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Phonics V. Whole Language Learning

If you were in elementary school in the 1980s or 90s, and you struggle with reading, it’s probably because your teachers used the whole language learning approach.  Thankfully, whole language learning since then has, in many cases, been replaced with phonics.

First, I must define my terms.  Phonics is a method for teaching reading using the sounds of letters, combinations of letters, and syllables.  You can read a more in-depth description here.  Basically, if reading instruction focuses on “sounding words out,” it’s probably phonics-based.  Not all phonics curricula are created equal, of course.  Some are more methodical and complete than others.

Whole language learning focuses on teaching reading through recognizing words as a whole, in which students learn to read words from context.  There is not breaking words into parts and decoding them.  You can read more about it here.  The emphasis is to spend a lot of time reading to and with children.  The theory behind the whole language approach is based on the work of Noam Chomsky.  He asserted that language acquisition is natural and, therefore, does not need to be explicitly taught.

The human brain is wired for language.  Oral language, that is.  Children naturally learn to speak and understand oral language simply by being exposed to enough of it.  Reading and writing are not quite as natural, as evidenced for the need for writing systems to be invented.  This is the basic reason why reading and writing have to be taught explicitly and oral language does not (at least for an individual’s native language).

You have probably figured out that I am firmly on the phonics side of this debate.

Recently I read an essay from Frank Smith called “12 Easy Ways to Make Learning to Read Difficult *and One Difficult Way to Make it Easy“(the second essay).  As an early elementary teacher, I was interested in getting more ideas about how to make my reading instruction more effective.  The beginning part of this essay was whole language nonsense, though he does make good points about child development in general.  I would like to address Smith’s ideas point by point.

  1. Aim for Early Mastery of the Rules of Reading – Smith asserts that there are not rules for reading, which is quite preposterous considering that English is an alphabetic language.  He also claims, with no evidence, that no child has ever learned to read by using phonics.  I have personal experience with students that shows the exact opposite.  I have been working this year with a first grader who could barely read at all.  After a few month of explicit phonics instruction, her reading ability has increased exponentially.  It’s true that not all children need explicit phonics instruction.  Some children seem to learn to read as naturally as they learned to speak.  This is not true for all children.  Some children, especially those learning English as a second language, need explicit phonics instruction to be successful.
  2. Ensure that Phonics Skills are Learned and Used – Smith claims English is too irregular for phonics rules to assist students.  This is blatantly untrue.  I’ve seen students decode words that you wouldn’t think a child of their age would be able to read, by using phonics rules. He points out that fluency is one of the main goals of reading instruction, and claims that phonics is too cumbersome to aid fluency.  Certainly fluency takes time, but so does any other worthy endeavor.  A student who struggles with phonics will not necessarily acheive fluency any faster with the whole language approach.
  3. Teach Letters or Words One at a Time, Making Sure Each New Letter of Word Is Learned Before Moving On – Well, it does make sense to introduce new letters or words just one or a few at a time, that way students can actually remember the new information.  As Smith says, teachers don’t need to stay on that same word until it is completely mastered; rather, students will learn better by being able to compare it to other words.  On this we are in agreement.  I also haven’t seen any phonics curricula that states you must focus on one letter or word until it is completely mastered before introducing any other letters or words, so this argument seems rather like a strawman to me.
  4. Make Word-Perfect Reading the Prime Objective – Another strawman.  This is not a phonics thing.  This would be the result of a teacher who is a perfectionist.  Naturally, demanding perfection of our students is counter-productive.
  5. Discourage Guessing; Be Sure Children Read Carefully – It’s fine for children to make an educated guess at an unfamiliar word, but surely Smith understands that we do need to teach children to think?  If a child is attempting to read the sentence “I see a truck,” I would discourage a child from guessing if they guess “boy” or “the” or something similarly unrelated in the place of “truck,” and instead use phonics and/or context clues to come up with an answer that makes sense.
  6. Insist Upon Accuracy – Smith points out that learning involves making mistakes.  Of course learning involves making mistakes.  Every good teacher knows that.  Phonics is perfectly compatible with creating a safe environment for students to fail in the process of learning.  The classroom culture has more to do with the teacher than the pedagogy.
  7. Provide Immediate Feedback – Smith says that giving immediate feedback to correct a child’s reading interferes with fluency and reading comprehension.  Again, he is associating an undesirable practice with phonics even though the two things aren’t necessarily related.  I leave it to the teacher’s discretion to know when to correct a student and when to let the error go in favor of letting the student figure it out.
  8. Detect and Correct Inappropriate Eye Movements – I’ve never heard of a teacher doing “eye drills” to make sure students are looking in the right place.  Maybe he’s referring to finger pointing?
  9. Identify and Give Attention to Problem Readers as Soon as Possible – He says that our expectations of students should be age-appropriate, and they should be given age-appropriate reading that is engaging.  Here I agree with him.
  10. Make Sure Children Understand the Importance of Reading and the Seriousness of Falling Behind – I’m really thankful I don’t know teachers like the ones Smith knew, all hellfire and damnation if you ever made a mistake in class, or *gasp* fall behind.  Certainly it is not a moral failing to develop more slowly than one’s peers.  It’s important to keep in mind that all children develop at a different pace.
  11. Take the Opportunity during Reading Instruction to Improve Spelling and Written Expression, and Also Insist on the Best Possible Spoken English – So, no discussion of spelling or written expression allowed.  So, I guess we’re not allowed to discuss alliteration, or similes, or any other kind of figurative language, either, during reading instruction, since those are part of written expression.  If we come across words or phrases that tie into what we’ve been talking about in spelling, writing, grammar, or any other subject, I very well might highlight it during our reading lesson, because making connections between subject areas helps students really learn the material and develop critical thinking.
  12. If the Method You Are Using Is Unsatisfactory, Try Another.  Always Be Alert for New Materials and Techniques – Here Smith explains that trying new techniques too often confuses children and prevents them from learning.  I do think that teachers should always be open to ways to improve their instruction, and furthermore, there is a happy medium between providing consistency in pedagogy and mixing things up when needed.  Individual teachers are in the best position to make that call.

