Big (Dumb) Bird / by Alan Strathman

As most of you know, I arrived in St. Lucia without having ever taught literacy to primary school students. One consequence of not having taught primary school is that I did not have a stock of materials that I had found worked well in class.  Contrast this to teaching Introductory Psychology, which I had done for more than 15 years. For every topic, I had great examples, engaging demonstrations, and countless charts, graphs, etc.

So, not having anything to work with, I went to a local teachers store. The store was like a wonderland of teaching materials. It had so many resources that I, literally, had no idea where to start. Not being an expert in primary literacy education, I relied on a tried and true, well-loved institution in the world of children's education:

How could I go wrong? Who doesn't trust Big Bird? Well, now, I don't.

First, before you read any further, generate a list of words you would expect to see in this box of "beginning" words.....

(just try it)

 

(come on)

 

(don't cheat)

Ok, if you made an effort at this I bet you generated words like these:

Words you might expect to see in a set of beginning words.

Words you might expect to see in a set of beginning words.

OK, fine. No problem so far. These are, indeed, beginning words. But the deck also has these words:

These may seem like easy words. They're short. But they are not that simple for beginning readers to decode. Combinations like "ea," "oa," and "ai" are called vowel digraphs and students have a hard time with them. Eventually you teach them the rule, "When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking," meaning one pronounces these letter combinations by making the long sound of the first vowel. In the interest of time let's just ignore the fact that  "ice cream" is doubly confusing because it has a soft "c" sound in the first word but a hard "c" sound in the second.

But anyway, they learn this "when two vowels go walking...." rule and then why don't we confuse them right away with this:

Ok, whatever, so then we teach them that "ou" makes a sound that isn't like an "o" and isn't like a "u" but is a sort-of melange of the two..  Though teaching "ou" isn't too bad because they have all made that sound when something hurt. And when we teach them the "ou" sound we also teach them that "ow" makes the same sound (see, look at that--you just read sound with an ou). (Now you did it again by reading now.) :) So it would (would--an "ou" exception) make sense that if Big Bird is going to consider "ou" a beginning sound he would include a card with an "ow" to help a brother teach his 7-year olds that the two combinations make the same sound. Except Big Bird did this:

Oh no he didn't!! Well, I'm afraid he did. He picked an "ow" that is an exception.

Oh no he didn't!! Well, I'm afraid he did. He picked an "ow" that is an exception.

Having forayed into tricky vowel digraphs why should he not include a consonant digraph:

So does it sound like "sosks" or is it a hard c but then that would sound like "sok-ks????" So you're saying I just ignore the middle letter??? To first graders the correct pronunciation of "socks" is "WTF!"

So does it sound like "sosks" or is it a hard c but then that would sound like "sok-ks????" So you're saying I just ignore the middle letter??? To first graders the correct pronunciation of "socks" is "WTF!"

And for good measure Big Bird threw in that well-known beginning word, practically the first word a toddler utters, right after mama and dada:

Look, this language is hard enough to teach as it is. One day, and it will be the day they start hating me because they'll think I'm just messing with them, we have to make them understand  "though," "thought," and "through." And then "drought!" And "rough!" What sound does "ough" make? Apparently any sound you want it to.

It's exhausting. Next time, let Oscar choose the words. At least they'll know "grouch."