The new Fluency

Abstract: At school, the debate is about how to teach reading and writing. School focuses on literacy, but it makes more sense for children to become fluent in spoken language. Children grow up with languages of TV, video and computergames. Even more important in future will befluency in the non-verbal languages of multimedia.

The traditional Phonics

At school, a debate is raging about the way children are taught language. Traditionally, children were first taught to re-cite the alphabet (and times-tables, but that is another story). Then, they were taught to write and recognize individual letters. Phonics teaches children to associate sounds with (combinations of) letters. From then on, children were taught that words are built up from syllables put together according to grammatical rules. By adding -s to the noun book, one gets the plural form books. The verb to book means to register someone's personal details in a "book". If this happens, one gets booked, a conjugation of this verb. A booky is someone who keeps records in a "book", in this case for the purpose of gambling, the suffix -y also indicating that it is an Australian word.

Handwriting, grammar and spelling were drilled into children as if it was a grave sin to make errors against the "rules of language". Regarded as the ultimate in traditional schooling is Grammar School, where children are taught how words are derived from Latin roots. Classical Greek, French and German also fits in this way of teaching, as many words in English originate from these languages; but the emphasis is on Latin, as Latin traditionally was a language of importance, used in religious ceremonies, in doctors' prescriptions, in law, in scientific papers and in many academic specialisations, such as chemistry, botany, biology and philosophy.

Whole-language Method

From the 1970s, other views became popular. Grammar School was seen as conforming too much with the ruling class, with a right-wing, conservative education for the elite. Public schools were looking for new models. Noam Chomski became famous for his views that children were born with built- in language capabilities; this fitted in with the socialist doctrine of equality; language was treated as a universal skill that required mere cultivation, rather than prior teaching of grammatical rules.

The perception that children needed to learn the rules first, from which comprehension and competence then were to follow, was replaced by the idea that mere exposure to literature would give children competence. The "whole-language" method became popular, presenting whole words to children in the context of other words, often in complete sentences, rather than syllables, roots or individual letters.

Whole-language advocates argued that there are so many ways letter-combinations such as ou can be pronounced in English, that cutting up words into parts only adds to the confusion, e.g. in the case of words such as through, though, plough and rough. Whole language advocates argue that in the traditional method of teaching language, meaning is detached from the words. They argue that children should start reading 'real' books, rather than readers with words split up into syllables. They argue that it is more important that children become familiar with the process of writing a story, than with correct spelling and grammar.

A Return to the Basics?

Over the past few years, the whole-word method has come under increased criticism from conservative forces that like to see a return to the traditional emphasis on reading, writing and arithmetic that characterised school in the old days. Back to the 3 'R's, "Back to Basics" are slogans from conservatives who make a lot of fuzz about recent studies that indicate that up to a quarter of students appear to leave school functionally illiterate.

In many primary schools in Australia, functional grammar is heralded as the saviour of literacy. Instead of old-fashioned grammatical terms such as object, subjectandpredicate, functional grammar uses terms such as participators in a process modified under certain circumstances. The idea is that there are different genres or writing styles for different so- cial purposes, and that choice of words and the way sentences are constructed differ accordingly, depending on the cultural environment and the situation in which language is used, with emphasis on its function.

Literacy itself a Genre?

Whole language advocates focus on language in the way children learn to talk, but they still teach children to read and write. Literacy advocates focus almost entirely on language in the way it is written. Spoken language and written language differ significantly; the language used in many books and articles is not the language people use in casual conversation. In both written and spoken language there are different styles or genres. The 'legalese' of lawyers, the jargon and acronyms of technocrats and the formulas of scientists are as inaccessible to most people as the Latin taught at Grammar School. In spoken English, the posh accent of British royalty and conservatives can similarly be distinguished from 'lower class' English such as the Cockney accent or Australian.

But if language is to enable people to communicate, should we accept any styles that build walls around specific groups? Are such artificial walls not primarily barriers to communication, meant to preserve privileges and preventing access by outsiders? Is literacy itself not merely a style, a culture of teachers, bureaucrats and the Government, a genre that teaches people not to think, but to conform to the rules of grammar, to the discipline of regulations and the letter of the law?

