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Mispronunciation Leads to Poor Writing


Q. A political candidate keeps saying "WARshington" in his radio ads, instead of "Washington." It makes him sound stupid, since he's pronouncing an extra letter in a word that's obviously not there. Why are even well-educated people so sloppy in their pronunciation these days?


His speech is reflecting the erroneous reading and writing instruction that has become so common in our schools over the last several decades. That instruction ignores or minimizes phonics -- the power of our sense of sound - even though sound is preeminent in the English language.


Many words appear to be spelled funny to today's students, but the truth is, people in the olden days used to pronounce their words much more accurately, and so today's relaxed, casual pronunciations leave letters out that used to be distinctly pronounced.


When schools ignore the sounds that the letters make in pronouncing words, and instead seek to teach students how to read and write in silent mode, using their sense of sight and that's about it, they are setting kids up to be poor spellers and poor writers.


Since children don't "hear" the letters individually and precisely, they are more prone to reverse their order, leave letters out, and put letters in that shouldn't be there. Result: pronunciation errors. Of course, that's natural in the toddler years. It's cute to hear a small child say "pa-sketti" for "spaghetti," and so forth.


But when mispronunciation is not corrected, and language isn't taught with the tools of decoding and understanding that come from making the correspondences between words written with letters in a particular order, and the sounds they make when spoken aloud, then both spelling and reading comprehension suffer tremendously. The brain is literally not "remembering" words correctly, because it didn't "hear" them correctly in the first place.


The same thing goes when a person says "nu-cu-lar" for "nuclear," "aks" for "ask" or "ree-la-tor" for "realtor." The technical term from linguistics for what they are doing wrong is metathesis, or transposing sounds. It wreaks havocs with everything from your spelling, to your ability to persuade others in meetings and speeches, to other people's opinion of your intellectual ability.


Where does mispronunciation come from? A lack of listening skills caused by the failure to teach children to use sound in language. Coupled with the over-reliance by grade schools on teaching kids to silently sight-read instead of sounding out words, it's easy to see how mispronunciation can become so habitual.


You can't pronounce what you haven't heard. It's tough to spell a word that you don't "see" clearly in your mind's eye, because it isn't stored accurately in your memory banks. It isn't, because for decades teachers have not been teaching students how to read and write based on sound. Until they do, many people will struggle with mispronunciation.


And that's a . . . durn shame.


Homework: The best way to help a child pronounce words correctly, which leads to better spelling and reading comprehension, is to talk to the child a lot, and face to face. Let the child see your lips as you speak. Concentrate on making your own pronunciation crisp and clear. Here's just one more reason among many to minimize or ban TV: kids learn to mumble, mispronounce and slur their words because that's all they hear on TV.


By Susan Darst Williams Writing 15 2008


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