Sunday, February 26, 2017

Simple past tense endings for reading or spelling

I’ve never used my blog to answer a question from a single individual but, as the subject has come up in other contexts, the post is about reading and spelling simple past tense -ed endings in weak verbs.

To be honest, I’m always slightly surprised by this question – it does come up occasionally on our courses because regular verbs in the past simple take –ed endings. I think what some teachers is the fact that they represent three different pronunciations /d/, /t/ and /schwa/ + /d/ (two sounds).

When some years ago I was teaching English for the British Council, I came across a popular resource book that mapped out the ‘rule’ for teaching how to pronounce these endings, and it went something like this:
  • ·      When a verb ends in the following consonants sounds /b/ /g/ /j/ /l/ /m/ /n/ /v/ /z//th/ (voiced), the [-ed ] spelling represents the sound /d/
  • ·      When a verb ends in the consonant sounds /d/ or /t/, the [-ed ] spelling represent the sounds schwa + /d/, and the schwa can be realised as a truncated /uh/ sound or as an /i/ sound, depending on accent.
  • ·      When a verb ends in the consonant sounds /f/, /k/, /p/, /s/ /sh/ /ch/ /th/ (unvoiced), the [ -ed ] represents the sound /t/
  • ·      When a verb ends in the vowel sounds /ae/ /ee/ /ie/ /oe/ /ue/ /er/ /ow/ /oo/ /ar/ /air/ /oy/, the [ -ed ] will be /d/.

Now the question is: can you teach these ‘rules’ to foreign language learners? The answer is that, realistically, you can’t. Why? Because every time the learner hits a simple past tense verb ending, they have to stop and think about the rule and how to pronunciation it. It’s only with speaking practice and helpful correction that the learner irons out the problem – ‘hevenchually’, as Manuel might have said.

Does this problem apply to English L1 speakers? No! Almost every four- to five-year old has learned to produce simple past tense endings without having to be taught. Why? Because we learn to talk naturally! So for reading, all of these [-ed ] endings aren’t really a problem: even quite young children ‘normalise’ the pronunciation if they read too literally. The decoding process goes hand in hand with making/looking for meaning. When writing, however, we might have to teach that we spell the -ed ending [ d ] or [ t ], making [ ed]  a spelling alternative for the sounds /d/ and /t/: one spelling-different sounds, which is the subject of my next post.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

How to help secondary pupils with reading and writing complex words

I wrote the following response, which I've edited slightly and supplemented, to Robert Peal's excellent piece 'Planning a knowledge-based scheme of work. Part 1: Reading. You can read it here.

Let me state categorically that my response isn’t intended to take away anything from Robert’s endeavour. The work he’s doing is really superb and his generosity in enabling teachers/parents/carers to get free downloads of his resources is truly commendable.

For the record, here is the opening paragraph to his blog post:

Over the course of this half term, I am uploading all of the Key Stage 3 resources we have used at the West London Free School so far this academic year (see here). This is the first in a series of three blogposts explaining their design. The next two posts will be on ‘writing’ and ‘homework and assessment’.

There's no question in my mind that this approach is a huge step in the right direction, taking into consideration, as it does, how to get information from working memory into long-term memory and applying the principles recommended by Rosenshine et al. [Robert is clearly ‘well up’ on all the latest findings and research from E.D. Hirsch Jr, John Hattie, Barak Rosenshine, John Sweller, and many others.]

While acknowledging that the purpose of 'whole class reading' is comprehension, I would, in addition, take one or two of the longer, polysyllabic words - I know that time is limited but this is time well spent in the long run! - and talk about how they are structured. For example, the word 'heliocentric' may, as you imply in the piece, be difficult for some pupils to articulate in a single attempt. If the teacher writes it on the board, splits it into its syllables - /h/ /e/ | /l/ /ee/ | /oe/ | /s/ /e/ /n/ | /t/ /r/ /i/ /k/ (the bar | is where I've chosen to break the syllables), and makes explicit which sounds are represented by the spellings in the word, what, for some, has been impenetrable is now perfectly transparent. By doing this, you make the word easier to articulate - pupils say it slowly and then re-rehearse it - and, you can analyse the word and ask the class which spellings might be difficult to spell if the word wasn't immediately in front of them.

