05 September 2008

Learning to give up...


I gave my class a group activity. Part of the assigned reading for the week had been a very small segment of Mark Haddon's brilliant book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. In the segment the narrator Christopher had mentioned his tutor, Siobhan.

So I put "Siobhan" up on the screen. "How is this pronounced?" I asked. "See-oh-ban" one student said. A number of others agreed. "Anyone disagree?" One woman raised her hand, "I think it's 'Shee-vahn,'" she offered. "That it is," I said. And now I turned back to those who had "sounded it out" incorrectly. "Imagine that I had come into class, pointed to you, and asked, "Tell us your view of Shee-vahn's attitude toward education?" You would have thought, "Who?" You would have been embarrassed. You would feel that the class was unfair."

Then I pointed out the obvious. Teachers do this to their students every day.

I continued. I gave them
a series of Irish names (place and person) to sound out:
Baile Atha Cliath




Dun Laoghaire

performing a simplified version of a simulation used by Florida State's Joseph Torgeson (who uses Hebrew).

Most of the students tried Baile Atha Cliath, none found their way to the pronunciation. One woman got Cobh by applying the lessons learned from Siobhan, but instead of encouraging the others this seemed to frustrate almost everyone else - they just could not see it. By the time we got to Comhghall, the entire class had given up, though one student, having been to Ireland, knew Dun Laoghaire, which brought looks of contempt from others not blessed with prior knowledge.

An unfair test? It's a different language after all, with different rules, the students couldn't be expected to be familiar, it's very hard.

Which, of course, was my point. It is very hard. And if we do not use every means possible to help students build their sight-word vocabulary, if we do not help level the field for those lacking certain resources (parents with knowledge, parents who can afford to supply resources, native skills for learning these tasks, etc), we make the teaching of reading not just something extremely difficult, but incredibly unfair.

This is why text-to-speech operating in a fully interactive, web-linked environment, is so essential from the very start of the reading process. It is incredibly important to connect spelling and the visualization of the word to the sound, and the sound to the meaning, because if we don't, reading becomes a worthless activity of assembling nonsense. And people do not put much effort into worthless activities. Instead, they give up.

So, stop asking, "When is it appropriate to 'give up' and give a student text-to-speech software?" Text-to-Speech software is an essential tool at every level of building reading skills. It is an essential tool for almost every student, making new vocabulary accessible, and helping students through the bizarre maze that is English language spelling.

- Ira Socol


Paul Hamilton said...

Excellent post, Ira! We need to do whatever we can to keep learners from giving up. --Paul

PS The clip from 'I Love Lucy' is wonderful. Thanks for sharing that.

Anonymous said...


Recently I had a chance to visit Greece. Being of Greek heritage on my dad's side, I had taken a year of Greek school back when I was in elementary school. Trying to pronounce the Greek words I saw on signs made me realize what it is like for student with decoding issues. I slowly sounded out each syllable (the multisyllabic words were the worst) and repeated the words several times until it made sense to me. Decoding and fluency were incredible struggles. I realized that that's what it's like every day for many kids in our schools.
As you note, text-to-speech levels the playing field and is a necessity.
The Lucy clip demonstrates the difficulty with our written language beautifully. (did you notice the twin beds?)
And finally, thank you for teaching me how to pronounce the name Siobhan. I've always wondered, but since it is such an unusual pronounciation, and I don't see the name often, I'm sure I will forget it. Which speaks to the need to offer repeated visual representations combined with the auditory text-to-speech.

Unknown said...

Paul, Karen,

When we have what is probably the most difficult alphabetic language to learn, you'd think we'd be delighted to be handing out every possible tool which helps, but I find that too few in education really see reading as "very difficult." They do not remember their own struggles - or were blessed with native skills. Switching the phonics (or alphabet) seems to help remind them. I'll do this simulation again.