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Archive for the ‘History of Reading Instruction’ Category

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 disassociation 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.’ The original sense for ‘needle’ was botanical, as in a pine needle, not a sewing needle. 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.

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I’m saying goodbye to 2016 in appropriate fashion: spending time with my family, eating a lot, fighting a cold, and studying word things.

Over the years that I’ve been at this word study and teaching and training thing, I’ve encountered references to a 1966 study known as The Stanford Spelling Survey, by Hanna, Hanna, Hodges, and Rudorf, four professors of education who analyzed 17,310 English words and wrote up their research in an article that’s cited over and over and over.  From this analysis of less than 2% of English words and a lot of number crunching, Hanna et al. concluded that English is 67% “regular.” That study has been used as the foundation of so much of modern phonics, including pedagogical decisions based on what patterns are considered “regular,” “common,” and “exceptions.”

This 50-year-old phonocentric study was brought to my attention again while I was working on my dissertation this past week, and also by a comment on my last post which I did not publish out of deference to the writer, who, like me, is a business owner with a public profile; unlike me, she runs a phonics center that trains people in Wilson and LETRs and other shopkeeping packages that I’ve countered with linguistic evidence many times before.  She wrote a comment to argue that the “frequency of occurrence with regard to nonsense words” matters, and cited a table from a 2010 book (which I have) that was copied from a 1976 book (which I also have), which itself was citing an article from 1966 (which I also have), that was in turn built on one author’s question from 1949 (yes, I have that too).

Paul Hanna’s 1949 question was “regarding the correspondences [of graphemes and phonemes] and their consistency in spelling,” as explained in the 1966 article. Twice I was directed to that 1966 article in my studies this week; there are no coincidences. As I said, I run into citations of that study frequently. It’s common. But this week’s two encounters were louder in my head than usual.  My email response to the LETRs Lady was clear and direct: I explained clearly that the “frequency of occurrence” of nonsense words is zero, and the “frequency of occurrence” of actual phonemes and graphemes in nonsense words is zero. The only evidence she had given me at all was a citation of a book citing another book citing an article, right? So I decided to trace it back to its source.

That table (which can be googled) was first published by Elsie D. Smelt in 1972 and has been cited widely since; her figures are taken from the 1966 Stanford Study. Smelt’s table says that “the most common way of writing each vowel sound is with one letter,” and this claim is attributed to the Stanford study as well. But what exactly do we mean by “common” or “frequent,” and how does that knowledge help readers and spellers? While single-letter vowel spellings may be the default grapheme for “long” and “short” vowel phonemes, spelling and reading strategies are not based on statistical calculations by proficient readers. Moreover, while we have only 6 single-letter vowel graphemes, we have more than 30 vowel digraphs and trigraphs, a ratio that troubles the notion of single letters being the “most common” spelling.  Let’s see what Hanna et al. actually say.

Here’s the basic framework they offer:

“These structural components of oral language include: (A) the phonetic reservoir from which a phonemic code is selected, (B) the phonemic base, (C) the morphological base, that is, the arrangement of phonemes into speech units which minimally express meaning, (D) the syntactic and grammatical base, that is, the arrangement of morphemes into syntactic patterns, and (E) the semantic base, which conveys meanings in terms of the conceptual system of a language community.” [I’m substituting his numbers with letters to make this post easier to write.]

Two things struck me right away: first, that these educators at least acknowledge a distinction between phonetic and phonemic concerns, which is more than I can say for many present-day phonics resources; and second, that they — and everyone who has followed in their formidable footsteps — have the way a language works totally backwards. Now, they’re talking about oral language rather than written, but the point is the same: you don’t start with phonetics and end up in meaning; rather, you start with meaning and from there, can analyze words (lexemes) into their sublexical (smaller-than-word) structures, including morphemes, phonemes, and the graphemes that pinpoint and reveal them.

In the word study I’m engaged in, we ask four questions:
(1) What does it mean?
(2) How is it built?
(3) What are its relatives?
(4) What segments and features of pronunciation matter to meaning? These segments are the only ones that are  revealed in the spelling.

