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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Reading and Recitation

by T. G. Rooper, H.M.I.
Volume 8, 1897, pgs. 359-364

It has always seemed to me a pity that our school exercises in Recitation and Reading should be so little progressive. After a generation of a system of National education, Mr. Punch is, perhaps, right when he gives the following verse as a specimen of the London Board School boy's language, in which a ragamuffin describes the efforts made by the School-boy's Happy Evening Association to amuse him:--

"Pickter books, paints, scales and weightses
For plying at shop! Ah! I tell yer it's better
than stooping for hours over slateses,
Though that's all serene in its wy, I serpose, as
yer carn't get on fur wivout larning,
Not these times, yer carn't, and I'll 'ave ter brush
up at the Board School afore I goes arning,
Leastways Muvver sez so, and she's mostly right.
I 'ave got to larn figgers and spellin',
And do a fair 'Standard' afore I turn ten year,
and then, Muvver sez, there's no tellin'
Ow 'igh I may rise."

In the London dialect, way is pronounced wy, and the newsboy deafens the passer-by with shouts of Dily Piper. Mother and without are called muvver and wivout; spellin' is sounded without a final g, and how without the initial h. Yet, no doubt, the newsboy might pass in reading and belong to a school pronounced excellent.

Defoe, in his journey From London to the Land's End, published in 1724, narrates an amusing story of a schoolboy at Martock in Somersetshire, who translated the Bible into the Somersetshire dialect as he read in class.

"I observed," says Defoe, "the boy read with his eyes still on the book, and his head (like a mere boy) moving from side to side as the lines reached across the columns of the page. His lesson was in the Canticles, verse 3, chap. v. The words were these: 'I have put off my coat. How shall I put it on?

I have washed my feet. How shall I defile them?" The boy read thus, with his eyes as I say full on the text: "Chav a doffed my coat. How shall I don't? Chav washed my veet. How shall I moil `em?" How the dexterous dunce could form his mouth to express so readily in his country jargon the words which stood right printed in the book I could not but admire."

Now the London newsboy can hardly be said to speak a dialect, for a dialect is not the same thing as a corruption of the Queen's English, and the English vernacular seems almost worse at the end of the 19th century than in the days of Queen Anne.

It has always appeared to me that a false emphasis has been placed upon mechanical reading, as thought it were the corner-stone of education.

In our educational curriculum, the value of learning to speak correctly has been underestimated, and the value of a mechanical pass has been overestimated. Correct speech is no unimportant matter, because a child cannot learn to talk English properly without learning at the same time to pay respect and deference to other people, and to increase his own self-respect, besides acquiring a reasonable share of the general knowledge which is current in his generation.

It has always seemed to me that the most valuable and lasting part of the work done in an infant school is the teaching of the children to speak and understand English. An Inspector is apt to overlook the difficulty and importance of this instruction because the results of it have never lent themselves to an expression by percentage.

Yet a mechanical skill in reading from a book, and in adding and subtracting figures on a slate, may be acquired in a few months at almost any period of life. What cannot be so quickly acquired is the poser to speak and understand English, that is, to be able to take part in a conversation and assimilate the contents of a book. The infant school is the place where the children should acquire the rudiments of the use of the English tongue. I know that a rudimentary knowledge of the English tongue is usually understood to be a knowledge of English grammar, and I am always much struck by the interest which parents take in this subject. Grammar, however, as worked out in the Code through parsing and analysis, is not the art which the parents of the children desire them to acquire under this name. In learning any language there is something which grammarians apply themselves to explain with only partial success. The learner has to cultivate a certain linguistic feeling till it becomes an instinct, by which he is led unconsciously to choose and employ certain words and forms of expression while rejecting others. I am referring to what is known as sentence making by analogy. For example, the child learns one day by hearsay from his elders a sentence like, "My mother put my boot on." From this he forms a sentence by analogy when he constructs for himself the analogous sentence, "My sister put my sock on." Common forms of sentences and common ways of connecting them so as to express what is in the speaker's mind, and thereby communicate it to others, stamp themselves on the child's memory by daily usage and practice in the art. The famous Gouin method of learning French seems to me to be sound because it recognises this fact. Rules of grammar help, in the end, to simplify a child's linguistic experience, but they are a hindrance if commenced too early. At the age of ten or eleven, I think a child may usefully read a book like Cobbett's "English Grammar," and that work would, I think, form a good reader for Standard IV. If attention be paid to rules of grammar before the child can speak instinctively with some degree of correctness, the child is apt to overlook the many ways of expressing what he wants to say which lie outside grammar. I allude to gesture, emphasis and varied modulation of voice. In one of the late Mr. Du Mauier's pictures in Punch, a small elder sister, charged with the superintendence of the nursery tea, runs to tell her mother of a breach of discipline which she describes in these words: "Mama, you said when we eat butter with our bread we are not to spread anything else on it. Alfred has buttered his bread and Liebig-potted meated-it too." The verb to Liebig-potted-meated is good. The child must needs learn to make sentences by analogy in this way, often greatly daring, but children can no more learn to speak well without such rash attempts than they can learn to swim without plunging into the water. It is only by such practice, combined with constant supervision and correction on the part of their elders, that they can make progress and avoid solecisms. But the child under proper supervision is not learning parrot-wise. He is rather pursuing the scientific method of repeated experiment, in which failure is instructive and formative as well as success. In these experiments in talking English, the child must use his constructive faculty.