One Difficult Rule for Making Learning to Read Easy – His one difficult rule is an interesting one: “Respond to what the child is trying to do.”  His explanation for this is that learning to read is largely intuitive, as is teaching how to read.  Children should simply spend a lot of time reading, and they will learn to read, he states.

Now, this is true for some children.  Some children will learn to read seemingly effortlessly no matter what techniques are used.  But that won’t work for all children.

Certainly, more time spent on reading, especially of quality reading material, is a good thing.  But some kids simply need phonics.  As the number of English language learners in our classrooms increase, the need for phonics will only grow.  The whole language approach does offer some good ideas and insights, but can never replace phonics in terms of effectiveness.



Language is Always Changing

Yesterday I read a great article from Mental Floss, “4 Changes to English So Subtle We Hardly Notice They’re Happening.”

Language is indeed always changing.  That’s how we got modern English from middle English, and, before that, old English.  It’s a significant part of why writers like Shakespeare are often difficult for readers today to understand. The language, including both vocabulary and grammatical constructions, changed over time.  And it’s still changing.  (I’ve taught this to my 2nd graders, too, and it gives me great delight that they know this.)

Language change isn’t inherently good or bad; it just is.  Many people decry the increasing casualness of our language, etc. etc., as if it were a moral fault.  I admit, I have also been known to chide people for mixing up “there,” “their,” and “they’re.”  I like to think that I correct people only on actual errors, though, and not on things that are just “different.”  (People who know me might object to that assessment.)

But back to the Mental Floss article.  When the author, Arika Okrent, mentioned the great vowel shift in the introductory paragraph, being a word-nerd and amateur linguist, I was predisposed to like it.  And it did not disappoint.

The first change listed is the replacement of infinitives with gerunds.  For example, instead of saying “They started to walk,” we would say “They started walking.”  “To walk” is the infinitive form of the verb “walk.”

This got me thinking of the naughty split infinitive.  It’s a made-up rule in English that you’re not supposed to split an infinitive.  Instead of saying “to slowly walk” you must say “to walk slowly,” with the adverb coming after the verb instead of between “to” and the verb.  This rule was invented to make English more like Latin, which cannot have split infinitives because a Latin infinitive, just like in Spanish, is one word, and cannot actually be split.  Since English is a Germanic language and not a Romance, this rule is nonsense and can be ignored.

