It is disheartening to read the headlines that permeate the media enlightening us that reading scores in America remain flat—or worse, that no significant improvement has been noted since the ’70s. And yet, those of us in this field know full well that READING is the magical key that opens the door into the mind of any human being; it establishes the fundamentals and foundation for whatever he wants to be—or will be. It is the basis for all learning.
However, English, to kindergartners and first- and second-graders, is a foreign language—as German, Italian or French might be to an adult. Speaking a language is not the key for learning how to read it. During a recent lecture I gave to several dozen graduate speech/audiology students, I asked how many had studied foreign languages. Each had studied one or more but not one stated that he learned it the way he learned English: by first memorizing high-frequency words from lists that also went home for further practice. Some admitted to having had difficulty with learning to read, and some stated that it still was not their favorite thing to do.
Having taught college linguistics some years ago as an offering for teacher recertification, it was exciting to see the sparks when teachers learned intriguing nuggets about this powerful and international language called English. They wanted to know the answers to questions that plague both students and teachers (why is CAT spelled with a C and KITTEN with a K?). They were eager to learn how two vowels could be long in TRAIL, make a wiggly diphthong sound in TAUT, and yet split into two different sounds AND syllables as in TRI-AL and LI-ON.
Teachers love to learn new things, but not all of us learn the same way any more than children do—yet, what is really different about what we are doing in the classroom today that we were not doing in the ’70s? Not much, sadly. Special education has been added, but all too often this is a slowing down and trimming of what goes on in our regular classes.
Remedial teaching, however, means the need to take a different tack.
Most any language entails five linguistic facets in order for one to learn it: phonology, morphology, etymology, orthography, and philology. But in English, the largest language in the world (more than a million words), changes occur daily, and it is mind-boggling to consider the many variances that are updated approximately every six years in our dictionaries. To buy a new dictionary and compare it with “old faithful” sitting on a shelf somewhere in our home or classroom will elicit shock. (Go on. Do it.)
For example, as a child, I rode to school on a “buss” (“bus” was chipped off the Latin word “omnibus” and my “buss” now simply means a kiss). When I got stung, I got a big “whelp,” but today, that would be a young animal/child or the pre-teen version of the interjection “well.”
Once our class got underway, it was stimulating to hear the questions: Why do we hear a “d” in WATER, METAL, and SWEETISH/SWEDISH? Why does TU work just fine in TUNE and TUG, but “sneezes” in CENTURY, TARANTULA, NATURE? Why does METER sound sensible, but when put into the word SPEEDOMETER, it sounds so different? How can I tell when to “sound” the G as a /guh/ sound versus a /jjj/ or a C as an S or a K?
Great questions! All answerable!
One of the most “fun” pronunciation and spelling oddities I have ever encountered is WHEN to spell with a C versus a K, or how to know the hard sound of G in GAS versus the soft sound in GERMS. (C and G were both called “gamma” by the Greeks and, thus, follow the same rule.) That is great for those of us who teach.
Write down the six (yes, six) vowels in lower-case form: a e i o u y.
Note that the a, o, and u are nice and chubby in appearance while the e, i, and y are formed by first making a straight (stick) stroke. When trying to remember whether or not to spell a word with a C or a K, use C when followed by a “chubby” (or round) vowel or a consonant as in CAT, COAT, CUT, CRIB, CATTLE, SCOTCH. But, if one wants to retain the hard sound of C (K) when using a stick vowel (e, i, or y), the “stick-consonant” K must be used as in KITTEN, KISS, KEEN, KETTLE, SKETCH; otherwise, the “stick” vowels turn C into an S sound as in ICE, CITY, FANCY.
This wonderful rule will let one down so few times that it is not worth trying to memorize the multitude of C/K words. It is interesting to note that C is the only letter in the alphabet that has no sound of its own; it borrows from S or K.
G, on the other hand, has a hard sound that it makes in MOST words that have a ROUND vowel or consonant following, such as GAS, GOAT, GUM, GRASS, while the “stick” vowels allow the G to become the soft J sound as in GERMS, GIANT, and GYM.
Learning why the ARR makes an air sound in SPARROW but an R sound in SPARRING is helpful for spelling rules; learning why we cannot hear SCIENCE in conscience or SIGN in signal is also helpful for unlocking unknown words. We also have to know why there is a T or a sound before CH in BATCH, ITCH, BENCH, and INCH, but none in BEACH, TEACH, and LEECH.
How I wish I had known so many of these language goodies when I was in elementary school and not had to wait until graduate school to learn the majority of them! Including speech science and audiology in my training certainly made the English language the most exciting one on the planet for me.
A fun exercise for teachers and young students alike is the task of spelling the alphabet. Unlike America, where it seems to be a pre-requisite to reading success to know the alphabet in order, in foreign countries where a command of English is often the indicator of an educated individual, frequently the naming of the alphabet is the last thing learned. However, it is necessary in order to spell anything aloud or to be able to alphabetize. Think about it. Spell H, Y, C, G, J—aich, wie (why), see, jee, jay.
Students, too, love learning oddities about their language. The more engaged they become in its forms and complexities, the more likely they are to increase and develop yet more skills.
Teaching reading to students beginning at age four all the way into adulthood is my life’s work, and I consider it the most exciting of all vocations. How could I not? Is there anything more exciting or self-fulfilling than looking for a previously struggling student who is now hiding in a closet reading a book instead of doing his homework?
Sadly, like fog (to borrow an image from the Carl Sandburg poem of the same name), illiteracy “sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches…” and keeps moving “in” instead of moving “on.”
Teaching, by definition, means imparting knowledge. Anything memorized can be forgotten; anything that is learned and internalized sticks with us more readily. As our educational standing on the global scene steadily slips, it is still true that we, as teachers, hold the key to bringing us back to NUMBER ONE; we just need more reinforcements. Betty G. Price is a reading remediation therapist with Professional Reading Services in Roanoke, Virginia. She has also taught in the classroom, conducted seminars and workshops, worked for the Virginia Department of Education on special projects, and provided linguistics for teacher training at college level for those seeking recertification credits. She is the co-author (with Dr. Claude Cauolle, professor emeritus, Hollins University) of SEE ME READ, a large, comic-cartoon laps book for preschoolers (ages 3- to 5). [The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the International Reading Association or its Board of Directors.]
© 2012 Betty G. Price. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise. Teaching Graphemes: Your Mileage May Vary as Much as the Pronunciation Engage: In Other Words