There is no difficulty in finding subjects to talk about in an infant school or nursery. A few pictures from the summer and Christmas numbers of the illustrated papers, and a few of the advertisements, such as the best artists have not disdained to paint, such as Millais' "Bubbles," will supply a suitable basis for conversation. Everyone will have noticed that quite small children love to use a new word as soon as they have heard it, provided that it related to an object that interests them--even a rather long word.

In any infant school, every lesson or occupation, whatever else it may be, should be a language lesson. Within certain limits, this applies even to manual occupations. The usual way (I wish I could say the disused method) of teaching infants to read appears to me to violate all sound sense and principle. They are (or were) first taught their letters, that is, the names of them, which accounts for the remark of the groom, "If a haitch and a ho and a har and a hess don't spell `orse, I don't know what does." The children are next introduced to short words or parts of words by combining the letters, and then they come to sentences. During all this process the child starts with abstractions and symbols and ends with concrete facts or ideas. The method is logical, but what have infants to do with logic?

It is a better plan to start with something concrete, say a picture of Red Riding Hood. Let the picture be placed well in sight of the class. Then let the children hear the story narrated in a conversational way, with all that attention to circumstance which children love. Let the narrative be much interrupted with questions and constant reference to the picture. The interest of the children will be maintained partly by their pointing out in the picture details which they hear about in the story and partly by constructing their answers in complete sentences. For almost the whole art of teaching English in the early stages consists in training the children to form their answers in complete sentences, instead of in single words or fragments of sentences. On occasion, an answer may be demanded in a single word, but children should be able to express themselves in complete sentences when asked. After the children have learnt the story of the picture, it may be used on another occasion as the basis of a reading lesson. It has been used for a lesson in speaking: it will now be a suitable foundation for a lesson in reading. If for quite beginners, the method will be as follows:--The picture of Red Riding Hood being placed in front of the class, the children's attention is directed to the cloak. "Tell me in one word what is the colour of this cloak." The answer is red. Let the children repeat the word red very slowly and clearly till they succeed in separating the first letter from the rest of the word and can say it apart from the other letters, a feat that requires some practice, but which leads more than any other exercise to clearness of pronunciation. R-r-r-r-ed. It may help to utter the word "bread" in order to produce the rolling sound of r. Now tell the children to watch you while you show them how this word may be written on the board. Let the children sound r-r-r-r while you write the letter r; then while you write "--ed," let them sound these two letters in combination. You will note that you are teaching the first letter--the r--phonically, and the rest of the work on the "look and say" method. The name of the letter r, as distinguished from its sound, may be conveniently introduced by teaching that "r says r-r-r-r-r." The next step will be to resort to word building. Where did Riding Hood find her grandmother? In bed. Now proceed with "bed" as with "red," teaching the new part of the word-- that is, the sound and the name of b--phonically as before, and the "-ed" on the "look and say" method. The list of words ending in "-ed" may be gradually extended. We must remember that abstractions are difficult and distasteful to children, and that a written word is a very abstract thing. It is doubly abstract, a kind of quintessence of sublimation from the concrete. For the word, as spoken, is itself a symbol for the thing signified, while the written word is a symbol of the spoken word--a symbol of a symbol. The plan which I advocate reduces the difficulty of learning to read because it makes the exercise less abstract. From the beginning, the child sees that writing is an expression for some word which he has in mind. The word is a symbol or sign. The child starts with the object or a picture of it; he learns to utter the spoken word, that is the name of something in the picture, and he passes on directly to the mode of expressing the spoken word in writing. When the child repeats the word "red," and has the sound of it still ringing in his ears, while he is still looking at the "red cloak" in the picture, he can easily connect with the word the printed symbol "red," while it is being build up in his sight on the blackboard.

(to be continued)

Proofread by Stephanie H. 2008