No Fooling With the Alphabet

I thought of a bygone volunteer last week whilst playing with a children’s book. A lot of books come in which make all manner of sounds when buttons are pressed. We don’t get nearly as many as one might expect, given the number which are sold every year. I suspect parents regard these more in the line of toys than books, and throw them away when the battery runs down, rather than donate them to us.

We do get a lot with dead batteries, though, which is why I check them as they come in. The price is lower if a book shaped like an owl makes no noise at all, and even lower if the battery is about to die, so that the owl gives a long, mournful moo instead of a hoot. And, anyway, I’m always interested in new electronic arrangements of Old MacDonald.

This was an ABC book for multi-taskers: you heard the letter, were told to draw the letter, given a word that started with the letter, and, to reinforce it all, also given a sound to go with the word. “D is for Dog. Woof Woof Woof. Make the letter D!” I was intrigued: some words don’t come with predictable noises. The Cat for C meows, of course, but what does the Queen for Q do? Well, she has a little snippet of vaguely royal music (so does the King for K, but he has a dominating march while the Queen’s music is more feminine.)

The volunteer came to mind during V. V was for Violin, so naturally they played a bit of music to go with the sound. For reasons not known to me, however, they played these notes on a trumpet. This would have made my Volunteer come up with V for Veto.

She tried to show me, over the years, that there are rules for ABC books, the main one being “Don’t confuse the kids.” ABC books which mixed the general with the specific were a particular bane: you can say D is for Daisy, and you can say F is for Flower, but you can’t do both in the same book. The kid may go around thinking a Flower is that purple thing on the page, just as Daisy is that one with the yellow center and white petals. B cannot be for Ball if you’re going to make F stand for Football.

For advanced readers, she liked to have more than one picture per page. If D was for Dog, having a collie, a poodle, AND a dachshund indicated that Dog could mean any one of a variety of animals. When she did B for Ball, she had a football, a basketball, and a golf ball, to indicate the variety of shapes and sizes.

She was not alone in this: many books would do a variety of different things starting with the letter, and she felt that was useful, too: D was for Dog, Door, and Daisy, while H could be for Hat, Horn, or Hippopotamus. (She loved Hippopotamus, which is a really long word in which every letter makes the sound a beginning reader expects. “See!” she’d say, when the kid had made his way through it. “That is a twelve letter word and YOU sounded it out! Never be afraid of long words!”)

But, oh, a book which had G for Goat, Gate, and Giraffe would never pass muster. The beginning reader, she felt, was not ready for a beginning letter that made more than one sound. G was a particular annoyance to her in any case, since the name of the letter does not contain the sound we usually associate with it: the g in gate and goat. For this reason, she was leading a crusade toward not teaching children the names of the letters at all.

“You don’t teach a driving student to recite the names of the parts of a car,” she said. “Why slow down reading lessons by insisting they know the letters by name, and in order?”

I used to think that raising a generation which did not comprehend the term “alphabetical order” would lead to chaos, but perhaps in an era of computer searching, that won’t matter. Somewhere there is a chunk of videotape of her appearance before the Chicago School Board showing the audience how to spell cat without knowing the names of any of the letters. I still think I see a few flaws in this plan, but no more than in, say, playing a trumpet to represent a violin.

In any case, the whole debate gives new meaning to the phrase “Easy as ABC”.

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