Why don't we use 'magic e' any more?

(115 Posts)
Pozzled Tue 30-Apr-13 19:23:35

And is it a problem if my child is taught in that way? I'm not very impressed (especially when I've already taught her 'split digraph') but want to know if it really matters.

RodEverson Fri 03-May-13 17:51:11

At least 3,700 common English words have such unpredictable letters in them.

I agree, Masha, that English spellings are "unpredictable" at least in the sense that there are many words that can't be spelled correctly just by listening to the sounds and converting them to associated spellings. However, statements like you made above are routinely made by others to discourage phonics instruction by implying that it's a futile effort.

But English spellings are hardly random. Nearly every English word is 100% spelled by an acceptable pronunciation of a limited number of letters and digraphs. Teach a child the acceptable pronunciations for each letter and digraph, and he will be able to learn most of his eventual reading vocabulary on his own.

There are probably less than a few dozen words that have spellings unusual enough to confuse a child who has been taught the phonics code in a good phonics curriculum, the word "eye" being a prime example.

Rod

RodEverson Fri 03-May-13 17:34:07

I pronounce it Choob and chuesday etc. I don't know anyone who says tube!

I think this discussion illustrates the difficulty of discussing accents in print, without being able to hear what we're actually saying.

I'm betting that you're pronouncing "tube" with a long-u sound and are attempting to say: /t/ue/b/, which comes out more easily as "choob", whereas I pronounce "tube" as "toob," converting the u-e split digraph into an /oo/ sound in some words, as do most Americans. Two different approaches to the same problem, i.e., that /t/ue/b/ is somewhat difficult to articulate.

When teaching an American child the phonics code, I always present the /ue/ sound first, and then the /oo/ sound, since over here every spelling of /ue/ (u as in unit, u-e as in cute, ue as in cute, and ew as in few) can also represent /oo/ sounds (truth, tune, clue, and chew are all pronounced with /oo/ here, not /ue/). I then instruct the child to always try the /ue/ option first, for they will automatically default into the actual pronunciation when the /ue/ sound is difficult to say, but the reverse is not true.

Thus, "tune" pronounced with a long-u will easily default to our typical pronunciation, toon. The reverse is not true. If a child tries the /oo/ sound first, "cute" will come out "coot" and sometimes, as with "coot," the result is a real word. In the grand scheme of things it's a minor issue, but add enough minor issues up and you can get a mess. Like telling a child an ending "e" is "magic," or "silent," or even "bossy" as someone else has mentioned. (Which is where this all started.)

Think about that for a minute. A child being taught to read by two parents and two grandparents simultaneously could be being told four separate explanations for the ending "e" (It's bossy, silent, magic, or a split spelling of a digraph you've already learned.) The real failure of English phonics instruction is the failure to standardize instruction, as amply illustrated by the various controversies that have arisen in this thread.

Rod

RodEverson Fri 03-May-13 17:12:50

Well, that's interesting, Rod, because in GB English words like 'picture' and 'feature' are commonly said with the 't' as a /ch/. 'Choob' sounds unusual to GB English ears because we don't say 't' as /ch/ at the beginning of words, but the Scots (who the poster was referring to) do.

I am always very wary of Phonics being used as 'elocution lessons' though I do encourage "Say it in a 'spelling voice" for words where pronunciation and spelling have diverged very dramatically.

Hi maizie,

Taking your last point first, why be "wary of Phonics being used as 'elocution lessons'"? Someone else made the point that we send kids to school to become educated. Certainly, learning to pronounce words in a more broadly accepted form should be part of any decent education. This is in no way meant to denigrate a local accent, but that's what they are, local. Once outside the local area, retaining a local accent will definitely serve many people poorly, especially if they attempt to get work in certain fields requiring a lot of verbal communication with customers or strangers.

As to words like "picture" and "feature," and I would add, "statue," I long ago decided in my curriculum to not treat these as pic-cher, fea-cher, and sta-chew. Ironically, it was a British contributor to a forum who convinced me. Instead, she maintained that both "ture" and "tue" should be thought of--for both spelling, and for understanding their phonics structure, but not for speaking--as having long-u sounds (which I indicate as /ue/, as in the word "cute".)

Since then I have always taught "statue" as sta-/t/ue/, and "stature" as sta-/t/ue/r/, and have explained to every child that the precise pronunciation of these two endings is a bit of a tongue twister, but that they should think of them in that manner for spelling purposes. This simplifies matters by gently forcing the pronunciation of those endings into already-taught code. Ditto for words like "fortune" (for-/t/ue/n/).

In fact, as I think it over, it's actually the /ue/ sound that complicates the pronunciation of "ture," "tue," and, I suppose, the British "tube." In the U.S., we've converted the long-u to an /oo/ sound in words like "tube" and "tune" and say "toob" and "toon" instead to avoid the tongue-twisting.

