A chance remark in a conversation I was having with someone last week made me remember an article I read a long time ago about schools who teach children elocution lessons.
We were talking about phonics, a topic I have discussed many times on this blog.
Phonics is a synthetic system of learning to read which relies upon teaching children to recognise the sounds that letters, or groups of letters make, rather than teaching them the traditional alphabet and relying on them to remember how whole words sounds by simply repeating what their teacher has said.
Synthetic phonics systems give the children a method by which they can break words into the appropriate sound groups and build words for themselves. This ability to build up and break down words also supports the move from reading to writing more coherently than previous ‘look and learn’ methods of instilling these skills.
The issue, with sound based learning systems like phonics is that there is a phonetically accepted way of pronouncing/hearing/listening to and recognising a sound, and then there is how people around the country speak according to various dialects and accents which will put different stresses on different sounds that don’t always tally with the phonetically correct counterparts.
An example would be the ‘ff’ sound that many people use instead of ‘th’.
So the word ‘bath’ becomes ‘baff’.
Phonetically speaking the ‘th’ sound is quite short and clipped. You kind of put your tongue against the back of your teeth and ‘click’ the sound out.
You can teach a child this sound successfully, but if they always say ‘baff’ at home, a sound which requires a different mouth shape, a kind of hiss/whisper with the tongue set further back in the mouth, it can be hard for them to recognise that they need to spell ‘bath’, ‘bath’, or that the word ‘bath’ is real but the word ‘baff’ isn’t.
Where I live the word ‘bus’ is often pronounced ‘buzz’, which is more confusing as it not only mixes sounds but muddles two words that are actually correct, but have completely different meanings.
Regional differences in accent and dialect can make it hard for small children to understand or hear the differences between the sounds you are showing them and expecting them to reproduce.
Our school uses Ruth Miskin’s ‘Read Write Inc’ phonics system to teach children to read. Miskin’s scheme accepts that there will be regional accents which make a difference to children’s understanding, but claim that if properly taught, this does not hamper a child’s ability to understand and use their phonics system successfully.
The fact that it is being used successfully all over the country supports this claim, but being on the factory floor, as it were, I see that sometimes, particularly with the early years children, it can hamper their progress, and prove frustrating for both the child and the teacher. If the only modelling of correct sounds they hear is in school time, and only intensively during phonics lessons, it is usually the case that the familiar and every day will take precedence over what is learned in school.
It is not so important that they ‘say’ the words correctly in all honesty. It is important that they translate that spoken knowledge into something that can be reproduced in written form, and that when the word is written down, it is written correctly.
This is where elocution lessons can help.
Elocution lessons are no longer all about talking like Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, and being able to say: ‘The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain’ in an RP accent. They can help with all kinds of things that hamper children’s learning from lisps and speech impediments to other issues which may normally be referred to a speech therapist.
Elocution lessons can provide much needed support and back up for a synthetic phonics system.
This article from the Telegraph in January of last year (2012), shows how an Essex school are successfully using elocution lessons to support their pupils reading and writing skills.
Debbie Hepplewhite, a teacher, creator of phonics systems and blogger on the subject writes her thoughts about it here.
She and I have exchanged ideas about phonics in the past on this blog. Here, she might be delighted to know, I am actually in agreement with her!