I flunked my first “reading readiness” test, despite being the only kid in class who could read well. I missed a statistically improbable 29 out of 30 questions on the test–probably because the title of the test was “Reading Readiness Test” and I could not figure out what triangles, squares, spheres, and pattern matching had to do with reading words. Ironically, reading the only text on the test distracted and confused me.
I flunked my first IQ test, too. How was a child of the sixties supposed to know answers to questions like, “What color is coal?” Though I lived in a coal-producing state, I’d never laid eyes on a lump of coal. In response to my nearly being labeled an idiot, my father took me to the railroad tracks; even there, it was nearly impossible to find a lump of coal. But when he did, he put it into my hands and said, “Here, this is coal. What color is it?” I’ve never forgotten that. Ironically, no test since then has required me to know it.
While looking for ideas for today’s “N” post, I ran across lists of nonsense words. No, I don’t mean the rather extensive list of words that mean “nonsense,” but lists of made up words that are used to test children’s “phonemic awareness.” While this is potentially as confusing as the pattern matching test I flunked in grade school, it makes sense. It’s jabberwocky with a purpose. The idea is to focus on the phonemes, or sounds, and not the orthography (our weirdly inconsistent ways of representing those sounds in English). There’s some merit to the idea of separating phonemes from orthography in teaching.
Not only does it help young readers to decode words and guess at their meaning, a phonemic understanding of language helps writers to tap into the reader’s emotional response – and that is one of the keys to writing effectively. That said, it’s no substitute for the ear training that comes from reading aloud or singing to a child, sharing with them all the sounds, tones, and inflections that impart deeper meaning to the words.
Music is the universal language of mankind.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Some of the techniques writers use to do that include: accent, assonance, consonance, alliteration, cacophony, euphony, dissonance, onomatopoeia, dissonance, resonance, modulation, rhyme, rhythm, and meter.
Writers, and especially poets, “use a concentrated blend of sound and imagery to create an emotional response. The words and their order should evoke images, and the words themselves have sounds, which can reinforce or otherwise clarify those images. All in all, the poet is trying to get you, the reader, to sense a particular thing, and the use of sound devices are some of the poet’s tools.” (from “SOUND DEVICES USED IN POETRY: A List of Definitions”)
Put that way, how we spell it suddenly seems a lot less important than how we hear it when we read.