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Taking cues from children

Once it was assumed that if children made mistakes in whatever anyone was trying to teach them, the appropriate response was to get out the stick, and that the sight or sound of a beating and the resulting cries of pain would motivate better learning. But ever since the humane and humanistic idea of sharing fun first emerged, the idea of teaching by terror has had no serious advocate.

Among the best known humanistic figures are Jan Amos Komensky (1592-1670), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778), Johan Pestalozzi (1746-1827), Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852(, and Maria Montessori (1870-1952). All of them mainly focused on education. But the humanist story began before Komensky, and went beyond humanism, involving thinking mainly about language. Roger Ascham was an all-round renaissance scholar. William Holder was an experimenter and mathematician and for a short time the first clinical linguist. John Thelwall was the first to practise clinical linguistics as a second career. Alexander Melville Bell was a wide-ranging, all-round linguist and clinical linguist. Bridget Plowden was a gifted organiser and propadandist. Lada Iosifovna Aidarova was a gifted experimentalist in literacy. Holder, Thelwall and Bell developed ideas which can be recognised as the first foreshadowings of generative linguistics and biolinguistics.

Roger Ascham (1514 – 1568)

When Elizabeth, the future queen, was 15 years old, her tutor suddenly died, and she selected as her next tutor Roger Ascham, then the Orator of Cambridge. Ascham had himself taught Elizabeth’s last tutor. Elizabeth’s choice was extraordinarily insightful and well-informed.

Ascham taught Elizabeth hand-writing, history, geography, mathematics, architecture, astronomy, Latin, Greek, French, Italian, Spanish, and Flemish. Elizabeth was evidently an avid student. She and Ascham went on to become friends for life.

Ascham had the revolutionary idea of wanting to make the learning process fun and interesting. He wrote, “The Schoolhouse should be indeed, as it is called by name, the house of play and pleasure, and not of fear and bondage.” Mindful of the fate of Socrates and, more recently, Thomas More, he was aware of how his point could be turned against him. Attitudes to discipline in education could be a coded reference to politics. What Ascham was saying could be seen as only one step away from questioning the whole social order in a world in which torture and public execution were common-place events. So Ascham left the publication of his book to his widow.

Ascham’s skills as a teacher were evident in the accomplishments of Elizabeth, who became on her own merits a significant scholar. In 1593, at the age of 60, she translated into English the Consolations of Philosophy by Boethius, from about 524, long one of the most influential books in the world, setting out appropriate limits on power and privilege without any reference to religion. Boethius wrote this work in prison knowing, that he would be painfully and bloodily executed for a treason of which he was not guilty. This work, about 40,000 words long, had previously been translated into English by King Alfred and by Geoffrey Chaucer. Elizabeth made her translation in twelve two-hour sessions over three weeks – no mean feat at almost 1,700 words an hour.

William Holder (1616 – 1698)

In 1660, the Reverend William Holder was tutoring the 10 year old Alexander Popham who was deaf to the point that he had no speech at all. (It is hard to work out what sort of deafness this was, but it was evidently severe). The Pophams were a well-connected, upper class family, with the means to find and employ the best possible tutor for Alexander. Holder had previously been the tutor of the polymath, Christopher Wren, who was at least as much of a mathematician as he was an architect.

Holder’s originality was to propose that ‘letters’, or speech sounds, or ‘phonemes’ as we would now say, should be viewed, not as such, but as the effect of particular combinations of hierarchically organised ‘matters’, defined by where the tongue is in the mouth, how the airflow is shaped, whether the airflow is allowed to pass through the nose, what is going on in the voice-box or larynx. This happens in what Holder calls the ‘tract of Speech’, what we now call the ‘vocal tract’, which Holder was the first to conceive as an entity. Holder’s matters are now known as ‘distinctive features‘. Crucially,  for Holder, phonemes were derived from the features, rather than the other way round. So the features were not accidental properties of phonemes, but definitional. Holder is most insistent about this order of definition. He actually shows this definitional idea by a matrix with rows and columns showing his features. He calls this the ‘true Alphabet of Nature… out of which all languages are made’. He clearly conceived of the matrix as applying to all languages. What was language-specific was the pattern of ‘derivations’ or the pathway from the features to the pronunciation . He notes that “the French write some consonants which they do not pronounce to be Indices of the Derivations of their words.” The theory and terminology is still in use, although Holder’s original contribution is largely unknown.

