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From benevolent to malevolent in 'fonix'

As the debate over the future of phonics rumbles on, two educationists discuss the part looking at the French roots of English should play in teaching reading

Jacqueline King writes: I was interested in John Bald's article "Reading the riot act to both sides in the phonic dispute" (Primary Forum, February 14, 2003) as it reinforced my teaching of word origins in my Year 56 class in a small village school.

Over the past two years we have been translating Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone into French. It is at a pretty basic level, with questions and statements, such as: Harry Potter est le top! Mais, alors, regardez sa cicatrice! (scar) Voila! C'est L'Allee Diagon!

Qui est Malfoy? Malfoy est un mauvais garcon. Il n'est pas sympa, pas du tout.

A few weeks ago, we discussed the origins of the name Malfoy, and I explained that "malmale" originates from Latin, like so many other words, and that the prefix is spread across French, Spanish, English and Italian.

The whole class (which is of very mixed in ability) learned about mal de mer, mal du pays, and mal ... la tete, and also ca me fait mal and mal chance.

They looked up words prefixed with "mal" in various dictionaries, according to inclination and ability, and every child uses words such as "malevolent" and "malicious" with great gusto.

The children all know that, for example, Tim the Ostler in Alfred Noyes's The Highwayman became malevolent because of his great longing for Bess, the landlord's red-lipped daughter, and as a result he spread malicious stories.

In Sir Patrick Spens, the sailor thinks that the omen of the old moon in the new moon's arms is a malevolent sign.

We touched on benevolent, benefit, beneficial, bien, and bien fait. This is normal practice, and usually it works, while taking prefixes out of context (auto-, bi-) is just an exercise.

Now we are starting to translate Beatrix Potter's The Fierce Bad Rabbit, with its benevolent little victim and malevolent aggressor.

Benevolent is how I feel about teaching when I do this. Malevolent is the rage that overcomes me when faced with yet another instruction from the literacy strategists, which so rarely connect with a real classroom of individuals.

* Keith Davidson writes: John Bald aired the "French connections" in English spelling in TES Primary magazine four years ago but still hasn't got the point judging by his more recent TES article.

It is not that "many words ... cannot be built up by standard phonic techniques because they are based on a different relationship between sounds and letters".

It is that there is a good deal more to spelling patterns than sound-symbol correspondences, the semantic and grammatical cues that override phonic cues.

For instance, typically preserving lexical identity in the face of changes in stress and vowel quality in related forms as in: phone, phonetics, phonics, symphony... where "phone" is the common semantic element, where "ph" signals "technicalcultural" and "ic" and "s" as grammatical markers (adjectival and nominal) - so not "fonix" .

So it is not a matter of random "look and say", nor merely the "French connections". It is of learning sooner or later to recognise these other systematic letter relationships.

Jacqueline King teaches at Charlton Mackrell Church of England primary in Somerset. Keith Davidson is a retired Open University lecturer on readingdevelopment issues

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