Homophones and homonyms

28 May

Driving home from the airport yesterday afternoon I was half-listening to a programme on Radio 4 about the difficulty of teaching children to read, and spell, English. After a bit of background reading this morning, the problem appears to be that we are trying to teach more than 40 different phonemes (sounds to you and me) with an alphabet that has only 26 letters, with the result that two letters are often used together to represent a distinct sound (for example, gh, th and sh). This is compounded by English not using diacritics (accents, cedillas, umlauts, etc) that make a change of sound obvious.

The result is that English contains a lot of homophones – words that are spelled differently, and mean different things, but sound the same – for example, bow and bough, bred and bread, place and plaice, strait and straight, threw and through, waste and waist;  and homonyms – words that are spelled the same, but mean different things –  for example, bat (something to play a game with and a flying rodent), bow again (as in bow tie and bow and arrow), bustle (to hurry and padding worn by Victorian women), curry (to groom a horse and something to eat), organ (a part of your body and something to play music on) – or that are spelled the same, but sound differently – and now we are back to bow again (a decorative knot in a ribbon, or to bend from the waist).

There seemed to be a great deal of discussion on the programme about the  benefits of teaching phonics compared with those of teaching synthetic phonics (but, since there seems to be a crisis over childrens’ reading, it might be fair to say that neither is working). It’s a long time since I was taught to read – though clearly it worked – but I do remember that I could read by the time I went to school (at four), probably  because my mother used to sit to read a book with (not to) me. Perhaps that worked because I am visually-orientated (I still say that if I’ve seen a word written I can remember how to spell it), but I believe that children who learn to read and spell quickly do that through reading at home, not at school. This, of course, creates problems for children whose parents don’t read with them, because they don’t read themselves, or can’t read with them, because they can’t read English themselves.

Should we revert to the “cat sat on the mat” style of learning to read: a picture, written words, accompanied by spoken words? Or is that just too easy?

Today’s picture

I have been to Majorca in May before, but have never seen oranges on the trees. Are they early or late?




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