August 17, 2004

Only 18 out of 45 phonic generalizations met the criteria of usefulness

According to the New York Times, Theodore Clymer died last month. He was an important figure in American elementary education, one who reached the end of his life every bit as controvertial a figure as when he did his most famous research.

The title of this post is a direct quote. It is his most famous conclusion.

Before the 1960s, most early childhood literacy education focused on certain folk beliefs about the phonetics of English spelling. For example, how many of us have heard that when two vowels are next to each other, you only hear the first one? Not that many I suspect. It used to be a common rule taught to every first grader, until Dr Clymer showed that the exceptions to this rule are so numerous that the rule is of diminishing value.

This was the begining of the end for phonic reading in the US, which is kind of ironic since Clymer himself advocated a more modern form of phonics for most of his career.

Almost from the day he published those words, people have sought either to deny them, to deny their consequences, or to moderate them in some way. The rules that failed tended to involve vowels rather than consonants. English does a particularly poor job of mapping its vowels to its alphabet, but English consonants are generally not very complicated. This is in part because the consonants of English vary less from dialect to dialect than the vowels do. Except for the letter "r" and the neutralisation of plosives between vowels - a flap in America, a glottal stop in much of Britain - English dialects are on the whole quite uniform in their consonants. Others have done little more than confirm his results and put forward evidence that children need reading practice as much as a structured pedagogy.

Clymer himself recommended a starting curriculum based on vowel contrasts, particularly through the use of paired words and compound words with contrasting vowels.

Of course, since the early 80's phonics as a pedagogy have made a sharp comeback. A lot of things changed in the intervening generation. First, it is no longer very widely believed that expert adult readers use the phonetic information present in the spellings of words they know. Before the mid-20th century, this was a fairly radical notion. It was assumed - and had been assumed for millenia - that spelling was a knowledge of phonetic rules, modified perhaps by some few exceptions. Now we know that people rely on phonetic spelling information almost exclusively when confronted with novel words.

Of course, we also know that literacy is much easier to acquire in the first place - and far easier to write correctly - when a language is written with clear phonetic rules. But this fact has never been of much use in English literacy curricula. One is confronted with the world as is.

Still, the idea that literacy was as much acquired through reading texts as through phonetic drills was an accomplishment and one for which Clymer deserves a fair share of the credit.

The new synthesis places a far stronger emphasis on reading texts - and on finding and devising engaging texts - than did pre-1960 American curricula. It also advocates phonic education for starting readers, but has lost most of the emphasis placed on dysfunctional spelling rules in the past. The advantage of this approach is that literacy is made synonymous with reading often. Children now appear to read more and there is ambiguous evidence that adults who started school after 1965 now read more as well. The disadvantage is that students must often study spelling separately from learning to read, and there is evidence that spelling is much less well learned than in the past.

Education is not without its compromises. This was one of them.

Posted 2004/08/17 16:41 (Tue) | TrackBack

I wonder if there's been some sort of general survey kicking around, on how Romance language divergence tends in the direction of preserving vowel sounds while allowing consonant sounds to diverge, whereas Germanic seems to preserve consonants, allowing vowels to diverge.

Cf. the phonological differences between Dutch and German; French and Italian, and Spanish and Portugese. Cf. also that the accepted wisdom seems to be that classical Latin had the vowel phonemes of modern Italian.

Posted by: Aidan Kehoe at August 17, 2004 17:48

I hear tales of such problems, but I also hear of explanations. Old French, for instance, was not particularly close to Latin in its vowels. On the other hand, French is Latin as acquired and spoken by an overwhelmingly Celtic country with a different set of sounds. Germanic languages, on the other hand, have spent the last 2000 years advancing on and retreating from other people. The boundaries of the Germanic languages stablised in the west around the eighth century and in the east around 1945. If demographic change is a major factor in diachronic language change, perhaps something can be made of this.

I'm not yet convinced that grand explanations for the vowel mutations of Germanic languages, so famously discovered by the Grimm brothers, can really be explained in this way. Especially since the phonetic conservativism of Spanish and the radical shifts in Portuguese don't fit this model at all. But, I might be willing to consider an explanation for the conservativism of Italian - which is quite different in its consonants from Classical Latin but much less different from the Vulgar - by its demographic conservativism.

Something like a demographic thesis of language change is accepted as common knowledge in Sinology. The southern dialects are diverse and very different from the northern ones, and it seems pretty accepted that this is because the south was invaded from the north, and the peoples and languages of the south were integrated into Middle Chinese. The north, some centuries later, was repreatedly invaded and sometimes held by Altaic speaking peoples like the Mongols. Consequently, the north has elements of a case system and an agglunative syntax that are missing both from the classical language and the southern dialects, while the south has a disturbing number of Mon-Khmer borrowings and some syntactic structures that seem to be found in adjacent non-Han languages.

Posted by: Scott Martens at August 17, 2004 18:07

Well, even beyond the Celtic thing, Old French had an amount of Germanic influence from the Normans and the Franks.