Then I realized that I actually haven’t heard many complaints about split infinitives.  This isn’t because all the grammar nazis have chilled out.  Rather, it’s because using infinitive is becoming rarer, replaced by the gerund.

The second change is that we are using the progressive form of verbs more often.  These are the verbs with “be” constructions and “-ing” endings, such as “I’m being serious” instead of “I’m serious,” or “I should be going” instead of “I should go.”  Personally, I think the progressive verb lacks punch.  I think people would take you more seriously if you say “I’m serious” instead of “I’m being serious.”  The progressive verb lacks sincerity.  Or maybe that’s just me.

The third change is related to the second one.  The helping verbs “shall” and “ought” are hardly used any more, but “will,” “should,” and “can” are being used more than ever.  I think this is tied to our greater use of the progressive.  We use ever more intensifiers, which actually results in watering down our language.

The last one is replacing the “was” in passive sentences with “got.”  Passive voice is when something happens to the subject, rather than the subject being the doer, for example, “The tourist was robbed.”  This type of construction is now frequently “The tourist got robbed.”

A friend of mine commented that she doesn’t like the use of “got” since it sounds too casual.  I had an English teacher in high school who hated the word, and never let us use it.  Naturally, since then, I have no problem with using it, and, on occasion, even encourage it.  Generally in written language, however, there is another word choice that sounds better (to me, anyway).

None of these changes are “errors.”  They’re just different ways of using the language.  Different constructions rise and fall in popularity over time, and sometimes new ones are invented.  What fascinates me more than anything else is how organic the process is.  No one can control it.  It’s like what Mr. Universe says in Serenity: “You can’t stop the signal.”

Ain’t Ain’t So Bad and Other “Improper” Contractions

Ain’t – First, a little history: Ain’t emerged in the 17th century.  In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was even used by authors such as Jonathon Swift, Lord Byron, Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope, even in portraying upper class characters.

Furthermore, would you say “I am not going to school today” or “I are not going to school today”?  Of course, we say “I am” and not “I are.”  Granted, we would say “I’m not going to school today” but we do in fact use “I are” when we flip the subject and the verb, as in, “I’m cute, aren’t I?”

“Ain’t” is a contraction of “am not.”  Therefore, it is logical to say “I ain’t,” and this should be considered proper usage.

Alas, the prescriptivists (“grammar nazis”) have mysteriously taken a disliking to “ain’t,” and therefore it is considered improper.  When Webster dictionary dared include “ain’t” in their 3rd edition (full name Webster’s Third New International Dictionary), the prescriptivists acted like the world was over.

Willn’t – Okay, I don’t actually know anyone who uses “willn’t,” but it has been used in everyday speech in Yorkshire, England.

The “proper” contraction for “will not” is, as we know, “won’t,” which, for modern English speakers, makes absolutely no sense.  Why does the “ill” sound go away, to be replaced by “oh”?  Our other contractions make sense.  For example, “should not” becomes “shouldn’t,” “did not” becomes “didn’t,” etc.  Contractions in English have a predictable pattern.  But “won’t”?  When I teach contractions, I have to just give my students this one, since there is no way for them to figure it out.

So where did “won’t” come from?  To be fair, “won’t” actually does make sense in the context of the history of English.  In Old English, “will” and “wol” were actually two variants of the same word.  “Will” won out in the stand-alone contest and “won’t” won in the contractions category.  The “standard” form of a language is really a matter of politics: however the elite speak becomes standard.

I still like “willn’t.”

Y’all – I am particularly fond of this one, and use it regularly.  It is a contraction of “you all” and is predominantly used in southern states, where it was coined in the early 19th century.

We need the word “y’all.”  After all, English has no second-person plural pronoun.  (Say that 5 times fast!)  In the first person, we have “I” which is singular, and “we” which is plural.  In third person, we have “he” or “she” which are singular, and “they” which is plural.  But in second person we just have “you.”  How many people are there?  No idea.  That’s why we need “y’all.”  That way “you” can be singular and “y’all” can be plural.


The Story of English in 100 Words, by David Crystal

The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, by Jack Lynch

Why Does “Will Not” Become Won’t?”

