The Literacy Blog: Silent letters?

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Susan Godsland
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The Literacy Blog: Silent letters?

Post by Susan Godsland » Sat Nov 26, 2011 9:04 pm

Thoughtful post on John Walker's Literacy Blog: Silent letters?

http://literacyblog.blogspot.com/2011/1 ... tters.html

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Re: The Literacy Blog: Silent letters?

Post by Debbie Hepplewhite » Sat Nov 26, 2011 11:25 pm

I agree.

I raised exactly the same point in my talk at the recent RRF conference!

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Re: The Literacy Blog: Silent letters?

Post by john walker » Sun Nov 27, 2011 11:15 am

As Xmas is approaching, I was going to call the posting 'Silent knight', Debbie, but was dissuaded by my partner, who thought it trivialised the issue.
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Re: The Literacy Blog: Silent letters?

Post by chew8 » Sun Nov 27, 2011 1:45 pm

I think we should beware of scoffing at the concept of 'silent letters'. Some very eminent linguists accept it - e.g. Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech and Svartvik in A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language.

In the long-distant past the 'k' and the 'gh' in the word 'knight' were sounded in English, as the 'k' and 'ch' still are in the cognate German word 'Knecht'. Similarly, the 'p' was sounded in the Greek words from which we get the words 'pneumatic' and 'psychology'. My own view is that knowing this sort of thing and regarding the letters as no longer representing the sounds that they once represented in these words helps with the learning of spelling.

I know the arguments against the concept of silent letters and am not saying that everyone should accept this concept. I'm just saying that I think it's unwise to suggest that there could never be any logic behind it.

Jenny C.

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Re: The Literacy Blog: Silent letters?

Post by Derrie Clark » Sun Nov 27, 2011 8:50 pm

The thing is Jenny all letters ARE silent.

Of course, you could say to the pupils they used to pronounce knight: kniyghht (did they really?) but now we say 'nite' so the <kn> is the spelling for 'n' and the <igh> is the spelling for 'ie' etc.

However, I believe young children manage just as well without all the history as the most they understand about history, if you're lucky is what they had for lunch or breakfast.

When she was 6, my daughter was writing out a list of the English football team players. She called out to me "how do you write the 'r' in Wright?". 'w' with a 'r' I replied. She knew at 5 that all letters are silent and that they represent the sounds she makes. She also knew that sometimes a sound can be written with more than one letter and she had no difficulty writing the spelling of the 'ie' sound in Wright.

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Re: The Literacy Blog: Silent letters?

Post by maizie » Sun Nov 27, 2011 9:58 pm

Hmm.

I've started telling pupils that these letters are the 'ghosts' of sounds that we used to say in these words and that they can be very useful for telling one homophone from another...

Is that OK? ;-)

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Re: The Literacy Blog: Silent letters?

Post by chew8 » Sun Nov 27, 2011 10:52 pm

Derrie wrote:The thing is Jenny all letters ARE silent.
Of course all letters are silent in the sense that you mean, Derrie - please don't think that eminent language experts don't understand this very elementary point. But when such people use the term 'silent letters' they are following a long-established convention - a convention which does have some logic behind it, especially when it refers to the 'knight' type of example. One doesn't have to give a full-blown history lesson to young children - I just say something like 'A long time ago people used to say this word as ....... We don't say it that way any more but we still write it that way.' Maizie's approach also sounds good.

I don't think the silent-letter convention has caused anything like the problems sometimes suggested: it caused no problems for my contemporaries and me, or for my children, and I find that many of the Year 3 children I work with already know it and are not at all fazed by it. I am just saying that the case against it should not be overstated.

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Re: The Literacy Blog: Silent letters?

Post by Derrie Clark » Sun Nov 27, 2011 11:18 pm

I don't think what 'eminent language experts understand' is of any relevance. My interest is the starting point for the child as a learner.

Did they really used to pronounce every letter in knight or were there even some 'silent letters' then (from the perspective of eminent linguists)?

Maizie, that sounds a bit scary for young children ;). How would you exlain the <g> and <h>. I guess they're very silent letters?

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Re: The Literacy Blog: Silent letters?

Post by maizie » Sun Nov 27, 2011 11:33 pm

Derrie Clark wrote:Maizie, that sounds a bit scary for young children ;)
Ah Ha! But memorable, Derrie :grin:

Don't forget I'm working with 11+ and as they've all been brought up on X rated DVDs nothing scares them ;-)

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Re: The Literacy Blog: Silent letters?

