LISA SPENCE proclaims ‘We don’t need no education’: you might do, because you just used a double negative

Most of us remember our school days, completing endless essays for different subjects. Despite the varying topics, there was one area of feedback that was the same across the board, and written work was often returned with red pen littering the page circling different grammatical ‘errors’. No matter the content or the accuracy of the rest of the work, the mark suffered if the grammar was not perfect. The question here is: is it right for schools to place so much emphasis on correct grammar? Is it really important as long as students are expressing relevant ideas in their work?

The place of grammar teaching in schools has long been a topic of debate. The National Curriculum (1999a, b, cited in Crowley, 2003: 250-251) outlines a clear place for the explicit teaching of grammar within the school system and suggests it as a tool that can be used to develop a child’s language use in both speech and writing.  However, while taking non-standard varieties into account, the curriculum focuses chiefly on the teaching of Standard English, even though it is not most children’s native dialect.

Honey (1997: 28-30) argues in favour of this approach with the claim that ‘this dialect assumes a number of characteristics which the others do not have’, but what these characteristics are is not quite clear. There is nothing intrinsic about Standard English that marks it out as superior to other dialects, so it seems somewhat unfair to enforce it upon children who speak a different dialect at home. It is argued that the aim is not to alienate children, simply to add to their language repertoire with an additional dialect, but this is not always possible. As Brindley and Swann (1996: 211) point out, ‘in learning Standard English, children are necessarily aligning themselves with the language and culture of the school and it is debatable how far it is possible for certain speakers to do this without losing something of their cultural identity.’ Is it worth the expense of a child losing their sense of identity simply to ensure a certain standard of correctness?

That is not to say that there are no benefits to learning grammar in school, or to having a single dialect as the focus. Having Standard English as the norm allows for mutual intelligibility because ‘accent is difficult for those outside the speech community to understand, they should be able to modify when necessary’ (HMI, 1984: 15, cited in Crowley, 2003: 237-238). It is arguable that Standard English allows children to practice this to some extent. Knowledge of grammar can also be beneficial in helping children to learn new languages as ‘a general understanding of how language works […] is a sound basis for effectively learning a foreign language’ (Hudson and Walmsley, 2005: 17). But would it not be more important for a child to freely express themselves in their native dialect than sacrifice it for these ends?

I admit that I’m not sure which side to take here. The ‘stickler’ in me is praising the efforts to ensure correctness, but I also endorse the value of language diversity and the sense of identity it gives. Will there ever be a method that can combine the two and lay the debate to rest?

LISA SPENCE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Brindley, S. & Swann, J. (1996). Issues in English teaching. In: N. Mercer & J. Swann (Eds.), Learning English : Development and diversity. London: Routledge, pp. 205-242.

Crowley, T. (2003) Standard English and the Politics of Language. 2nd edition. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Honey, J. (1997) Language is power: The Story of Standard English and its Enemies. London: Faber.

Hudson, R. & Walmsley, J. (2005) The English Patient: English grammar and teaching in the twentieth century. Journal of Linguistics, (41)3, pp.593-622.


AMELIA SHEPHARD investigates the wisdom of the latest phonics tests for young readers

The phonics v whole books debate is a thought-provoking dispute that has caused a lot of controversy. It is particularly interesting because of the vast number of opinions on how to teach children to read and improve the literacy skills of young children. Some believe that using phonics is superior, and should be the one solitary method used in schools. Others see it as a beneficial method when incorporated into a variety of teaching systems, and some believe that phonics is simply not a suitable, or strong enough process to teach children to read.

With education being considered high on the political agenda, as evidence displays that ten-year-olds in other countries such as Russia and Germany are racing ahead of children in England, is phonics the best way to improve the literacy skills of children?

