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Diane McGuinness: Analysis of The English Alphabetic Code

 
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debbie



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PostPosted: Tue Dec 24, 2013 11:52 am    Post subject: Diane McGuinness: Analysis of The English Alphabetic Code Reply with quote

Quote:
A Brief Analysis of The English Alphabet Code


It isn't easy being green, Kermit the Frog used to say. Maybe that's true but neither is it easy being a child in England, America, Canada, Australia, or anywhere else in the English-speaking world where you have to learn to read (and spell) the English Alphabet Code.

In most countries around the world, nearly all children master the written code and learn to read and spell with relative ease. In these countries a poor reader is defined by reading speed, not by accuracy. In English-speaking countries, poor readers are slow as well, but their main problem is accuracy, not speed. This difference is a function of the difficulty of mastering the immensely complex written code for the sounds of the English language.

This will come as a shock to most people. But the facts speak for themselves.

The Nature of Codes

A code is an artificial set of signs or marks that represent (stand for) something 'real'. That something may be quantity, represented by symbols called numbers. Or it could be music, represented by musical notation. This code consists of 'notes' made up of black and while circles and flags that sit on 5 lines/5 spaces (or 10 - depending on the musical instrument).

Codes for 'quantity' and for 'music' are good codes -- one symbol for each number, and only one way to represent musical pitch, duration, and rhythmic patterns. A good code is unambiguous. This is what is meant by a "transparent" code. Everyone can see how it works.

The logic of codes is very important. To learn a code you must know the difference between the code itself and what it stands for. Quantities exist in the real world. The written symbols for those quantities are 'abstract' a set of arbitrary marks or signs designed to represent them. These marks are so arbitrary they must be agreed upon by everyone, otherwise mathematics could not exist. No one would ever dream of marking the quantity 'three of something' with more than one symbol, such as the symbol 3, and the number symbol 6, and the number symbol 21, and expect the system to work!

Yet this is exactly what the English alphabet code does -- it marks the same sound in English with multiple symbols.

Facts that Cannot be Ignored. Here is another clue that the major difficulty in learning to read in English is due to our written code. In many countries, virtually every child learns to read and spell accurately in a matter of months. They do this at about age 6 or 7 - depending on when instruction begins. Comparisons between English and Austrian children showed that after one year of reading instruction, Austrian children were reading twice as fast, with 4 times the accuracy, as English children who had been learning to read for 4 years!

There is no dyslexia in countries with good codes, certainly not as defined by the inability to decode the written symbols for a language. Mastery of a writing system during the first year of school for all children is not unique to Austria, or exotic lands in remote places we have never heard of. Good codes can be found in Italy, Spain, Greece, Germany, Austria, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Korea, and many other countries, all of which have nearly a one-to-one correspondence between a sound in the language, and a symbol that represents it.

Think how bad the English people would be at mathematics, if the written code had multiple alternative symbols for the same number, and each symbol could represent more than one quantity.

The Structure of the English Alphabet Code

An alphabet code marks the smallest speech sounds people can hear. These are the individual consonants and vowels, known collectively as phonemes. Alphabetic writing systems were adopted in all cases where other (larger) units of speech would not work. For example, the Chinese have only 1200 syllables in their language, and a syllabary writing system works just fine. By contrast, English has over 55,000 legal syllables, and has to be written in an alphabet by default.

The Anglo-Saxons designed the first written code for the English language. It was a nearly perfect code, with one letter for each sound in the language. At the same time, they continued using written and spoken Latin in all academic, legal, and religious settings. Later, England was invaded by the Danes and the Norman French. New words with different spellings based on the same Roman script, added more layers to the code. And so it came to pass that the English alphabet code wandered from its pristine roots to a state of near chaos.

Here are the fundamental issues that any reading and spelling programme must address and deal with. The solution is NOT to hand out a list of 'sight words,' and instruct children to guess at meaning by looking at the pictures, then 'hope' children will teach themselves to read - standard fare in classrooms around the English speaking world. We have been doing this for over 100 years, and it doesn't work.


