Aypples and Beenanas

I suppose you could say I was indirectly influenced by Mullarney’s book on the issue of letter sounds versus names. I say indirectly as I remember being taught this way myself by my mum who had read this book, so I am really just repeating my own experience. As with teaching any new skill, you need to make the information clear, simple and bite-sized. It seems to me eminently simpler to teach a child something like the sound ‘huh’ for the letter H, than to teach her the name ‘aitch’ and then have her learn the sound that it makes as a second stage. Even the vowel names don’t match the sounds they make in easy words (m-a-t, not m-ay-t, and p-i-g, not p-eye-g, for example).

Of course, I could just see it this way because that’s how I learnt myself. In any case, they soon pick up the letter names in addition. In fact just learning the ABC song quickly teaches them the names, and a child who knows the sounds will make the links in no time at all. I’ve tried to avoid the letter names and yet the last time I began writing ‘WET’ on the terrace, my daughter immediately said “double-you…”.

So for the letter C, do you say ‘kuh’ or ‘sss’ as in ‘city’? For U, do you choose the ‘u’ of put, of plug or of puke? There are around 44 sounds for just 26 letters. I tried to choose the sounds which are more common, or less confusing. Like Mullarney, I opted for the short vowels and the hard consonant sounds, so ‘kuh’ not ‘sss’ for C, and Y as a consonant not a vowel. There’s plenty of time for learning the multiple sounds associated to various letters. I also plumped for ‘eks’ for X (or rather ‘əks’ since the schwa blends better with other letters) and ‘kwuh’ for Q since I figure the most common usage for X is in the middle or at the end of words and Q is only rarely anything but the ‘qu’ of queen (in English, at least; French will have to wait).

The aim is to keep the building blocks as simple possible. Having learnt the sounds, a child can begin reading phonetically. But only at the right time for that child. I still remember a clear plastic bib we had in Beirut when my Beirut baby was about 22 months old. It had a picture of a cow and the word ‘MOO’. It had seen us through an awful lot of porridge and lasagne, and the last O had a part missing so it looked like a C backwards. If my Beiruti came across it on from the reverse side, with the letters showing through, she would ‘read’ it nonetheless. I would hear her spell out the letters: ‘Cuh, Oh, Muh,’ she would say, followed by a self-assured ‘Moo!’

What’s the rush?

It has been six weeks since my Beiruti began sounding out her first words. She is now surprisingly confident with short phonetic words following a simple consonant-vowel-consonant pattern. I have even thrown in a fair few simple four-letter words like FROG and CLAP, as well as plurals, like CATS. She is very methodical in pronouncing one sound after the other and it is just amazing to think that she is actually reading. Within limits of course.

And to be honest I’ve intentionally kept those limits quite strict. I’m thoroughly against overloading kids. I think it’s awful that primary school kids have as much homework as I had at the beginning of secondary school.

Now I know that some people would think it crazy to try to teach a two-year old to read. In truth, I would soon have abandoned the idea had she not taken such a lively interest in her first cardboard cut-out letters aged 13 months. I would simply have written off Mullarney’s experience (and that of many other early readers out there) thinking her kids were a bunch of geniuses with little to do with real people. But her fascination with them spurred me on and the journey from letters to words has been simple, fun and rewarding for both of us.

However, even though I am delighted by her progress, I have no intention of rushing things. We may only do three words one day, and none the next. If we do lots of words, they are interspersed with active play and plenty of interaction.

So far I’ve restricted myself to proposing ONLY words which are phonetically regular, with no diphthongs (e.g. cow) or digraphs (e.g. fish) or other complications. That rules a lot out. Even short words like “no”, “to” or “go” are out. So is “car”, which might work with an American accent but not so well with the unpronounced British R. So is “bag” which for some reason has a longer ‘a’ sound than ‘rag’ in my accent.

Common sense also dictates that I only use everyday words she knows well. We’ve done PAN but not PIN, as those are tucked away in my sewing kit and there won’t be the click of recognition when she reads it. Nor can she easily go and get one to put next to the word, like she does with PEG or PEN.

This does take a lot of self-censoring. If she asks me to write “mummy” I do MUM, and even if we come across a word I know she’ll enjoy which appears simple, like BANANA, I resist the urge to ask her what it says. (None of the As in banana sound like the A in CAT.) I don’t want her to feel reading is difficult, or beyond her. She might manage to work out longer or more irregular words, especially with a bit of context. But even if she might guess them correctly, I don’t want to push her into guessing. I want her to KNOW what she’s doing. (Although this might just be what suits her personality, while other kids would enjoy more guesswork.)