They would probably say that the [ i ] spelling for the sound /ee/ (also in 'Medici', 'Ludovico', 'Maria' and 'Grazie', which are in Robert’s text, might give some difficulty. In fact, the spelling for the sound is common in English words, such as 'ski' and many polysyllabic words, such as 'taxi', 'India', etc. You could conduct a similar exercise with the spelling of the sound /s/ in 'heliocentric'. The analysis works at a morphemic level, too, as I know you know. (Here, I was referring to etymological aspects of some of the words, which Robert confirmed in his reply.)

This kind of stuff takes a bit of time the first few times you do it but it gets much faster and it teaches pupils how longer words are structured, how to segment and blend them successfully, how sounds relate to spellings and, after saying 'he' 'lee' 'oe' 'sen' 'trik' a few times, they'll be able to say the word fluently and without adding or omitting sounds or syllables.


While I admit that teaching sound-spelling correspondences in this way to the many pupils in secondary schools, such as the West London Free School, is random and risks leaving great holes in their knowledge, there will be many who will be able to see more clearly how the writing system in English works. The technique also gives huge confidence to those pupils for whom the writing system is a mystery because to see long and previously unreadable words broken down in this way demonstrates that being able to read and write any word in the language isn’t that hard if you know how to go about it.

On our courses, I often write up a very long, obscure, polysyllabic word on the back of a whiteboard so that it can’t be seen immediately. When I reveal the word, I ask someone to read it. You’d be very surprised by the number of teachers who are very hesitant at first in reading this word, which, to date, no-one on the courses has ever come across previously. However, after a slow and sometimes faltering start a volunteer reads the word – slowly, syllable by syllable. I then ask them to say it a little bit quicker and then quicker still. The result is that after a few rehearsals, they read the word as fluently as any other.

When the word has been read, we examine each syllable for any spelling that might cause some difficulty and analogise it to other words containing the same spelling. After that, the word is written and spoken syllable by syllable, which helps pupils to remember how it is spelled. Finally, we talk about etymological aspects of the word and meaning.

My parting shot: if all pupils were taught this kind of stuff in primary school, Robert and all those other teachers teaching a secondary curriculum might actually be able to get on with teaching content as well as other aspects of form.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Zhou Youguang, inventor of Pinyin

The BBC has reported that Zhou Youguang, the man who brought literacy to millions in China after the communist victory in 1949, died on Saturday 14th January, a day after celebrating his 111th birthday.

After working as a Wall Street banker, Zhou decided, in 1949, to return to China to help with rebuilding the country. In 1955, he abandoned a professorship in economics and began studying writing systems. It took three years to create Pinyin – literally ‘spelled sounds’ (拼音) – a writing system for Chinese based on the Roman alphabet, and his achievement of developing a romanised Mandarin Chinese script brought literacy to millions. It has been estimated that prior to the victory of the communists in 1949, as many as 85% of the population were illiterate.

Many people believe that the traditional Chinese script is not based on sounds. In actual fact, it is! The correct description for the Chinese writing system is ‘morphosyllabic’ but, because of the large number of sinograms (Chinese characters) needed to represent the words in Chinese, it is very hard to learn - hence the invention of Pinyin.

One of the most recent estimates of the number of single graphs lists about 60,000 sinograms (Mair, V.H., ‘Modern Chinese Writing’ in Daniels, P.T. and Bright, W., (1996), The World’s Writing systems, p.200). Sixty thousand sinograms sounds like far too much for anyone to remember but, according to studies done in the late twentieth century, a mere (!)1000 sinograms cover 90% of all occurrences in texts and 2,400 sinograms cover 99%. This is about the upper limit of human memory: as Victor Mair explains, ‘It would appear that there is a natural upper limit to the number of unique forms that can be tolerated in a functioning script. For most individuals, this amount seems to lie within the upper range of approximately 2,000 to 2,500’. The problem is that even 2,400 sinograms is extremely hard to learn and takes years to achieve, which is why Mao’s government thought it worthwhile to invest in promoting Pinyin.

