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Tim Chambers (“The younger, the better,” April 12) is correct in suggesting children’s brains at the elementary level are like sponges. This period prior to the onset of puberty when children’s brains are capable of easily absorbing quite a lot is known in second language acquisition theory as the “critical period hypothesis.”

Readers might wonder about Chambers’ assertion that junior high school students can learn to read the vocabulary they learned in elementary school because they are phonetic, like Japanese kana. In phonetics, individual sounds are represented by single symbols. There are only the five vowels and the syllabic “n” in kana that qualify as such. Furthermore, many English letters can represent multiple sounds and different letters can even represent the same sound.

Chambers’ reasoning regarding the association of letters with sound and sound with concept is similarly faulty. There are only a few combinations of English letters that represent a single sound (“ch” and “sh,” for example). Furthermore, with the exception of those represented by the letter “a,” there are virtually no individual sounds that have meaning. Semantics aside, the author seems to be writing about what is commonly known as “phonics.”

Chambers all but contradicts his initial assertion regarding children’s brains as “language sponges” in concluding that learning words, associating letters to sounds and associating sounds to concepts (reading) is too much for children to learn at once. There are four skills necessary for success in language learning: listening, speaking, reading and writing. There is no reason each cannot be incorporated appropriately even at the elementary level.

chris clancy

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