Kalantzis and Cope, The Daunting Story of Phonics

Taking the pattern of analysis we used to provide an overview of phonics in the book, here’s a more daunting, but just-as-true, version of the phonics story:

1. Phonemes

Phonemes (the sounds of language) do not neatly or consistently match graphemes (the letters and clusters of letters in an alphabetic language like English). In one count, English has 47 phonemes, represented by of single letters and digraphs or pairs of letters. But:

  • If only spelling were as simple as learning the letters that go with these 47 sounds, but each sound can be spelt many ways. For instance, to take just one of the 47, the long ‘a’ sound can be spelt at least 19 different ways (ate, steak, veil, obey … etc.). So there are many hundreds of spellings of the 47 sounds.
  • Add to these the ‘blends’, where two letters fuse into a single blended sound (such as ‘br’ in ‘broom’, and the number of sounds jumps from 47 to hundreds.[1]
  • So do ‘silent’ letters which may have been sounded at some time in the history of the language, but no longer are—the ‘g’ in ‘light’, and how wrong is the spelling ‘lite’? And how simple is the silent ‘e’ which changes the sound of the ‘i’ two characters earlier.
  • Dialects add another layer of difficulty—’merry’ might sound like ‘Mary’ or ‘marry’, depending on your dialect. [2]


2. Vowels and

Consonants can’t happen without vowels, and consonants and vowels are modified by each other in always-fused sound units.

  • Moreover, collections of sounds are often treated as a single perceptual unit—consider the vowel plus ‘r’ sound at the end of ‘fear’ and ‘Cuba’—some people will hear it as a separate phoneme, others not.[3]
  • Nasal sounds are partially absorbed by the preceding vowel or following consonant. (Could you tell the difference between ‘at’ and ‘ant’ if the sounds of these words were cut out of the sentences where it is clear from the meaning that ‘at’ is not ‘ant’?)
  • Some consonant sounds are very hard to distinguish, such as the ‘ch’ or ‘j’ sounds (technically called ‘affricatives’) that commence the words ‘train’, ‘drum’, ‘jump’, and ‘church’.
  • Aspiration (the amount of air with a sound) varies. Some consonants sound quite different when they are at different places in the word, such as the ‘p’ and ‘t’ sounds in ‘pit’ and ‘tip’ … it’s easy to write ‘pig’ for ‘pick’ and ‘cub’ for ‘cup’.
  • Vowels blend with consonants—from a phonemic point of view, how wrong is it to write ‘brid’ for ‘bird’?[4]
  • The sounds of language are also very variable, and most of the time it doesn’t matter. Different people may sound things in different ways. At the micro level of consonant-vowel fusing, the one person might pronounce something in a peculiar way—just this time or all the time when they speak—without affecting the meaning. For instance, when some people speak, you may hear the ‘t’ in ‘counted’ or ‘wanted’, and you may never notice whether it is there or not. The difference between ‘ladder’ and ‘latter’ may be noticeable, or it may not.[5]

Spoken language is never heard sound by sound, least of all at the rate at which letters flow past, and never at a level at which there is any purpose in distinguishing consonants from vowels—these are always heard as a single unit.

3. Syllables

You can hear syllablesin a spoken word, but you can’t see them in a written word.

  • In fact, a lot of audible information in spoken language is lost because informationally important sounds are not recorded in writing, such as stress on one syllable in a word, and intonation patterns in a word. ‘?’, ‘!’, ‘,’, ‘…’ and ‘.’ only present a very limited amount of information about intonation.


4. Words

Words run into each other in speech, so their beginnings and ends are nearly impossible to hear. Nor do they correspond with units of meaning or morphemes. In other words, there is no easy rule to apply to work out where a word starts and ends, either by listening to its sound in speech or by thinking about it from the perspective of meaning.

  • Where words begin and end is a matter of writing convention rather than either sounding or meaning. Some pairs of words are a single morpheme, such as ‘railway station’. Other words have two or more morphemes—’un-think-able’ has three. Sometimes two morphemes are to be found in one syllable, ‘walked’, for instance.
  • Sometimes English spelling follows sounds (when ‘life’ becomes ‘lives’), but other times it follows meaning (the ‘c’, when ‘electric becomes ‘electricity’.
  • Then there are homophones, or words which sound the same but have different meanings (‘read’, ‘red’); homographs, or words that look the same but have different meanings (and dictionaries try to sort out these differences—look up ‘set’, which is the hardest word in the English language if you were to use the measure of the largest number of alternative meanings).

Therefore, there are no neat or reliable rules that help you learn words. You just have to learn a lot of words—connecting the way they look, with the way they are spelled, with they way they sound, with what they mean.

[1] Gunning, Thomas G. 2008. Creating Literacy Instruction for All Students. Boston: Pearson. pp.158-161.

[2] Ibid. p.190.

[3] Goodman, Ken. 1993. Phonics Phacts. Portsmouth NH: Heinemann. p.6.

[4] Gunning, Thomas G. 2008. Creating Literacy Instruction for All Students. Boston: Pearson. p.110.

[5] Goodman, Ken. 1993. Phonics Phacts. Portsmouth NH: Heinemann. p.24.

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