Fa Nichts


By David Albert

So I had poured my heart out at that last homeschooling workshop. Lots of anecdotes and stories. Personal experiences and those of others. Theoretical constructs. I tried to make it amusing – I usually insist that I can guarantee fun, but whether folks actually learn anything is totally up to them. Worked up a bit of a sweat.

After my workshop, a mom came up to my book table. There were my own books, and those of John Holt, and of my old friends John Taylor Gatto and Jean Reed. Books on deschooling, on helping kids deal with conflict and negotiate win-win solutions, on the development of compassion. I sat behind it.

She wanted to know if I had any phonics programs, or whether there were any I could recommend. Sigh. I was situated between two curriculum sellers who would have been more than happy to part with their wares (I would have preferred to have been located next to the funny Dutchman at his “Learn to Play the Ukelele” booth, but those are the breaks.) I put my compassion lessons to good work. I happen to believe that the ultimate purpose of education (please sit up and take note) is to learn to treat each other better. I’m still working on it. I invited her to sit down next to me. I can be a very good listener when I try. And I was committed to trying. Publishers send me all sorts of stuff through the mails (ah, the benefits of being an infamous homeschooling author!) Some of the programs might be better than others. But I was (and am) committed to not recommending any.

You see (or maybe you don’t yet), every child and every adult I have ever met first learned to read without phonics. There. I said it. I am sure there is an exception to what I have written somewhere (there always is), but honestly, as far as I am aware, I haven’t met any.

That’s an awfully strong and shocking statement to make, don’t you think? I tend to be rather a careful sort, at least when it comes to my writing if not in speech, so why go so far out on a limb? I mean I could couch what I have to say in more neutral, less definitive, utterance, talk about percentages or tendencies, cite some academic references, quote an expert or two or three, and move on. But the fact is I have such confidence in what I wrote above that I don’t find it necessary. “Pride goeth before the fall,” goes the old saying, and so I guess I should be ready for a big one.

So now that I’ve got your interest up, and you are ready to catch that erstwhile homeschooling expert out, will you allow me the luxury of a little demonstration? If you will allow me….

I am about to write something on this paper.  ). There, I did it. Would you pronounce it, please? Oh, I see - you can’t. Some of you might recognize it as something approaching a closed parenthesis, but there’s no ‘name’ for it, is there? Now how about this. _. Oh, you don’t recognize that one either (might it be the underline key?)

Now, let’s put them together. Not randomly of course – one (the first) on top of the other (the second).  2. “Two”, you say? Pronounce it carefully now – “tooo”.

If I were to write this on a blackboard, or do a chicken scratch of it on a piece of paper, 99.9% of your kids would recognize it before they had learned anything about phonics whatsoever. “Tooo,” they’d say, and if you asked them what two means, they’d tell you they have two eyes or two ears or two feet or two sisters or they had two bananas for lunch. And if you asked them to use it in a sentence, if they knew what a sentence was, they’d say, “I have two dogs.” And if you asked them to hold up two fingers, or to count to two, it is not likely they’d find themselves particularly challenged.

So that part was easy. They were able to visually make perfectly good sense out of a particular set of visual cues, pronounce them properly and manipulate them for linguistic purposes to describe their world. In short, they were reading.

But let’s take this a bit further. Make a set of two of these chicken scratches side by side. 22.What’s that you say? No, it isn’t “too-too”, is it? The first one (or the one to the left to be more accurate) is now “tuh-wen-tee”, while the one to the right is still “too”. Yet, they look exactly the same! And if I cut out each set of chicken scratches and put the one on the right side “in front” (actually, to the left) of the other it now becomes “tuwen-tee” while the other one goes back to being “too”. Works the other way, too (not to be confused with “too”), with the one on the left (that had been on the right), now being “tuh-wen-tee” and the other reverting back to little ol’ “too”. No matter how I order things, it never becomes “too tuh-wen-tee”.

