23 June 2017

English Language - Fact and Fiction


Helping children learn to read and write is easier when you know a bit more about the nuts and bolts of the process - the alphabet, our speech sounds and how our brain copes with it. Here Marian Cleary - a trained literacy teacher and reading therapist - unpicks it all.

I wanted to call this article 'goodbye ABC' but for obvious reasons that was not such a good idea in this magazine! However, this just about sums up how reading instruction is moving away from being tied to concepts about the traditional alphabet when it comes to reading and writing.

Only a few civilisations have developed written language. Our written language form comes from the Phoenician civilisation, in existence a few thousand years ago. The Etruscans and Greeks borrowed it and adapted it and the Romans followed with their own take on the symbols. It is from this that we now mainly inherited our English alphabet. Our ABC.

The development of English language itself, though, took a different path. In this country the earliest language we know people spoke was a form of Celtic language, which can still be seen in Irish, Scots, Cornish, Welsh and Breton plus the northern Spanish language of Catalan.

The Romans came next bringing their Latin and their alphabet. Although the Celtic tribes held their ground, any last vestiges of this language in England was pretty much pushed out west when the Angles (where we get the name England), Saxons and Jutes arrived from what is now Scandinavia and Germany.

The Vikings settled in the north after that (imagine a line from the Humber to Bristol to get an idea of their area of influence) but were defeated by the southern English. The Normans arrived in 1066 and brought a dialect of French with them which itself was heavily influenced by Scandinavian languages (Norman actually means 'Northmen' - people from the northern reaches of Europe) and since then a variety of accents, particularly what we now hear as a midlands accent (which Shakespeare used) and now what we associate with a southern accent (the old concept of 'BBC English' or 'received pronunciation') have determined what we now know of as spoken English.


So we have a standard alphabet of 26 letters, but a language which has been built of up through lots of different languages overlapping and joining together. These were experienced and used as spoken languages and as a result of this, English has a total of around 44 different speech sounds.

The problem is clear. How do you write down 44 different sounds with only 26 letters? The monks who had the task of doing this, under the auspices and enthusiasm of King Alfred, actually used some different signs or letters, which we have now lost, to show a few of these sounds.

These letters were based on another writing system - runes. Most notably, the 'th' sound in 'think' was and the 'th' sound in 'this' were written using two different symbols. (If you say the two words out loud you can hear that the sound we show in both words with 'th' sound a little different. This is because the 'th' in think is 'unvoiced' - we don't use our vocal chords'. In 'this' we do.)

Runes were the symbols originally used to write down English in its ancient spoken form. Sensibly, there are over 30 runes which match the sounds of English much more closely. The runic system lost out though to the Latin alphabet because the upper classes and religious people who were accomplishing this new task of writing down English, were used to writing Latin with the Latin alphabet.

Until printing came along in the 15th century, people were pretty free and easy about spelling (remember though, we are talking about a tiny fraction of the population who could read and write) and it wasn't until Johnson wrote his dictionary in the 18th century that words acquired a conventional spelling. But only conventional in that was the way it was 'decided' words would be spelt. Until the later years of the 19th century most of this was not an issue for the majority of people since you were a rare person indeed if you knew your letters and came from the majority proportion of the population - the lower classes.

Learning to use the alphabet in relation to our speech sounds has always been a big problem. The Victorians (who began the task of teaching literacy to the masses) created the systems we still rely on in many of our schools. As we no longer see the steam train as cutting-edge technology, so it is about time we stopped seeing Victorians as having got it perfectly right when it comes to teaching reading and writing. They were the forerunners for sure, but through developments in child psychology and modern thinking, we can come up with better ways of achieving literacy for our children.

For children who struggle to grasp reading and writing skills, the problem should be seen as one of teaching - rather than learning. When a child does not understand something, we might think there is something 'wrong' with the child. However, it can often be that they have not had it shown, demonstrated or laid out for them in a way they can grasp. Also, children are most successful when discovering things for themselves.

Many rules have been 'invented' to help people to use the English reading and writing system, but one thing we now know about children is that they cannot use such rules. Adults find them great, but children cannot apply them to the reading and writing business because it involves a thing called propositional logic - something we don't get until we are more mature.

Another problem with teaching reading and writing is that we tend to feel that we must impose all of this on children - they need to learn to read and write to function, so we must get them to look at text and learn to use it. This must be incredibly daunting and I am sure that many children throw up panic barriers at a very early stage when given such a task.

