Communicate first

12th January 1996 at 00:00
Nicholas Bielby welcomes a thorough approach to language. Longman Book Project. Language 4 Evaluation Pack Pounds 39.50 Age range 10 - 12

In the Longman Book Project, the language element runs alongside the fiction and non-fiction elements to provide a structured course to support reading and writing activities.

Language 4, building on the earlier units, is concerned not only with sentence grammar, spelling, vocabulary, punctuation and layout, but with styles and uses adapted to different contexts, critical awareness of language choices for literary and other purposes and with varieties of language and origins of words.

Considering how sketchy the revised Order is in relation to language study, and how inadequate most primary teachers feel in relation to language and grammar, I expect the Book Project language materials to be widely welcomed. Running through the junior years, they constitute not only a systematic approach for children, but effectively also, through the Teacher's Resource Books, an Inset course for teachers. Indeed, a glance at the glossary intended for top juniors might well at first daunt many in the profession. The tasks, however, are well gauged to the brighter top junior child, relating the discussion closely to texts and challenging reflection on the ways that language works.

The approach to language is in the Kingman tradition. That is to say, it is descriptive and concerned with communication, rather than prescriptive and concerned with "correctness". David Crystal is a major consultant and the project has the weight of authority behind it. It encourages children to examine their own experience and intuitive knowledge of language and promotes its more perceptive use and appreciation. For example, the approach to spelling emphasises word families and etymology, putting spelling into a broader context of developing vocabulary and language knowledge.

The learning materials comprise: the Language Book divided into 11 study units on a variety of issues from fact, opinion and argument to fiction and genre, by way of style and purpose, parts and figures of speech and punctuation; a workbook on spelling, vocabulary and presentation; and photocopiable materials in the Resource Book which are a mix of supportive instruction and exercises.

The writers of the national curriculum will be glad that the programme begins with standard English. While it insists that non-standard does not mean sub-standard, the tasks still talk of "correct standard English". Though the definition offered suggests standard English is a "minority variety" of English, it would probably have been helpful to point out that 95 per cent of the words and grammar of 95 per cent of the regional dialects of English are standard. We don't have to introduce children to Standard English as if it were a foreign language. There is also a danger of suggesting that standard English always means formal English.

Perhaps as a result of compression in this complex area, some potential confusions have crept in. For instance, the offered distinction between "conjunction" and "connective" is sophisticated and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. If you turn to the glossary, their definitions are almost identical except that "connective" appears to cover links between sentences as well as within. However, in the task, the distinction relates to links within a sentence. I think a 10 year-old could well be perplexed. Again, in talking about onomatopoeia in certain poems, the term is used to cover all kinds of sound effect, not just imitative ones (as the glossary suggests), and alliteration is presented as a sub-type of onomatopoeia. Over all, however, the quality of the texts discussed and of the instructive tasks and discussion is high. This is the most thorough-going and successful project in this area that I know.

Nicholas Bielby is a lecturer in education at Leeds University School of Education.

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