Dr. Mark Sebba

Dr. Mark Sebba is Professor of Linguistics at Lancaster University. He is author of multiple publications in sociolinguistics and multilingualism, including Spelling and Society.

What is your background?

I am a university-trained linguist. My early research was in creole languages and multilingualism. I then moved on to studying orthography, and my current interests include written multilingualism.

What is your profession?

Academic linguist.

What is your experience with language in your personal/professional life?

My professional life is devoted to teaching and researching different aspects of linguistics, mainly sociolinguistics and multilingualism.

The autonomous model for orthography (and the underlying assumptions of English being phonetic) is the dominant model as it applies to education. Is this model meeting the needs of students? Why, why not?

The autonomous model is strictly functional and insofar as it relates to the design of new orthographies, it would claim to serve the interests of learners by ensuring that the orthography is easy to learn. I would question that, but in any case it is not really relevant in the case of English where there is already an established orthography with no realistic prospect of change. The autonomous model is not of much use here because it doesn’t give the learner any insights into why things are the way they are, or how to learn.

The sociocultural model outlined in your book addresses social and historical perspectives. To what degree should these be considered when teaching kids to read and or write? Why?

Clearly, it is not *necessary* to know the social and historical context of a spelling system in order to learn it. I would not claim that a sociocultural model of orthography has an immediate pedagogical application. However, I think that looking at spelling in a historical and social context can be useful for learners, for example:
– it can help learners to understand that spelling is a conventional system, that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are the results of historically developed conventions that can change over time.
– it is useful to understand that spelling plays a role in culture, and is part of a value system. Specifically, being able to spell is treated as a sign of good education, and ‘bad spelling’ is seen as evidence of stupidity or even malice. But this is all a matter of societal attitudes rather than some natural law.

Is English orthography too complex for students to learn without having synthetic constructs (i.e. phonics) overlayed? For example syllable division of ak/ shun as opposed to morphology act + ion?

Clearly, English orthography is not ‘too complex’ for people to learn because we have very high levels of literacy in most English-speaking countries. On the other hand, the English orthography is not straightforward to learn and many people have difficulties with it. I am not involved in teaching children to read and write, so I can’t speak from experience in this, but I would be suspicious of anyone who claimed that there was one right way to learn how to spell. Different learners may benefit from different methods. For some phonological awareness may help and for others it may be unnecessary.

Where can we find more about your work?

From my web profile http://www.ling.lancs.ac.uk/profiles/Mark-Sebba/ or at https://lancaster.academia.edu/MarkSebba