Saturday, November 30, 2013

Let's learn to read in Georgian via sight words

If your child has a teacher who focuses on sight words and story context at the expense of phonics, ask how s/he'd prefer to learn how to read this page out loud.

(1) By learning which sound(s) each letter stands for.
(2) By learning these words as holistic graphical patterns that correspond to particular spoken words.

(A page from a children's book written in the Georgian alphabet.)

Here in America, many of today's educators have no personal experience with what it takes to master a foreign language. As a result, they often fail to appreciate what kinds of instruction English Language Learners need in order to master English.

Even fewer of our educators have personal experience with what it takes to master a truly foreign alphabet like Georgian or Armenian. (Greek and Cyrillic don't count as truly foreign: these alphabets bear too many resemblances to our own). Nor do most people remember what it took for them, back in early childhood, to master the alphabets of their native languages. As a result, they often fail to appreciate what kinds of instruction novice readers need in order to master the English writing system.

Our teacher training programs are supposed to be addressing this, but somehow the message still hasn't spread sufficiently far and wide. In a comment on an earlier post, C_T cites a study showing that only 47% of education colleges were making phonics instruction part of their required coursework for elementary ed majors.

Some have argued against a primarily phonics-based approach for English by citing all the unusual spellings that violate phonics. But even in English writing  the rules are far more widespread than the exceptions, and even when it comes to the words with the most unphonetic spellings, like "through," "talk," "bread," "nation," or "psycho," you're still much better off sounding the word out phonetically than memorizing its graphical appearance.


gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Phonics instruction is very useful in languages with very phonetic orthography, somewhat useful in languages with irregular orthography, and useless in languages with non-phonetic writing systems.

English falls in the somewhat-to-very useful range for phonetics. A pure phonetics approach fails, because of the large number of common words that violate the rules, but a mixed approach of sight words for the common irregular words and phonetics for most of the rest is probably the best approach.

C T said...

But so many of the beginning "sight words" they say don't follow rules do actually follow most, if not all, of English phonetic rules. Educators who say they can't be sounded out display a lack of knowledge of anything more than very basic phonics.
For instance, when introducing it as a sight word, teachers tell kids that "was" doesn't follow the rules. But it totally does! "A" alone generally makes one of three sounds: short a, long a, and schwa. "S" makes two sounds; devoiced is "ssss", and voiced is "zzzz". Whether "s" is voiced or not depends on the letters around it. For a word such as "good", where the vowel is a little off what would normally be expected, you just tell the kids that "g-oooo-d" changed over time so that we now pronounce the "oo" a little differently; everything else about the word is perfectly phonetic. Kids can take a little thing like vowel shifting on faith, especially when they know there's no such word as "g-oooooo-d".
It makes more sense to introduce Dolch/frequently-used words to kids as phonetic words with little irregularities rather than as ideographs. Treat them like vocabulary words that need a little extra explanation, not special shapes to memorize. Ed schools must spend more time teaching English linguistics to elementary ed teaching majors than they currently do, so that the teachers can give the necessary explanations.

Unknown said...

It's also very helpful to teach Latin prefixes, suffixes and common roots and the Greek "psy", "ps" etc. - these get encountered fairly often as kids advance through the grades. I know there are specific books for such.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Part of the problem with 'phonics doesn't work' is that the people saying that haven't really STUDIED phonics. For instance, The Writing Road to Reading shows that many 'exceptions' aren't exceptions at all. They're a failure to break up phonemes appropriately. (ie: Eigh is a different phoneme than ei, which is why 'i before e' is not a useful rule...)

Anonymous said...

In fact, CT, the oo in good is perfectly phonetic, because the digraph oo has two common pronunciations - the long oo as in too or boot, and the short one as in good or wood or look.

Deidre, I find that I before e works fine, when used in the form "if it says ee, then it is I before e, but not after c". People like to catalog lists of exceptions, but most of those (such as atheist) were never covered by the rule in the first place.

C T said...

Your point is well taken.
My husband speaks German to our kids, so vowel shift explanations are fairly common in our home. Personalized education is awesome! But really hard to reproduce on the classroom scale.