[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Fall 1983 pp2-9]
On other pages: Sounds part 2, List 1, Chart 1.

The Sounds of Language - an Added Dimension in Reading Instruction,

by Joseph E. Brown.*

*Copyright 1982. Lansing, MI.

Questions that need answering: What is reading? How do children learn to read? What is word recognition? How do school books promote reading failure? Do dictionaries promote reading failure? Why doesn't "sounding-it-out" always work? These questions - and many more - must be answered in order to understand what is required for effective reading instruction.

Alphabetized pronunciation notations as the key to the Learning-to-Read process:

"For skor and sehvn yirz uhgo owr fahtherz brawt forth on this kahntinint.." a pressing need for a logical, consistent, and economical way to spell English words.
Our traditional system, as it has evolved historically, however, cannot now be substantially changed. "Spelling Reform" has far too many economical and social implications. Yet, there still remains a pressing need for one other dimension to our orthography for specific educational purposes.

The above opening passage from the "Gettysberg Address" is for illustrative purposes. It is taken from "The Sounds of Language," and serves only to illustrate the graphics of this proposed "Regularized Spelling and Pronunciation Notation System," which is designed as a component of improved reading instruction and language learning, not for use in general running text.

"The Sounds of Language" is the text, in preparation, which explains the philosophy behind this approach to regularized spelling and spelling notation as applied to the learning-to-read process, and illustrate its various parts. It also introduces the important concept of Pronunciation Guidance Notations as the KEY PART of the Learning-to-Read process.

In addition to the graphics and philosophies of a system, however, any valid proposed system also requires an implementation strategy to place it in widespread, effective use. This spelling-pronunciation notation offers an educational philosophy, a graphics system, and an implementation strategy to resolve a part of our orthographic needs without the disruption of an orthographic reform approach.

A Chart and a List are included, also for illustration purposes, Chart I and List I are specimen pages developed in "The Sounds of Language." The List format is included because it is comfortable in the traditional style of illustrating pronunciation guidance and spelling symbols. The Chart format may be the most important. It illustrates graphically, on one page, the complete structure of this proposed spelling-pronunciation notation system.

Both the system and the philosophy are based on this combination of critical understandings and observations.

One of the earliest involved and most, important processes in learning to read efficiently is the establishment of the Auditory-Visual-Neurological Link leading from the printed page, to the eyes, through the afferent neurological system, to the cortex, for comprehension and integration into semantic cognition. In effect, the link leads from the unknown (the printed word until the cognition arc is completed) to the known (the semantic understanding of the word from hearing it and using it in spoken language), especially if it involves reading instruction, and if the instructional design is correct.

Linguistically and semantically, the link leads from inherent meanings encoded in the printed word in question, as chosen by the writer, to mutually known meanings stored in our brains, as developed around the word in its auditory or spoken language (language experience) form.

Ideally, the learning links, depending largely on imprinted neurological networks, should be established, starting at an early age. Typically, they develop and are refined in several styles, from mother's knee to graduate school. They may develop intuitively, incidentally, concomitantly, by specific instruction, or by any combination of such means. Largely, they begin out of ordinary human communication, some parent-teacher encouragement, some natural interest in reading, self effort at learning to read, and other factors.

Speech sound identification, as a part of Word Recognition, is important in the early learning-to-read stages. It is closely tied to spoken and heard language experience, and leads learners to a variety of skills involved with the identification of other word components, to Word Recognition, and on to the comprehension of the word and its context.

However, if the over-all language experience (spoken-auditory language repertoire) has not been developed for any number of reasons out of the general course of normal human communication and interaction, generally starting in infancy, the chances for the development of both the neurological and the lerning sequences are minimized.

Points in Case.

In the above paragraph, notice the inadvertent use of the /er/ speech sound in "learning" (lerning).

Implications: The spelling of "ear" (/ir/) appears as a totally different sound in both "early" and "learning." Such inconsistencies appear frequently in English spellings, and probably are the major cause of reading failure, school failure, and high illiteracy rates.

One's life, and the possibility of developing one's human potential to the fullest take a sudden turn for the worse upon the failure to develop both the neurological and the intellectual learning links at an appropriate, early age. The pre-school years are the most important.

Often the results are some degree of life-long semi-illiteracy, a variety of learning handicaps, and all the inherent social, psychological (attitudinal), economic, educational, and other implications accompanying reading-learning failure.

In some instances, it may be the key factor if the development of Dyslexia, or other neurologically-based learning handicaps. In such cases, the physical neurological links between the printed page and the mind are weak and inconsistent. Erratic neural impulses follow weakly developed afferent neural pathways from the printed page to the brain. Word recognition, the starting place, can never be achieved because of poorly established connections.