Post by john walker » Mon Nov 28, 2011 12:07 am

Maizie said:
I've started telling pupils that these letters are the 'ghosts' of sounds that we used to say in these words and that they can be very useful for telling one homophone from another... Is that OK?
If you're working with eleven-year-olds, Maizie, I'm sure it makes perfect sense to give them full and honest explanations. It is precisely for children of this age that these 'amazing' explanations makes sense and probably help children to remember. When I talk to trainees about why we changed the spelling of the sounds /k/ and /w/ from c and w (cwen) to q and u (queen), I tell them that the Normans were responsible for the importation of this change - which is why (joke, joke) they called Duke William, William the Bastard - for mucking up the old English/Anglo Saxon spelling system!

Derrie said:
I don't think what 'eminent language experts understand' is of any relevance.
I agree, Derrie. in any case, these 'eminent language experts' never taught children in the early years. I have my copy of G. Leech and J Svartvik sitting next to my computer - very useful for consulting on all sorts of points of grammar; no help at all in teaching young children to read and spell. Besides, their particular description of the English language system is only one of a number. Albrow, who was associated with the doyen of British functional linguistics Frith, advocated dealing with the many-to-one, one-to-many problem in exactly the way I am suggesting: there are sounds and there are spellings - very simple, very straightforward.
There are forty-four or so sounds in English, which we learn naturally. There are (we can argue about it) between one hundred and fifty and one hundred and seventy-five or so common spellings. Teach children these correspondences in the early years in KS 1, keep it simple and teach the skills to enable them to use it. And, what you get is children who can read and spell - no 'silent letters', no 'hard sounds' or 'soft sounds', no confusion.
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Re: The Literacy Blog: Silent letters?

Post by chew8 » Mon Nov 28, 2011 6:50 pm

Derrie wrote:I don't think what 'eminent language experts understand' is of any relevance. My interest is the starting point for the child as a learner.
My main interest is also in the starting-point for the child as a learner, which is why I spend 4+ hours a week working voluntarily in an infant school (and another 6 or 7 hours a week working voluntarily with Y3 children). It's also why I've taught phonics, starting simple, to all my children and grandchildren as pre-schoolers. My youngest grandchild, who will turn 2 next week, can identify all letters of the alphabet by sound, plus two or three digraphs, and amused his mum a few days ago by calling out /oo/ when he saw the two noughts in the number 100 on the TV. The many years I spent teaching older students also have a bearing on the way I think. I certainly would not make silent letters (or, indeed, digraphs) the starting-point, but I don't have a problem with the silent-letter convention once children are secure with the more obvious grapheme-phoneme correspondences. It's not something that I'm now in a position to teach, as I'm no longer a teacher, but I find that some children have been taught it, at home or at school, and are none the worse for it. I checked this today with some Y1 children.

This is clearly another point on which we will have to agree to disagree. I repeat, though, that I am just asking that the case against the silent-letter convention should not be overstated.

Jenny C.
Last edited by chew8 on Tue Nov 29, 2011 8:23 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: The Literacy Blog: Silent letters?

Post by john walker » Mon Nov 28, 2011 11:42 pm

Okay, teejay, it might look unnecessarily fussy to be teaching <se> as a spelling alternative for 's'. However, without launching into a disquisition on the sins of Richard Mulcaster et al (cf David Crystal's Stories of English), it is a pattern that is repeated in English spelling again and again. You only have to think about <ce> (niece), <le> paddle), <me> (some), <ne> (gone), <te> (granite), <ve> (give), to see the pattern.
On the question of <ear>, <ere> and <eer>, teaching may depend on accent. The post-war RP sound 'eer' could be represented by all three examples. And, many people still speak like this. These days, though, there are also many people who articulate words like 'dear' and so on as two syllable words: 'd' 'ee' | 'er', the last sound of which is a schwa. We teach the spellings for the sound 'eer' (if appropriate) very late on in the programme, by which time most pupils have worked it out for themselves.
But, the real point is this: if you anchor your teaching in forty-four or so sounds of the language, which you learn naturally, and you teach the ways of spelling those sounds systematically over the first three years of schooling and then fine tune what's left over the following years, I think you present something which, though complex, can be learned by pretty much anyone.
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Re: The Literacy Blog: Silent letters?