Phonics can be described as the correlation between sound and symbol in an alphabetic writing system. By simply looking at that definition, it becomes apparent that a number of problems may arise here. Henrietta Dombey (1999), for instance, explores the complexity of the English orthographic system. Spoken English has 40-44 phonemes, the exact number dependent on your accent. Words made up of these phonemes are represented by the 26 letters of our alphabet (Dombey, 1999). In short, we cannot have a system where one letter stands for only one phoneme. Maintaining this argument means that due to a lack of a one – to – one correspondence between sound and spelling in English, this approach may be dysfunctional (Brindley, 1996).

A further issue that has arisen with the phonics approach is the method of testing each child’s reading skill. During the test, children are asked to sound out a mixture of real and made up words such as ‘drall’, ‘halp’, and ‘snope’. This method has been criticised by teaching unions who suggest that this will confuse and infuriate pupils who are expecting that what they will read will make sense. The results of the test, which took an average of four to nine minutes to complete showed that only 58% of six year olds reached the expected standard; the mark of 32/40, – 80%. However, independent evaluation of the test by the Centre for Education disagreed with the criticisms, and displayed a positive response, stating that 43% of pilot schools identified pupils with reading problems of which they were not previously aware, and 83% of the teachers said the number of words was suitable, including the non-words. Overall, there was a positive response to the test (The Guardian, 27 September 2012).

A variety of views have been considered whilst looking at this debate. There is the understanding that overemphasis on phonics may deprive children of other reading strategies, but it has become clear that the general consensus is that phonics is a valuable way to teach children to read when included into an assortment of systems, although some of the methods may be questionable.

AMELIA SHEPHARD, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Brindley, S. & Swann, J. (1996) in Mercer, & Swann, J. (1996) Learning English: Development and Diversity. Routledge.

Dombey. H. (1999) Picking a path through the phonics minefield. Education 3-13: International Journal of Primary, Elementary and Early Years Education, (27)1, pp.12-21

The Guardian [online] 2012.

SARAH HORSFIELD unpicks the minefield that is the ‘phonics’ versus ‘whole language’ approaches to literacy

Although the government is keen to promote phonics as the best way to teach our children to read, is this actually case?

So what are the two approaches to the teaching of reading and spelling? The ‘phonics’ approach is associated with sound-symbol correspondence and word structure, whereas the ‘real books’ approach, is where children ‘learn to read by reading’ and there is a greater emphasis on the meaning of the written language.

The Department of Education suggests that ‘phonics is a way of teaching reading quickly and skilfully’, and they suggest that an advantage of phonics is that ‘almost all children who receive good teaching of phonics will learn the skills they need to tackle new words’. It is their view that the phonics approach is better than other methods, for example, ‘look and say’. They also provide a screening check to check each child’s progress which they state ‘is carefully designed not to be stressful’.

The screening check involves reading a word list to test each child on his/her abilities, and while it is advantageous to assess children’s reading skills, there are also some ethical issues with testing young children and giving them a ‘pass’ or ‘fail’.  There are also some problems with the ‘non-words’ that are used in this test as some groups of letters can have more than one possible pronunciation, making it hard for children to work out which pronunciation it is. In some cases children, who have good reading skills, refuse to read these ‘non-words’ on the basis that they are not real words, and as such are failed on the basis of these words. A more appropriate method of testing may be to ask children to read a short story which incorporates the phonic segments that are being tested.

Although the government promotes the phonics approach, there are a number of issues that are associated with this method. Dombey (1999:12) suggests that the spelling system in English is too complex for the phonics approach to account for. This could be a problem because some words in English are spelled the same, but pronounced differently. Another problem that she identifies is that what appears to be easy for proficient readers, can seem very different to young children, who operate on a different logic. Dombey also makes the point that ‘there is much more to reading than learning phonics.’ As such, she suggests that a ‘whole to part’ approach to phonics may be more appropiate.

To summarise the views that I have come across when researching phonics, on the one hand, the majority of people seem to agree that phonics is a positive stage in the development in reading development. However, there are also some extreme views that phonics is the one and only, one-size fits all approach to teaching our children to read. Still, even those who support the whole books approach seem to agree that phonics is beneficial.

