The Ancient Greeks Taught Phonics

Edith Foster

January 1, 2004

To Dr. Moore’s excellent observations on phonics teaching we can add that a potsherd long ago unearthed at Athens displays a phonics lesson.

Potsherds are pieces of clay pots. The ancient Greeks used clay pots, of various shapes and sizes, to store everything from wine, water, and olive oil, to grain and groceries. Broken pots were the cheapest more or less flat surface available, and the Greeks wrote on them to record all manner of ephemeral information. Because the Athenians voted to ostracize someone by writing his name on a potsherd, potsherds are associated with the institution of ostracism, and are often called “ostraka” (singular: “ostrakon”).

But the potsherd to which I refer doesn’t record any great political event. It comes from the sphere of daily life. The potsherd shows the syllable “ar”, then the syllable “bar”, then the syllable “gar”, then “dar”. Below this, it shows “er”, then “ber”, then “ger”, then “der.” (Thus: “ar, bar, gar, dar”. “er, ber, ger, der”.) Remember that the first four letters of the Greek alphabet are “alpha, beta, gamma, delta.” Short though the preserved fragment may be, it is not too difficult to understand what was going on. This lesson was about adding initial consonants to a phoneme constructed from a vowel and an r (or “rho”, in Greek).

To appreciate this ancient phonics lesson it is important to understand that the Greek alphabet first made phonics possible, and that the possibility of phonics indicates something important about a language. The letters of the Greek alphabet mostly derive from the letters of the Phoenician alphabet. The Phoenician alphabet had no vowels, and was one of several previous alphabets “designed to remind a native speaker of words whose sounds he already knows.” These alphabets clung to cultural habit and memory, and relied on contact with native speakers for their full activation. The Greek innovation was to adapt and invent some letters to use as vowels. The Greek alphabet made it possible for “graphic elements [to] represent the atoms of the spoken language.” The introduction of separate signs for vowels made it possible to reconstruct “the approximate sound of the spoken word solely by means of… graphic signs.”

Therefore, ancient Greek did not rely on memory to nearly the same extent as the previous languages. In Greek, letters “may be recombined to represent previously unexpected examples of speech.” The letters invented by the Greeks (and subsequently modified by the Romans to create the alphabet we still use today) serve to represent the sounds of modern English and hundreds of other languages the Greeks and Romans never dreamed of. This alphabet was invented in order to free writing from memory, and has succeeded amazingly well.

Until now, that is. The alphabet that made phonics possible is also an alphabet that needs phonics instruction in order to be used properly. Because we have abandoned phonics, the alphabet no longer works for us as well as it has in the past. I have taught many teenage Latin students to syllabify, so that they can read both English and Latin. And this despite the fact that Latin students are a more or less self-selecting bunch: my Latin students are the most ambitious, academically, of their age group. Nevertheless, they frequently don’t read well. This is a result of the continuous confusion brought about by a method of teaching that denies the nature of the material to be taught.

The Roman alphabet, that is, the alphabet the Romans adapted from the Greeks, and which you are using right now, needs to be taught by means of phonics, that is, by means of instruction based on an organized presentation of the sounds of the letters. This is because the spectacular versatility and economy of the alphabet we inherited from the ancients relies for its use on technical expertise with sounds, and not on memory or cultural knowledge, as advocates of the “whole-language” approach claim. The vowels were in fact introduced, as we just saw, in order to free the alphabet from those very relations. Thus it is, as the potsherd shows, that the Greeks taught the sounds of the language directly, as sounds, in much the same way as modern phonics programs.

Thus, the alphabet was designed to be understood as sounds, and one way or another we have to learn skill with sounds in order to learn to use it. Either we learn this skill efficiently and in order, or, as Dr. Moore shows, we spend years trying to guess what to do. Some never can guess, and it’s no wonder. We are asking small children to intuit the organization of a sophisticated invention. We should stop wasting their time with this fantastic requirement. They could benefit so much from a straightforward explanation of how things actually work.

(All citations are from Barry B. Powell, Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet, Cambridge, 1991, which contains an excellent, if scholarly, discussion of the development of the Greek alphabet.)

Edith Foster holds a PhD in Classics from the University of Chicago and writes curricula for the National Endowment for the Humanities.