Question 1 has to be first — there’s no point in knowing how to write a word whose meaning you don’t know.  And Question 4 has to be last — you can’t figure out the orthographic phonology until you have evidence for the other pieces. But Questions 2 and 3 can and do toggle considerably in any investigation. So you start with meaning, and you stay rooted in meaning all the way through. What does it mean?  And even Question 4, which deals with pronunciation, only concerns itself with aspects of pronunciation that matter to the meaning. So it’s the Stanford Study’s fifth and final concern — semantics, “the conceptual system of a language community” — which is where we actually need to start.

Our second question, How is it built?, is captured more or less in the Study’s third and fourth concerns, in which “the morphological base” and “the arrangement of morphemes” is considered. They define morphology as “the arrangement of phonemes into speech units which minimally express meaning.”

Oh if only there were some way to make those “speech units” that we use to “express meaning” visible!

Working backwards still, the Study’s second concern is phonology, the “phonemic base.” The reason there’s any fifth piece is because they’re talking about oral language, so phonetics is a thing because it’s actually spoken, and because although they differentiate phonetics from phonemics, they don’t seem to have any idea in the article that phonetics has nothing to do with orthography.

Of course, the Stanford Spelling Study doesn’t even mention etymological relatives, because it has no idea about the etymological governance of graphemes. It can tell you that 10% of the 17,000 words  that have /i:/ are spelled with <ee>, and 10% are spelled with <ea>, but it can’t tell you why <beech> and <beach> make sense. This study knows nothing about etymological markers or why words have a single, final, non-syllabic <e>. We know better now, so why is 21st-century so-called reading research still so married to a half-century-old, roundly debunked understanding of graphemes?

Seriously, professionals need to stop embarrassing themselves by clinging to these relics.

I also took a look at the numbers and at the phonemic and graphemic inventories used by this seminal study. It’s a bloodbath. I am not exaggerating. The phonemic inventory is lifted directly from the Merriam Webster Dictionary, which is important, because even if dictionaries were actually right about everything (they’re not), we’re still talking about a dictionary that has been updated and changed multiple times, including with regards to its pronunciation key, over the past 50 years. So the “research” that people want me to consider is based on a 50-year-old dictionary, interpreted by 50-year-old research, cited 40 years ago, and then re-cited in very recent years, none of which is evidence of anything at all about the language other than what cruddy research practices we have in literacy education.

The authors themselves “readily admit[] that this pronunciation key [from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary] has several critical weaknesses.”  They also acknowledge that linguists don’t always agree about everything, and that their graphemic inventory (which was all about how easily a computer could process 17,310 words) was also flawed.: “Unfortunately, complete consistency with this criterion could not be maintained, and so some exceptions to this general rule will be found among the list.” So we’re in exception-land, which is really not science. They do ask questions like “Is <I> a part of the graphemic option <TI> or <IO> in nation? In conscience, is <I> a part of the graphemic option <SCI> or <IE>?”, and they conclude that “Again linguists disagree upon this point.”

Well, folks, linguists may have disagreed on that point a half century ago, but orthographic linguists don’t disagree about it now. I already laid out proof in another post that there’s no <ie> in conscience — no matter that Louisa Moats says there is as though she proved it (she didn’t). Linguistics is a science, and we know more now about these kinds of questions — we have better tools now than we had 50 years ago, like the lexical word matrix, the orthographic word sum, the mini matrix maker, and the Online Etymology Dictionary, and better, faster ways of disseminating and discussing investigations and new information (in real time online classes, on editable websites and social media. We don’t have to carry around some dusty old misunderstanding like it’s our last keepsake from our long lost Pappy.

For reals, why are professionals — researchers and educators, of all people — clinging to 50-year-old research that didn’t even conceive of today’s scientific tools? Can you imagine if a surgeon or a rocket scientist did that? Mayhem. Can you imagine if we elected someone who ignored and denied modern climate science as President? Oh, wait… Sigh.

Science matters. Understanding the difference between factual, physical evidence, scientific consensus, and the repeated sub-letting of citations from, uh, wherever, something sciency-sounding, is just so critical to everything.