Post by chew8 » Mon Nov 28, 2011 11:57 pm

I'm not sure who the 'you' is/are that you are responding to, teejay, but I want to say that I agree with you about words such as 'house' - i.e. that it's easier for children to realise that they can ignore letters at times than to have to learn additional graphemes.

One Y1 child I worked with today read 5 words starting 'kn', 'gn' and 'wr' perfectly - I had prepared a list in advance, but gave it only to the better readers, of whom she was one. I then asked her if she had heard of 'silent letters' - she had, so I asked her from whom (mum and a teaching assistant) and what she knew about them. Her answer, verbatim, was 'They shouldn't be there'. Even if some people think that this child has been badly misled, the fact is that it has not prevented her from becoming a good reader

Jenny C.

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Re: The Literacy Blog: Silent letters?

Post by Debbie Hepplewhite » Tue Nov 29, 2011 3:23 pm

I must apologise if it seems that I 'scoff' at methods of teaching the complexities of our English alphabetic code such as the 'silent letters' issue - as this is not my intent.

Indeed, I still use terminology of which others disapprove such as 'short vowel sounds' and 'long vowel sounds'.

I totally acknowledge that teachers have taught effectively using their various methods such as 'silent letters' and 'magic e' and so on.

I do think, however, that these are times when we are all really unpicking the alphabetic code and its complexities - and really trying to share understanding about the comlexities of the relationships between the sounds of speech and the various letters and letter groups which 'are code for' the sounds.

I have taken it upon myself to try to find ways of providing information about the alphabetic code which is quickly 'tangible' (such as the promotion of a high-profile visual aid in the form of an alphabetic code chart) and in finding notation - such as using the 'slash marks' to denote the sounds consistently.

Basing the sharing of information around the 'sounds' - which come to an end point - works really well.

I think the issue about 'silent letters' is that they completely break away from the logic of linking the sounds of speech to letter groups. When one uses the notion of 'these letters are code for the .....sound', there is no need to add the further complication of suggesting that 'some letters are silent'.

To clarify further that this is, in effect, an unnecessary (and becoming outdated) method of teaching children is part of our shared journey, surely, towards unpicking the complex English alphabetic code further and further.

And we need to unpick it for many interest groups:

General public
Teacher-trainers in the universities
Programme writers
Teachers
Learners
Student-teachers
Tutors
Special Needs personnel
Those for whom English is a new language or additional language
Those for whom the sounds of English or more than, or different from, their mother tongue

So, it could be that we always accept that different programme writers will provide different guidance, that things in the past 'worked too', that idiosyncratic methods 'still work' and teach the learners, even that these things may make learning more distinctive - more memorable.

There are grave worries, however, by the lack of understanding about the alphabetic code by people who are still in a position of great influence for the future - people like lecturers in universities. Surely their professional knowledge, in this day and age, needs to go beyond ideas that 'some letters are silent' and others aren't and that only some digraphs should include a notion of 'silent letters' because this has always been taught whereas in other graphemes such as 'igh', this notion has tended not to be taught per se.

I am not suggesting for one moment that there has not been a great deal of practical sense from times of old, and current times, but I do feel as if we need to get our alphabetic code onto more sure footing for people generally - and this would perhaps add to the sense of 'guaranteed' quality and consistency of teaching, training and learning.

It may be, but not necessarily, an issue of 'consistency and quality control'.

Something which may need to be as much of a guarantee as possible for future teachers and for our pupils.

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Re: The Literacy Blog: Silent letters?

Post by geraldinecarter » Tue Nov 29, 2011 9:51 pm

I was going to say that both positions are valid and that other concerns are more pressing and should unite us:

malinstruction
the inability to ensure that all 7 year olds are involved in sustained reading
the dangers of limited reading - the outcome being that, as Francis Gilbert said in a Guardian article a few months back - secondary school children being switched off from reading anything in depth
the sticking limpet-like to fundamentally damaging practices
the bureaucratization of primary schools
and a host of other things not least being
how we are going to adapt to a severe downturn in the economy

that said, Debbie has made a powerful case for 'quality control' .We should remember, too, to thank Diane for all her work in making us as aware as we are about the alphabetic code.

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