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Archive for the ‘Rigor in Scholarship’ Category

My Symposium in the Pines ended ten days ago; my last guests departed the next day. Since then, I’ve ordered school clothes and school supplies for my son, who starts school on August 1st. My InSight 3 Decks arrived,  were processed, and shipped. I still have shipping stuff all over the living room, both coming and going. The wine glasses from the Symposium’s freaking magical Wednesday night dinner were still sitting on my dining room table two Sundays later, waiting for me to make sense of the kitchen and run them through the dishwasher.

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Worth it.

In January of this year, I realized that the Australia trip I had imagined for this summer was not going to materialize, so I decided to focus my energies on bringing people to Prescott. I moved here with my son two years ago, and have marveled at the natural beauty, the Native American presence, the rip-roarin’ Old West history, the charming Courthouse Square downtown, the diverse architectural treasures, and the present-day arts-and-antiques culture. I wanted to share all of this, so I paid a huge deposit on a boutique hotel undergoing renovations and crossed my fingers.

Worth it.

By the end of April, I had deposits from enough people to fill the hotel’s 12 rooms. A couple people backed out, and a couple more came to take their place. I could not have designed a better group, though I suspect that pretty much any mix of my serious clients would’ve had its own special character. Some people who came have only been studying with me for a little over a year; for others, it’s been closer to two decades. No one took everything home from the week, but everyone took something. Lots of things, in fact. The content was organic: sketched out at the beginning of the week, but open for questions and tangents and rabbit holes. IMG_20190727_102429

I am somewhat embarrassed to write that several attendees brought me gifts.  I mean, in addition to paying to be there and traveling in from afar, they brought me gourmet chocolates, fancy paper drinking straws with little die-cut cacti on them, a book about swearing in many languages, a handmade mussel-shaped dish, and a hand-crocheted market bag that I christened this weekend. One lovey brought me homemade spanakopita in her suitcase, frozen for the trip. I did nothing to deserve any of it.

But I did organize a hell of a week.

In addition to our studies, we toured the Sharlot Hall Museum and learned about Arizona’s earliest days. We visited local pre-Columbian petroglyphs and went kayaking at Watson Lake — our three brave paddle-boarders were no match for strong winds and had to be rescued, but no one was hurt, unless you count my stupid sunburn. There was an early morning hike to Thumb Butte. We had this beautiful catered group dinner on Wednesday night at the stunning Foxbriar Inn, and on Thursday we got to tour the stunning 1907 Masonic Temple downtown, its original ceremony room now a photography studio, with the original pentalpha lighting and carved wooden lintels intact. Those who stayed Friday night had an impromptu Friday night wine-and-pizza gathering at the beautiful home of one of the local teachers who had joined us.

Of course, none of this was the point.

We studied our hearts out. We clarified PIE patterns and Germanic grammar, Latin twin bases and combining forms, and Greek formative elements. We investigated lexical doublets and French cousins and we even had a Zoom visit from Doug Harper, who walked us through the suppletive tendencies of the verb to be. We examined the three suffixing patterns in English, and we teased apart differences between conventions and principles. We discussed zero allophones and etymological markers, default graphemes and competing constraints. Over the course of the week, we circled back several times to the replaceable <e>, because how could we not? So-called ‘silent’ letters in general make English spelling work optimally, but the <e> in particular is the linchpin to the whole system. I bet you a dollar that’s in every single person’s notes.

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When my great-grandmother, Idonia, was pregnant with or a new mother to my paternal grandfather, Charlie, in 1900, her husband, Harry, skipped town or went to prison or something, after committing some kind of financial fraud. We don’t know much about Harry or exactly where he came from: Idonia was from West Virginia, but gave birth to Charlie in New York. No one knows where Harry went after he left. Somewhere in there was the Ohio State Penitentiary and a fire. The details are sketchy for me, though some of my cousins may know more.

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Idonia divorced Harry and raised Charlie on her own as a single mother, working as a stenographer and a postmistress. She smoked a pipe. In the 1910 census records, she is listed under her maiden name of Lytle, living alone in a rented home in West Virginia. Under the column for “children,” there is a big, fat zero. This must’ve been during the time that Charlie spent in a Catholic boys’ home, as family legend has it, the same one Babe Ruth spent time in for his youthful waywardness. Like I said, the details are sketchy, and the people who might’ve known more about them personally are gone now.

Charlie grew up with a last name (Cook) different from his mother’s (Lytle), something that undoubtedly marked them both in the Ohio and West Virginia neighborhoods where they lived. When Charlie reached adulthood — which couldn’t have been easy in the early 1900s with a single mama, no matter how resourceful — he added an <e> to the last name he had inherited from his father, Harry Cook, as a way to disavow him and become his own man.

