Why English is deep and defective, and what Mum and Dad can do about it

Lately I've been thinking a lot about the process of learning to read (and, to a lesser degree, write). Literacy is such a fundamental skill in society, and it is one that seems to occur right on the boundary that marks the beginning of schooling. It is expected that children will generally arrive at school able to speak conversational English. It is expected that children will generally not be able to do arithmetic. But the degree of reading competence is acknowledged to vary widely, providing a challenge to Kindergarten teachers supporting a class of children whose literacy varies from a degree of reading competence to almost no engagement with the written word.

Acknowledging then, that the home can (and perhaps should) play a key role in developing literacy skills, it seems reasonable to ask how. The most likely place for this to develop will be in shared encounters with texts – from story books to road signs. Understanding the first stages of literacy development should give us a guide as to;

  • what kind of text will be most suitable to provide context
  • what kind of shared experiences will support this process

Understanding how we learn to read most likely requires that we have an understanding of how we read. This is what I have been fascinated with lately. Far from being a clear cut, well established fact, there seems to be ongoing debate and ambiguity about the cognitive processes that underly reading. This debate has influenced (and no doubt been influenced by) the 'war' between two approached to early literacy education – 'phonics' and 'whole language' teaching. While many educators now acknowledge the merit of both approaches, and suggest that the 'war' is more of a media beat-up and policy football, it is still intriguing to look at how they might relate to underlying literacy processes.

The most intuitive theory of reading is a phonetic one. It goes something like this… We learn to speak before we learn to read. When we learn to read it is about linking written words made up of letters to spoken words we have already learned, putting them together and making sentences from which we gain meaning. This is a 'bottom up' approach, beginning with the recognition of letters and the sounds that they make. Based on this line of thinking, we need to start by teaching kids to recognise the letters of the alphabet. They they need to know the sounds they generally make. Then they learn how they make sounds together (both in simplistic terms and more complex instances like blends). With that knowledge they can then see a word like 'cat', and 'sound it out' to discover what the word is. Mentally, the process becomes one of visual recognition of letters, transaltion into phonetics, building words which we 'listen to' in our heads, then the same process as oral language extracts meaning.

If we accept this as the underlying process, the process for building literacy skills becomes clear. What parents can initially focus on is letter-based skills – the recognition of letters and linking to phonetics. This results on lots of single-leter activity, books like 'Animalia', letter-based rhymes, and the fact that Sesame Street is bought to you today by the letter 'M'. As these skills solidify, we introduce simple books with lots of phonetically correct text and encourage kids to work through the text phonetically, 'sounding it out' being the core building block in becoming literate.

But here's the rub. Maybe it doesn't work quite like that. The big question is this: Do we really 'sound things out in our head' in order to translate them from text objects into meaning. Introspectively, it often feels like we do. But it often also feels like we don't. And it definitely feels like one of those cases where our introspection may well be unreliable. While these are all 'exception cases', here's a couple of things to think about…

  • Read these two phrases… 'the sun's rays meet' and 'the sons raise meat'. You knew they meant very different things. But if you were gaining meaning by listening to the sounds in your head, the sounds are exactly the same. How did the meaning get extracted through phonetics?
  • Read this sentence… 'The bandage was wound around the wound.' Let's assume you came to understand that by listening to it sounded out in your head. Note that each 'wound' sounds different. But you only know how they sound *after* you know the meaning of the sentence as a whole. If you are sounding out the words in order to gain the meaning, how did you know how to pronounce them?
  • How do profoundly deaf children learn to read, without ever hearing what a letter or word sounds like?
  • In Mandarin, characters relate to whole words or word-parts – they usually don't have any phonetic cues. Without understanding what the characters mean, it is impossible to 'sound out' most Mandarin. How does one learn to read Mandarin?

The alternative theory about reading (often referred to as 'lexical') is that we directly recognise language based on visual cues, and generate meaning from it without translating it into sounds. This is extremely counter-intuitive (to me at least), as oral reading is so ingrained in how we do things, and how we come to reading – as conversationally competent individuals.

This theory relates to the 'whole language' approach to early literacy. In this model, there is less (if any) focus on teaching letters and sounds. Instead, learning to read takes place within the context of reading texts. Simple texts are repeatedly read 'with' the child. In the beginning, the adult reads 'to' the child, to establish familiarity with the text. Over time, the child takes over the role as reader. Initially this will be done by fabricating an oral story that follows the narrative of the story (possibly including rembered key phrases). The adult supports this, providing prompts that link the oral version back to the text. These prompts include following the text with a finger as the story is told, as well as acknowledging or correcting key words. The child comes to realise that the written text 'contains' the story, and works toward what they realise is 'reading'. Gradually, the oral version comes closer to the written version. This begins when short words are recognised, then extends as they enlarge their 'sight-read' vocabulary, and grasp that certain letters or word-parts are linked to certain words. Feedback will focus no on 'what do you think that word might sound like', and more on 'look at the rest of the sentence and the picture, what words do you think might make sense there'.

