Posted by: janecronin | August 14, 2016

Learning to read


You may not remember how you learnt to read.  I was of the “Janet and John” generation, when reading was a question of looking at the pictures and recognizing words.  I remember that “boat” and “ball” figured quite highly, although I still don´t understand why on earth Janet said “Look John, see the boat”, a sentence I have never heard in real life.  Later on teachers seemed to be obsessed by those dreaded “spelling tests” when you had to learn all sorts of strange rules in little rhymes and then find out that there were loads of exceptions.

English spelling is so bizarre and unpredictable that different generations have been experimented on in different ways.  People about 20 years younger than me (I think) were taught a different kind of alphabet which spelt words phonetically and was supposed to help early reading skills.  The only problem with that is that we now have a whole generation of people who are unable to spell properly, alongside the rest of us who are still waiting for someone to say “see the boat”.

These problems do not exist in Spanish as it is a language whose written code reflects the sound of the language phonetically.  This means that, provided we learn the sound that each letter represents, and a couple of extra rules here and there, we always know how a word should be pronounced by looking at it and spelling ceases to be an issue.  The biggest problem a Spanish person has is knowing whether to add a silent “h” to a word, or whether something is spelt with a “b” or a “v”.

Reading in Spanish is therefore taught completely differently as well.  The first thing very young children learn is to write the five vowels: a, e, i, o u, which, incidentally, they learn in the “joined up writing” form with little tails ready to lead to the next letter.  Once they’ve mastered those five letters in crayon, plasticine, paint and glitter (and in one of my daughter’s case, a fancy dress costume) they then move on to the other letters, but always connected to a vowel.   In other words, instead of learning the letter “b” in isolation, they learn ba, be, bi, bo, bu as syllables or parts of a word.  Thus, when they come across a word, such as “mesa” (table) they automatically read it as  two syllables “me” plus “sa” which they then unit into the word “mesa”.

It really is that simple to read in Spanish.  This means that when we come across a new Spanish word, instead of taking a kind of flying leap at pronouncing it in one breath, as though we were expected to recognise it, all we need to do is break it down into its component parts and pronounce it syllable by syllable.   You’ll be amazed and how well this works!

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