Fickle Syllable Boondoggle

A couple days ago I just finished teaching my Syllables: Fact and Fiction LEXinar. And in a few days I will finish up another round of the Zero Allophone LEXinar. Scholars who have taken those classes understand more deeply each day why the syllabaloney of phonics has gone bad.

I recently engaged in some commentary on the blog of Dr. Tim Shanahan, a longtime proponent of phonics who appears to be unable to understand two key truths: (1) studying the language accurately is not just ‘doing morphology,’ and (2) pedagogical research is not the only research in the world.

One of Shanahan’s acolytes, Jo-Anne Gross, owner of a phonics company called Remediation Plus, demonstrated impressive tenacity in her misapprehensions, like that */c/ is the first phoneme in cat. Oh my. While repeatedly telling me that I’m wrong by citing actually wrong people like Reid Lyon and Louisa Moats, Jo-Anne also offers readers this stinky piece of linguistic charcuterie: “a short vowel in the word tennis and muffin requires the doubling-those are rules predicated on surrounding sounds-poodle-puddle-apple-rifle,they are not ‘sound’ driven.”

I’ve offered Jo-Anne and Harriet free Syllables LEXinars with me. So far the only sound I hear is crickets. Crickets chirping is, by the way, a sound, but it’s not a flipping phoneme. It’s not even phonological. So please stop referring to phonology as “sounds.”

So today I asked Jo-Anne and Tim (who has just stopped responding to me since I told him to stop sending me private emails assuming my age and experience and scolding me for being the scholar that I am) and Harriet, “So how does phonics explain such contrasts as tennis-menace, bobbin-robin, rabbit-habit, hammer-camel, finish-Finnish, polish-Polish, and the like?”

In this post, then, I will offer you what I wrote on the blog, and interspersed you will find the really beautiful, coherent understanding that real language study offers us.

I just studied finish-Finnish and polish-Polish with a 6th grader. I also studied why ‘love’ isn’t spelled with a ‘u’ with her 2nd grade sister. Same with do, to, and who. They’re both dyslexic. Tell me again about beginning readers?

Although they are proper adjectives, Finnish and Polish have totally coherent structures; we can see their free base elements in Fin, Finland, and Pole (but not in the blend Poland). Finish and polish both have base elements with single, final <e>s: <fine + ish>, <pole + ish> — we see that latter bound base also in polite. My fantastic 6th grader and I also investigated that <ish> suffix, which we also found in establish, embellish, and punish — it is a suffix formed from the <iss(e)> verbal stem suffix in French: etablissement, embellissezpunissons.

But perhaps she would’ve preferred to divide words into syllables on a list, eh?

As for to, do, who, and love, any real spelling scholar knows that when you can’t use a <u>, you use an <o>. And they know why you can’t use a <u> in those words. And so does my 2nd grader. Why? Because I showed her. And you know what? It totally mattered to her, even though Dr. Shanahan likes to speculate that facts don’t matter to 7-year-olds.

Tell me again about the “six syllable rules.” Do you mean like how you have children “count back 3” for words like table, ruffle, and the like? So instead of showing children the FACT that the ‘le’ is often a suffix — spark+le, hand+le, circ+le (compare circ+us) — but not always. Sometimes it’s a vestigial suffix, something I’ve been known to call a ‘footprint’ with my students. The ‘le’ in bumble and gamble and spindle can no longer be analyzed, but we can still see how they were historically built from boom + le and game + le and spin + le.

What’s really interesting about an ‘le’ suffix is that it functions as a vowel suffix, because that ‘l’ is syllabic: mid + le, side + le, lade + le (compare laden or lading), set + le. Mind blowing, isn’t it? And 2nd graders can totally get that. It’s adults that struggle with it.

Those are just true things. No one has to like them. But kids really do like them, especially the dyslexic ones who have had so many prevarications from phonics pushed at them.

How, in your syllable artifice (with which I am 100% intimate — I taught that stuff for years) would you explain the difference between puzzle and pizza, phonologically speaking?

