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Say, Say, What does this say?

Your Humble Blogger was a Beginning Reader once, believe it or not as you like, and just at the right time for Hop on Pop, the simplest Seuss for youngest use. In due time, the book was purchased for my Perfect Non-Reader, and is being enjoyed by the Youngest Member (who loves to shout No, Pat, No! Don’t sit on that! as loud as loud can be). This note is not about how wonderful that book is, but about how…interesting written English is.

You see, for many years, YHB’s mother would say, when the subject of HoP came up, which was quite often, in fact, as she is now a grandmother of six, that what she always appreciated about the book was that all the words could be sounded out by the letters, with the exception of night and fight. I accepted that this was the case during my years as an uncle-but-not-yet-father, so I was surprised to notice, when reading the book over and over and over and over again to my Perfect Non-Reader, back in the early part of the noughties, that it was false. Right at the very beginning, after pup and cup, comes house and mouse, with their silent e. Not that I should properly hold my mother to an observation made from memory and all, but there it is. And the silent e is more common than the silent gh, but it is still silent, and not amenable to sounding out.

We’re talking, by the way, about the big boldface words at the top of the pages. For those who do not have a copy to hand, a page will have two or three such words, a sentence using them, and an illustration. The sentences, of course, have some tricky words, but as one is teaching a child to read by the endorsed combination of phonics and whole word recognition, the point is that one can sound out the headwords as a key to the page. Right? And most of them (there are 68 of them, at a quick count) are easy to sound out, but there are four which are not.

Except that I was reading the book to the Youngest Member today, and noticed that there were th words, too. Now, it’s not that I think that the phonics system can’t handle th combinations (or sh or ch, for that matter), but it falls into the category with silent e and silent gh, requiring more than just a simple letter-to-sound correspondence. And I had not noticed it at all. I had been reading the thing with the idea of that letter-to-sound correspondence in my mind, noticed the mouse/house problem, and totally failed to spot the th issue. In about a million times through the book. Including the page that has the words tree and three in big bold letters, one right under the other.

And then, when I sat down to write this note, and went through to count the boldface words and look at them carefully, and went through them again to make sure I wasn’t missing anything, that’s when I noticed that walk and talk each has a silent l. How many times have I looked at those words, specifically thinking about the letter-to-sound correspondence, and not had an alarm go off?

Perhaps this is just me, and the way I think of things. I learned to read very young, and mostly the whole language way, which (at least in my case and my vague sense of what people say about it) makes for lazy readers who just recognize words rather than read them, if you know what I mean. Perhaps somebody who learned under a stricter phonics method would have spotted the lot of them immediately. Perhaps somebody who battled dyslexia would have spotted them immediately. But I couldn’t. And I’m not absolutely certain that there aren’t more still that I haven’t missed.

By the way—yes, I know that vowels throw off that whole letter-to-sound combination thing. Is the second e in see silent? And there are song and long, with that ng issue. And the ck in snack and black. And if you count Mr. and Mrs. as headwords, then you really are up the proverbial without a whatnot. But I’m not counting them, and ck doesn’t have a silent letter any more than the ll in ball. So there.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,