The solution is to find the simplest, most logical way to teach our formidable alphabet code. Here is the problem in a nutshell:

1. Not enough letters.
The English writing system is based on the Roman alphabet. There are only 26 letters in this alphabet for the 40+ sounds in the English language, and 3 of these letters are wasted (redundant). These are the letters c x q.

2. The creation of digraphs: 2 letters = one sound.
To solve the missing letter problem, new symbols should have been be created, but they were not. Instead, Anglo-Saxon scholars combined letters in pairs to represent the left-over sounds -- like sh for the sound /sh/ in 'ship.'

This worked pretty well for consonants, but not for vowels. There are 6 vowels in Latin and 5 vowel letters, but there are 18 vowels in modern English, and still the 5 vowel letters. Plus, English has 9 additional vowels, known as vowel+r vowels. These appear in words like:better, pour, fire, far, tour.

As a result of all the above, the ultimate problem is this:

3. Multiple spellings for the same sound.
The sound /ee/ has ten spellings. The sound /ae/ has nine, and so forth. The ten spellings for the sound /ee/ are:
be, beat, beet, baby, key, deceive, believe, radio, marine,theme

4. Multiple ways to decode the same spellings:
Read these words out loud and listen carefully to the vowel sounds:
sound, soup, touch----------- hat, table, all

In fact, all but one vowel sound (/a/ in 'cat') is represented by more one spelling. Note that our spelling system is context dependent - a spelling is entirely determined by the word it sits in. You can't teach a spelling in isolation.

The Solution.

The solution is to design a reading and spelling programme (the two must never be separated) based on the structure of the English Alphabet Code. The trick is to find this structure. Here is the sequence that lies behind The Sound Reading System, which is an adaptation of the programmes:Allographs, and, Sound Steps to Reading (see below). It is because of the following analysis that these programmes represent an entirely new type of synthetic phonics.

1.Limits of the Code. Map the limits of the entire spelling code. Find out how many spellings there are for the 40+ sounds in English. Fortunately, this has already been done by linguists, who estimate the total number of spellings to be between 350-400.

2.Probability Structure. Find the probability structure for these spellings to determine which spellings need to be taught. A probability structure is the calculation of the number of spellings used the most to those used the least. This calculation must be based on frequency in print (how often these spellings appear in print). It is only essential to teach the main spellings, those used most in written text.

For example, it makes no sense to teach a child all the rare spellings like the pt spelling for the sound /t/ (pterodactyl), as if this was equally likely to any other spelling. Anyone can easily learn this rare spelling if and when it is encountered in print.

3.What Needs to be Taught?. Decide how many alternative spellings need to be taught on the basis of the above analysis. For younger children, this is approximately 176 spellings, plus a few common sight words like 'once' and 'the.'

4.What Sequence is Necessary?. Break down the information from 2 and 3 above to simple steps, always moving from the most basic (common words/common spellings) to the most complex.

5.Design Lessons to Maximize Learning Speed. Provide a set of lessons with multiple tasks that reinforce all possible sensory and motor systems: listening (phoneme analysis), looking (discriminate letter shapes/learn spelling patterns, visual tracking), writing (kinesthetic movement), and speaking (speech-motor system, auditory feedback) to anchor the spelling code in memory as quickly as possible.

An in-depth analysis of these issues can be found in the books listed below. Other programmes using this method are available also.

Further Reading

Diane McGuinness.Why Children Can't Read. Penguin Press (1998).
Why Our Children Can't Read. Simon and Schuster (1997)
Diane McGuinness. Early Reading Instruction. MIT Press 2004


This analysis is taken from the Sound Reading System site.