That final <e>, you could say, is the linchpin in the family story.

Charlie Cooke-with-an-<e> worked most of his adult life for the Columbus Dispatch newspaper as a typesetter; the 1940 Census shows his profession as “Composition” for the “Newspaper.”

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He was a father to four, one of whom, my dad, started his career as a Linotype machinist for the Dispatch, later became a typesetter, and eventually, ran the photocomposition department for Peterson Publishing Company in Los Angeles. My dad and my grandpa are a big part of why I proudly use a union printer for my LEX materials. I never knew  Charlie, as he died two years before I was born. All told, he was grandfather to 24, known as Pop Cooke, and posthumously, a great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather now, to too many to count. We are all “Cooke cousins,” even those bear a different name.

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One of the things we studied at the Symposium was base elements that have two forms — one with a replaceable <e> and one without — like the free base <sore> and the putative <sor> that we find in <sorry>, or the <tom> in <atom> that’s a <tome> in its free form and derivatives, like <ana + tome + ic + al> and <en + tome + o + loge + y>. We investigated what becomes of the <e> in words like truly, truth, only, once, judgment and fledglingunanimous, and philharmonic, words in which that <e> is not being replaced by a vowel suffix. We made sense of these patterns by studying not only individual words, but each word’s permanent context in its own family and within the system as a whole.

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Words, like people, make more sense when we know more about the families they come from.

We looked at words like borne and come and please, words whose <e> completes them, marks them as lexical forms, and differentiates them from otherwise homographic structures. We discussed the final <e> in candle and bible and double, and the highly mutable <e> in words like meter~metre and center~centre, switched around by a young Noah Webster in a newborn American nation.

Noah Webster and Charlie Cooke were both men of letters, you could say.

At the end of the final afternoon of the Symposium, one of the attendees, Marie, brought me another one of these undeserved gifts, this one a shiny white draw-string bag with several small, square metal plates in it. They spelled out my name. At first I thought they were typesetting molds called — brace yourself — matrices that shape and hold the punches in letterpress printing. “Oh Marie, I love these!” I effused. “My dad was a printer. So was my grandpa.” Now, after looking around a little, I think that they are actually brass etching guides, used for a different kind of ‘printing.’

Either way, they’re perfect: to write, glyph, a graph, to scribe, to print — all of these are etymologically a cutting, a carving, a punch, an engraving, an etching. Character derives from a very ancient word for a pointed tool. Character is, after all, that which is imprinted on our soul.

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On Friday evening, over wine and pizza, I shared this photo with those who had not seen the letter plates earlier that day. People asked Marie where she had found them.

“In an antique shop around the corner,” she said. “I was going to give them this morning, but I saw Cooke written and thought, Oh, hell, there’s an <e> on the end of her name! So I had to go back at lunch for an <e>.”

It was then that I remembered that Marie had been uncharacteristically late coming back from lunch that day. We got started, and when she arrived after a few minutes, she was breathless and sweaty, her sweet Scottish freckle face flushed. It was clear that she had rushed to get back.

“The clerk and I had to dig through the whole bin,” she explained that evening. There weren’t many <e> plates in the bin, and it took them a while to find one. That was why Marie was late. An <e> is a pretty popular letter, you see. Kind of the linchpin for the whole system.

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I hesitate to write about these gifts at all. My purpose is not to boast, but to marvel, and this includes marveling that my people know me so well. They know that I love books and cacti and Arizona, swearing and all kinds of pink things, local history and farmers markets and France, chocolate and coffee and baguettes.

And words.

I am so grateful for and even embarrassed by the love in these gifts.

But the best gift, the biggest return on my investment, is watching what these people take home from here. They take home what we studied: things that they had wondered about and now understand for the first time; things that they understand better and more deeply than before; and things that they never even imagined. Things I never even imagined.

We discussed several times over the week how so many of our students — specifically, the students of the people in the Symposium room — find us as a last resort. They’ve been through phonics. They’ve had years of OG or one of its offshoots. Their parents have begged and pleaded and fought for Wilson or Barton or Lindamood Bell only to find after years of it that their kids are still half-literate at best, unable to spell English and hopelessly unconvinced that it’s even possible.