Back to the spoken word?

Literacy as taught at school is a method to conform children to the way the Government has organised society. Instead of disciplining children with literacy, it makes more sense to allow children to communicate verbally and to stimulate thought.

Spoken language is what children are familiar with; the best way to become more 'fluent' or proficient in spoken language is by practising face-to-face conversation. Children use a lot of non-verbal language in conversation; where they cannot find words to express what they feel, their faces quite adequately convey the message.

Language is more than text, spoken language contains variations in tone and volume, complemented with eye contact, gestures, facial expressions and posture. The meaning carried by 'body-language' is hard to express with text, other than to add long descriptions as common in romantic stories.

Instead of going back to teaching the 'basics' of language in the expectation that this will make children more literate, it makes more sense to stimulate conversation to give children linguistic proficiency in a broader sense.

By participating in conversation, children can learn to listen, observe and express themselves. If children are creative in conversation and learn to think for themselves, it becomes more than a lesson in language. If anything, that should be regarded as the `basics'.

New types of Fluency

New types of languages, complete with new types of 'fluency' are emerging in society and schools are hardly aware of it. They are the audio-visual languages of film, TV and video, graphical user interfaces (GUIs) of computers, etc. Films carry much meaning in visual techniques such as the use of close-ups, pan and zoom movements of the camera, blurring of images, etc. Children grow up with new languages, they easily spot the subtle camera and acting techniques that make many commercials on TV so funny. They know computer-games in and out.

As with speech, children have become 'fluent' in these languages without learning them at school; school only suppresses the languages of these new media and focuses on discipline and literacy.

Technology is on the side of this new fluency. Journalists no longer scribble shorthand, they switch on their Walkman. Just like typewriters have made handwriting skills obsolete, computers have made many literacy skills obsolete; with spelling checkers and grammatical software even a fool can now write respectable letters.

Telecommunications, which started as telephony and telegram services, now involves facsimile, database access, file transfer, electronic mail, bulletin boards and all kinds of other services. Many predict that video will soon be added to the now voice-only telephone sets.

Communication is no longer restricted to conversation and correspondence. When giving a presentation, one nowadays may need to control lights, a P.A.-system, overhead projectors, slide projectors, audio and video equipment, computers, etc. Some schools therefore try to make children familiar with all this kind of equipment, rather than merely with pen and ink. But most of this equipment will be obsolete by the time children have finished school. Computers are regarded by school as devices that handle text and numbers.

Just like school rather concentrates on spelling than on speech and meaning, it rather teaches the technical skills how to use video equipment such as VCRs, than fluency in the new audiovisual languages. School is into discipline and all it teaches children is the name of the equipment and the button to push to switch it on and off. Most schools barely have a photocopier. The computer is mostly used to schedule rosters and children's personal details and grades. School is not the place for children to develop fluency in any language.

The Power of Computers

But the future is not likely to give a high profile to text. Just like the user-interface of computers has changed from character input to graphics, pop-up windows, slide bars, icons, mouse control and pull-down menus, the kind of information handled by computers is also changing. As processing power and storage capacity increased, computers changed the face of industries that use data and text, such as in scientific research, banking, accountancy, secretarial work and publishing. Now that audiovisual signals can be processed digitally, industries such as telecommunications and broadcasting are set to undergo similar dramatic changes. A decade ago, desktop publishing became popular; now, one can connect a camcorder to a laptop computer that has the editing power of a TV studio and one can transmit live pictures and sound over the mobile phone network.

New Multimedia Fluency

The audiovisual languages of media such as broadcasting, film and video are rarely recognised as significant languages. Children, who have grown up with TV commercials, music videoclips and computergames, understand these languages better than teachers. Few expect that children will ever use these language actively. TV transmits messages one-way to a passive audience. TV at large is passive entertainment. Fancy tricks displayed on the screen are more regarded as expressions of art than as part of a new language.

