Archive for the ‘Phonics’ Category

One of the ways that my understanding is a life-changing improvement over phonics is that I can prove that there are no four-letter graphemes. All the phonics people — really, everyone — believe that *<ough>, *<augh>, and *<eigh> are graphemes, which they call *quadgraphs. This false conceit often requires people to accept that an *<ough> can spell a bunch of different “sounds,” including vowel-consonant combinations like [ʌf] in rough or the [ɔf] in cough. Or else it comes with a list of 19 or 20 “exceptions.” Seriously — look at your own phonics materials and you’ll see what a convoluted explanation is offered.

In real life, there’s a consonant trigraph <ugh> that spells [f] and a vowel trigraph <igh> that spells [aɪ], and they can both also be etymological markers, spelling nothing at all. Today, a really sweet woman who is new to studying with me asked me to tell her where she “can locate information about quad-graphs not being truly accurate.” She has ordered materials from me, though they haven’t shipped yet. And she told me that she’s already watched this film, but she asked to read a written explanation somewhere. So instead of writing a response directly to her and her alone, I’m writing this for everyone, especially for me, so I can point people here in the future.

So, what’s wrong with calling *<ough> and *<augh> and *<eigh> *quadgraphs?

For starters, there is NO SUCH WORD as *quadgraph.

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It’s not in any dictionary I checked, and if you google it, it shows up ONLY on phonicky websites, because the term is made-up phonics gobbledygook. I think it was Louisa Moats who started that garbage; at least, hers is the first writing I can locate it in. But it’s abject nonsense, and here’s why:

There is no Latinate morpheme *<quad> that can be compounded with the Greek base <graph>. Any modern English word quad is a clip some other word, like quadrilateral or quadrangle or quadricep or quadruplet, depending on the context, just as flu is a clip of influenza and lab is a clip of laboratory. But in no way is <quad> an element that means just plain old ‘four.’ Some people use the term quadplex instead of quadruplex, but the former was invented in 1946 and has largely fallen out of use, compared to the normal compound.

The real Latinate base element that denotes ‘four’ is <quadr>, as we can see in the sums for the following real words:

< quadr + i + lateral >

< quadr + angle >

< quadr + ant >

< quadr + u + ple >

< quadr + i + cep >

Therefore, if we needed to invent a hybridized Greco-Latinate word to denote a 4-letter form, we’d have to invent *<quadrigraph>, which is also not a word:

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Now, it’s true that sometimes, a modern scientific understanding does demand the invention of a word, and sometimes a hybrid is called for. For example, the purely Greek compound telescope was already around when a new distance-seeing device was invented in the 20th century, so we called it a television instead.

Unfortunately, so-called *quadgraphs are not the only lie Louisa Moats tells. She also falsely (and laughably) claims that television has “three Latin morphemes.” It doesn’t. The first one is Greek. Another example of a modern hybrid is biodiversity, which Louisa thinks is “Greek,” isn’t. The bio parts are Greek, but diversity is Latin. It’s a modern concept with a modern, hybridized name. I promise you, the ancient Greeks and Romans were not discussing televisions or biodiversity. The best part is that these two examples of mendacious etymuddle – along with a third — appear in a just half of a single paragraph from Louisa, in a so-called piece of “reading science.” Look:

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This is how it works: Louisa lies to teachers, and teachers pass those lies on to kids. And YES, I DO mean to use the word LIE, because when you say you are writing something that is “scientific research” and you don’t bother to even look anything up before you make your claims, that is not an ethical approach to professional publications. If it were one mistake, it’d be one thing, but it’s like this every time she tries to write about etymology. It’s a pattern of careless deceit, lying by omission.

How is this “science”? Why should we trust the “science” promoted in this book and others like it?

Also? Tube is Latinate, not *Anglo-Saxon. Intubate, tubal, tubular. You don’t even have to look it up — you just have to think beyond a single example. You know, like a scientist.

I digress.