Amazing, isn’t it? What happens when you get three sets of the chicken scratches? 222. No, that’s not “too-too-too”, is it? The one in the middle now becomes “tuh-wen-tee”, the one to the right side is now “too”, but the one on the left side is “too-huhn-dreh-d”. I can shuffle them anyway I like and still come up with the absolutely non-phonetic “too-huhn-dreh-d tuh-wen-tee too”. Gets really interesting when one adds “wunz” into the equation. “Wun” on the left, “too” on the right equals “tuhwel-v”. Reverse the chicken scratches and one reads “tuh-wen-tee wun”. Blackjack! Makes “i before e except after c” sound like child’s play in comparison. Except this is all “child’s play”, isn’t it?

I hope by now this has become as obvious to you as it has to me. Children learn to make sense of visual representations and turn them into sound and into meaning without any necessary knowledge of phonemic content. But that does not mean that they don’t have to learn the phonemic content of the chicken scratches. On the contrary, by forming analogies between the sound content of the known and then applying it to the unknown, they are able to match up the visual cues with words which in the aural realm they already know. (What we are dealing with numbers, however, is that on top of the expectation of being “literate”, there is the second expectation of becoming “numerate”. You may know how to “read” 21 and 12 without any notion of how to subtract one from the other.)

Stated another way, reading depends on a kind of fuzzy logic. (“logical systems with a continuum of truth values” – this one is fun to explore, try www.fuzzy-logic.com for starters.) If some kind of visual approximation of phonemic content doesn’t match up closely enough with a known spoken thing, concept, or action, it remains totally nonsensical even if one can pronounce it absolutely correctly. Conversely, one can work from the sound content in the name of a known thing, concept, or action, to figure out how to read the chicken scratches depicting another thing, concept, or action similar in sound. (If I know “sheep”, I can read“peep”.)

If you have followed me up to this point, I think you have come to realize that reading represents a peculiar kind of symbolic logic, and the ability to perform these logical operations requires a “grammar of logic” that develops internally, and has little to do with instruction whatsoever. As Dr. Frank Smith, author of Reading Without Nonsense, and one of North America’s leading experts on reading, emphasizes, children cannot be taught how to read; at best (and that’s pretty rare), we make it a little more possible for them to learn.

So what about phonics? All children (with the very rare exception of those few children who learn the sound and sense of all words entirely through visual recall) have to learn phonics.  But it doesn’t mean that they have to be taught it. The problem with phonics instruction is that it is only useful at that precise moment in the development of a child’s internal grammar when she recognizes that chicken scratches can have both phonemic and referential content, but before such time that she quickly recognizes what they are. Phonics instruction offered too early is meaningless and frustrating; offered too late it is unnecessary and stifling. (Boy, do I have stories about that one!)

Oh, and what about the alphabet? Glad you asked! Well, in case you were wondering, the size of the alphabet doesn’t seem to matter either, at least for the kids. I am busy trying (so far not very successfully) to learn Tamil, the language of South India (for more on my recent trip to South India, visit my web log atwww.shantinik.blogspot.com ). In Tamil, there are 12 vowels (“soul letters”); 18 consonants (“body letters), one “hermaphrodite” letter, and 216 combinant letters, representing every possible combination of vowel and consonant. The kids manage to learn to read just fine, 247 letters and all, and there is no evidence that the radically larger number of letters has any impact on when they learn to read. Once the magic switch is thrown, the reading train just comes chugging on down the track.

Mostly, as most of you will soon find out if you haven’t done so already, this is much ado about very little. Fa Nichts. Those of you caught up in these questions now will be surprised at what little importance they are to you two, three, or four years hence, as your children go on their way creating a world for themselves that is richer and, often, far more unexpected and surprising than anything you can currently imagine.

David H. Albert is a homeschooling father, speaker, and featured columnist forHome Education Magazine and The Link Homeschooling Journal. He is also author of several homeschooling books, including And The Skylark Sings with Me,Homeschooling and the Voyage of of Self-Discovery and Have Fun. Learn Stuff. Grow. Homeschooling and the Curriculum of Love. He has offered Gifted Homeschoolers Forum members a $2.00 discount on signed copies -- just go to his web site at www.skylarksings.com, order a copy, and write "GHF" on the comment line.

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