The difficulties of learning the traditional Chinese writing script give us a keen insight into why Whole Language approaches don’t work. Just as it is extremely hard to learn 2,400 sinograms, it is impossible to remember all the words in the English language as if they were logographs: a bit like trying to remember all the words in the Oxford dictionary. This is why teaching children to read using phonics is the only way to teach all children to read and spell effectively.

There are some fears that the conservatism of the traditional Chinese writing system will hold back the development of the country because of the pressures brought to bear on the use of sinograms by the advances in technology and information. The problem with such a system is that new sinograms need to be invented and added when new morphemes arise in the Chinese language or enter the language through borrowings. This makes the system open-ended and even harder to learn. Imagine learning a new character for every new invented word in a language! With Pinyin or English, for that matter, it's easy: all words are comprised of sounds and all we have to do is to assign already existing spellings to those sounds and, bingo, we have a new words.

After the killings in Tiananmen Square in 1989, as you can see from an interview he did with the US npr (National Public Radio) in 2011, Zhou became a fierce critic of the Chinese regime and a strong advocate of democracy. One of his last wishes was that he would live long enough to see democracy emerge in modern-day China. Amazingly, after his hundredth birthday he published no fewer than ten books, many of which are banned by the Chinese authorities, and he was an enthusiastic blogger right up to the time of his death.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Threshold concepts and the idea of sound to print

I’ve been thinking quite a bit recently about Glynis Cousin’s short introduction to ‘threshold concepts’, an idea developed by Erik Meyer and Ray Land and, although I have reservations about some of the things she argues, I’m finding her central theme quite helpful. She describes a threshold concept as one that is ‘central to the mastery of [one’s] subject’ and has ‘distinctive value ... for curriculum design’ and her contention is that ‘a focus on threshold concepts enables teachers to make refined decisions about what is fundamental to a grasp of the subject they are teaching’. 

However, knowing what the focus is can be problematical when, as she points out later in the introduction, teachers often have some difficulty in ‘retracing the journey back to their own days of “innocence”, when understandings of threshold concepts escaped them in the early stages of their own learning’.

Given the parlous state of initial teacher training in the domain of beginning reading instruction, it’s highly likely that – even though they may be teaching phonics on a daily basis –  many teachers have never been taught how the alphabet code they are teaching is structured. So, let’s start with that.

The threshold concept or first and overarching principle in the domain of teaching children (or older students) how to read and write is that the symbols we refer to as letters, combinations of letters or spellings are representations of sounds in our speech. The printed word is, as Diane McGuinness would have it, 'oral language written down'. This is what all writing systems were invented for and, as the psychologist Mark Seidenberg has argued in his book Language at the Speed of Sight, we need to go back to this fundamental principle and teach reading and writing as they were designed to be taught.

In countries, such as Spain, Italy and Germany, this idea is uncontroversial because it is starkly obvious: sounds and spellings are pretty much mutually implied. That is to say that there is, mostly, one way of spelling a sound and most sounds are spelled with single-letter spellings. This makes the writing system in these languages very easy to learn. English, on the other hand, is more complex – very much more complex. As I’ve stated a number of times on this blog, there are between 22 and 24 sounds in Spanish, depending on accent, and somewhere around the mid-thirties ways of spelling those sounds. In English, on the other hand, there are forty-four or forty-five sound for Scottish and Liverpudlian speakers of English. This fact in itself wouldn’t be a problem in teaching it; the problem is that there are multiple ways of spellings those sound.

So, going back to this idea of threshold concepts, the central idea that letters are symbols for sounds and that writing is speech written down subsumes a number of other concepts. The first of these is that we can spell sounds with a single letter, as in the word 'mat': three sounds, /m/ /a/ /t/, and three single letter spellings [m] [a] [t]. We can also spell sounds with two-letter spellings (digraphs), as in the word 'brush': /b/ /r/ /u/ /sh/, [b] [r] [u] [sh]; or 'steep': /s/ /t/ /ee/ /p/, [s] [t] [ee] [p]. In addition, we can spell sounds with three letters (trigraphs) in words such as 'light': /l/ /ie/ /t/, [l] [igh] [t]. And, in some words we can even spell sounds with four-letter spelling, such as 'weight': /w/ ae/ /t/, [w] [eigh] [t].

