Saturday, February 02, 2013

ghoti spells fish

It started with a visit to a second grade classroom. A list on the chart paper clipped to the easel began with the words, "scent, listen, dodge, answer." I looked at them, puzzled for a moment. I knew that the basis for many of the vocabulary lessons in our language arts curriculum was for kids to find connections between a group of words. Vowel sounds, double meanings, that sort of thing. I was briefly stumped, so I asked my good friend, the teacher. She told me, in a helpful second grade teacher way, to say the words out loud. That's when I realized what the words had in common: "They have extra consonants."
"Silent consonants," she pointed out.
This brought up my issue with teaching the English language. First of all, my wife's name is Kristen. I don't call her "Krissen." You can hear that T. Somehow, the conventions that surround the name and the word for hearing attentively were issued different rules. And that "scent" thing. There are three words that sound exactly the same, but have three different spellings. Think how much thinner our dictionaries would be if we could just add an additional definition or two at the bottom of the "sent" entry and leave the other two off to save space. Then there's the problem of two.
By the time you get to be fifty, it all starts to seem normal. I before E except after C when you have words that don't conform to that convention. We spend a lot of time in my elementary school filling kids' heads with rules for reading and writing that don't turn out to be true after they encounter a certain number of words. The happy part of that is we do tend to create questioners: "Why does it sound like that? Shouldn't it be 'thuff?'"
And so it goes. We leave it to middle school and up to explain the exceptions. No wonder our kids get grumpy after lunch.

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