Posted on October 20, 2011 by


…It’s the most remarkable word I’ve ever seen.

I’ve been teaching English World level 1 to the first grade – kids who are 5 or 6 years old, and who are only just now learning the Georgian alphabet. (Well, formally, anyway… I learned to read long before I started kindergarten.)

As a preface to the rest of this story, I should reiterate what I said in my last post – Georgian students sometimes never learn the names of English letters, or sometimes learn them poorly, so that even some students who are really advanced in their English still can’t spell words using the English letter names. Particular trouble spots are r, y, and w, although g/j, a/e/i, and c/s also generate some confusion.

So anywho, we were introducing students to the English alphabet, and we started to play the English World Audio CD, and imagine my surprise when the voice on the CD said “ahh, ahh, ahhple.”

When I learned English letters we always learned the name. “A is for apple” is about as commonly known as any phrase in English, as is “C-A-T cat,” which is a canonical spelling example. So, aside from the British pronunciation of “apple,” which I can get past, there was also this distinct absence of the letter name. The issue continued: “buh, buh, bag. Cuh, cuh, cat.” The worst was the letter i – “Ih, ih, insect,” said the tape. “Eee, eee, eensect,” said the class.

I’ve been informed that the current thinking in teaching the alphabet to young learners is that if you try to teach them the names of the letters, they will get confused. To me, this seems really asinine. They’re going to learn to think of the letters by some name, and due to the insanity irregularity of the English spelling system, whatever that name is is going to be wrong at least some of the time. Whether they think of ‘a’ as ‘a’ or ‘ah,’ it’s still going to make it’s name’s sound sometimes – as in “ate” – and other times it’s going to make other, perhaps completely unexpected sounds. In fact, for any of the vowels, no matter what sound you pick to identify the letter, you’re going to be wrong more often then you’re right if you try to always say that sound when you see that letter.

And so given that the advantage conferred by picking one sound over another is minimal – calling the letter “ah” isn’t really going to help students pronounce words with the letter ‘a’ in them – and that the disadvantage is that the student now identifies that letter differently than every other speaker of the language except the small minority who have been victimized by this half-baked, ill-conceived inanity – I can’t understand why anyone would choose to teach “ah” instead of “A.”

With consonants, there’s a similar problem. Some consonants can’t be said without some kind of voicing (like voiced plosives, for instance) and even unvoiced consonants are generally easier to distinguish if placed in the context of a syllable, which by definition includes a vowel. The English World CD basically sticks an “uh” sound – somewhere between a schwa (like the e in mother) and the ‘u’ sound in “up” – at the end of each consonant.

In cases like ‘b,’ it doesn’t make any less sense to say “bee” than to say “buh” – both of those vowels have to be dropped when you’re sounding out a word. When you pronounce “bag” you don’t say “bee-ae-jee” or “buh-ah-guh,” you just say “bag.” The point is, if the name of the letter is really going to interfere in the pronunciation of words, it’s going to interfere regardless of the arbitrary name that you give to that letter or the arbitrary vowels that you stick onto it – so why change the name of the letter for the purpose of teaching phonology? It just makes everything else more difficult.

I do get that the current convention for letter naming in English may be suboptimal – for instance, letters like ‘p’ and ‘k’ have the sound they make at the beginning of their name, while ‘f’ and ‘r’ have the sound they make at the end of their name, and some letters, like ‘w’ (and ‘h’ in American English) don’t have the sound they make in their name at all. It’s just that I don’t view this complication as so onerous as to make it better to invent a whole new set of names to teach children, for the sole purpose of early childhood education, and which they will never use again in their lives for any purpose.

Anyway, this whole thing just seems really stupid – but then, I seem to learn differently than others and perhaps my intuition is useless. Perhaps students really do learn so much better using this new system that it outweighs the damage done by teaching them the wrong names for letters. I don’t know – is there some hidden advantage I’m just totally missing?

Video: In another failed experiment in teaching methodology, Big Bird was taught how to read without ever having seen the alphabet at all:

Posted in: What to Teach?