Punctuation, sound, and meaning – an anecdote and some questions

Another post triggered by not being able to fit things into Twitter, I’m afraid  – this time a conversation with @DiLeed and @Sue_Cowley about a study which suggests that babies learn language in part through touch: touching a baby’s toes after each word in a game apparently helps them separate the words from the continuous linguistic flow. This made me think of other games where the carer is demonstrating the intonation of phrases in a similar way. And this led me on to think about the role of punctuation, intonation, and meaning.

I think I’ve said elsewhere that our boys are loving the Oxford Reading Tree’s ‘Time Chronicles’ series. They enjoyed the Magic Key books, but this is a whole world of exciting adventure and cliffhangers that they’re only just discovering.

As an adult, since I’ve spent more than half my life studying text, language, and words, the writer’s tricks look so obvious as to be positively brazen – but the boys completely adore it.

When they’re reading for themselves, most of the time they are concentrating on the individual words and understanding what’s going on. They’re young to be reading at this level, so a certain amount of time is needed for them to get their heads around the meaning of some passages.

What’s really interesting, though, is what happens when they get to one of the more cheekily pulp-fiction flourishes: although they can read the words, some of the stylistic tricks flummox them. Yesterday we were looking at a section where a creature is trying to break into the time-travel control centre (it’s that sort of adventure). There are all sorts of things going on, people trapped in various places and a small group wandering about in 44 BC Rome. There are various rhetorical builds, interrupted speech…. Then silence.

One of the boys was reading and, although all the vocabulary was fine, he paused after reading ‘silence’ and was a bit bemused. I asked him if what he’d read made sense to him, and he said sort of, but he clearly wasn’t convinced. So we talked about how the punctuation created the movement of the passage (not quite in those words), and then I asked if he’d like me to read it back to demonstrate how it worked in practice.

He said yes, he would, so I did – full dramatic rendering – and he looked at me as if I’d just done magic. A light had clearly gone on. So I showed him again how the punctuation guided what I’d just done, and he was so pleased. Lovely.

Punctuation, of course, originated as a means of notation in classical rhetoric. There’s an overview here which gives details of the key academic book on the subject, the late Malcolm Parkes’ Pause and Effect. Punctuation creates intonation, and intonation helps to create both meaning and an emotional connection with the reader/listener. Especially when a piece of writing is showing rather than telling, the intonation can be crucially important to understanding what exactly it is we’re being shown, and how the writer hopes we will feel.

For this reason I think that even very early reading books are most valuable when they have the opportunity for children to experience this level of meaning in a text. An example of this done well, in books with only the smallest vocabulary and consistent with the earliest phonics work is the Collins Big Cat Phonics series (No, Sid, No!; Muck It Up!). Julia Donaldson’s Songbirds readers are another example where intonation makes all the difference, and an adult can model this for the child – but I’m sure others will have their own favourites. If so, perhaps you could share them in the comments….

Obviously, my two examples are mainstream phonics readers from the kinds of large publishers which dominate the UK schools market. Huge amounts of research and advice will have gone into their creation. It’s interesting to me, therefore, that there is a lot more potential in these readers, even the ones at the beginning of the pink band, than simply sounding out of words.

There are all sorts of reasons why this might be (and I think it’s a very good thing!) but I wonder if it’s worth thinking about in relation to the core idea of SSP that only sounding and blending should be taking place, and that ‘context’ should not be used. Because if this is the case, why are these books written in a way which positively encourages the use of intonation to create meaning?

That is, to what extent is punctuation itself ‘context’? To what extent does it, and the intonation it encourages, tie the individual words into the context of the meaning of a phrase or story? And what is the effect of this characteristic on the children’s reading progress?

Questions, questions……

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