Inside every word is a tiny capsule of sense. You can sound words out, you can name their parts, but meaning only comes out when you get them into the right context. Suddenly, the sense goes POP! Let me tell you a story …
Shanghai, China. We have just bought a wooden frog. It makes a croaking sound when you rub its back.
A: [excited] I didn’t know Assassia was real!
A: Yeah. I thought Assassia was only in Minecraft. I didn’t realise it was a real tree.
S: [puzzled] Assassia? What’s that?
A: It’s the wood that this frog is made from. See. It says so on the bag.
S: Ah. [smiling] You mean Acacia.
It was a perfectly plausible attempt at saying the word. It might even have passed muster in a phonics screening. If you’re not aware of its Greek etymology, then Assassia is as good a pronunciation as any. But I was only able to understand what my son was saying once I could place what he said in context. Meaning is language in context. English has a tricksy nature; a rich historical background all of its very own. Frequently it does strange things, like making the same sound for two different words (hole and whole), or different sounds for the same one (Reading and reading). And let’s not even go near rough, through, bough and cough.
The Year One phonics screening test is not a test of reading, it is a test of a child’s skill at decoding words out of context. It is a test designed to ensure teacher compliance with a government mandate. And it is a test in which children as young as five learn the lesson that, in school, they can pass or they can fail. I don’t know about you, but I am bewildered by these thoughts. Like Winston Smith in 1984, I cannot get them to make sense – the act of doublethink is beyond me. If I was going to name some imaginary monsters, I would not name them pog or queeb or strom. I would call them the Grumblegrowlerator, or the Slimyblobificon, or maybe even the Tssktsskpurrificalt. But then I’m engaged in the creative process of trying to make sense, because that’s what I always thought language was for. How on erath could I be so datf?