Phonics, Phonetics, and Variation
Posted by Neal on August 3, 2008
Wow, August. Why, it’s just about time for back to school. I finally got around to sorting through all Adam’s schoolwork from last year, throwing out the boring stuff that didn’t highlight his creativity or personality. One of the items that survived the culling was an illustration with the caption “When I am 100 years old…” He had completed the sentence with “I will be dead”, and drawn a tombstone. Another one was his personal timeline, with six milestones of his life illustrated on a big laminated piece of construction paper. Starting first grade is the last item; in the middle are a couple of family vacations and cat acquisitions; and at the beginning is “I was born”, illustrated with the story his mom tells him about the day he was born. Specifically, about how he peed on the doctor when he was lifted up. All the caption says is “I was born”; the rest is told in the full-color pencil-and-crayon picture. I can see from the fading on parts of the construction paper that this one must have been up on the wall on display for a while.
I poured a whole boxful of Adam’s less memorable schoolwork into the recycle bin yesterday, but I’m still hanging on to his spelling worksheets for a little while, because I’ve been curious about how a number of phonetic issues are handled in phonics-based instruction. One unit is called “Words with /ɘ/”, and it lists these words:
together, calendar, automobile, dinosaur, Canada, address, animal, simple, wrinkle, special, whistle, purple, tickle, blizzard, winter, summer, chapter, whether, wander, United States of America
I’m not sure I like the syllabic [l] and [r] sounds (as in tickle and whether) taught as a schwa. To me, lumping them with the unstressed vowels in dinosaur and Canada isn’t going to help kids get a fix on this vowel sound. (And in fact, I’ll have more to say about “r-colored vowels” in whether, are, and or on September 19.) However, I’m glad that the schwa at least has a unit to itself. I don’t remember learning about it until fourth grade, myself.
I was a bit surprised to see that there was a schwa unit, though, because some earlier units sometimes showed a lack of schwa-awareness. For example, the unit “Words with short I” lists village as having the short I sound ([ɪ] in IPA). Well of course it does, right? Village has a short I in its first syllable. Unfortunately, that’s not the short I they’re looking for. After Adam wrote it down in the section where he was supposed to write words that had the short I sound spelled with an I, he found he had too many words there. When I came over to help, I realized that they wanted him to write village in the section for words whose short I sound was spelled with an a, along with package. (Now that I recall, Doug fell into the same trap when he did this worksheet two years ago.) Who wrote this lesson, anyway? I tried to hear this person’s accent in my head, saying villidge and packidge. The kids who don’t share this accent have proabably had a hard time with this unit.
Then there’s the unit on “Words with Short U” ([ʌ] in IPA), which includes until in the list. In slow and careful speech, yes, this word starts with a short U, but in normal speech, it’s a schwa.
I had a problem with another unit on short U. This one focused on words with the short U sound spelled with an o, such as monkey, cover, and won. Wait a minute — won? I pronounce that one with a short O sound: [wan]. Sure, I realize that a lot of people pronounce it [wʌn], with a short U, but is my pronunciation so deviant that it would never occur to the lesson writer? Let me look it up and see…
OK, I guess it is; [wʌn] is the only pronunciation listed in my Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary and Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. But to continue with the subject of short O, I’ve also wondered about how phonics texts handled the cot/caught merger. For many speakers in the United States, these words are homophones, each containing the short O sound [a]. But for many other speakers, the vowel in caught is /ɔ/, which doesn’t have a “short” or “long” name in the phonics system, but is written as /ô/. It’s hard to choose a word that will illustrate this vowel for speakers who don’t have it, but I’m probably pretty safe in choosing awww (or even awwa). I think even people with this merger in place distinguish between Aww, how cute and Ahh, how relaxing. I personally have different vowels in cot and caught, as well as in Don and Dawn, but I’d begun to wonder how much I really preserved the distinction between these vowels. Certainly, I could distinguish them when there was a minimal pair of words like cot/caught and Don/Dawn, but for a word like dog, I just didn’t know what I say in ordinary conversation, or if I did, I still didn’t know which pronunciation a 100% [a/ɔ] distinguisher would use. After looking at the spelling lists for both vowels, I think my pronunciation matches what the sheets have. Here’s their list for short O:
hobby, wash, model, forgot, doctor, contest, object, o’clock, wallet, cotton, dollar, solve, watch, knock, problem, bottom, swallow, beyond, knot, hospital
And here’s the combined list of /ô/ words from two units:
pause, already, brought, strong, taught, caught, cause, because, wrong, coffee, bought, thought, author, applaud, autumn, daughter, gone, offer, often, office
All well and good for me, but what are kids with the cot/caught merger going to make of these spelling units? Never is there a hint on these pages that the reader might have a different pronunciation for a whole list of words.
Are any elementary school teachers reading this? How do you handle phonetic variation in a phonics curriculum?