So anyhow, the fact is that there is no need whatsoever to invent a hybrid term at all, since there is already a perfectly good word available to us: tetragram, or tetragraph. The <tetra> derives from the Greek word for ‘four,’ as any self-respecting Tetris-playing linguist can tell you. Traditionally, the term tetragram has been used for a four-letter word, so in recent years, tetragraph has emerged as the orthographic term to follow digraph and trigraph. It’s a real word, attested, in a dictionary and everything:

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A decade ago, when I was an OG trainer and newish to this understanding, a colleague and I attended a workshop with Pete Bowers in Chicago. He briefly made reference to the <ugh>-not-*<ough> elegance in his talk. Someone asked about it, and we spent a few minutes looking at examples, like <l a ugh> and <th o ugh>. One of the attendees was Susan Hall, who had been invited to attend for free. She had been a co-author with Louisa Moats of a couple books for parents, but by the time of this workshop, she owned The 95 Percent Group. When she stood up to leave the facility, she announced to my colleague and me, “Well, I’m not giving up my *<ough>!” I’m not even kidding. No evidence, no reasoned dialogue. She just took her *<ough> marbles and went home.

The 95 Percent Group made close to $9 million last year training people in the teaching and testing of phonics. Read the reviews.

Likewise, on Twitter, and elsewhere, I have piles of people who have never studied with me, never read a word I wrote anywhere other than Twitter, who deliberately refuse to see the elegant logic of a <ugh>, clinging to their clumsy *quadgraphs like a lifeboat in a phonics shipwreck. “Well it’s not very common,” they say. But a <ugh> is BY DEFINITION more common than either <augh> or <ough>, so if commonality is the goal, <ugh>’s your gal. “But it only appears after an <a> or <o>,” they say. SO WHAT? Lots of graphemes have place-value restrictions. We avoid a <j> after an <i>; an <ay> is final; an <aw> can only be followed by <n, l, or k>. A <wh> is only initial. Clearly, phonics can’t logic. They allow that a <ph> is etymologically driven, but scoff when I suggest the same is true of an <ea>.

It’s amazing to me that people who argue so constantly and ubiquitously for teaching “Grapheme-Phoneme Correspondences” über Alles will also vociferously resist understanding actual how actual graphemes correspond to actual phonemes. Like, they actively and deliberately refuse to see what I show them.

I learned about the <ugh> from the work of my orthographic linguistics teacher, and I started writing about it myself in 2013. I pinned an analysis to the top of my Twitter profile. Here’s the first, quite comprehensive analysis I did in 2010: Screen Shot 2019-09-03 at 2.50.52 PM.pngI’ve laid out the proof time and again since then. In my LEX Grapheme Deck. In my classes and live workshops. In Facebook posts.

Why use a <ugh> instead of an <f>? Because, a <ugh> can be related to [k] or [g] or [ʧ] in a word family, but an <f> cannot. An <f> has a different set of relatives: <p, ph, b, v>. Again, I lay all this out, with evidence, in my LEX Grapheme Deck. That deck has been published for a decade and no one has falsified anything in it yet. Not One Thing.

Likewise, there is no *<eigh>, nor *<aigh>, the latter of which never gets mentioned in phonics, so obviously phonics really doesn’t have it their facts straight. What there is is an <igh> etymological marker that marks a relationship to a /k/ in related words: eight~octave; weight~vector; straight~streak. Phombies will conjecture at me until the cows come home about whether kids “need” to learn this or whether this understanding is “useful,” but they will never ask themselves the same question about their ham-fisted *quadgraphs.

No one has ever provided me with any evidence, any analysis, that proves that English has tetragraphs. Phombies are moving targets. I ask them for proof and they jump around from non-sequitur to non-sequitur, mumbling about how common or uncommon they imagine something to be, or quoting some phonicky source, but citations don’t prove anything. They’ll lament that the <ugh> I’m positing spells “several sounds” — as though that were an objection to anything! Because how many “sounds” does their beloved *<ough> mutant have? Anyhow, that’s false. A <ugh> can only spell one single phoneme, and that’s [f]. Otherwise, it spells nothing at all. People get really fixated on this, and then they scold me for using what they call an “uncommon” example.

But in a decade of speaking, writing, publishing, teaching, and presenting the proof for the <ugh>, no one has ever been able to falsify it. Here’s what I told my new client: “The thing is, [New Client], it’s not up to me to prove that *quadgraphs are inaccurate. Rather, it’s up to YOU to prove or find proof that they are accurate if you want to use them.”

Even Wikipedia knows that “English does not have tetragraphs in native words.” In fact, it doesn’t have any at all. When even Wikipedia knows more about English spelling than so-called “experts,” well, that’s rough.

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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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A few weeks ago, one of my wonderful clients asked me for some help in moving her practice from OG to SWI — especially with the more severely struggling kids. She’s been moved by some of my recent posts here and on Facebook about, well, what’s wrong with OG and why we need to change its false practices and false assertions. So see, this is why I shout it from the rooftops. Because when people are ready to move away from language lies like syllable types, they move in the right direction.