You know what I mean. These are the kids that are called treatment resisters, the mamas who never get eye contact from school personnel because they’re so difficult, the papas whose hair’s gone gray over bills for tutors and lawyers and conferences and advocates, all promoting more phonics.  When teachers can show these kids and families how things work in English — why two has a <w> and why one has an <e> — then not only does the language make more sense, but the families can also understand themselves as systematic, scientific thinkers instead of as defective learners.  When I see a light bulb go on for a teacher in my room, and then I watch her shine that light on language for her families, there is no better gift.
  
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I got an email from Marie a few days ago, exactly a week after that wine and pizza.

Dear Gina,

I know you are super busy, but I wanted to take a moment to thank you again for all the insights and information you shared at the Symposium.

I taught all week, and was able to bring back to the students lots of the new learning from the Symposium.

I talked about the concept of curiosity with a student who started with me for the first time this week after two years of intense phonics instruction. She was not very happy with bring brought to ANOTHER tutor and told me that what I was doing was NOT science.

On day one we explored why there is an < > on the end of the word horse as she loves horses. This led to a discussion on the difference between suffix < -es > and < -s > and investigating the word plural and its connection to plus.

On day two we looked at the spelling of < have > and then last night she went home and wrote up a list of over twenty words that ended in < e > and asked me today to help her understand why they ended in < e >.

The word < be > happened to be on the list, so we jumped into a discussion on function and content words. As she sat happily sorting out content and function words and drawing little pictures for the content words, she stopped and said, “this is science, Marie, it is word science.” To which I said, “that’s pretty much what Linguistics is.”

Her mom was very moved by her daughter’s progress and said to me, “she seems to be really getting this,” to which I said, “because this is the truth of hour our language works and the truth sticks.”

Thanks for sharing the truth about language. I had so much fun this week bringing the learning from the Symposium to the students and parents.

Thank you for arranging the Symposium. I will be forever grateful.

Meeeeeeeee too.

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Hey, hey, hey! Come to this conference.

Peter Bowers will be talking about morphology.

I’ll be talking about phonology. Not that phake phonnicky stuph passed off by the Dyslexia Industry and others. Real phonology.

Douglas Harper will be talking about etymology, and undoubtedly wowing us all with pearlescent metaphor and hilarity.

It’s a trifecta: Win, win, win.

Each of the three of us will have have a keynote and a breakout session, and I’ll be there the whole time with a table full of the most linguistically accurate materials money can buy, including the THIRD Edition of the LEX Grapheme Decks, and — I hope — a THIRD Volume of LEX InSight Decks.

Sure, Chicago will be cold in March. And all the cool kids will be there. Hot, hot, hot.

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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.

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You know, sometimes you just have to talk to a doctor about something embarrassing and there’s no way around it, so here I go.

To Dr. Karen: A Review of Your “30 Tier 2 Words for Language Therapy”

This freely available, online, language education resource is written by Dr. Karen Dudek-Brannan, my fellow scholar from Illinois State University, one of the nation’s oldest public universities, and one of the largest producers of educators in the U.S. Whether those claims to fame are good things or bad things depends on your opinion, I guess.

Here’s something that doesn’t depend on opinion, however: facts. Not alternative facts; the real kind. Like, for example, linguistic facts. So I’d like to offer you my opinion on the facts — and the fictions — in your work. In the free sample you offer visitors to your website, you offer 30 words for study, and more than a third of them are misidentified. Oops! That’s a 63%. At ISU, I’m pretty sure that’s a D.

Since you took the time to check out my work, Dr. Karen, I thought I’d do the same, so I ordered the free resource you offer on your web page, and I watched your video to learn all about the “magic bullet for treating language disorders.”

Just curious. Have you read any of the research on the effects of morphological study on vocabulary? I don’t give a toot, myself, but I know how much you like research. And vocabulary. I did not realize that vocabulary was a magic bullet at all! Imagine my surprise in learning that if you study what words mean with your students, they do better with language tasks! Clearly magic is the only reasonable explanation for such an improvement.

As far as bullets go, I admit that I have not yet tried shooting my students to see if that helps. But then again, I’m not a doctor, and if you google me, you can verify that fact.

I thought about asking the people on SpellTalk what they thought of your work, Doctor Karen, but since the administrators kicked me out of their club for truth-telling like five years ago, I couldn’t. So I decided to just write in my own space, publicly, instead of to other people in secret, to alert you directly to the following conceptual errors in your resource:

1. You identify as nouns the following words: route and trance. Of course, they can both be nouns, but they can also be verbs. You don’t know what they are until they’re in an actual phrase, but they’re not. They’re disembodied on flash cards, with no explanation or investigation. Just as you can’t tell how a morpheme will be pronounced until it surfaces in a word, you also can’t tell what part of speech something is until it surfaces in a phrase or clause.

a. They will route the new bus line though my old neighborhood. 

b. She’s tranced and won’t be roused.

