As it evolved over centuries, the English language has boasted a seemingly bottomless appetite for swallowing up other languages’ words and spitting out its own versions.
Modern English counts as influences the Greek, Latin, Germanic, French, Spanish, Italian and Slavic languages, while hosts of others have contributed words.
“It is often said that what most immediately sets English apart from other languages is the richness of its vocabulary,” author Bill Bryson wrote in “The Mother Tongue,” a history of the evolution of English. “Webster’s Third New International Dictionary lists 450,000 words, and the revised Oxford English Dictionary has 615,000, but that is only part of the total. Technical and scientific terms would add millions more.”
To those who know the language best and use it often, this variety is a virtue that permits sentences to carry shades of meaning that would be impossible if expressed in other languages.
To the more than 30 million adults and millions more children in the U.S. who lack basic literacy abilities, English can be a tangled, impenetrable thicket chock-full of dirty tricks, confusing rules, silent letters and confounding pronunciations.
Enter Ketchum entrepreneur Narda Pitkethly, who is attempting to transform literacy programs through her company called Nardagani. The Nardagani program is offered online on laptops, computers, smartphones and tablets, and hit the market in May, Pitkethly said in an interview Wednesday.
She launched her program with assistance from the Ketchum Innovation Center and with the help of publicity she generated from a talk she gave at TEDxSunValley. Video of her presentation has been viewed online more than 400,000 times.
Her program is based on Hiragana, a Japanese syllabary that uses phonetic lettering to allow users to read and speak Japanese. It has five core vowel sounds—ah, ee, oo, eh and oh. Those sounds comprise 46 symbols in Hiragana that make up words in Japanese. Pronunciation is comparatively simple because of those five core vowel sounds.
Now, consider English. Seventeen of the 26 letters in the English alphabet can be silent, while many more have multiple sounds. Think of the letter “s”—it can be pronounced four ways, such as in snake, is, sugar and television. The letter e has four sounds, as in tree, elbow, the and grew, while the letter o has five sounds. Eleven other letters also have multiple sounds.
“The first thing we teach is the silent letter,” Pitkethly said. “Seventeen of the letters of our alphabet can be silent. They’re sprinkled into almost every word.”
Pitkethly devised a system to help struggling readers cut through the confusing sounds. She created a system of 12 symbols that help students decipher all the sounds of the alphabet, similar to the way Hiragana works in Japanese.
“They have difficulty sounding out words,” Pitkethly said of struggling readers. “The symbols are like training wheels on a bike. Once their confidence grows, then they no longer need the symbols.”
Her 15-lesson program helps students learn the 12 symbols and all the English alphabet’s sounds over six one-hour lessons. After that, the students transition to books that are coded with the symbols to practice reading. Finally, they transition to books that lack the symbols entirely.
“By the time they’re finished with the 15 lessons, the majority of our students have gone up two grade levels,” Pitkethly said.
After the lessons are finished, the program urges students to continue to read more and more challenging books, which will help them reach higher grade levels.
She said Nardagani has been used in the Blaine County jail for the past seven years and has helped students from kindergarten to age 77 learn to read and improve their literacy.
She worked with Jeffrey Wilhelm, a Boise State University English professor who has authored or co-authored more than 30 texts devoted to literacy teaching, to develop Nardagani. Wilhelm conducted a small-scale teacher research study to test its principles in classroom settings.
Pitkethly said Nardagani is being developed for use in Hong Kong and India, for homeschool students, parents and tutors, and in jails and prisons.
“We are conducting pilot programs and partnering with literacy organizations worldwide,” she said. “Words go from being scary to being fascinating.”