English is Not As Strange As You Think, or, Why You Should Study Grammar

I hear all the time about what a “weird” and “difficult” language English is.  So many irregularities and things that don’t make sense.

Well, I beg to differ.  English is actually one of the easiest languages to learn.  Which, incidentally, is related to WHY English is the most commonly known language in the world.  (Yes, Mandarin is understood by more people, but you’ll find English in many more countries than you will Mandarin.)

Language is always changing.  It is always either growing simpler or more complex.  Languages spoken by large, spread out groups of people grow simpler as differences develop but people still have to communicate with one another.  Languages learned by large groups of adult learners also grow simpler, as adult speakers never learn a language as well as children do.    Languages spoken by small, insular groups of people grow more complex.  The most complex and difficult to learn languages in the world are spoken by small tribes, mostly in Africa, that have little contact with the outside world.

Historically, English was a language both of the conquerors and the conquered.

Angles conquered Wales and worked very hard (though unsuccessfully) at conquering Scotland, eventually asserting political dominance, if not military dominance.  The Celtic languages have been largely replaced by English.  English was shaped by these Celtic languages as adult Celts learned English.  (More on this in a future post!)

England was later conquered by France (discussed in my post Fancy French, Plain English).  English was shaped by French as English nobility adopted French and English became marginalized.

As the language of the British Empire, English encountered and was influenced by numerous languages, and these encounters have created numerous versions of English.  (Brits have quite a reputation for being snobbish about English, but there is no linguistically sound reason to say that they’re the only ones who speak “real” English.)

Many of the things in English that seem like random oddities do in fact follow a rule, and are a result of the numerous influences on English.

For example:

  • The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
  • Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.
  • I did not object to the object.

Taken at face value, these words that change their pronunciation seem strange and irregular, but when you analyze them, the rule becomes apparent.

  • “Refuse” with the accent on the first syllable is a noun.  “Refuse” with the accent on the second syllable is a verb.
  • “Present” with the accent on the first syllable is a noun.  “Present” with the accent on the second syllable is a verb.
  • “Object” with the accent on the first syllable is a noun.  “Object” with the accent on the second syllable is a verb.

Other examples I know are “romance” and “address.”  The part of speech changes when you change which syllable gets the emphasis.  Not so irregular now, is it?  These words are actually following a rule.  This dates back to the Middle English of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Similarly, there are words whose vowels change depending on the part of speech.  For example:

  • “Row” the verb has a long vowel, but “row” the noun is part of the vowel family “ow.”
  • “Sow” the verb has a long vowel, but “sow” the noun is part of the vowel family “ow.”
  • “Wind” the verb has a long vowel, but “wind” the noun has a short vowel.
  • “Tear” the verb has a short vowel, but “tear” the noun has a long vowel.

These words, and other examples, are less predictable, but still have a sort in internal sense, and are not the random chaos that English’s detractors would have you believe.

C and G, which can be hard or soft, (meaning “k” or “s” sound and “g” or “j” sound), are also cited as one of the things that makes English “difficult,” follows a very clear rule:

C and G are hard unless followed by e, i, or y.

Yup.  Simple as that.

If a word is spelled really strangely, like “boulevard” or “bureaucracy,” it comes from French, in which case, French is clearly a much more challenging language than English is.

You might think English’s idioms are strange, like “when pigs fly” or “when Hell freezes over” to mean something that will never happen, or “drink like a fish” meaning to drink a lot.  But you should check out some of the idioms of other languages.  For example, in Armenian, to iron someone’s head is to annoy them, in Cheyenne, riding a goat is to be separated from your spouse, and if you hang noodles on your ears in Russian, you’re talking nonsense.

Everyone’s idioms are a bit odd.  That’s what makes them idioms.  They don’t make English any more difficult or weird than any other language.

There are numerous other “oddities” that really aren’t that odd when you actually analyze them, but I think this is a pretty good start.  I hope I’ve convinced you that English really isn’t any stranger than any other language, or, at least, is not stranger than its history warrants.

What do you think?  Share in the comments below!

Related Articles:

10 Funny English Idioms on Voxy.com

Idioms and Sayings in Various Languages on Omniglot.com

See also The Power of Babel and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter.