So this client emailed me and said she was struggling with SWI, but instead of just whining at me, she actually sent me some examples of her work, of her efforts to really study words with her students. This allowed me to give her specific feedback. For one thing, she was neglecting etymological relatives, and we discovered that’s a space where she can refine her understanding and help her students better. I’m pretty good at helping when people are willing to share their work, be wrong, and not be panty-twisted when I tell them they’re wrong.

Since then, I have seen a huge shift in the depth of her understanding, her engagement with the writing system, and her willingness to bring this understanding and engagement into her sessions with students. She’s shared with me and others some of her study and discoveries, and it’s so clear how much she’s enjoying herself as well as how much she’s learning. Her frame of mind is totally different than it was just a few weeks ago, when she was scared and uncertain and kind of weary. I am so glad she reached out — many people are benefitting from the dialogues about real language that she is now initiating.

Today, she revisited a question she had asked me about fluency, right before the Etymology conference, when I had said “Let’s talk later.” Well, now is now later, so I responded to her this time, and thought I’d share it here, because it will help other people too.

Her original question was, “Do you recommend doing anything in addition to SWI for fluency or comprehension? I don’t know if that’s outside of the scope of what you’re currently doing but I thought you’d be a good person to ask.” Today, she reached out again: “I wanted to follow up on the topics of fluency and blending,” she said, “but mainly how to teach kids with dyslexia how to read.
“I’m not a die hard OG person,” she continued; “it’s just the only training I have for teaching kids how to read so I am totally open to new ideas.” I think a lot of people are in that same boat. Not that they’re married to OG; they just don’t know what else to do.

“I didn’t used to focus on fluency,” she wrote, “but a lot of experts say it’s important to become fluent in cvc words before moving on in an OG program so I’ve been working on it with my students but I would love to hear your opinion on the topic. As I think of doing SWI with my students, how would I work on reading with them? Especially the ones who struggle a lot.”

Again, these are all fair questions, and so articulate in the asking. Notice that she didn’t come to me to defend OG. She didn’t make any defensive claims about how helpful it is. She very honestly said, This is really all I know. She didn’t insist that syllable division or timed drills or nonsense words are really very valuable, or try to explain to my why that was so. She nailed it, you guys. She thought about it, pinpointed her needs, and opened herself up to being wrong, and to learning new things.

Learning is just so beautiful when we let it be.

Here’s my response:

The whole “become fluent with CVC words” is very phonicky. It’s artificial. Reading doesn’t really develop that way, and in my experience, the most severe strugglers, when met with that kind of thing, the nonsense words and the blending and the lists of monosyllables, they get stuck there. They often become just unable to move past CVC into larger words, let alone into real reading.

If you’re working with a new, young, or severe kiddo where you’d do a lot of CVC work for a long time in OG, then my suggestion is to go ahead and use whatever OG CVC words you’re use to using, but study them with SWI. Build out their families. For example:

fat: fats, fatter, fattest, fatted (like the fatted calf, a fatted lamb…), nonfat, fatty

cat: cats, catty, catted, catting, cattish, cattail, catwalk

mat: mats, matted, matting, bathmat

sat: outsat, babysat (it’s already past tense, so it doesn’t do much else morphologically)

at(well, this compounds in atone, but as a function word, it doesn’t do much else) 

This gives you a chance to get the kiddo reading and recognizing patterns besides just CVC. It is rich for being able to discover that a real word family doesn’t mean words that rhyme; it means words that share a base element. This is huge, and so productive, and kids see the difference right away. They really do.

As he encounters these words in the families you build, you can provide whatever reading support he needs. Step away from requiring him to perform. If he can’t read a word, have him spell it out first. If he still doesn’t know, then tell him, and ask him to use it in a sentence. Maybe try to revisit it again later. You’re not asking him to spell words with a doubled consonant yet, but you can notice that with him. Just notice it and say, “Huh! There’s that doubled consonant again!” You and he will also be able to notice affixes — especially the <ed, ing, s> that are so common, and also compounding. For writing / spelling, you can have him ‘tap’ mat or cats and write it from memory if you want, like SOS in OG, but you can also give him a synthetic word sum like < cat + walk > ➙ and have him solve it. You can tell him what the <walk> spells, and then ask him what the whole word is. 

