Saturday, November 25, 2006

Word Storage

Word storage in the brain is analogous to rooms of filing cabinets. Words are stored not only by meaning, but by sound and appearance. Con-stitutionalist. Co-religionist. It's a con- or a co- word. Consanguinity. Consternation. Because we eventually store words in this way, some educators started using the whole-word method, believing that the phonics step could be skipped, or at least de-emphasized. Contumely. Cross-section. Darn, cross-section is close, but I know it's not a hyphenated word. There is experimental evidence that if the initial and final letters are in place, people can identify a word fairly easily even if the remaining letters are mixed. Szpnruiisg, but ture. Convoluted. No, that "st" on the inside was right. Constantinople. It's a theater-word. Style of design. When I was in elementary school they played with drawing outlines around words, to see if we could guess them from that. Because it was a whole chapter in the text, rather than a fun puzzle to be done as we were winding down on a Friday afternoon, I think someone had the bright idea this would help with reading. Well, maybe. Consternation. Constitution. Ooh, it's like that. This is going to drive me nuts until I get it.

The phonics versus whole word debate does not occur in many languages other than English. German is entirely phonetic, with the very minor exception of some umlauted vowels sounding like others. In Germany, you teach phonics. End of story. In contrast, the Chinese languages are represented by signs, unrelated to any pronunciation. The signs, in fact, represent the same meaning language to language even when the pronunciation is entirely different. This is why Chinese newspapers can be read across the country, regardless of which Sino-Tibetan language one speaks. No one teaches phonics in Chinese.

English is primarily phonetic, but with so many exceptions that it throws young children off. Heck, it throws adults off. Teaching phonics is an advantage, and more children learn that way. But be prepared to bail frequently. Constitutionalist. Constructionist! Constructionist! No, that's not it. Constructivist! Finally!

This morning it was a name I was looking for. Sportswriter. Early 20th. Rube...Goldberg., it's not Grantland Rice. Rudyard Kipling. Damon Runyon. Do you note how we are inching toward that important "R" with a two-syllable last name? R.D. Laing. C'mon, sportswriter. Red Barber. Maybe it is Damon Runyon. I cast farther afield, hoping that will help. Rube Foster. E.M. Forster. He wrote short stories. Baseball. I try to describe it out loud. Odd first name, not Robert or Rick. Booth Tarkington. Nah, that's not close. Ring Lardner! That's it. Ring Lardner.

Even when you are an advanced reader, working from additional cues and shortcuts, phonetic cues are still needed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

" note how we are inching toward that important "R" with a two-syllable last name?"

For a brief, glorious second there I was sure I would read "Red Sox," but alas and alack, twas only Ring Lardner thou soughtest.