IT'S A CONVERSATION about phonics at the mythical Dick and Jane Tavern.
Over imaginary beer and pretzels, I'm learning a good deal: McDonald's, the hamburger chain, is influencing the teaching of reading. "Srgis" is a perfectly logical way for a first-grader to spell "circus." Kids who write "thing" when they mean "think" are writing with a New York "accent." There's logic behind Baltimorese. And this newspaper isn't "dumbed down" as much as I thought it was.
The reading teachers take a poll. Which of the 26 letters is most likely to be the first to be studied in depth in beginning reading instruction? The consensus is M, and we can blame it partly on McDonald's.
Reading, they explain, is the translation of symbols - letters - into sounds, and what is perhaps the world's most common commercial symbol, if it isn't the Coke bottle? Breathes there a 5-year-old who hasn't passed beneath the golden arches numerous times?
There are other reasons for M's popularity. It's a consonant that's not likely to be confused with another letter. It's the first letter of "mother," "mom" and "mommy," among the first words children hear and speak. Unlike the pesky P, a voiceless letter sounded by expelling breath between the lips, M can be drawn out - "Mmmmmm." Kids can give it a good hear, and it has a delicious ring to it.
Finally, the letter's two humps (or peaks) are symmetrical - there's no chance of reversing M, as there is with lopsided p or b. And M, unlike B, looks the same in upper and lower case. So let's hear it for good old reliable M.
Most of all, the reading teachers say, they try not to confuse kids who are learning to read by concentrating on letters that make similar sounds, sometimes called "cognates" - G and K, for example.
"I saw a journal entry the other day where a kid named Jeremy meant to write `think' but spelled it `thing,'" says one of the reading teachers. "Then later in the same paragraph, he spelled `circus' `srgis.' I knew right away what was happening. He was writing what he was hearing, and his spelling was perfectly phonetic. Some teachers call this invented spelling and rail against it. But it's nothing of the kind. It's interpretive spelling, very logical spelling. It's the same thing New Yorkers do when they exchange G's and K's in their conversation: `runnink' on empty."
What are some of the other cognates? I want to know.
B and P, V and F, Z and S, the teachers say. The substitution of "zink" for "sink" in Baltimorese, they say, isn't an accident. It's because Baltimoreans confuse the voiceless sound of S, made by expelling breath across the top of the mouth, with the voiced sound of Z, produced by vibrating the tongue just a smidgen closer to the front of the mouth.
"Try it," says one of the reading teachers. I swallow and pronounce "z" and "s," noticing the subtle difference. "Sometimes," the teacher says, "one cognate can do the work of the other. For example, we make an S sound in words by doubling the `s,' as in `hiss.' But we make a Z sound by not doubling the `s,' as in `his.' Or we make the plural of `thief' by substituting `f's' cognate and making it `thieves.'"
There at Dick and Jane's, I realize how the spelling of words is at the beck and call of pronunciation, making the language sound better, making words easier to pronounce. It's a crazy, mixed-up language with lots of irregularities, but it has an interior logic.
It makes Y both a consonant and a vowel; the letter actually has six functions, and it gives up a seventh to "io" as in "onion." It's a language in which "ch" can sound like "k" as in "chrome" or "j" as in "spinach," a language in which "kn" in "knot" and "gn" in "gnat" make the same sound, in which "ed" sounds like "t" in "looked," like "d" in "waved."
Phonetically, says one of the reading teachers, you can use the letter combination "ghoti" to spell "fish": "gh" as in "tough," "o" as in "women" and "ti" as in "motion." No wonder kids get confused.
But, the reading teachers insist, there's rhyme (or rime) and reason to everything, and a teacher steeped in phonics has a window opened wide to the minds of 5- and 6-year-olds struggling with all this. Diagnosis of reading problems is much easier if teachers understand phonics, the teachers insist.
As we pay the bill at Dick and Jane's, I ask how hard The Sun is to read. One of the teachers says he applied the Fry Graph for Estimating Readability, a nationally known formula that is based mainly on sentence length and average number of syllables in words.
This page on a recent Sunday read at the level of a high school senior, he says. The editorial page had a slightly higher reading level, sports a slightly lower level.(I'm in debt to two reading experts for information in this column: Donald B. Hofler, professor emeritus at Loyola College, and Louisa C. Moats, author of "Teaching Reading IS Rocket Science," published by the American Federation of Teachers.)