Posts Tagged ‘Reading

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.

28
Feb
12

?isht daer uoy naC

So often, what we think is true and what turns out to be true are vastly different.  In fact, they’re sometimes contradictory.

Consider the “fact” that reading involves left to right decoding of letters into sounds.  In most cases, this is impossible, especially if you want to read aloud.

As an illustration, I ask you to consider the following:

First, I will tell you a word I’m thinking of that has 9 letters: _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _.  It begins with “u”: u _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Now, if reading proceeds left to right, you should be able to say right away what sound this first “u” represents.  But you can’t, not yet.  It could be yoo or it could be uh.

Let me add another letter’ ” n”:    un _ _ _ _ _ _ _ What sound should the “u” represent?  Remember, if you read left to right, you should be able to tell for sure by now.  But doubts might linger.

I’ll add another letter, “a”:  una_ _ _ _ _ _. You’re probably pretty sure it represents the “yoo” sound.  Don’t bet on it.

But wait!  I’ll add another letter, “n”: unan_ _ _ _ _.  Sure now? Let me add another, an “i”:  unani_ _ _ _.

Now you’ve “decoded” five letters from the left. Your guess as to what the “u” stands for could still be wrong.   Add a 6th letter, “m”: unanim _ _ _ . The value of “u” is still indeterminate.

Not until you get to the 7th letter can you tell for sure what the “u” represents. That 7th letter is “o”:  unanimo _ _ and the word is “unanimous” and the “u” represents the sound yoo, as in “unit” yoo-nit (compare the first sound in the word “until”).  The other word you may have been thinking of was “unanimated” in which “u” represents “uh“.

Let me be very clear on this: IF you truly did “decode” the word “unanimous” in left to right order, you’d have to revise your pronunciation of the first letter several times, a very Inefficient system for sure.

The fact is that most of the time we have to look FIRST at the END of word before we read it aloud.  Compare: “rat – rate” where the FINAL “e” reminds you to pronounce the “a” as a “long a”.  Indeed, you can’t say what an initial letter “a”  in ANY word represents until you look at what’s farther along to the right of the “a”.

So it looks like “Phonics” rules are based on fantasies.  A child cannot look at words one by one in left to right order.  He’d take forever to read sentences.  Even a simple 4-letter form like “c _  _ _would be problematic:  Is initial  “c” a /k/ as in “cats” or  an /s/ as in ” cent”?

Learning to read is a marvelously mysterious activity;  research has not explained how ANYBODY learns to turn written symbols into speech sounds.  But being cognizant of what isn’t involved in reading liberates us and our children from needlessly taxing and frustrating “lessons”.

I think Phonics helps, especially with consonant sounds. But its limitations are very real.

I remember way back when I was helping a Dyslexic 9-year-old read.  He got to the word “enough” .  He inhaled deeply, squeezed his hands into fists and started “sounding out” the word letter-by-letter, right to left. By the time he’ d gotten to the letter “u”, he was gasping, nearly strangling. When he got to the “h”, he had said : /ee nih ah uh guh huh/.

I remember he sort of sighed, looked up at me hopefully and seemed to be saying to himself, “What was THAT?;  I’ve NEVER heard that word before.  I sure hope he doesn’t ask me to repeat it.”  I didn’t.  I muttered something about it being an exception . . . which didn’t do him much good after such a Herculean effort to string together 6 sounds he’d never encounter except . . . maybe . . . in the Hawaiian language.

 

12
Feb
12

Haunted by the Past…Tense

Pronouncing even very simple words written in standard English can be treacherous. Consider the ending “-ed”, usually added to some verb stem to denote a past event (He painted the house) though it also appears  in an adjective function (painted chair).

(NOTE:  Items in parentheses below are supposed to represent sounds.)

Unfortunately for beginning readers, this ending can have THREE different pronunciations, none of which are even hinted at in written words. So while  the     -ed’s on pasted, razed and raced  are visually identical, they represent the SOUNDS /id/, /d/ and /t/:  /pays-tid/, /rayzd/ and /rayst/. This is not to say that you can’t switch the -ed sounds around. You could say /rayz-id/ or /race-id/.   Notice that you CAN’T say pasted any other way but /pays-tid).

The reason for this apparent silliness is really quite logical and economical and has to do with whether your vocal cords vibrate when the LAST SOUND of the stem word is said.  If you compare “bid” and “bit”, the difference between the two lies in the fact that /d/ entails vocal cord vibration; /t/ is nothing but a sort of hiss.  Sounds that are made by vocal cord vibrations are called “voiced”; sounds without such vibrations are called “voiceless”.

When you know this, you can pick up on sounds that differ only on the basis of whether they’re voiced or voiceless. Compare /b/-/p/; /d/-/t/; /g/-/k/; /v/-/f/, the first sound in each pair is voiced, the second is voiceless.

SO here’s the way it all works:

When a stem word ends in a voiced sound, the -ed will represent /d/. If the  stem ends in a voiceless sound, the -ed will represent /t/. Consequently, when you add –ed to roB, muG or saVe, the -ed sounds like /d/ because the last sound in the stems are the voiced sounds /b/, /g/ and /v/. But when you add -ed to roPe, muCK or golF, the -ed sounds like /t/ because the last sound in the stems are the voiceless sounds /p/, /k/ and /f/.

A problem arises, though, when a stem word ends in the sounds /t/ or /d/ because these are the sounds the -ed represents. So you can’t put a simple /d/ sound on pad or made. You could, I guess, but you’d wind up stuttering: /pad-d/.

The problem is solved in this way;

Regardless of whether if the stem word ends in a /t/ or a /d/sound, an added –ed will represent /id/ . Hence, /dot/ becomes /dot-id/ and /sod/ becomes /sod-id/. You can practice with nonsense syllables. What do you hear when you add –ed to nove vs. nofe or stibe vs. stipe or lete vs. lede?

You learned these rules for pronouncing –ed early on in your reading. BUT NO ONE EVER TAUGHT them  TO YOU. In fact, you never KNEW you knew them until now. So, how’d you do it?  How do kids do it. Would you even want to TRY to teach them these rules.

There are lots more of these linguistically sophisticated rules we know but don’t know we know. I’ll treat some in future posts.