The other nouns on the list have reliably nominal suffixes or suffixion constructions: recreation, compassion, location, assortment, disability, gratitude. Masterpiece is a compound noun, and memory, like history  and category, is a noun too,  and linking it to memorial (historical, categorical) makes better sense of its meaning, structure, and pronunciation.

I’d like to see the empirical research evidence that flashcards are a better mechanism for teaching vocabulary than actually studying the a word’s structure and relatives, upon which you undoubtedly based your materials.    

2. On your list of verbs to memorize, you offer ramble, embraced, challenge, underestimate, and collapse. Again, while these can be verbs, they also have other possibilities:

a. Let’s go for a ramble through the woods, shall we? (Noun. If a clown is asking, say no.)
b. Embraced by visual artists, the new technology has made a big splash. (Adjective.)
c. Well that’s a challenge, isn’t it? (Noun.)
d. The adjustor’s underestimate was rejected by the contractor. (Noun.)
e. Did you ever study the collapse of the Roman Empire? (Nounity noun noun. Et tu, Brute?)

So, fully half of the words that the Doctor prescribes for verbosis, with no phrasal context to establish them as verbs, can also be, well, not verbs.

Have you got any good peer-reviewed research to support calling nouns “verbs,” I wonder?

Well hey, third time’s the charm, right?

3. Wrong. Of your ten “adjectives,” three can be other word classes, (leisurely, tender, and cunning) and one is patently not adjectival (rehearse):

a. The governess pushed the pram leisurely along. Pip pip and cheerio. (That’s an adverb.)
b. I’m gonna be a happy idiot, and struggle for the legal tender. (A noun.)
c. Please tender my regards to your kindly mother. (Verb.)
d. The garden’s tender had passed away, and the garden grew weedy. (Noun again!)
e. Her cunning is unmatched. No, really, it’s unmatched I tell you! (Noun.)
f. You should really rehearse your parts of speech before you make false claims. (Verb? Word.)

The words that are correctly pegged as adjectives? Glorious, adorable, flawless: those suffixes, <ous>, <able>, and <less>, and are reliably adjectival. The reason those words are adjectival is because that syntax is carried in their final morphemes (compare gloryadore, and flaw).

Can you please point me to the empirical research studies that prove it’s better to memorize three adjectives off of flash cards than it is to study the facts of the writing system?

I’m asking for a friend.

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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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For the last couple of days, I’ve been running into a lot of online phonics apologia about the use of nonwords, nonsense words, pseudowords, word-attack words, phonemic decoding items, and/or so-called “detached syllables,” in instruction, intervention, and assessment. For starters, the fact that these things have so many different names should cue us in that they are not an actual thing, not a scientific thing, anyhow (just like so-called “sight words”). They are not an actual category, if for no other reason than that many of the examples I’ve encountered over the years are actually real words in use in English, like cam, pate, lander, din, rayed, oft, knap, sedge, bi, [P]og, ta, lat, lum, barchan, and a lot more. Some people collect stamps; I collect linguistic scat from literacy educators and I study it.

People like to argue that nonwords are an effective means of teaching or assessing a student’s knowledge of what they call “grapheme-phoneme correspondences,” or GPC. But every single one of these nonword materials and studies misapprehends both a G and a P, as evidenced by such fabricated baloney as the “quadgraphs” [sic] like *<ough> and *<eigh>, and by the failure to even consider the difference between phones and phonemes. The fact of the matter in our writing system is that no G has a C to a P outside of an M, and M stands for morpheme. Once you remove phonemes and graphemes from a meaningful context, they’re no longer phonemes or graphemes.

To a resource, they all erroneously assume phonological primacy; that is, they remove orthographic phonology from its meaningful context because they wrongly assume that it’s primary to the meaningful constraints and influences of morphology and etymology. That very practice effectively means it’s no longer phonology, because phonology — including phonemes and the graphemes that spell them — is distinctive for meaning and it’s language-specific; nonwords are neither. It is noncontroversial that English orthographic phonology is delimited and constrained by meaning, structure, and history, regardless of how that fact makes people feel.

More than one person has suggested that nonwords were the only way to “break” a student of the habit of guessing at words, often in isolation. Well, you can break an overeating habit by taking up smoking, too, and you can kick a heroin habit by taking up methodone, but that doesn’t mean that the new habits have no harmful consequences. I’d rather focus my scholarship on what I can build than on what I can break.

