Literacy on a Sheet of Paper

A self-study method for Tamil
(and other phonetic writing systems).

| Proposal for Funding |

| Tamil Alphabet Puzzle | Vowel Table | Consonant Table | TamilWeb@UPenn | Teachionary | On Vacation, Trip Report |


A new method is described and demonstrated here which may make it possible to deliver literacy education to a smart and motivated illiterate person at the cost of a sheet or two of paper, with little or no investment of time or explanation from a teacher. Field experiments are required to prove it out, but if this method is successful even for only a small percentage of recipients, it would be a practical and affordable way to bring literacy to millions.

The scale of the problem

Consider India, with an estimated 400 million illiterate people. Effective, free, public education is not widely available in India, and private teachers demand payments which most cannot afford. Given the scale of this problem, well-meaning people, organizations and governments are really helpless. It is impractical for resource-limited institutions to pay for or organize literacy development programs that can influence more than a few tens or, optimistically, hundreds of thousands of people. So the great mass of poor people in India, and elsewhere in the world, for that matter, have no way out of the illiteracy trap. This work aims to a practical solution to this dilemma.

The Idea

Linguists and phoneticians have traditionally used sound charts to relate letters or symbols to mouth positions and movements. Vowel and consonant charts are tables labelled with names of phonetic characteristics, such as "labial", "dental", and so forth, and they are universally used by students in introductory phonetics and phonology classes to learn the sound-symbol correspondence of the International Phonetic Alphabet. Here we will use similar charts as the basis for learning the sound-symbol correspondence, by making them understandable to illiterate people so they can associate their native language's sounds to the symbols of its alphabet.

How I thought of it

When I was visiting South India recently, since I'm a phonetician and a linguist, I made a small personal study of the Tamil language, which is spoken in the region I was visiting. I discovered what many already knew, that they do not make distinctive use of the voicing dimension. That is, they have no contrasts between /p/ and /b/, or between /s/ and /z/, or between /k/ and /g/, etc. Instead, they have a sound that is phonetically in-between our categories, and depending on the adjacent sounds it can sound more like our voiced sound or more like our unvoiced sound, but in Tamil this difference doesn't make a difference between words as it does in English and many other languages.

That discovery got me to thinking, and I realized that the consonant chart for Tamil only needs two dimensions, not three, since voicing can be ignored. That means that a TWO dimensional table of sounds will fully represent the sounds of this language.

The usual consonant chart is a three-dimensional table. The dimensions are

With Tamil, a two dimensional chart showing place and manner of articulation can represent all the consonants. Such a display is so pleasantly simple that I thought it ought to be understandable for children and even adult illiterate people. Indeed there's no reason that one can't figure out how a table works, just because one doesn't know how to read. Since I myself was learning to read Tamil during this whole trip, I eventually had another insight, that would help completely illiterate people make use of sound charts: simply change the labels of the columns and rows of the sound charts from words to pictures!

How it works

The two insights, of having a two-dimensional chart for sounds and using pictures as the labels of the columns and rows, are the basis of this new method. No literacy skills are required for a reasonably intelligent and illiterate person to interpret such a table. All one needs to know is that the tables represent the sounds for each letter, and then one can figure out the rest entirely alone.

The arbitrary sound-symbol correspondence is the biggest obstacle in literacy. Without knowing in detail the elements of that unpredictable, impossible-to-guess, correspondence, it is completely impossible to read or write. But if you know that much, you can at least sound out the letter sequences, and thereby figure out the words that they represent (for words you happen to know).

And until now, without the commitment of a teacher or other expensive methods to teach that correspondence, there is no way for an illiterate person to learn it. THIS is the main problem; everything else is a footnote.

In short, a completely illiterate person should be able to to understand these charts, and learn the letter-to-sound correspondences, without any previous knowledge of how to read. Since that arbitrary correspondence is in itself the primary obstacle to basic literacy, a single sheet of paper, along with a one-minute explanation of the purpose of it and how to interpret the charts, may be all the outside intervention that a motivated and intelligent but illiterate person needs in order to figure out how to read.


Literacy also includes other skills: This method is therefore limited to languages with phonetic writing systems, the more consistently so the better. It assumes learners can figure out how to manipulate a pencil on their own. It doesn't try to teach separate literate vocabulary; that's everyone's lifelong task.

In short, we do not attempt to provide full literacy, but only basic literacy skills. Despite this limitation, the method solves the central problem, which is enough to enable learners with absolutely no other educational resources to learn enough to read and write for themselves and to begin to understand and learn about more advanced literacy skills.