So what is the answer? It is my opinion that the phonics approach is a valuable strategy when teaching children how to read, however, I am not convinced that it is a superior method, and therefore should not be the only method that is encouraged and employed. Also, it is my view that children should be treated as individual cases, and be taught using methods to suit their personal requirements.

SARAH HORSFIELD, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK



Department of education [online] Available at:

 Dombey, H. (1999) Picking a path through the phonics minefield. Education 3-13: International Journal of Primary, Elementary and Early Years Education, (27)1, pp.12-21.

ELEANOR QUANBROUGH considers the relative strengths of phonics and whole language approaches to literacy

Remember when you first learnt to read? The different levels of books in different colours, and how the teachers never used to put them in rainbow order so as not to hurt your feelings if you weren’t quite up to scratch? Well think before then, at the start of it all. How have we become the fluent readers we are today, in order to read this fascinating piece I’m writing right now?

It all refers back to ‘phonics’ vs. ‘whole books’ approaches to literacy. Both methods are taught within schools, yet one is being favoured by the Government, this being the phonics method. This teaches children to break words up into phonemes, in order to pronounce, spell and read a word. They are taught in stages, starting with the simpler sounds, in this case, s, a, t, i, p and n. They also use Jolly Phonics, a fun and child friendly method which teaches all 42 letter sounds in a specific order which support learning, as opposed to being taught alphabetically.

Despite phonics being the preferred method of teaching, the whole-book method is what many of us believe we were taught with at a young age. This is where children recognise whole words or sentences rather than individual sounds. They are repeatedly told the word name while being shown the printed word, with sometimes a picture being accompanied. This teaches them to ‘sight read’ recognising it through pattern recognition, without needing a conscious attempt to break it down. This allows them to build up a larger and larger vocabulary of whole words over time.

Despite the two methods both seeming perfectly acceptable ways of learning, there has been an on-going debate regarding which is more beneficial. Phonics has the advantage of being structured, helping children of different abilities, as well as those with learning difficulties, work their way up to harder words. It is also proved the most effective method for learning to read.  According to Ehri, Nunes, Stahl and Willows (2001: 393), ‘research shows that systematic phonics instruction contributes to higher reading outcomes in both low and middle socioeconomic groups’. The skills learnt with phonics are transferable, due to the fact that they are learning through text recognition., meaning that in turn, it leads to the ability to read and write.

The whole-book method, also known as the ‘look and say’ method, is said to help children become more fluent, competent and accurate readers as they learn to ‘sight read’ words, as it has been proven that many people do not read all the letters within a word, but rely on sentence structure and word shape. Crystal estimates that 80% of words are phonetically regular, however 20% are exempt, resulting in the whole book method to be used as a substitute in such cases.

Although both methods have been proven to aid children to read, can it be considered that there has been no definite evidence that one is more effective than the other? As both methods have been used effectively over 60 years surely it would seem logical to incorporate the two, or even better, base the method depending on the child in question? How can we distinguish which is the most suitable method when in most cases, it depends on the child? Children learn in extraordinary, yet different ways, with different abilities and strengths. Is one teaching method suitable across schools at one time for all children? It sounds absurd when it is put like that.

ELEANOR QUANBROUGH, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

BBC News. (2013). Available at:

Canadian Centre for Knowledge Mobilisation. (2007). Available at:

Ehri, L.C., Nunes, S.R., Stahl, S.A., & Willows, D. M. (2001). Systematic phonics instruction helps students learn to read: evidence from the national reading panel’s meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 71(3), 393-447.

STEPHANIE KOWALEWICZ asks ‘Is learning to read as easy as a-b-c?’

As a literate adult, recalling the events of the last month can prove thoroughly challenging, let alone remembering how, at the tender age of three, we learnt to acquire the linguistic phenomenon of reading.  Nevertheless, this concept is presented to children on a daily basis and through a variety of means, received with the aggravation and applause of many.  As a result, the superlative method to teach children to read is highly contested.

