The Challenge of the Squiggly Lines

Jan 11th, 2013 | By | Category: Visual Phonics

The Challenge of the Squiggly Lines

Providing staff development offers many opportunities to interact with educators. Some are willing to share their thinking during the training sessions via questions and statements that call for “clarification”. Some thoughts and/or questions reflect a sense of doubt or skepticism, while some are just searching for confirmation of their thoughts & ideas.

One of the concerns that is expressed during Visual Phonics trainings involves the thought that adding written symbols under print will confuse students, more so for those who struggle with the “code” of English and are already confused by the variability of the sounds that letters represent. This concern is logical from the perspective of educators whose concept of early literacy skills is founded in letter knowledge, with letter-sound knowledge in a secondary position of importance.

I have given this question a great deal of thought through the years. The fear of confusing students with additional characters in the print field would appear to be valid if students viewed both letters and Visual Phonics written symbols as the same kind of “squiggly lines” on the page. At first glance, both are squiggly lines that represent something and that is where the similarity ends.

The bottom line is that letters are abstract representations of the sounds of English – an arrangement of squiggly lines. Some letters can represent several different sounds, or even show up in single fashion or in combination with other letters and not represent sounds – acting as silent letters. For example, the letter A can represent three different sounds, Y four different sounds, and the letter O four different sounds, while the S, G and C letters can represent two sounds. Letters can also combine with other letters or double up to represent even more sound possibilities, as well as being silent in some words. Even in this incomplete list of letters that represent more than the “typical” sound(s) taught, that’s quite a bit of variability within the 26 letters of English! This variable transparency (transparency being the 1:1 correspondence between a letter and the sound it represents) of English letters results in a challenge for struggling readers, or those beginning to learn English, because the “squiggly lines” –the letters – aren’t consistently predictable. The “coup de gras” in English is the fact that the long OO sound (as in food and stew) is represented by as many as thirteen different spelling patterns!

Contrast the variable transparency of English letters to written symbols. While a letter can be considered to be a “symbol”, it doesn’t meet the primary characteristic of a true symbol – consistency. Every true symbol is singular in what it represents. Corporations and small businesses utilize symbols to “brand” themselves and establish a strong sense of identification no matter where their “symbol” is seen. For example, no matter where we are in the world, when we see the golden arches we know that we can get something to eat . . . anytime we see the red bulls-eye, we know we have found a Target store . . . the white swoosh symbol indicates a Nike product – no print is required to understand the representative meaning!

This same consistent, concrete representation is also present by design with the Visual Phonics written symbols – each symbol represents one sound and one sound only. There is no variability – the symbol for the long A sound looks the same whenever the long A sound is heard in a word, no matter what spelling pattern is present . . . the symbol for the long OO sound looks the same regardless of which of the thirteen different spelling patterns the symbol is coding. This concrete and consistent representation serves to clarify the sound-to-print mapping process instead of adding further confusion, and reduces the cognitive load rather than adding to it. A true example of “more is less”!

It has been said the sound, not the alphabet, is the root of language. Since this statement is counter to common belief in our educational system, a paradigm shift is needed. As Dr. Wayne Dyer has stated, “when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” And so it is with the squiggly lines – when we view letters as the primary vehicle to convey meaning in English, knowing that they are variable in what they represent, we may notice complexity and variation, and struggle is possible in the sound-mapping process. When we see Visual Phonics symbols in a print environment, knowing they are invariable and consistently represent one sound and only one sound that directly and accurately maps sound to print, we see simplicity and invariable representation – cognitive clarity.

Tranparency facilitates initial storage of sound mapping and automaticity of retrieval. When knowledge of what a letter or combination of letters represents is certain, the challenge of the squiggly lines fades and the ability to “break the code” of English becomes a reality.

© 2013  Dave Krupke  All Rights Reserved


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One Comment to “The Challenge of the Squiggly Lines”

  1. Ann Hughs says:

    You’ve made an excellent point about usin the written VP symbols!

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