Among the lettery circus freaks that the Stanford Study offers in its admittedly troubled graphemic inventory are a *<bt> in debt, a *<ua> in guard and a *<cc> in occur. In real life, the <b> in debt is an etymological marker (debit); the <u> in guard, guaranteeguerillaguest, etc., is part of <gu> digraph that can mark an etymological relationship to cognates with a <w>: guard~warden, guarantee~warrantee, guerilla~war, guide~guise~guywire~wit~witness (‘to see’), guile~wily.  And as any regular reader already knows, the two <c>s in <occur> are each in separate morphemes. That’s like saying that there’s an <ea> in react or a <th> in hothouse. Big fat can of graphemic nope.

I could go on and on and on and on, but I’m gonna go hang out with my kid and watch a ball drop on this crazy calendar year. I’m not much for resolutions, but I’d welcome resolve to move into 2017 not clinging to antiquated phonics research like it’s a bible or a gun and something evil is after you.

I’m sorry that modern phonics is built on a rickety, outdated, dismantled, misguided, misquoted old study. I’m not sorry for pointing it out, and I’m not sorry for yelling a little. If you were clinging to a life raft of the same age and quality and I had a new speedboat, I’d be yelling just as loudly to save your life as I am now.

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Scholars who take the Old English for Orthographers LEXinar take a critical look at what’s said about the historical origins of words. Many categorically false, totally ascientific claims have been made in print by language educators widely considered to be “experts.” It’s been going on for decades.

In the 1980s, Bob Calfee’s “Layers of the English Language” triangle listed a dozen words as having an “Anglo-Saxon” origin. Two of them are definitively not Ango-Saxon: cry is Latinate, and jump isn’t attested until the Modern English period. A third, grave, is a homograph. One of the pair (dig a grave) does have an Old English origin; the other (a grave illness) is Latinate. Certainly there were less ambiguous options available.

More recently (2004), Louisa Moats has claimed that tube is Anglo-Saxon (it’s French), that television is Latin (actually, the <tele> is Greek), that biodiversity is Greek (not quite — the diversity piece of the compound is Latin). Moats also indulges in a fantasy of Anglo-Saxon origins for amuse, engender, enable, and endure, all of which are of French origin in real life. Other words that Moats falsely associates with Anglo-Saxon across her work include crash, age, lilac, recess, cable, bugle, title, dabble, problem, commit, and adept, most of which were adopted from French. She also attributes gravity to Greek. Poor old French! It doesn’t even get a layer in the triangle.

Moats is unfortunately in good company. In a 2009 article in American Educator written with her reading science colleagues (Joshi, Treiman, and Carreker), more than half of the examples of Anglo-Saxon words and patterns they give are flat-out wrong, not including ambiguous examples like Calfee’s grave or the homographic found (past tense of find, to establish, and to pour molten metal — two of which are French). They mistake a Greek origin for ache (it’s actually Old English) and Anglo-Saxon origins for the following words: carpenter, farmer, grocer, butcher, passable, agreeable, punishable, catch, pouch, rich, age, saved, and plentiful, but they’re mostly adopted from French.

Le sigh.

All in all, this article alone boasts more than 40 etymological lies in 12 pages, and that’s just one piece of writing from these prolific authors. This is not an occasional error or a minor problem. It’s epidemic. It’s malpractice, and I’m not mean or nasty for calling it out. I’m right.

Now, I don’t know everything, and I don’t expect others to know everything. I make mistakes in my work, and when others point them out, I am grateful for the opportunity to deepen my own understanding. I’m not unreasonable. I don’t, for example, fault Moats and company for being unable to explain the spelling of words like us, thus, yes, if, his, much, which, such, or, all of which she refers to as “exceptions” to the final patterns <ss>, <ff>, and <tch>. These words aren’t really exceptions — there’s no such thing; rather, they’re function words, which take the smallest possible spelling (see in/inn, of/off, or/err). I don’t expect educators to have a good command of this yet, as it’s not necessarily terribly common knowledge, and not something a plain old dictionary will flag.

However, etymology — a word’s origin — is not a matter of guesswork or opinion. Any proper dictionary can tell us where words come from. We can look them up in the Online Etymology Dictionary on our phones for free, for crying out loud. People with Ph.D.s and secure jobs should be able to ask an intern or proofreader to look up all the examples in a dictionary if they don’t care to reap the incredibly rich, captivating understanding that word study brings for themselves. Either way, it is a professional and ethical imperative that these authors begin to ensure that the teachers and scholars reading the words they write will not continue to be systemically misinformed.

