I just had the following exchange in my LEX Facebook messenger – it’s long, and annotated, so buckle up:
Stranger: “Hello, I am a recent undergraduate linguist and I just discovered your blog while doing research for a personal project. Your posts have been very helpful so far and I was hoping that on the off chance you see this you could help me with a question.
“I am struggling to fully understand tetragraphs and why the ‘tion’ combination in English does not fit the definition. There are many sources that say that it isn’t but they stop short of explaining why. Would you be able to help? Thank you for your consideration.”
Me: “Depends on what you mean by a tetragraph. If you just mean any old four-letter form, then you can put any four letters together that you want and call it a tetragraph. But what is the point of that?
“If I use the term tetragraph, I specifically am referring to a grapheme, an orthographic unit that can spell no more than one phoneme at a time. English has no tetragraphs in our orthography. German and Yiddish arguably do, as evidenced by the <tsch> in <putsch>.
“The four letter sequence <tion> doesn’t represent any linguistic structure other than possibly a syllable, but because English is stress timed and not syllable timed, that’s up for debate. It’s not a suffix, as the <t> always belongs to the prior element (as in action or relation) –there’s no such thing as *ac or *rela with regards to linguistic structures that would permit a *tion structure as a completion. It can’t be a grapheme, because it’s associated with three separate phonemes : /ʃən/ cannot be considered any kind of linguistic unit in English other than a syllable, and syllables aren’t inventoried or meaningful in English.”
“I think a better question is, why would you want it to be a tetragraph, if that’s the case? If other resources stop short of explaining why it isn’t one, you should look at their definition of a tetragraph and see what doesn’t fit.
“If you decide you wish to use any of what I’ve explained to you here in anything you write in your graduate studies, you’ll need to get my express written permission.”
Now, I included that last paragraph not only because I am protective of my intellectual property, but because I’m savvy to this thing that some college students do now, where they reach out all innocent-like to an expert online, and then take the expert’s responses and plagiarize them into an academic paper. I’ve seen it happen in Facebook groups, and I’ve gotten similar inquiries a million times.
Stranger: “Thank you so much for responding! I really appreciate you taking the time to answer.
“The background for my question relates to my work as a literacy tutor. I work primarily with students struggling with dyslexia and I’m trying to structure a simple but still relatively comprehensive guide to phonetic concepts for some older students.
“I have been compiling lists of various orthographic concepts / structures that cause difficulty. My original plan was to outline a simple reference list of English diphthongs, digraphs, consonant clusters, etc. but I’m realizing that my own understanding of the (di/tri/tetra)graph classifications is incomplete.
“I understand /ʃən/ as a syllable (onset /ʃ/, nucleus /ə/, coda /n/) but got confused when I was trying to fit it into the categories I had. When I looked up the concepts to make sure I wasn’t misrepresenting them I saw definitions and examples that showed trigraphs as graphemes representing more than one phoneme (e.g. <ear> which I would transcribe as /iɻ/) which has been confusing and has thrown off my understanding.
“Thank you again for your help. I sincerely appreciate you taking them time to help a stranger. If I need to reference your work or explanations I will make certain to reach out for permission.”
OK, so this earnest young undergrad is going to reinvent teaching reading, but has no clue how graphemes work. They’ve clearly been syllablized, which is not a good omen.
Me: “Spelling isn’t phonetic. Not ever. It’s phonological.”
Also Me: “I’m also concerned that you have included diphthongs and digraphs in the same breath. The former is a spoken unit and the latter is a written unit. They are often confused, and dyslexic students don’t need more confusion.”
Also Also Me: “Linguistically speaking, rhotic vowels are a vowel plus a consonant, but pedagogically they’re often represented as single phonemes. In non-rotic dialects, they’re often understood as phonemic when the <r> is not pronounced.
“There is a lot of misinformation about how English spelling works out there, and the dyslexia / phonics industry is no exception.”
Stranger: “Thank you for your concern. I appreciate and share your frustration with the abundance of misinformation in the industry.
“The quality and accuracy of language education is inconsistent at best even in my experiences at a post secondary level which has left me with some fundamental weaknesses as an educator.
“This is actually why I started making my own materials for the students I work with. I am trying to ensure my understanding is as firm and complete as possible so that I’m not contributing to the problem. Thank you again in that regard for helping clarify.””
So they know they’ve got ‘fundamental weaknesses as an educator’ and want to ‘ensure [an] understanding,’ and they’ve sought the help of an expert to do so. So far, so good. Too bad they can’t get that from any of their professors or trainers.
Stranger Continues: “Rest assured I am aware that spelling is phonological in nature and not a simple phonetic process.”
But, um, you SAID “phonetic concepts.” I did not invent that. And none of the things you mentioned (diphthongs, digraphs, trigraphs, clusters) are phonetic concepts. They are phonological and/or orthographic.
“Stranger Continues: “I also understand that diphthongs are spoken and digraphs are written. I listed them together because they are all common areas of difficulty for students so I am making separate reference lists for all of the challenging concepts.”
Just lists? No organization? Just a list of challenging concepts? Jiminy, Friend. The reason these are “common areas of difficulty for students” is because they’re so often conflated or just listed with no actual framework for understanding. A list of definitions isn’t helpful.
Stranger Continues: “My understanding is that literacy education requires a whole language approach.”
In your experience? You’re an undergrad!
Me: “I would caution you not to use the term ‘whole language’ as that carries its own implications.
“I doubt that you are studying acoustic phonetics with your students. Are you using spectrograms? Then you’re really not studying acoustic phonetics.”
Stranger: “I am aware of the implications of invoking whole language theory and the lack of evidence for its efficacy. Without getting into superfluous detail, I will say that I’m not a ‘whole language instruction’ proponent any more than I support rigid ‘phonics’ systems. I just see merit in the fundamental idea that language should be approached in a way that considers all parts of the process. Ultimately, the individual needs of the students inform my approach.
“As for acoustics, depending on the student, we may look at the fundamental mechanics of waves and discuss intensity, amplitude, and frequency. We may even talk in simple language about fundamental frequencies and harmonics. So yes, it is actually acoustic phonetics. I have acknowledged that there are weaknesses in my understanding but that doesn’t mean I deserve to be condescended to.
“I do offer sincere thanks for your help but I feel it comes with an air of superiority and judgment that I find uncomfortable.”
And then they blocked me. Womp-womp.
I’ve been tone policed since before this stranger was born, heh. But I’m not discounting their input because they’re young; I appreciate their effort to get an education and develop expertise. But the initial question and follow up conversation is clearly just a hodge-podge of linguistic terms. They clearly have no idea what a phoneme is or how a grapheme represents it.
But here’s what struck me the most: here is an obviously earnest, intelligent person who wants to make a difference, who realies that their understanding has some shortcomings, and who will take the initiative to reach out to experts. But they’ve been so poisoned by the standard dialogue on literacy education (‘phonetics,’ ‘phonics,’ ‘whole language,’ syllabaloney,) and imagine that they’ve invented individualized instruction and a comprehensive linguistic approach.
I’d love it if this young person had brought me something new, something that might inspire confidence in a new generation of literacy educators. But it looks like more of the same: a verbal commitment to rigor and accuracy that is easily overcome by pheelings.
I can think of more than a handful of times that an expert failed to consider my feelings. Sometimes the expert was right, and sometimes they were wrong, but I never, ever responded with anything other than evidence about the language. Not an argument about their tone or my feelings. Never.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go prep a lesson on formant frequencies for a dyslexic 6th grader. 🤣