I am currently engaged — with great joy — in an etymological Renaissance, in the company of Doug Harper and those who study with us around the world. But phonology — phonology is also on my mind.
Last Friday, I spoke at the Peoria County Teacher Institute Day at the Civic Center. Folks came to hear about dyslexia, and they did, but of course they also got an earful about spelling, about morphology and relationships between words. They studied the concept model of English orthography developed by Real Spelling, and they saw evidence that countered their previous conceptions of what a phoneme is.
The phonology question came up, as it always does, this time from an ESL teacher. “Do you still think that phonology is important to teach with the younger kids?”
I used to dread this question and not want to answer it, but now it’s a dialogue I appreciate being able to engage in. My answer hits three main components:
1. Of course I think phonology is important to study! And this is not just an opinion; it’s an understanding based on the fact that phonology is one aspect of language structure that is represented by the English writing system. In fact, I think that studying phonology is SO critical that we had better get it right. At this point in history, pedagogically speaking, we really don’t get phonology right, because we start with it instead of understanding it inside of its morphological framework, because that’s how English works. So yes, by all means, study phonology with your students, but make sure you are studying it with an understanding properly rooted in the defining and delimiting structures of morphology.
2. I encourage educators to stop thinking of phonology as something that you “teach.” Rather, make it something that you *study.* You cannot possibly be better at teaching something that you are willing to roll up your sleeves and study it yourself. Study it with your students. Be willing to admit that your own understanding of phonology is always evolving. It’s not something you can open a teacher’s manual and impart; it’s an important part of the structure of language that is represented in the writing system. Phonemes are not “the smallest unit of speech!” Rather, they’re mental representations of minimally distinctive units of pronunciation. Phonology includes phonemes, but also (allo)phones, and understanding this is critical to studying the writing system. Phonology also includes stress, which plays an interesting role in English spelling. Syllables, however, have far less significance in English orthography than the purveyors of phonics would have us believe. Moreover, where syllables do matter in English, stress is often an important factor. For example, an unstressed syllable can be reduced to a zero vowel, but the syllable is still written: Family is typically pronounced /’fæmli/ — two syllables — but it retains three written syllables. We can see why when we consider its sister words familiar or familial. Ultimately, phonics, in all its permutations, is pedagogical, not linguistic, and it has little to do with an accurate understanding of phonology and phonemes.
3. It doesn’t matter how old someone is (or what their native language is or whether they have dyslexia): the writing system works the way it works. Like any other physical phenomenon — like rocks, or sound waves, or orbits — writing systems are physical things that can be studied. It is not the case that the writing system is more phonologically-driven when you’re 6 than it is when you’re 40. And it’s a conceptual question, not a developmental question. Trying to teach or study phonology without consideration of morphology is like trying to teach addition without working in decimal concepts: ones, tens, hundreds. Would it be okay to tell little kids that the sun revolves around the earth just to reinforce their natural developmental egocentrism? Of course not. But teaching children — or adults — of any age that phonology is the most important aspect of the writing system is an equally pre-Copernican understanding of orthography. In her 1990 book, Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print, Marilyn J. Adams makes the claim that morphology is best studied with older students. In spite of the fact that this is a scientific book, Adams provides no scientific evidence for this suggestion. Let’s not spend another 25 years laboring under this misapprehension. (Hat tip to Pete Bowers for this understanding of Adams’s mistake and its footprint).
Phonology is in our heads, and linguists are hard pressed to prove things about phonology articulatorily speaking. Phonemes are understood to exist (psychologically) in spite of their quite different phonetic (physical) realizations as well as because of their similarities. The writing system is where we can actually see phonemes represented physically. But we can’t do that without attending to the morphological structures: there’s no <th> digraph in fathead, no <ea> digraph in react, no <ie> in cried.
Phonology is in our heads, and on my mind. Of course I think it’s important.