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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.

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.

I’ve had the immense pleasure recently of working with two different second graders. One’s journey I’ve been documenting in a Facebook group (complete with pictures and narratives about our sessions); I call her Cupcake, because that’s the word she wanted to investigate with me first. The other, whom I call River, I just began with after working with other family members for the past couple of years.

River lives a little ways away from me, so she and I met online. Her mom prepared the physical materials for our session from files I emailed her, and I prepared the electronic version so River and I could work together.

I had met River only once in the past, and that was brief. Our first session together was yesterday, and our second, today. Yesterday, we established some basics: a base element (<heal>), its immediate family — the relatives built on <heal>, and its more distant family — the relatives that share a root but not a base.

I gave her a lot of words. I read some. She read some. If she hadn’t heard of a word, I made a decision — I either told her what it meant and used it in a sentence, or I put it aside. She identified those that had an <heal> and added them to the square that will become our matrix. Words River thought might be related went in or near the circle. Words deemed unlikely to be related went in the lower right. Over the course of our 45 minutes or so, River read several words and gave examples of those words in sentences. We discussed bases, suffixes, digraphs, pronunciation, word relatives (and people relatives).

Here’s how our screen looked at the end of our first session:

161213-brooke

 

 

 

 
Today, we picked up where we left off, and I was smart enough to record some of our time together to share with curious folks, thanks to River’s mom.

We’ll continue with this study next week, and I’ll update this post then.

Etymology! V

Because we all need a little something to look forward to: Mark your calendars for the fifth annual live Etymology! weekend with Douglas Harper and me.

Hold your place with a refundable deposit and start making plans. The weekend will be in Greater Chicago and will cost somewhere under $350 — depending on catering and facility costs yet to be determined. Anyone making a refundable deposit by 12/31/16 will receive a discount on the final registration fee and will be entered into a drawing for a free $50 LEX Gift Card at the conference.

170325-save-the-date-etymology-v

The $75 will be applied to registration costs. It is fully refundable if requested in writing by January 31, 2017, and 50% refundable if quested in writing by February 25, 2017. Full registration will be refundable, less $75, for requests made after February 25th.

We hope to see you there!

Basket Case

Over the summer I had the privilege of traveling to Pennsylvania to work with some old colleagues and make some new ones. The travel itself is a slog — three hours in a car, four hours on a plane, several more hours in a rental car for a few days, another four hours on a plane, another three hours in a car. By the time I get home, all I want to do is watch a little Netflix and go to bed, but my brain doesn’t wind down so easily. After my return, I found myself turning over a couple of conversations in my head. I didn’t consider them to be related, but of course, there are no coincidences.

The first thing I kept turning over was something I heard from a colleague while I was on the road. She was summarizing for me some comments she had heard from a bigwig phonics apologist (we’ll call her BW for BigWig) during a professional development event. So first, I want to acknowledge that this is total hearsay; I am now reporting this to you third-hand, which is probably irresponsible, but it’s not like I’m going out on a very far limb: it’s a ubiquitous perspective, and one that confronts me a lot in my work. A lot of people are laboring through the whole erroneous sound-it-out, A-is-for-Apple thing out there. But this story was sticking with me because it offers such clear evidence that people highly trained in multisensory structured language education are getting really bad information, right from the top, as though it were scientific or factual. Again.

It went something like this: after a lively discussion about language and teaching, the training session ended with BW admonishing her teacher trainers: “You’ll hear a lot of talk out there about morphology and etymology,” she said. “But the fact is that children need to master their phonology first.”

Just let that sink in: children need to master their phonology first.

My colleague brought it up because after a few hours of orthographic study with me, she could so clearly see that morphology and etymology both outrank phonology in the hierarchy of the writing system’s concerns, and she was well aware that she was being warned away from my work and the work of my orthographic scholarship community, because it threatens the rabidly phonocentric foundations of the trainer’s life’s work.

I looked at my colleague and asked her, “So at what point does she suggest children have mastered their phonology?”

And now I’m looking at you and asking you to consider at what point you mastered your phonology, and what exactly that means.

