Sound It Out!

Derise - Reno, Nevada
Entered on March 25, 2009

“Sound it out, Alan.” — that’s the mantra of first grade. But as I sit by a wiggly six-year-old struggling to read his little book, I know it’s most misleading advice for a new reader. In the chaos of English spelling that children are immediately dumped into as soon as they open any book, they are instantly sidetracked into the thousand so-called exceptions to any phonic rules their teachers present. Let’s start with “the,” the most frequent word in English. Sound it out — tuh-huh-eh … isn’t that what a child fresh from studying the alphabet in kindergarten does? Logical. But English spelling is far from simple and logical now. Sure, it started once as a pretty good system in Anglo-Saxon centuries ago. There were even special letters to spell “th” that we must now spell with two letters t-h because the Latin alphabet is a bad fit for English which has more consonants and vowels. Over the centuries English was influenced by Norman French and scholarly Latin and Greek and picked up odd bits like “ph” for [f]. Also pronunciation of sounds changed — for example, losing the [x] sound that lingers in “gh” words such as “light” [lixt] or changing long vowels such as the [o] in “boot.” Then there’s schwa, the [u] that pops up everywhere in unstressed syllables or little words .. like “the.” Once in awhile we still say “the” [thee] as in “I know THE answer!” So each six-year-old must merely memorize “the” as a “sight word,” ignoring its subtle phonic underpinnings. But it doesn’t end there — hundreds of the most frequent words of English are full of so-called exceptions…. “is” –where’s the z sound? “two” –where’s the w? “do” — what o? Fluent adult readers forget the illogic that children’s highly attuned ears find in every sentence. They forget how they spent hours in grammar school memorizing 20 spelling words per week to try to master a 1,000 so-called rules and 50,000 words of English to become literate. They don’t realize that most of our cousin Indo-European languages were transformed into logical systems thru spelling reforms before universal schooling took hold. The French, Spanish and Italians have academies that have fixed up their spellings for centuries. The Germans had conventions before 1900. A tsar declared changes in Russian writing. The Dutch legislate spelling in parliament. Want to spell or read any Spanish word? Sound it out. But THIS I BELIEVE — that we pay a high price for literacy in English by stubbornly clinging to our illogical hodge-podge of antique, complicated spellings of English. We blame the children for not learning faster or the teachers and schools for not teaching better, but we don’t look at the language itself and say — why NOT spell “through” as “thru”?? Wouldn’t that be logical and EASY? No, we make every child slough through “through.” ….”Ms. D, how do you spell “one”? W-u-n??”