The Roots of Phonics:
A Historical Introduction
Balmuth, M. (2009) Brooks; Baltimore
Kara Hunter gives us Historic Pronouncements
From considering the advantages of the alphabet to the evolution of English pronunciation, there is no doubt that English is a complex language with a rich and complex ancestry. Miriam Balmuth’s detailed history of The Roots of Phonics provides readers with an account of the evolution of the English language that is not only interesting but provides insight into some of the challenges of teaching the language. From consideration of the directionality of a written language to challenging spelling conventions, this book is a well-organized presentation of a long history of a language that has borrowed from languages around the world.
Balmuth’s text takes a reader on a journey starting with the characteristics of writing systems through the history of written English and through the ancestry of English pronunciation. Given the depth of complexity that English entails, it would seem easy to become overwhelmed in the details. However, one particularly useful feature of the book, that makes it palatable, is the continued check of understanding for the readers. At the end of each section detailing a particular component of the language are practice exercises. These exercises give the reader an opportunity to practice the concept just introduced within the text. For example, after her explanation of logograms and pictograms, Balmuth leaves space in which the reader must demonstrate three original examples of the aforementioned. This helps the reader ensure that they have grasped the concept presented.
Additionally there are elements in Balmuth’s text that lend themselves to the pedagogy of English language teaching. For example, Balmuth explains the history of the lack reasoning between spelling forms and sounds in English. With her explanation of the allophone, readers are left with ideas that will better prepare students to tackle this potential learning challenge.
Other pedagogical implications that can be drawn from this text include the roots of punctuation. Understanding the history of a particular punctuation mark helps better understand its function. For example, the usage of the exclamation point was originally used to indicate admiration. One can easily see how the original usage was extended to also include enthusiasm and excitement from its roots in admiration.
With its short and logically sequenced chapters, The Roots of Phonics takes a 3,500 year long history of a language and makes it understandable. This text proves not only interesting but useful for the English language instructor. From considering the advantages of the alphabet to the evolution of English pronunciation, there is no doubt that English is a complex language with a rich history.
Kara Hunter is an M.A. student in English with an emphasis in TESOL and Rhetoric & Composition at California Polytechnic University, Pomona.