The irregularity of English spelling
Minimal Phonic Cues aims to provide an accurate means of representing the written word and its pronunciation at the same time. Many attempts have been made to do this, since spelling irregularities cause so much extra trouble to those learning to read English. The names of the letters have never been a great deal of help and nearly all teachers now use phonic sounds. The problem is that although simple sounds help in decoding many words, there are still difficulties with sounds made from two letters, like ‘ch’ and even more with the combinations like ‘igh’ and ‘tion’, and with the variable vowels such as the letter ‘a’ in hat, make, call calm, paw, pail and so on.
George Bernard Shaw tried to persuade us to adopt a new, simplified alphabet. As he said, you might say the imaginary word ‘ghoti’ spells ‘fish’-‘gh’ as in tough, ‘o’ as in women, and ‘ti’ as in action. More recently the initial teaching alphabet (i.t.a) was devised. This includes most of the lower-case English letters, together with a large number of new forms. While apparently giving help to many children and teachers, the great i.t.a. experiment has been criticised for the need to change to a slightly different script later and for not starting with normal English spelling. Various other ideas have been tried, including colour codes and diacritical marks over letters. In all these quite a lot has to be learnt before the system can be fully used, and no system gives a guide which is reliable for every word.
MPC, on the other hand, gives a reliable guide to every single word. It is not dependent on colour, it does not interfere with normal print and it is extremely simple and easy to use. There is no single, prescribed way of applying the scheme. Its use is determined by the methods of the teacher and the needs of the children. This flexibility is one of its greatest advantages, allowing MPC to be effectively used with a wide variety of ages and situations.
How MPC deals with spelling irregularities
MPC starts by analysing all the main English sounds and providing one symbol for each, without using any new letter-shapes (see Figure 1). Although both ‘c’ and ‘x’ can be represented by ‘k’ and ‘s’, and so are not really needed, they are included so that the whole alphabet is shown. Double letters (or digraphs) like ‘sh’ and ‘ng’ are linked by a slur e.g. ‘ ’, ‘’. The ‘hard’ vowel sounds are shown by a bar over the top e.g. ‘’, ‘’. The sound ‘ ’ has been included, because there is only one ‘r’ sound. The ‘si’, as in television, could be shown by ‘zy’ above it. The ‘cue-card’ below gives a picture as a guide or mnemonic for each of the forty-five sounds.
Once these basic sounds and symbols can be recognised and the skill of blending into words is acquired, there are only two other small signs to learn. Any English word can be decoded without difficulty. A cross is placed over silent letters, and a subsitution sound over any which cannot be regularised otherwise, e.g. ‘’. Though so simple, this works for every word.
The only other question is how to teach capitals. Many of them can be recognised by their similarity to the lower-case letters, and a substitution can be used to deal with the others, as in ‘’.
Dialect may cause some problems, mainly with the pronunciation of ‘a’ but MPC’s flexibility can allow for this.
Teachers in some places, for example, Scotland, may find that some of the vowels are marked in a way which does not correspond to Scottish children’s pronunciation. The ‘oo’ sound, for example in the word ‘good’, is more like ‘’ in Southern English and ‘you’ is also pronounced differently. The sounds ‘ur’, ‘or’, ‘au’ and ‘o’ may also cause some difficulty, probably because the ‘r’ is sounded so much more strongly in Scottish accents. Where such teachers are adapting MPC to suit their own needs, as advised here, they should use whatever parts of the scheme are helpful and modify those which are not. A slightly different cue-card, omitting a sound like ‘’ and perhaps altering ‘’ and ‘’, might thus be appropriate. When words are being marked in books, MPC can be used to make them sound as similar to the normal pronunciation as possible.
The main difference found in other English accents is between ‘a’ and ‘ah’ in words like dance, park and ask. Here the teacher should omit ‘ah’ from the cue-card if it is never used and, of course leave the ‘a’ uncued in words like dance. In the south one would cue ‘’ and ‘’ and soon on if this were found to help reading. No change in cues is necessary for other vowel forms, for example, if a Cockney child sounds ‘nice’ as ‘noice’ because the child’s response to ‘’ will always be read like ‘’, as it would be in normal script. Similarly, in the Midlands the common pronunciation of ‘but’ is more like the Southern ‘’. It need not be cued, however, because the response to ‘u’ will always be ‘’. The same applies to ‘mother’ which could be cued either as ‘’ or ‘’ if necessary.
Today accents are usually left alone so long as speech is clear and understandable. The influences of radio and television mean that extremes of accent making a person from say, Devon unintelligible in Yorkshire are rare. However if a child could only communicate with local people he would be at a disadvantage for educational purposes. However musical and interesting such an accent might be, the case for preserving it intact is not strong. Many children learn one accent for school and another for home.
