Hatchet Crazy

One of the reasons I don’t post here as often as I’d like — certainly not as often as I think about it — is because I spend a lot of time answering questions for people. This morning, I received and answered an email from a wonderful tutor I trained last year in Pennsylvania, a deep thinker whose approaches her language scholarship with integrity. I liked her questions — and my answers — enough to massage it into a post. One of the biggest problems in phonics and in literacy research is a flawed understanding of phonemes. This tutor’s email betrays a sophisticated understanding not only of what phonemes are, but also of the difference between phonology and phonetics, something that phonics is hard-pressed to explain.

She began her email with a question about diphthongs:

“Vowel phonemes that are comprised of 2 phones are called diphthongs, like the /aɪ/ in wide or the /ɔɪ/ in boy.”


She continued: “Do most long vowels slide?”

Indeed, I responded. English has 6 ‘long vowels’:
/eɪ/ /iː/ /aɪ/ /oʊ/ /ju/ and /uː/, as in bait, beet, bite, boat, beaut, boot .

Only /iː/ and /uː/ do not glide. The rest of them do. You may note that there are kind of two “spots” in a long vowel phoneme. When we write /iː/ it’s like we were writing /ii/ — where the phone [i] is taking both the “spots” in the long vowel phoneme. The gliding vowels have different phones in each of their “spots.”

But “I don’t hear it [the glide] in long <o> or <oo> or <e>, ” she confessed.

She’s aboslutely correct that there’s no glide in ‘long oo’ or ‘long e’ — that’s /uː/ and /iː/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet. I explained that the glide in /oʊ/ [‘long o’] is slight, but it is there. It’s not that we don’t hear it; it’s that we don’t perceive it. British English glides even more noticeably in this phoneme — I’d represent British ‘long o’ as /əʊ/, American as /oʊ/. If you try to pronounce “go” the way you normally would, and compare it to someone saying “go” with a French accent, you may be able to then perceive the glide in the English version.

She went on. “Would you teach students for spelling the concept of sliding vowels?”

So, I did not say this in my email but I want to highlight here that this is a question I frequently get: “Would you teach students X?” All I can really say is that I would share with students any understanding I have about language, bar none. At no point does it make sense to me to deliberately withhold facts about the writing system from anyone. Now, the question is a charitable one, and I understand the time constraints and lesson planning decisions that drive it. But no one will ever hear me say, “No. That is a piece of understanding language I don’t recommend sharing with children.”

Okay, back to the question.  I would absolutely teach children about diphthongs. Goodness knows they’re already mistaught plenty about diphthongs. Children frequently misspell words precisely because they’re perceiving a diphthong, such as when they write cycle as <saycl> or white as <wait>.

The tutor switched gears. “Consonant phonemes that are comprised of 2 phones are called clusters, like the /ʧ/ in chip or the /ks/ in box.”

Right again. And, while I didn’t say it in the email, I’d like to add that this is something that phonics gets dead wrong, pretty much every time. They’ll tell you that <x> spells two phonemes — /k/ and /s/. It’s because they don’t understand the crucial difference between phones and phonemes: <x> spells a single phoneme that is comprised of two phones, a consonant cluster phoneme. Many languages have consonant cluster phonemes, like /ʦ/ or /ps/: the /ps/ phoneme in Greek is spelled with a single character, <ψ> (psi), just like our <x>. If something is spelled with a single grapheme in an alphabetic writing system, it’s a single phoneme.

But “how does /ʧ/ have 2 phones?” she asked. This is why I love her question: because she’s not just trusting the definition I give her, or accepting that the /ʧ/ is two phones because I said so. She’s looking for an understanding she can call her own, so she can do just what she asked if she should do: share this understanding with her students.

Here’s what I told her: [ʧ] starts like a [t] and ends like a [ʃ]. Think of it this way — say the word “hatchet” and feel the /ʧ/ in the middle. Then, say the word “batshit” — as in “she’s batshit crazy” — and feel the /tʃ/ in there. You don’t have a hard time perceiving both the [t] and the [ʃ] in “batshit” because it’s a compound and you’re aware of the morphemic boundary between the two phones. But because you perceive (as a native speaker) the /ʧ/ in “hatchet” as a phoneme — as a unit — it’s harder for you to be aware of the two phones. The [t] is unreleased — if you pronounce “bat” without the “shit” — you probably release the /t/ at the end, so it is aspirated as [tʰ]. But when you pronounce the /ʃ/ right next to it, it’s not released, so it sounds like a /ʧ/. This should help you be able to better perceive the two phones in /ʧ/.

Now, I’m not suggesting that hatchet and batshit are phonetically identical. It’s a difference between /ʧ/ and /tʃ/. It may be tacky, but this batshit/hatchet pair provides an excellent example of how /ʧ/ has two phones, because they rhyme. A kid-friendly example might be ouch and outshine, or studying the /tʃ/ in hotshot, courtship, or nightshirt. Understanding the structure of the /ʧ/ also helps us understand why some kids write words like tree and trap as *<chree> and *<chrap>: the /t/ in trap is phonetically closer to the [ʧ] in chap than it is to the [tʰ] in tap. It’s the same phenomenon when they write *<jress> instead of <dress>.