See www.alphabeticcodecharts.com for a wide range of free downloadable Alphabetic Code Charts illustrating these features above.
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Last edited by debbie on Tue Dec 24, 2013 12:12 pm; edited 1 time in total
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PostPosted: Tue Dec 24, 2013 12:04 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Professor Diane McGuinness:

A prototype for teaching the English Alphabetic Code


http://www.rrf.org.uk/archive.php?n_ID=95&n_issueNumber=49

This is a very important and relevant article from the UK Reading Reform Foundation's newsletter archives.

It looks at a range of studies, identifies common features which are most effective and concludes:

Quote:
This is unassailable evidence that a phoneme awareness training component (even a good one) provides no extra advantage over a good linguistic-phonics programme. Here’s the message: If phoneme analysis/synthesis is integrated into reading and spelling lessons from the outset, this has a much greater impact on phoneme awareness skill than if phoneme awareness is taught in isolation.

I realize that, for some readers, I’m not telling you anything you didn’t already know. What I have tried to do is put this ‘knowing’ into a wider frame, one that comes as close as possible to being scientifically and logically unassailable. Due to the fact that reading instruction has gone so far awry, and spelling instruction hasn’t even begun (there’s virtually no research on spelling instruction, and no section on ‘spelling’ in the NRP report), there’s a long, hard battle ahead, and we may not win it. We certainly won’t win it if we don’t understand precisely why some methods work and some do not.


The whole article is packed full of important findings based on research up to the date of its publication.

We have come some distance from Professor McGuinness's findings - for example, in England the official 'core criteria' for evaluating phonics programmes has become an established state of affairs. The new English national curriculum for key stages one and two have firmly built in the two main processes associated with 'reading' - word decoding and language comprehension as illustrated by the Simple View of Reading - with very detailed information about the English alphabetic code and spelling/grammar provided in the curriculum material itself:


https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-primary-curriculum

http://www.phonicsinternational.com/The_Simple_View_of_Reading_model.pdf

http://www.phonicsinternational.com/Triangle_sub_core_skills.pdf

Note the emphasis in close scrutiny of what actually takes place in classrooms compared to what teachers say they provide. This need for scrutiny of teachers' translation into practice forms part of my critique of 'Letters and Sounds' on my 'Naked Emperor' blog (provided in multiple parts - here is part one: http://debbiehepplewhite.com/?p=65 ).

Sadly, in my view, the 'core criteria' does not place any specific emphasis on writing (handwriting) which is a grave error - and too many settings, in reality, provide activities which are 'circuitous' - or 'extraneous' as warned against by Sir Jim Rose in his landmark independent national review in England (Final Report March 2006).

You can read my comments about this lack of handwriting emphasis in the official 'core criteria' and in Ofsted's promotion of 'extraneous' or 'circuitous' phonics provision via my 'Naked Emperor' blog posting below:
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Last edited by debbie on Tue Dec 24, 2013 3:48 pm; edited 9 times in total
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PostPosted: Tue Dec 24, 2013 12:14 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

'DfE and Ofsted - left hand, write hand?': blog posting including the government's official 'core criteria' and my comments about Ofsted's video footage, 'Literacy: a non-negotiable':

http://debbiehepplewhite.com/?p=48

Quote:
A number of phonics specialists, me included, have taken Ofsted to task for uploading video clips with precisely the kind of ‘circuitous route’ which is ‘distracting the children from concentrating on the learning goal’. Ofsted – Is this a bit of an ‘own goal’? We see children trying to do a bit of phonics spelling on mini whiteboards whilst sitting on the playground and at the same time trying to play the parachute game. It’s all rather bizarre.

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 27, 2014 12:50 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Good posting by John Walker via his 'Literacy Blog' about the fact that the English language, like all other languages, is entirely 'phonetic':



http://literacyblog.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/the-english-writing-system.html

Quote:
Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The English writing system

A question that arises which proponents of phonics have to keep coming back to challenge over and over again is whether the writing system is truly phonic. Many words, it is alleged, contain ‘unphonetic spellings’. A moment’s pause for reflection will persuade any right-thinking person that this is baloney. As I never tire of reminding anyone who confronts me with this nonsense, all words are comprised of sounds and all sounds have been assigned spellings. Ergo, there are no ‘unphonetic’ words, however complex they might seem to the layperson.

