19 Feb 2011

Watering down what’s already watered down

I am no expert when it comes to education of young children. I have only my own experience of learning (which admittedly took place decades ago), and the experience of how and what I taught Punks. But to me, there seem to be something out of whack in teaching a six years old a word that does not exist!!

A number of made-up words such as "koob" or "zort" are to be included in the government's planned new reading test for six-year-olds in England.

When Punks was about 4 years old she started kindergarten – or preschool as they say in England. Had I my way, I would not have sent her at all, but because her mother had to work (I was in Trinidad and Punks and her mom were in England), it was a convenient thing to do. Imagine then my horror when I came up to England and found out the preschool had ‘undone’ all I had taught her.

To start with, they started teaching her phonetics. This is something I support in (very) limited doses, primarily because in phonetics,  the spoken dialect and accent has a major role to play in grammar and especially spelling (also word recognition and association). For example, ‘umbrella’ – with the distinctive UM sound – becomes ‘OOMbrella’ in the Brummies' dialect, resulting in a misspelling in the phonetic method. As does ‘appuratus’ – I am sure you can figure that one out. Brummies drop their t’s and their h’s. So butter become bu’er, water becomes wa’er, and historic becomes ‘istoric resulting in ‘an historic’ grammatical error perpetuated by the English teachers.

The idea now to teach phonetic sounds of non-words may seem a good idea to the authorities but practically, I have to agree with some of the experts in languages.

President of the UK Literacy Association David Reedy said the inclusion of non-words would be counter productive since most six-year-olds expect to make sense of what they read.

"The test is trying to control all the different variables so that things like meaning don't get in the way.

"We think that seems a bit bonkers when the whole purpose of reading is to understand words," he said.

He added that the test itself was sending out the message that all words are decodable using phonics when they are not.

"There are many words with which you have to use a 'look and say' approach. This is the case with many common words such as 'the' and 'once'," he said.

This was because the English language is not phonically regular like German or Finnish, he said.

"Children should be using a number of sources of information to be able to work out what a word is. There is the context, the sentence itself and whether they have that word in their spoken lexicon," Mr Reedy said.

The way I see it, the problem in including non-words will produce a generation (or generations) of even more illiterate young adults before the mistake is realised. Why? At the age of 6, a child cannot recognise a word from a non-word. If a non-word is written in a book, which children naturally perceive as authoritative, then the assumption will be that the word is a legitimate one.

It won’t surprise me to hear an argument as follows:

Child: “Miss, it is too a word.”

Miss: “Zort is not a word!”

Child: “But it is right here in my reading book, Miss. That proves it’s a word.”

Sure, words are made up regularly and added to the language. Google for instance. But unless used – usually worldwide - regularly, I can’t see ‘zort’ filling in a gap. Even a made-up word has to mean something. But children at the age of 6 won’t know this. Any written word is legitimate, especially from something as authoritative as a school book..

Sure, one may argue that imaginative children make up words during play. In that context, the children know it is a made up word because they ‘invented’ it themselves, especially to fit a purpose during play. And unless the word is ‘accidently’ a correct one later verified by a written source such as a dictionary, that word will soon be dropped from regular vocabulary.

I look forward to seeing the results of this further dumbing down of the already watered down teaching system.