So, that’s quite a bit of complexity that isn’t evident in other alphabetic languages and many children will not work out this concept for themselves. In fact, although many children will be able to spell the sound /sh/ in 'brush' quite easily, they will probably not have realised explicitly that the sound /sh/ is spelled with two letters and that this idea generalises across the whole domain of reading and writing.

The next idea is the one-to-many principle: sounds can be spelled in different ways. This is the hard bit. It’s why it's virtually impossible to become a perfect speller in English – because if you have never come across a word containing a highly infrequent spelling of a sound, you probably wouldn’t be able to guess how to spell it. Moreover, for beginning readers it is hard work learning the common spellings for the sounds in English. You only have to look at the different ways of spelling the sound /ee/ to see that this is the case: she, meet, seat, happy, key, brief, taxi, amoeba, conceit. There’s a lot to learn – around 175 common spellings for the forty-four or so sounds!

The last concept (and this isn’t a hierarchy) is that many spellings represent more than one sound. So, the spelling [o] can be /o/ in 'hot', /oe/ in 'no', /oo/ in 'too' and /u/ in 'son'. As a symbol, the [o] could also be a ball, a moon, a sun, a pizza, etc, and if you draw a circle and ask even a young child of four what it can be, they’ll be able to give you all sorts of possibilities.

None of these concepts are difficult to understand but they are central to understanding how the sounds of the language and the writing system are connected. They should provide the framework for any phonics programme around which code knowledge (which spellings represent the sounds) and the skills of segmenting, blending and phoneme manipulation need to be taught.

The complexity of the above may appear to be counter-intuitive: last year, Daisy Christodoulou gave a very interesting talk in which she purposely cited the example of teaching reading. In her talk, she made the point that ‘literacy is the end point of education, but that this doesn’t mean that pupils will be practising this skill in its final format..’ To paraphrase Feltovich, Prietula and K. Anders Ericsson in their essay ‘Studies of Expertise from Psychological Perspectives’, expert readers look at the end point of literacy – automaticity, speed, understanding – and believe that this where novice readers begin. However, expertise in reading and writing is a long-term process. What Christodoulou argues is that 'as in many other skilled behaviours, the final product needs to broken down into its ‘component parts and ... lessons may look very different from the final skill a teacher is hoping to instil’.

What’s the message? Ground the teaching of literacy in the sounds of the language, which all L1 speakers learn naturally. Teach children the code knowledge and the skills they need to use that knowledge, and, especially, make explicit to them the elements of conceptual understanding which are transferable across the whole domain of reading and writing.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Reading Achievement Challenge - the child’s view at the point of learning

Following on from two previous postings (here and here) on the subject of cognitive load in the domain of the teaching of phonics, here is a practical demonstration of the cognitive challenges a four-year-old child has to contend with in just one simple word building exercise.

But first, why word building? Word building is our starting point because it is where we teach code knowledge explicitly. Rather than introduce young children to random spellings (letters) and then tell them that such and such is this sound or that sound, it's much better to give the learning a practical context. Word building offers the opportunity to learn a limited number of sound-spelling correspondences at any one time in the context of a word. This approach gives phonics teaching both a purpose and a psychological reality. For the child, who already knows what a mat is and what sit means, word building pulls back the curtain on the mystery of the connection between spoken language and writing.

Assuming the child does not fall within that very small percentage of children who have particular speech and language difficulties or suffers from a serious learning difficulty, what follows is a measure of the cognitive load involved in learning how to build words. It is designed to make concrete the relationship between the word, the sounds comprising the word, and the spellings that represent the sounds.

To start with, anyone wanting to teach word building and looking for tips on reducing cognitive load from the start would do well to introduce children to small whiteboards, pens and wipe-off cloths. Getting children to become familiar with these items and to get used to drawing lines on the board, like the one below, is very useful because teaching a child to link sounds to spellings and to manipulate them at the same time as thinking about drawing lines on a whiteboard without prior learning will overburden some children.

