It's A Code            

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It's a Code

Reading is difficult for several reasons. One is that itís a code and the code is not transparent. The relationship between letters and sounds is not necessarily natural and in the English language the code is made extraordinarily difficult by exceptions and rules and rules that are exceptions to rules. And so even when youíve learned the code, you can end up not knowing how to pronounce something, not knowing how to sound something. So to begin with, weíve got a difficult code.  

Grover (Russ) Whitehurst, Ex-Director (2002-08), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Source: COTC Interview:  http://www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/whitehurst.htm#WhyisReadingsoDifficult

Orthography is Like a Big City

I look at English orthography perhaps as a tourist might look at a beautiful big city like Paris. Hereís a city laid out with Baron Haussmannís wide avenues converging on a circle at the Arch de Triomphe. But then there are a multitude of side streets and dead end alleys and other patterns that intersect, interrupt, and occasionally complement. And I see the same thing in the orthography. In the same way the orthography has old and new. We have all these new spelling patterns for words like inputted and formatted. We use letter names like x-ray in words. At the same time we have good old Anglo-Saxon words like cow and sheep and raven and French borrowings in the same way that Paris has the newly remodeled Pompidou Center, the Foundation Cartier, other examples of modern and post-modern architecture along with the older parts of the city.    

Richard Venezky, Past Unidel Professor of Educational Studies and Professor of Computer and Information Sciences, and Linguistics at the University of Delaware. He is the author of The American Way of Spelling: The Structure and Origins of American English Orthography. Source: COTC Interview - http://www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/venezky.htm#OrthographyBigCity

Important Distinctions in Orthography

Well, Iíd say maybe the first and most important thing is that the orthography is structured. Itís not a chaotic mess, itís not this damnable collection of accidents and historical mis-readings, but there really is a patterning there if youíre willing to tease it out. But that patterning derives from the fact that we have fifty some sounds and only twenty-six letters. So we have to adopt a whole variety of mechanisms to close the gap. One mechanism, very simply, is that we have two-letter and three-letter functional units, so if you want to understand how the orthography works first you have to define what the minimal units are, what I call functional units. Things like TCH and DG and CH and SH, where you couldnít derive the sounds they have from the sounds of their constituent parts. Thatís as small as you can get for those units. So thatís one factor.

Another factor is that, like many of the romance languages, we use what I call markers quite extensively. Markers are letters like the silent, final E, the U in guide, the doubled consonant in running, that themselves have no sound but point out how to pronounce something else or preserve a graphical pattern.

Another factor, going back to these functional units, is that some of them are what I call complex and some are simple. What that means is that spellings such as DG and CK and TCH and even X, when they have a single letter vowel spelling before them, that vowel spelling will always be pronounced with its so-called short pronunciation because these spellings operate as replacements for either two sounds like X or for a double spelling: CK is a replacement for KK, TCH is a replacement for CH doubled, and DG replaces GG. On the other hand, spellings such as SH and CH are simple. So in a spelling such as ache, the E signals a long vowel pronunciation of the A, while in a spelling such as axe, the E doesnít signal a long pronunciation because the X is complex.

Another factor that has been pointed out for at least 200 years is that English, unlike Spanish and Finnish, tends to preserve the spelling of meaningful units with affixation and compounding, up to the point where translation to sound breaks down. As others have pointed out, we have electric and electricity, even though the C has two different sounds, and sane and sanity, even though the A has two different sounds. The 'C' and 'A' are retained in the spellings even though they change their sound values.  This preserves the visual identity of the morphemes or meaningful units. English tries pretty hard to do this but doesnít always succeed. But nevertheless, itís a fairly modern principle that derives more from the 15th century than it does from the Old English period.

Richard Venezky, Past Unidel Professor of Educational Studies and Professor of Computer and Information Sciences, and Linguistics at the University of Delaware. He is the author of The American Way of Spelling: The Structure and Origins of American English Orthography. Source: COTC Interview - http://www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/venezky.htm#importantdistinctions


