How written English should be taught, Howard is alarmist on immigration, and others

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Sir: Individual attention is not necessarily the answer for the 20 per cent of children struggling to read (letters, 9 April). What is needed is a greater understanding of the complexity of the English writing system and how to teach it effectively.

Cracking the code: how written English should be taught

Sir: Individual attention is not necessarily the answer for the 20 per cent of children struggling to read (letters, 9 April). What is needed is a greater understanding of the complexity of the English writing system and how to teach it effectively.

English is one of the most complex written systems in the world as it represents five languages with their spelling systems superimposed on one another: Anglo-Saxon, Danish, Norman French, classical Latin, and Greek. There are 40-plus phonemes in the English language and about 176 common ways to spell them. Nonetheless, it is a sound-based system, as are all writing systems, the world over. Writing is fundamentally a code; sound units, in our case phonemes, are represented using symbols. The English code is complex but this is no excuse for not teaching it!

The "phonics" approach is often misunderstood when it is assumed that only the basic letter-sound relationships are taught. The spelling of "most" will indeed be problematic if we have taught children that the letter "o" always makes the sound of the "o" in "dog". Children need to begin with the basics, but should then be taught that different phonemes can be represented using the same letter or letter combination (most, cost), and that the same phoneme can be represented using different letters (key, see, me). These words can be phonically decoded if one understands the complexity of the code. There are many approaches and studies which demonstrate that this method results in improved reading ability, including the Clackmannanshire study.

Written English is a formidably complex system and therefore needs to be taught with great care. But it can be taught at a whole class level, and with great success, if the above is understood and implemented.




Howard is alarmist on immigration

Sir: Like Michael Howard's parents, mine were immigrants to this country from eastern Europe, which is perhaps why I find his current campaign against immigration so distasteful. His often repeated claim that asylum and immigration are "out of control" is false and alarmist. It plays on people's fears and prejudices for electoral benefit.

Most immigrants and their descendants make a valuable contribution to our society, not to mention a net contribution to our economy.

At the root of the Tories campaign is unease over the numbers of black and Asian faces in our communities, where perhaps there were fewer a generation ago. Some are students, others have moved here from London or elsewhere in the UK along with the many white "incomers" who go unnoticed. If immigration was solely from Australia or Ireland (where many immigrants do in fact come from) would there be the same concerns?

The Tory proposals on immigration are unworkable, and have been criticised by the UN. Many Conservatives of good conscience will be ashamed to be associated with this campaign. It is not an issue to exploit in an election for political gain, and it is the responsibility of all decent, progressive people to make sure Mr Howard does not profit from it.



Sir: Michael Howard says that it is not racist to discuss the subject of immigration. Why would anyone think it was? But it's interesting that he is so defensive as soon as he raises the subject.

Perhaps when Mr Howard talks of immigration he is only speaking of immigrants of a certain colour. I can't think why else he would feel the need to make this bizarre justification.



Sir: Whilst the debate over our immigration system rages between right and left, our political leaders are missing a big point. By failing to implement adequate measures to combat climate change, we will create a situation where tens of millions of people around the world find themselves homeless.

Communities will be forced from their homes and cities as a result of rising sea levels and extreme weather events, such as flooding and drought. People living in deltas, low-lying coastal areas and small islands around the world face a particular risk of displacement, and rising temperature could put hundreds of millions of people at risk of coastal flooding, disease and starvation.

These are hugely worrying statistics. More than that, they suggest millions of lives ruined within a generation. It will be industrialised countries, such as the UK, who have contributed the most to climate change, that will ultimately bear a huge responsibility for those lives.



First past the post now favours Labour

Sir: Conservatives like Michael Brown (Opinion, 6 April), seem not yet to have registered the fact that the Tories are now disadvantaged by the present first-past-the-post electoral system.

When other parties made this point in the past, they were dismissed as cranks who wanted "weak" governments. Now that the Conservatives are no longer a national party they experience what used to be the Labour Party's difficulty: piling up useless majorities in safe seats.

In the 1992 election, the Tories obtained 42 per cent of the vote and 61 per cent of the seats. In the 2001 election, they obtained 34 per cent of the vote but only 25 per cent of the seats. Had the multi-member-constituency system - used in European elections - been used in the election of 2001, the Conservatives would have obtained around 224 seats, an increase of 58.

On the other hand, Labour's share of seats would have been around 283, leaving Blair without an overall majority. Thanks to Mr Duncan-Smith, this fact would not have prevented the attack on Iraq, but hunting with dogs would still be legal. However, in previous parliaments neither the privatisation of the railways, nor the poll tax would have got through the Commons.



Sir: With voter apathy apparently on the rise I would ask everyone to consider those less enfranchised than others in this coming election.

Since I reached voting age, just over 28 years ago, I have never been able to vote for or against the government that sets my laws, taxes me or wages war on my behalf. I have never been able to weigh up the characteristics of would-be leaders of the nation and say "yes, this is the one whose vision I will align myself with" and vote accordingly. I have never been able to review national progress over a four-year term and then register my intent for it to continue on course or to change.

And no, I don't come from a little-known Eastern European state clamouring to gain entry to the EU. I come from Northern Ireland.



