The reaction to my claims about nonsense words being, you know, nonsense, has been ongoing and wide — including four continents, pro-phonics people and anti-phonics people (I am neither), accolades and insults. I have heard about what people feel and believe and even think, but I have not seen any actual evidence to falsify my assertions. I’ve had my name dragged through the mud on Facebook, had people call me mean (uh-gain), and had my credentials maligned because a mom in Australia can’t find me on Google Scholar.
It has been incredibly stressful.
So I was really looking forward to my study session tonight with a 2nd grader I call Cupcake. We almost didn’t make it, because scheduling stinks. But she came tonight at the end of a long and busy day, even with a bad cold, eager to look at word sums and matrices and the stories of silent letters. I haven’t even told her yet that making a matrix in a circle isn’t a “game.”
Her mom had texted me a picture of her spelling list this week: words with <wr> and <kn> and <gn> — some of my favorites! Phonics says those digraphs have “silent letters” (which is not helpful) and rarely offers much more of an explanation; I told Cupcake we were going to study not only how these spelling words were spelled, but also why they’re spelled that way.
She chose <sign> off her list to study first. Of course she did! I have met many a true scholar whose journey started with a question about the <g> in <sign>. We talked about traffic signs and traffic signals, did a word sum for <signal>, and then we talked about signatures and the significance of whatever it is that signs and signals can signify. We talked about how the <g> in <sign> is a zero, but the <g> in <gnat> is just part of a <gn> digraph (a distinction no phonics phan ever understood, but this 2nd grader did). We saved the <kn> stories for last, but my favorite part of the lesson came while we were studying <wr>.
While we looked at the <wr> words on her spelling list (including writing, even though she hasn’t learned about replacing a final <e> in school), I explained that bases with an initial <wr> pertain to twisting or turning. We picked a word from her list, <wrist>. I asked her what it means. She said, “It’s like an ankle, only it’s on your arm.” I thought that was a perfect definition. I asked her to show me how her wrist moves, and we compared it to her elbow. One twists; the other doesn’t. We talked about the word <wrong> and how when your sock is on wrong, it’s twisted, and how when you write, there are some twists and turns and you use your wrist.
As we thought of examples, Cupcake looked at me with a grin-crinkled nose and interrupted delightedly: “Wait—” she asked me, “is this stuff REAL?”
I thought this was a fantastic question, and I said so just as soon as I got done cracking up. I understood exactly what she meant. “Yes,” I said. “it’s real. I am not making this up.” I pulled out the <wr> card, the <kn> card, and the <gn> card out of my LEX Grapheme Deck and we began to look at them. “This is not a magic trick or some silly thing I invented,” I said. “It’s the real story and structure of the language.” I pointed to the Four Questions. She and her mom were so smiley and so amazed. Poor Cupcake had a runny nose and was yawning, but she stuck with me, because she was getting something real and she knew it.
Sense and meaning are the whole point of language, and written language is no exception. There is no need for nonsense. It’s not controversial or fruitless to study real things. It’s not even hard.
It’s all in the wrist.