Whilst various methods are available, two techniques have appeared on the curriculum throughout the past century – ‘the whole book method’ and ‘phonics’.  Each passionately favoured, the two methods present a modern dichotomy and a war of words, each with a variety of strengths and weaknesses.  So, which one is more successful?

Although flying the flag for the government’s curriculum, phonics has received scepticism and uncertainty.  Based on the notion of individual letter sounds, teamed with the happy faces of Jolly Phonics, synthetic phonics aims to teach children different graphemes in the hope that blending, segmenting and grapheme phoneme correspondence (GCP’s) will result in phonemic awareness.  In consequence, children are able to recognise specific patterns within a word and apply those to other words with similar phonemes.  This further supports text recognition skills and writing.

As Biff, Chip and Kipper draw arms to fight the battle, it is clear to see why.   Faced with the words <recalcitrant> and <pusillanimous>, many of us would draw upon our knowledge of graphemes and phonemic clusters, suggesting that the techniques obtained during our early development are both memorable and transferable.  Villaume & Brabham (2003: 478) argues that ‘students who understand the alphabetic principle know that the sounds of spoken words are mapped on to written words in a systematic way’.  Furthermore, it has been proposed that ‘phonics instruction is an essential component of beginning reading instruction’ (Villaume 2003: 478).

So, why is there a debate?

The ‘whole book method’ (or ‘look and say’) enabled children to learn via a variety of mediums and with context.  In doing so, it encourages sight-reading and fluent, competent readers.  This is particularly important when considering the limitations of phonics. David Crystal, in favour of the ‘whole book method’, recently estimated that although ‘80% of words are phonetically regular, 20% are exempt’ (cited by Reedy, D).  An example includes the grapheme cluster /oo/ which can appear as both <book> and <moon>.   This suggests that children require more than phonics to read both accurately and effortlessly and can be achieved through the medium of ‘whole books’, where words are presented in a context-specific and structured way.  Moreover, Smith (2004: 145) argues that ‘the most that can be expected from a knowledge of phonic rules is that they might provide a clue to the sound’, implying phonics alone is not sufficient. 

So, where do we go from here?

Whilst both methods prove useful yet flawed, it seems only logical to present a united front when teaching children to read.  Clearly, although occasionally successful, most children do not learn with identical methods. With this in mind, isn’t it time a varied and diverse curriculum, including whole books, was accepted?

STEPHANIE KOWALEWICZ, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Reedy, D.  Viewpoints: Teaching children to read. [Available at: ]

Smith, F. (2004) Understanding Reading: A psycholinguistic analysis of reading and learning to read. (6th ed). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Villaume, S. & Brabham, E. (2003) Phonetics instruction: beyond the debate. Questions and Answer, Volume (56) Issue 5 pp.478.


TIM GILLAN ponders where to draw the line between ‘semantics’ and ‘pragmatics’

There is an extremely interesting debate about where the differences lie between semantics and pragmatics. It is something linguists are still attempting to define, although they do agree that the difference starts in the way that semantics is concerned with sentences (a group of words), and pragmatics is with utterances (a spoken or written communication). The difference between the two, according to Griffiths, is that ‘sentences are abstract’ and ‘utterances are identified by their contexts’ (2006: 6).

So what does that mean? Well, with semantics the focus is purely on the words themselves and how they make up a sentence, looking at the denotative meaning (this is essentially the dictionary definition of a word). On the other hand, pragmatics really looks at the context of an utterance, and therefore considers both the speaker/writer of the utterance and the person(s) receiving it. There are different factors that make up the studies of semantics and pragmatics, and these are more straightforward for pragmatics, which has four main topics within it, compared to semantics, which consists of several. These topics can cross over and this is where the idea of a ‘borderline’ between the two has arisen. This borderline is said to suggest a picture of semantics and pragmatics as neighbouring countries (Chapman 2011: 20), and that there is ‘dispute’ over the boundary.