Our conventional spellings serve the capable, the quick learners, and the advantaged fairly well, but those less apt in reading-oriented learning, because of a wide range of inconsistencies in our traditional spelling, do not fare very well. Our traditional spelling worsens their cases because it provides no consistent patterns (generalities in terms of language communication) to transmit to the brain for ready identification of words and word parts. Any given set of spelling symbols, whole-word or part-word, may (in T.O.) represent dozens of speech sounds to be forwarded to the brain through the neural systems. Thus confusion is rampant.

Our spelling system must include a dimension that serves "the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick-maker" as well as the academic the scholar, and the apt learner, if it is to be a universally useful learning tool.

"Word recognition" is a very commonly used phrase in reading and reading instruction. At times the definition of the "recognition" part merits review.

According to any standard dictionary, the base word, "cognition" means: "the process of knowing, in the broadest sense, including perception, judgement, memory, etc.

Adding the prefix "re" to "cognition" creates the word "re-cognition" of "re-knowing." In reading and reading instruction, the phrase is applied to describe the skill of re-knowing words in print that are already known (cognized) mentally; and the word becomes part of the standard instructional phrase, Word Recognition.

Beginning readers apply the Word Recognition skills slowly and laboriously at first. Experienced, capable readers with considerable language and learning experience, use specific Word Recognition skills much less, generally in the cases of unfamiliar words, of which there are far fewer, and resort to contextual inference skills. Extremely capable readers, and speed readers barely notice single words, glancing only for key phrases and other "clues", paragraph and page at a glance.

Yet, Word Recognition is educationally a critical skill for developmental purposes; and the skill of "re-knowing" or "recognizing" something in print (words and their semantic meanings in this case) which we already knew or had "cognized" in our minds from previous reading and language experience, always remains useful.

Thus still another definition of reading is the use of Word Recognition skills to identify and transmit neural signals from the identifyable patterns (physical and semantic), the momentarily unknown, to match with the cognized meanings we have stored in our brains, or main frames.

The various definitions of both reading and word recognition all lead directly to the maxim about reading and reading instruction, that we can only read something we already know.

If we have cognized absolutely no information about a word like "onomatopoeia," for example, word recognition skills are of little use. Nor can we "read" the word even if we can pronounce it with linguistic precision. If we are familiar with the concept of onomatopoeia, the link will be established at a glance. Yet, the links cannot simply lead from correct pronunciation to an empty cognitive computer bank and be considered "reading."

And in the context of reading instruction, Word Recognition, basically, is one of the processes by which teachers teach little children (and octogenarians as well) to read, by capitalizing on something the learners already know.

First, they capture the learners' confidence and feelings of security about reading, language, and the whole idea of school, by being certain to have their earliest reading lessons contain words familiar in the children's speech for a high potential of word "recognizability" and success. They structure reading activities (stories and lessons) around homely and familiar speech words from the learners' own personal speaking and listening vocabularies. And after that "initial" reading instruction process, the teachers work hard to expand both the learners' general language cognition, and their specific reading vocabularies. That is the "developmental" reading procedure that takes place both in reading classes and in subject matter classes. Those educational and reading improvement efforts continue all through school until the learners become capable, confident, skillful readers, successful as readers, students, and as individuals.

Pronouncing and "Sounding Out".

But intertwined within those initial and developmental learning processes, and later with the development of more sophisticated reading and general language development are the pronunciation skills.

In the beginning reading stages, pronunciation skills have little to do with the propriety of word pronunciation. Rather, at those stages, it has to do with the momentary need to "sound out" those parts of words, or whole words, which are blocking the re-cognition link, until the link can be established between the page and cognition in the learners' mind. Immediately following is that warm feeling, if only for an instant, from the success of recognizing a word, much like that from recognizing any other old friend whom one hasn't seen for a long time.

What is Reading? Speed Reading Drudgery Reading.

Given a store of cognitive, knowledge and information in our cortical main frame, reading essentially is nothing more than relating the unknown to the known. A physical process (visual) is connected to a neurological process (the afferent neural system) leading to an intellectual process (cognition).

Reading is a succession of high speed Word Recognitions (re-knowings by way of a variety of graphic clues inherent in the printed words), recognizing the inherent information encoded in the conformational graphic patterns and in the represented speech sounds by way of the neural system, and matching that information (placed in graphic form by the writer) with our own cognitions of the information. The same cognitions of both the writer and the reader have been developed in their winds originally either from having read and comprehended them before, or from having comprehended them from speech and bearing.