*                                    *                                    *

The second thing keeping me up was a question that had popped up on Facebook about spelling and, of course, pronunciation. Actually, questions pop up on Facebook every day. I do some of my best writing in response to those questions. There was a thread on whether the vowel in bang, sang, hang, etc., is ‘long’ or ‘short.’ It was a long conversation about who’s pronouncing what, taking place among people who, like my Pennsylvania colleague, are highly trained and knowledgeable about the English language. What most of them didn’t understand was that regardless of what you feel like you’re pronouncing, the vowels in those words are all phonologically checked, lax, or (shudder) ‘short,’ just like they would be before <tch> or <ck>.

That’s not the question that stuck with me, however; it was a post that took on disyllabic words that end in <et>, like blanket or locket or basket.

The common understanding out there in Phonicland is that these words have an /ɪ/ in the final syllable, but are spelled with an <e>. Because of what is perceived as a mismatch in the orthography, many teachers and tutors try to cue students in to the spelling by articulating the final syllable with a pure [ɛ]: “lock-ET.” The thing is, no one talks like that in real life. That word is never pronounced that way in a normal utterance, only in a phonics lesson. If the kid is writing a sentence sometime later with that word, they’re going to be thinking about the content of their composition, and it won’t feel like “lock-ET” in their head. So if that’s the approach, it’s likely that kids will continue to spell these (and other) words according to the way they pronounce them with little regard for sense and meaning.

Let’s consider these words, or at least a goodly number of them, in terms of our four questions of structured word inquiry. The thing is, we usually take these four questions to the study of a specific word, but this time, I want to take them to the study of words with that have an <et> suffix, and of that <et> in general.

  1. What does it mean?

Most of these words are of French origin and have a diminutive denotation, at least historically. The <et> may no longer clearly express smallness in the word (as in musket), and the word’s semantics may have drifted considerably from their etymon, but somewhere in many of these words’ etymologies is diminution (the history of musket includes an association with a ‘little fly’ — think mosquito).

A packet is a small pack of something; a locket is a little locking thing; a rocket is, etymologically speaking, a little cylinder. They are by and large nouns, though many have been zero-derived into verbs, as in snow that blankets the landscape. In the French that they come from, <et> is a masculine diminutive suffix, and <ette> is its feminine counterpart. English uses both: kitchenette, rosette — sometimes with the same base element, even: planchet, planchette, or toilet, toilette.

  1. How are they built?

Well, since <et> isn’t a word, we need to think about this a little differently. It’s a suffix, not a base, but we can still take a look at how its morphology works. It attaches to both free bases (locket) and bound bases (banquet). These words take the typical nominal inflections, as in two caskets or the rocket’s red glare, and they may also compound, as in basketweaving or toiletpaper, or take derivational suffixes, as in toiletries or musketeers. The suffix is never stressed in these word families, so words like magnetic tell us that we’re not dealing with the same diminutive suffix here.

Now, I wouldn’t argue that all of these words are very productive for analyzing morphologically in the present day; you won’t find the <rock> in <rocket> in any other words without the <et>, and the <jack> in <jacket>, while free (a kind of sleeveless tunic or, well, jacket), is archaic and no longer used. But even many of the words that are not morphologically generative are still hugely etymologically productive.

Let’s take a look.

  1. What are their relatives?

Well, I’ve already given several examples of the kinds of morphological relatives you’ll find with these words. Some compound prolifically (basketball, breadbasket, wastebasket), others compound a little (straightjacket), while still others don’t compound at all (blanket). Where we really hit paydirt is with the etymological relatives. When we peel off that <et> and identify the base, even if it’s not morphologically generative in present-day English, it often points to relatives that help us deepen our understanding not only of the meanings of these word families, but also of the kinds of relationships we mark in writing. Consider the following relatives and their shared historical denotations:

banquet ~ bank ~ bench ‘table’

blanket ~ blank ~ blanch ~ blanquette ‘white’

bracket ~ breeches ~ britches ‘support or armor’ (influenced by, but unrelated to, brace)

crocket ~ crook ~ crochet ~ croquet ‘hook’

latchet ~ lace ~ lasso ‘lace’ (historically, ‘rope, noose, snare;’ influenced by, but unrelated to, latch)

market ~ merchant ~ merchandise ~ mercantile ‘to buy’

picket ~ pike ~ peak ~ pique ~ pitch ‘to prick or point’

pocket ~ pouch ~poke (as in pig in a poke) ‘bag’

planchet ~ planchette ~ plank ‘board’

placket ~ placard ~ plaque ‘plate or tablet’

ratchet ~ rocket ‘spindle or cylinder’

ticket ~ etiquette ~ sticker ~ stitch ‘to stick, to fasten by sticking’

