-four sounds of the language, it’s an absolute cinch to teach: does the [a] go in the /a/ category or in the /ar/ category?

This also allows for interesting classroom discussions: the spelling [oo] can be the sound you hear in ‘could’ in words like ‘cook’ and ‘book’ in many accents; it can be the sound you hear in ‘moon’ and ‘soon’ in others.

Linguistic phonics is simple and logical because it is always anchored in the forty-four or so sounds in the language, whether you come from Manchester in England, Glasgow in Scotland, Austin in Texas, USA, or Perth in Western Australia, teachers can adapt their phonics instruction to the accents of the children they are teaching. 

With 359 million native speakers in the world, why isn't everyone teaching linguistic phonics? You know it makes sense!


Thanks to Andrew Weldon for the cartoon image: http://andrewweldon.com/

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Linguistic phonics v traditional phonics

Given that for many researchers working in the field of beginning reading and writing it is axiomatic that teachers should be adopting a synthetic phonics approach, the next question is: should that approach be graphemic, as Letters and Sounds is; or, should it be phonemic, as Sounds-Write, Sound Reading System, and That Reading Thing are?

Although I've written about the differences here and here, this post is a response to the almost constant, recent requests I've received for clarification of the differences between a truly phonic approach and a graphemic one.

I would love to find common ground with the people who advocate traditional (i.e graphemic) phonic approaches but the differences between them and phonics approaches start right from the off: in the normal course of things and whatever the graphemic programme, teachers present children with simple, three-sound words and point to the individual spellings and ask, “What sound does this letter make?” Or “What sound does this letter say?” When I hear this, I want to scream “Letters don’t ‘make’ or ‘say’ sounds!! We do! People do! Children do!” We are the active agents in this game. Speech sounds precede the invention of writing by tens of thousands of years. Writing is a relatively recent invention and was developed to record the sounds in people’s speech. Spellings comprised of one-, two-, three-, or four-letter spellings are symbolic representations of sounds.

If writing systems are invented, what are we to learn from this? That if you are going to teach young children to read and write, you should teach it in the direction of how it was meant to be taught. If you don’t, you quickly become entangled in the most ridiculous contortions to explain your teaching. These are many and varied and include such notions as ‘silent letters’, ‘kicking /k/ and curly /k/’, ‘hard sounds and soft sounds’, teach letter names rather than sound-spelling correspondences, and so on. The result is likely to be confusion, at least in the minds of some young learners.

So, not a good start, although you might still be thinking that most pupils will ‘get it’ if a teacher teaches that letters ‘make’ sounds, and if the teacher doesn’t bother to teach the children to say sounds precisely, or even if the teacher throws in letter names along with sounds. And, perhaps, many children might find ways of finding enough logic in what is being presented to be able to make sense of reading simple, one-letter spelling words. On the other hand, there are almost certainly already a number of children who don’t ‘get it’ and are beginning to wonder how this reading and writing thing works. And, again, maybe I can exclude the writing bit because lots of teachers don’t teach reading and writing together anyway!
Linguistic phonics practitioners surveying the chasm.

So, let’s move on a step. Where the differences between the two approaches suddenly develop into a chasm is when we get to the teaching of the double consonants. It was reported to me the other day that children in a class of young learners were being told to sound out the word ‘miss’ by saying ‘missssss’. This, presumably, because the teacher had no understanding that we spell sounds with two letters! In fact, the double consonant provides the perfect opportunity to teach that we can spell a sound with two letters: “It’s two letters but it’s one sound!” This is a concept that children are going to be getting to grips with a lot because, sometime later, after the four double consonants, pupils are going to encounter the spellings [ sh ], [ ch ], [ th ]. A linguistic phonic approach enables the teacher always to be consistent and without having to fall into muddled explanations.

In this way, pupils gain, through practice activities, a firm grasp of the idea in different contexts, such as with vowel digraphs, other consonant digraphs. Over time of course, pupils will butt up against the inadequacy of this concept in that they’ll be trying to read words with three-letter and four-letters. This takes us into the territory of extending understanding. After practice with one- and two-letter spellings for sounds, the idea that spellings can contain three-letters and four-letters is a mere bagatelle: the ground has already been well prepared. Imagine now that if you are a child and someone has already made clear that sounds can be spelled with two letters and you get to the word ‘light’ in a text you are reading. The teacher, knowing that neither spellings of the sound /ie/, nor three-letter spellings have yet been covered, runs her chopstick/pencil under the [ igh ] and says, “This is three letters but it’s one sound. Say /ie/ here.” And the child reads “/l/ /ie/ /t/, ‘light’.”


A sound to print approach is logical because there are a limited number of sounds in the English language and they don’t change. The hard bit about teaching the writing system is that it contains so many complexities. Now, I’m not claiming that every single child will, if taught in this logical and consistent way, eventually learn to read and write without making errors. What I am saying is that, although there are probably too many less frequently encountered spellings for anyone to become a perfect speller (or even reader, in the case of a few words), this approach makes perfect sense. Taught well, from simple to more complex, with plenty of opportunities for extensive practice, almost every child can learn to read and spell to a very high level of proficiency.