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Teaching shallow or deep languages: methods are different!

Lion, mosaic, 6 years

Despite the disputes on the position of Dutch in the transparency scale, Dutch has certainly an opaque orthography compared with the Italian spelling consistency. I propose here the case of Dutch, which I have direct experience of, nevertheless, with due precautions, the concept is applicable to any combination transparent – opaque language.Dutch first grade books, on the other hands, introduce words and no graphemes. Dutch uses a number of monosyllabic meaningful words present in the language that perform the double function of teaching to read a grapheme which will be found later in other contexts, and at the same time, teaching a word that is stored in the child memory and will become part of that mnemonic baggage that can be retrieved later.


It 's interesting to examine the different methods used in literacy in both languages.

If you compare two school books for the first grade, you’ll notice that the Italian method has not changed substantially over time. Examples, graphics, exercises have been modernized, there is a slight tendency to propose the syllables and not the single letter to learners, but basically not much has changed.
Learning to read "M"+ "A" or "MA" as a syllable does not change the substance.

The child literate in Dutch reads pages full of monosyllabic words in order to fix the phoneme in his/her memory. While the child literate in Italian must learn to associate a sound to a grapheme, and it will then repeat this exercise in endless combinations present in the Italian words. Theoretically, with a little effort, Italian children are able to read any words, from the shortest to longest ones. At most, it can create confusion at the prosodic level (intonation, where the accent falls).

Writing is a different issue .... also in Italian!

 We will have the occasion to discuss later the difference between reading and writing. Now it is enough to recall here that the written production is more difficult than reading.

Let’s not forget that spelling plays an important role of social censure. In the video below, Professor Patota, teaching Italian linguistics at the University of Siena and being scientific responsible of the Dizionario Italiano Garzanti, gives us an overview of the reasons at the origins of spelling errors (video in Italian, you can find an English transcription of the main paragraphs below).


Why do we make spelling mistakes in Italian?

Among the many types of errors that we can write in a text, spelling errors
are the most dangerous of all. Why? First, because they are errors which are object of a censorship
a very strong social condemnation: who makes a spelling mistake is often made ​​fun of,
is considered an ignorant .....

Although it may seem strange, the person who makes spelling mistakes does
try, somehow, to repair a fault of the language, a
lack of harmony between the way we write and pronounce certain words....[but] it’s not true that there are no rules to avoid spelling mistakes. So let's get to work,
and try to locate these rules. Meanwhile, we should note that spelling errors
do not cover all the words, but only those which, in Italian, are not written in the same way they are

a word such as “ventilazione” (ventilation)
gives rise to uncertainty in all Italian and non Italian native speakers. How many “z” do we write “ventilazione” with?:
one or two? The problem arises because “ventilazione” is not written as it is pronounced.
For reasons related to the Italian language history and its relations with Latin, “ventilazione”
is written with one “z”, but pronounced with an intense “Z” or, as we commonly say, a double “z”: ventilazione

In other cases,
spelling error depends not on the mismatch between spelling and pronunciation, but from a different way of pronouncing a particular word in Italian dialects.

First thing to do (to avoid spelling errors): to identify all words of those groups that I
call the “risky words”, ie the words that you don’t write the same way you pronounce them.

Therefore, even a consistent spelling as the Italian one presents its obstacles.

The phonosyntactic doubling, or "double consonants", is a typical example. While other tricky issues, such as letters without phonological value introduced for distinctive reasons such as the “h” of the present tense of the verb “to have”, or the etymological “i” in the word “scienza” (science), or other ambiguities such as the co-occurence of the sequences “cu” and “qu” representing the same sound [kw], are elements basically requiring a learning by heart process, the problem of double consonants also contains an hearing aspect.

This means that the more correct is the pronunciation of the child, and of course of the teacher, the easier the child will get to the correct solution. A musical talent can help the child to recognize double consonants.

A bit of history ...


The Italian spelling system is directly derived from the Italian writing system installed in Florence between the 13th and 14th century, and later on, from the choices made by grammarians, printers and writers of the 16th  century who favored the phonetic spelling approach.

The Italian spelling system has not undergone many significant changes over time and it is this continuity that, in the words of Dr. Maraschio, president of the Accademia della Crusca and teacher of History of Italian language at the University of Florence, now we have "the privilege of being able to read and understand even those texts fourteenth century and we still hear their language [...]" .





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