As we study these shared denotations and the stories they tell, we also begin to see another dimension of the writing system come to life: the etymological relationships between phonemes and graphemes. In the examples above, we can see certain relationships repeated in the graphemes: <tch> or <ch> and <ck> or <k>; between <c> and <ck> and <k>, and <qu>; sometimes multiples of these. We see these same relationships across English orthography, even in words without the <et> including dike~ditch, break~breach, wreak~wretch, mystic~mystique, and so many others.

Some of the morphological relationships that emerge in this study are built around free bases and are fairly intuitive, like <face> + <et> or <cab> + <in> + <et>. Others have bound bases whose denotations make perfect sense, but may not be guessable, like the <buck> shared by <bucket>, <buckle>, and <buckboard>, which denotes ‘bulge.’ The <cors> in <corset> is related to corps and corpse — they all denote ‘body.’ I know, right? Wow.

We also see in many of these words all these medial spellings that we associate with being final to monosyllables, like <tch> and <ck> and <nk> and <dge>. Once we understand that, historically at least, those spellings are final to a base element, we understand those words and their spellings better. If we look at relatives like toilet and toilette or blanket and blanquette, floret and flowerette, ticket and etiquette, we ought to be able to surmise that the <et> and <ette> suffixes are related somehow.

Basically, the more relatives we can gather, the more data we have to support our understanding. I could go on, but I want to save some of the study for other people. So let’s wrap up with the fourth question.

  1. What segments of the pronunciation are relevant to the meaning?

This is really the question that started it all, as it so often does. Even though it should be our final question, this is frequently where people start when studying spelling: with the pronunciation. And that’s a mistake. It’s a mistake, as it was in the Facebook discussion, to zero in immediately on “why are these words pronounced like this but spelled like that?” without considering the other questions, the context of the meaning and structure and relationships that govern the spellings.

Just as with the <a> in rang, sang, and hang, people get hung up on what the physical pronunciation of a word is — its phonetics — rather than considering how we organize a word’s possible pronunciations within the whole system of our language — its phonology. All writing systems represent some aspect(s) of the language’s phonology, its psychological organization of the pronunciation of meaning, but no orthography represents phonetics, the physical properties of speech.

With the frequent phonics practice of stressing that second syllable in words like locket or packet — a with many frequent phonics practices — we not only fail to study how these words’ pronunciations actually work; we also obscure other facts about the pronunciation of this suffix. Sometimes it is stressed, especially in musical terms like quintet or quartet or duet or clarinet. Some of these can be spelled either with <et> or with <ette>: quintette, quartette. We also find the same diminutive suffix stressed but pronounced only as /eɪ/; these are later French loanwords like ballet, filet, bouquet, sachet, croquet. In French, which is a syllable-timed language, the tonic stress falls at the end; the closer a word is to its French origin in time, generally the Frencher it is in English.

Rather than fixating on whether a child spells the second syllable of these words correctly immediately and consistently, what if we left that alone for a bit and studied instead what is actually happening in these words, with this suffix? So far, we know that the diminutive suffix <et> can be pronounced as [ət] (as in musket), [‘ɛt] (as in clarinet), or [‘eɪ] (as in ballet).

Wait — what? So there’s no /ɪ/ in locket, bucket, basket, musket, and the like? Nope. Some people might feel like they’re pronouncing [ɪ] in these words, but there’s no /ɪ/. If you don’t know the difference between [ɪ] and /ɪ/, you need to take my IPA LEXinar post-haste. There is an /ɪ/ in fidget and in ticket, but it’s in the first syllable, not the second, and it’s spelled with an <i> as it should be. In fact, /ɪ/ is one of the simplest vowel phonemes to spell in English because it only has two spellings: <i> and <y>. The grapheme <e> is not associated with the phoneme /ɪ/ in English. It could be spelling the phoneme /ɛ/ in these words, arguably, but unless it’s stressed, it’s a schwa.

