White spaces are more important than phonics
Consider the word ‘to’. It is written as two letters with a white space either side. Once we have seen it and someone has told us how to pronounce it, as a whole word, it never changes. It always sounds and looks the same. We have learnt its phonology (sound) and spelling (orthography). We know what it means from our spoken language (internal lexicon). The written word ‘to’ becomes embedded in our memory – visually, phonologically and semantically.
Consider the letters ‘to’ and how we see them without white spaces either side, i.e. within written words
– stop, storm, stoat, stout, stoic, stoop, stood, stow,
or with a white space on the left side only
– top, tower, touch, toad, torn, tomb, tone, took, tool, tour, tousle, tout, tow, toy,
In these strings of letters, the combination of ‘to’, seen as letters in a left to right order when looking at them, are not pronounced in the same way. How do we learn this? How do we learn how to pronounce – decode – these letters in these words?
Synthetic phonics advocates would have us believe that we learn the sounds of our language, the phonemes, and at the same time we learn the corresponding sight of these phonemes, the graphemes, and that this is the only true way to learn to read.
But consider what our eyes are doing when we first learn to read. We have to look at the letters first. When we see ‘a’ by itself, as a word with spaces either side, and we have learnt how to pronounce (decode) it and we know what it means, we have it forever in our memory, visually and semantically.
When we see ‘I’ by itself as a word (white spaces) and we know how to pronounce it, we have it forever visually and semantically in our memory.
(These are the only single letter words I can think of. )
The point is that the white spaces either side of each letter are what makes them words, not the letters per se. The same letters in other words are pronounced in a number of ways, – ‘a’ – cat, cake, market, warm, ball, …….’I’ – tin, find, soil, field, girl ….
It does seem a little bit obvious that when we are learning the letters of the alphabet we also learn one pronunciation for each, except of course for when we see them as single words (white spaces) and then their pronunciation is different ( schwa for a and long i- for I). …… (Still thinking here)
But when we come to two letter combinations, like ‘to’ what happens then?
Our eyes see these two letters. As beginning readers we probably scan the letters in a left to right order because that is what we have been told to do??? – but maybe not??
We look at ‘top, tower, torn, touch, toad, took, tool, toy, tow’ and the combination ‘to’ is not pronounced (decoded) the same in any of these. So, we are told we have to learn to split the words and identify the sounds first, the phonemes, and the graphemes, the GPCs. We have to learn ‘ow, or, ou, oa, oo, oo, ou, ou, ou, oy, ow’ – and sometimes these are pronounced differently in different words (tower, tow, took, tool, touch, tout, tour)
The point is that we have to look past ‘to’ to the next letters in our attempts to work out the pronunciation (decoding). The fact that there are no white spaces after ‘to’ forces us to do this. We have to see the next letter and then work out if the two consecutive letters including the ‘o’ form a digraph, – oa, oe, oo, oi, or, ou, ow, oy. If they do, we have to learn the sound corresponding to this digraph, (- and there may be more than one – touch, tout, tour.) Only after we have done this part of converting the two consecutive letters to sounds – orthography to phonology – can we have any hope of decoding (pronouncing) the word that this digraph is part of.
But suppose we see two letter words, i.e. they have white spaces either side, – ‘as, at, am, be, in, is, it, me, we, he, go, no, so, do, to, oh, on, of, up’ – is learning these any harder than learning digraphs? No, it’s not. It’s easier. Once our eyes see these two letter words and recognise them as a combination (white space clues), then someone tells us how to pronounce them, and lo and behold, we have them in our memory forever, (visual, phonological and semantic). We don’t need to split them up into phonemes and graphemes. If we are capable of learning that two letters represent one sound (- or maybe more than one sound – you, out, tough, should, through, thought’ for ‘ou’), (digraphs) then we are capable of learning that two letters represent one meaningful word. … as, at, am, be, in, is, it, me, we, he, go, to, so, do, to, oh, on, of, up.
So, I have come to the conclusion that it is easier to learn two letter words ‘by sight’ as whole words with specific spellings, than it is to go through the whole process of splitting them into phonemes and graphemes which might have one to one correspondences or might not have 1:1 correspondences.
Synthetic phonic programmes also have trigraphs – igh, air, ure, ear, are – combinations of three letters corresponding to one sound (or more in the case of ‘ear’ – dear, heard, bear). We have lots of three letter words in written English. Let’s just consider some of the common ‘irregular’ ones – one, the, are, two. These specific three letter combinations, with their white spaces, never change in pronunciation (decoding) or meaning. Once learnt as whole words ‘by sight’ we can remember them forever.
I’m not even going to attempt to push this line of thought to three letter regular CVC words like ‘cat, dog, man ….. ‘ except to say that generations of people have learnt to read without knowing about phonemes, graphemes, digraphs and trigraphs.
….or quad graphs ‘eigh, ough, aigh???????