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The Flat-Earthers of Literacy

Sara and I spent this past weekend in Dayton, OH at the Etymology! VII conference. This was my third Etymology! conference, and I continue to increase both the breadth and depth of my knowledge with each one I attend. And with each one, the call becomes more and more urgent that we stop teaching things to children that are false and that they will have to later unlearn.

I marvel at the progress of my younger students who eagerly absorb all of the information we learn through our investigations of morphology, etymology, and phonology, and lament the task my older students have of letting go of the false information they were given, sometimes by well-meaning teachers and tutors that just didn’t know any better. They have the arduous and painful undertaking of teaching their brains to stop automatically trying to sound out the text that is put in front of them, and instead focus on the structure they see. Their brains know these words, and once they learn to see the structure and look for the meaning of the words, they can access the phonological representation quickly and easily, directly from print instead of clumsily making their way through a word, from start to finish, using the inaccurate phonics rules that have been drilled into their heads, trying laboriously to activate the pronunciation of the word with varying success depending on how they’ve divided the “syllables” or where they’ve put the stress. Instead of seeing the word <photographer> and saying [foʊɾəgræfɚ] (photograph-er) and not connecting it to their stored phonological representation (as it doesn’t match, evidenced by the spelling attempt of <fertographer>), they are able to notice the <-er> suffix as an agent suffix and realize that they know who the person is that takes photographs... a photographer. Meaning activated directly from print. Like a skilled reader. Done.

Or my third grader who was having trouble with <does> and <goes> and <done> and <gone> just six months ago, but just today was able to read <confessed> and <professional> because he recognizes the elements. He sees the base <fess>, and he knows the conversations we have had about that base. And adding the prefixes and suffixes is easy for him now, once he identifies the base. He doesn’t have to sound out and guess. He knows when you admit to a crime, you confess, and when you declare your skill in a certain area, that is your profession.

I am starting to feel like the people we are leaving behind, those who are mired down in phonics-based instruction that hasn’t evolved in some 50+ years, claiming over and over that young children are not ready for morphology or etymology, or worse, they don’t need it, are like flat-earthers, clinging to what they have convinced themselves is true with all of their might. They are ignoring the fact that we, too, were once flat-earthers, but thanks to the scientific method and years of study, we now know how the system truly works. We know now that the earth is round, just as we know now that grapheme choices are not governed by phonology, but by etymology. Phonology is to be studied and wholly understood, not reduced to a set of rules with exceptions to be memorized, leaving instructors and students alike knowing very little about both the psychological and physical speech elements that actually exist in words and the graphemes spell them.

Many years ago, while working in a linguistics lab at SDSU, I finally learned what it meant to be descriptive rather than prescriptive about language. I left behind the days of being a grammar nazi, and chose to start studying language the way it is, using science to describe how it is used and how it evolves. Later, I would realize that this dichotomy exists in the world of printed language as well as spoken, and that effective literacy instruction, especially for those who struggle the most with written language, depends on taking that descriptive approach... choosing words to examine, finding families of related words to study, noticing patterns that exist, and discovering the true rules of the system. This is how science works. The question is not why do we pronounce “sign” the way we do, but why does <sign> have a <g>. If you look at its relatives (signal, signature, designate) the reason the <g> is there is clear.

There is so much more to the process, but to not see, to not listen to those of us who have been where they are now, to not open their eyes to what is right there in front of them just because they don’t know how to teach it, is so incredibly sad. And to keep that information from their students because they don’t understand it is unacceptable. Bravo to all of you who have taken the first steps and opened your eyes to science and what it can show you about orthography. We will not stop, and we will not be quiet. We will continue to educate our students and our peers. We will be the light for those who wish to see. The earth is not flat. It is round. And we will continue to shout it from the rooftops if we have to, until our educational system takes literacy instruction, and the literacy crisis, seriously enough to not only teach all children to read, but teach them how our wonderful, ever-evolving writing system works, with not the goal of perfect spelling, but the goal of perfect understanding, not the goal of reciting words aloud with little understanding, but with the gift of true literacy.

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