Holder’s hierarchy was a first step towards what in 1985 Nick Clements would call the ‘geometry of phonological features’, which would become the basis for much current thinking including the notion of ‘non-linearity’.

Applying to clinical practice his notion of hierarchically structured speech sounds, Holder would ask Alexander to repeat a series of minimally different forms which did not mean anything, but which were nevertheless possible words. “When you require one vowel of him, he will sometimes stumble on another… And when you have made him perfect at Syllables, then you may reckon that you have taught him all pronunciation of Language, since all words are onely some of these Syllables, or else Syllables compounded of these.”

Holder was a member of the circle of gifted, well-informed intellectuals who met weekly in London to discuss matters of science and mathematics. It would eventually become the Royal Society. Holder brought the mathematical notion of derivation to his 1669 study of speech. Isaac Newton, another member of the same circle, was evidently in Holder’s audience, later repeating Holder’s point about the organisation of the vowels as a series.

Holder missed out what is now often referred to as the metricality of ‘word stress’ and the effects of different grammatical roles. These would be for later scholars from John Thelwall to Chomsky and Halle to discover.

Child-friendliness oozes from Holder’s pen. He stresses the importance of encouraging children by ‘sweetness’. He writes, “Their eyes are the more vigilant, attent and heedful, which… gives a delight and encouragement to those who teach such apprehensive scholars…. Of those who are deaf and dumb, I say they are Dumb by consequence from their Deafness.”

When Holder was moved to another parish, young Alexander’s education was suspended. and many of the gains which he had made with Holder were lost.

John Wallis (1616 – 1703)

In 1653, 16 years before Holder published his results with Alexander, John Wallis, known primarily as a mathematician and cryptographer, had published a Grammar of the English language, one of the first attempts to treat English as a language in its own right. It would seem to have been at least partly on the basis of this that when Alexander had been without a teacher for two years, Wallis was asked to take Holder’s place.

But unlike Holder, Wallis did not go beyond categorisation. His theory would not lead to any notion. of possible words.

In 1670, a year after Holder’s book came out, Wallis published an account of his own work with Alexander, implicitly rubbishing Holder. Holder replied, and the dispute between them rumbled on for years, mainly about honesty, recognition, and priority. Holder maintained that Wallis had visited him to see what he was doing with Alexander. Wallis denied this.

Wallis could not in any way be regarded as an advocate of child-centred or child-friendly education. There is no such thread in his work. He fits into the story here just as the originator of ideas to which Holder reacted. It would seem that Wallis himself completely rejected Holder’s reaction. His main concern was just to try and establish that he himself had learnt nothing from Holder.

John Thelwall (1764 – 1834)

In 1794, John Thelwall, then a leading campaigner for radical political reform and an original theorist of revolution, was put on trial for treason with two others. If they had been found guilty they would have faced execution by hanging, drawing and quartering. But although all three were found not guilty, Thelwall was continually hounded by the authorities. He eventually retired from revolutionary politics to be the first to work full time helping children with developmental problems with speech and language.

He was the first to distinguish between speech disorders which were, to at least some degree, the effect of a child’s experiences, and those which were not. In relation to the latter, using the metaphor of musical ‘cadences’, Thelwall developed an early version of metrical theory to describe the characteristic English alternation between stressed and unstressed syllables, applying to all words in the language. This relates to the problem many English-speaking children have in saying the T in little as as a T rather than a K sound, conditioned by the difference in stress between the first and second syllables, and to the patterning of this and other characteristic errors in children’s speech.