MPC can help to define the sounds to be considered in any informed discussion of accent, though it provides no absolute pronunciation for them as does the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). This is thus a better system for dealing with details of accent.
Of a number of teachers who tried MPC throughout the British Isles very few reported any snags. The main comments were from Scotland, as outlined above. If there were too many difficulties of accent you might decide that MPC was inappropriate for your pupils. However, the flexibility of the system means that it can easily be adapted to suit individual requirements, or used only in part. MPC is above all, a practical aid, designed to be of the maximum possible use with the minimum amount of detail. Any cue can be used, so long as it enables the child to make a better attempt at recognising the word and pronouncing it in the way which is natural to him (Unless his normal speech is very defective).
One of MPC’s most useful features is the way in which it deals with combinations of two vowel symbols which can be sounded in various ways. Usually one of the letters represents the right sound in either its phonic or letter-name form. A cross or a mark and, occasionally, a substitution regularise all cases.
There are also many ways of pronouncing the same letter, e.g. ‘a’ and ‘o’ in Figure 3 ‘o’ is used in six different words with different effects. MPC makes it possible to regularise the pronunciation by showing how ‘o’ is sounded, either alone or combined with another letter.
Five different pronunciations of ‘ie’ are clearly shown in Figure 4.
Further teaching points
Figure 5 illustrates a variety of words and marks.
points can be dealt with using Figure 5.
1. Although this example is fully and logically cued throughout it is unlikely that any reader would need ‘the’ cued every time. Too many marks look confusing. However, if it is thought necessary to use cues on every word they should be faintly marked, so that they can be used if needed but ignored if not.
2. The cross which shows a letter is unsounded has been put over one of the repeated letters in ‘hill’ and ‘hurried’. Some teachers consider that this is unnecessary, as it probably is for word recognition. However, since using single instead of double letters is a common spelling fault, it is worth using the cross to help children remember which words contain double letters. It is also useful sometimes when marking passages for word study.
3. The cross for unsounded letters is also used to deal with the sound ‘schwa’ in the International Phonetic Alphabet. It cannot be designated using normal letter symbols, on which MPC is based, except possibly by ‘uh’. It occurs with several vowel spellings, but is more or less the same sound in children, to, the, correct, majestic and succeed, for example. The sounds ‘o’, ‘a’ and ‘u’ in correct, majestic and succeed do not really need to be cued because they are recognisable when the word is pronounced slowly and carefully and only change to ‘uh’ at speed. Because the sounds ‘e’ in the and ‘o’ in to are not like those in pen and top, they logically need cues (though these are among the first words to be learnt and should not need making for long, if at all). If consistency is necessary for word study the required effect will be achieved by putting a cross above the letter which is not to be sounded. ‘Th’,‘t’ and ‘children’ are how we really pronounce ‘the’, ‘to’ and ‘children’.
This is a practical help to those children who would otherwise pronounce every bit of a word and end up with something less like its real pronunciation. It has been shown to work well in practice, especially in longer words.
4. There are two regular spellings for the same sound in ‘ow’ and ‘ou’, ‘aw’ and ‘au’, ‘oi’ and ‘oy’. ‘Ah’ and ‘ar’ are alike in some accents and ‘er’, ‘ir’ and ‘ur’ are alike in most (except Scottish). Finer differences, not important for decoding meaning, are ignored in MPC. Because the system aims to simplify the initial stages of reading the cue-card shows only one symbol for each of these sounds. This should be learnt first and used to substitute over the others so that they can be learnt incidentally in the course of reading. ‘Er; and ’oi’ are definitely more common that ‘ir’ and ‘oy’. I decided to use ‘ow’ rather than ‘ou’ and ‘au’ rather than ‘aw’ on the cue-card, though since the word house is often used at an early stage some teachers might prefer to use ‘ou’ and ‘aw’. This isn’t really important. What is important is that one or the other should be chosen initially. The teacher can point out the similarity at a very early stage and stop using a substitution.
Substitutions may not be necessary for bright children who can soon learn several possibilities, but those who are slow or young will probably need them. MPC gives such pupils the smallest possible initial learning load so that the rest of the phonic work is encountered in the course of reading and can be learnt incidentally as far as possible. The MPC Spelling Workbook is designed to reinforce and consolidate these rules. Once they are known, the aid can be discarded. There is not a set scheme for dispensing with certain things at each stage because needs will vary from child to child and class to class. Completely individual discarding of cues would be difficult within a class, but children will neglect them when they no longer need them and so provide their own grading to some extent.