In addition to the rampant etymological underhandedness in print, teacher trainers and workshop speakers perpetuate the same careless claims in classrooms and conference rooms. I’ve heard countless examples myself, and colleagues who know better report them to me.

It kind of makes me mad. Like, mad angry and mad crazy.

Mistakes don’t make me mad. But willful, continual misinformation makes me mad. Irresponsible scholarship makes me mad. False claims of expertise make me mad. And, as faithful LEX readers will recall, experts meeting corrected information with denial and deflection make me really, really mad.

Well. Today I received the following email from a colleague:

“I was attending an Indiana IDA meeting yesterday in Indianapolis. In an adjacent room, [famous teacher trainer guy] was conducting his 1-day morphology training. I stuck my head in for about 10 minutes to hear him talking about how morphology builds vocabulary—OK so far.

BUT this was his example:

crazy is Anglo-Saxon

insane is Latin

lunatic is Greek

I just had to walk out.”

Now, this man is a well-known, well-traveled, well-respected trainer whose work I have found troubling before. He has a habit of telling teachers not to teach the schwa because it’s “too complicated.” Of course, this advice is problematic because the schwa is the most common phone in an English utterance, but what really fries me is the all-too-familiar “don’t worry your pretty little heads” tone of a man telling a roomful of female educators what’s too hard for them to understand. Yuck.

Now, as far as crazy/insane/lunatic go, of course, I find the choice of subject matter to be a little ironic, ’cause I do indeed think it’s a little crazy to make unsubstantiated claims about word origins while stressing how important word origins are to word study. As you might expect, our morphology “expert” only got one of his examples right: insane does actually have a Latin root. But crazy is built on a French loanword, and lunatic is derived from luna, the Latin word for moon.

Instead, if you really want to have a look at cross-linguistic synonyms pertaining to insanity, I’d submit the following:

Old English: moony

Latin: lunatic

Greek: selenomanic

See? That makes a lot more sense.

Or

Old English: mad

Latin: insane

Greek: psychotic

I’d love to be able to include crazy, but its origin is a hard tail to pin on that tired, old layers-of-language donkey. It’s originally Germanic, but was adopted from French. And the French in question is Norman French, not Parisian French. This is true of so, so many words educators erroneously attribute to Anglo-Saxon: they’re short, common, everyday words, but they were Norman French contributions, not Anglo-Saxon. Some of them are Latinate; others are Germanic. After all, it was a really Germanic French that English was adopting words from in the late Middle ages.

Now, as I said, I’m not unreasonable. I get that understanding the nuances of language history and word histories requires study. After all, that’s what I do. I am sympathetic to the fact that most people don’t have the depth of etymological knowledge that I have. I get it. But that’s just the thing: you don’t have to have extensive knowledge of etymology in order to get it right, at least most of the time. You just have to look in a dictionary. Someone else has already done the study for you. It takes less than a minute or two to look up and read the entries for crazy, insane, and lunatic online.

Moreover, I’m not talking about generally held folk etymologies that get a foothold in the cultural rock wall; I’m talking about people who are widely regarded as “reading scientists,” people others rely upon for linguistic expertise and accurate information about language. Etymology as a field of study involves using established practices of comparative linguistics, based on the broader principle of the scientific method. The etymological guesswork across “reading science,” where every other example of an Anglo-Saxon word isn’t Anglo-Saxon, is pseudoscience, neither scientific nor a method.

Look, writing books and articles and speaking at conferences are activities that require research and preparation. I’m not a lunatic for pointing out that conference speakers, certified trainers, and respected, peer-reviewed authors be held to a higher standard when it comes to the empirical claims they make about words. Factual rigor is not an insane expectation for scholarly speaking and writing.

I’m not crazy.

I am, however, pretty mad about etymology.

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Update: Due to an overwhelming response, inquiries for this training opportunity have been closed.

I’m inviting a small group of people into a unique online study starting this summer. Here’s why, and below that is how. Space is limited, and costs are to be determined based on the number of participants.

