Monthly Archives: April 2016

Linguistics for Young Readers?

I was watching the one of the Turnitin Writing X Tech 2016 Webinars on Teaching the Writing Brain and I was shocked to see that the presentation included the words morphonemic as well as morphology and phonology. You mean linguistics might be useful for understanding how children need to learn to decode the written word? Shocking!

Spelling and Linguistics

FYI – The word morphonemic was related to the issue of teaching spelling. The presenter Virginia Berninger emphasized that children do need to understand that not only do prefixes and suffixes affect the meaning of a word, but can also affect pronunciation (as in the first vowel of nation vs. nation+al. She also mentions another controversial word, phonics, to illustrate that English spelling (“orthography”) is supposed to be phonetically based and that she recommend that children learn the phonological structure of English spelling alongside all of our native spelling system quirks (that is, orthographic awareness).

And (OMG!) you might want to consider word origin (etymology) when teaching spelling. That’s because English borrows a foreign language’s spelling rules when it borrows the words. Linguists definitely know this, but you don’t see this mentioned as a strategy except in spelling bee competitions.

Building a Communication Bridge

For me as a linguist, the idea of teaching children phonics, word structure and matching spelling quirks to pronunciation seems fairly obvious as is the idea that writing teachers should have some linguistic training. Unfortunately linguists and more traditional “English” teachers have often seen each other as the enemy, and I will admit to mocking bad prescriptive grammatical rules. As a result, I often see many language teachers (even foreign language teachers) discuss teaching “culture” or “ideas” instead of “grammar” (As if we can’t we teach both!)

While I sympathize with frustrated linguists, I have to admit we have done a terrible job of explaining how linguistics applies to real world teaching and writing situations until fairly recently. That’s why I’m so happy that a seminar for writing instructors included neurological research supporting basic linguistic analysis. Linguistics could be starting to enter the world of general academic knowledge. Even Grammar Girl sometimes even mentions linguistics in a positive light (you go girl).

For linguistics, I do think we need to work better to appreciate the role of traditional prescriptive rules. While it is important to understand the structure of non-Standard English dialects (e.g. AAVE (African American English), Southern dialects, etc), we have to acknowledge that linguists always write standard academic English in their journal articles. As with other educated speakers, linguistics have learned to write and spell in a particular fashion that is at least a little bit different from their spoken forms (unless they are speaking like Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory.)

Some traditional grammar instruction is needed, but we also need to help teachers understand the role of linguistics in teaching those who don’t speak Standard English at home or those who have a learning disability related to reading and writing. I hope research like this can help build that bridge.