The only way to explain the distinction is etymologically. Pizza is Italian, as is the mozzarella you put atop it. Patterns, people.

Because no one could claim in seriousness that kindergarteners don’t know anything about puzzles or pizzas. What is the phonology of the second syllable of castle, wrestle, jostle? Why is the ‘t’ there? Because, château (oh, let your kiddos live a little!), wrest, and joust. Look, a lot of 6-year-olds would dig studying castles and châteaux and jousts, since phonics is so concerned with building everything around what kids want. We fact-finders will also tell you why wrestle needs a <wr> — because it denotes ‘twist.’ But all phonics can do is teach ‘stle’ as though it was a thing (it’s not), and ignore the pattern of the ‘t’ in listen, often, soften, and even ‘prints.’

Why is there a ‘c’ in muscle? Muscular. Or a ‘b’ about ‘subtle’? That’s an <sub> prefix, of course. Man, whoever stuck a ‘b’ in that word deserves a prize. Heh. Silent letter humor is the best humor because it’s the smartest.

What of island and isle and aisle? The <s> is etymological in isle but folk etymological in the others. Isle is Latinate and related to insular and peninsulaisland is Germanic, totally unrelated, but its <s> marks its wide historical association with the others. Aisle denotes ‘wing’ and is related to aileron and axis. That <s> was also a scribal error that stuck, because people associated it with isle, which came by its <s> honestly.

But I’m sure no small children would enjoy a story about long-ago monks and their false-steps and flourishes. Because it would be a lot more important for kindergarteners to study, you know, that */c/ is a phoneme. For Chrissakes.

How about in prin/ci/ple — why isn’t that ‘i’ long if it’s in an ‘open syllable’? Because in real life, there are only two types of syllables; open and closed. Open syllables end in a vowel (but not a lax vowel in English), and closed syllables have a consonant coda. The letters in a syllable have little to do with what ‘type’ of syllable it is: though is open but but cough is closed, and neither is exceptional. The word principle has an actual structure, and it’s <prin + cip(e) + le>. Which is different from a <prin + cip(e) + al). Check out that <le> suffix again, yo. Prince was clipped from the root of principle and principal, and princess was built from prince

What about treble and pebble? Yikes. Well, treble is related to triple (think 3-part harmonies), which also lacks a doubled medial consonant. Because, once again, in real life, it has an actual structure: <tri + ple> — stick a pin in that <ple> base element, which denotes ‘fold.’

Why is there an ‘o’ in people? Or is that word off-limits for very young people too? Because it’s so popular?

Why do double and couple and trouble have an ‘ou’ but octuple has just a ‘u’? Because, doubt and duplicitous, copula and copulate and because that <co> is the footprint of a prefix — you know, the one that carries a force of ‘with or together’? And octuple (not *octupple) has a connector <u>, as does quadruple, in which the pronunciation of the <u> is different. Ooh, fancy.  Why isn’t oc/tu/ple pronounced ‘octooople’? Because no one would understand you if you said that. Why isn’t multiple spelled *multipple? Because it’s <mult + i + ple>, that’s why (compare <mult + it(e) + ude>). In real life, there are answers for these questions. In phonics, there are shrugs.

Why circle and sparkle but not *cirkle or *sparcle? Because, circus and sparkPhonics doesn’t answer that. Do beginning readers understand words like sparkle and circle in real life? Why is needle needle and not *neadle? Because an <ee> digraph is preferred in lexical forms that have associated connotations of ‘twoness’ or ‘more than oneness.’  Pine needles and porc + u + pine needles always come in more than one. Why isn’t poodle *pudle or noodle *nudle? Because they’re modern loans or coinages (both from German), respelled in the present-day English default, like shampoo and google and boondoggle.

There are reasons for these captivating patterns and cues in the language. They are not exceptions or irregular. They are not oddballs or outlaws or demons, and no one has to just memorize them. Even if Reid Lyon or Tim Shanahan or Jo-Anne or Harriet says so. 