Now, not every di- or trisyllable that ends in <et> has a demonstrable or identifiable diminutive suffix, even diachronically. The word that started it all, basket, is of obscure origin. Hornet is Old English, not French, and isn’t actually related to a horn or anything. But as words orbited around each other in Middle English and beyond, surely their spellings have been influenced by that ubiquitous <et> suffix.

Whether the schwa in these words is phonemic on its own or just an unstressed allophone of /ɛ/ in these words is anyone’s argument to make. But it’s not an /ɪ/. There are words, also schwaed at the end, that arguably do have an /ɪ/ phoneme in the unstressed syllable, because it’s spelled with an <i>. Latinate words like habit, limit, merit, and implicit all have a Latinate <it> suffix (compare rehabilitate, subliminal, meretricious, and implicate). Since its pronunciation is similar if not identical to an unstressed <et>, it bears examining what differentiates these kinds of words. First, the <et> suffix is French; these words reliably made their way into English via French, some from Latinate roots (like facet) and others from Germanic roots (like bucket). The <et> in French could be word-final, as it can in English. The <it>, on the other hand, is a Latin stem suffix, meaning it’s followed (in Latin, and often in French) by another suffix: habitare, limitem, meritare, and implicitus). While these words may have traveled via French, they retain a Latinness in their morphological families that the <et> ones don’t: compare habit, habitual, rehabilitate, inhabit to bucket, buckle, buckboard. The relatively concrete homeliness of the <et> words is what makes a lot of Phonics Pholks misidentify them as “Anglo-Saxon.” The Latin <it> almost always fixes to bound bases (inherit,circuit, audit), while the <et> is less selective.

Here’s what’s up, phonologically speaking: words that end in an unstressed <et> — whether or not it’s a suffix — do not have an /ɪ/ in the final syllable; if you want to name a pure vowel phoneme, it has to be an /ɛ/ or an /eɪ/; that’s all the orthography allows for. The unstressed ones have a schwa, because they’re unstressed. They may have an [ɪ], but when people are trying to identify the phoneme by saying “Well I pronounce it this way,” they’re missing the point. They’re looking for love in all the wrong places. Phonology isn’t in your mouth; it’s in your brain. Not in your physics, but in your psychology.

Orthography is human thought made visible as text. Because phonemes are in our heads, we can argue for a long time about their identity. Because phonemes are sets or categories in our linguistic psychology, we can debate their contents in perpetuity. If we want to identify them, literally, to figure out their identity, we need only look to the orthography. The orthography takes our phonology — our human thought — and makes it visible as text. Many orthographic scholars understand that the orthography doesn’t represent phonemes; rather, it pinpoints and identifies them with graphemes.

Here’s my hypothesis: [ɛ] isn’t typically realized in unstressed syllables in English. In compounds like redhead or daybed, the second element carries secondary stress; it’s not neutralized. In other words, you have to stress it to fully pronounce it. If you pronounce basket as *[‘bæsˌkʰɛt] you end up giving the second syllable some stress — it’s louder, longer, and maybe higher than in [‘bæskʰət]. It ain’t natural. So, instead of emphasizing or overemphasizing pronunciation (indeed stop doing that — good for the teacher who posted for identifying that this practice is both ineffective and misleading), zero in on meaning. Use the four questions as a guide. Talk about the phonology only after after you’ve made sense of the meaning, the structure, the history and the relatives of these words.

In these Facebook conversations, which are brave and honest and sometimes even moving, people reshape their understanding of English orthography. People are vulnerable and willing to be wrong. Everyone learns from each other that way. It struck me that in this friendly, brilliant, experienced, well-educated group of parents and educators and activists and innovators, conversations about phonology were still often woefully wandering. Participants remained fixated on the physics of their pronunciation, rather than looking at the grapheme that make human thought visible.

“You people have a phonological awareness problem and I am not kidding,” I posted. “I mean, I am, but I’m not. I mean this in the friendliest of ways.” Then I put a smiley face for good measure. I don’t want to insult anyone, you know.

