Good evening! Since my wife’s viewing of televisual car crash Popstar to Opera Star precludes my playing of Mass Effect and its sequel on the TV, and Star Trek Online has decided to update itself with a patch that will take 5 hours to download on Steam (despite the fact I was playing it earlier with no problems), now’s as good a time as any to get today’s entry done.
Today I would like to rant about phonics, since I had a long, boring, pointless and patronising training day on this very subject today.
For the uninitiated, phonics is the theory which suggests that children should learn reading by sounding out individual phonemes in words, then learn how to “blend” them together where appropriate. It also suggests that it’s sensible to teach six-year olds the words “morpheme“, “phoneme“, “grapheme“, “digraph” and “trigraph” – words which I didn’t come across until I studied English Language at A-level (age 16-18) and again at university.
The flaw, in case you haven’t spotted it, is that English isn’t a phonetic language. We have so many different ways of pronouncing each letter in our alphabet that using phonics to teach reading quickly becomes useless – and in the meantime, it fucks up spelling ability.
As if to emphasise this point, the official materials for teaching phonics from the government include an appendix of the most “high-frequency” words in the English language. Out of the thirty most-used words in the English language, fourteen of them are designated “tricky” words, which means that the phonics rules don’t apply to them. Well, if the phonics rules don’t apply to almost half of the most common words in the language, exactly what use is it to anyone?
The funny thing is, I can’t remember how I learned to read. I imagine that’s not an uncommon thought – childhood memories fade over time, after all – but I’m pretty sure it didn’t involve phonics at any point. I can tell this because I can spell, and don’t think that because “rough” is pronounced “r-u-ff” that it should be spelled that way too, which is what I see kids doing on a daily basis.
It’s difficult to know what to suggest, though. Phonics is fashionable. Someone somewhere said it was “good” and it stuck. As with most fashions, this is nothing to do with how good it is. It is simply the “in” thing at the time.
It doesn’t help, of course, that the leader of today’s training day was a patronising, aggressive middle-aged harpy who clearly had a chip on her shoulder about something. Her holier-than-thou attitude towards phonics and teaching reading and her steadfast refusal to consider any alternatives (even doing an arrogant “shaking head” movement whenever anyone raised a point she didn’t agree with) made everyone resent the process even more than its inherent stupidity already did.
This video pretty much sums up the problem:
(Thanks to Jeff Parsons for bringing this to my attention.)
Here’s a poem, too. Don’t say I’m not good to you.
I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, lough and through?
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?
Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird,
And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead –
For goodness sake don’t call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).
A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother,
And here is not a match for there
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there’s dose and rose and lose –
Just look them up – and goose and choose,
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword,
And do and go and thwart and cart –
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!
A dreadful language? Man alive!
I’d mastered it when I was five!
Quoted by Vivian Cook and Melvin Bragg 2004,
by Richard Krogh, in D Bolinger & D A Sears, Aspects of Language, 1981,
and in Spelling Progress Bulletin March 1961, Brush up on your English.