Teaching and Unteaching

I was talking with a student recently about the word family built on the base <mit>.


We created this word sum: <per + mit ➞ permit>. I asked him to look at the word <permit> and tell me if he knew that word.

He replied [pɝ] [mɪt] with a pause in between the two pronunciation. He said [pɝ] as in “per my instructions” and [mɪt] as in “my baseball mitt” with a pause in between and equal stress on both morphemes. He was doing a nice job of “decoding” each section of the word using “syllable division” techniques. But he couldn’t make sense of it, even when he put those two pronunciations together. It turns out he did know both pronunciations of <permit>, and what they mean, but he couldn’t make any sense of it by “decoding.”

So that led us into a discussion of the importance of stress in English words. Based on our discussion I felt comfortable that he was understanding the concepts as we worked through them and that our back and forth dialogue made sense as we compared and contrasted the words [ˈpɝmət] (“fishing permit”) and [pɚˈmɪt] (“permit me to assist you.”) (In those IPA representations, the stress markings in these words are the vertical lines just before the section of the word that we stress.)

Then we took a look at <present> (“We will present the team with their ribbons.”) and <present> (“Here is your birthday present.”)

I marked the stress on these two words like this:


The first word is the verb, where the stress is on the last vowel in the word — “I will present the ribbons.” The second is the noun where the first vowel is stressed — “Here is your present.” I pronounced these words, I had my student pronounce them and we talked about how we use the marks to show stress.

But at one point my student’s brow furrowed and his face moved close to the screen and I could see that he was intently studying those two spellings. I knew what was happening. I’ve seen it over and over again. I said, “are you looking at the two words to see if they are spelled differently?” He looked at me and nodded earnestly.

I told him, again, that the spelling of these two words is exactly the same. The change in pronunciation is not reflected in the spelling, because representing pronunciation is not the primary purpose of spelling. The type of systematic shift in pronunciation that we see in these words is critical to study if you want to understand how English works, and I’ll write about that soon, but the point I want to highlight right now is this: my student was doing exactly what he had been taught. He was trying to “decode” these words using the graphemes only, in the absence of any other information about our writing system. And when he tried to do that, he became confused.

He had been taught that we “encode” the pronunciation of a word when we spell, and since these were two different pronunciations, he was perplexed by the fact that they are spelled the same, even though we’ve been talking about the facts of English spelling for weeks, and he’s seen mounds of evidence to support the truth about our spelling system.

I spend a lot of my time unteaching kids what they’ve been taught about “decoding.” Let’s be clear that kids DO need to understand the relationships between graphemes and phonemes. But teaching them to “decode” first, in the absence of the framework for morphology and etymology, isn’t just a neutral thing.

It actually makes it much harder for kids (and adults) to see and understand how their writing system works.

Please contact me with your questions, comments, and reactions. I want to hear from you.