My entry into language education was Orton-Gillingham, a teaching approach developed specifically for individuals with dyslexia. The approach was named for Dr. Samuel T. Orton, a neurospychyatrist, and Anna Gillingham, a psychologist and teacher. While a few other colleagues contributed significantly to the approach, it bears Sam and Anna’s names, and, I like to think, it also bears their legacy of refusing to accept the status quo for bright children struggling with literacy.

My training began nearly 15 years ago, just before the field began its journey toward accreditation, certification, and standardization of its practices. The Initial training program was structured and rigorous, requiring 45 graduate-level seminar hours and a 100-hour supervised practicum over the course of a year. The program later became accredited by the International Multisensory Structured Language Education Council, or IMSLEC, and I still maintain my continuing education records for recertification under IMSLEC’s banner. My trainer, Dave Winters, was patient and thorough, and he remains a friend and mentor today. As the field continued to professionalize in the early 2000s, Dave became a Fellow in the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators (AOGPE).

Within a few years I had become a supervisor and was observing others’ lessons. I began the Advanced Training, and in 2002 started working with my first training, group, still under Dave’s expert guidance. A few years later I had the privilege of interning as an Advanced Trainer under Marcia Henry, also a Fellow in the AOGPE, and a legend in the field. Marcia herself had trained under Paula D. Rome, a teacher whose physician uncle was a student and colleague of Sam Orton. Dave too had been trained in the same tradition, with Paula’s partner, Jean Osman. By my calculations, this puts me just three handshakes from Orton and Gillingham themselves. It’s a professional genealogy I am proud of, though I have no right to be, as I didn’t earn it.

Over the course of my career, I have trained hundreds of teachers in fifteen states in Orton-Gillingham, in the same rigorous IMSLEC-accredited program I am certified in, at both the Initial and Advanced levels. I have traveled throughout the U.S. and Canada, where I have attended and presented at countless conferences, and have both taught and observed thousands of lessons with children. But none none of these is my proudest achievement in this field.

While these numbers are indeed earned, they do not give my work integrity; I am not McDonald’s. Rather, what makes and keeps me credible in my work is that I keep learning. My own continuing studies have been a bit of a challenge to the field, to its traditions, and to some of its personalities. My public writing, including this website, documents that. I have loved this field and love it still, but my orthographic work has both widened and narrowed my scholarship community, and I’ve been saying a long goodbye to Orton-Gillingham training.

Or so I thought. It turns out, this field has been affected by this spelling work, and more and more, people within the OG field are seeking a coherent understanding of the writing system. Not everyone, just small pockets here and there. But these pockets are seeking me out. They want OG training, but they also want to engage with the understanding of our writing system that Real Spelling, Pete Bowers, and I might offer.

LEX is not an accredited training facility. As an individual, I am a certified instructor in an accredited training program, but that certification is confined to my training in that (or in another) accredited program. I can train and certify people in OG as LEX, but that certificate is not part of any accredited or recognized OG program.

Yet still people ask me to do the training.

Here’s the invitation to study: The most recent request is for a training that will take place online, in real time, over Zoom, a video conferencing platform. This will be a full, year-long training consisting of 45-50 Zoom seminar hours, plus a private, supervised practicum. Participants will not only learn to deliver the Orton-Gillingham approach, but will study OG as a field — its history, its structure, where’s it’s been, and where it’s going.

Dates are already set for summer.  Space is limited, and sessions will not be recorded.

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As my last post went up and was seen by the world of LEX readers, I was excited to see 120 hits in a day. That seemed like a lot of people. But compared to the American Educator‘s maelstrom of 900,000 readers, my little blog isn’t even a bathtub eddy. The journal of the American Federation of Teachers, which published the article I critiqued last time, regularly has nearly two million eyes fixed upon it. And the article in question is loaded, linked, and recommended on hundreds more Web pages.

The article has likely been read by millions of people.

Now, I’m thrilled that there’s a growing interest in spelling and spelling instruction that’s more than just memorize-and-test. I’m pleased that the article gets a lot right: English orthography concerns word structure and word histories, not just sounds. But the article is saturated with so much linguistic error that, as it’s gone fractal out there, it’s formed its own whole galaxy of teachers, tutors, speech pathologists, language therapists, curriculum developers, administrators, and others, who have a muddled understanding of how both English spelling and etymology actually work. In a world of instant access and free PDFs online, these experts’ errors have become viral juggernauts in both academia and the blogosphere. They’re scattered like feathers on the wind.

