Introducing: Phonicizer!

Many different strategies may be employed when designing programs for the public good, but the most obvious involves simple charity. However, perhaps even more effective and certainly more efficient is education. Language education in particular can have very far-reaching benefits as it facilitates other forms of learning. For example, imagine taking a college-level biology course without a good technical vocabulary or the ability to read fluently.

When the English language is an educational target, the most obvious difficulty that must be overcome by young children and non-native speakers alike is its complicated and unreliable spelling system. Certainly, proper spelling is difficult for adult native speakers, but the problem is most glaring when one examines the time required for a learner to attain competency in written English. In fact, an appalling number of Americans never acquire this basic competency. According to a 1993 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, 21 to 23 percent of the adult population is functionally illiterate.

Although the spelling system is full of inconsistencies, the vast majority of English words really can be "sounded out" using regular rules of phonics. Literacy problems can often be traced back to the perception of written English as a jumble of words, each with its own particular spelling that doesn't necessarily have much to do with its pronunciation. If spelling and pronunciation are viewed as two distinct aspects of a word that must be memorized separately, then the task of learning to read or learning English as a second language is greatly augmented. In order to deal with unfamiliar words encountered in writing, learners must perceive a connection between sound and spelling.

Over the past few years, I have perfected a system for marking English text in such a way that the appropriate pronunciation is indicated simply and clearly, without the use of diacritics or other such devices that would alter the overall shape of a given word.

Guidelines for Marking Text:
  • Letters making their normal, default sound should be unmarked. To keep the system from getting overly complex, differences in consonant voicing (such as "sss" vs. "zzz") and certain minor vowel differences should be ignored.
  • All silent letters should be faded out (usually to a mid-gray). Whenever a letter may or may not be pronounced (such as the "t" in "match" or the second "l" in "bell"), it should be marked as silent. This reduces the number of letters a learner will have to a pay attention to when reading a marked text.
  • When a syllable takes some level of stress in a given word, its main vowel(s) should be boldfaced. A completely stressless syllable (such as the "a" in "about" or the "er" in "water") should never appear in boldface.
  • Letter combinations with a special pronunciation (such as "sh" and "ee") should take a solid underline.
  • Letters that don't make their normal sound but instead use some secondary pronunciation (such as the "soft C" or "long A") should take a dotted underline. Combinations with a secondary pronunciation should include this dotted underline below their solid underline.
  • Any letter or combination requiring some unusual pronunciation not listed in the key (such as the "o" in "one") should be italicized. Abbreviations and initialisms should be italicized and boldfaced.
  • Wherever possible, marking should facilitate the discovery of consistent patterns. Where redundancy occurs in the spelling and it is unclear which letter(s) should be marked as silent, the first such letter should generally carry the pronunciation.

To see this system in action, visit L7 Phonicizer and enter a sentence such as "That beautiful bird has only one egg." A set of the most common English words has already been entered into a list specifying how these words should be marked, so this sentence should appear fully marked for pronunciation after you hit the "Convert Text" button. However, any word not in this list will have to be coded overtly, as shown below.

How to Code Pronunciation:
  • Letter combination: enclosed in curly braces ({}), underlined
  • Secondary pronunciation: followed by a carat (^), dotted underline
  • Other pronunciation: followed by two carats (^^), italicized
  • Syllabic with stress: followed by a tick (`), boldfaced
  • Silent: followed by a tilde (~), faded

If such markings were added to early educational texts across the U.S., the benefit to our society as a whole would be enormous. Because the South has such a high proportion of native Spanish speakers studying English as a second language, this region should see a particularly substantial increase in literacy. Moreover, if these ESOL learners are led to discover the systematic correspondence between written and spoken English, their acquisition of the spoken language will be greatly accelerated. And nothing opens the doors of opportunity faster than the ability to communicate clearly, both in speech and in writing.

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