Monday, October 19, 2015

Phonetics Blues

“I before E except after C and when it sounds like A as in neighbor and weigh. Weird, right?” says my husband this morning as we engage our daughter in yet another discussion of how to spell a particular word.

My daughter’s kindergarten teacher tells us not to spell words for her anymore. She wants my daughter to listen to the sounds and figure out the letters. The same principle applies when my daughter is trying to read. She is supposed to be sounding out the letters to figure out the words. The school uses a mixture of phonics and sight words (high frequency words that are simply memorized) to teach reading. In theory, it all sounds fine. It should help my daughter be more confident and independent in her reading.

In practice, English doesn’t seem to work well that way. Take the word “knight.” My daughter wants to be a knight for Halloween. My husband has made her a knight costume complete with shield and sequined “chain mail” armor. Public schools no longer celebrate Halloween, but they do have “Storybook Character” day on October 30th in which the children are requested to bring a storybook to school and dress up as a character from the book. My daughter is quite excited about this idea, plans to wear her knight costume to school, and really, really wants to be able to read at least part of the book to her teacher if asked.

We have a cute little storybook about a Knight and a Dragon who are dismal failures at fighting each other and open up a restaurant together instead. (The Knight and The Dragon by Tomie dePaola).  We were practicing it this evening before bedtime. My daughter was trying to read it by sounding out the words. Unfortunately, if you sound out the word “knight” you get “k-nig-hit” which is adorably Monty Python but not particularly helpful to a five-year-old trying to make sense of a story. It took about five minutes for her to struggle through the first sentence (which also contained the words “fought” which comes out “f-o-uh-g-hit” and “castle” which comes out “s or k, mom? – k-a-s-t-lee”).  I’m not sure she had any sense of the meaning of the sentence because she was working so hard just sounding out the words. After she finished I told her that was enough practice for the evening (because frustration + five-year-old + bedtime = a more explosive combination than dynamite) and I read the rest of the book.

I confess, I’m still spelling words for my daughter, despite her teacher’s instructions. If the word makes sense phonetically I’ll get her to spell it, but I just can’t stand it otherwise. It just doesn’t make sense to me to teach her wrong ways of spelling and reading that she’ll have to unlearn later. I’m balancing between encouraging her to read and keeping reading fun by making sure she still gets the stories she loves. The phrase “yes, we know, sorry, English is strange” has become quite frequently heard around our house. I know I must have gone through the same thing as a child. I have dim, recently awakened memories of being taught about helper vowels and silent letters. So I know it all works out, because I started reading competently around the 2nd or 3rd grade. And I do believe that once it is learned English is a lovely, flexible, powerful language. I just feel sorry for the kindergarteners.