Wired for word play

8th March 1996 at 00:00
Rhyme, reading and writing. Edited by Roger Beard. Hodder Stoughton Pounds 10.99.

In this heartening book five experts from various fields contribute to the current debate on literacy. Tom McArthur goes back 250 million years to the origins of vocal sound and traces speech developing through the "fossilised" patterns of songs and chants long before script was possible. All this puts our present dilemmas into reassuring perspective. Literacy is the ruse by which the human spirit sets its mark on the world. Each generation must labour under the imperative to order and control those intractable patterns of sound unique to human beings and so often restored and renewed in rhyme and rhythm. Moreover, such sound is "something so many years in the making that our children are born "wired for it and through it". To make poetry the basis of literacy is to go with the grain of human personality.

Tom McArthur distinguishes between rhyme in the broad sense: alliteration, onomatopoeia etc, and rhyme in the narrower sense, most commonly understood as end-stop rhyming. Sandy Brownjohn develops this in her lucid chapter on children's writing. She deals firmly with the popular misconception that poetry must rhyme in the narrow sense and deplores the doggerel so unnecessarily characteristic of some poems written by children. But this is a chapter sympathetic to teachers who have not been taught those subtleties of internal rhyme, assonance, etc, which neither neutralise thought nor compromise meaning. Moreover, this craft is intuitive, held securely within ancestral memory, ready to be drawn on by the teacher. Final vindication comes in a Year 6 boy's writing, teased at and re-drafted into an enigmatic, thoughtfully crafted sonnet.

Marion Whitehead is equally persuasive with children's delight in nonsense word play. She cites the Russian children who, fed socially useful information, transformed it into the kind of nonsense on which their own apprehension of reality depended. The Opies' work, comprehensively discussed by Georgina Boyes, is further testimony to such subversive creativity. Interestingly, she ponders whether the Fifties' censorship of the vulgarities in playground rhymes is matched by an equally savage censorship of political correctness. But her chapter too is immensely hopeful. This is "the ancient tribe of children" (Marion Whitehead), for whom metaphor is meaning and whose teachers must ensure "the right connections . . . [are] made with the power of a culture".

Always there must be accountability and Usha Goswami's research provides evidence of the predictive relationship between early rhyming and later reading. Frances James's account of her special needs project in Suffolk primary schools acknowledges her debt to Goswami's work on "rime" analogies and, despite the limitations of a six-week programme, James's evidence of improved reading ages is wholly satisfying.

Brian Morse's over-view of rhyming poetry for children is eclectic and well-judged. His notion of the book as a risk is a salient antidote against the quick-fix expediency which, in attempting to eliminate chanciness, has destroyed trust and compromised standards. Perhaps the most heartening feature of this book is its freedom from jargon, its place within an historical context which abjures simplistic solutions in favour of trust in the atavistic and indestructible impulse to make meaning with words.

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