I’ve also heard from a number of people working with “older” children who are called “treatment resisters” or “treatment fatigued” — kids who spend YEARS in Barton or Wilson and never get past so-called closed and open syllables [sic]. They may begin to “read” better (depending on what you think “read” means), but they continue to spell and write years behind their eulexic peers, largely spelling everything based on the way they pronounce it, because that’s exactly what they’ve been taught to do. I’ve heard from teachers and parents of children who read years ahead of their peers too, kindergarteners who read 3rd grade chapter books with ease, but have no idea how to spell or how to “decode” unfamiliar words, so they’re subjected to nonword drills in order to “measure” their “knowledge” of “alphabetics” or of GPCs.

OMGrapheme.

So here is my analysis of all of the nonwords featured on a publicly available assessment called The Nonword Reading Test. The test instructions say “Either a regular or an irregular pronunciation is acceptable,” but no definition of “regular” or “irregular” is offered beyond that for <soser>, “soaser” would be “regular and rhyming with “loser” would be irregular.

First of all, there is NO ENGLISH WORD spelled with the sequence <oaser>, or even with an <oase> to which we could add an <er>. So how on God’s Grapheme Earth is that “regular”? Moreover, they do NOT specify how the <oa> or the medial <s> in “soaser” would be pronounced. Is the <oa> pronounced as in boat or as in broad or as in oasis? Is the <s> pronounced as in wiser, eraser, or pleasure? And how is the child or the teacher supposed to know or understand that?

You know why <loser> is spelled with an <o>? Because <looser> is a different word, and <lose> is cognate to <loss> and <lost>. What’s “irregular” about that? Just because teachers and researchers and psychometricians are generally ignorant to that breathtaking fact makes it no less a breathtaking fact. Context matters to so-called GPCs. Otherwise they’re neither Gs nor Ps, and any Cs you think are there are not real.

LOLinguistics.

While we’re talking about <soser>, we may as well take a closer look at, um, <closer>: in“this street is closer than that street, the medial consonant is [s]. In he’s the best sales closer of the month” it’s a [z] — those two examples have two different suffixes that happen to spelled and pronounced the same, but don’t share a meaning! The ONLY way you know how to pronounce that word is if you know what it means. And that’s not even considering the pronunciation of the <s> in <closure>.

My analysis provides incontrovertible evidence against the motivating characteristics of all nonword resources: That dusty old crooked Assumption of Phonological Primacy.

The CrAPP.

Here’s the list from this test, along with English words I provide that share (some of) the same sequences of letters. If it feels like some kind of shameful hell for you to read through these, just imagine you’re a 12-year-old dyslexic with an IQ of 138. Or really, anyone.

One Syllable
—————
1. plood: food, good, blood

2. aund: auberge, auto, Auschwitz — and <aunt> can rhyme with pant [ænt], haunt [ɔnt], or font [ɑnt], depending on your dialect.

3. wolt: colt, but also wolf, wolverine, woman, word, work, worm

4. jint: pint, lint — in many dialects lint and lent rhyme.

5. hign: sign, malign, benign, but signal, malignant; also hour, honor, and herb.

6. pove: shove, move, stove

7. wamp: ramp, swamp, swam

8. cread: bread, bead — for crying out loud, <read> is both [riːd] and [rɛd] — and how about create, or triad?

9. slove: glove, stove, prove — haven’t we been here before?

10. fongue: tongue, fondue, wrong, humongous, segue

11. nowl: bowl, fowl, snow, now, lowly, bowlegged

12. swad: swan, swam, swamp (is there an echo in here?)

13. chove: choir, cholera, chop, chef, and see pove and slove

14. duede: suede, due, clued, cued, swede, educate

15. sworf: sword, swollen, sworn, swore, word, work

16. jase: base, phase — vase, for crying out even louder, can be [veɪs], [veɪz], or [vɑz]

17. freath: breath, wreath, great, smooth

18: warg: war, warm, forward, wary, argue (there is no English word that ends in <arg> — if it’s a detached syllable, then what about larger?)

19. choiy: the graphemes <oi> and <y> are never, ever in sequence. Even <iy> is tightly constrained: that sequence is either across a morpheme boundary (as in multiyear) or in a non-English word, like teriyaki or aliyah. Consider joy and soy and bok choy.

Two Syllable (so much for that ‘detached syllable’ rationale)
———————————————————————-
1. louble: double, rouble, boucle, tousle, loud

2. hausage: sausage, usage, garage, stage, courageous, also hour and honor and herb again.