For fluency more generally, start with a study of function and content words. You will learn the basic framework I use for that study in the Function & Content LEXinar. You pay attention to stress, which is different in function and content words, and that practice can really help improve prosody. You practice having the kids read phrases:

Noun Phrasesa big test, lots of kids, the rest of the cake, ten pet cats, the red sunset…
Verb Phrasesmight have gone, had been running, didn’t see, could’ve been sleeping, were done…
Prepositional Phraseson the bus, up a hill, with a big dog, at six, at home, in the way…

Phrases can also be practiced for writing (dictation, if you do that). Their grammar can be studied. They can become the kernel for a sentence that the child completes (and writes, or dictates to you). For writing, don’t be afraid to have the child do more copy work — where you build a phrase together, and you write it, and then he writes it. Or you can give him 3 or 4 phrases already written (or typed), and then have him arrange them into a sentence, then write the whole sentence. So, for example, if he had the phrases above, he could build Lots of kids might have gone on the bus. You can build real sentences or silly ones, like Ten pet cats had been running in the way. I prefer stuff that makes sense, but the thing is, if you go Noun Phrase – Verb Phrase – Prepositional Phrase, in that order, you will make a grammatically correct sentence every time, even if it doesn’t totally make sense. You just might have to make the verb agree with the subject (was done instead of were done). 

If you have an oral reading component, like where the kid is reading aloud, you can do some shared reading, as that helps him read in a text that’s maybe a little out of reach for him independently. If you are used to ‘controlled’ texts, then don’t be afraid of reading Dr. Seuss, poetry of any kind, Shel Silverstein, Jack Prelutsky, folk tales, or other real texts that still have repeating patterns and perhaps a simplified language. I also really like reading things with kids where they can actually learn about their language, like Why is a Tiger a Tiger? That one’s great for sharing because some pages have hardly any text, and some have a lot, and you don’t have to read the whole thing. We might also read about the history of the alphabet, or the Vikings.  

You can also pull phrases from any oral reading text and use them in your phrase practice. Then, when he goes to read the paragraph or page or whatever, he’s already practiced several of the phrases in it. That’s good for what the ‘experts’ call fluency, which is really just a question of having enough comfort in a text to be able to concentrate one’s mental deskspace to understanding meaning. Because after all, that’s the whole point.  

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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.


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.


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:

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.
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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Several days ago, a friend’s Facebook comment got me to thinking about the word pink. I like pink. And pink things. Probably to a pinkfault. I still daydream about a pink-rhinestone-covered stapler a former colleague had. I have pink pillow shams, lots of pink clothes, pinkish boots, a pink flashlight, and a pink lampshade. I can’t resist snapping photos of pink sunrises and sunsets from my hilltop home. I need a new pink purse because I’ve worn out the last one. I even made the instruction cards in my first InSight Words deck pink.

So the word was stuck in my head for a few days, which means it had to be investigated if I had any hope of accomplishing anything else. It turns out there are no fewer than seven different base elements spelled <pink> in English:

  1. The color pink  is named for the flower.
  2. The flower (Dianthus) may be named for its ‘pinked’ edges (perforated or punctured) — think pinking shears. Or it may be named for pink eyes — not conjunctivitis, mind you, but an early Modern English phrase on loan from the Dutch pinck oogen, ‘small eyes,’ — referring to the flowers’ appearance reminiscent of small, half-closed eyes. The pink in these pink eyes doesn’t historically refer to the color, but to size.dianthus
  3. The first hypothesis for the flower’s name, it’s ‘pinked’ edges, is its own etymological wild goose chase. Found today mostly in reference to sewing or design, this <pink> may be related to Germanic words like peck, pick, and/or pike, or to Latinate words like puncture, poignant, pungent, punch, and pugnacious.
  4. The second hypothesis for the flower’s name, pink [‘small’] eyes, works well as a translation of the French synonym oeillet, a ‘little eye.’ The Dutch word pink has a historical denotation of ‘small,’ and is used to refer to the pinkie (or pinky) finger, whence the English name for the littlest manual digit.
  5. The ‘small’ sense also shows up in the name of a pink, a fast, nimble little watercraft common in the  Atlantic ocean during the 17th and 18th centuries. The Spanish pinque and Italian pinco also reflect this Dutch derivation.
  6. Some folks say an engine knocks and pings; others, mostly Brits, say it pinks.
  7. There’s also a dated term pink that refers to a kind of lake (lacquer) pigment, but it’s yellowish and of uncertain origin. Go figure.

