Link to glossary




English Structures

Ancient Egyptian was consonantal.
As you can guess, a consonantal alphabet is one where there are no vowels in the written system
If you can read this you are able to read a consonantal alphabet.

Writing Systems

Pages: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 Moodle TESL 551: Crowley   Houts-Smith





Alphabetic Systems and Syllabaries

Alphabetic writing systems are very different from pictographic, ideographic, and logographic systems. Instead of one symbol connecting to one thing, one idea, or even one word, in alphabetic systems, one symbol connects to one sound in the language. At least, we can simplistically think of the one-sound-one symbol relationship as the ideal. In reality, however, alphabets don't quite work out this way.
Cnsnntl Alphbt
Try reading each of the following sentences.

F u cn rd ths, u r abl t rd a cnsnntl alphbt.      (Solution)

S u cn gs, a cnsnntl alphbt s n whr thr r n vwls n th wrttn sstm.     (Solution)

Ancnt gptn ws cnsnntl.     (Solution)

As noted, real alphabets don't always have a one-to-one correspondence of sound to symbol. Consonantal alphabets are those that do not represent the vowels of the language with written symbols. Thus, they have fewer symbols than sounds. The reader must fill in the missing vowels as he/she reads. Modern consonantal alphabets include:

  • Arabic
  • Hebrew
Although Arabic is referred to as a consonantal alphabet, there are actually ways in the system represent vowels. There are three symbols that represent long vowels. One for [a], one for [u], and one for [i]. The symbols can be seen below.

Short vowels can be represented, too, by diacritical (extra) marks. Children are taught to read using short vowels, but typically the short vowels are omitted entirely. Any adult requiring them for reading is thought to be a poor reader.

My name, Linda, which has a short and a long vowel in it would be written like this:

The Arabic system, then, is not a consonantal writing system, only a consonantal alphabet because there are ways to signal the vowels.

Latin is a language that has an alphabetic writing system, although it derived its alphabet from earlier alphabetic systems like Greek and Phoenician. Essentially, there is one written symbol, called a letter, that represents one sound in the language. A true phonetic alphabet will follow this system strictly; however, it is much more likely to find a phonemic alphabet.
  • A phonetic alphabet is one where each sound has its own symbol.
  • A phonemic alphabet is one where each phoneme has its own symbol, and the allophones all share the same symbol.
It is possible for a language to have a basic sound, but also to have variant pronunciations of that basic sound. For example, in English it is common that we change the basic pronunciation of a vowel in an unstressed syllable to a schwa. When we write the word, we don't change the spelling of the word to show that we have changed the pronunciation. When we say the with stress, we pronounce it [ði], but when we don't stress it, we pronounce it [ðə]. Nevertheless, we spell it t-h-e no matter which way we pronounce it.
  • Latin was basically a phonemic alphabet.
  • That is, the written symbols we use represent the phonemes (basic sounds) of the language, not possible variations of pronunciation.
English originated as a phonemic alphabet, too, but over time the system has altered. Many exceptions are due to historical changes in pronunciation that went unrecorded in the writing system. Others are due to foreign word borrowings and the fact that the alphabet we use was borrowed directly from Latin. As a result, English has several spellings for some sounds (such as f and ph for [f]), and just one for other sounds of the language (such as b for [b]).

The easiest writing system for a native speaker to learn and use is a phonemic alphabet, not a phonetic alphabet.
A phonetic alphabet would have more letters than is necessary--it would be overkill.

A final possible writing system uses the syllable as its base. Although English has syllables, and we know them if we know the pronunciation of the word, our writing does not mark the syllables in any way. English does not use a syllabary.

Some languages use a system that focuses on the syllable. In a syllabary, one symbol denotes an entire syllable.

  • Cherokee is a syllabary.
Some alphabets combine phonetics with syllable representation. Korean does this with the Hangul alphabet, so we can consider Korean either an alphabetic syllabary or a syllabic alphabet! The diagram below shows how Hangul represents both the individual sounds and each syllable of each word.
Teaching Language

Arabic is a good example to use when looking at problems a NNS may have adapting to English from other alphabets. Although both systems are alphabets, the following differences can pose difficulties.

  1. Arabic doesn't typically include the diacritical marks for short vowels.
  2. Arabic is written from right to left.
  3. the letters have different forms depending upon their placement in a word:
    • Initial
    • Medial
    • Final
  4. There is no distinction of capital vs. lower case
  5. There is no distinction between printing and cursive.
NSs of consonantal alphabets may have great difficulty with English vowels in spelling. A lot of effort may be needed for these students to master English spelling.

Additionally, NSs of languages that write from right to left may form their Latin letters in an odd way, even though the ultimate result is a proper looking letter. In teaching writing, not only should the shapes of letters taught, but also the specific motions for forming the letters. In English, these motions are based on working from the left to the right. Someone previously trained to write from right to left will generally adapt the right-to-left motion to create a similar shape in the Latin alphabet.

