Thursday, December 4

ay, ay!

As an English Lit. tutor, I soon became frustrated with trying to teach children to read English. What a ridiculous language. With many other languages, words are spelt in a way that reflects the way you say them. In English, we add extra letters just for the fun of it. I mean, come on, someone was on the wacky weed when they decided the spelling for thorough or tough or lamb.

I was never a fan of teaching the alphabet either. Just how does knowing that the letter A made an ay sound help anyway? How did it help in reading dad, speak or can?

For me, teaching the alphabet is one of the most wasteful learning we can do with a child. But most of us were taught this way, I know I was. All knowing the alphabet really achieves is to help the child recite the alphabet. However, it can also be an obstacle in reading.

When you actually think about it, how counter-productive does teaching, 'A is for apple' seem? It just goes against the child's inner logic. But I started teaching this way myself!

When I lived in England, I found this incongruity so fascinating, along with the incredible variety of accents, that I took a degree. I learnt all about why the language was so ridiculous. Tons of fun but it didn't help me teach reading more effectively.

Then I came upon a book Why Children Can't Read. It changed my entire outlook. It was one of those times when what you have felt intuitively is made plain and tangible. The general premise is that we're teaching children the English language in a way that is nonsensical.

You see, we try to teach children an illogical language logically. To make matters worse, some educators in want of something to do, come up with all sorts or rules. You know, like, i before e except after c. And every rule has an exception, so it isn't really a rule at all and thereby only remotely helpful to an experienced reader. To a beginner, this is all extremely frustrating. And I would bet that many children give up on books because of this frustration alone.

I then took a course in phono-graphix. I don't claim that every child will learn this way. I just want to share with others a different way to guide children in their reading. I tutured over a dozen children in this method, including a few with dyslexia, and it worked for them.

One very important teaching of this method is that we do not approach letters as if they make a sound. This is a strange idea that we teach children - A makes the sound ay. It doesn't though, it's just a letter - symbol or picture.

Here's the crux of the method.

Instead of teaching children in-congruent spelling, we start with something they already know, their language. More accurately, the sounds of their language. Then we show them which picture sounds can be used to represent that sound.

So a child who speaks already has the sound 'ay' in his or her head. We teach them that the picture sounds for that sound are - a, ai, ay, and a-e (as in take). It's perfectly okay for a child to misspell, or use the incorrect sound picture. If the child is using from the set of the sound, he is learning.

Of course there is more to it than this, but that's the gist of it.


  1. This is an area that is fascinating to me. It's something that I think about a lot, and which is close to my heart having a child who is developing her reading skills. My little girl often remarks on the 'silliness' of words when they don't make sense to her. And she's quite right too!

    Yet it's also an area that I'm very unknowledgeable about. I have felt a bit lost as to how to approach reading with my own child, who loves it, (and I read a lot with her) but she also resists the rules of it all as I did - the codes that can be impossible to decode. As someone who focuses upon the meaning behind the meaning, (in my work and teaching), it's something that I find quite befuddling. To slow it all down and start again in a way.

    It's an odd sense of frustration and limitation, watching my child tussle with this insane and illogical language known as English.

    Many people are surprised to know that I was a late reader (only because my area of expertise is English Literature). I was the last in my class to read, and when I did, I moved ahead quickly. I haven't pushed my own child to read, and have wanted her to develop other faculties beside that 'left-brained', rule-and-code following/analytical faculty.

    And from experience, I've also gleaned that early readers aren't necessarily ahead in their levels of sophistication and understanding. Reading is emotion, character and psychology too isn't it? We often learn to 'read' these highly nuanced elements through developing empathy, (closely associated with imagination) and intuition. The 'right-brained' faculties, if you like.

    Sorry to ramble, but I am fascinated with this topic, and would really appreciate any further wisdom/advice on this that you might have to offer on this confounding language business.

  2. I enjoyed your post. I have a 6yr old and a just-turned-5-yr old. My 6 yr old went to kindergarten. During that year, anything to do with reading was a struggle. Then, I stopped with the lame "age-appropriate reading levels" and found things that he actually wanted to read - like cookbooks! He loves to read the recipe while we cook. Or instructions to build things... but sit him down with any kind of boring dick & jane type material and you have a major tantrum on your hands. I think another part of why children can't read is that many folks force children to read - and force them to read things they have no interest in reading. Therefore, reading gets labeled in their mind as tedious, boring work.. rather than fun or useful.

  3. Docwitch - I have seen many children who love reading who go off it very quickly onc they are drilled with spelling. It's very disheartening.
    I'll write more on this then.

    Candy Cook - absolurely! Oh my god to D&J. Enough to put off any child! We can be very elitist when it comes to reading. if a child enjoys comics, this is GOOD!

  4. I fixed my subscription link. Thanks for noticing.

  5. phonetic based learning gets an 'AY' in my books! Kids need to learn the multiple sounds a letter can make. Plus, it does not necessarily screw up their spelling.

  6. Hi Trina.

    But a letter doesn't MAKE a sound. It's just a squiggle on a page. :)

  7. Interesting. We are in the land of reading now that my 5 year old is on the go with spelling, writing and teaching himself to read. I love seeing how he logically spells things by sounding them out - making perfect sense, but not in any way correct, usually.

    I thus far have found that reading A TON to him aloud helps, letting him type on the computer (google is nice in searches --"did you mean xxxxxx?"), letting him read to me, and not correcting him so much he gets frustrated and mad.

    He does often ask me - is this how it is spelled, and I find myself saying, well, it doesn't make ANY sense, but this is the correct way. Then he goes on his merry way again. He doesn't get frustrated, loves to write still, and is moving along with reading.

    As we go I have been wondering what I can do to help him so that he finds his way and understands the why and what in there...without crushing any enthusiasm or spirit or love of words! He of course LOVES science and microbes and bacteria and all of that a lot, which isn't so easy either..."mom, how do you spell paramecium?" He he.

    Interesting! (done rambling!)

  8. Oh that's funny.

    I'm so glad he'sloving reading so far. It sounds like if he has a scientific mind, he migh enjoy having tools to 'make sense' of spelling. I'll write more soon.

  9. I'm going through this right now with both of my kids, and I find myself apologizing for how weird English is! I finally told them that you pretty much just need to memorize how things are spelled. My son's school uses "sight words"--simple words like "the", "he", "and", etc.--that they are supposed to just learn to recognize without sounding them out. I don't know if that really works. I'm going to check out that link tomorrow, because now it's bedtime :-)

  10. this is very interesting. i've been unschooling my kids for a year or more and have been wondering when my 5 year old will learn to read. wondering if i should take the lead and "teach" him. i actually tried once, but he'd have nothing to do with it. both of my children love to be read to and love "making stories" so i know they will eventually take the first step for themselves. until then i'll just have to be patient i guess. although i think he (the 5 year old) has been slowly teaching himself for a while now. i have no idea where he;s at because he's very private about it.

    by the way, i love your blogs!

  11. I really enjoyed this post. Thank you!


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