The awesome foursome

In clinical, educational, therapeutic work with children, there are a number of threads: taking account of different styles of learning; focusing on ‘core subjects’ or carefully diversifying the curriculum; making sure none fall through the net; and many more. By the first of these threads from the time when the topic first emerged almost 500 years ago: children learn best when they are enjoying themselves. Sharing fun with children and encouraging their curiosity is not a needless distraction, but a necessary part of the work process. This thread was first developed in the middle of the 16th century. Before that, 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 screams of pain would motivate better learning. 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 had no serious advocate. Four British figures played a little-recognised part in promoting a child-centred approach, enjoying jokes, and taking cues from children. This screams out from all of their writing.

Taking cues from children

The four that I have in mind were all very different from one another. Roger Ascham was an all-round renaissance scholar and teacher. William Holder was a gifted blue-skies experimenter and mathematician and for a short time the first clinical linguist. John Thelwall was an original theorist of revolution who came close to being bloodily executed for treason. Karl Marx seems to have accidentally overlooked him. After escaping execution he became the first full time clinical linguist. Alexander Melville Bell was a wide-ranging, all-round linguist and a clinical linguist.

The contributions of Ascham, Holder, and Thelwall were discovered by Judith Duchan in private conversation. That of Bell was discovered by Morris Halle in 1978. These were all difficult discoveries after some academic shenanigans in the early 1900s.

Roger Ascham (1514 – 1568)

The quarrelsome Swiss, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778), is often credited as having been the first to advocate child-centred education. But the credit should really go to one, Roger Ascham. When Elizabeth, the future queen, was 15 years old she selected Ascham as her tutor. Ascham, then the Orator of Cambridge, had himself taught Elizabeth’s last tutor. Elizabeth was an avid student. Ascham taught her hand-writing, history, geography, mathematics, architecture, astronomy, Latin, Greek, French, Italian, Spanish, and Flemish.

Two hundred years before Rousseau, Ascham wrote, “The Schoolhouse should be indeed, as it is called by name, the house of play and pleasure, and not of fear and bondage.” Ascham had the revolutionary idea of wanting to make the learning process fun and interesting. Mindful of the fate of Socrates, he was aware of how his point might be read. 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. 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 Geoffrey Chaucer. Elizabeth made her translation in twelve two-hour sessions over three weeks. Such a translation at almost 1,700 words an hour is no mean feat.

Ascham’s pioneering, child-centred approach was reflected in an on-going tradition which survives to this day.

William Holder (1616 – 1698) 

In the 1660s, the Reverend William Holder was working with a deaf boy, Alexander Popham, helping with his speech. 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 brought the mathematical notion of derivation to his study of speech.

In relation to education, Holder 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.” 

In relation to linguistics, 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 ‘matters’, in other words, 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 – effectively bits of speech sounds –in what Holder calls the ‘tract of Speech’, what we now call the ‘vocal tract’. He proposed that phonemes, as we would now were derived from their constituents, what we now call the ‘features’, what Holder called the matters, rather than the other way round. For Holder, the features were not accidental properties, 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.

Applying this idea to clinical practice, 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 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. But it would seem reasonable to regard Holder as the founding father of modern clinical and theoretical linguistics.

John Thelwall (1764 – 1834)

John Thelwall 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’, John 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.

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 vowel, now often referred as the nucleus of the syllable, being the first element to go.

A five hundred year tradition

Ascham, Holder, Thelwall and Bell all describe their practice in recognisably-modern terms.

Together, Holder, Thelwall and Bell laid the foundations for a modern clinical linguistics. They 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 in the 1960s. 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. But this legacy was buried and lost.

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 in 1968. Updating and completing what Holder called the true alphabet of nature, they applied the same mathematical approach to develop the theory of ‘distinctive features’ by which phonemes like the T in little are only partially pronounced, and correspondingly hard to learn.

The tradition, initiated one by one by my awesome foursome, lived on in the the thinking of numerous teachers, researchers and other scholars, including the 1967 work of Elizabeth Plowden. For those 400 years, as far as educational research was concerned, there was no countervailing movement with any significant effect until the black papers in education started to emerge in 1969. This is not to suggest that those papers ever deserved to have the effect they demonstrably did.