Teaching English

Does Arabic sound confusing? Consider that English uses four distinct forms for each letter:

  • Upper Case Printed
  • Lower Case Printed
  • Upper Case Cursive
  • Lower Case Cursive

NSs of both logographic and certain alphabets may have difficulty with the distinctions between printing and cursive forms.

English classes in many Asian countries and in many Arabic-speaking countries don’t teach cursive forms.

If you notice your students have trouble reading what you have written on the board, you might want to take a look at whether you are using cursive or printing.

By the way, a writing system must be learned.

While the ability to acquire language seems inborn, the instinct is for direct interpersonal communication (i.e. spoken or signed), not for writing.

Very few writing systems have been invented in the world.
Most writing systems have been borrowed from other cultures or inspired by the system used in another culture.

Discussion - Lesson 4, Page 5

  • Teaching the writing system of English can be a long and difficult process for some students.
  • Part of the difficulty can be whether the student has learned to read and write in the native language.
  • If a student is not yet literate in the native language, gaining literacy in the second can be extremely difficult.
End of Lesson
Moodle - Kim Crowley's Course  Moodle - Linda Houts-Smith's Course
American Sign Language The sign language used by the deaf community in the United States.
Test of English for International Communication. A standardized exam for Educational Testing Services that is intended to determine the general capability of an NNSE to use English to conduct business. It is used by some businesses, predominantly in Asia, in hiring.
Test of English as a Foreign Language. A standardized exam from Educational Testing Services that is intended to determine the general capability of an NNSE to use English as the language of insruction .It is used as an admissions requirement by most US universities and colleges for international students.
Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. A term that encompasses both TEFL and TESL. It is the name of the professional organization to which many teachers belong. TESOL the organization has many regional affiliates both in the US and abroad.
Teaching English as Second Language. Refers to the activity of teaching the English language as a tool necessary for some daily task like instruction, shopping, or interpersonal interactions.
Teaching English as a Foreign Language. Refers to the activity of teaching the English language as an intellectual, academic pursuit to non-native speakers of English.
Native Speaker of English. Refers to a person who acquired English in infancy and young childhood as a first language.
Native Speaker. Refers to a person whose relationship to a language is that it was encountered in infancy and young childhood as the dominant language of the environment.
Non-Native Speaker of English. Refers to a person who didn't acquire English as a first language, but came to it after another language was established.
Non-Native Speaker. Refers to a person whose relationship to a particular language is that he/she didn't encounter it while initially acquiring language, but came to it after another language was established.
Limited English Proficient. An adjectival phrase used to refer to the same students as ELL refers to. LEP is falling into disuse as it focuses attention on student deficiency rather than on the positive attribute of learning. Is being replaced by ELL.
Second Language. Refers to any language gained subsequent to the first or native language. It is acquired or learned secondarily to the native language. Doesn't refer to the ordinal numbering of languages, only to the relationship of a particular language to a persons native language.
First Language. Refers to the language that an individual encounters as an infant and young child; a persons native language.
English for Specific Purposes. Refers to the goal of learning English to use it for highly focused activity, such as for business or for aviation communication.
English as a Second Language Program. refers to a school program that is purposefully structured to provide instruction on the English language to NNSEs. An ESL program does not typically include instruction in any other subjects than English. An ESL program may be a component of a larger ELL program at a school.
English as a Second Language. Refers to the subject matter of the English language and the methodology for teaching the English language to non-native speakers. ESL makes no reference to the subjects other than English, but it is not methodology alone either, it refers to teaching the English language as content area. Typically, ESL refers to the study of English in a country where it is used for at least one daily task, such as instruction, interpersonal relations, or shopping.
English Langauge Learner Program. Refers to a school program that is purposly structured to provide instruction on the English language and instruction in other content areas to English Language Learners.
English Language Learner. Refers to students who are in the process of learning English, whether they are in ESL classes exclusively or a combination of ESL classes and other subject area classes.
English as a Foreign Langauge. Refers to the study of English as an intellectual, academic pursuit, not a a language whose use is necessary or desirable for daily life, although it may be used as a research tool. Typically, EFL is the study of English in a country where English is not a language of instruction or daily interactions, such as in Italy or in Saudi Arabia.
English for Academic Purposes. Refers to the goal of learning English to use it as the language of instruction for other subject areas.
Refers to a school program that is purposely structured so that students will use two languages on a daily basis.
Refers to the use of two languages in any capacity on a daily basis. A bilingual person uses two languages on a daily basis--for work and at home, perhaps, or for different subjects at school. Can also refer to the ability to use two languages, even if not used daily.