3. soser: loser, poser

4. pettuce: lettuce, induce; petty has a double <t>; petting has a doubled <t>; flattop has neither.

5. kolice: police, policy (some people say POlice), malice, preslice. And why does this have a <k> before an <o>?

6. skeady: steady, beady, skean

7. dever: clever, fever — hell, lever can be both [‘lɛvɚ] and [liːvɚ]!

8. biter: This is not a nonword. It’s a word: “My new puppy is a biter.” Nonetheless, if it were, say, <piter> instead, notice writer, whiter (note the different <er> suffixes), liter, arbiter

9. islank: island, mislay, Islam, mankiller, and anyhow, vowel pronunciation is often disputed before [ŋ], but the orthographic phonology is revealed by the graphemes.

10. polonel: colonel, colony, colon, polish, police, Polish — what in the hell can *polonel tell you about anything at all? Someone please make it stop.

11. narine: This is actually a word; it means “pertaining to the nostrils” or the same as “narial.” Criminy, is your google broken? But also, marine, margarine, alkaline, urine, line, incline…

12. kiscuit: biscuit, intuit, circuit, circuitous, recruit, and how about Jesuit? The Jesuits have always valued knowledge and evidence.

Why 19 monosyllables? Why 12 disyllables? Why 31 total? Only the <shade + ow> <know + s>.

This “test” features the following rough distribution of graphemes, depending, for example, on whether the <s> in <islank> and the <g> in <hign> are supposed to be graphemes or markers, or on whether the <<ui> in <kiscuit> is one grapheme (bruise) or two (intuit). Those are just a few examples of the ascientific foolishness embedded in here that makes a real scientific analysis challenging:

Consonants
—————-
b (3)
c (4, including both [k] and [s])
d (5)
f (3)
g (2-3, [g] and [ʤ] and [∅])
h (0-2, initial only, which could be French markers)
j (2, initial only)
k (4, including the unconventional *kolice)
l (9-10, including *polonel. Honestly.)
m (1)
n (9)
p (4, initial only)
r (2, initial only)
s (8-9, most of which have multiple possible pronunciations)
t (5, including <tt>)
v (4, of which 3 are in an <ove> rime)
w (3-4, initial or following <s>)
ch (1, initial only)
th (1, final only)
gue (1, or maybe it’s a <g> followed by a <ue>, as in argue, or a <g> followed by a <u> and an <e>, as in segue. Who knows?)
That’s 17 of 20 single-letter consonant graphemes (x, y, and z didn’t rank), two digraphs (out of more than two dozen), and whatever the heck <gue> is supposed to be. Why are <n> and <l> — which have a single phonemic association — as important as <s>, or more important than <c> or <ch>, which all have multiple pronunciations?
I so want to cuss right now. FFS: the middle F stands for Fonics, though.
Vowels
———-
a     (4-5)
e     (3)
i      (8)
o     (8-9, including whatever the hell is up with *polonel)
u     (0-2, depending on whether the <u> in *duede or in *fongue is a grapheme or not)
y     (2)
ar   (2)
or   (1)
er   (3)
au   (2)
ea   (3)
oi    (1)
oo   (1)
ou   (1)
ow   (1)
ue    (0-1)
ui    (0-1)
Final non-syllabic <e> (10, of which 3 are in an <ove> rime)
This includes 5 or all 6 of the single-letter vowel graphemes, but <i> and <o> are featured 2-3 times as much as <a> and <e>. It also includes three of many rhotic vowel spellings (why <or> but not <oar>, <ore>, <oor>, or <our>, which can all spell [ɔɹ]?) It also includes 6-8 vowel digraphs (out of around 30) and zero vowel trigraphs (we have two). This doesn’t even include half of the orthography’s vowel graphemes, the vast majority of which are digraphs. You know why <feat> has an <ea> and <feet> has a <ee>? I can give you at least two good reasons for each word. And they make total sense.

How is this nonword GPC inventory in any way representative of any kind of coherent “knowledge” about graphemes, phonemes, or their alleged correspondences? It’s just not. Whoever slapped it together — as with every single nonword resource I’ve ever seen, used, or recently investigated — has no idea that <w> can mark the phonology of a subsequent <a> or <o>, or that an <ove> rime has multiple possible pronunciations. I can think of at least three good reasons why <move> is spelled with an <o>; nonwords can’t think of a single one.

As my good and wise friend and colleague says, if a child writes *<dun> instead of <done>, you have all the information you need that he already owns the CrAPP concept of GPCs, and that it’s already doing its damage.