Consider the following utterances:

A: ‘That’s a nice dog, you pick up a lot of girls with him?’
B: ‘No, he can only lift a few pounds.’

This is a great example of semantics and pragmatics in use. In this example person A is asking if B picks up girls with his dog, which is used in informal situations to mean ‘flirt with’ or ‘get a date with’. However person B’s answer suggests that they took the phrase ‘pick up’ by its more literal and common meaning, to lift something, hence his answer being related to how much the dog can lift. In this the phrase ‘pick up’ is polysemic, meaning it has more than one meaning, and polysemy is primarily a topic within semantics, however pragmatics most certainly comes into it.

Context is very important here, and considering the situations of the two people in the conversation is vital, such as, why did person B interpret pick up as lifting up and not as ‘getting a girl’? This could be for a number of reasons, e.g. they may not have heard the phrase ‘pick up’ used in any context other than to lift something up. This example creates a blur over what here is semantics-concerned and what is pragmatics-concerned.

All sorts of utterances put a big question mark over what and where this boundary is, and it is often suggested that it depends on one’s own interpretations. A major importance when considering what pragmatics is, is remembering that it concerns the ‘use of language’ (Huang 2007: 2), and as language users vary significantly in their language use, the ‘borderline’ is not perfectly clear.

TIM GILLAN, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Chapman, S. (2011). Pragmatics. Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke, Hampshire.
Griffiths, P. (2006). An Introduction to English Semantics and Pragmatics
Huang, Y. (2007). Pragmatics. Oxford University Press Inc.: New York.

REBECCA HESKETH explores the differences between semantics and pragmatics

It is often hard to make the distinction between the topics of semantics and pragmatics. Semantics is the study of the meaning of linguistic expressions. Crystal (2001: 102) explains that ‘the focus of the modern subject [of semantics] is on the way people relate words to each other within the framework of their language’. Pragmatics is ‘The systematic study of meaning by virtue of, or dependent on, the use of language’ (Huang 2007:2). Both have a fairly philosophical background. It is not only linguists who are interested in the difference between what we say and what we mean.

Even though the two are intertwined we need and use both everyday in our own speech and in the way we interpret what other speakers say.

Pragmatics enables us to decode what people say, in other words it helps us understand what people are implying when they do not say exactly what they mean. Also when we hear a sentence we subconsciously dissect it and take in each part of what we are being told.

Linguists who study semantics look for general rules that bring out the relationship between form, which is the observed arrangement of words in sentences and meaning. A semantic rule for English might say that a simple sentence involving the word ‘can’t’ always corresponds to a meaning arrangement like Not [ Able … ],but never to one like Able [ Not … ]. A way to understand this using a sentence would be the example, ‘I can’t dance’ means that I’m unable to dance; it doesn’t mean that I’m able not to dance.

The following examples will try to explain the different ways semanticist and pragmatists would approach a sentence.

rebecca hesketh pic

Figure 1.

The above example reads, ‘You rock!’, ‘You rule!’.
A semanticist would interpret the sentence literally as the objects identifying the jobs that they perform. However there is another, further meaning which the pragmatists would see and interpret as the objects complimenting each other as ‘rocking’ and ‘ruling’ are ways to express admiration.

The utterance, ‘It’s hot in here’, would be interpreted by a semanticist as someone literally commenting on the temperature of the location. A pragmatist would hear the utterance and look for a further meaning. The further meaning might be that the person who uttered the sentence would like the window to be opened but they did not come right out and say this it was their implicature.

A further way to define semantics and pragmatics would be to say that semantics deals with the question of meaning, while pragmatics deals with questions of use. A typical semantic question is: ‘is an utterance true’? A typical pragmatic question is: ‘is the utterance appropriate in a given situation’?

Whichever way we choose to divide up semantics and pragmatics it is clear that they are essential everyday tools and without them understanding language would be a much harder task!


REBECCA HESKETH, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK