By Frank Smith
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The fact that you need to know what a word might be in order to make sense of phonics is employed in some of the more sophisticated attempts to develop rules for transforming written language to sound. Some linguists, for example, recognize that spelling to sound correspondence rules are easier to apply if the meaning of words is taken into account. They point out that the different role of the th in father and th in fathead is easy to detect if it is taken into account that father is one word and fathead two.
We all experience it occasionally when we try to read or pronounce unfamiliar long words, especially in a foreign language. The same difficulty arises when we cannot get past the middle of a complex mathematical formula, or fail to remember completely a new address or telephone number when we have nowhere immediately convenient to write it down. In each of these cases the kind of memory that seems to be overwhelmed is not the memory that we call on when we want to recollect something that happened days or months ago.
The appropriate pronunciation will be produced only 25 per cent of the time. This is the fallacy underlying phonics the belief that there actually could be a set of rules that work efficiently to decode written language into sound. The computers that appear able to do this do so largely by recognizing whole words. I am not trying to exaggerate. The spelling to sound correspondences of English are so confusing that in my judgment children who believe they can read unfamiliar words just by 'blending' or 'sounding' them out are likely to develop into disabled readers, the type of secondary students who are condemned for being 'functionally illiterate' because they do exactly what they have been taught and try to read by putting together the sounds of letters.