Can anyone offer any explanation that makes this kind of nonsense anything other than a sadistic but nonlethal method of collecting meaningless data about meaningless “knowledge” about meaningless “patterns”? I welcome any and all nonsense word measures. I guarantee you I can find you massive problems with any one of them.
Ighm aul ierse. Doar’z oapon.

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Registration is now open for Etymology Four!
Register online  or  Download the complete flyer here.
Save 10% if you register on or before December 31, 2015.
Contact me for group registration discounts.

Single Page 160402 Etymology Four

 

 

 

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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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I just emailed Dr. Kelli Sandman-Hurley to congratulate her on her impressive TED-Ed video on dyslexia, which I will certainly be using in upcoming classes and seminars. Kelli quickly responded, and indicated that she was in the midst of “looking for reasoning behind why some words as spelled with w and some with wh…”

I appreciated Kelli’s phrasing: she was looking for reasoning, trusting that English spelling is orderly, driven by meaning, and reasonable. I started to respond in an email, then decided the fruits of my brief investigation would be better shared with a wider audience.

Most words spelled with a <wh> are from Old English, where they were spelled with an <hw> digraph. They were actually pronounced /hw/ rather than the more common /ʍ/ (a voiceless /w/) that some folks have now. Most of us in the U.S. just say /w/, but some southerners and some non-U.S. speakers also devoice and/or aspirate the beginnings of words with <wh>, like Hank Hill from “King of the Hill” or Stewie from “Family Guy.” 

Many <wh> words are, of course, “question” words: who, what, where, when, why, which, whether, whose, whom, or otherwise grammatical/function words: wherefore, while, whence. These words often have Latinate cognates with <qu> (who/qui/quien, when/quando, what/quoi/que, which/quel/qual) — that’s because the <h> in <wh> and the <q> in <qu> both represent sounds made in the back of the mouth, and the  <u> and <w> both represent lip-rounding sounds. Similarly, whale is related to squalus and squalene, rorqual, and narwhal.

Several others have to do with a blow or blowing or brisk movement: whack, wham, whistle, whisper, whap, whop, wheal (also weal), wheedle (etymologically, to fan someone), whiff, whim, whimper, whine, whip, whippet, whirl, whorl, whisk, whiz, whump, whoosh, and even wharf (home to brisk activity).

Some are convenient spellings to have for homophones, like whet/wet and whit/wit and whole/hole. And we need that <wh> because it can also spell /h/ before the letter <o>, as in who or whole. Some <wh> words are related to other words that begin with <c>, because a <c> in Latin or Greek words and <h> in English words can be related — there’s that velar connection again — hearty/cordial/cardiac, horn/unicorn. Here are some more surprising relatives: whore/charity (both denote ‘loving’); wheel/cycle (both are round); whir/whirl/circle (all again denote roundness). A few others are simply marking relationships to other words — like the cognates white and wheat, or whine and whinge.

As Kelli knows, graphemes are driven by their etymology, not just by their phonology. So why are some words spelled with <wh>? Well, not only do <wh> words represent all possible pronunciations by English speakers, be they Canadians or Texans, New Englanders or old Englanders, they also whisper to us of ways our long-ago forebears perceived and spoke about their world.

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Every time I come to post something on here, I feel like I need to start with an apology, because I haven’t posted in so long. I still need to finish writing about March’s 2-day Etymology Seminar, and the very exciting discoveries brought on by a long drive to Ohio for a recent seminar there. I’ve been considering the various roles of the final, non-syllabic <e> as well, and this post hints at where my thinking is . . .

This post is brought to you by the remarkable network of scholars all over the world with whom I am privileged to work. Tutors and teachers I’ve worked with frequently send me questions, and those questions become the impetus to refine and articulate my understanding. This particular question came from a tutor in the Midwest who has taken it upon herself to become an earnest and dedicated scholar of English in order to be a better teacher of it. After all, we cannot expect our skill in teaching something to surpass our willingness to study it.

So, this tutor emailed me with this question about a published word list purporting to feature words with an <ie> digraph:

“I was looking at a list of words . . . supposedly for the vowel digraph <ie>.  The list begins with words like <lie> <tie> <die>.  So far, so good.  But they also include <cried> <tried> <pried> on the list.  I know that in fact the <i> in those words is NOT part of the vowel digraph <ie> but rather is there because the <y> in the base word <cry> was changed to <i> before adding the suffix <ed>.

