Jelly and Bean

Speech and Sounds

Speech and Sounds

Babies do not learn to talk by identifying individual sounds (phonemes) and blending these into words. They learn by first working out the meanings of whole words and phrases spoken to them by their carers. Then they learn how to modify their own first vocal productions to match the sounds in these words that mean something to them.  It is their need to communicate with others that drives the language learning process.

In fact, the speed of articulation in normal spoken language is too fast for people to attend to any “separate” sounds within it. This is because there are no separate sounds in speech. Spoken language is a continuous stream of sound. Word boundaries are learnt as word meanings become clear.

It is only later, when children are learning to read and write, that they need to learn that sounds are abstracted from speech and that these relate to the letters in written words. They have to learn how to turn a continuous spoken medium (speech) into a static visual medium (text). They have to learn how to split up speech into separate sound units (phonemes) and how to associate these units with written symbols (graphemes). They have to learn how to write these symbols in blocks, with spaces in between them, to visually represent words which mean something to them.

This is the process all children have to go through if they are to become literate. Some children are able to learn a whole block of symbols directly as words. They are able to recognise the letters in the word, in the order in which they appear, and realise that these represent a whole word that they understand.  They learn to visually recognise words directly from their spellings.

However, to be able to write, children have to learn the shape of each letter and the sound that corresponds to it. This is because English is written with an alphabet, and the alphabet connects symbols to sounds which are abstracted from speech.  Children have to learn the symbols, as well as the order in which they are occur, so that they can write words on paper in sentences.

This process would possibly not be too difficult if each sound unit corresponded to each symbol, but the English language has multiple sounds for each symbol and multiple symbols for each sound. Think of the symbol ‘a’ in ‘cat’. It is pronounced differently in the words ‘baby, father, was, sausage’, and the sound of  ‘e’ (written /e/ in phonics) has different symbols  in ‘bed, said, head’.

It is because written English is so complicated that the proponents of synthetic and linguistic phonic programmes teach children to read and write using a sound-to-symbol system.

This sound-to-symbol system has been defined by assuming that there are 44 separate sounds of speech. ( This is not true.) Children are taught these sounds and all the spellings that represent them, e.g. the sound /ee/ as in ‘sheep’ is written differently in the words  ‘we, leaf, chief, monkey, pony, radio, theme, protein, chlorine’, the sound /or/  is written differently in ‘walk, stork, hawk, warm’, /ie/ in  ‘time, tight, tried, try’ and /oe/ in  ‘old, toad, tow, toe, tone’. 

This method of teaching children to read is based on the Simple View of Reading which consists of two factors, ‘decoding’ and ‘spoken language comprehension’. The Simple View deliberately separates reading skill into these two strands. The ‘decoding’ strand relates to the pronunciation and blending of the written symbols into words  (phonics), and the ‘spoken language‘ strand relates to the understanding of the resulting decoded words as meaningful language. Syntax, grammar and the meanings of words are subsumed in the language comprehension strand.  There is no concept of word meanings in ‘decoding’.

Yet children do need to learn the correspondences between symbols and sounds if they are to learn how to read and write their own language. They need to be able to pronounce what they see on the page and they need to be able to link this pronunciation to words in their known vocabulary.

However, they do not need to learn how to pronounce meaningless letter strings, which do nothing to grow their knowledge of language and vocabulary. Neither do they need to be restricted to one method of working out the relationship between written symbols and the meaning of language. The synthetic phonic principle that the only unit of language to be taught should be the phoneme, denies children access to other aspects of phonology which help them to learn how to pronounce written words. Rhymes, syllables and clusters of consonants are all easier to pronounce than phonemes. Small chunks within words like ‘ing, ed, ly, un, pre, dis’ (morphemes) are ignored, and whole words themselves are never taught.

Yet, whole words like ‘go, to, no, me, you, are, was’ require no more visual recognition than digraphs and trigraphs, e.g. ‘ai, ur, igh’, and they have the added bonus of having spaces either side of them to delineate them as meaningful units – words.

The synthetic phonic principle of teaching only phonemes (artificial constructs) to be blended to pronounce written words, and never teaching whole words in their own right, produces an arid, sterile view of learning to read. The single-cueing principle of using sound (and then not including all the aspects of phonology, but only phonemes), is both abstract and artificial. This cannot be a sensible method for teaching early reading.

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