Diary of a Parent: Don’t you know what a split digraph is mummy?

Written by: Parent diarist | Published:
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Do you know what a split digraph is? Our parent diarist is worried that a love of reading for pleasure is being put at risk by a ‘grammar-only’ approach to literacy...

Bedtimes have always taken on a similar pattern in this house and one that is much-loved by us all. It’s a time for reading and story-telling and, lately, of finding out what’s going on in our child’s life when she’s not at home.

It is usually when tucked up in the comfort of her own bed that our daughter tells us about anything that is worrying her, what happened in school that day and importantly – to her – which of her classmates got perilously close to the red light on the behaviour “traffic light” system, and so may miss out on “golden time” at the end of the week.

Increasingly, it is also the time when she wants to read herself, rather than to be read to. On some levels, both her father and I have always dreaded this day would come and she won’t want or need us to fulfil this role any longer. There is something quite wonderful about watching your child fall asleep to a favourite story.

Lately, she has decided she’s going to read her way through the little library of 30 or so books we bought her a while ago, which are designed for new readers. Each book is beautifully illustrated and the boxed set is divided into levels of difficulty.

One evening recently, it was my turn to do stories. We randomly chose a book and she began to read. But every so often she would stop. “Look mummy, that’s a split digraph,” she said pointing to the word “smile”.

A what?

“A split digraph. Look the l is in-between the i and the e. Daddy didn’t know what it was either. He calls it a split diagram, or something,” she said, rolling her eyes.

It was not the first time one of us had had a lesson in phonics or numeracy from a six-year-old. A few weeks earlier, she had asked me what the edges of her tissue box cube were called.

“I don’t know? Edges?”

I was wrong. They’re called vertices.

“How can you not know that, mummy?”

And just last week she drew a picture and proudly announced it was an example of symmetry. Thankfully I was able to agree that, yes, it was. I knew that term, at least.

In truth, I am not sure whether to be impressed or despairing of what my child already knows and has been taught in year 1. She is an inquisitive child, who copes well with school and with the demands, such as they are, of being in the “top group”. I am not overly concerned, at the moment at least, about the weight of information being thrown in her direction (if teachers think children don’t realise what ability group they’re in – well, they do).

But at a time when her vocabulary is expanding and she is learning to read new words on a daily basis, she has become pre-occupied with identifying grammatical terms for the sake of it. I don’t know whether her teacher encourages the children to do this – I hope s/he doesn’t – but this doesn’t feel like reading for pleasure.

Nor does it seem likely to foster a love of books in the long term, when a young child is more immersed in spotting grammar than losing herself in the story.

I cannot imagine for what reason a year 1 pupil needs to know what a split digraph is, or how this will make her into a better reader or writer at this stage in her education. It is surely a technicality for geeky grammarians, but what use is knowledge of this to a child in year 1?

It doesn’t feel right to say “well, I never learned this stuff and it didn’t hurt me”. I would like to understand and to find some common ground with ministerial thinking. I was at primary school 40-plus years ago, and of course teaching methods have changed. We never learned about split digraphs, or any grammar that I recall; symmetry was taught later in primary school and vertices probably came up at some point in secondary.

Perhaps we were held back by not being taught this stuff sooner but it doesn’t feel like it. In fact, the opposite is probably true.

Looking back, primary school was a wonderful journey of discovery. We seemed to be less taught, but were expected to learn. Or rather we learned how to learn. We rote-learned our times-tables, but little else. The use of common sense and initiative was a big thing. Perhaps it still is.

The big difference is, of course, that there were no SATs back then – and some things are harder to test than others.

  • Diary of a parent is written anonymously by a mother living in the South of England who has a child aged six in year 1 in primary school. Names have been changed where appropriate. Email your views and questions to editor@headteacher-update.com

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