More importantly, studying this pair also peels back the ways that orthographic understanding runs hand in hand with true phonemic understanding. Being aware of phonemes is all well and good, but awareness without understanding is a little crazy.


  1. Susan Carlile says:

    This is a fascinating explanation. I met you at your fundraising event on Grandview Drive (I am an English professor in Long Beach, California), and wanted to tell you how much I admire your work. Rock on!

  2. As always, great stuff! But complex.

    I wonder to what degree definitional clarity can be marshaled? (e.g.,understanding the definition of a phone versus a phoneme?) Categories like these can be named and understood.

    But perceptual boundaries are difficult to name (e.g., /t/ in trap is phonetically closer to the [ʧ] in chap than it is to the [tʰ] in tap).

    Thanks for all you do.


    • Thank you, Sandie! Indeed, language is often complex, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t coherent and orderly. In my experience teaching English phonology in grad courses over the past decade, it is absolutely possible to develop definitional clarity and an accurate understanding of the terminology and the concepts it represents.

      You’re absolutely right that perceptual boundaries are difficult to mark — uttered phones are kind of like snowflakes in that no two are exactly alike. Not only are the perceptual boundaries difficult to mark (auditory phonetics), but the articulatory boundaries are also difficult to mark (articulatory phonetics). We may only be able to *see* the differences and mark some boundaries in a spectrogram of the different utterances (acoustic phonetics).

      What I should’ve written (I won’t edit so the integrity of the comments can be maintained) is this: “the /t/ in trap is phonetically closer to the [ʧ] in chap than it is to the [tʰ] in tap for these kids when they’re trying to write words based on their pronunciation.” Since I’m not specifying acoustic, auditory, or articulatory phonetics, it’s left open to interpretation. For kids who are writing and trying to spell, it may not be about the auditory perception at all, but about their perception of their own articulation.

      Thanks for reading and thinking about things with me!

  3. Old Grouch says:

    In all the limpid and authoritative clarity of this masterful explanation of orthographic phonology, its final statement is certainly the most fundamental: “awareness without understanding is a little crazy” (though I would substitute ’totally’ for ‘a little’).

    Of the many vapid buzz terms generated by the literacy industry, ‘xxx awareness’ is always to be treated with a generous dose of BEwareness.

    Denotationally ‘awareness’ refers to a state of being wary, cautious. And being wary of, and cautious about any statement from the schooling schemes, systems and official literature about phonology is an absolute imperative.

    Gina is certainly right. The key is understanding, with the emphasis on the standing. Archimedes is famously reported as commenting, “δῶς μοι πᾶ στῶ καὶ τὰν γᾶν κινάσω” – give me a place where I should stand and I will move the earth. The Archimedean lesson is to make sure that we are standing conceptually secure.

    So thanks, Gina, for the clarity and authority of this description of the place to stand – a far cry from the shifting sands of earnestly approximate and shallow ‘awareness’.

    We can now simply follow Archimedes Cooke to the proper place to stand, from which we can move the phonological earth and triumphantly cry, “Eureka” as we bathe in overflowing satisfaction.

    • ευχαριστώ !

      I recently learned that this Greek word for ‘thank you’ counts among its relatives the words ‘charisma’ and ‘Eucharist’ — all carry an orthographic denotation of ‘grace, favor.’ How I long to study more Greek with you, Old Grouch!

      While your Archimedean comparisons are very gracious indeed, I assure you that my orthographic ramblings could never displace his discoveries.

  4. marymcbride101 says:

    Gina: the clarity of your post is wonderful. The use of color in the 6 long vowels is brilliant, precise and helpful in understanding the different phones. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Caroline Francois says:

    Having just spent (wasted?) a day in school for a workshop on spelling, as words like “phoneme”, “phonetics” and “blend” were used liberally, in addition to the supposed benefits of exposing students who already have difficulty with language and reading to “nonsense” words like “quib”, “shem” and “whach”; this post shows how the science of language exposes such discussions as more than just a lot of hot air, but misleading and potentially damaging to students’ learning. Gina, thank you for the clarity of your explanations.

    • Caroline, I know such workshops and such nonsense words well. Nonsense words are a particularly insidious practice, and the fact is that only struggling readers are typically expected to work with them. Children who are already good readers and spellers pretty much never have to read or spell nonsense words. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to quib my shem to the whach.

  6. Noreen Battaglia says:

    Hi Gina, I continue to find really understanding phoneme/phone difficult to absorb, so each opportunity to read and contemplate is helpful, especially with the clarity you speak and seeing examples.

    I recently had a conversation with my friend about drawing and the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of drawing to reach sense of mastery. I’m thinking if I read over, picture it, feel it, and look at examples, there will come a time when I will easily be able to say the terms “phone, phoneme, phonology” without asking myself each time if I know what I mean!

