As teachers of structured literacy, we soon discover that English is more logical that it appears at first, but that isn’t always the popular opinion out there.
Have you ever heard…
“Why is schwa a thing?”
“Who invented changing the y to I? Why’d they have to make it so complicated?”
“Why is English so hard?”
These are the types of comments I hear from my students during Orton-Gillingham lessons regularly. And, I understand their frustration. Sometimes, when there is a mystery that seems illogical, despite years of study, I have to go digging for answers myself. Many of the teachers our students encounter don’t have good answers for these complicated questions. It can certainly seem like English is weird or random.
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It’s been popular to bash English.
We’ve all seen and chuckled at the cartoons and coffee mugs. Many of us probably even have a personal collection. We’ve giggled at the old I Love Lucy scene where Ricky discovers the numerous possible pronunciations of ough. These cartoons or memes are humorous because there is an element of truth and English is a challenging language.
Our students can have a good laugh to lighten the mood. However, it is important to balance the pop culture humor of English as weird with the science of the language and the structure that can help our students successfully navigate the reading and writing of English.
Let’s empower our students!
One of your jobs as teachers of students with dyslexia is to help demystify these oddities. And doing so requires us to understand not only the history of English, but the ways in which English is more than just a phonemic language. In fact, English orthography is morphophonemic. Not only is the spelling of a word affected by the meaning of the word parts (the morphology) and by the sounds (the phonology), but also by the interaction between them. This occurs when spelling or pronunciation changes as a result of using a different form of a word. In turn, we need to help our students understand this history of English at least to the point that they understand that our language has layers from Anglo-Saxon, Latin and Greek.
As teachers of structured literacy, we soon discover that English is more logical that it appears at first. We need to spread the word that rather than unexplained nonsensical oddities, these are puzzles and we can help students figure out the pieces. When there is a mystery of something that appears weird, we can turn to the etymology and morphology of the word and often find answers. English has borrowed from many other languages. So, combining the predictable rules and patterns with knowledge about these languages of origin frequently connects the dots. In fact, when taking into consideration all of these different elements that contribute to spelling, somewhere upwards of 75 or 80% of our spelling are quite predictable. Some scholars contend that this number is even higher, closer to 96%.
Ultimately, we want to put a positive spin on the richness of our language that provides us with such a wide variety of ways to say something or describe an image. We want our students to embrace the richness and also to build a solid foundation based on the predictable rules and patterns. That strong foundation will give them the tools to enjoy and experiment with the variety that our language has to offer. We want to encourage their curiosity as they raise good questions about English and its spelling. Hopefully, our students will begin to see themselves as scholars of language, “word nerds” that wear that mantle proudly because they understand the forces that have created English.
Here are some wonderful resources to turn to when you are seeking the whys and hows of the English language.
In order to help expand your own knowledge of the underlying structure of English as you become your student’s coach in this quest to demystify English.
Uncovering the Logic of English by Denise Eide
This book, and its sister website, are a fabulous resource not only for teachers, but for parents or anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of English. Although there is a curriculum by the same name, this book also stands alone. Containing not only simply answers to pressing questions, but incorporating up to date brain research as well, this is a book for every Structured Literacy teacher’s bookshelf.
English Isn’t Crazy by Diana Hanbury King
Diana Hanbury King was an amazing powerhouse of knowledge about teaching struggling readers. Her career spanned more decades than I have been alive, and we are lucky that she shared her expertise and knowledge in a number of books. This volume is fairly brief and very reader friendly. The focus is more on building an understanding in the teacher or parent rather than translating that knowledge into instructional practice. A worthwhile read for certain.
Dyslexia and Spelling: Making Sense of it All by Kelley Sandman-Hurley
This is a new book, written from a dyslexia specific perspective about analyzing student spelling and teaching English orthography through a structured word inquiry lens.
Speech to Print by Louisa Moats
This highly regarded must read for teachers is getting an update. The 2nd edition is on the way and incorporates the latest scientific research on literacy instruction.
Dictionary of Word Origins by John Ayto- I actually keep a copy of this book handy for all of my Orton-Gillingham lessons. Look up the history of words in this comprehensive dictionary.
Children LOVE learning about the history of English! When they have a reason why, they kind of get a little smarty pants thing going on. How awesome is that for children who struggle with reading?
Here are two recommendations.
How Our Alphabet Grew by William Duggan-This is a children’s book that is out of print, but you can still find used copies online!
Ox, House, Stick: The History of Our Alphabet by Don Robb- This is another excellent children’s book with fun illustrations!
The two sites below offer a comprehensive search engine and resources to find etymological reasons for the way words are spelled. Whenever I have someone ask me about a word that seemingly is irregular or a “rule breaker”, I tell them, “Go to the history!”
So, while my student may still shake her fist at her arch-nemesis, schwa, we can enjoy the humor and explore her questions together, knowing that this journey of learning is an ongoing one with more to learn and explore all the time.
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Enjoy the sale!