Anyone who would like to see the understanding that can explain these inquiries can find it on my website. The title of the post is “Fickle Syllable Boondoggle.” Funny how the syllabullies don’t hesitate to use the word “syllable” all the time with children who can’t “handle” big words.


  1. Great responses Gina. Love your attitude. Kids are so deprived of knowledge about spelling, even though it makes sense and is interesting.

  2. Irene Brown says:

    apologies for not responding to your post on your site—but appreciate your entry on so many levels-you’re nourishing (in a mega-dose!) my daily cognitive requirements!

  3. Douglas RIch says:

    L.O.V.E. all this. Refreshing and so interesting. Many thanks. I’m due for a Lexinar. See you soon.

  4. Stephanie Ruston says:

    I just want to say that this piece really sent me over the edge. Alone in my office, I laughed and cried, deeply touched by its humor, humanity, generosity, playfulness and brilliance. Then I thanked God for your existence. As long as Gina Cooke is in the room, I said, someone is sure to be strengthened and brightened and blessed; she’s one of your best.

    Thank you for ripping away my uncertainty and replacing it with wonder and awe. Again and again I learn from you, and right now I’m walking around starstruck–amazed by the goodness, beauty, and intelligence in the English writing system. Study English? Yes! It’s so orderly, so elegant, so approachable, yet it contains layer upon layer of truth.

    Thank you for showing me this. I mean, I’ve always had a lot of respect for the English spelling system, but now that I’m also starting to trust it wholeheartedly and beginning to understanding its morphological ways . . . well, as they say on the playground: “If you love it so much, why don’t you marry it?” I wish I could. Being able to trust the spelling system matters to me. A lot.

    So thank you for helping me trust it, Gina Cooke. Thank you for being unflinchingly honest in your work and uncompromisingly convinced of our ability and need to understand that the English spelling system is completely explainable when one starts with the premise that it is governed by its morphemes. Thank you for showing me how to find my own answers, urging me to check things out for myself. From my point of view that’s spelled R-E-S-P-E-C-T, and it shines through all of your work. When I look up “master teacher” in my picture dictionary, I see your face.

    In real life, there’s an answer for the question of what to do about the mischief that’s been created by America’s education industry, and that answer involves telling children the truth about their writing system, as you so rightly insist. And it involves doing science with children, as you so brilliantly demonstrate. And it involves the passionate and generous work of teachers like you. Thank you for all that you do!

    Fortunately, even those of us who are parents and grandparents can do this kind of science with our loved ones, and even those of us who are convinced of the need to use a phonics-first curriculum in the classroom can get started right away. It really doesn’t have to be either/or, like you’ve said. SWI can complement any curriculum, and no drastic changes need to be made to what we are currently doing before we begin. We can just begin, giving ourselves permission to learn as we go and making changes only as we grow. And that’s what I’m currently recommending. As parents, grandparents, and teachers, we can continue to help our loved ones as we’ve always done, and we can put on our science hats to begin thinking deeply about words with the help of kid-friendly tools like the matrix and word sum. Using the four questions, we can begin. We are human. We are qualified.

    Thank you for helping me see this.

    • Well if this don’t beat all. “Thank you” is an inadequate response, Steph. Your last paragraph especially is golden. We are human. We are qualified. Your kind words and compliments are appreciated, but I appreciate more deeply your engagement and your clarity that this is for everyone who will just get out of their own way. I’m so pleased to have your company and your hope!

  5. Gina: Brilliant writing based on understanding and truth (Ah, .) Your writing and posts keep inspiring me as I stand in the midst of edubabble-phonics-land daily. “In real life, there are answers…….. In phonics, there are shrugs.” Brilliant, truly brilliant. Please keep writing and teaching.

  6. Pete says:

    Gina, this is a wonderfully compact collection of explanations of spellings that offer understanding of so many words phonics presents as “exceptions” because they can’t be understood.

    This is why – as you well know — there is no place for the term “exception” in scientific inquiry. When that claim is made, we should just replace it with the term that is literally at the core of what science is: falsification. When a hypothesis can’t account for data — scientists don’t get to blame the data, they see falsification of the hypothesis (in this case the phonics hypothesis).