Coincidentally, his clinic, in what he jokingly called ‘North Brixton Cottage’ (it’s now a block of flats), was only a short walk from my own.

Alexander Melville Bell (1819 – 1905)

Making Holder’s theory more complete, Alexander Melville Bell showed in a series of books starting in 1849 that English vowels could be defined, not just by the position of the tongue in the mouth, as Holder had proposed, but also by the rounding of the lips.

This lip-rounding is also characteristic of the way most English children say the L in words like little. As well as the stress, the lip rounding is clearly a significant factor in the difficulty children have in saying such words.

Bell was the first scholar to reflect upon the fact that words like should and have can lose much of their sound structure in sentences like “I should have done that” with the vowels in should and have going unpronounced.

Lady Bridget Plowden (1900 – 2000)

As a scion of the British establishment, the daughter of an admiral and historian of naval history, Bridget Plowden chaired the committee which in 1967 shifted the balance towards child-centredness in British primary education. She was given this job by a conservative minister for education. She gave her report to a labour minister in the next government who acted upon it energetically. The report stressed that “at the heart of the educational process lies the child”. The key recommendations were:

  • Contact with home;
  • Positive discrimination for schools in deprived areas;
  • Teaching English as a second language where necessary;
  • Nursery education from three;
  • No reliance on tests;
  • No corporal punishment;
  • Smaller class sizes;
  • No more use of the term “educationally sub-normal”;
  • More male teachers.

But the thinking here was only partially implemented. In 1969 the ‘Black Papers’ in education started to emerge, blaming all the problems in education on Plowden with minimal evidence.

Lada Iosifovna Aidarova (1936 – 2006)

Lada Iosifovna Aidarova, who spent her whole working life in the Research Institute of General and Educational Psychology in Moscow, was a innovative researcher in the education of young children. Following in the footsteps of Lev Vygotsky, Daniel Elkonin, and Vasily Davydov, Aidarova developed a new way of deepening children’s understanding of literacy, helping them to discover the fundamentals of linguistics, but in child-friendly ways. She set this out in five books. One was translated into English in 1982 as Child Development and Education. It is profusely illustrated with colour illustrations of the children’s work.

With children, she saw herself as a leader of their own independent research, rather than as a teacher. One child chose to call her own research project report “I am starting to investigate language”. The title reflects Aidarova’s vision.

Aidarova’s experiments were carried out, partly in the then highly regarded Moscow School 91, and partly elsewhere, seemingly in the Ukraine. Moscow School 91 had been a centre of educational research since the 1950s. Many ex-students went on to excel in various fields, including the poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky, the novelist, Boris Pasternak, and, more recently, Alexey Pajitnov, the inventor of Tetris.

Aidarova set tasks that led children to make and present their own discoveries about language – on the basis that:

  • The process of learning has multiple layers;
  • Words are built out of parts, consonants, vowels, syllables, and other parts which pattern in similar, but not always exactly the same, ways in different words – like the different instances of S in English CATS and DOGS;
  • Words which sound the same can mean different things – as in the English “I read a book last week” and “I just found the Little Red Book”;
  • Words have histories changing over time. What is now called a radio or a tuner was once called a wireless;
  • Communication proceeds by choosing ways of saying things, as waiting or lurking, as talking or wittering, as walking or ambling, or by calling someone a woman or a female, as a girl or a chick or a dame;
  • Communication  can be a way of trying to influence people;
  • Messages can be understood in different ways, as being polite, or insulting, or false;
  • There are ways of gauging the success of attempts to communicate;
  • Communication can be in different languages, and can be modeled in a general way, holding across an enormous variety of cases;
  • How science proceeds by defining a topic of research, separating the known from the unknown, collecting data and checking, evaluating and analysing it.

