English Pronunciation & My Schoolhouse Time Machine


Forestdale Schoolhouse, RI

Linger a moment in schoolhouses past

A couple of enjoyable weblinks on English pronunciation crossed my path this week. The first is an intriguing poem, “The Ultimate English Language Test,” posted at Edudemic.com, and the second a pronunciation dictionary, howjsay.com, featured as refdesk.com’s “Site of the Day.”

These got me to thinking: how much do native speakers of English learn about pronunciation at any level of schooling? I know it must be covered to some degree, but I admit I am skeptical of how well it’s working. In part because, I believe, of the jettisoning of phonics in elementary education, I taught some community college students for whom I was embarrassed when they tried to read aloud a few lines of Shakespeare. It is no exaggeration to say they couldn’t sound out the words and thus could not read them. This is, of course, a tragedy in itself, and I felt sorry for the students. While these were not the best students in the class (and that may have been due to their early reading instruction or lack thereof), I don’t think it’s radical to argue that any high school graduate should be able to read.

And thus I ponder literacy and K-12, and at times like these I consult my little time machine, my 1889 fourth-grade reader (Indiana School Book Company), for a blast to the curricular past.

That small book puts a great deal of emphasis on pronunciation and the spoken word. Phonetic symbols are used, and scattered through the reader at regular intervals are drill exercises in pronunciation. Kids had to recite words “in concert”; they also were introduced to poetry such as that from Longfellow and Wordsworth, and sometimes were instructed to memorize and recite verse.

Aaaaargh!, today’s education establishment would cry. Drills! Memorization! What could be worse? But this reader demonstrates that an emphasis on teaching pronunciation and recitation goes hand in hand with expecting a fairly sophisticated level of reading comprehension and vocal performance.

For instance, the book gives “Hints to Pupils” about “Vocal Training.” It advises

Think about the meaning of every sentence you read. Try to enter into the spirit of what you read, and read it so as to convey that spirit to those who hear you.” 


Try to form the habit of occasionally lifting your eyes from the book to look at the class or the teacher. In order to do this, as you draw near the end of a sentence or a paragraph, run your eye ahead of your voice, take in the words, and then repeat them while looking directly at those to whom you are reading.”

This encouragement to consider meaning, and inviting the child to consider audience, seem to be excellent ways to build confident, articulate young readers (and speakers). And I have to think young people of that era would be able to handle the Bard.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Are You Smarter Than a Nineteenth-Century Fourth Grader?

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Schoolhouse in Wheatland District #3, Garbutt

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I’ve got a (very fragile) fourth-grade reader from 1889 on my bookshelf.  I don’t want to go so far as to say “college is the new fourth grade,” but it does strike me that the vocabulary in that reader is similar to vocabulary on college entrance exams today.

In a prior post, I suggested “sweating to the [nineteenth-century] oldies” as a way to strengthen reading skills for college.  If you’re curious what kids around that time were expected to know, here are some vocab samples (taken from occasional “dictionary lessons” following readings, instructing students to find definitions of these words).  Don’t know them all?  Look ‘em up and get in touch with your inner Victorian-era child:

Athwart, armorial, benediction, dastard, dauntless, devoid, ford, galliard, martial, patriarchal, sonorous, sublime, wan, zenith.

College-Bound? Sweat to the Oldies


The main reading romm of Graz University Libra...

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College reading requires sustained attention and concentration.  If your normal reading habits are heavy on web browsing, social networking, and texting, but light on actual books, your reading skills may need beefing up.

The best way to improve those reading skills is to challenge yourself by seeking out sophisticated material.  I suggest sweating to the Oldies: try literature from the nineteenth century.  (You might start with some frequently taught authors you likely already know, such as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, or Louisa May Alcott.)  While you read, have a notebook handy to jot down words you don’t know; look them up, and review the definitions until you do know them (instant vocabulary builder).  In the meantime, the long sentences and florid prose style will increase your reading comprehension and perhaps your reading patience…you’ll need both to succeed in college.

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