Home » Post-16 & Adult Literacy » Ghoti = Fish (no it doesn’t)

Ghoti = Fish (no it doesn’t)

Ghoti spells Fish. This thing still shows up on social media and still makes me sigh heavily. It also still gets used by literacy professionals as “proof” that the English language is “not phonetic”. More heavy sighing.

If we’re being honest about the English language, we have to admit that it comes with a complex written code. There are a lot of ways to represent the sounds that we say. However – and this is a big big deal in my world – the language is most certainly phonetic and the phonetic code is limited and learnable. It is NOT adequately represented by GBS’s old chestnut.

But that’s not what this is really about. I sigh heavily because erroneously telling struggling readers that ghoti spells fish is actually creating a barrier to reading when our job as educators is to tear down barriers as thoroughly and quickly as we can. Saying to a vulnerable learner, “Don’t worry, you’re right, this language is a mess and really really difficult” is actually saying, “You’re right, you’ll probably never learn this”.

I am desperate not to alienate people who struggle with reading by suggesting that the English code is beyond their grasp. In the past 15 years I’ve met a few students who will always find decoding difficult due to serious speech and language difficulties. However, most teens and adults arrive at their first TRT lesson simply not knowing that the squiggles on the page represent the sounds that we say out loud. Instead, they have memorized loads of little words by sight and they guess (badly) at the longer content words. They can read lots but not new words that matter in age-appropriate and life-appropriate text.

During the first few hours of That Reading Thing, instead of being encouraged to guess from shape and initial letter, they learn to read through long words from left to right and listen for a word they know. The goal is to get our students from reading words like fax and plug to words like conditioning and instructions in 5 hours or less. Most will be able to spell accomplishment and establishment in hour 3.

Generally, learning to decode is not a huge challenge but a joyful ride. The biggest barrier to reading at this stage is a tiny vocabulary. I can get almost anyone to read the following in a few lessons:

The instructions were simple but the desk was difficult to assemble.

However, this will be meaningless if the learner doesn’t know what it means to assemble something. That’s why our learners need to read and talk and read some more – well beyond the few hours it teaches them to decode.

If you’re interested in one-to-one literacy for teens and adults, go to the online training over at TRT~GO.
The first 20 minute topic is free and will tell you lots more about what’s included.


2 Responses

  1. Although I sincerely appreciate your motivation for wanting to refute GBS’s amusing respelling of “fish”, I also initially sighed upon reading your take, which obscures his motivation and an indisputable reality re the current state of English spelling and pronunciation.
    You’re right that anyone claiming that his ‘ghoti’ proves that “English isn’t phonetic” is wildly misunderstanding what phonetics is or what it’s about—standard stuff when field-specific concepts and jargon are presented by, and at, the popular level—but, unfortunately, the manner in which you present ‘decoding’ is contextually not relevant, as for the goals and the examples you present; “accomplishment” may be a longer word, but all that’s wrong with English, which GBS’s ‘ghoti’ captures and illustrates, isn’t exemplified in what you present/discuss.
    The real issue: There’s a serious lack of fixed and logical paradigms, and no direct and stable correlations between spelling, environment, and prosody (accent, stress, and vowel length) and proper/accepted pronunciation, which a phonetic examination of English clearly illustrates.
    This is related to the fact that, due to its place and development, over 80% of English words are, in fact, borrowed from other, unrelated languages (such a Latin, French, and Greek) rather than having evolved and descended from a parent within the same language family. No other language presents such proportions.
    As such, English is plagued by historic forms that have nothing to do with the original pronunciations that gave us these spellings (such as knight, originally pronounced ka-nicth), as well as retaining old forms for words affected by ‘the great vowel shift’ of the middle ages, as well as forms corresponding to the spelling from whence it was borrowed, which deviates from exemplars / cases proper to English. All of this is extremely confusing, and counter-intuitive, for L2 learners, especially past a certain age, and depending on the rigidity of their L1.
    English is badly in need of a spelling reform, period.
    As a linguist and, therefore, a descriptivist, I see no problems with adopting logical forms like ‘nite’ for ‘night’, etc., which prescriptivists (grammarians) are determined to oppose.

  2. Tricia

    Hi Pascal-Denis, Thank you for taking the time to respond. First – YES! I have a degree in English Language (first UBC grad through that programme) so I understand what you’re talking about and I technically support spelling reform. However, that’s a top-down answer and sociolinguistically complex. Do you remember when the Canadian print industry removed the u’s to align with the Americans’ arguably simpler spelling to save ink or something and Canadians demanded they be put back? It was an economic decision that was reversed for reasons of national identity. People don’t necessarily want spelling to be simple as every spelling reformer has discovered.

    We start from the mundane truth that if an adult writes “I’m avalable for nite shifts” on a job application, they are less like to get the job than the person who writes ‘available’ and ‘night’ even if they’re better qualified. We work on tearing down barriers to writing and reading within the current system because currently there’s only one written English of power. Telling vulnerable learners the language is too complex for them by showing them examples like ghoti = fish is excluding them from that language of power. It’s as political as it is linguistic.

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