Melvyn Bragg · The Written World · writing and reading

The Written World

This morning on Radio 4 Melvyn Bragg began the first in the series ‘The Written World’. He starts by saying what I always begin every Sounds-Write training with: that writing is ‘the most important idea that anyone has ever had’. Bragg then goes on to talk about the development of writing systems.

What he doesn’t do as explicitly as I’d have liked is to draw the connection between language and writing. As Peter Daniels (1996) says:

‘Humankind is defined by language; but civilization is defined by writing. Writing made historical records possible, and writing was the basis for the urban societies of the Old World. All humans speak; only humans in civilizations write, so speech is primary, and writing is secondary.’ [My emphasis]

And it is this connection that is so important in the training of teachers of reading and writing to young children: teachers need to understand that while everyone learns to speak naturally, writing is, to use the words of Steven Pinker, ‘a bolt-on extra’. It needs to be taught explicitly and systematically.The Greeks introduced spellings for the vowel sounds into what had previously been a consonantal spelling system; thus, every sound in every word was represented by a discrete symbol and we now had a fully phonetic alphabetic script. And to underline a point Diane McGuinness (2004) never tires of making: for writers and readers of alphabetic languages, the sounds of the language are the basis for the written code; the spellings are the code. The acquisition of the written language is essential therefore to learning to read.
In spite of this lack of emphasis Bragg’s series is very interesting, and, in this first programme, he traces the development of written language throughout relatively recent history. As he establishes from the outset, the crucible for the invention and development of writing over five thousand years ago was the somewhat prosaic and mundane need to keep accounts. With the growth of the first cities around the Middle East in areas like Mesopotamia and Sumeria, some kind of system was required for recording the ever multiplying number of financial transactions. From a functional perspective, writing assisted greatly in ‘the administration of government institutions’.
Since that time, the roles of written language have increased enormously. Nevertheless, in all this time, one thing hasn’t changed: now as then, learning to read is one of if not the most important tasks children must accomplish. In the programme, Richard Parkinson, assistant keeper of ancient pharaohnic culture at the British Museum, draws a distinction between the ‘dreadful life‘ of the humble farm labourer in ancient Egypt and that of the educated scribe: if you were able to read and write, even then you could ‘become your own boss’.
All of which brings me back to thinking just how crucially important it is for children to learn how to read and write: everything they do subsequently in school and in life depends so much on this skill, without which no-one can develop their full potential.