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Yum: A Word in My Soup

By: Kerry Hempenstall
Dr. Kerry Hempenstall, now a Senior Lecturer at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Victoria, Australia, recalls that magic time when he first learned how to read.

I remember being unable to read. It was a source of wonder when I first realised that my parents were not making up those long and riveting stories each night. They were not my parent's stories but stories by different people somehow captured in a book, and able to be replayed through my parents. Initially, I didn't know if they were manufacturing the story from the pictures, but when I put my hand over the picture they kept reading, stopping only when I covered the "alphabet soup" on the page. We used to have alphabet soup (pasta in the shape of letters) for snacks, so I knew that letters can go together in almost any combination. I didn't realise that the letter order and orientation are more restricted in words than in my soup bowl, and Mum could never read soup the way she could tell stories from the page. I figured out that you have to read in one direction by watching Mum's finger on the page as it travels along in a manner rather similar to that of the gramophone needle running around the record to play music.

Some pages had only one group of letters next to the picture, and when we both looked at the pictures of a camel, and the word (that's what a proper group of letters is called), I could see that there were two humps in the word just as in the picture. After a while I thought I had learned to read. I could read camel. Unfortunately any word with an "m" in the middle was a camel to me, including my sister's name Carmel. I could always recognise the "Peters" sign when we were out in the car. It said "Ice Cream."

I asked Mum and Dad to teach me about the members of the soup club. There are 26, and each one makes its own sound just like animals do. Some sounds were easy to remember – Sammy Snake looks like a snake and hisses; others were harder but at least I didn't have to remember their names (until later) as well. I wanted to know how my parents did the trick of saying the words just the same way whenever they stared at the page. They said you have to say the right word for every soup-group because that's one of the rules – every soup group stands for one special word. My trick of remembering words by their shape worked sometimes (two eyes in look, tail on dog) but there were so many words that looked the same to me, and many others that I couldn't find any clues for.

Dad said the answer's in the soup. When my letter friends get together they are like a choir, but they sing their piece one after another, and if you listen carefully you could figure out what word my friends are trying to tell me. I said "I'd like to see that!" so we got some special books in which Dad said the choir sings very clearly so I should be able to uncover their message. Now I began to look carefully at the choirs – mostly small ones – and to make their special sounds. The first word I tried turned out to be a boy's name – Sam. I said the sounds in order one, two, three, but it didn't help me figure out the word. Mum said say it fast and even faster, so I did S/a/m/ – but it still didn't give me the answer. Then they said to stretch the sounds so you can't tell when one friend's voice finishes and the next one starts. So I said SSSAAAMMM without stopping, then I tried it faster and faster.

It was hard to do the voices and listen at the same time, but it happened. I heard my friends' voice as one – and it was a word I knew Sam. Mum also played rhyming games to see how many words I could think of that rhymed with Sam. I got Pam, dam, cam, ham, jam, and ram. So Mum showed me how to make those words with the letters on the fridge. I learned that if words rhyme they probably share most of their letters. I had fun putting every letter of the alphabet in front of am to sound it out and see if it made a real word. I couldn't see what was wrong with lam, but Dad said not to worry about lamb just yet, he'd show me later about words that break the rules.

So that's how you do it – I just went around the house seeing how long I could stretch out Sam's name then saying it fast. The more I did that the better I got at hearing the voices as a word. It drove Carmel mad and she decided to teach me a lesson. Try reading my name she said, and I did – but I still got Camel. She said it's not polite and against the rules to ignore the presence of your letter friends, and what was I going to do about the "r". I told her I liked her name better without an "r."

She said I was a brat, but she didn't want me to be an ignorant brat, so she'd teach me how some letters sing together at the same time rather than one after the other. The ar in her name is like a duet, and has a special sound that I should try and remember because they often sing together. So now I had to make the sounds in a word one by one, and if it didn't sound like a word I should look for letters that like to sing together. There were lots of these pairs and she taught me some like er, ir, th. My special books didn't have too many of these but I learned to watch out for them anyway. I enjoyed finding "letters that like each other."

I could now understand how to read by listening to the choir instead of looking at the shape the choir makes when they are all together; however, I was not happy about how slow it was, and when I looked at Carmel's books there were so many words I couldn't figure out. Mum said it takes time and practice, and besides I now knew the difference between spoon and soon, spin and sun. These were words which used to look the same to me before. Dad said he was excited because I could now figure out words I had never seen before. I didn't think that was so special, until he asked me to write some words which had never been in my books. Then I realised that even I could write words, and books too. I could think of a word, write it down, and a reader could say the word, without my help. I could be in charge!

This really was exciting but often the word I wrote didn't get the response I wanted from the reader. More rules said Dad. Some words can be written as they sound, but other words are tricky and could be constructed in a number of different ways. The word seen could also be written as scene, sien, sean. There are some rules, but the more your read and write and check your spelling – the fewer mistakes you'll make. So I read and I read, and I wrote and I wrote.

Soon I began to recall the combined sound of a choir the instant I saw it. I didn't really notice what was happening but Dad said I was getting faster. He said it was pretty special when I could respond to the word seven just as fast whether it was written as 7 or seven. It was not only whole words that I could say on sight that made my reading faster. I also noticed more and more letter groups. Not only were there the favoured duets I'd noticed before, but also trios and quartets like est, ing, tion, ight. When I saw one of them I knew that they usually sang the same combined note. This helped a lot because my books were using more difficult words now.

I hardly ever had to sound out words now, except with really tricky long words, and even with them I usually only needed a few groups rather than each sound. The other day I saw for the first time the word strengthening, and I said it in three quick sounds strength, en, ing. Carmel was impressed, and said I could try some of her books if I wanted, after all I could read now. Funny how nearly half a century later, research shows this approach to be very effective.

Dr. Kerry Hempenstall is Senior Lecturer at the Department of Psychology and Disability Studies, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, in Victoria, Australia. http://www.rmit.edu.au/departments/ps/staffpgs/hempens.htm
Reprinted with permission.

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"To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark." — Victor Hugo, Les Miserables