(Tangent: I'm not so convinced that the Celtic substrate in Gaul had that much of an influence on the Latin there. I draw the parallel in my own mind with here, where a reasonable landmark for the beginning of the death of Irish as a vernacular is the funding of the seminary at Maynooth by His Majesty's Government. The situation now, two centuries later, is that we have a dialect not--phonologically or syntactically--very far away from those of the more Germanic parts of the English-speaking world. Sure, we've better communications today, but Gaul had more time to perfect their Latin, and may even have had a decent migrant population who wanted to use it as a lingua franca.)

Small point--the borders of the Germanic languages stabilised in the west with the Alaska purchase. :-)

Perhaps the Caribbeans and the Irish hastened the death of "thither" and "thence" in the standard language by eliminating the minimal pairs with "dither" and "dense."

Something that has thrown me a little--where's the influence of Arabic on standard Spanish? Was Castille so far away from al-Andalus, or is what's Semitic invisible in phonemic spelling? Or is 5,000 vocabulary items and a different vowel in the definite article about commensurate with its influence? Ahh, though, on further searching, more than half of the initial invasion force were Berber. So the everyday influence will have been that bit weaker.

Dammit, it's kind of hard to pose the same question about Sicilian (part of Italy that wasn't especially demographically conservative; but, you should counter, nor did it have much influence on standard Italian.)

Posted by: Aidan Kehoe at August 17, 2004 21:51

Well, I have to admit to a fair amount of scepticism about the notion myself. Iberia is a beautiful counterexample. Spanish isn't too far from Latin, as such things go, and was ruled by Arabs for centuries.

As for Sicily, my first girlfriend was New Jersey Sicilian. But she talked like a Soprano so I can't claim to know much about the dialects of Sicily.

Posted by: Scott Martens at August 17, 2004 22:19

"When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking". That's about all I remember from my first grade education in reading (in the late 1960s). Then again, I was very receptive to reading, and picked it up quickly, while I was very resistant to spelling, and only picked it up slowly.

Posted by: Jeremy Leader at August 17, 2004 23:31

In 1952 my first grade class was the first one taught look-say instead of phonics. One outcome for me is that while my reading and spelling are great, I mispronounce long foreign words which I read by whole-word. I don't watch TV, and for a year while it was happening I thought Chappaquiddick as Chappadaquick.

I think phonics vs. look-say is a type case of toxic politicization. It seems clear to me that a mixed method ould be best. But phonics has been adopted by the anti-evolution anti-sex-ed people, and look-say has been established by the educationist bureaucracy, sort of as a territory marker and mark of control.

By my very informal study, Old French seems to have more recognizably Frankish vocabulary. Since Middle English also had more recognizably French vocabulary, I think that the to languages were closer then than now. I noticed a scattering of things that resembled English rather than French, e.g. something like "fourke" for "fourche" "forked".

The odd thing about Chinese is that the oldest Chinese-speaking area is the most uniform in speech. Khmer-Thai-Viet influence in the south may be the reason, but I also wonder whether the continual pattern of invasion, migration, and resettlement in the north didn't have a mixing effect, whereas in the South two adjacent Hokkien speaking valleys might be pretty well separated for centuries.

Posted by: Zizka at August 19, 2004 2:01

Yeah, I agree that we read by a mixture of recognizing whole words and sounding out new ones, so teaching one method to the exclusion of the other is pretty silly.

My little sister happened to get caught during the few years (early 1970s?) when beginning readers were taught using "IPA", which I think stood for "Initial Phonetic Alphabet" or some such. It was a variant of the english alphabet, with some letters left out, and one or two added (I think they had a schwa), and more phonetic spelling. There was a big emphasis on creative writing, but then when they switched over to standard English (2nd grade or so?), she had a horrible time learning to spell.

Posted by: Jeremy Leader at August 20, 2004 0:45

One of the sort of sad things ith teaching reading is when a kid learns the basic phonetic values and starts writing creatively. You have to tell them that sentences like "I luv yoo" are wrong, even though writing like that is a great accomplishment -- just too sensible to be correct. And after so much drill, most adults really have a mindless condescension toward something like that, as if it's crude and full of silly mistakes, when really it is right in one sense.

Posted by: Zizka at August 20, 2004 2:14

Zizka, that was the advantage of the IPA approach; in first grade, my sister was writing little stories that she thought up on her own. I hardly think I did any writing at that age, certainly not more than a sentence at a time.

Her trouble came a year or so later, when they switched back conventional spelling, and suddenly had over a year's worth of "no that's wrong" to get through in a few weeks.

Now if we could all agree to switch permanently, and accept that in the future anything written before 2005 would solely be read by specialists in archaic non-phonetic English, that would be something.

Incidentally, a web search for "Initial Phonetic Alphabet" found only 2 references. One was "ABC Phonetic Reading Schools, Inc", who apparently use it in tutoring at their learning centers in Arizona, Sacramento, and Georgia. The other was a passing reference in an English linguistics paper about dialects and education, comparing the difficulties students taught in their own dialect have in coping with the "standard" language to the difficulties elementary school students in the UK in the 70s had switching from IPA to "standard" spelling.

Posted by: Jeremy Leader at August 20, 2004 22:11
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