Yiddish, Shmiddish

Yiddish has had a very interesting influence on American English.

Some of it came in the form of borrowed words, such as “bagel” (yes, really), “chutzpah,” “glitch,” “klutz,”  and “maven.”  I myself am particularly fond of using the word “kvetch.”

Jewish Americans have also given us some of our common expressions, such as “It wouldn’t hurt,” “get lost,” and “oy vey.”

But that’s not the interesting part.  Borrowing words and phrases from other languages is common and easily done.

I’ll give you a few word examples to illustrate:

  • Schmuck: a foolish person
  • Schmooze: to gossip
  • Schmutz: dirt
  • Schmaltz: excessive sentimentality
  • Shpiel: a sales pitch
  • Schnozz: a nose, especially a large one

You probably noticed that none of these words are especially complimentary.  And they all begin with the “sh” sound, several beginning “shm.”

It has actually become a convention (albeit an informal one) in American English that, to disparage something, you can replace the beginning sound with “sh” or “shm,” such as the commonly used “fancy shmancy” and “Joe Shmoe.”  Linguistically speaking, this is called reduplication.

For example, if your class is reading Hamlet, and you are fully fed up with the title character’s whining, you might say “Hamlet, schmamlet.  Let’s just watch the movie.”

If your friend just won’t shut up about the how much better the Niners are than the Raiders, you can say “Niners, shminers.  They still suck.”

The Yiddish influence on American English dates to Jewish immigration to the United States in the 1800s, and continued to increase as Jewish Americans gained prominence in the movie industry.

A while back, I read a fascinating article online about the Yiddish influence on English, but for the life of me I can’t find it.  If you’ve found anything interesting on this topic, please put a link in the comments!

Related Articles:

From Yiddish to English: The Humor of it All

The Yiddish Handbook: 40 Words You Should Know

Yiddish-Language and Ethnic-Jewish Influence in SAE

Spanglish and Yiddish (on the evolution of Yiddish)

Fancy French, Plain English

My husband and I were in a jewelry store last Saturday, (I have a lovely new strand of freshwater pearls, by the way!), where we saw a display of incredibly sparkly rings, bracelets, and pendants.

The sign over the display read “something Pave.” I asked the clerk what it meant, speaking in my unadulterated American accent (“When two vowels go walking, the first does the talking; the second one falls asleep”).

“Pavé” the clerk corrected me, using the French pronunciation (the second vowel most certainly does not fall asleep!). “It’s French, so it sounds fancy” he explained, almost apologetically.

We Americans do indeed associate “French” with “fancy.” French restaurants, food, wine, perfume, and fashion are all considered “fancy.” (The word “restaurant” even comes from French! You can tell because it’s spelling is funny, even for English. More specifically, it uses “aur” to make to make an “ur” sound.)


Part of it is just that anything French is imported. Nearly anything imported immediately gains an aura of exoticism, which makes it seem fancy, even if it’s just soap.

But to really learn why French is “fancy,” we have to look to history.

Way, way back.

All the way to 1066 A.D.: the Norman Invasion. Duke William II of Normandy, France, was discontent with his dukedom, and set his sights on Merrie Olde England. He invaded England, ultimately succeeding at the final battle of his conquest, the Battle of Hastings, defeating King Harold Godwinson, to become the king of England. He was nicknamed William the Conqueror, for obvious reasons.

William the Conqueror imposed the feudal system on England (a French invention – again, given away by the spelling; the French really like the letter “u,” I guess). Under feudalism, poor laborers, serfs, were tied to the land and essentially belonged to their lords. Lords, in turn, swore fealty to the king, and paid him taxes and gave him military service.

The nobility of England was thoroughly Frenchified. Many English nobles were permitted to keep their status, but were expected to adapt to the king’s Norman way of doing things. This meant that French was the language of the royal courts, and, hence, of the nobility. Anglo-Norman French, to be exact, which is not the direct ancestor of modern French.

(Sidenote: modern French is derived from the dialect spoken in the Paris region, not Normandy, much like modern English is derived from the dialect spoken by the London elite, not of, say, Yorkshire.)

