America's Best Kept Educational Secrets

By:  Sam Blumenfeld
America's Best Kept Educational Secrets

One of the best-kept secrets in American education is that the 26 letters of the English alphabet stand for only 44 sounds. Learning to read with phonics programs helps students recognize the different letter combinations that form the various sounds.

Recently I gave a lecture at our local Senior Center on “How to Teach Your Grandchildren to Read.” Since many grandmothers spend a lot of time taking care of their grandchildren, I thought many seniors would be interested in the lecture. Five seniors showed up, which was pretty good for a weekday afternoon. And that’s okay. I didn’t expect many more. But these seniors were eager to teach their grandchildren to read and they wanted to know how to do it. They themselves were excellent readers, and they were aware that many children acquire reading problems in school.

I handed each one of them a copy of Alpha-Phonics, my reading program, so that they could follow me as I taught them our English alphabetic system. But first I gave a simple overview of how our writing system developed, from the primitive picture writing of the cavemen, to the very complex hieroglyphics and ideographs of the ancient Egyptians and present-day Chinese, to the invention of alphabetic writing, which permitted human beings to do so much more with so much less. The invention of the alphabet seems to have taken place at about the same time that the Israelites embarked on their momentous exodus from Egypt and threw off the chains of slavery.

As we all know, Moses, their leader, was raised by an Egyptian princess and was undoubtedly taught to read Egyptian hieroglyphics. Yet when he went up on Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God, the tablets turned out to be written in alphabetic Hebrew script, not Egyptian hieroglyphics. The burning question is: Who taught God the alphabet?

Obviously, it’s an unanswerable question, but I believe I am the only one who has ever asked it. And that is because the French neuropsychologist Stanislas Dehaene wrote in his book Reading in the Brain:

The first traces of an alphabetic system, called Proto-Sinaitic, date from 1700 B.C. and were uncovered in the Sinai peninsula, close to the turquoise mines first worked by the Pharoahs of the Middle and New Kingdom. The writing system borrowed the shapes of several Egyptian characters, but used them to represent a Semitic language. Signs no longer referred to meaning, but to speech sounds alone, and in fact solely to consonants. In this way, the inventory of written symbols were dramatically reduced: two dozen signs were enough to represent all the existing speech sounds with perfect regularity.

Obviously, the inventor of the alphabet had discovered that the language he spoke consisted of only a small number of irreducible speech sounds, and he created a set of symbols to represent most of them. Thus was a phonetic way of writing and reading created.

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Sam Blumenfeld (photo)

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