Language is the most powerful tool that humans have. People who can use language fluently and confidently, to good effect, creatively when appropriate, are taking a giant step forward in their quest to become successful adults. Everyone needs to be able to communicate their feelings, express their opinions, explore their thoughts, argue their case, sing their soul; in short, to use their own voices, and to convey a sense of themselves to others.
The general aim of the English program then is to help students achieve a sophisticated level of language usage, so that they can listen and understand, so that they can read and write.
To this end, reading is taught by way of the Fitzroy Method, the underlying philosophy of which has been described by one of its founders, Faye Berryman, English Mistress at Fitzroy Community School, as follows:
When we speak, we make sounds.
When we write, we write these sounds.
English has an alphabet of 26 letters. We use these letters to write the sounds that we speak.
Learning to write means learning which letters to write for the sounds we speak. Learning to read means learning which sounds to speak for the letters we see.
Sometimes we use one letter for a sound.
Sometimes we use two or more letters for a sound.
We read and write from left to right.
The Fitzroy Method then is a phonics based program, supported by 70 readers, each published in its own cover as a separate book, and accompanied by workbooks of written exercises.
The great virtue of the Fitzroy Method is that it works. Decades of comprehensive research into how children learn to read has led to more conflicts than resolutions, but one truth emerges clearly: that if a teacher believes in a system, is well versed in it, and teaches it in a thorough and professional way, any well-organised system will work.
We believe in the Fitzroy Method. It is a program that has been put together with care and integrity, it is comprehensive and intensive, and we have seen it succeed with a range of students, including those for whom literacy is a considerable challenge.
But of course there is much more to communication than the mere acquisition of language and writing and reading skills. As the jazz musician Charlie Parker memorably remarked: “you learn all the notes and chords and scales, and you practise them and practise them until you’ve got them right, and then you throw all that crap away and just play.”
Young children are naturally poetic, in their daily endeavours to make language do what they want it to do. The challenge is to help them develop their vocabularies and their understanding of syntax, and their ability to use increasingly sophisticated rhythms and patterns of speech, without robbing them of their poetic expression.
Implicit and explicit in our teaching of language is the understanding that English is an infinitely malleable tool. It can be made to do anything. It is for the user of language to determine what he or she wants English to do, and then to make the language do it. It is not for English to bully us; rather, it is we who should bully English.
The school offers all of the above, but then something much more. We are in a unique position to cater for the student who wants to take a particular interest in writing, perhaps with a view to a professional career. Students wishing to specialise in this area will achieve a sophisticated and detailed understanding of characterisation, plot, style, pacing and editing.