_  _  _

Now, if we are going to introduce the class to the three sound-spelling correspondences that we’ll need to build the word ‘sat’, we need three Post-Its, laminated squares with magnetic tape on the back, or even squares of paper on a sheet of paper on a table top. On these, the teacher writes the spellings, though not necessarily in the correct order because some children are adept at spotting the order in which the sound-spelling correspondences are placed on the board and then don't have any cognitive work to do.

The teacher places the three squares, jumbled up and out of order and slightly out of line, like this:

 t         a
_  _  _

The children are sitting on the carpet or in desks with the classroom whiteboard in front of them looking like the above. To some children, it’s likely that, without prior learning, the symbols representing the sounds will be new to them. To others, whose carers/family members read to them and even teach them, the spelling symbols will not come as anything new and this will give them a huge learning advantage (prior knowledge).

The extraneous cognitive load we’re presenting them with is the lesson template itself. As I explained in the previous post, the lesson presentation in itself does not contribute to schema creation or to the teaching of procedural skills. The intrinsic content is what we want to create a schema for: sounds and spellings, starting with s, a and t. But that’s not all! We are also going to be teaching them the procedural skills of segmenting sounds in words and of blending. In addition, we are, simultaneously, going to be teaching explicitly that spellings are symbols for sounds in words.

The teacher stands by the board and says to the children, “I'm going to say the word ‘sat’ very slowly. Listen carefully to hear the sounds that make up the word 'sat'." This is scaffolded by the teacher drawing their finger in one sweeping movement under each sound as they stretch out the word, taking care not to do the segmenting for the children. This should be done so that the finger corresponds to each sound as it sweeps across the word.

Note too that we are also teaching a word that begins with a continuant (/s/: a sound we can hang on to) allowing the teacher to stretch out the sound so that all children have the opportunity to hear it. [We know that gesturing in a way in which the movement of the finger corresponds to what is being spoken is very helpful. Using continuants in the beginning also enables children to hear the separate sounds in words.]

Now the teacher says, "What is the first sound (gesturing to the first line) you hear in 'sat'? Listen to what you hear when my finger is under this line."

As already indicated above, say the word slowly, but don't segment it. (Example: 'sssssaaat') As you say the word, slide your finger along under the lines corresponding to each sound.

Now choose a child to answer. I personally have never seen a reception class in which there isn’t at least one child who is able to do this. I choose a child to respond with /s/ and the teacher should say, “Yes, you can hear /s/. Everyone say that sound." And, all the children say /s/. Now you have all children saying /s/ and not 'suh' or 'ess'.

Next, the teacher asks: “Which of these is the way we write/spell /s/?” [Notice the accurate, brief and explicit language.] And, we choose someone to come out and demonstrate which spelling is ‘/s/’. Having done that, the child pulls the spelling on to the first line and says ‘/s/’ and all the children are encouraged to say the sound as it is pulled into place ‘/s/’. If the child doesn’t know, simply tell them by pointing to the spelling and saying, “It’s this one!”

The process is now repeated for the second sound and then for the third.

When the word is built and we have the spellings s a t, sitting on the three lines. We now ask the children to say the sounds and read the word. Every day, I would choose four or five children to repeat the process by saying the sounds and reading the word. That way, the teacher makes sure that every child is able to do what is being asked and also that every child gets the kind of rehearsal and practice necessary for learning.

After the word has been read, I remove the squares and I ask the children to tell me the sounds in ‘sat’. As they tell me, I write them, thus providing a model of how the letters/spellings are formed. Then, to check that we got what we wanted, we say the sounds and read the word, the teacher gesturing to each spelling as the children say the sounds.

Finally, with the word still on the whiteboard, I ask the children to draw three lines on their board and show me their boards. Now comes the writing. I ask them to write and say each sound as they write it. After they’ve finished writing, everyone puts their finger under the first line and we all say the sounds and read the word.

Of course, making a child fully literate, which for me means teaching them to be able to read and write very long, complex words, takes time and patience but this is the kind of practice required to turn novices into experts over time.