The common people, serfs, craftsmen, etc., usually didn’t learn Anglo Norman French. They would have spoken it poorly, if at all, and would most certainly not have been literate in it. Instead, they spoke Anglo Saxon, as they were accustomed to doing. They generally weren’t literate in their own language, either. (Anglo Saxon would, of course, develop into English.)

In fact, written Anglo Saxon more or less disappeared until after 1200, when government began to use English again both in writing and even in speaking to Parliament. Around 1350, writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer started to write in the Vernacular, or, language of the people. When these writers became popular, English regained more of the status it had had before the Norman Invasion.

Because English was the “common folk” language and French was the “noble” language, a lot of English words reflect the higher status of Norman French relative to Anglo Saxon. This is especially notable when it comes to words for food, particularly meats:

  • “Beef” comes from Anglo Norman, but “cow” comes from Anglo Saxon.
  • “Mutton” comes from Anglo Norman, but “sheep” comes from Anglo Saxon.
  • “Venison” comes from Anglo Norman, but “deer” comes from Anglo Saxon.
  • “Pork” comes from Anglo Norman, but “pig” comes from…you guessed it…Anglo Saxon.

The poor people, who grew the food, gave their words to the animals. But the nobles, who ate most of the food, gave their words to the final product.

There are lots of other “fancy” words derived from Anglo Norman French, such as “allegiance,” “adversary,” “boisterous,” “bourgeois,” “demeanor,” and “endow,” with many more down through the alphabet.

English again borrowed more words from French later on in the 1300s and again in the 1700s. In fact, French is tied with Latin at 29% for having the most English words derived from it. That even beats words derived from Germanic languages. That’s pretty darn impressive, considering English is a Germanic language.

In conclusion, our association of “French” with “fancy” dates all the way back to 1066, when William the Conqueror changed England forever.


If you’re interested in learning more about the history of English, I highly recommend Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter. It’s a fascinating and humorous book, and a quick read.

Related Articles:

A Brief History of English

History of the English Language

Cool Resources on the Norman Invasion: Essential Norman Conquest and BBC History

Unnecessary Apostrophes

Unnecessary apostrophes are one of the things that drive me crazy.

I mostly see it in cases of plurals.  Some people seem to think that every word that ends in an “s” needs an apostrophe.  This is not the case.  Plurals do not need apostrophes.  Apostrophes show possession.  (In other words, that someone owns something.)

For example:

  • On a menu: “Taco Tuesday’s”  – Does something belong to Taco Tuesday?  No.  What they want to say is that every Tuesday is a Taco Tuesday.  Then it should just be “Taco Tuesdays”
  • A store window boasting of its “selection of shoe’s” – This one just plain doesn’t make any sense.  Plurals don’t need apostrophes!

Similarly, dates don’t need apostrophes.  If you want to talk about 80s music or fashion in the 1900s, no apostrophe is needed.  (Apostrophes would also indicate that music is describing 80s and not the other way around, which would just make the sentence confusing.)

Another common error is it’s and its.  You might be thinking, that because I just described how an apostrophe shows possession, that “it’s” must be possessive.  Well, no.  It’s is a contraction for “it is,” and its is possessive, as in “the fox went into its burrow.”

Using the wrong its/it’s also results in odd sentences, like a advertisement extolling “Dining at it’s best!”  (Dining at it is best.)

While I’m at it, you’re/your is also a very common mistake.  Your is possessive, and you’re is a contraction for you are.

  • You’re going to have so much fun at Disneyland!
  • Your souvenirs from Disneyland are really cool.

And how about there/their/they’re.  There is an adverb, describing where.  Their is possessive.  They’re is a contraction of they are.

  • I want to sit over there to eat.
  • You better not mess with their stuff.
  • They’re going to the beach for the Fourth of July.

I’m done ranting now.  Hopefully I have spread some minute amount of knowledge about my beloved mother tongue.

My examples are from Apostrophe Abuse, a website for posting pictures of incorrectly used (or unused) apostrophes.

Then there’s this person, who thinks apostrophes should be abolished altogether.  It’s a blog called applecopywriting.  However, as his or her reasoning is linguistically sound, I read this article with horrified fascination.  Against my will, I can almost imagine a world without apostrophes.