The pronunciation of pink is worth paying attention to: #6 is onomatopoeic, and #3 belongs to either one or another family of words that also kind of sound like what they mean: pike, pick, and peck, or puncture, punch, and repugnant (literally, something that ‘punches back.’) The word pink has a nice ring to it. It’s sharp and tingly and saying it makes you smile a little.

Pink has a straightforward orthographic phonology, too: it has four graphemes <p i n k> and four phonemes /p ɪ n k/. The phonetic realization of those four phonemes, however, sends a lot of folks into quite a tizzy. The /n/ is realized as a velar [ŋ] because of its coarticulation with the velar /k/ — the same thing happens in words like distinct or banquet, but few phonics programs address [ŋ] beyond monosyllables. The /ɪ/ is nasalized, and often raised by the velar coarticulation too, so it ends up feeling more like an [ĩ] — a long, nasal eeeee. That’s the part that makes you smile.

Traditional phonocentric approaches teach this and other velar nasal patterns as whole rimes (ink, ank, onk, unk) and giving them made-up names like “welded sounds” or “nasal blends,” rather than taking an accurate look-see at the orthographic phonology. Instead of studying the phonology of <n> — which can be realized as [ŋ] before a velar consonant — these approaches add to the cognitive load for each child by piling eight new patterns (including ing, ang, ong, ung) into the mix, and often not clearly identifying them as rimes and not as graphemes or as that phonics horror of horrors, “blends.” This is largely because phonics is so stuck in its misapprehension of the phoneme that it can’t deal with the difference between the /n/ phoneme and the [ŋ] allophone. [I’m happy to consider an argument that there is a /ŋ/ phoneme, but it has to present an accurate understanding of the difference between a phoneme and an allophone.] Another phonics problem I’ve observed time and again is the failure to differentiate between an <ing> rime and an <ing> suffix. This distinction is a non-negotiable understanding in orthographic study: the same sequence of letters doesn’t always bear the same identity or the same function. It depends on which word they’re surfacing in.

My spelling teacher (who happens to be French) always says that there are no coincidences. As I was working on this pink-inspired piece, I spoke with a colleague who told me about a 3rd grader she works with who has a very hard time with the inks anks onks and unks of her Wilson Reading System instruction. The child reads words with these rimes just fine in connected text, but not in isolation. I bet you a dollar that she’s trying to “sound them out” and is trying to string [p ɪ n k] together, for example, but can’t make sense of it without a meaningful framework. My question — my colleague’s question too, which is why she contacted me — is What in the heck is the goal of “reading” words in isolation if she can read them fine in text?

I can’t answer that in any way that I can argue has the child’s best interest, her engagement with language, or her lifelong development as a literate soul, at heart. The bloom is off the phonocentric rose.

The phonology only has structure in a meaningful framework, which word lists really never provide. The ways in which <pink> makes meaning are interwoven with each other and with our history.  According to Oxford, the use of pinkie for ‘little finger’ was reinforced by the color sense (#1), but of course, that only works well for pasty Celts and Anglo-Saxons, not across the English-speaking world. The association between the flower, color, and flesh is also reflected in the word rose (think rosy cheeks), but especially in the name of one kind of dianthus, the carnation. In late Middle and early Modern English, the Latinate words carnation and incarnation were used to mean ‘the color of flesh,’ anything from ‘blush-color’ to ‘blood-color.’

Again, this whole pink-flesh connection only really works, at least on the surface, if you’re a white person. Oxford points out that not all carnations are pink, so of course not all dianthus are pink. Likewise, not all flesh is pink. I’d say Duh, English, but the French did it first.

I’ve also learned from my spelling teacher that the study of the writing system necessarily and organically brings about the possible study of so much more. What does it mean, in a world where we argue about whose lives matter, that the historical association of pinkness with human skin is captured in our written language? How would today’s third-grader respond to the information that my childhood Crayola box had a pinkish crayon labeled “Flesh,” but hers does not? What might a study of words like white and black reveal to us? I’m not interested in this because I had some social studies agenda in mind when I started studying pink; rather, these questions are where the study of pink led me. Just in time for Martin Luther King Day and everything.

I wrote that. Then I saw this:
skin ffs

There are no coincidences. That’s not some kind of mystical statement; it’s an observation. There are no coincidences; there are the connections that we conceive of, the stories that we tell, and the meaning we make.

Tickles me pink.

