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  • Phonemic Awareness

The Connection Between Speech and Print

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Produced by Reading Universe, a partnership of WETA, Barksdale Reading Institute, and First Book
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Louisa Moats: It takes a lot of instruction and practice to get a literate person to really be able to separate their thinking about speech from their thinking about print. Big irony is that as we become literate, our knowledge and awareness of speech in print becomes so intertwined, so amalgamated in the words of Linnea Ehri and David Share and others, that as literate adults, we lose the ability to put ourselves in the position of the child who's coming armed with oral language who doesn't yet relate it to print. So we tend to think about and talk about everything in terms of the print that we already know as literate adults. So it's absolutely predictable ... if I'm with an audience, no matter whether it's teachers, parents, whatever, and I say, okay, everybody, I'm going to say a word. I want you to hold up the number of fingers that show how many speech sounds there are in this word.

And what always happens is a vast array of difference. So I say a word like quick, okay, how many speech sounds in this word? I get [Dr. Moats holds up two, then three, then four fingers] all across the audience because people don't know and they don't know because they're trying to think ... they think about how you spell it, but they really don't separate their awareness of /q/, w/, /ĭ/, /ck/ in the word quick. And then they'll say, well, what isn't 'q', 'u' one sound? I say, well, 'q', 'u' isn't a sound. That's two letters. But if you forget what you know about spelling and you think, well, let's see, we have a word kick. We have a word wick. So if we say quick, what's happened there in the beginning of that word? We've taken those two consonants that are in wick and kick and we've put them together. And it so happens that in English, we are using 'q', 'u' for that combination now instead of 'c', 'w' the way they did in 1500.

So, the problem is that you're approaching this as a task of teaching about the print before you've taught about speech. And that print was invented to represent speech and there are all kinds of historical events that interfered with the design of our writing system that made it something other than one sound, one letter. The most wonderful thing that a teacher can do is really put themselves into the mind of that student and understand because they've had training in language processes and they are aware of what is in speech and what is in print, and how these two need to get matched up, that they can really respond to the student and student's behavior and the student responses in a way that will make sense to the student. And when I see that happening, it's so thrilling when the teacher really can put themselves into the mind of the learner. It's the most thrilling thing to see because you can see the communication going on. And all I can think about is all the times I didn't do that when I was teaching kids because I didn't know enough to know any better and all the stupid things I said, but that's where we want our teachers to get.

Reading Universe is made possible by generous support from Jim & Donna Barksdale, the AFT, the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, and three anonymous donors.

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