    And to a scientist, falsification of your hypothesis is not something to be sad about. It should be cause for celebration! That is science doing its job to help us stop thinking something that turns out not to hold up. And the best part is that falsification of one idea is exactly what motivates us to look for a better understanding.

    The unquestioned acceptance of “exceptions” is the rejection of application of scientific inquiry to understanding our writing system. If one was going to design a way to prevent people from understanding a complex system, one could hardly come up with a more simple and effective way than to replace the term “falsification” with “exception”. With this one switch of terms, we prevent the possibility of applying scientific inquiry.

    Another key issue you highlight is the ease with which so many researchers accept the untested hypothesis that addressing this kind of linguistic content is too advanced for young children. When you and countless other educators in this community share their linguistic understanding about English orthography with young children, we keep seeing the joy of their understanding motivate on-going learning. By contrast, I’ve yet to see a single child motivated by being told “that word is an exception, so you’re just going to have to memorize it.”

    • Thanks, Pete. I find the the word “exception” just ends the conversation, and not very interestingly.

      I had a lot of positive experiences, of course, with OG, in which kids improved their literacy and parents felt more hope. But it never involved delight or depth or astonishment the way real English spelling actually does.

  7. Clover
    Mnemonic for 6 types of syllables in Orton
    Many of your cited examples are exceptions.
    90 percent accuracy.
    So helpful to the children.

  8. Paola Tayvah says:

    Trying to find a source for digraph having the connotation of ‘twoness’ I looked up needle on etymonline and it appears to derive from sewing – no mention of botany. Might you explain your sources ?needle (n.)
    Old English nædl, from Proto-Germanic *næthlo (source also of Old Saxon nathla, Old Norse nal, Old Frisian nedle, Old High German nadala, German Nadel, Gothic neþla “needle”), literally “a tool for sewing,” from PIE *net-la-, from root *(s)ne- “to sew, to spin” (source also of Sanskrit snayati “wraps up,” Greek nein “to spin,” Latin nere “to spin,” German nähen “to sew,” Old Church Slavonic niti “thread,” Old Irish snathat “needle,” Welsh nyddu “to sew,” nodwydd “needle”) + instrumental suffix *-tla. Forever insatiably curious, Paola

    • I am delinquent in responding to your comment, Paola. My apologies. You are 100% correct that needle etymologically denotes a sewing implement. Little did I know that it’s one of humankind’s earliest tools (of course it is!), even older than the cave paintings at Lascaux. Clearly, I failed to do my research before I wrote that, and I can’t successfully retrace my steps to see why I was mistaken. Anyhow, my research in response to your question has been fascinating.

      Let me offer an important distinction, however. What I actually wrote is “an <ee> digraph is preferred in lexical forms that have associated connotations of ‘twoness’ or ‘more than oneness.'” I did not claim that these lexical forms had a DENOTATION of plurality. There is a difference between denotation (which is what you can find by looking at the history) and connotations (which can evolve regardless of the exact historical denotation).

      The natural uses for the word are indeed attested later than the sewing implement. However, by the time the <ee> spelling moved toward standardization, the use of ‘needle’ to mean a natural formation resembling the sewing implement was well attested. The double-e and the sense of more-than-oneness co-evolved in the language system.

      • Paola Tayvah says:

        Thank you for your detailed response. Might you point me in the direction of a source for tracing the origins, evolution, and the sense of more-than-oneness of double-e? I scoured Venezky, Cummings and the web, to no avail. Your erudition is appreciated 🙂

        • The source is my own research, which is published in my LEX Grapheme Deck. I’m the one who figured it out. Venezky and Cummings haven’t got a clue about the etymological governance of graphemes. No one else has studied the aspects of English graphemes that I have. It would be nice to get credit for discovering something without citing some dead white guy.

          I’d suggest that you re-read my post called Seeing is Believing, but Moving isn’t Proving — it details the difference between laying out *evidence* and simply citing someone else’s work.

