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 (fewer sounds in General American pronunciation). 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 if they are ready. 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 backwards, 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!’

She may have felt she was reading, but of course it shows that although she knew the letters forwards, backwards, and upside down, she was making no actual link between them and the sound of a word. The fact that learning all the letters wasn’t immediately followed by reading was of no concern to me. Her level of interest showed when the right time was.

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