Rap Phonics Rhapsody: Eating the Alphabet and Spitting it Out

If the vowels decide to strike, we can probably keep the machines running, but if we lose the consonants, we’ll have to shut down.

How should we learn to read? The beginning reader, trying to make soundsense from the smell of ink of the “…miseffectual whyacinthinous riot of blots and blurs and bars and balls and hoops an wriggles and justaposed jottings linked by spurts of speed” (Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake, 118) soon understands that “When a part so ptee does duty for the holos we soon grow to use of an allforabit” (19).

Today’s beginning reader (and teacher) sit at the bottom of a tower of babble constructed of politics made necessary by how education is funded and a grant industry, partisan learning theories (in which the neuroscientists are now investing a huge down payment), and good, old-fashioned my way is better than your way faculty room argument.

“It is told in sounds in utter that, in signs so adds to, in universal, in polygluttural, in each auxiliary neutral idiom, sordomutics, florilingua, sheltafocal, flayflutter, a con’s cubane, a pro’s tutute, strassarab, ereperse and anythongue athall” (117).

Over at The Frontal Cortex, the reading discussion was lively but short, and our hungry mind wanted more. So once again we picked up Joyce and reread a few favorite passages (aloud, the better to taste and hear the words, to slurp and listen as the vowels (like Alice’s EAT ME cake) made us bigger and the consonants smaller), and then we perused a few articles.

Nicholas Lehman reported in a 1997 Atlantic article that “The dispute operates at three levels, which is one reason why it is so pervasive. It concerns how people learn, what schools should be for, and the essential nature of a good society.” This came three years after Art Levine reported in an Atlantic article that “In education no question has produced so much bitter debate for so long as this one: What is the best way to teach children to read?”

The debate continues worldwide, with no sign of abatement, and the political influences continue, as shown in a 2006 Guardian article featuring Oxford’s Kathy Sylva, in which she discusses legislative interests. Also in 2006, Sylva brought attention to the issue of learning reading in a teaching expertise interview; here we find her discussing neurons, signaling that as debate continues, it is now infused with new ethos borrowed from neuroscience.

Should the words go from the page directly into the brain through the eyes, or should the words be eaten first (eat your p’s), rolled around on the tongue, felt, then spat out into the ears to worm their way into the brain? 

We don’t value fast food reading; we want the old-fashioned, sit down meal. Words have substance: they are smooth or rough, loud or quiet, ticklish or jolting. Words leave bruises that other words salve.  Words rap and rip their way into our consciousness as we tear them apart with our teeth. Syllables slide like bumpy water. We want to eat the alphabet and spit out the seeds – now that’s reading.