16
Mar
12

A liddle mistake means a lot

To be a good diagnostician, you have to attend to what a person does wrong.  What one does correctly is largely uninformative. And as  I’ve said elsewhere , scores are even less informative.

Jill scores at the 35th percentile on a standardized spelling test. That’s “average”; that’s about all we can say. We inspect her actual spelling work and see that she spelled train, bridge and receive correctly. So what have we learned? Not much, except it’s nice she can spell bridge.

But we also notice that she spelled little as “liddle“.  Now here’s something to think about, something that gives a clue as to why Jill’s teachers complain that she doesn’t know her phonics.  And how wrong they are when they say this!

Why , then, did Jill spell little as liddle? First off, NOBODY pronounces little with a /t/ sound. You can try to, but you’ll sound like you have a speech impairment. Secondly, NOBODY pronounces TWO /t/ sounds. If you do, you’ll be identified as a stutterer. As a matter of fact, no one ever says any “double” consonants. Even when the same consonant appears at the end of one word and the beginning of the next, you only pronounce the first one. Try saying “great taste” by saying one of the t’s immediately followed by another.  Makes you sound like a non-native speaker, one who hasn’t really mastered English.

Why our spelling system has rules for “doubing consonants” seems quite pointless then, if we never really say them both. But there are reasons, ones we “know” rather unconsciously, ones that have help reveal both the “phonetic” and “nonphonetic” basis to that system.

We can learn aout this from Jill . We can advance the following theories about her and this rather schizoid spelling system.

1.  Jill is quite aware of the sounds of English; she clearly noted the /d/ sound in the word little.

2.  Jill knows that when a consonant sound follows a short vowel,  short “i” for example as in hit, the consonant letters representing that consonant sound are doubled (compare later and latter). So she knows the rule for consonant doubling is based on this “diacritic” function of some spelling patterns, i.e. that double letters indicate the vowel preceding those letters is “short”. She also recognizes the “phonetic” rule that “t” stands for the sound /t/….except sometimes??

3.  Being a keen discriminator of sounds and knowledgeable about spelling rules, Jill spells the word “middle” in one of her home assignments as “mittle”.  Here she is “hypercorrecting”. That is, she is applying a rule that should NOT be applied. She’s saying to herself, “Aha!  I hear a /d/ sound in middle just as I do in little, so I’ll spell middle with two “t” s just as I did with little.  I also will use two letters because the first vowel in middle is short.”

4.  Jill will learn to be careful with words like ” liter” and “feeder” because the / d/ sound follows a long vowel. (i.e. they both are pronounced /leeder/). She might then spell liter as lider, knowing that double consonants never follow a long vowel. But she may be confused for awhile until she memorizes those sorts of words where a long vowel comes before a /d/ or / t/ sound.

What  we can recommend for Jill is instruction that makes her conscious of the fact that a double letter has a diacritic function (marking the preceding vowel as “short) AND a phonetic function (i.e. that it also represents a sound). We will NOT recommend phonics. She already discriminates sounds just fine. And we’ll teach her how to memorize the visual features of words.

Finally, we’ll appreciate how much a people can know about something when we examine what they seem not to know.

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