Volume 7 • #7 • July/August 2007


Somewhere between 3000 and 10,000 years ago, mankind started feeling the  need to write things down.  It occurred when  hunting was replaced by agriculture and people began to have excess food. Of course if they swapped goodies, they had to keep track of whether they were being snookered because somebody’s memory might be wrong. Art was already in full flower , so it was easy to sketch a bird if you wanted to write bird.  But even after sketches were simplified, only the Chinese and Japanese retained a pictorial method of writing, and in a modified form it is retained  in these countries to this day.

The rest of the world gradually invented an alphabetic system in which the individual sounds in a language were each assigned an abstract squiggle so you could line up the squiggles in the right order and produce a word that everybody could read who knew the trick.  It was incredibly efficient. Most languages only have between 20 and 30 separate sounds in them, so all you had to do was memorize their squiggles and you could write every word in the language!  The idea of using a single sound instead of a whole picture and giving each its own abstract symbol is now called phonics.  So phonics is a handy dandy sound-symbol matching  invention that has been around for many thousand years.

In ingenuity and importance, however, it ranks right up there with the invention of the number system, which has only 9 digits, but with which you can write the biggest number you have paper and ink for. The trick here is the number’s location, just as the trick in writing is the assignment of an abstract sound to a squiggle. Any time you don’t appreciate the beauty of the place value system in math, try multiplying MXXCI  by  CCXI.  Now you know why the Romans were not mathematicians.  (By the way, phonics only works for language sounds.  You can’t spell the sound of a book dropping on the floor or a lawnmower next door on Sunday morning.)

So phonics is nothing but a neat way to make information available later on for people who didn’t hear it the first time. Science has nothing in the world to do with it.  7000 years ago the subsistence farmer on the Tigris river who cooked up the scheme was not much of a scientist.  Yet you hear the author of every phonics program today insist that his is  “science-based” because some geniuses in Washington have decided that they can only use No Child Left Behind money to pay  for “science-based” programs. 

Reading from Scratch, on the other hand, really is based on scientific research, but it is not the phonics.  It is the lateralization technique developed in neurology labs a few years ago which controls the delivery of the lesson to dyslectic readers that make it science-based -- -- and four or more times faster than just ancient and honorable phonics.

Any stand-up comic knows that it isn’t just the words in the joke that make it funny.  It is how you tell it.  Right?

Teaching tip:  It’s summer and I can’t concentrate. Maybe in September. 




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