Let’s trace just one of the article’s errors — a mere typo, the one that’s easiest to trace — and see where it goes. As you know if you read Simply Put: Part I, the article in question begins with the following sentence:

In 1773, Noah Webster stated that “spelling is the foundation of reading and the greatest ornament of writing.”

But, as my students and I learned, Webster was born in 1758, and would only have been 14 or 15 in 1773. In fact, in 1773, the young Noah was studying Greek and Latin with a Hartford pastor, in preparation for his entry into Yale the following year. So where did the article’s authors get their bad information? They give the citation in the following endnote:

Cited in Richard L. Venezky, “From Webster to Rice to Roosevelt,” in Cognitive Processes in Spelling, ed. Uta Firth (London: Academic Press, 1980), 9-30.

Okay, so the Great Big Spelling Expert authors cite Venezky, who cited Webster. When I check the Venezky source cited, however, I find this:

So Venezky got it right. Since the late linguist counted a copy of the 1783 text in his personal collection (donated to Stanford), it looks like he actually consulted the original. Venezky also cites, in the same article, another pearl of wisdom from the pen of Mr. Webster, but references it as “Webster, 1783/1968, p. 11.”  This refers, of course, to a 1968 reprint of the original 1783 work. But it’s clear from his bibliography that the two sources are one and the same.

So, an eighteenth-century lexicographer / grammarian writes something down, an opinion, really, a characterization. Not a stone-cold fact or a first-time discovery, but an argument. He gets cited by some linguist just under 200 years later, in the late twentieth century. Then the twentieth-century linguist gets cited 20-some years later, in the twenty-first century, but incorrectly. (It’s all so exciting! Literally!)

Then what happens?

Then the error is reproduced and gets a foothold in print and digital media, in scholarly works and casual websites alike. Now, clearly the twenty-first century Spelling Experts simply executed a typo, and no one — not them, not their preliminary readers, not the journal’s editors — no one thought to double-check the date, or the original source, a citation re-cited, before sending it to press. No big deal, right? Typos happen all the time. They’re not actually real errors, just a simple mistake.

Mmm, maybe not.

The spelling article was originally published in American Educator in late 2008. Since then, in just three years, it’s been made freely available not only on American Educator‘s website, but also on literally hundreds of others, including several outside the U.S. In addition to the 900,000-strong readership of the journal, the freestanding article itself has easily seen hundreds of thousands — possibly millions — more readers. And those readers have shared the article’s content uncritically with others: colleagues, college students, parents, and children.

This one single 1773 error alone is far more easily locatable than all the linguistic misapprehensions, and I found it in several diverse places:

*on this blog, which was reposted here

*in this professional association newsletter (Spring 2009)

*in this dissertation (A)

*in this dissertation (B) too

*in this book on cognitive abilities in older adults, and even

*in Estonian, on this website, whence Google will re-translate the quotation back into a garbled “spelling is based on reading and writing, the largest piece of jewelry.” Ha!

So the error’s got traction.

Interestingly enough, the “ornament of writing” quotation doesn’t appear in every edition of Webster’s speller — over more than a century, this enormously popular book has come out in multiple editions — over a hundred in Webster’s lifetime alone. But not all of them have that line. Take, for example, the 1793 edition, which is digitized here. Within just 10 years, that line had disappeared from the speller. Known over time by different names, Webster’s text was hugely popular, at one point the best-selling book in all of North America. It was originally published in 1783 (not 1773) as the first volume of A Grammatical Institute of the English Language (the other two volumes were a grammar and a reader, respectively), and changed names over time, including The American Spelling Book and The Elementary Spelling Book, but best known as the Blue-Backed Speller (I’ve also seen Blue Back Speller in several searches). In its multiple editions and reprints over more than a century, the speller included a variety of prefaces, introductions, commentaries, advertisements, and testimonials.

