Learning to read made éśé II: the nonsense of silent letters

This post is a companion piece to the previous one ‘Learning to read made éśé!’
Today I want to deal with the claim that the notion of ‘silent letters’ can in some way assist children in learning to read because the authors of ‘Learning to read made easy’ seem have made this one of the key features of their programme. They are not alone!
Frankly, I thought that the notion of ‘silent letters’ had gone out with the Ark. Evidently not! What doesn’t seem to be understood by the authors of ‘Learning to read made easy’ is that all letters are silent! Speech is primary, writing is secondary. This is important to note because ‘language skills are a natural product of the human mind, … while writing is a product of the human intellect: no infant illiterate absorbs its script along with its language; writing must be studied’*. So, everyone everywhere in the world learns language naturally; writing, on the other hand, is an invention and has to be taught. The writing system was invented to represent the sounds of the language. 

For the reasons outlined above, it is a mistake to use loose language and to tell children that letters MAKE or SAY sounds! People make or say sounds and the alphabet code is a symbolic system designed to represent the sounds in English. If children are encouraged to think that letters ‘make’ or ‘say’ sounds, because the writing system in English is complex, it is easy for them to start thinking that letters can ‘make’ or ‘say’ anything and then they think that the system is unlearnable.
Bearing in mind that the alphabetic writing system was invented to record the sounds of the language, when talking, there are no silences in speech within words, between words or between sentences, unless we are pausing to breathe, or for dramatic effect, or to punctuate our speech to help the listener follow our train of thought. But none of these reasons would result in silent letters being encoded to appear within the spelling of individual words.
Instruction may also be inconsistent with the pupils’ own observations of words. In the situation in which a pupil is told that the letter spelling kat the beginning of the word ‘know‘ is silent, then, in the interests of consistency, one might assume that the letter spelling w at the end of the word ‘know‘ is also silent, which, of course, is NOT the case: the sound /oe / in ‘know‘ is spelled ow. It is indeed an oddity that many ‘traditional’ phonics programmes seem to have no difficulty in teaching that the ow at the end of the word ‘know is a spelling representing the sound /oe / and teach it as such, but don’t acknowledge that the knat at the beginning is another spelling representing the sound /n /. In fact, teachers on our courses who have always accepted the idea of silent letters often laugh, albeit a little sheepishly, when this inconsistency is pointed out.
Once this idea is fully appreciated, it becomes completely obvious that English is actually spelled in a very logical, although complex, manner – complex because, unlike in many other European alphabetic languages, there are so many spelling alternatives for the sounds in English.
Due to various historical quirks and changes in pronunciation, there are well over 200 spellings to represent around 44 or so sounds In English. Fortunately, we only need to teach up to about 175 of these (at most) before the brain starts self-organising the remainder just by virtue of the reader regularly reading new texts. However, if the concept of silent letters takes hold, the pupil may come to view all new words with suspicion in the belief that any of the letters in them, in any position, may be silent.
Here is an example from an educational psychologist’s clinical practice. A 12-year-old student with a reading age of about six-and-a-half read the word ‘animal‘ correctly from a reading test. But the psychologist testing the pupil felt that there was something ‘amiss’ with the student’s decoding process, so he wrote the word on a whiteboard and asked the pupil to underline which letters in the word represented which sounds. This the pupil did as follows:
a n i ma l

The examiner pointed to the two letters i and a, asking, “What are these letters doing in this word then?”  
“It’s because they’re silent!” the pupil replied. 
The examiner rubbed them out. “So we could just as easily write the word animallike this then?” he said, writing:
a n m l

“Yes,” said the pupil. 
“Go on then, sound it out for me please.” 
The reply was confident and immediate: anuh … ‘muhl …  animal – a triumph for the combination of silent letters and imprecise pronunciation of consonant sounds!
Consider pupils struggling quietly to read a word such as ‘whistle and think about what might be going on in their heads if there is no understanding that the spellings in the word represent individual sounds. In fact, ‘whistle’ contains four spellings: wh  i  st  le (/w/ /i/ /s/ /l/. If the hypothetical pupil is using single-letter decoding in combination with the idea of silent letters to try to find the real word, they might hit on the idea that the h, t and e could all be silent, then ‘wisl‘ suddenly appears to be correct. But there again, if they decide that it is the  h sand l that are silent, the word could be ‘white‘; or indeed if in another instance it is h tand l that are silent, the word would be wise! In all these situations the poor reader is almost certainly going back each time to read the sentence slowly to see if the word that they have ‘decoded’ makes sense in context. But, of course, in most situations the pupil does not find a correct solution to this puzzle, and much intense thought is directed at a problem that, with the right instruction, the competent reader would solve immediately.
How long, we wonder, can motivation and enthusiasm be sustained for pupils with such an inaccurate strategy that can never succeed? The answer is all around us: pupils, particularly but not necessarily boys, badly taught, appear to give up at about age eight because they believe that the reading process, as they have been taught it, is irrational and they cannot access it successfully.

Teaching that sounds can be spelled with one, two, three or four letters and that we spell sounds in different ways removes the need for the absurd notion that there are ‘silent letters’ in words. It also removes the potential need for having to teach later how the orthography of English really works.

When a pupil tells me that such and such is a silent letter, I hold up the text to my ear and listen carefully, after which I say, “You’re right! I can’t hear anything. But then I can’t hear any of the others saying anything either. They’re all silent!”

*Daniels, P.T. ‘Grammatology’ in Daniels, P. T., and Bright, W., Eds, (1996), ‘The Study of Writing Systems’ on The World’s Writing Systems, OUP, Oxford, p.2.

One thought on “Learning to read made éśé II: the nonsense of silent letters

  1. Yes! Though I had a 17 year old go one further. He spelt frog f-o-g and then explained that he thought it was "one of those invisible r's".

    I have a plausible explanation for his thinking and, as with silent letter issues, it stems from a teacher applying a very unhelpful description to a letter.

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