  9. Paola Tayvah says:

    Mazal Tov on your research! Glad to be able to give credit where credit is due.

  10. Anne Phillips says:

    Hi Gina and Pete, I happened upon this post today and realized that it has two of the things I hear in the SWI world that I am questioning. (I would like to make abundantly clear that I understand that SWI pays abundant attention to phonology, *and* that I freely recognize that OG over-relies on sound-based rules. I don’t practice OG, and am not here to defend it.)

    1. Gina, you say above, “So far the only sound I hear is crickets. Crickets chirping is, by the way, a sound, but it’s not a flipping phoneme. It’s not even phonological. So please stop referring to phonology as “sounds.” I do not see other linguist so averse to this term. I like it and find it useful, and I find that sometimes SWI conversations get waylaid by its use when it isn’t actually being misused.

    2. Pete, in your response to Gina’s post, you seem to be saying that exceptions are equivalent to falsification. However, scientists do not avoid generalization because there are exceptions. Mammals tend to give live birth. They tend to have hair. These aren’t lies because there are exceptions. They are generalizations are as worth of study as the fascinating exceptions.

    • Hi Anne,

      For starters, I really am not inviting conversation about “SWI” as though I were its ambassador. That term has been taken over by bandwagon pedagoggery and phombies. I’m really just interested in studying and articulating an understanding of the English writing system deeply, accurately and scientifically. If you have problems with SWI, take it up with Pete on his page, because it’s not my term and I don’t define it. I don’t “practice” SWI and I am not here to defend it. I am, as my website says, “provid[ing] accurate linguistic information and reliable logical strategies for teachers and learners of the English language in search of evidence about English and its instruction.” I refuse to participate in anyone’s worldview in which SWI is some rigid set of do’s and don’t’s that people are invited to argue with, let alone that I’m the one who comes up with them.

      1. I didn’t know that you had polled all the linguists and found that none of the other linguists minded the term ‘sound.’ I didn’t know that linguists were in charge of dialoguing with children about literacy, or that they spent as much time as teachers do telling children to “sound it out” or “say the sounds.” I do know of one linguist in particular, aside from me, who assiduously avoids it. French guy. Bow tie. Moreover, most linguists are not orthographic linguists. Most linguists are not even phonologists. One of the things I say over and over and over in my classes is that “Linguists are not a monolith.” It’s a large and diverse field. Are you suggesting that I should say and do only what you perceive other linguists say and do? No one ever moved a field forward by doing what everyone else is already doing — especially when what everyone else is already doing is backwards. Is “Make sure you think and talk like everyone else” advice you’d give to a student or an engineer or a biomedical researcher?

      Look, if you want to say “sound,” you don’t really imagine that I have any control over or say in that, do you? I am not a part of “SWI conversations” — by which I mean the unmonitored dreck that passes for scholarship in the Facebook groups you’re part of, with “SWI” in their name — and I take no responsibility for any conversations you participate in that I’m not a part of, however laid their way may be. But I am not interested in having an ongoing conversation with you about what other people say that you don’t like. When I say “Please stop referring to phonology as ‘sounds,'” I am speaking for myself alone, not for some imagined SWI Board of Governors.

      Phonemes are *not* sounds, and calling them sounds in orthographic study in particular contributes to their vast and wide misapprehension. One of the problems with calling phonemes “sounds” is that they are not physical things, and sound is a physical thing: “vibrations that travel through the air or another medium and can be heard when they reach a person’s or animal’s ear.” Phonemes do not travel through the air and they cannot reach a person’s or animal’s ear. They are shared mental or psychological categories, not physical units.

      Many linguistic definitions of the phoneme do not involve the word ‘sound’ at all. Here’s one that does not: A phoneme is a “Structuralist concept of the smallest unit by which one can distinguish one word from another.” Many linguists don’t even acknowledge phonemes or consider them to be actual entities, and indeed, since they’re psychological, it’s a challenge to prove it. Gee, if only there were some way to make them visible.

