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From Jungle to Literacy

From Jungle to Literacy

THERE is a marvellous moment in the movie Greystoke, a grown-up version of the Tarzan story. Visualise an aristocratic dinner party in Victorian England. Tarzan has been brought out of the jungle, is dressed in fine clothes and is being shown off to the guests.

Inevitably, one arrogant blue-blood passes a very denigrating remark, in exquisite English, about the "savage" at the table. The party freezes, embarrassed by the unpleasantness. The silence is soon broken however by Tarzan himself, who repeats the insult, word-perfect, imitating flawlessly the noble accent in which it was uttered. Delightful.

What Tarzan is demonstrating here, to a rare degree of refinement, is the human ability to reproduce the sounds of one's environment. In hunter tribes, this ability is a matter of survival. Imitate the prey, get close, catch dinner. In modern times this aural/oral mimicking is still a vital living skill, but the only sound most of us now go to great pains to imitate is the speech of our fellow humans.

And in what is still the most extraordinary feat of learning regularly performed on this planet, infants acquire fluency in a modern language in just a few years, starting from a zero-language basis - normally without the help of the school industry.

In short, we humans are genetically endowed with amazingly elaborate hardware that enables us to first mimic, then comprehend, and then articulate utterances in the local language. A high degree of linguistic competency is already evident by the time we start school.

School, we hope, will then broaden the range of texts the children are exposed to. Improved vocabulary and more refined grammar should painlessly follow. What does not automatically follow is the ability to read and write.

An interesting suggestion was put forward some years ago - that perhaps literacy is acquired in the same way as language. Just immerse them in the written word and they'll pick it up. This notion became, for a time, educational gospel.

But alas, the Tarzan faculty of language by osmosis does not extend to the written word. Written symbols have arisen very late in human evolution, and a facility for decoding them has not become innate. Proof of this can be expressed in one simple statement: virtually everyone can speak, but many cannot read or write - despite being surrounded by visual symbols.

Many a post-primary educator finds that a proportion of students have to be taken aside for catch-up English before they can effectively engage in the other subjects at an ordinary level. I think it is safe to say that most literacy educators now recognise the necessity of involving human phonic skills in their English program.

Of course English spelling is notoriously inconsistent. But given the oral/aural genesis of human language acquisition, children gain immensely by becoming conscious of the common ways of writing the sounds of English.

The Fitzroy Readers have made this job easier for thousands of teachers. 

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