The “foundation of reading” quotation does not appear in the 1807 edition of the book, then called The American Spelling Book. But that doesn’t stop one of the Spelling Expert authors from citing it indirectly in a 2005 article, where he attributes the quotation to Webster “as early as 1807.” While it’s not a lie — I mean, clearly Webster did say it as early as that — why not just get the citation right and check an original source? Didn’t we all learn in college to check original sources whenever possible? The Interwebs were around by 2005 — it wouldn’t have taken long to figure out when and where Webster wrote this oh-so-beloved quotation. Since the author offers no citation reference for this “as early as” information, however, it’s impossible to tell why he picked that particular year. It betrays a scholarship that thinks Webster is important enough to quote, but not to actually study.

Webster was, in fact, one interesting guy, as we might expect. As a child, he received his education largely from his mother; he found his one-room schoolhouse teachers to be pious and illiterate dullards, and his adult desire was to see well-trained teachers in every American classroom. In fact, he himself wrote of his speller that its rules and guidelines “are rather designed for the master [teacher] than for the scholar [student]; for if all instructors pronounced words with correctness and uniformity, there would be little danger that their pupils would acquire vicious habits of pronunciation” (found in an early nineteenth-century edition, digitized here). While I don’t get too moved by Webster’s orthoepy or syllable division or his fairly narrow focus on a single American English, I can get down with the idea of well-trained teachers, hence my complaints about shoddy scholarship in education journals and elsewhere. Indeed, if all instructors — or all Spelling Experts — approached word structures and histories with correctness and discipline, there would be little danger that their pupils would acquire vicious habits of scholarship.

Now wait just a minute. Aren’t those awfully strong words, for just a typo? Shoddy? Vicious habits? Shouldn’t I just gear down?

Well, let’s take a closer look at the sources that pass along the 1773 error. Doing so myself convinced me even further of the need for improved rigor in spelling scholarship. When scholars simply cite, cite, cite, rather than to seek evidence themselves (I already wrote about that here), they’re also likely to blindly trust that what they cite must be correct, without questioning, interrogating, or verifying their sources’ claims. Folks just really trust these Spelling Experts, and they’ll take what they say without checking it further. This blog didn’t give any source for the faulty citation until I asked for one; while it claims to be a “linguistic” site, and refers to linguistics as the “scientific study” of language, the blog itself is decidedly casual. That’s to be expected in the world of weblogs, I suppose.

So let’s go to the other end of things. In a book chock-full of facts, figures, and statistics, a book claiming to “focus on research foundations,” a book published by Springer Science and Business Media, the authors of Chapter 10 trot out the erroneous 1773 claim, and don’t offer any citation for it. When we read their text, we’re just supposed to take their word that Webster said what he said, but in 1773. Written, then cited, then cited again, then cited again, and with each citation, it moves further away from its source, further away from real scholarship. These authors do cite the Spelling Experts’ article a couple of sentences later, so I can be certain that’s where they got the error.

Let’s also consider how the two doctoral dissertations cite Webster, just for kicks. As a doctoral student myself, I know how hard doctoral students work. I know how much detail goes into preparing a dissertation, including gathering appropriate copyright information, cross-referencing works cited, and dotting <i>s and crossing <t>s, so I was (am) troubled to see these two dissertations show evidence of some scholarly sloppiness.

In the first dissertation, the author (A) attributes the Webster quotation thusly:

In 1773, Noah Webster suggested that “spelling is the foundation of reading and the greatest ornament of writing” (cited in Venezky, 1989, p. 12).

She also mentions Venezky 1989 in the very first sentence of her abstract. When I check her bibliography, however, the only Venezky publication listed is Venezky, R.L. (1999), The American way of spelling: The structure and origins of American English orthography. New York: Guilford. Sigh. I check my copy of Venezky 1999 for the Webster quotation, and it’s not in there, on page 12 or anywhere else. What is in there, however, is a four-page biography of Noah Webster, including his 1758 birthdate and his 1783 publication of A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, Part I. In fact, reading Venezky was the reason my students had an inkling that 1773 was off.

I also checked to see what Venezky had published in 1989. He doesn’t refer to any 1989 work in his own bibliography, and the only thing I could find that Venezky authored solo and published in 1989 was a book review that was published on pages 89-92 of the American Journal of Education. While I don’t have a copy of that source to see if the quotation is in it or not, I can tell that it has no page 12. Ultimately, I’ll never know where the dissertation’s author got that citation. Fortunately, dissertations are not known for being widely read. Perhaps the erroneous buck will stop here.

