Reading Magic by Mem Fox

Reading Magic promotes the idea of teaching literacy from the top down rather than from the bottom up. The author believes parents and teachers should start with stories, then sentences, then words, then letters; that children who can sound out words in a book but who don’t understand them aren’t reading, but that children who tell a story using the pictures on the pages to make their own meaning are.

Although I don’t think Mem Fox is all wrong, I think she’s misguided.

I definitely believe parents should read to their children, and that amazing, wonderful, terrific things can and do happen when reading is part of the family routine. “Read to your kids” is a message that deserves to be shouted from the mountaintops, and to be listened to and enacted.

However, while it may be the case that literate, supportive families can immerse children in books to such an extent that some bookwardly inclined children learn to read effortlessly and joyfully—accidentally, even!—at age 3 or 4, that is not a helpful one-size-fits-all solution to the general problem of literacy instruction, and in particular, encouraging children to interact happily with texts until they get the hang of reading is not a practical strategy that teachers can implement in their classrooms. Teachers really are better off with “letter A makes a as in ‘apple’, letter T makes t as in ‘table’, and when you put A and T together, you get ‘at’.”

The tone of the book is self-congratulatory and anecdotal; there’s no science or statistics here, so I don’t feel there’s much reason I should believe what Mem Fox has to say, even if it sounded intuitively correct, which it doesn’t; in fact it contradicts my experience as a reading teacher.

For more on what I liked and disliked about the book and why, see below.

Continue reading Reading Magic by Mem Fox

Possessive adjectives in child Singlish

The kids I used to teach had trouble producing the sound of short “i”. It comes out as long “ee”. (In linguistics, this ee and i are a tense/lax vowel pair.) Thus, as I tell new teachers during training, there are no fish in Singapore. They’re all feesh.

That means that “ship” and “sheep” are homophones. The fact that “ship” and “sheep”  are not actually the same word is really confusing to kids who are learning plurals and collective nouns (fleet of ships, flock of sheep).

Another significant effect of this problem is that “his” and “he’s” sound exactly the same. The obvious effect of this confusion is that kids often write one of these words when they should be writing the other one. The more subtle effect of this confusion is that kids sometimes assume that there exists a possessive adjective “she’s” which means “her”.

Here’s what they hear here:

He is a boy. That bag is he’s bag.

Therefore, by analogy, they want to say:

She is a girl. That bag is she’s bag.

I wish English were that logical!

I think (I hope?) most Singapore kids grow out of saying “she’s” as a possessive adjective but they don’t necessarily learn to pronounce lax vowels as lax vowels. The adults here also say “feesh”.

The “oo” in “moon” and the “oo” in “book” are another tense/lax pair, which explains why kids (and adults) say the word “book” with the vowel sound that’s in “moon”.

Update: More on the ship/sheep pronunciation problem.

Schindler Lifts

This is the sign in the lift at Huber’s Butchery and Bistro. (In Singapore, where elevators are almost universally called ‘lifts’ because that’s normal in British English.)

It’s a laugh-inducing shock when you see a sign saying “Schindler Lifts” for the first time, since what immediately springs to mind is Schindler’s List, the 1993 Steven Spielberg movie about a German who saved the lives of over 1,000 Jews during the Holocaust.

You brain goes: “Hey! That’s almost a famous movie title! Did they do that on purpose? Are they making a joke about the Holoc—Aw, it’s probably just a normal family name in Europe and totally a coincidence.” Which it is. But then you take out your smartphone and take a photo anyway.

Then you realize that hundreds of people on the internet have already done exactly the same thing.

And then you think, so what? It’s all been done. That doesn’t mean nothing is worth doing.

Randall has the right idea in this webcomic.

There will always be happy opportunities to share things with people who don’t know what you know, especially if you spend time around small children. Practically everything is new to them! That’s one of the joys of teaching.

I’m a little snowflake.

Sometimes alternative words to songs just come to me. Look what happened to “I’m a little teapot”!

I’m a little snowflake, perfect bright;
Don’t you dare insult or slight
Any little thing I do or say,
Or else I’ll make you rue the day.

I love children, but sometimes I do not love their parents. Never having been a parent, perhaps I shouldn’t criticize. On the other hand, most parents have never been teachers, and some of them make teachers’ jobs much harder…

(I made the illustration in Photoshop using a free stock image from Pixabay. The variety—and the tagging—is pretty pathetic, but sometimes Pixabay has exactly what I’m looking for. In this case, a photo of a girl wearing a suitably smug expression.)

Why Johnny Can’t Read

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.

Spell all the words!

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!

Short i

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.