When “Sound It Out” Doesn’t Work

To emphasize the benefits of creolization, Michel DeGraff cites a study that compares the reading abilities of schoolchildren taught primarily in either French or Kreyól. Those receiving Kreyól instruction read at a pace of 60 words per minute while the pupils who learned in French only managed 23. Kreyól learners also performed better in general on more extensive tests designed to measure their recognition of words and the elements (syllables, morphemes, phonemes, letters) that compose them.

So how and why does learning in Kreyól help Haitian students read better?

DeGraff lists three things that go on in the mind of a child learning to read:

a) l ap vin pran konsyans de foném li deja gen nan sévo li
b) l ap vin aprann ki jan pou li konekte sa li gen nan tét li…ak sa ki sou paj liv
c) sa ki pi enpótan nan kómansman aprantisaj lekti: YON KONEKSYON FONDAMENTAL: foném—grafém

a) They become aware of the phonemes that they already have in their brains
b) They learn how to connect what they have in their head…with what is on the page
c) What’s most important in learning how to read: A FUNDAMENTAL CONNECTION: phoneme – grapheme

Phonemes are units of sounds used in language to form words. When written down, these units are referred to as “graphemes.” When I tell you, “It’s pronounced ‘a’ as in ‘father’” the ‘a’ sound is a phoneme and the letter ‘a’ is a grapheme – the written representation of that sound.

What DeGraff’s talking about is the “hooked on phonics” approach to reading. You’ve got a set of words in your brain that you’ve heard spoken before, a mental lexicon based on sound. In order to read, you need to transcribe all those words into a second dictionary, one that’s based on sight.

Sound it out. That’s all reading is, really, is a process of decoding: letters = sounds = words = meaning. That’s why it makes sense to teach people to read their own language first – otherwise, they won’t be able to relate the words composed of letters on the page to the words composed of sounds in their head.

It’s also why it makes sense to follow DeGraff’s rule: “Chak grafém toujou pwononse menm jan.” Every grapheme will always be pronounced the same way.  Just look at languages whose words all follow a basic set of rules for spelling. Students who grow up speaking Italian and German master reading much earlier than their British and American counterparts. Finland, that holy grail of school systems, has no need for spelling bees.

So why is English still the holy grail of languages, when it has perhaps the most opaque, fiendishly difficult, and ridiculous orthography in the world? Well, there are a lot of ways to answer that question, but perhaps one way is to look at phonemes’ counterpart: morphemes.

Just as phonemes are units of sound, morphemes are units of meaning. Take the English word “trapped.” When spoken, it is pronounced “trapt,” with what sounds like a /t/ phoneme at the end. However, it is written with an “ed” (and an extra “p” thrown in there for good measure) in order to indicate to the reader that it is a past tense verb. “-ed” is a morpheme.  So are other grammatical essentials, and all those Latin and Greek prefixes you had to memorize for the SATs.

DeGraff brings up morphemes and how it is essential that students be able to recognize them, but he puts less emphasis on them than he does on phonemes. A firm grasp of phonemes is necessary for early readers – many theorize that dyslexia occurs when children are not able to properly divide a word into its component phonemes. However, what happens when students have moved beyond that initial process of transferring words from sound to sight recognition? DeGraff believes Haitian students can learn by reading – what happens when they begin to encounter words on the page that they have never heard or seen before?

Base a language on sounds alone, and it’s easy to learn to read but hard to read to learn. Languages with more complicated spellings are normally complicated for a reason – they offer proficient readers a wealth of information to draw on for making connections between words. Yes, it’s that frustrating that the verb “sign” has an extra, silent “g” when you’re first learning to recognize it. But being able to recognize the morpheme will come in handy later when you encounter “signature,” where that “g” is pronounced. Get rid of morphemes, and you get rid of meanings. Your students will only be able to identify words they have heard spoken aloud, which would mean leaving out a lot of useful words that most people only know from books.

DeGraff to wants Haitian students to learn “biyochimi” instead of “biochemistry,” and maybe the distinction is actually not worth worrying about. Maybe the important thing is that they’re learning, that they have concepts to tie to those words. It’s just up to the teachers, and the students, to decide if the cost of what they’re giving up will be made up for by what they gain.

Check out the final post in this segment for my (evolving) opinion on Kreyól’s place in Haitian schools.

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One thought on “When “Sound It Out” Doesn’t Work

  1. Pingback: Michel DeGraff Makes Me Think | Project Rive

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