It can all happen seemingly with the speed of light, as in the case of speed reading, wherin Word Recognition becomes Paragraph Recognition, Whole Page Recognition, and perhaps Whole Chapter Recognition. The speed reader is so knowledgable (cognitive) about the content, concepts, and language on the printed pages, that the smallest clues, no more than a glance per page perhaps, remind him of everything both he and the writer know (have cognized) in common about the subject matter. At times, the reader may know more about the content than the writer, even. He can read an entire book, magazine article, or a series of newspaper articles (as examples), merely by skimming and scanning, fanning through the pages rapidly, slowing down only for inconsistencies or poor writing styles.

On the other hand, Word Recognition, and the entire reading process may be a matter of word-by-word drudgery. In such cases, it all depends upon the reader's language experience, the quality of the "link" established, and how much cognition (knowledge) the reader brings "to" the page to be matched with what the writer puts "on" the page.


From attempts to pronounce-out words and word parts for recognition purposes, by syllables and other sound units, arises the need for teachers to say "sound-it-out" to a young student having difficulty with a word. Even though, in reality, few of our English words are sound-out-able because of the way we spell them, much energy is spent in pronouncing-out activities behind classroom walls the world over, in the form of the last resort, "sound- it-out" reaching techniques.

The technique may succeed with phonetically-spelled languages, but with the English language, it is rarely productive. Generally the technique is disappointing to the teacher, and confusing to the word-troubled learner.

Actually, only the people who already "know" the words can sound them out, generally the teachers. Think about it.

The Weakest Links in School: Books and Dictionaries.

The need to sound out words, and the almost irresistible compulsion to say "sound it out" to a young reader having trouble with a word, finally comes to a focus on the devices used by the editors and publishers of both school books and dictionaries as aids to sounding-it-out: Pronunciation guide notations, those unusual markings before, after, above, below, and between the syllables of dictionary words, which we all wonder about. Like sounding-it-out, only those who don't need it, can do it.

Traditionally, these notations serve two purposes: The first is to prescribe the "correct" pronunciation of words, a noble purpose. The second is (or should be) to aid learners in determining sounds, stresses, and syllabication of words and word parts to aid in word recognition, and thus in reading and language learning.

The Weakest Links:

In time, as both the teacher and the learner become aware of how the learning link, between printed words and the cortex, relate to the learner's reading and educational progress, they also become aware of both the importance, and the weaknesses of the traditional pronunciation guidance systems used in school books and dictionaries.

For instructional and learning purposes, those aids to pronouncing out (sounding out) word parts for general learning and reading purposes, the traditional diacritical markings are the hidden weakest links in all of our school books and dictionaries.

Typically, the pronunciation recommendations are useful to capable learners and readers; but the notations designed to lead the pronunciations, as well as to "sounding-it-out" in the reading instruction setting, are not consistent or standardized. The diacritical markings used vary from one publication to another, and regularly fail to help the struggling reader-learner determine the sounds of word components and the sounds of whole words.

This weakness in diacritical markings occurs because of their non-alphabetical nature, because of their inconsistency among publications, because of the number and variety of symbols used, and because of the general unfamiliarity with the system, as contrasted with the alphabet, which many children know "by heart", long before entering first grade.

Reading Failure - Learning Failure.

The ability to sound-out words and word components is a critical skill needed at a critical time in the earlier learning-to-read stages of a child's education. Largely discarded as a reading technique as the learner becomes more proficient, it can be a part of the "learning bottle-neck" phenomenon. Sounding out is necessary to establish word recognition, understanding, comprehension, and further cognition.

In that sense, in the failure to provide good, clear, learnable direction for beginning and developmental learners to determine the sounds of words, the dictionary and school book publishing industries may be the most powerful negative contributors to reading failure, to school failure, to learning failure, and to our national illiteracy rates. (1,000-Word Study, 1976)

A Primary Goal and a New Dimension.

This weakness in school books and dictionaries leads to the primary goal of this spelling-pronunciation notation system. It is not aimed at prescriptive pronunciation guidance in the sense of teaching language users the proper pronunciation of words. That is an entirely different field of expertise. It is not aimed at spelling reform for spellers, writers, printers, and publishers to use in running text. Nor is it intended for use as a transitional, i.t.a.-like teaching alphabet. That approach proved ineffective, if not damaging. Rather, by the use of a more consistent, logical, alphabet-based set of pronunciation notations to make words more sound-outable for learners of any age, its goal is to improve literacy rates and school success by providing a much higher access factor in the development of reading and language learning skills.

The goal is to be accomplished in two ways:

First by gaining the wide acceptance and use of a more easily learnable set of symbols with improved symbol-to-sound relationships;

Second by eliminating the barriers of difficult to learn to read diacritical markings in school books and dictionaries, making the unfamiliarity of printed books much less formidable, and many words much more sound-outable.

No one will ever be urged to change his preference in spelling styles, however. The traditional spelling is an excellent one in all other respects. The goal is an added learning dimension for all language users.

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On other pages: Sounds part 2, List 1, Chart 1.