The /ue/ sound is a dipthong ending in the /oo/ sound, but the onset of that dipthong is difficult to pronounce after certain consonant sounds, like /t/ and also /d/, so /t/+/ue/ tends toward /ch/oo/, and /d/+/ue/ tends toward /j/oo/, just because of how the onset of the /ue/ sound pulls our jaw forward. At least that's how it feels to me.

Rod

bigbuttons Fri 03-May-13 16:15:19

I pronounce it Choob and chuesday etc. I don't know anyone who says tube!

maizie I am SE England and say Chuesday (Tuesday) and Choob (Tube).

maizieD Fri 03-May-13 11:32:51

This would be preferable, for example, to introducing the letter "t" as an acceptable spelling of the /ch/ sound in "choob" (tube). Better to think of "choob" as "tube" when spelling it.

Well, that's interesting, Rod, because in GB English words like 'picture' and 'feature' are commonly said with the 't' as a /ch/. 'Choob' sounds unusual to GB English ears because we don't say 't' as /ch/ at the beginning of words, but the Scots (who the poster was referring to) do.

I am always very wary of Phonics being used as 'elocution lessons' though I do encourage "Say it in a 'spelling voice" for words where pronunciation and spelling have diverged very dramatically.

KindleMum Fri 03-May-13 10:46:31

very trivial question - but am I the only one who has "bossy e", rather than "magic e"? DS is in Reception and had to move school during the year as we moved area but both schools called it "bossy e - makes the letter say its name". Same as magic e obviously.

scaevola Fri 03-May-13 10:30:06

And you don't need to "rote learn" variant spellings such as those you list.

You do need to learn which part of the phonic code applies, and that's not the same as when rote learning genuinely applies (whole word approach, or in character-based languages such as Chinese).

scaevola Fri 03-May-13 10:27:15

Yes I know ITA is a phonemically regular way of rendering a language into 'regular' written form. It is however disastrous in producing competent readers of the written English language as it actually is.

Spelling reform is a whole different topic. And for children learning to read now, not a relevant one.

Mashabell Fri 03-May-13 07:34:20

Scaevola

ITA is a more consistent way of spelling English, but with some letters which are not on the normal keyboard. None of the long vowels were spelt with 'magic e' but with one symbol for them, a bit like we do with ee, oo and ou, but joined together (maed, biet, noet, tueb).

Many schools used ITA for the first year of literacy teaching in the late 60s and early 70s, in the belief that if children grasped the idea of using an alphabetic code with regular, easier spellings, they would be able to cope more easily with the irregularities of English spelling afterwards. It enabled children to make much better progress during that first year, but when they had to switch to normal spelling in their second year, many regressed severely, particularly in writing. (Many secondary teachers now claim that too much phonics is having the same effect on spelling.)

The ITA experiment proved that children would learn to read and write more easily and much faster if English spelling was made more regular, if it was properly modernised. But using a regular system for a year and then switching back to traditional spelling is unhelpful.

Phonics refers to the code between the written language and the phonemes of spoken language.
Mastering that code is the way to escape word-by-word rote learning.

That works well with reliable codes, like Finnish, Spanish or Italian. Learning to spell English necessitates much word-by-word rote learning of spellings because several sounds have highly unreliable codes,
e.g. air: care, bear, there, their; ee: seek, speak, shriek, seize, concede...

At least 3,700 common English words have such unpredictable letters in them.

scaevola Fri 03-May-13 07:07:38

Euphemia my apologies, but other posters have confused the two. And as ITA and IPA are nothing like each other (except for including symbols not in the usual alphabet) I did read as another example.

And it's an important point, as it is what means that phonics (based on phonemes) does work across all accents (differences phonetic).

As RodEverson points out, without phonemic awareness, decoding is impossible.

Mashabell Fri 03-May-13 07:01:12

Dear Rod
I also had to learn the lesson about not linking to my own material, or even mentioning it, the way u did.
And some time ago, I also made much the same statement about accents as u have above and was abused for it by some posters.
But isn't the desire to prevent children picking up the local accent, or have it trained out of them, one of the main reasons why many parents pay to have their children privately educated?

RodEverson Thu 02-May-13 22:31:48

Of course. My pupils would think I was bonkers if I affected an RP accent, whilst trying to convince them to try to pronounce "pool" and "pull" differently, or "whether" and "weather" identically! They already think it's pretty funny when I say "tube" correctly, rather than just "choob".

Accents do present a problem when trying to associate letters/digraphs with sounds. I don't think the issue is one of trying to get a child (or adult either, for that matter) to pronounce a word without the local accent. Instead, the issue is to get him to think of the word without the local accent, both for spelling purposes, and to make sense of the spelling of the word within the phonic structure. This would be preferable, for example, to introducing the letter "t" as an acceptable spelling of the /ch/ sound in "choob" (tube). Better to think of "choob" as "tube" when spelling it.

Beyond that, it seems to me that retaining a strong local accent can hold back a person later in life if it's perceived to be a sign of poor education. Teaching a child to pronounce words in a more broadly-accepted accent is both possible, and in many cases, desirable. Going with "choob" for "tube" later in life could close some doors in the future, I would think.

