Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Alphabet behind the Alphabet

Yesterday I saw a toy marketed to help really young Chinese students learn the alphabet. It was some plastic thing, designed to look both like a computer with no monitor and a book simultaneously, decorated with the Happy Sheep found all over everything else (giving way only to Mickey and his pals). On its "verso page," the vowels and consonants of English were separated out, with each letter given a sample word. Some of the diphthongs were also included. Fine, fine, good. But then I noticed that each letter and diphthong included its representation in the phonetic alphabet. "It's very helpful for Chinese," Hanna said. "Students can learn the sounds." What I'm wondering is, shouldn't one alphabet be enough? If we assign a representation to a representation of a sound, how many layers of understanding do students have to go through before they can read? Often I see in students' books select English words written out phonetically, usually in a hand not their own. I want to shake their parents and teachers. Don't add any more abstraction!

1 comment:

  1. I've been thinking about the phonetic alphabet a lot over the past few days. It's actually really helpful, yeah, when you're moving between a lot of languages, but for little kids who haven't even learned their first language's characters yet, Jesus. What I hope for anyone who uses this toy or any like it is that the parent, who might not know English pronunciation, is able to help their child, in which case the phonetic alphabet aids the parent-teacher. It also helps teachers in the classroom—for example, which /oo/ am I talking about? But student focus should be on associating the letters with sounds so that they can read most any new word they come across.

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