      Phonemes may also be complex, of course, diphthongs or triphthongs or affricates or clusters. So the /aʊ/ in ‘pound’ is not a sound, and neither is the /kw/ in ‘quicksand,’ although they are both arguably phonemes. Your argument in favor of using the word “sound” when studying phonemes is that you “like it and find it useful.” My argument for not using the word “sound” when studying phonemes is that phonemes are not sounds. So one of us has a well-reasoned argument, and one of us has a personal preference. Good story.

      2. Pete did not invent the understanding that “the exception proves the rule.” The word “prove,” by the way, means ‘test,’ not ‘establish proof for.’ Now, again, if you want to have conversations about “exceptions,” you don’t need my permission or Pete’s. I think this is the third time you’ve brought up a platypus to me as a good example of an “exception” to mammals, only it’s not. See, the thing is, the proposition that all mammals and only mammals give live birth is false. Not only are there monotremes, but there are also fish and reptilian species that give live birth. Calling these exceptions is a lot less informative than understanding what they are: evolutionary isolates. Biologists don’t just say, “A platypus is an exception and you just have to memorize it, because evolutionary biology is crazy.” Rather, they offer a scientific explanation. There is a *reason* that the Monotremata didn’t evolve to give live birth, just like there are *reasons* that ‘of’ did not evolve with a V and ‘could’ has an L.

      I don’t speak for Pete, but I don’t think he’s taking, um, exception with the word ‘exception’ itself, but with the way it is used to shut down curiosity, critical inquiry, and understanding. The problem is that the adult gatekeepers of childhood literacy use the term “exception” as a way to explain exactly *nothing.* If they used that same word to actually investigate and explain something, that’d be a different story. If, for example, you had offered an *explanation* of the monotremes instead of just trotting them out as an exception, that would actually demonstrate something about the way biology works. The fact that you modified the standard claim about mammals with the verb “tend” is a valuable lesson: teachers and tutors would do well to learn to say, “One of the ways to spell [f] is with an F” instead of “F is for [fffffff].” Just framing things that way, just modifying the standard rigidity of fffffonics, is beautifully truthful.

      If you had written “Mammals never lay eggs,” that would be a lie. Just like “Latin never compounds” is a lie. Just like “there is one vowel sound in ‘bike'” is a lie. And before you make some claim that a lie must be an intentionally false statement, I will submit that the word can be used to refer not only to deception, but also to mistaken or false impressions. Philosophers debate the intent requirement of lying all the time, but I’m pretty sure that teachers are well aware that the word ‘fatal’ is not really ‘fat Al,’ that a carpet is not a ‘car for your pet,’ that words are not spiders, an R is not bossy, and an E is neither magic nor a policeman. So those are lies.

      If you would like to take exception with my use of the word “lie,” you’ll need to be specific. I didn’t even use it in this post, at all. I never said that everything phonics teaches is a lie, or that spelling conventions are lies. Here’s another lie: “/c/ is a phoneme.” Here’s another lie: “English has 6 syllable types.” Also a lie: “Chair and chief are Anglo-Saxon words” and “television is Latin.” Here’s another lie: “You fry your friend.” Also, “When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking.” That’s a lie. Not even true half the time. The biggest phonics lie of all? The Assumption of Phonological Primacy.

      If you have *specific* questions about orthography that you’d like to discuss, have at it. If you just want to cherry-pick words like “lie” and “sound” and complain about how I do or do not use them to your liking with no specific examples, then please have that conversation without me.

      I’ve never suggested not studying conventions (what you’re calling ‘generalizations’) in the language, or the “fascinating” examples that don’t seem to fit them.

  11. Pat Stone says:

    Just had one of your chums on Twitter telling us how to teach a child to read ‘castle’:

    CAS/Closed syllable
    tle-consonant le syllable

    In Orton-we have 6 types-the mnemonic is CLOVER
    Closed,LE-Open-V-vowel pair-E-Magic E-R-R controlled

    Insulted me when I responded that I’d need to buy plenty of her products before I could make sense of it.

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