So there are sensible questions about:

  • Why is there not one language? How and why is it that there are different languages?
  • Why does language change?
  • How did words first come to be spoken?
  • How do children learn to talk?
  • Why is it, in English for example, that a good book and something good have meaning, but a book good and good something do not?
  • How are speech and language connected with music, gesture, dance, drawing and art? Or are these things not connected?

Big questions for children in primary school. They all apply as much in Russian as in English. Aidarova gave children ideas about ways of expressing such thoughts using familiar symbols, including squares, triangles, circles, straight and jagged arrows, in different colours.  She notes that her book is partly written by the children. But this is not writer’s hype. Her methodology, by experiments in class, followed up by case studies, involved children taking ideas forward on their own and in their own ways. Two parallel classes, each with an average of 35 students, would be studied for a year. During the next school year the experimenter either continued with the same group of students, or (if the results were not satisfactory) the intervention was modified and repeated with new classes. The timescale and thoroughness of the experimentation were quite unlike what researchers are used to in the West.

What Aidarova may not have known about was how parents reacted. The children were studying things not generally taught in school, not in the USSR, not in the post-Soviet world since 1990, and not in the West other than in the few primary schools which have adopted Aidarova’s thinking. But in at least one Ukrainian primary school, Aidarova’s approach was followed into the 21st century. The parents of someone who was at this school, a scientist and a TV technician, told her as she got older how they would get together for dinner with other parents of children in the same class to discuss what their children were doing. These discussions apparently continued late into the night.

Aidarova’s research, continued in the work of her former student, Galina Zuckerman, is little known in the West. My thanks to Galina Zuckerman for the picture here and a helpful comment about this entry.

A five hundred year tradition

In 1983 corporal punishment was finally banned in British schools, becoming a criminal offence 10 years later. But ever since the idea of sharing fun first emerged, the idea of teaching by terror has been replaced by the idea of a child-centred approach, enjoying jokes, and taking cues from children.

Ascham, Holder, Thelwall and Bell describe their practice in recognisably-modern terms, as does Aidarova. Holder, Thelwall, Bell, and Aidarova laid the foundations for a modern clinical linguistics. Holder, Thelwall, and Bell all believed, as I do, that nonsense words could be therapeutic. None of them actually used the expression ‘possible words’, as it only came into use from the 1968 work of Chomsky and Halle. But it is only on the basis of this idea that their practice actually makes sense. By the way they were presented, the nonsense words revealed the connections between their structures and thus the ‘shape’ of English as a language.

It is not known what Alexander Popham thought about a public argument between his two former teachers about who had academic priority for what and whether Wallis had visited Holder to see what he was doing with Alexander, as Holder alleged. (It would hardly be surprising if Wallis did visit Holder. Holder was the first person in the world to be doing what he was doing. As he showed in his Royal Society seminar in 1667, he was happy to share his results with anyone interested.) But the most interesting of their differences was their order of explanation. In his Grammar of English. Walllis had presented an essentially taxonomic list of the phonemes. Holder argued for the much less obvious ordering – from the ‘matters’ or ‘features’ in modern parlance to the phonemes. In this way Holder foreshadows what is now known as ‘generative phonology’, as by Chomsky and Halle’s  Sound Pattern of English 300 years later.

This dispute between generative and taxonomic approaches is far from settled. The work of Holder, Thelwall and Bell has been taken a great deal further by modern linguistics, with the key initiative by Chomsky and Halle. Updating and completing what Holder called the ‘true alphabet of nature’, they applied the same mathematical approach to develop the theory of ‘distinctive features’ defining the phonemes of human language.

But the tradition of child centeredness, initiated by Ascham, lived on in the thinking of teachers, researchers and other scholars, until the present with no countervailing argument of any serious substance.

The contributions of Ascham, Holder, and Thelwall were discovered by Judith Duchan. The work of Bell was lost by some academic shenanigans in the early 1900s, but recovered by Morris Halle in 1978.