Daniel and Bright’s strictures on the subject are illuminating. From the outset, their scholarly tome The World’s Writing Systems, makes explicit that experts on the subject of the writing systems of the world’s languages are in total agreement about one important fact: that writing systems represent the sounds in languages.

Furthermore, Daniels maintains that writing, or ‘the marks that record the languages of the documents produced by civilizations…must be studied’. Moreover, and despite claims to the contrary, while all human infants learn their own language(s) naturally, ‘no infant illiterate absorbs its script with its language: writing must be studied’.

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 28, 2014 12:55 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

http://www.phonicsinternational.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=383

You can see 'The Phonics Spelling Dictionary' that I advised on for Oxford University Press which does a great job of explaining the English alphabetic code not just for the learners themselves but also for supporting adults!

It links closely with the Oxford Reading Tree Floppy's Phonics Sounds and Letters programme - but it is the same alphabetic code that everyone needs to teach/learn regardless of the specific phonics programme - in other words, it can be used by anyone.

I honestly wish that I had something such as this dictionary as both a teacher and a parent - it would have helped me to understand the English alphabetic code without having to get to grips with it through more painstaking routes over many years!

The link above also leads to 20+ free activities which are well worth knowing about and can be downloaded (and some used online) by anyone in any part of the world.

Thank goodness for the internet! Wink
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PostPosted: Sat Apr 05, 2014 3:17 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

English Hieroglyphics are fun and easy to read


http://www.rantrave.com/Rant/English-Hieroglyphics-are-fun-and-easy-to-read.aspx#.U0API_cpLIE.twitter

Rant about abandoning the teaching of reading by phonics and replacing this with a process of learning to read English as 'Heiroglyphics' that is, learning words as whole global shapes and not as an alphabetic code.
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PostPosted: Wed May 28, 2014 8:58 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

A historic worst case scenario of the irregularity of English pronunciation - very interesting - and certainly illustrating that phonics is not baby stuff and that the English alphabetic code is indeed complex!

The Chaos by Gerard Nolst Trenité

http://ncf.idallen.com/english.html

Quote:
This is a classic English poem containing about 800 of the worst irregularities in English spelling and pronunciation. To skip down to the introduction, select this link.

Gerard Nolst Trenité - The Chaos (1922)

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.

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PostPosted: Tue Aug 05, 2014 12:14 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Alison Clarke provides a very full list of spelling alternatives for the sounds - and also describes the formation of the various types of sounds.


http://www.spelfabet.com.au/2012/06/sounds-and-letters/

Remember you can find free Alphabetic Code Charts at my www.alphabeticcodecharts.com site - and that you can 'add' various extra spelling alternatives as required when the more unusual spelling alternatives arise in the wider curriculum and wider reading.

It is not practical, however, to include all the spelling alternatives as listed by Alison - particularly when these are in words which are not commonly used.

If all the spelling alternatives were listed, you would double the content of the Alphabetic Code Chart and reach a point where they become daunting and not useful and practical.

My view it is better to start with the content as I have provided with the idea that any additional spelling alternatives can be added by hand - or alternately just create posters by hand for any unusual spelling alternatives which arise.

See the way that I have structured more unusual spellings on this range of posters placing the 'sound' on the left-hand side and the 'grapheme' (spelling alternative) on the right-hand side of the poster.

Then, follow this with an example word and any other words spelt with the unusual spelling alternative as this creates a 'spelling word bank' of words spelt that way:

http://www.phonicsinternational.com/unusual_words_posters.pdf
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PostPosted: Sun Sep 07, 2014 12:05 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Evolution of the alphabet letter shapes (capitals) over time:

http://www.gifbin.com/984203
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