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Squiggles and Sounds: how I discovered phonics.

by Irina Tyk

My father was English and my mother was Russian. This fortuitousness of romance gave me an unusual opportunity to learn to read a language, the English language, that comprises 26 letters of the alphabet and 44 sounds. Russian has as many sounds as letters. In Russian, one letter denotes one sound, albeit there are two letters in the Russian alphabet whose sole function is to turn the sound of the preceding letter into a soft or hard sound. It is always the same. Letter to sound correspondence in Russian never changes. English, of course, is a very different matter. How could it be otherwise when a smaller number of letters denote a larger number of sounds?irina

Like most children, the first word I learnt to recognise was my own name. I first learnt to read my name in Russian. Soon afterwards, I learnt to read it in English. My delight in the discovery that each Russian squiggle in my name matched each English squiggle in my name remains fixed in my mind to this day. It is my earliest memory.

The relationship between letters and sounds led me, many years later, to write The Butterfly Book. As the Headmistress of a school that welcomes children at the age of four, I wanted to provide them with a method of learning to read that avoided the hit-and-miss of popular reading strategies and instead set out a reliable and objective template that set out the specific letter to sound correspondences of the English language. Notwithstanding the relatively few familiar exceptions of English pronunciation, the fact remains that most words can be decoded by reference to the 26 letters of the alphabet that correspond to the 44 sounds of the English language. So it is that some letters have to do the work of more than one sound, which is usually denoted by other letters with which they are paired.

If one were to start again, having 44 letters for 44 sounds would have been a better idea. That, of course, would be to remove language itself from the modifications of history. History is not an option! That is why our language has fewer letters than sounds.

The distinguished historian of culture and art, Sir Ernst Gombrich, wrote in a chapter entitled I C-A-N R-E-A-D in his book A Little History of the World:

“Isn’t that amazing. With twenty-six simple signs, each no more than a couple of squiggles, you can write down anything you like, be it wise or silly, angelic or wicked. It wasn’t anything like as easy for the ancient Egyptians with their hieroglyphics. Nor was it for the people who used the cuneiform script, for which they kept on inventing new signs that didn’t stand for single letter sounds, but for whole syllables or more. The idea that each sign might represent one sound, and that just twenty-six of those signs were all you needed to write every conceivable word, was a wholly new invention, one that can only have been made by people who did a lot of writing. Not just sacred texts and songs, but all sorts of letters, contracts and receipts.

These inventors were merchants. Men who travelled far and wide across the sea, bartering and trading in every land….

Nor did they ever feel cut off from home, because they could write letters to their friends in Tyre and Sidon, using the wonderfully simple script they had invented, which we still use today. It’s true! Take this ‘B’, for example; it is almost identical to the one used by the ancient Phoenicians, three thousand years ago, when they wrote home from distant shores, sending news to their families in those noisy, bustling harbour towns. Now you know this, you’ll be sure not to forget the Phoenicians.”

Phonics, phonetics, Phoenicians! How appropriate it is that the Phoenicians were the first to place the alphabet at the heart of language and writing. Most modern alphabets are indebted to the Phoenicians.

Nowadays, in an age when reading and writing have been transformed by information and digital technology it is all too easy to think that a system of reading and writing that goes back as far as the Phoenicians is largely irrelevant. The language of texting and messaging can seem far removed from traditional ways of reading and writing that are encoded in the 26 letters that stand for the 44 sounds of the English language. Even the corruptions and shortcuts of language that are so ubiquitous in our digital culture do not diminish the fundamental importance of an alphabet that observes rigorously the integrity of reading and writing by reference to a fixed code of squiggles.

The symbiosis of language and culture is undeniable. The corruption of language changes the way we think and changes the way we read, write and communicate with one another. A rational approach to the teaching of reading is an effective antidote to the irrationality of popular culture. A child who learns to read by nothing more difficult than learning a code of 26 letters that make 44 sounds imbues the young mind with a model of intellectual discovery that is best suited to the disclosures of history and the discoveries of science. The child who is told that learning to read is hit-and-miss may well conclude that knowledge itself is hit‑and-miss. Nothing could be further from the truth!

24 June 2015