Why letters don’t ‘make’ sounds.

Someone called Robert has added a comment to my post ‘Masha Bell rings the wrong note on reading’. In it, he is objecting to the emphasis I made on the fact that many teachers say that letters ‘make’ sounds when they do no such thing. He thinks that this detracted from my argument in the posting because he believes it is ‘nit-picking’ and that ‘Masha [Bell] knows quite well that letters do not make sounds in the same way that people make sounds’.

This is an interesting question. I’m sure when we raise this issue with teaching professionals on our courses, many immediately think it to be a nit-picking/angels dancing on the head of a pin sort of a point.

It isn’t! I’m quite sure that Robert is right when he claims that Masha understands that spellings represent sounds in the language, after all, she learnt English as a second, third, or possibly, fourth language. So, let’s be clear: for Masha, it isn’t a question about knowledge of how the code works; it’s actually a question of pedagogy.

Here’s why. Very many teaching practitioners have developed the habit of saying that letters ‘make’ or ‘say’ sounds. They don’t! Letters or, to use more accurate vocabulary, spellings represent sounds in the English language.

It may appear that this is a trivial point but, in fact, it underpins the whole orientation of the alphabetic code: sounds in speech precede the written representations of them. Humans make sounds; the spellings represent them. Letters or spellings do not have or possess any agency or power of their own. The writing system was invented to represent sounds in the language and the writing system is symbolic. It is also arbitrary: there is no particular reason why we represent the sound /o / as in ‘hot’ by the spelling < o > (except for the fact that the English alphabet is derived mainly from Latin).

This may seem to be of merely theoretical significance. Again, it isn’t! It has profoundly practical implications because when, at an early stage in their reading and writing development, young children are coming to grips with the writing system and they are told that the letters ‘make’ sounds, they are left wondering where all these sounds come from. When this is compounded by the kind of unstructured teaching that tells them that the spelling < a > ‘makes’ the sound /a / in ‘mat’, the sound /o / in ‘wasp’, the sound /or / in ‘water’, the sound /ae / in ‘baby’, or even the sound /e / as in ‘many’, they can easily jump to the conclusion that there is ‘no rhyme nor reason’ to the way reading and writing works. It appears to them as if the spelling can ‘make’ any sound and, furthermore, that there is no logic to what they are trying to learn.

This isn’t, of course, the case. There are very common patterns in the English language that are remarkably consistent. For example, after the sound /w /, we very often spell the sound /o / with the spelling < >, as in ‘was’, ‘swan’, ‘watch’, and so on. Similarly, the spelling of the sound /or / before the sound /l / is often spelled with the spelling < >, as in ‘wall’, ‘also’, and others. The same is true for many other patterns.

You may think that young children would have difficulty with understanding the role of symbols in representing sounds. Not so! Even at an early age, children are coming to terms with symbolic language: that something can stand for something else. This understanding is usually developed through symbolic play, followed by drawing, and then what Vygotsky referred to as the second-order symbolism of writing. So, by the time the pupil is ready to begin school, for most pupils, teaching them that spelling symbols represent the sounds in their speech and that the sounds in their speech can be represented by spelling symbols is something they find easy to grasp. And, as long as the teacher knows how to teach this system, from simple to complex, it is easy to learn.