I do want to suggest, however, that it’s possible they haven’t yet mastered their phonology. So rather than waiting until everyone totally agrees on the pronunciation of bang and sang and hatchet and blanket to start studying the structure and history, how about instead we use the morphology and etymology to make sense of the phonology? Go ahead, BW, keep all your eggs in one phonocentric basket and keep insisting that children master the phonology, whatever that means. I’ll be over here helping people understand it instead.

I’m pleased to announce that I’m ready to begin registrations for Multisensory Structured Language Education:
 A Course in Advanced Considerations.

This longitudinal course is designed to investigate, in community, the claims, benefits, and flaws of the field(s) known as Multisensory Structured Language Education, Orton-Gillingham, Dyslexia Prevention & Intervention, Reading Science, Science-Based Reading Research / Instruction.

The ideal participant will have experience with basic Orton-Gillingham or MSLE training and practices, and an abiding interest in deepening understanding of the English writing system. Participants completing course requirements will receive a super-cool certificate, but if it matters, I should let you know that LEX is not accredited by anything except your collective investment. The course itself should be approved for CEU credits by ALTA; that’s in process.

The year-long course is structured as follows:

  • 12 (monthly) one-hour self-guided study sessions featuring films, handouts, and exercises
  • 12 (monthly) three-hour online discussion sessions (90 minutes, break, 90 minutes)
  • Assigned readings and response exercises
  • Optional lesson plan consultation available (5-10 hours)
  • Optional practicum supervision available (5-10 hours)

So you probably want to know how much this jaw-dropping professional opportunity will set you back, huh? At this point, I’m not sure, but I’d guess somewhere in the $1000~$1200 range. Hey, it’s a year-long class! Lots of hours! Lots of resources! BUT the total cost will depend on how many people want to take the course. It’s a lot of work for you and me to figure that out, so what here’s what I’m offering:

I envision that the schedule will involve monthly online meetings in real time, although it is likely I will make use of some recorded sessions and other video throughout the course as well. These meetings are best scheduled in advance with make-up dates (that means scheduling a total of 24 dates over the course of the year).  We may schedule just 3 or 4 months at a time.

I’m anticipating that we’ll start in late August or early September. That’s a loaded time of year for educators, I know, but it allows us to stay ahead of the holiday curve, and it allows us to go with the academic flow.

I’m really looking forward to this conversation.

LEXinar Advanced OG

My silence here over the last five months does not betray any kind of real silence in my life, work or otherwise. Things have been moving quickly. I’m always pretty active on my Facebook page. I’ve finalized a divorce and all its staggering attendant paperwork. I’ve moved people and things into and out of my house. Picked berries and weeded. Worked like crazy on my new InSight Words deck (almost ready!). Worked to find my left foot and heal an injury that’s half as old as I am. Published an essay. Took a hiatus from tutoring. And more.

So now the wheels are in  motion for summer courses. Coming up are LEXinars on the International Phonetic Alphabet (June) and the NEW Stress and the Schwa (July). I have interest in Syllables: Fact and Fiction and Old English for Orthographers as well. Doug Harper is available to join me for Etymonline Online.

Live seminars include both greater Chicago and greater Philadelphia in July. Early Bird registration dates are quickly approaching, so grab a colleague and get registered. Philly has online options available as well.

Starting in the fall, I’m planning two longitudinal online courses. One will be an “Advanced Orton-Gillingham” LEXinar, addressing topics including morphology and etymology, but also comprehension, fluency, assessment and diagnosis, and professional standards and ethics. I was an Advanced OG trainer for a decade; I’m still certified. This course, however, rather than being focused on lesson plans and a scope and sequence, will be a deep study of these topics through the lens of word history, word structure, and the history and structure of literacy education. Ideally for scholars with some OG training, preferably certification, this course will include a supervised practicum option.

The second longitudinal course will be built around my dissertation, Spelling Stories and Spelling Science: How English Orthography Works. I’ll write; you’ll read; we’ll meet and discuss. Both of these courses include handouts and film uploads as well as scheduling flexibility. I can also offer payment plans; costs are not yet set and will depend in part on how many folks want to register.

Summer’s a good time to study. It’s hot and buggy out. Or raining. Or all three. Stay inside with your Internet and your air conditioning and join me. Or come out to one of the live seminars, connect with colleagues, and be a little pampered in a nice study space.

So get moving!

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