Confidence is vital, which is why I introduced the letters very gradually in the first place. Not only was she at ease with all of them before we started even trying words, she could read all kinds of fonts and would pounce on letters anywhere from the drains under her feet to store bags to graffiti.

Now, though, she’s outgrowing this rather restrictive brief. We’ve pretty much reached the limits of a strict phonics approach and need to throw in some “whole language”. She wants to read words like ‘I’ and ‘he’ and ‘for’ just to keep up with her desire to read stories. She wants phrases, not just words. Soon enough it will be out of my hands and there’ll be no holding her back.

Soon I’ll share an easy game we play to make reading active and meaningful (read: fun). It can work for preschoolers as well as toddlers, and it’s been a great success.

Capitals for clarity

I’ve racked my brains and I think the only book I have read in full since my first baby was born (over 2 and 1/2 years ago) is Máire Mullarney’s Anything School Can Do. I have started a few other books but it’s the only one I finished. That’s pretty indicative of how busy life has been, from someone who wouldn’t put a book down while walking to school and back. However, this particular book so fascinated me that soon after finishing it, I started over. I still dip into it on a regular basis as my Beiruti grows up, even though it is neither long nor complicated. In fact, writing this post, I googled the book and came up with a partial script (including some errors), and have not yet been able to close the tab for reading snatches.

I wrote about how this book influenced my choice to introduce letters early on here. It also influenced my choice of which letters to use first, that is, upper case rather than lower case. The two factors go hand in hand as it happens. The thing is, three-dimensional shapes are much more interesting to toddlers for obvious reasons, so they are much more likely to enjoy cut-out letters, for example, than letters penned on paper. However, 3D letters can be twisted and turned – that’s the fun after all – and that can lead to confusion for quite a few lower-case letters. Capitals are, overall, easier to distinguish from one another than lower case. There is still scope for confusion, for example W and M. But you don’t have n vs u, or worse p vs d vs b (and even vs q if you don’t add a ‘swash‘ or extra tail). When I see how often my daughter hesitates between 6 and 9 I am convinced that reducing such confusion is important.

Fridge magnets work particularly well, as apart from the fun of getting them to stick on things and forming words, they also have a clearly established back, so the child learns quickly not to get them backwards at least, though upside down is still an option!

Some would argue that stories are written in lower case, so these are a better choice to start with. While I agree that whole pages of writing are much easier to read in lower case, when it comes to single letters, single words and short sentences, I am drawn to the clarity offered by capitals. Even we adults still write in capital print when clarity is an issue. My feeling is that capitals form a good foundation, a strong starting point. Just as the original Roman letters naturally evolved into cursive lower case, I feel that the same process can work well in literacy as a child moves from the basics to something which flows more with experience.

Once kids have the coordination required to line letters up carefully on a line with tall letters acceptably erect and tails hanging meekly below, lower case will be a more obvious choice, but for now I’m happy to forego the restraints of neat handwriting and let the fridge magnets roam free.

Another choice to be made when it comes to reading is whether to teach letter names or sounds first, which I’ll come to next.

Loving letters

Last month’s post on my two-year old starting to read was something of a non-sequitur. It’s been quite a long journey, in fact, as my little Beiruti learnt her letters over a year ago. When it comes to learning of this sort, I’ve been very influenced by a book written in another era entirely by a mother who homeschooled her 11 children in the fifties and sixties. It’s called Anything School Can Do You Can Do Better, by Máire Mullarney. It’s a book I discovered on the shelf at my parents’ place, a remnant from when we kids were taught at home for a few years.

In Mullarney’s time, people apparently thought children were not capable of learning much at all before six or seven, and should only learn from teachers, not from parents who would only impair their education. Now of course, society has swung in the opposite direction. Parents need to be reminded that kids need unstructured play time, and that you can overdo extra-curricular activities. Early learning is so in vogue it is almost passé. The concept has been bought up by big business and turned into a brand. Every toddler out there has a set of stacking cups and a touch-and-feel book. The misconceptions that the author battled with are no longer commonplace. All the same, I found some gems in this book which really hit home.

