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Word Works : WHY THE ALPHABET IS A KID'S BEST FRIEND by Cathryn Berger Kaye; illustrated by Martha Weston (Yolla Bolly/Little, Brown: $14.95, hardcover; $7.95, paperback; 127 pp.)

November 03, 1985|Fred Holly | Holley is a Times copy editor and the compiler of "The Los Angeles Times Stylebook" (New American Library).

There has been debate, almost ad nauseam, for 20 years or more about "why Johnny can't read," and the question, together with the horror tales that accompany it, has plagued our entire society. For it is a question of moment that will affect all of us and all of those who come after us.

It is increasingly common to hear TV newsmen mispronounce and misuse words; it is hard to pick up a newspaper or magazine that does not contain errors; even books, with which you would expect greater care to be taken, seem to contain more slips.

Why? It may be a question not only of Johnny's inability to read but also of his simply not reading very much. The person who reads more is likely to read better, and despite the word processor and the videocassette most information, most knowledge, most culture and most wisdom continue to be transmitted by the printed word.

Fortunately, teachers like Cathryn Berger Kaye are making a serious effort to reach out to young people and to inspire an interest in words and their use. Kaye's book reaches out to poor readers of almost any age, and adults may find it rewarding:

"Words are tools. . . . They get along fine without sleep and don't eat much. If you get lost they help you get found."

Kaye's methods are simple: She would have the reader seek out words he doesn't know, keep a notebook of them and use them; she would have him use such learning-play devices as codes, ciphers and invisible writing to familiarize himself with the use of words; she would have him play with sign language and finger-spelling, and above all she would have him write--write haiku poems, write stories and letters and news accounts and plays and diaries and manuscripts to be sent to sea in a bottle.

And along with this lively and matter-of-fact methodology she communicates an abundance of things it is both fun and useful to know: Rabbi Hillel, not the Earl of Sandwich, invented the sandwich almost two millennia ago; french fries originated, not in France, but in Florence, Italy; three native Alaskans speak the dying language of Eyak, and the last speaker of Manx died in Britain in 1974.

Of course, one can pick holes in this useful fabric: Kaye uses, God help us, invites as a noun; the word conflict comes from the Latin conflictus, past participle of confligere (to fight), not from the Greek, and I object strongly to the over-broad suggestion that "you can ignore rules" in the writing of poetry. (It is true that you can but it is likewise true that you have to know the rules in order to break them effectively.)

But in this context these are quibbles, albeit relevant ones. Anyone who works with, plays with or loves words cannot fail to respond warmly to Kaye's closing: "Language and words are your friends for life. Keep working with them, and they'll work for you."

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