Phenome – one; phoneme – nil

The Australian newspaper has been running a teacher-bashing campaign for years – asserting that kids don’t learn to read and write because their teachers are crap or because they use a crap teaching method. Front page news today was an article by the Education Writer, Justine Ferrari, Teacher failures spell student trouble. Ferrari quotes one Denyse Ritchie, “executive director and co-author of THRASS (Teaching Handwriting Reading And Spelling Skills),” as saying:

“You can learn to read without knowing phenomics (the sounds that make up words), but when you spell, you have to have a good phenomic understanding to help spell words like said. “Unless you’re taught that ‘ai’ as well as ‘e’ can make an ‘eh’ sound in words like said and again, you will spell said as ‘sed’.
“But many teachers don’t have that inherent knowledge,”
The teachers’ phenomic knowledge was also tested. When asked to break words into the constituent sounds or phenomes – such as how many sounds in ‘cat’ (c-a-t) – the average score was 4.1 out of a possible 10 correct answers.

Who knows where the stuff-up occurred – Ferrari or a copy-editor using a mindless spell-checker. (Probably not Ritchie who charges $34.65 for a “Phoneme-Grapheme” Big Book on the THRASS website).
Whoever, whatever… it shows that linguists are not as good as geneticists at getting the jargon of our trade into everyday talk. The phenome outranks the phoneme. It’s symptomatic of our failure to get people to understand basic facts about language.

3 thoughts on “Phenome – one; phoneme – nil”

  1. Phenomes aside, what I object to most in this article is the way that it hints at the facile and widely held assumption that proficiency in spelling conventions is equivalent to proficiency in one’s own language. Or conversely, that bad spelling is an indicator of general dim-wittedness. I tell the students I work with that they should learn to spell because others will judge them by it, and that poor spelling says absolutely nothing about individual intelligence, motivation or creativity. I can’t find the full text of Marquez’ famous anti-spelling speech, but here is a link to the guardian article:,2763,1307325,00.html

  2. I agree with Piers Kelly.
    What we need is good teachers that have the knowledge to be able to teach spelling correctley.Too many younger teachers themselves have been schooled through the ‘invented spelling’ phase and as such do not have and have not been taught the spelling strategies needed to teach others to spell. Spelling is not about intelligence but how our brain takes in the necessary visual patterns needed to spell words. For those children who have held on to early visual patterns -that is ‘a’ is for apple they will always struggle with ‘was’ and will spell was as ‘woz-or ‘y’ is ‘y’ as in yawn, then words such as ‘my’ will be spelt ‘mI’.
    Denyse Ritchie

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