I wrote this post and then thought that it would be easier to listen to than to read, so here’s the link to the audio file.
As I was asked to post the transcript, here it is below:
In this audio file I’m going to talk about how spellings in English can represent different sounds.
In written English spellings can represent different sounds and this is something that people can find troublesome to teach.
Fluent readers rarely even notice this feature, until, that is, they come up against a word they’ve never seen before, visit a place whose name they don’t recognise, or come across someone’s name they are unsure how to pronounce. However, teachers and parents notice it all the time and, if the forums on MumsNet or the TES are to be believed, are utterly baffled about how to go about teaching it.
Amusingly, this particularity of the language could be witnessed at first hand yesterday on the ‘Today’ programme on Radio 4, when Evan Davis was introducing a guest by the name of Niall Crowley. Davis wanted to call him /n/ /ie/ /l/ /k/ /r/ /ow/ /l/ /ee/; whereas, in fact, his name is /n/ e/e/ /l/ /k/ /r/ /oe/ /l/ /ee/.
Another example of this is the place name ‘Broughton’. Broughton is a place in Northamptonshire and is pronounced /b/ /r/ /ow/ /t/ /ǝ/ /n/. In Milton Keynes, however, there is also a place of the same spelling that is pronounced /b/ /r/ /or/ /t/ /ǝ/ /n/. So, the spelling ough can be /ow/ and it can also be /or/.
The question is how would you know this? To which the answer is that you wouldn’t unless someone in the know told you. Now, here’s the thing: this is only likely to happen in the case of fluent readers with examples such as the ones I’ve given above. In virtually all other cases where this happens in everyday reading, as I’ve already indicated, fluent readers don’t even notice this aspect of the language. For example, when reading the sentence ‘Last night I ate a tasty steak.’ a fluent reader would have no problem with the
spelling in the word ‘steak’. Of course, in this word, the ea spelling represents the sound /ae/. In other words, though, it can be the sound /ee/ (‘seat’) or /e/ (‘head’). So, how do we know that in ‘steak’ it’s /ae/. Well, firstly, as fluent readers, we process all the information in the word so fast (in milliseconds) that our brain isn’t aware of what we’re doing above the level of consciousness. We are also simultaneously processing meaning: ‘Last night I ate a tasty ‘stek’ or a ‘steek’ just doesn’t make sense and our brains ‘know’ this before we ‘know’ it (are consciously aware of it). There are also orthographical patterns in the language that are so common (and insistent!), they ‘demand’ a certain response. For example, the spelling a most usually represents the sound /a/ but when we see it positioned in front of the spelling ll for /l/, we immediately read it as /or/ (‘ball’, ‘tall’, etc.).
The problem for beginning readers and for people who are having trouble learning to read is that they are rarely explicitly taught that, in most cases, a spelling can represent/stand for/be more than one sound. Why this should be, goodness only knows because this is by no means a difficult concept to grasp. We live in a world of symbolic tools: signs, symbols, graphs, musical notation, etc. Spellings are no different. Even quite young children have no difficulty in understanding that a circle can represent different things: a ball, a pizza, a moon. Exactly the same is the case for, say, the spelling o: it can be /o/ in ‘hot’, and it can also be /oe/ in ‘no’.
Neither are many beginning readers or poor readers given the skills and the systematic code knowledge to enable them to engage successfully with this aspect of the code. If they read the name ‘Gemma’ as /g/ /e/ /m/ /a/, it won’t be recognisable as a name they are familiar with and, in this case, they should be being taught to ask themselves what the potential problem is. If we teach them that the spelling g can be /g/ but in some words it can also be /j/, then /j/ /e //m/ /a/, which in turn becomes normalised as /g/ /e//m/ /ǝ/, is likely to make sense.
Good quality phonics teaching does NOT involve teaching code knowledge alone. It also requires that learners understand how the code works – how the spelling system relates to the sounds of the language – and that they are given the skills necessary for them to use the knowledge they have.
Of course, as always, to teach children these elements of conceptual understanding, of code knowledge and the skills needed, teachers themselves need to know exactly how the system of spellings and sounds works, or there will be huge potential for confusing children.