About that “Cambridge Letter”

November 3, 2011 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+ Articles

I cdnuolt blveiee that I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd what I was rdanieg The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mtaetr in what oerdr the ltteres in a word are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is that the frsit and last ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can still raed it whotuit a pboerlm. This is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the word as a wlohe. Azanmig huh? Yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt!

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht frist and lsat ltteer is at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by it slef but the wrod as a wlohe. ceehiro.

Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer waht oredr the ltters in a wrod are, the lony iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteres are at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a tatol mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by it slef but the wrod as a wlohe.

Whenever a version of this letter arrives in my e-mail box once again, I explain to my friends that they shouldn’t keep circulating it. OK, killjoy. But it’s a pet peeve. I think people tend to take pleasure in reading something that furthers the popular misconception that the English language is hopelessly unpredictable. It might even give some the courage to conclude that phonics instruction is a waste of time, and go back to predictable text instruction. Or, perhaps drop any emphasis on correct spelling. Oh dear. The English language does have some sight words, but it is a very regular, predictable language, actually, and when it is well taught, people should end up being very good spellers as well as readers.

As a special educator, and literacy consultant, I try to set people straight about misconceptions regarding reading. I’ve received copies of this “Cambridge Letter” many times. Perhaps all my friends think it pretty funny, knowing what I teach. Actually, there isn’t any proof that Cambridge University even wrote this (neither the US, nor the UK Cambridge). In fact, it’s highly doubtful. It has caught the attention of many, who’ve tried to figure out why it is readable to readers, and why some other transformations can be much more difficult to read. Try googling the topic if you want to delve into the study of mixed letters inside words.

Basically, good readers can read the Cambridge letter, because after years of reading, they instantly recognize many words, almost like they were a logo. Having the letters partially mixed up, especially internally, still allows good readers to figure out quickly what the word is meant to be, partly because of the proper order of most letters. For instance,  a word like Cmabrigde only has two sets of letters twisted, and there just aren’t many words similar to Cambridge that would confuse us as options for what it might be. Can you think of any? In a four letter word there is only one option to correct the misspelling, given that the first and last letters aren’t changed. Furthermore, some words are spelled correctly so that we don’t get lost. If you can’t change the first and last letter, you can’t twist the letters in words like “to,” “was,” or “the.” The words that are spelled correctly tend to be the little, but very important words, function words that lack a lot of character but clue one as to the part of speech to follow (a person, place or thing, an action word, etc.).

Poor readers, and beginning readers, would have trouble reading this because the human mind actually DOES look at each letter when reading words that aren’t instantly recognized. These words can’t be decoded/sounded out because of the incorrect order, therefore it would become too difficult to read. We do look at letters, and correct spelling is important. My concern is that, when we circulate this letter, we encourage people to conclude that it isn’t important to teach children to sound out words, understand word patterns, or spell correctly. We may encourage people to continue to teach reading as though children should just memorize each word. This approach produces children who fall apart around third grade, or never get the hang of spelling even if they do succeed in memorizing common words. Teaching reading as a process of recognizing whole words (often through picture clues) just isn’t supported by research. Learning to sound out words based on syllable patterns in the beginning, and later on by recognizing morphological units such as prefixes, suffixes, and Latin roots, etc. is supported by research.