Broad terms of reference

22nd September 1995 at 01:00
FUN WITH ENGLISH SERIES WORD ORIGINS. By George Beal - 0 550 32507 7.

ENGLISH USAGE. By George Beal - 0 550 35204 2.

GOOD SPELLING, By William Edmonds - 0 550 32501 8.

GOOD GRAMMAR. By William Edmonds - 0 550 32500 X.

Chambers Pounds 3.50 each. Age range 7 plus

Originally published as part of the Kingfisher Wordmaster series edited by John Grisewood, these first titles under the Chambers imprint will be followed by eight others over the course of the year. They aim to "make learning about the variety of English fun for younger readers".

The titles follow different formats: English Usage and Word Origins are set out alphabetically as reference books; Good Spelling provides a double page spread for different aspects of spelling, while Good Grammar is divided into two sections, the first concerned with the need for good grammar, the second, and much the longer, with sentence construction.

Of the four titles, Word Origins is the most interesting with its list of word derivations and their meanings. However, the reasons why English has absorbed words from so many different languages is dealt with in a cursory fashion. There is also the problem of attracting the children to the book in the first place. Are they likely to seek out the etymology of alcohol, alligator or ambush unless directed to do so by the teacher? And under what circumstances is that likely to occur?

It seems to me that there is far greater likelihood of developing an interest in words, their meanings and their derivations if children make discoveries for themselves, for example by using a resource such as the Kingfisher Picture Pocket Dictionary by Betty Root, in which children come across nuggets of information about the history of words and language in "fun word origin boxes" as they use the dictionary.

The purpose of Good Spelling likewise mystifies me. The advice it gives is basically sound and it is good to see a recognition of the importance of invented spelling - even if you do have to wait until chapter 11. But should children of this age be introduced to the terms onomatopoeia, homonyms and homophones all together in chapter 3?

In chapter 8 children are given two pages of rules, with the inevitable exceptions, and then they are invited to "see which one suits you best and which you find easiest to remember".

English Usage and Good Grammar suffer from similar problems of lack of awareness of audience. Few primary aged children will be capable of reading and understanding the text without adult mediation, yet the books are presumably intended to be used primarily for reference. As such, I fear that they will suffer the fate of their Kingfisher Wordmaster originals, individual copies of which I often see as all too obviously pristine copies on the teacher's bookshelf.

Mark Freeman is English Advisory Teacher for Devon.

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