Why Johnny Can’t Read is a rant, but the rant is justified if the ‘whole-word’ method was as dominant as the author, Rudolf Flesch, claims.
How infuriating that someone assumed, and led a whole country to assume, that because adult readers take in whole words in a glimpse when reading that that was how reading should be taught to children, rather than by sounding out the letters and letter combinations.
Flesch proposes that parents teach their kids at home using a phonetic system very much like the one I’m teaching now.
There aren’t any sticks measuring 36″, but that’s not what I’m talking about.
I’m talking about that area around your house where there’s grass and plants and trees. Maybe you have a fence, a driveway, a mailbox at the end of the driveway, and a doghouse or a swing set or a vegetable garden in the back behind the patio where you keep your grill.
Nope. Not in Singapore you don’t. Nobody has a yard here.
Nobody grills on his own grill in his own backyard; nobody owns a swing set; nobody’s dog has half an acre to run around in; nobody rakes leaves from the yard in the autumn; nobody’s mailbox sits on a stick among some rocks and plants; nobody’s teenage son gets paid to mow the grass with the lawnmower in the garage.
There’s no autumn, and the mailboxes are all little metal bins built into the wall in sets of ten or twenty in the lobby, and you park your cars— where else?—in the car park (assuming you can afford a car in the first place). In Singapore, you have to bid to buy the right to buy a car because the island has quotas on how many of each size vehicle there are.
My six-year-old students must think I’m omniscient. One of them asked me whether I could “spell all the words”. He wasn’t asking about all the words in the wordlist for chapter three, or something like that; he was asking about all the words in the English language. I think I said that I can spell a lot of words but not all of them because English has so many. Imagine believing that a language has a particular number of words and no more!
Two of my reading classes did the ‘i’ lesson today. I had to explain ‘chill’, ‘cliff’, ‘knit’, and ‘vanish’. At least a couple of kids in the noon class knew what a ‘vest’ was. (No, ‘vest’ doesn’t have a short ‘i’, but it is one of the words in the short ‘i’ lesson.)
I continue to be surprised by gaps in vocabulary. Plus, half the time, the gaps are gaps they don’t even know are there: when I ask what ‘knit’ was, they think it’s ‘neat’ or ‘need’. Today, they thought ‘vanish’ was ‘Spanish’ or ‘spinach’. Fake homophones abound.
A few weeks ago I was looking for a book on my language shelves. I noticed a book called A Study of Writing by I. J. Gelb. Separated from it by two or three books was another book (of a slightly different age and color, but identical size) called A Study of Writing by I. J. Gelb.
I had never before noticed that there were two copies of that book, not even when I arranged the language book shelves roughly by topic.
My immediate response was to remove the older copy. And to then insert it next to its duplicate on the shelf.
In October 2008, my husband successfully defended his PhD thesis in computer science. He was awarded a three-year fellowship at the National University of Singapore. His new job (along with a strong interest in foreign cultures) has brought us to the opposite side of the globe. We moved from New Jersey to Singapore, arriving October 22, 2008.
This is an articulate, entertaining, informative essay about Mandarin Chinese. You should read it if you are a Westerner living in Asia, if you are considering studying Chinese, if you liked the TV show Firefly, or if you have ever had any contact with one or more Chinese people from China. It will give you perspective.
I was once at a luncheon with three Ph.D. students in the Chinese Department at Peking University, all native Chinese (one from Hong Kong). I happened to have a cold that day, and was trying to write a brief note to a friend canceling an appointment that day. I found that I couldn’t remember how to write the character 嚔, as in da penti打喷嚔 “to sneeze”. I asked my three friends how to write the character, and to my surprise, all three of them simply shrugged in sheepish embarrassment.
In other words, the difficulty of the Chinese writing system makes the language hard for native speakers, too. Remember that next time you’re complaining about how ‘arbitrary’ English spelling is.