Multimedia technology is set to change all this dramatically. Today, anyone with a computer, equipped with a sound card, a video-card and some editing software can apply techniques previously the domain of film directors. In communications of the future, use of text will be the exception, rather than the norm. Multimedia allows one to combine recorded and live voice, music and video with 3-D animation, sound and video effects. Entirely new non-verbal languages will assist us in future conversations, transactions such as electronic banking and shopping, security services, medical diagnosis, etc.

The literacy debate at school restricts language to text in an effort to preserve the world of the past. School messes up children's brains by treating words that were originally sounds, as script, thus transforming words into visual symbols. In the new fluency sound is sound, video is video and communication is direct.

Appendix A: Alternative Teaching Methods for Schools

One person who has developed methods for use at schools that do not concentrate on teaching reading, writing and arithmetic, is Edward de Bono. His Cognitive Research Trust (CoRT) sixty-lesson programme is used by 1.5 million students around the world, in countries ranging from the US and Canada to China and Bulgaria. In Venezuela, more than 100,000 teachers were trained in the CoRT method, which became mandatory for all schools. In Singapore, it is planned for introduction in all schools.

One school in Brisbane was recently on TV, in a report on the progress of the use of Edward de Bono's "six hats method of parallel thinking". At first, parents were concerned that their children were talking all the time at school. They believed that school was about reading and writing and interpreted talking as undisciplined, disruptive behaviour. But when they saw the results, the changes in their children, they became convinced of the virtues of this method.

Wherever these methods have been introduced, there is little doubt that they are superior to the traditional teaching methods. The big question is, however, whether school is the right environment for children to learn, whatever the method used. Teachers love the 3 'R's primarily because they are useful in disciplining children and keeping the class quiet.

Appendix B: Can School be changed?

Many believe that school is the best environment for children to learn. They may admit that some of the methods used at school are a bit archaic, that society in future will demand new skills, such as 'computer-Literacy'. They believe that by introducing computers into schools, complete with Local Area Networks and access to the Internet, children will obtain this new 'literacy'.

Few realise that instead of literacy, one should speak of a new 'fluency' that is required. Literacy is associated with reading and writing, comput- ers are rapidly moving into audiovisual technologies and, in doing so, will shift their emphasis from text to entirely new languages.

School has many bad aspects, resulting from the large number of pupils put together in one classroom, the fixed times and subjects, the age-grouping, the fact that school is compulsory and controlled by the Government, etc, etc.

Homeschooling starts with the parent-child relationship, which is based on love, understanding and happiness in being together, instead of the distance and non-individuality in relationships at school. Parents can combine learning from and practice in real-life situations with pleasure.

The apprenticeship-model, once so successful in training in 'basic skills', originated from father-to-son and mother-to-daughter teaching methods. School teaches the 3 'R's, under the pretence that literacy and numeracy are now the most important skills and that apprenticeship is too authoritarian and has a too narrow focus.

But a good parent-child relationship can do without the master-slave approach of school. In the old days, when most people worked on the land or knew only one trade, teachers were respected for their knowledge. Today, facts are in books and many parents have more academic background than teachers.

Whatever the method used, the big problem lies in school as an institution. School prohibits children to develop any of the following qualities:

  • Communications, relationships, responsibility, respect;
  • Individuality, personality, character, self esteem, integrity, self knowledge, openess, spontaneity, dedication, ambition, acumen, confidence;
  • Self expression, creativity, innovation, thinking, feeling, instinct and common sense.

Appendix C: Jumping on the Internet Bandwagon

The new catchphrase is the "information superhighway", and all schools want to jump on the bandwagon and be connected to the Internet. As an example, the City Council of Ipswich (west of Brisbane) will launch a $13.3 million program to connect schools to the Internet later this year.

But will children learn anything from all this? Teachers see the Internet as a gigantic library that holds vast amounts of facts and knowledge, stored as huge files of text, all to be accessed by means of character input. Teachers may be aware of the GUIs that have made computers so much easier to use. But for most teachers, the information children are to work with, indeed knowledge itself, equals text, numbers and formulas.

Teachers think children need to be taught to read and write first, before they can type in messages and instructions on a computer keyboard to access all this knowledge. They see a computer as a complex typewriter. If children are allowed to use computers at school at all, the focus is on databases, computer programming languages, spreadsheets and word-processing.

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