Rod Everson

P.S. Earlier in this thread I apparently violated the terms prohibiting advertising in posts. I wasn't aware that one isn't supposed to link to relevant information on one's own website. The intent wasn't to advertise a product, but rather to share what I'd already written, but I'll avoid such links in the future and I apologize for any irritation I caused.

Euphemia Thu 02-May-13 19:54:24

My point was about the symbols used, not phonetic vs. phonemic. I'm well aware of the difference.

scaevola Thu 02-May-13 19:42:12

ITA wasn't phonetic - it was phonemic

The differences between accents are phonetic (ie you make different sounds in different accents), but the underlying phonemes remain the same (the 'units' of sound continue to make meaningful differences between wor irrespective of accent).

Phonics refers to the code between the written language and the phonemes of spoken language.

Mastering that code is the way to escape word-by-word rote learning.

Mashabell Thu 02-May-13 19:32:59

Sorry
Johnson then made matters worse (not than). - I've no idea how that crept in. Except that a few centuries ago they used to be interchangeable, and I've been reading some old texts again.

Mashabell Thu 02-May-13 19:28:38

As a foreigner learning English in the 1960s, I was taught the 'open' and 'closed' vowel system, rather than 'magic e', meaning that when a vowel and a single consonant are followed by another vowel, the first vowel is long (sole, solo, hale, halo, tube, tubular). Two consonants, by contrast, keep the vowel short (hollow, hallowed, tubby).

Many hundreds of words conform to this system. Unfortunately quite a substantial number don't. Lots have a redundant -e (have, gone, are, imagine - cf save, bone, care, define). Many more don't have a doubled consonant after a short vowel (poppy - copy, ballad - salad, merry - very). So the system is not really all that systematic, thanks mainly to Sam Johnson who did not like to make words from Latin roots conform to English spelling rules.

It started well originally, but early printers (16th C) were paid by the line and often added extra letters (fisshe, shoppe). Most were dropped again in the 17th C, but those that escaped that cull have remained. And Johnson than made matter worse.

It would be very easy to make this area more orderly, and learning to read and write much easier than it is, but that does not seem to interest many people, and so the poor kids have to put up with lots of rote-learning word by word. Masha Bell

mrz Thu 02-May-13 07:11:07

As the number of phonemes varies across the UK most schemes seem to have opted for 44 sounds (Jolly Phonics only has 42) but as in the case of loch it's relatively easy to teach the sound as same spelling alternative sound and to teach <w> and <wh> (there is a difference even in my NE accent although not so pronounced) as representing different sounds to fit regional variations.

Euphemia Wed 01-May-13 21:35:19

RP is the logical choice as a starting point, it would have been silly/impossible to try to come up with a scheme that covered all accents. It would end up like the IPA - indeed some of my colleagues were taught to read in the 1960s via the Initial Teaching Alphabet, which used similar symbols. They told me that they had to do a lot of re-learning to be able to cope with reading and producing real texts. Nightmare.

maizieD Wed 01-May-13 21:24:57

They already think it's pretty funny when I say "tube" correctly, rather than just "choob". smile

Agreed!

But at what stage do you 'give in' and start teaching that /f/ can be spelled with a 'th' (as in 'fing', 'fought', 'fink' etc.) grin

maizieD Wed 01-May-13 21:21:42

It's not surprising that most phonics programmes tend to reflect what might be considered to be 'RP' as most of the programme developers are English, and Southern English, to boot. However, for a teacher who understands the main principle behind them, i.e that you are teaching the 'sounds' and the way they are represented by a letter or letters, then it is no problem to teach to the accent, as I'm sure that Euphemia knows.

Though I can see that it is a bit annoying when some correlations are missing altogether.

Euphemia Wed 01-May-13 21:14:57

You should teach the sound/spelling in the child's accent not in RP.

Of course. My pupils would think I was bonkers if I affected an RP accent, whilst trying to convince them to try to pronounce "pool" and "pull" differently, or "whether" and "weather" identically! They already think it's pretty funny when I say "tube" correctly, rather than just "choob". smile

teacherwith2kids Wed 01-May-13 21:00:32

Yes, but sometimes the 'grouping' of graphemes (as in, which are alternate encodings for the same sound) are different for different accents. Some which sound the same in RP are different in some local pronounciations, and vice versa. It doesn't affect the initial 'grapheme / phoneme' correspondance, but it can affect which are regarded as alternate spellings and which as different sounds. (Ie a Scottish teacher would not group wh and w together as alternate spellings for the same sound)

mrz Wed 01-May-13 20:54:48

You should teach the sound/spelling in the child's accent not in RP

Euphemia Wed 01-May-13 20:49:05

I'm talking specifically about current teaching schemes.

Join the discussion

Join the discussion

Registering is free, easy, and means you can join in the discussion, get discounts, win prizes and lots more.

Register now