But there are a few other bucks out there. The second dissertation (B) has its own citation problems. In a totally undergrad-level move, the author closely paraphrases the Spelling Experts’ article. Here’s what the article’s first paragraph says:

In 1773, Noah Webster stated that “spelling is the foundation of reading and the greatest ornament of writing.” He was right. Good spelling is critical for literacy, and it makes writing much easier. . . [S]pelling instruction underpins reading success . . . As children learn to spell, their knowledge of words improves and reading becomes easier.

And the dissertation’s first paragraph says this (with most of the sources removed to make the reading easier):

In 1773, Noah Webster correctly suggested that “spelling is the foundation of reading and the greatest ornament of writing” (cited in Venezky, 2000). Good spelling ability is critical to the reading process, as is reading to spelling. . . As children’s knowledge of spelling increases, their knowledge of words improves; thus, reading and writing become not only easier but interconnected (Joshi, Treiman, Carreker, & Moats, 2009).

Now, while this dissertation does cite the Spelling Experts, she doesn’t credit them with the Webster quotation; rather, she credits that to Venezky 2000.  So I check her bibliography, and I find Venezky 1993, which she also cites in the text, and Venezky, R. L. (2000). The American way of spelling: The structure and origins of American English orthography. New York: Guilford Press. But the book has just one publication date, and it’s 1999, not 2000. Double sigh. Venezky did publish an article in 2000 (“The Origins of the Present-Day Chasm Between Adult Literacy Needs and School Literacy Instruction” in Scientific Studies of Reading, Vol. 4, Issue 1), but the Webster quotation doesn’t make an appearance. Webster is mentioned in it, however: “Noah Webster published his first speller in 1783” (24); once again, Venezky gets it right.

One of my students noted that the Spelling Experts claimed a collective “eight decades of experience helping preservice and inservice teachers improve their instruction in spelling, reading, and writing” (page 6). “You’d think,” said my student, “that in 80 years they would’ve had plenty of time to check their facts.” We all had a good chuckle, and I had to admit that my student had come by his spelling snark honestly.

As I detailed in my last post, I tried to guide my students toward epistemological rigor and accuracy. This experience made the reasons behind my nagging crystal clear. The point is never the snark: it’s the call to a higher standard for scholarship in the field. These authors are prolific, and have their hand in published spelling curricula, as well as the “research” base it relies on. I’ve written about other linguistic errors in some of their other writings, too. One of them says in that same 2005 article that <hear> is the base element of <rehearsal>; it isn’t — it’s <hearse>, like the funeral car, and here’s the proof. Another says in this book that <tube> is Anglo-Saxon. Nope and nope. I could go on. And I probably will.

As I’ve done a little research for my dissertation into Noah Webster’s work, I realize how much it has permeated literacy instruction in the U.S., for better and for worse. The fixation on syllable division, the focus on word lists, the assumption that pronunciation is the goal of orthography, the notion that there is a single American Standard English, and even that persistent and careless assertion that <tion> is a suffix, which it’s not (if you’re not convinced, here’s a proof, in the comments) — all these are traceable to the perseverance of Webster’s works in American classrooms. Popular publications — publications that get widely circulated and used over and over again — become part of the common knowledge out there.

This is why I care about the errors in the Spelling Experts’ article. It’s so widely read. It’s been posted and reposted, passed along, and it is still frequently and proudly cited, including by the authors themselves. Now, arguably, no one’s going to suffer too much from seeing the wrong date on a Noah Webster quotation; it’s unlikely to destroy someone’s conceptual foundations about language, history, spelling, and writing. It’s not evidence of anything except one famous man’s opinion. But if an innocuous error like getting a date wrong can have such far-reaching consequences in both scholarship and popular culture, what about the conceptual errors, like assuming that all short, common words are from Old English (gym class, anyone?), or assuming that all words from Latin are “sophisticated” (cup or pen, anyone?), or modeling etymology as something that can be guessed at? What are the effects of the wide dissemination of historical and linguistic error? I can’t help but wonder how far that article — and its errors — will reach a hundred years hence.

Time to get my readership numbers up!

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