    Thanks for sharing the question with us.

    • Hi Noreen. Indeed the difference between a phone and a phoneme can take time to grasp. I find that it’s helpful to understand a phoneme as a psychological entity, but phones are the physical realizations of those psychological identities. The phoneme /t/ is realized as different phones in the words ‘met’ and ‘meta’ (in my dialect). The phoneme /h/ is realized as different phones in the words ‘hot’ and ‘human’. To wit:

      met /mɛt/ [mɛtʰ] or [mɛt˺]
      meta /’metə/ [mɛɾə] in American, but [mɛtʰə] in British English

      It you said “he met me” the word “met” would likely be realized as [mɛʔ].

      hot /hɑt/ [hɑt]
      human /’hjumən/ [‘cjumən]

      We don’t perceive these differences until someone makes us pay attention — we categorize these different phones as the same phoneme. I see that it benefits the teachers I work with to be able to ask questions, like the one in the post, wherein they use the terms “phone” and “phoneme” to test their understanding.

      Maybe I will do a LEXinar on this topic after all!

  7. Dan Allen says:

    Oh, Gina…you had me at “batshit.” That’s a lie…you had me at “One of the reasons…”, the first words, just like all your posts. I savor each and every one of them. And yes, I savored “batshit” a bit more than the others…because I’m an immature little boy. But above all, I savored your ability, as ever, to communicate your understanding in such a way that I can grasp it, so precise, so clear…as if you’re in my head anticipating exactly what to say next as I read along. A big thanks to your tutor trainee who actually asked the type of question(s) I am often too afraid to ask.

  8. Kelli Sandman-Hurley says:

    Love, love, love it! Please turn this into a Lexinar. I want more, as usual! Thank you!

  9. Kelli Sandman-Hurley says:

    I have stood under this article for two days in order to truly understand what you are explaining. This has extraordinary implications for teaching students with dyslexia. Your examples of common misspellings are exactly what our kids never seem to master even with years of OG, and now I know why. This is such a solid explanation about why we do NEED to go into this detail with these kids because they need and want to understand. It leaves me wondering about the way we (I) diagnose kids with dyslexia. The tests we use really don’t assess for phones vs. phonemes. Also, it is a widely held belief that kids with dyslexia need phonemic awareness before they get to the actual sound/symbol relationship, but are we even implementing phonemic awareness correctly? If they are producing literal translations like then it appears that they have superb phoneme awareness and are unaware of the orthographic structures. Perhaps there is orthographic dyslexia (a branch of dysgraphia maybe?). Well, great food for thought and I am eternally grateful to be more knowledgeable every time I read your posts.

    • In the dyslexia research field, ‘orthographic awareness’ was added as a third processing / deficit area in what had theretofore been the ‘double deficit’ theory of dyslexia. You are correct that our assessments are as ill-informed about phonology and the phoneme as our educators are: ‘phoneme’ counting exercises I’ve seen have included /ks/ as two phonemes even even spelled by , and I have also seen patterns from (a rime) to (a syllable, nothing more) counted as ‘phonemes.’ These kinds of errors are further evidence of how one’s understanding (or lack thereof) of orthography is intimately tied to one’s understanding of phonology.

      As far as I see things, children in general and dyslexics in particular can be very sensitive to articulatory differences between phones (e.g. in ‘tap’ and ‘trap’) but uncertain about which (psychological) phoneme to assign a (physical) phone to. They rely on their articulation. To a grown-up teacher, the /t/ in ‘trap’ is obviously spelled with a , but that’s because the teacher already knows how the word is spelled, and that orthographic knowledge informs the phonemic understanding. The teacher’s orthographic knowledge means s/he doesn’t have to rely on articulatory cues.

      I have plenty of experience using magnets and boxes and poker chips and other markers in ‘phoneme awareness’ exercises. But I have yet to find a better marker, a better way to physically represent a phoneme, than a grapheme. Remember too that phonemes don’t exist in words outside of morphemes. Remember that all the ‘research’ that promotes ‘phoneme awareness’ exercises with or without text is largely ignorant of the organizing and delimiting structure of orthographic morphology. Phonology — and thus phonemes — cannot be properly understood outside of the morphology.

  10. Kelli says:

    Gina: I know you have explained this all to me before, but I think this time, I got it! Can you tell me where you found the ‘orthographic awareness’ addition? I’m thinking that is probably misdiagnosed as dysgraphia.

    • Nathalie Badian is the scholar who brought the orthographic deficit piece to the forefront in the late 90s and early 2000s. I’m not sure it’s misdiagnosed as dysgraphia; this deficit is framed not in terms of how a child spells words, but in the visual memory for written words. Regardless, the orthographic piece remains a bastard child, an afterthought, an and then . . . The deficit model still misses the point that the writing system is about meaning, and that phonology and phonetics are not the same thing.

  11. […]  You can start by reading a blog post called Hatchet Crazy.  […]

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