Sir: I am very concerned about the potential for massive fraudulent postal voting in the forthcoming election on 5 May, coupled with probable distorted results caused by overdue boundary commission changes. I am contacting the EU and UN to invite international observers to ensure that the elections are free and fair.



Frightening erosion of civil liberties

Sir: Andrew Grice ("The week in politics", 9 April) does not address what I believe to be the central issue of the election: the despotic New Labour Government's slide towards making Britain a police state.

This Government has been assiduously removing our civil liberties at a frightening pace. It is now legally empowered to confine any one of us to our homes merely on its suspicion that we might have had something to do with terrorists.

The Government has imposed restrictions on our freedom to protest peacefully. New Labour has also brought in Asbos, which have resulted in people being imprisoned as criminals for breaking unreasonable conditions imposed by poorly briefed magistrates under pressure not to appear "soft on crime". New Labour is anxious to bring in compulsory ID cards, too.

The combined effect of this legislation is to remove our protection as citizens from the abuse of power by our executive government. I am, fortunately, a white, grey-haired, middle-class woman who has never "broken the law". Nevertheless I am worried that if I join another peace rally, mislay my ID card, or otherwise express my disagreement with the Government I could find myself the subject of government's "reasonable" suspicion and be "disappeared".



Truth, lies, Christians and party politics

Sir: Dr John Neasham asks whether we should read anything into the fact that the General Election will be held on Ascension Day (letters, 8 April). Ironically, we should indeed. For the Ascension of Christ is, in fact, the most political of all Christian doctrines, as its declaration of the Lordship of Christ over all creation means that there is no area of human life that lies outside his reign of truth and peace.

And that is why Christians, if they are faithful, will always be opposed to any dissembling and divisive party agenda, and why they will only support a government that promotes the well-being of all, not just the interests of some.



Sir: When was the last time that a Labour government was worrying about whether or not it would win a third term? Somebody must be doing something right somewhere



Human rights in Zimbabwe

Sir: Peter Devillez (letter, 9 April) asserts that the African population of Zimbabwe, prior to the present regime, were "suffering far worse human rights abuses than they currently endure". Platitudes such as this, vilifying the former white government of the country, are frequent.

The chimera of vote franchise since the end of white rule, featuring evil charades of polling in a process entailing violence, intimidation, reprisals, obstructionism, chicanery and resistance to investigation is the only dubious "right" which was not available to most Africans during the previous administration. In contrast to today, the basic human rights to justice, freedom of speech and assembly were taken for granted by all, irrespective of race or vote entitlement. Moreover, no "draconian military rule" featured during Ian Smith's tenure. This administrative tool came into use during the present regime, notably when Mugabe's North Korean-trained troops carried out their horrifying genocide on the people of Matabeleland as a punishment for daring to oppose him at the ballot box.

Some three million Zimbabweans, the huge majority black, representing roughly 25 per cent of the population, live by choice or necessity in exile. They are ones fortunate enough to have had the resources or opportunity to permit such an option. Perhaps Mr Devillez should seek their opinion on a comparison of human rights during the Smith and Mugabe administrations.



Prayers for the Pope and Aids in Africa

Sir: The views expressed in Nick Bennett's letter ("Don't blame the Pope", 7 April) are rather naïve. While I may agree it would be "better" for men and women to only have sex when in monogamous relationships, that is not the world as it is. Why advise against the use of condoms, which are least a way to reduce risk.

To advise against their use is to increase the risk of Aids - and also of possibly unwanted babies. Where is the religious justification for condemning people this way? If the Catholic church is to be involved constructively in helping people in Africa they need to accept the whole social system as it is - not as they might like it to be.



Sir: Your correspondent J A A Johnson (letter, 6 April) did not understand why Pope John Paul II needed our prayers. He needs them precisely because there is no guarantee of salvation for anyone; not even for a Pope who made such efforts to fulfil his vocation faithfully. John Paul had the humility to recognise this.



Charles the widower

Sir: Your editorial on 9 April refers to Prince Charles as a divorcee. My understanding is that he was a widower and was as free under canon law as under civil law to marry in church. It was the fact that his bride's former husband was alive that prevented a church wedding.



Political climate

Sir: The major political parties now begging for our votes claim to be champions of the environment. How do they square this with their tours of the country by helicopter or aeroplane with the press in hot pursuit? In this "information age" there must be far more environmentally friendly ways of peddling their claims.



Deadly delay

Sir: If Samuel Hahnemann had had malaria at the time of his experiments with quinine, the minuscule doses he used could not have cured him and he would have probably died ("The story of homeopathy, 11 April). Similarly today, if patients with a serious illness succumb to the mumbo jumbo of homeopathy and delay seeing a conventional doctor until too late then they may die. So your final sentence, saying that homeopathy "can do little harm", is extremely glib.



Orwell's premonition

Sir: Labour's exhortations to vote for them in order to keep the Tories out remind me of the ruling pigs in Animal Farm, who silence dissent with the warning "Surely, comrades, you do not want Jones back?" We all know what happens at the end of the book, and in Britain it's long since happened.



Sunday voting

Sir: One way of increasing the turnout at elections would be to move polling day to a Sunday. I am sure the polling booth would prove to be an enticing alternative to the DIY superstore and the shopping mall for many.