Modern research and practice now has discarded this. For starters, we should stop seeing English as a rule-led language. English does not follow any rules other than the ones the monks had in their heads when they established the early conventions of writing English with the Latin alphabet.

This is particularly the case for the high frequency words - about 60% of the language we read and use daily is based around a core of about 300 words most of which can be traced back to Anglo-Saxon. Ironically, it is the higher level, Latinate words that can be written most easily with our alphabet.

All we need to know is that written English is made up of constantly repeating patterns of letters and groups of letters that relate to the speech sounds we make when we talk. All words with only a few exceptions can be shown to do this. Crucially though, we should not be showing children these strings of letters and groups of letters as new things.

They should be approached as 'recordings' of what the child already knows - their own spoken language. Training children first to hear the separate sounds of their language helps them then to match these to letters, groups of letters and then to 'read' these sounds back. It is thought that children who seem to take to reading with ease have discovered this for themselves. Those who don't - about 40% - need to be led and guided to discover this.

How to do this: It is best not to attach too much emphasis to teaching letter names. Many children I teach are very confused about how letter names relate to reading. They are right to be. The two are not linked. Letter names and alphabetical order are good for using libraries, phone books, dictionaries and so on but this can come later when your child is secure in the more important thing - the sounds they make when they open their mouths to talk. Which brings us to another crucial piece of logic which confuses many young children.

When we say, 'what sound does this make (or say)?' when pointing to a letter, the young child's brain is thrown into a quandary because they work with concrete logic, not the abstract thinking adults use. They quite rightly know that the letter isn't 'making' any sound at all, but this adult reckons it is, so it must be. Confusion results. We know what we mean, but we use child-unfriendly logic to get them to understand. 'What sound does this show?' is a much better way of phrasing this and it fits far better with the logic of the child and of our writing system.

Which brings us on to the whole concept of silent letters. Basically if you hold this magazine up to your ear now you will discover the illogical proposition we are giving children here. Even in the quietest environment it is impossible to hear the murmurings coming off the page because there aren't any - all letters are silent.

It is we - including the child learning to read and write - who make the noise. But what about the 'gh's and those 'e's on the ends of words? For example, look at these words - fraught, daughter, caught - can you work out what the 'gh' represents?

It is not actually pronounced on its own in these words. 'Augh' is a string of letters which can represent the sound 'or'. It is not that common, but it occurs regularly in a consistent way. In the word 'cough' the 'gh' shows the sound 'f' just like in 'laugh' and 'rough'. Cough and rough show another interesting effect of too many sounds for our alphabet. The 'ou' shows 'o' in cough and 'u' in rough.

There are about 115 of these repeating letters and groups of letters plus a few endings which sound 'shun' (like 'station') and 'shus' (like 'precious'), which are best later learnt as units.

One cute rhyme I have heard goes, 'When two vowels go walking the first one does the talking'... like in boat. (OK, but how about in 'love' or 'great'?) Or, 'i' before 'e' except after 'c', when the sound rhymes with 'me'. (But what about 'either' and 'weird' ?) When we try to impose rules on our language, we end up confusing children because they are very good at discovering things - as I said earlier it is how they best learn - and they are quick to discover exceptions and once they have, they lose faith in their ability to master this slippery fish which is written English. We all know the consequences of children losing confidence and the impact this can have on their success at school.

Many of the resources and educational TV programmes have yet to get to grips with how we should be making our children ready to read. I have been known to throw myself physically between the television and my 4 year old son when 'Animal Alphabet' comes on (A is for aardvark and such like - 'ar' is the vowel sound for the start of aardvark and A is a letter name) and You Do To: 'b-e-a-c-h' is beach. No, it isn't, 'b-ea-ch' is beach! You are the best resource or preparing your child through making them aware of the sounds of their language.

With this in place, they will find the whole business much more logical and reliable. And it is not fantasy that children can grasp this at a very young age. Back to my long-suffering son. His name ends in 'er' and he is quite happy with the idea that 'er' is a sound and you spell it -'er' in his name and 'or' in his friend, Connor's name. He doesn't have a problem with this. With this example, I hope he is on track to discover other ways in which sounds are shown in words.

Before you embark on helping your child to read, have a good look yourself at written English. Read some out loud and start spotting those regular patterns. Start thinking of it as a recording of your spoken language. Start pointing it out to your child and use logic that fits their thinking and you will be helping them read and write successfully and confidently.

Test yourself Why not start now and work out how the sounds are recorded or shown by the letters in the word 'success'?

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