44to26

Why is this blog called 44to26?  To be honest, “doyoureadme” was taken on wordpress.  So I wracked my brain for a while thinking of other clever ideas to capture my obsession: relating oral language development to literacy, and all the possible bumps in the road that children may encounter as they learn to talk, read, and write.  Children start by learning oral language, which in English is made up of approximately 44 sounds, or phonemes.  Then, budding readers have to figure out how to match these sounds onto the 26 letters of the alphabet, hence 44to26.  This is no small chore in English, where some sounds can be represented by different letters (“k” can be written as c, k, ck, or ch; “ee” can be written as ee, ie, ea, y) and some letters make different sounds (g in go and giant; u in under and unit).  To make matters worse, there are diphthongs (two vowel sounds that are squished together, like in cow and boy), r-controlled vowels (as in bird and four), and the very-difficult-to-spell schwa sound (the vowel sound in weak syllables, like the second syllable of animal and the first syllable of again).  Admittedly, English is complicated; the orthography (correspondence between sounds and letters) is not very transparent. 

In choosing the name 44to26, I was also thinking of a fabulous resource, by Louisa Moats, a tireless and brilliant advocate for effective literacy instruction. Her book, Speech to Print, Language Essentials for Teachers (new edition coming in early 2020) really drives home the point that literacy instruction needs to build on oral language abilities. Understanding speech and language development is key to providing good foundational literacy instruction. Louisa Moats’s book is a really good read for someone without a formal background in linguistics or speech pathology.

The funny thing about calling this “44to26” is that there’s actually no consensus about how many phonemes there are in English, and of course the number varies by dialect. Most people agree on 24 consonant sounds, but even then, some add wh, a kind of h + w mashed together, in words like why and what. Apparently some people in Scotland, Ireland, and the Southern US still use this sound, while the rest of us pronounce whine and wine exactly the same. Personally, I think the only time I’ve heard anyone speak like this was the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, but then he also says “exacticickally” for “exactly”.

Less funny in Scotland, apparently

Things really get hairy with the vowels.  In my dialect, which is pretty much standard Canadian English, we have what is called the cot-caught merger, where over time, speakers have come to pronounce cot and caught with the same vowel, even though these are still two distinct sounds for some people.  Ok, down to 43.  And then we can include some, none, or all of the r-controlled vowels as in bird, four, car, ear, air, cure.  Then there’s the two types of long-u sound, as in boom (oo) and cube (yoo).  Does yoo count as its own sound, or is it y + oo or even ee + oo?  And then there the ultra-sneaky schwa, which linguists most certainly count, but does not appear on some lists designed by teachers of reading.

I asked my good friend and brilliant linguist, Marc Garellek, a more than qualified authority on the subject. He says that there are actually only 14 vowel sounds in Canadian English, that r-controlled vowels are not counted as distinct sounds, and that the (current) Wikipedia page has it right. So that puts us at 14 + 24 = 38. Hmm, not quite 44. This is no doubt accurate from the point of view of phonetics, but… I propose to sacrifice accuracy in the name of practicality, and include 3 r-controlled vowels, because that will really help us teach the reading and spelling of these sounds (er, ar, or). While we’re at it, let’s include the vowels from cot and caught (fox and saw in the graphic below), to include speakers of North American English who still differentiate these. So that’s 18 vowels + 24 consonant = 42 sounds. People who count 44 sounds probably include two additional r-controlled vowels, eer and air.

The 18 vowels of Standard American English, from Speech to Print: Language Essentials for Teachers,
by Louisa Moats.

So, of course, I obsessed for a little while about whether or not 44to26 was a good name for this blog, but I have since calmed down, taken a breath, and written this post explaining the muddiness of English phonology as it relates to our writing system. After all, the point is not to nitpick the number. The point is that we should teach young children that they must learn to hear the sounds of speech and learn how to assign letters to those sounds, not the other way around. The difference between these two approaches might sound inconsequential, but I assure you, it’s not. More on how the speech-to-print approach is applied to literacy instruction another day!

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