The Independent Summer School: English

Lesson one: speak the same language. For most of us, English is the language of fun. So it shouldn't be hard to convince children of the absorbing pleasure of studying it. Especially with some expert help
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The Independent Online

The glory of English is that any game that uses words, rhyme, or even slang is an ideal teaching tool, according to Barbara Conridge, chair of the National Association for the Teaching of English's primary committee. "The important thing to remember about English is that it isn't just the written language, it is the spoken. Any communication between you and your children is helping them to learn."

It is vital that children learn in two ways, says Ms Conridge: both formally, through their teachers; and informally, through their family. The most important way that parents can teach their children is by showing that they value books.

The teaching of English may appear to have changed a great deal over the years, with literacy hours and the constant arguments over reading methods, but the fundamentals remain the same. Reading aloud together is still the best tactic.

Recognise just how many ways there are to read and write and talk all day. Let the kids see you using words and encourage them to do the same. So, if you have to write a postcard or make a list, get the child to assist you and share the writing.

This is a theme repeated by Anne Barnes, chair of the Nate Key Stage 3 committee and education officer for the National Literacy Association. "Kids read more if their parents read. If you want your child to be a reader, it is worth making sure you take a book on holiday, and that there are times when you talk about your book."

English is the writing on the cereal box; it is the instructions with the pack of cards you use; it is the words of the songs you sing, the story line of the film you watch, and the prime tool of family debate. More, it is something that you can use to fill waiting time without needing props. One of the games suggested that works at all age levels is to use the car number plates around you in the traffic jam for word games.

Most word games can be played at different levels; easier words and concepts for the younger kids, more complex for the older ones. It is beneficial to play across the age ranges. "The younger ones are pulled up and older ones have to explain a bit, so it sharpens their focus," says Anne Barnes. "It helps them to analyse the language they are using."

You can make word games out of signposts, billboards, out of the air. Every word game reinforces children's use of language. There is a plethora of word-game books, starting with the familiar I-Spy books, most of which also expand general knowledge. If you are abroad, you can use foreign language in the same way, using the difference to help the kids understand the purpose of verbal and written communication.

English is a core curriculum subject, one of those tested at all key stages, as well as at GCSE. It is the one subject that every child needs to use competently to be able to function successfully in the world and to learn other subjects effectively.

Expanding your children's knowledge through the holidays starts with recognising that they have the same holiday needs as yours. You do not want to take a work text to the beach, why should they?

"Children need to unwind in the same way as adults. If you chill out on the beach with a detective story, why shouldn't they take a comic?" is Barbara Conridge's view. "Go to the bookshop together to buy holiday reading, but let them choose. If they want something non-fiction, fine, if they want fiction, fine, if they want fiction that you think unsuitable, fine, too."

She and Peter Wrigley, her deputy at Nate, also work together as consultants to Bedfordshire education authority and have a range of leaflets to hand out on parents' evenings, some of them produced by the Basic Skills Agency. All can be the basis of fun at home or on holiday and, therefore, are an intrinsic part of learning.

Wrigley, who has three young children, uses song and rhyme with his family. "I believe that people don't take play seriously enough. Silly things are usually very popular. Singing songs in the car is one of the things we do. Sometimes, too, learning is about changing things. Which is why rhymes, nonsense ones in particular, are so good. The onset of rhyme – church and lurch, turkey lurkey – should be seen as actual learning, and not just playing."

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