Implementation for Tamil

Since Tamil can be handled with a simpler consonant chart, using two dimensions instead of three, our first work is with Tamil. On a single sheet of paper can be printed the two tables displayed below (along with some enhancements discussed after the tables). These two tables relate the symbols of the language's alphabet to the positions and movements of the lips and tongue.

The drawings that label each row and column are clear enough to unambiguously pick out the sound associated with each symbol in the table.

Tamil speakers who do not know how to read should be able to figure out the sound-symbol relationships for their script by carefully studying these pictures and making the movements and sounds indicated.

Most people that I have shown these tables to, who are not Tamil speakers or readers, have been able to guess the sound associated with each symbol, on the first attempt, about half the time.

These pictures may provide all the information needed to figure out how to read, by oneself, without a teacher or any other assistance or support, simply by studying this puzzle-like document and figuring it out. Not every illiterate person can be expected to do this successfully, but the intelligent and motivated ones will succeed, and they will be able to teach others.







Three enhancements will complete the puzzle of the Tamil alphabet. Three additional enhancements will make it easier to figure it out.
  1. Diphthongs. The two tables cover all the single phonemes ("simple sounds") of the Tamil alphabet, except for /ai/, /au/, and /ksha/, which can be represented as sequences of the simple sounds. Some formulas like "a + i = ai" can provide the needed answers here.

  2. Syllables. The Tamil script also includes "syllable" symbols, composed of a consonant symbol with some diacritic mark or additional symbol representing the following vowel. These are essential to know in reading Tamil. A third table, not shown here, can provide the needed information. The table will have rows labelled with the consonant symbols already learned, and columns labelled with the vowel symbols already learned, and with each cell containing the consonant-vowel syllabic symbols of the Tamil script.

  3. Vowel-less consonants. Finally, the Tamil script includes a diacritic dot above the consonant symbols, which indicates that the schwa vowel implicit in each consonant symbol is absent, as in word-final consonants or cluster-initial consonants. I'm tempted to say that this dot's phonological meaning can be discovered without explanation by readers who know the words that they are reading. But some formula similar to "ka - a = k" is also possible to show the relationships.

The above items complete the coverage of the information content of the Tamil script. Three additional items, below, will help to ease the task of learning and memorization for students.

  1. Cross-confirmation. A means of cross-confirmation is needed so students know when they have guessed correctly. This can be provided in the form of a list of object-name/picture pairs, one for each letter in the alphabet. This "a for apple" idea can be applied easily, by selecting, for each letter in the script, a short, easy, unambiguous, and easily drawn object name starting with that letter, and by including a drawing of that object in a corner of the corresponding cell of the table. These pictures will provide both cross-confirmation to the student that they have guessed the sound for the symbol correctly, and indeed it provides an additional clue about the sound itself.

  2. Minimal text. A minimal text which maximally exercises the reading abilities of the student will help as a memory aid. In English, the famous example is the sentence, "A quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog", which contains every letter in the alphabet. A similarly short and exemplary text should be concocted to add to the page.

  3. "Pass it on." The last thing on the delivered document should be a request written in the students' language: "You received this as a gift from the many people who helped to make it and bring it to you, who all wish you well. When you can read these words, know that you have made us very happy. We now ask you in return to give the same gift to others by teaching them what you have learned. For this we thank you."

Potential Problems

To do:

By following this plan, it is not unreasonable to hope that a significant percentage of the world's illiteracy problem can cheaply and quickly be overcome. Not every illiterate person will be able to puzzle it out, but a significant percentage will be able to, and each one who does can teach others, using the same document.

How You Can Help

Please help us to make this vision a reality. See our
funding proposal for the validation experiments. One way you can contribute is to help validate the method by visiting the Tamil Alphabet Puzzle and giving your guess of what English sound is closest to each of the various symbols. Your guesses will help us evaluate how well the system works. (In early data, >90% of submitted answers have been correct, so guessing accuracy is indeed pretty high.)

This project needs help with these additional items:

Of course if I go to Chennai I can probably solve these pretty quickly, but here in the US, your help is the only way. Please contacte me! Praise and dialog is what gets me working on this. Your suggestions and moral support are so precious!

This project also needs suggestions and contacts of people and institutions who can help in any part of it. Right now volunteer work doesn't seem to be getting things done too quickly. So I am seeking pilot-project funding to pay for art-work, linguists, testing, and distribution, basically to send myself to India to do some experiments and come back and write it up, before scaling it up to be a large-scale delivery project.


Copyright © 2005-2016, Thomas C. Veatch.
Last Modified: November 21, 2016