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How many 'r's are there?

"I know so many letters now," my son informs me on the way to school. "I know a, b, c. . ."

"That's good, " I reply mechanically, while steering him over the road.

"Yes," he continues enthusiastically, "and do you know, Mummy, there's the letters of all our names in them!" I didn't have time to ask him what we'd have done if some of the letters of our names turned out not to have been in the alphabet (which I suppose is the phonetic experience of people with non-European backgrounds), but his expression of wonder at the sheer usefulness of the system reminded me of an incident a few weeks before in the classroom.

We had been watching the BBC programme Words and Pictures and learning about the letter known as "r" which has apparently changed its sound by deed poll to an "urrr" noise slightly reminiscent of women in the last stage of childbirth.

There was a jolly story set in a jungle (all this alliteration is catching) with a lion who had, of course, to "roar" at other animals amid foliage of a Faberge-like splendour. Afterwards we all settled down to spot elements in the pictures which began with an "r" (or "urrr", depending). There was a man with a rucksack and red hair; there were rhinos and a row boat; there were red roses. And what else begins with an "r"?

We had some good ones: ring, rest and rhododendron. We also had more puzzling contributions.

"Chimpanzee". "No, Betsy, chimpanzee begins with a 'ch'. There is a chimpanzee in the picture but chimpanzee does not begin with 'urr'."

"Monkey". "No, Michael, monkey does not begin with 'urr'. It begins with 'mm'. Do you remember, we did 'mm' last week?" "Dog". "No, Terry, dog doesn't begin with 'urr', does it? What does it begin with?" Blank stare from Terry. Hands waving excitedly from a few others.

"Dog begins with 'dd'.

"Who can think of something else beginning with 'urr'? Terry's hand goes up again. "Yes, Terry?"


We all agree that rock begins with "urr" and as Demetris goes up to draw a rock, Hank's hand shoots up. Hank is very clever. He is an only child and wise beyond his years, with a steady gaze that is very disconcerting when he is refusing to do what you ask. "Does 'wrist' begin with an 'urr'?" He and a few others are duly intrigued with the answer about a silent "w". This throws a whole new loop into the phonics system.

Jake was right: there clearly are silent letters lurking in hordes on the fringes of the alphabet, just out of reach of twisting tongues. But several children who were confident about initial phonics now stare at "wrist" written in black on a large sheet of yellow paper. Just what are the rules anyway?

In this class of 33 there is a huge range of linguistic competence. There are children who can read fairly fluently at the age of five. There are four-year-olds who seem unsure about the nature of a book. They may still turn the pages the wrong way. There are many who are grasping towards reading, with whole-word recognition, fostered by the reading scheme and large group writing activities developing alongside phonics. And there is a significant group which enjoys stories but regard the written language in an altogether detached fashion; the process whereby ideas and narratives are articulated into printed pages is opaque.

Writing their news is one time-honoured way of bridging this gap. Everyone knows the routine: the child tells its news, the teacher writes it down, the child copies the writing and draws a picture to accompany the tale.

None the less, there are still children who go through this process weekly without somehow connecting what they say with what the teacher writes down - with a system of symbols and code. Whether this is because they are so used to television, where images float the story effortlessly into their imaginations, or whether they are simply not mature enough to master codification, I can't tell.

These are not, however, socially or emotionally deprived children, to judge by their dress and the level of affectionate greeting at the classroom door; they are not only children or, as far as one can make these judgements at this stage, do they have lower levels of innate ability. They just, like President Bush, don't get it.

And gosh, what a disadvantage that is, even now. Look at Hank, buzzing round the classroom like a busy bee. He is never at a loss. And look at Terry, an absolute sweetheart, who is thoughtfully twiddling his pencil. "What does begin with 'r'?" he asks, shyly.

Patience is a parent helper in a reception classroom

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