Sorting out some of the confusion in ‘Learning to Read: A primer | Part 1’

I’ve just been reading ‘Learning to Read: A Primer | Part 1‘. It’s the latest in a long line of publications attempting to clarify for teachers and others what the nature of the task is in the teaching of reading and writing.

There are in the document lots of things with which to agree and it’s good to see that there is an allusion to the fact that writing has only been in existence for a relatively short period of time. However, as with so many of these kinds of primers, the orientation of the teaching is back to front.

Here’s what I mean. Page 18 starts with an example from Spanish, where it makes the point that the single-letter spelling < p > stands for/represents the sound /p/. So far, so good!

Switching to English, we are also given the example of the spelling < p > and this is where things go haywire. It states that ‘when you see a word beginning with p, it could represent the /p/ sound, but it could also represent /f/ as in photo. Or it could be silent as in pterodactyl.’ This is simply wrong! In the word ‘photo’, the spelling < ph > represents the sound /f/; and, in ‘pterodactyl’, the spelling < pt > represents the sound /t/.

To compound the confusion, the next example is even worse. The focus is on the single-letter spelling < e >. These are the examples given for the spelling < e >: ‘end’, ‘eat’, ‘eye’, ‘English’, ‘early’ and ‘eight’. All of these words certainly do begin with the single-letter spelling < e >. In the first example ‘end’, < e > represents the sound /e/. In the fourth example ‘English, the same spelling represents the sound /i/, as in ‘it’. These are the only correct examples.

The other examples are wrong for the following reasons:

In the word ‘eat’, the letter < e > is part of a digraph or two-letter spelling resenting the sound /ee/.

In the word ‘eye’, the letter < e > is part of a trigraph or three-letter spelling of the sound /ie/, as in ‘pie’.

In the word ‘early’, the < e > is part of the trigraph < ear >, which is /er/ in most UK accents, and it is part of the digraph < ea > in North American rhotic accents.

In the word ‘eight’, the < e > is part of the four-letter spelling < eigh >, a spelling alternative of the sound /ae/, as in ‘play’.

What is immediately evident here is that there is a confusion in the minds of the authors about how the English alphabetic system works. They flip from sound to print and then back again from print to sound.

What’s more, they state, very revealingly, that ‘kids can’t just learn that e makes the /e/ sound in end’. Well, that is correct but then the spelling < e > doesn’t ‘make’ any sound(s) at all. Letters (I prefer the more accurate ‘spellings’) don’t make’ or ‘say ‘ sounds; they represent them. The spelling system is a represntational system for the sounds in the langiage.

The only constant in the spelling system (writing system), is the sounds of the English language. There are around forty-four sounds in English and they provide the basis for the spelling system. They are, if you like, the anchor.

So, what the authors don’t seem to have a clear understanding of is that:

First, the learner needs to understand explicitly that spellings represent the sounds in our language, in all its varieties. There is no doubt at all about this. All experts on writing systems are of one mind: the spelling system in English was invented to represent the sounds of the language. Young children, therefore, need to be taught that the squiggles on the page stand for the sounds in their speech. Is it a difficult concept to understand? Not at all! Even young children of pre-school age understand the idea that something can stand for something else, otherwise we wouldn’t see them engaging in symbolic play. The idea that the squiggles on the page stand for the sounds in speech also makes perfect sense from a psychological point of view – Oh! That’s what this is all about!

Second, the learner must be taught that sounds can be spelt with one letter (‘m a t’), two letters (‘ship’), three letters (‘night’) or four (‘eight’) letters. Is this too complicated to learn? Not a bit, because if you show children a square and then a triangle and then put the triangle on top of the square, they’ll tell you it’s a house! We combine arbitrary symbols to form other symbols all the time.

Then, there is the fact that all the sounds in English can be spelt in different ways: for example, the sound /oe/ in ‘go’ can be spelt < oe > (‘toe’), < o-e > (‘home’), < ow > (‘grow’), < o > (‘go’) < ou >  (‘mould’) and < ough > (‘dough’).  Again, if children can understand that this (plant) is a daisy, this is a dandelion and this is a rose and you ask a child what they all have in common, they’ll tell you they are flowers.

Finally, many spellings represent more than one sound, so that < ou > can be /u/ in ‘southern’ as well as /oo/ in ‘soup. The last concept, which many phonics advocates find so very hard to get to grips with, is that a symbol (many spellings) can represent more than one thing. Present any child with a circle and ask them what it can be. They’ll quickly tell you that it can be a moon, a sun, an orange, a pizza. However, spellings can’t represent anything: ‘the mappings they have are systematic and constrained’, as Perfetti once pointed out. 

Of course, to know which sound < ou > represents in a word will be determined from context and the learner will need to have been taught the possible sounds < ou > can represent. To take another example, < ea > can be /ee/ in ‘sea’, /e/ in ‘head’, or /ae/ in ‘steak’. If I read the sentence ‘Last night I had a tasty steak’ and I read the word ‘steak as ‘steek’ or ‘stek’ (which is possible in some varieties of English!), my brain is quickly going to tell me neither makes sense and that I need to try the other possibility. Of course, to be able to try the possibilities very much depends on being taught what they are.

These are the basic ideas one needs to understand if one is to teach reading and spelling to beginners. Clearly, they are not difficult concepts to grasp.  So, understanding how English orthography works isn’t difficult. What is difficult is learning it if the person doing the teaching doesn’t understand: a) the alphabet code; b) which skills are needed to teach it; and, c) that it needs to be taught from simple one-letter spellings to more complex structures.

It is true that in learning to read and write in English there is much more to learn than, say, in Spanish in which young children only have to learn somewhere just over thirty spellings for the twenty-two to twenty-four sounds (depending on accent) in the language. In English we have forty-four or so sounds, again depending on accent, and there are about a hundred and seventy-five common spellings. However, if teaching is anchored in the sounds of the language and taught carefully over the first three years of school, it is entirely possible to teach children to read and spell English to a very high level of proficiency.