Tuesday 7 February 2012

Learning 'written-ese'

One of the peculiarities of the spoken language is that it's very rarely studied. To study it, you have to listen to recordings of it, look at videos of it, look at transcripts of it. When you do that you start to see that it has its own 'grammar' or 'syntax'. That's to say it sticks together in its own ways.

(I say 'it does' this or 'it does' that. This is rubbish, really. 'It' is spoken. Whatever 'it' does, 'it' does because thinking human beings do 'it'. Excuse my language!)

One of the key ways spoken language sticks together is through what it leaves out. If you look at a transcript of two people talking together, you'll quickly see that we spend a lot of time, 'not finishing'. In fact we're doing as much 'finishing' as the context requires, but we say 'not finishing' because of expectations of what is a sentence, what is a paragraph.

In conversation we follow patterns of taking turns, interrupting, not interrupting.

We have a complex system of referring backwards and forwards to actions, events, things, people, feelings that both parties know or think they know.

(The previous is not meant to refer to the kind of spoken-writing that you hear on radio and TV, where people read informal written 'talks' off autocues and scripts.)

When we write, it's as if we're writing in another dialect. So, if you take a section of written text, you might well find that you can read all of it, understand every word (word by word) of it, but you know that it isn't something you'd ever say in conversation. You might say it in a 'talk' but not when chatting. So, it's part of 'English' (in my case) but not the same part as spoken English.

Quite at random, I've opened a letter tucked into my diary. Here's the last sentence:

'As discussed with Katy, please can you email me your foreword of approximately 1000 words by Monday 9 January'.

It's written in 'written-ese'. The phrases 'as discussed with' , 'please can you', 'of approximately' 'by Monday 9 January' are all 'written-ese' usages - as I suggested in a kind of dialect of English, just as we might say that 'me gwan' or 'he disnae' or examples of dialects of the family of English usages.

So, from the point of view of a child in a school, we are asking them to learn a dialect other than the one they speak - or indeed that we speak. The difference between us and them, though, is that we've had long immersion in 'written-ese'. We can even speak it!

I'm not going to go off on one about phonics here - so let's leave them to one side for a moment. What I will say is that no matter how well or not that a person can sound out a word, that person will still have to learn the 'wording' of written-ese. Otherwise, all you can do is read words, one after another without knowing what it all means, rather as I can with a bit of complex French.

What follows from this is that one of the most important things we can do with people learning 'written-ese' is to enable them to hear many, many times a day what 'written-ese' sounds like, as well as many, many times to see different kinds of written-ese all around them, especially written-ese that they've written, especially written-ese they've written which represented something that they actually said.

I realise this last contradicts, in part, what I'm saying. The child says something, and someone (themselves or someone else) scribes what they say. What this 'says' is that the magic of writing is that it can record and preserve the things we say - and think. After all, as a child, why - unless you've shown them - would a child know that you can write down the things you say? All the books and stories and texts around them are full of stuff that you, the child, don't say!

So if we're constructing a bridge (that's probably the wrong metaphor - I can see a lot wrong with it, even as I'm writing) - between the spoken and the written so that the children can learn 'written-ese' then we need to think of many 'hybrid' activities where the spoken and the written are amalgamated eg

writing things you say, speech bubbles, monologue and dialogue poems, writing playlets and sketches

reading outloud - hearing and doing it yourself - many, many times

performing written texts - poems and plays and scripts

creating school radio with scripts

choosing poems and pieces to learn off by heart

videoing performances

team-writing where one person speaks, the other writes - ideal when you're making magazines together.