My question:

What about the word <lie>?  The past tense of this word is <lied> but explaining how this works in a word sum is confusing to me because I would not drop the final <e> to add <ed> because the <e> is part of a vowel digraph, not a final silent <e>?  And <lie>  + <d> is obviously not correct.    I suppose the same question could be asked of the word died, or tied, or vied??”

How do I love this question? Let me count the ways:

1. The tutor is bringing the full weight of her intellect and her understanding to her analysis of published materials. She does not assume that because it’s published somewhere, it must be accurate.

2. She checks and articulates her own understanding before bringing the question to me.

3. She understands that we must first ascertain the morphological structure of a word before attempting to ascertain its phonological structure. A grapheme cannot straddle a morpheme boundary: there is a <th> digraph in <father> but not in <fathead>. Similarly, as she states, there is no <ie> digraph in <cry> + <ed>.

4. She knows that written language makes sense, and that it is highly organized and orderly. So when she encounters the object of her question — <lied>, <tied>, <died>, <vied> — she doesn’t just chalk them up as “exceptions” or “irregular” (or sight words, learned words, red words, heart words, demon words, or any of the other silly named given to words-the-author-doesn’t-understand). Rather, she seeks to deepen her understanding, and to find the explanation she knows and trusts is there.

So, here’s what I told her:

You are correct about the vowel in <cried>, <tried>, <pried>, etc. NOT being part of the digraph <ie>.

Likewise, there is no <ie> in <lied> or <died>, because here’s what we have:

<lie> + <ed> → *<lieed> → <lied>

There are constraints on which consecutive vowels English will allow across morpheme boundaries (<agreed> but <agreeing>; <lied> but <lying>). [Actually, these constraints have to do with how English handles digraphs and trigraphs in proximity to identical letters — it’s the same phenomenon at play in <eighth> and <fully>, as opposed to *<eightth> or *<fullly>.]

I want you to think of the <y> and the <ie> as toggling word finally. Words like <cry>, <dry>, <try>, <pry>, <shy>, etc. can be spelled with a <y> because they start with 2 consonant letters, thus providing the requisite 3 letters for a lexical word once that <y> is there. Words like <lie>, <die>, <vie>, <tie>, cannot be spelled with a <y>, because they start with a single consonant and need the vowel digraph to make the 3-letter minimum for lexical words (compare <my>, <by>, <I>). [For the uninitiated, content/lexical words — nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs — require a minimum of 3 letters, while function words — pronouns, auxiliary verbs, prepositions, and conjunctions — may have just 1 or 2 letters.]

Let’s represent this <ie>-or-<y> with a <Y> — kind of an underlying representation — so we can see how this works when it surfaces in a word:

<lY> → <lie>
<lY> + <ing> → <lying>
<lY> + <ed> → <lied>

<crY> → <cry>
<crY> + <ing> → <crying>
<crY> + <ed> → <cried>

. . . We know that <y> and <i> alternate — that <e> in the final <ie> digraph is kind of a lexicalizing agent — it appears when we need it to lexicalize a word. But it doesn’t need to surface when we’re building something other than a free base element.”

Now, the <ie> digraph is a really reliable grapheme. It spells /aɪ/ at the end of a monosyllable (like lie), /i/ at the end of a polysyllabic word (like rookie), and /iː/ medially (as in field). It’s often  diminutive suffix, as in movie or doggie). But it’s widely misrepresented in phonics materials, which ignore words like movie and cookie (assuming new or struggling readers won’t encounter them?), and confound differently structured words like <cried> and <lied>, just like in the published list in question. Here’s what the LEX grapheme card has to say:

Word lists are a misguided attempt to go broad in teaching, to ensure that a child will encounter a large enough number of words with the pattern in question. What they don’t do, what they can’t do, is go deep. What this tutor did when she dared to question the wisdom of a published phonics word list is to go deep. If we go deep in our study — investigate what words mean, how they’re built, where they come from, and what they share with other words — we’re bound to go broad as well; it’s impossible to study a single word deeply without also encountering lots of other words that share a feature, a structure, a history. But breadth alone can never guarantee depth. Lists are a short-cut, a facility, an answer to an unasked question. They stand to absolve teachers and tutors from having to think deeply about the pattern under examination.

For years, the most common question I get when I speak at conferences or workshops is, “What materials/curriculum/books do you recommend?” Ultimately, the answer is “any of them, as long as you always bring your own understanding to the table.” My objective is not to point people to the best set of materials, but to the best understanding of language linguistic science can offer. A teacher thusly equipped — as is the one inspired this post — can make good use of any materials, including the wonderfully and importantly subversive act of teaching children not to believe everything they read, even if it’s written by an expert. Because sometimes they lie.

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