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Phone Home

I get a ton of emails. I mean, a ton. I have several email accounts, and it’s a part-time job to keep up with them all. Of course, nowadays, I also access email on my phone. I know I am not alone in this. Needless to say, a lot of the emails I get are language questions. Here’s one I got this morning, and I decided to turn it into a LEX Q&A, so more people can benefit from the dialogue than just us two. (The email has been edited for formatting and asides).

[W]hat is the final phoneme in the word cat when it is at the end of a sentence?  “I saw a little cat.”  It’s not the same as at the beginning of tip, but is it just an allophone of /t/?   I was reading about the “flap” and it doesn’t seem like it would be a flap, because my tongue stops on the roof of the mouth rather than tapping there. But I’m not sure how the flap works either. I feel as though when I say little I go straight from /ɪ/ to /l/. But there’s a difference between the way I say little and Lil. If I try to say Lil as a two syllable word with just the /l/ in the second syllable that’s still not the same as little so something is happening with my tongue, but I can’t figure it out. It almost feels like I’m squishing air out of the sides of my mouth in between the /i/ and /l/ and pushing my tongue more forcefully up with the final /l/ in little.

Aaaaaaand, my response: What a great question! And an important one, too. One of the biggest problems with the decades-old emphasis on “phonemic awareness” is that most teachers don’t really understand what a phoneme is. They think it’s a “minimal unit of sound” or some such; it’s not. It is minimal, and it is a unit, and it does have to do with language as it is pronounced, but it’s not actually a sound. Moreover — and this is critical — it’s distinctive. What this means is that, while it carries no meaning itself (the /b/ in /bɪt/ doesn’t mean anything), it is distinctive for meaning — it differentiates meaning — from other phonemes (the /b/ in /bɪt/ and the /p/ in /pɪt/ distinguish the meanings of those two words. That all happens in your head.

Elsewhere, however, there are different physical realizations of pronounced words and utterances. Those physical realizations have structures that can be studied, like all physical things. The phoneme /t/ is conceptual, a psychological category, container, or class — choose your metaphor — with several different possible members. Those members — all the members of the phoneme /t/ — are its allophones. Some physical realizations of /t/are aspirated. That is, they have a little release of air when the tongue is released from the roof of the mouth. That’s like in the word top. Phonemically, we would represent this as /tɑp/, but phonetically, it’s [tʰɑp]. If we put a /s/ in front of the word, however, the aspiration isn’t there: [stɑp]. You can see and feel the difference if you pronounce those two words aloud while holding a kleenex in front of your face. But phones aren’t necessarily distinctive for meaning: if you were in my car and yelled [stʰɑp], I would totally slam on the brakes. The [] and the [t] are allophones of the same phoneme, /t/. Other allophones of /t/ in English include [t ̚ ], [ʔ], and [ɾ], also known as the “flap.”

So, to answer your question directly, the phoneme at the end of cat is the same as the phoneme at the beginning of tip, but they are different phones. They are phonologically the same, but phonetically different. Yes, that makes them allophones of the same phoneme, different members of the same class.
Another allophone is the flap [ɾ] in your pronunciation of little. A Brit would be likely to say [lɪtʰəl], while an American more likely to say [lɪɾḷ]. The difference between Lil and little is that flap — your tongue briefly taps the alveolar ridge, before releasing the [l] laterally. There’s a co-articulation from the [ɾ] to the [l]: both of them have an alveolar place of articulation. You don’t have to move your tongue to get from one to the other. They are also both voiced. The difference between them is in their manner of articulation: [ɾ] is a flap, and [l] is a lateral approximant. That lateral refers to the release of the air out the sides of your tongue, just as you articulated in your question. The “more forceful” push of your tongue to the alveolar ridge in little? That’s the flap.

Phones and phonemes are not for sissies, but a clear understanding of the difference is absolutely critical for scholars and teachers of the written word. Writing systems’ representations of pronunciation may target syllables, or it may target phonemes, or both. But spelling never, ever targets phones; there’s no such thing as a non-phonetic word, or rather, all written words are non-phonetic. When a child writes <chree> instead of <tree>, she’s not mishearing the word; she’s ascribing the physical phone she is saying or hearing to the wrong phoneme in her head. *That’s* phonemic awareness, but teachers may be at a loss to remedy it unless they have clarity about what’s going on phonetically in that word.

No pithy ending in this post, no clever turn of phrase. No LEXlover’s delight. What do you want from me? It was an email. If you’re still reading this far, good for you, and you’re welcome.

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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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