Good Writing Requires More Than Creativity

Both models represent the same information: the structure of language. However, each model creates a different mental picture because the visuals are different. The first model divides the structure of language into three broad components – pronunciation, grammar, meaning – before subdividing each component into two aspects. The units of language gets larger as you move from left to right: from phonetics to meaning. What I like about the first model is the representation of the centrality of grammar in language: it represents grammar as the link between pronunciation and meaning. Without grammar language would be nothing but a senseless jumble of sounds and words. Grammar creates structure and makes the expression of meaning possible. The second model makes it possible to visualizes (see) the individual components or aspects of oral language as they get larger moving from top to bottom.

Pronunciation includes phonetics and phonology.  Grammar is composed of syntax and morphology; and meaning comprises of vocabulary and discourse.  The questions which come up after seeing the models are: “What is phonetics?” “What is phonology?” “What is morphology” “What is syntax?” “What is discourse?” I will just state a brief description of each component. These descriptions are taken from the definitions given by the linguist David Crystal in his writings about the structure and use of language.

Phonetics is the study of human sound-making, in terms of how and where (in the human body) we produce, send and perceive sound.  Phonetics is universal and is not limited to any single language. All humans, barring any physical defect, are equipped with the same organs that are capable of producing and receiving all the various speech sounds (known as phones) in the world. Phones are the smallest units of speech sounds. Phonology, on the other hand, is the study of the sound systems of particular languages.  think of it this way, phonology is the study of the speech sounds in a particular language and description of the rules that govern how the sounds in that language are used. Phonology is language-specific. So, we can describe the phonology of English, or Mandarin, or Swahili, or Spanish, etc. Each language has its own unique phonological system. This is because while we are all technically capable of producing all the phones in the world, in reality we only use of a small set as native speakers of a particular language. We use phonemes to describe phonology: that is, units of phonology are called phonemes. Anytime you hear someone talking about “phonemes” or “phonemic awareness” you know that person is talking about phonology and not phonetics.

Morphology studies word structure – bases, prefixes, suffixes, inflections, compounds, etc. : boy/boys, go/gone/going, etc.  A unit of morphology is called a morpheme. A morpheme is the smallest meaningful unit of language. Whilst phonemes (sounds) by themselves do not mean anything, morphemes carry meaning. The base <boy> has a meaning; and when when we add the suffix <-s> to it to produce <boys>, the <-s> tells us that we are now talking about more than one “boy”. Syntax studies the way in which we join words together to form permissible larger units of expressions such as phrases, clauses, sentences and sentence-sequences. Syntax is what we normally think of as ‘grammar’ – the rules that govern how we use words together to form and express ideas.

Semantics and vocabulary are sometimes used interchangeably to mean the same thing: meaning of words. However, according to this model, they are not the same. Vocabulary is actually part of semantics – the meaning making and expressing aspects of language. Semantics is more than a list of words: it is the study of the structure of meaning. Vocabulary deals with words and various connections we attach to them such as similarities (synonyms), differences (antonyms). Finally, discourse is how we use sentences to express ideas: make a coherent speech.

From the above explanation, we see how phones combine to produce phonemes (pronunciation), phonemes then combine to produce morphemes, morphemes combine to words (vocabulary) and using the rules governing the proper use of words (syntax), words combine to form sentences and sentences combine to form ideas (discourse).

To be a proficient language user, one must be able to articulate and manipulate the speech sounds in a language, be able to build a good store of words to use in formulating ideas and receiving communication and be able to understand the rules that govern how words are used to create connected sentences and ideas. The components are distinct yet interconnected at the same time to the extent that a deficit in one could have a significant impact on other aspects of language learning. Now, remember that what we have been discussing is about the structure of spoken language; any language.

Now, writing captures all the different levels in text using spelling. Phonemes are represents using graphemes and morphemes, syntax, vocabulary and discourse are captured following established rules. The question is: Why is it necessary to know or understand all the above information? The answer is simple: When we ask children to read (books, etc), we ask them to use their receptive abilities in language to operate at the discourse level using text. Consequently, any deficit in their receptive language abilities will impact their comprehension. And we have not started talking about their ability to understand how text is represented as text. When it comes to reading, you first have to be able to convert the written text back into spoken language and then proceed to understand it. You cannot understand text if you cannot read it; and still cannot understand text if after you read it you are not able to make sense of the language.

Writing works in the same way, except it is more challenging. It involves using productive abilities to express coherent ideas in a language and the ability to write those ideas down as text using spelling.

The idea is to start rethinking of how we treat the underlying skills of language and literacy development. We could start paying attention to spelling (giving children the skills they need to start writing down words correctly), vocabulary (if we expect them to be able write using a variety of words they have to know and understand many more words), and grammar (good writing requires understanding how to use words to convey sense and meaning effectively).  Our objective should be that of developing readers and writers who are capable of handling pronunciation, grammar, and meaning together.  Deficits in any area can be addressed within a holistic framework.

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