Máire talks of a stage in the process of learning to read when things fell into place and her children’s delight was such that they would follow her around the house begging: “Listen to me reading!” This book influenced me on several fronts:

  1. The age for offering letters
  2. Capitals vs lower case
  3. Letter sounds vs names

With regard to the first point, the author discusses how children have a phase or period of opportunity when they are particularly interested in a certain skill. That may come before they go to school. Learning should be a question of offering a chance to a child. If the time is right they will jump right in. If they are uninterested, put it aside and only bring it out later. Like the author, I offered my Beiruti her first letters at 13 months. She fell in love and knew them all by 16 months.

This argument swings both ways because it also means going at the child’s pace and not rushing them. More about that later.

The other argument for an early introduction that struck home to me was that of suitability. What kind of story book could you offer a five- or six-year old that is just beginning to learn to read which would actually be interesting to him/her? Basic phrases like “a big box on a mat”, accessible to a novice reader, are fun for a two- or three-year old, but rather uninspiring for the runaway imagination of older kids.

I went to school aged 5 and 1/2, and I would have been thoroughly bored if all I could read were phrases that simple. The English language is partly to blame. Bear in mind that the complexity of English spelling means that even a word like “the” must wait for phase two in the learning process (in phonetic reading, at least). Fortunately for me, I had been taught to read at home, so when I did go to school, I was allowed to choose what I pleased from the bookshelf.

I wanted my daughter to take the same pleasure in reading as the author’s children did, indeed as I did. When she comes tugging at my sleeve, saying, “Please mummy, I want more words,” meaning she wants me to write her a word to sound out, I know things are going the right way.

More on the second and third points later.

“Uh” says it all


I had already been living in France for three or four years before I made an exciting (note: for a linguist that is) discovery about English of the type you ask yourself, How on earth did I manage to bypass that amazing piece of information before?

In fact, a very clever friend (that’s you, DR) put her finger on something which, despite all that time studying French, teaching English, and breathing in dictionary dust, had never clicked with me before. For me, this should be the very first thing that French collégiens should learn about English in school.

We all know that the English don’t pronounce English as it’s written, but if only there was a rule people learning English could use, right?  Well I didn’t come across a trick to master the rough-through-cough riddle, but actually it’s better than that. It’s a pattern for vowel pronunciation which could make a drastic improvement to your average foreign accent.

To summarise, in any English word, one or several syllables are stressed. The others are not. In the latter group, whatever the vowel may be, the pronunciation is usually the same. Doesn’t matter if its A, E, I, O or U, the actual sound you’ll hear (or not hear as the end effect is often one of “swallowed” sounds) is the schwa.

Put simply, the name Janet could be spelt Janit, Janat or Janut, and yet in conversation it would sound just the same. In my head I think of this sound as “uh” but it’s more ‘reduced’ than the “u” in bug. In phonetics it’s usually written ə, and if you open a dictionary you’ll see it scattered liberally throughout the pronunciation guides.

How could I grow up speaking English and never realise this? Never notice that the vowels in nearly half of the syllables in any given sentence are irrelevant and are all pronounced as if the same sound? Probably because I processed and archived the knowledge so long ago. Say when I was about two years old.

We’re driving along in the car and my not quite 2 and 1/2 year old says to me, “la, not luh”. And repeats. And repeats. Finally she expounds a little: “Car-la, not Car-luh.”  If you had asked me how the English pronunciation of Carla differs from the French pronunciation I would have probably thought of the “r” being less, well, French. But we don’t say Car-la at all. We say Car-luh, much to my daughter’s disapproval.

For the few out there who find this as interesting as I do, Wikipedia gives the following list of examples:

        In English, schwa is the most common vowel sound. It is a reduced vowel in many unstressed syllables, especially if syllabic consonants are not used. Depending on dialect, it may correspond to any of the following written letters:
‘a’, as in about [əˈbaʊt]
‘e’, as in taken [ˈtʰeɪkən]
‘i’, as in pencil [ˈpʰɛnsəl]
‘o’, as in eloquent [ˈɛləkʰwənt]
‘u’, as in supply [səˈpʰlaɪ]
‘y’, as in sibyl [ˈsɪbəl]
various combinations of letters, such as ‘ai’ in mountain [ˈmaʊntən]
unwritten as in rhythm [ˈrɪðəm]

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