While this was initially quite a bizarre idea, it strongly resonates with my understanding of how neural networks learn, which is in turn based on the functional biology of the brain. Arguable it is also much closer to how we originally learn to speak – gradually plucking out sounds and words from a 'soup' of linguistic noise we are constantly embedded in.

Following this approach, we come to a very different set of texts and processes for parents supporting early literacy. First, there is a much larger time commitment required to provide a level of literacy support that compares to the oral support provided as children learn to speak. Second, texts need to be both engaging enough to support many, many re-readings. Third, the most successful texts will be very simple, with high levels of word repetition, short words, and ideally words that have clear orthographic. Conversely, less attention will have to be paid to whether words are phonetic or exceptional. Finally, reading with kids becomes a much more complex task of providing constant feedback to gradually extend the capabilities of the child.

The way the written elements of a language relate to the language is called its 'orthography'. If English had a perfectly clear relationship between letter and sounds, we woudl say it has a 'phonemic orthography' – like Turkish, for instance. It is very easy to 'sight read' Turkish, after a little practice you could read a Turkish text aloud, yet have no understanding of the words you were reading.

Conversely, English has a 'defective orthography' – this is also referred to as a 'deep orthography. We have words that look the same but sound (and mean) different things. We have words that looks different (but sound the same, and on rare occasions even mean the same). For this reason alone, phonics and 'sounding out' does not provide the perfect answer. If we were teaching Turkish, perhaps it would. If we were teaching Mandarin, it would be completely useless. Exactly how much value it provides is a difficult question.

Having finally gotten my head around these two theories, I realised that they each suggested a fundamentally different set of underlying cognitive processes. Surely, this must be a field of interest, particularly given the latest technology (fMRI etc.). As it turns out, there seems to have been quite a bit of study in the area, focusing on the 'phonetic' vs. the 'lexical' cognitive 'path' for reading. Two points on this;

  • One of the perspectives that has been gaining support (but not uncontested by any means) is the 'dual route' theory, which posits that there are two 'parallel' cognitive paths that support reading – one phonetic, one lexical. The experience of reading is a messy, hybrid consequence of the two – which I have to admit, sounds a lot like the way our brains seem to work
  • Unfortunately, all the research I have been able to find so far focuses on getting subjects to read individual words – often aloud – and measuring time to do so. In particular, words may be 'pseudowords' or 'exceptions'. Pseudowords are sequences of letters with no semantic meaning, so any 'reading' of them leans heavily on phonetic cues. Conversely, excetions are words that are not pronounced phonetically, meaning that some non-phonetic activity must be at play. The catch is that these experiments isolate an individual word and create an experience of 'reading' that is completely de-contextualised.

So, it seems the jury is still out, and the process may be complex and multi-facetted. As parents we are anxious to provide suitable textual environments for kids, and to give them the scaffolding that they need as they start to engage with these texts. Understanding the nature of the skills they are building is an important factor in shaping that enviornment and that scaffolding – so I for one will be watching this space with interest.

Another conisderation is that this discussion has focussed on reading, not writing. There seems to be evidence that we are much more phonetic when we write – that we probably do 'speak' the things we write before we write them. Again, there would then need to be complexity to accommodate exceptional spelling – we need to over-ride our phonetic writing for words that we learn are spelled in certain ways. If we accept that most writing is first 'mental speech', it raises interesting questions about generating text that is not spoken – do we modify our mental speech for different contexts, or do we generate meaning then 'rephrase it' based on the context in which we are writing?. There is also the idea of teaching writing before reading (I believe Montessori does this) – how does that fit with the different threories? But perhaps those are questions for another post…


2 thoughts on “Why English is deep and defective, and what Mum and Dad can do about it

  1. Laura Bowen

    Aboriginal Australia has never used written “words” or read them. They have used dance, art, songs and language passed down through oral telling or physically showing the generation that follows. So to people of Aboriginal decent reading and writing are a fairly new concept given that for the 39,800 years before European settlement, neither reading or writing as we know it now were needed.

  2. brett rolfe

    The pure orality of Aboriginal language(s) does present a strange challenge when we naively talk about ‘preserving’ those languages through written means. To an English speaker it seems trivial to figure out a (phonetic) way to ‘write down what people are saying’. It’s easy to forget that this act is fundamentally not part of the language, and that a written language and an oral language are by no means the same thing.


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