Words index Vivian Cook
Childrenís words in the National Curriculum
The UK National Curriculum lays down the words that children should be able to read at different ages. Here is their list, in the order in which they give them:
Reception year (45 words)
I, go, come, went, up, day, was, look, are, the, of, we, this, dog, me, like, going, big, she, and, they, my, see, on, away, Mum, it, at, play, no, yes, for, a, Dad, can, he, am, all, is, cat, get, said, to, in
Year 1 to 2 (150 words)
About, can't, her, many, over, then, who, after, could, here, may, people, there, will, again, did, him, more, push, these, with, an, do, his, much, pull, three, would, another, don't, home, must, put, time, your, as, dig, house, name, ran, too, back, door, how, new, saw, took, ball, down, if, next, school, tree, be, first, jump, night, seen, two, because, from, just, not, should, us, bed, girl, last, now, sister, very, been, good, laugh, off, so, want, boy, got, little, old, some, water, brother, had, live(d), once, take, way, but, half, love, one, than, were, by, has, made, or, that, what, call(ed), have, make, our, their, when, came, help, man, out, them, where
Plus: days of the week, months of the year, numbers to twenty, common colour words, pupil's name and address, name and address of school
Obviously these words have been carefully selected. One criterion is evidently that they have a single syllable, with a few exceptions like about and water, a rather odd requirement for English. The crucial criterion seems to be how often they occur. Virtually all of them are within the most frequent 200 or so established by the BNC. This has the side-effect of making them structure words like of and the rather than content words like house and play, since structure words are the most frequent in English; about half of the 45 words for the reception year are structure words. These are indeed vital to reading English as they make up a large amount of any sentence. Yet many psychologists say they are peculiar in that their spelling is remembered as a whole rather than each letter being turned into sound. Recognising structure words like to and the is a different process from reading words like play and ball. And, if frequency is the guiding principle, why has the National Curriculum omitted 17 other function words from the Reception Year list that are in the top 50 words, such as be and had? Indeed which, no 32, is not even included in the next two years.
Structure words donít actually make sense without nouns, verbs or adjectives. If you took the curriculum seriously, the Reception Class are expected to manage with the nouns dog, day, and cat, the verbs go, come, like, see, play and said, and a single adjective big. Supposing the children had mastered all 45, all they could read is variations on Mum/Dad/the cat/a dog is coming/is going/is looking at it/said no/like me. The wordlist provides no basis for any sensible reading activity. The only thing it corresponds to is antiquated readers for children with sentences such as See Spot! Janet is on the swing. A lesson from many years ago is that starting to read is not starting to learn language; 5 year-olds already have an extensive vocabulary not that of one-year-olds; itís just they donít know how to read them. The Breakthrough to Literacy approach to teaching reading indeed started from what children wanted to talk about; if they were interested in hippopotamuses then hippopotamus should be the word they learn to read.
Let us try and suggest some content words to supplement the list that could allow the children a slightly more meaningful reading material. Here are some of the verbs and nouns used in The Jolly Postman by J. & A. Ahlberg:
Nouns: bicycle, hill, bear, letter, baby, postman, tea, uniform, gingerbread, cottage, witch, cackle, bell, bottle, milk
Verbs: read, drink, happen, went, leave, tell, hear, stop, wet, ride, sing, wobble, feel, pour, begin, put, play
Children can deal with these words when they are read to them; why should they be cut off from everything interesting when they have to read themselves? You cannot blame the child for not bothering to learn to read the kinds of sentences implied by the National Curriculum.
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