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Dr. Grover (Russ) Whitehurst  Director, Institute of Education Sciences, Assistant Secretary of Education, U.S. Department of Education
Dr. Jack Shonkoff Chair, The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child; Co-Editor: From Neurons to Neighborhoods
Dr. Edward Kame'enui Commissioner for Special Education Research, U.S. Department of Education; Director, IDEA, University  of Oregon
Dr. G. Reid Lyon  Past Director, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH)
Dr. Keith Stanovich  Canadian Chair of Cognitive Science, University of Toronto
Dr. Mel Levine Co-Chair and Co-Founder, All Kinds of Minds; Author: A Mind at a Time, The Myth of Laziness & Ready or Not Here Life Comes
Dr. Alex Granzin  School District Psychologist, Past President, Oregon School Psychologists Association 
Dr. James J. Heckman Nobel Laureate, Economic Sciences 2000; Lead Author: The Productivity Argument for Investing in Young Children
Dr. Timothy Shanahan President (2006) International Reading Association, Chair National Early Literacy Panel, Member National Reading Panel
Nancy Hennessy  President, 2003-2005, International Dyslexia Association
Dr. Marilyn Jager Adams Senior ScientistSoliloquy Learning, Author: Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print
Dr. Michael Merzenich Chair of Otolaryngology, Integrative Neurosciences, UCSF;  Member National Academy of Sciences
Dr. Maryanne Wolf Director, Center for Reading & Language Research; Professor of Child Development, Tufts University
Dr. Todd Risley  Emeritus Professor of Psychology, University of Alaska, Co-author: Meaningful Differences
Dr. Sally Shaywitz  Neuroscientist, Department of Pediatrics, Yale University, Author: Overcoming Dyslexia
Dr. Louisa Moats  Director, Professional Development and Research Initiatives, Sopris West Educational Services
Dr. Zvia Breznitz Professor, Neuropsychology of Reading & Dyslexia, University of Haifa, Israel 
Rick Lavoie Learning Disabilities Specialist, Creator: How Difficult Can This Be?: The F.A.T. City Workshop & Last One Picked, First One Picked On
Dr.Charles Perfetti Professor, Psychology & Linguistics; Senior Scientist and Associate Director, Learning R&D Center, U. of Pittsburgh, PA
Arthur J. Rolnick Senior V.P. & Dir. of Research,  Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis;  Co- Author: The Economics of Early Childhood Development  
Dr. Richard Venezky  Professor, Educational Studies, Computer and  Information Sciences, and Linguistics, University of Delaware
Dr. Keith Rayner  Distinguished  Professor, University of Massachusetts, Author: Eye Movements in Reading and Information Processing
Dr. Paula Tallal  Professor of Neuroscience, Co-Director of the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience, Rutgers University
Dr.John Searle  Mills Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Language, University of California-Berkeley, Author: Mind, A Brief Introduction
Dr.Mark T. Greenberg Director, Prevention Research Center, Penn State Dept. of Human Development & Family Studies; CASEL Leadership Team
Dr. Terrence Deacon  Professor of Biological Anthropology and Linguistics at University of California- Berkeley
Chris Doherty  Ex-Program Director, National Reading First Program, U.S. Department of Education
Dr. Erik Hanushek Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Dr. Marketa Caravolas Director, Bangor Dyslexia Unit, Bangor University, Author: International Report on Literacy Research
Dr. Christof Koch Professor of Computation and Neural Systems,  Caltech - Author: The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach
Dr. Guy Deutscher Professor of Languages and Cultures of Ancient Mesopotamia, Holland; Author: Unfolding Language
Robert Wedgeworth  President, ProLiteracy, World's Largest Literacy Organization
Dr. Peter Leone  Director, National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice
Dr. Thomas Cable  Professor of English, University of Texas at Austin, Co-author: A History of the English Language
Dr. David Abram Cultural Ecologist and Philosopher; Author: The Spell of the Sensuous
Pat Lindamood and Nanci Bell  Principal Scientists, Founders, Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes
Dr. Anne Cunningham  Director, Joint Doctoral Program in Special Education, Graduate School of Education at University of California-Berkeley
Dr. Donald L. Nathanson  Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Jefferson Medical College, Director of the Silvan S. Tomkins Institute 
Dr.Johanna Drucker  Chair of Media Studies, University of Virginia, Author: The Alphabetic Labyrinth
John H. Fisher  Medievalist, Leading authority on the development of the written English language, Author: The Emergence of Standard English
Dr. Malcolm Richardson   Chair, Dept. of English, Louisiana State University; Research: The Textual Awakening of the English Middle Classes  
James Wendorf  Executive Director, National Center for Learning Disabilities
Leonard Shlain Physician; Best-Selling Author: The Alphabet vs. The Goddess
Robert Sweet  Co-Founder, National Right to Read Foundation

FULL LIST OF OVER 100 COMPLETED INTERVIEWS

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The Children of the Code is a Social Education Project and a Public Television Series intended to catalyze and resource a social-educational transformation in how we think about and, ultimately, teach reading. The Children of the Code is an entertaining educational journey into the challenges our children's brains face when learning to read. The series weaves together archeology, history, linguistics, developmental neuroscience, cognitive science, psychology, information theory, reading theory, learning theory, and the personal and social dimensions of illiteracy. 


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