Can you expect this process to go smoothly from the start? The short answer to this is no! It will take children time to grasp the format of the ‘game’ (because that’s what it is) and some will take longer than others. Teachers need to remember what learning new activities are like from the perspective of what Jean of VAS blog calls ‘the child’s view at the point of learning’. They also need to remind themselves just how much effortful practice goes in to learning a new activity from scratch. In laboratory activities involving unfamiliar materials, even adult participants evidence surprisingly poor performance; on the other hand, when presented with tasks and materials to which they are accustomed, people demonstrate competent thinking, they grasp things readily and they can manipulate materials to problem solve.

So, just to summarise how carefully we've been to follow the kind of advice given by John Sweller and his colleagues, we've:
  • introduced only three items for children to learn
  • begun to give practice in procedural learning skills of segmenting and blending, skills the children will need all their reading lives
  • begun to build a schema for sounds and spellings
  • kept down the amount of teacher talk to a minimum and made sure that the language used is accurate
  • introduced a simple lesson template which will serve for lots of other similar lessons in which we introduce new elements of learning
  • challenged the children to combine their auditory, visual and oral skills in a way that offers success very quickly.

Here's an example I contrived on a course to help teachers see the difficulty they had in learning just four new symbols to represent sounds in English and to manipulate them in a word building exercise.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

The know-nothing world of the academic opposition to phonics

If you want to know why so many Australian (and English) academics are so strongly opposed to a Phonics Screening Check, which really is a fig leaf for their hostility to phonics teaching itself, it is that, at bottom, they don’t understand the relationship between the sounds of the language and the writing system itself.

Five thousand years ago people were struggling to create a means by which nascent city states might be able to record everyday business.

For urban societies to be able to work, there have to be systems in place to enable them to function smoothly. Cities need legal, tax and business systems, which, in turn, require an accurate method of recording transactions: legal systems, for example, cannot rely on word of mouth. For a legal system to work, judgements have to be made and recorded so that they may be referred to in the future.

This is what made writing the basis for urban societies. In the words of Peter Daniels, ‘All humans speak; only humans in civilizations write*, so speech is primary, and writing is secondary: writing underpins the culture of cities’.

The reason initial attempts to record information, such as pictography, failed is that they were unable to represent the complexities of language: abstractions, the ambiguities, the intricacies of the tense system, and so on. But there was another and more elemental logic for the switch to the phoneticisation of writing: the limitations of human memory. People couldn’t remember more than a few thousand pictograms.

Phoneticisation liberated humanity from memory overload through the invention of the symbolic representation of sounds in language. There are forty-four or so sounds in the English language and roughly 175 symbols/spellings for representing them. The 175 or so common spellings are capable of representing any word and any new word in the language. In other words, it is extraordinarily generative. By the standards of most alphabetic languages, this is a lot to learn. The Spanish language, for instance, contains around twenty-two to twenty-four sounds and these can be represented by around thirty to thirty five spellings. For this reason, Spanish is relatively easy to learn; English, on the other hand and for reasons of its history, is more complex, less transparent, harder to learn. It makes sense then that it takes longer to teach.

What also makes sense is that because the English writing system is complex, teachers must be properly trained. Evidence that this is not happening abounds. It isn’t good enough to set up a screening check alone and hope that somehow this will ensure that phonics is taught well. It won’t be if teachers are not taught how our writing system functions and the steps required to teach it to mastery level.

So, apart from knowing which sounds are represented by which spellings, what are the levels of complexity which teachers and particularly university lecturers need to understand about the code? They are these:
  • A sound can be spelled with one, two three or four letters (mat, rain, night, through)
  • Sounds can be spelled in multiple ways (rain, play, great, gate, they, eight, vein, David)
  • Many spellings represent more than one sound. (hot, no, monkey, do)

I see large numbers of examples that disclose how many university teachers lack of understanding of these concepts. Take example three. The other day – as is typical in lines of questioning such as this – someone tweeted a demand to know how a child might deal with the word ‘read’, the assumption being that the recipient of the question wouldn’t know how to answer. As readers of this blog will know, the word can be read in two ways: as /r/ /ee/ /d/ to rhyme with ‘need’, or as /r/ /e/ /d/ (the simple past tense) to rhyme with ‘bed’. What could be easier! When I responded in this way  rather politely, I thought  I was blocked! This is amazing behaviour from someone allegedly interested in debating the pros and cons of the possible introduction of a phonics screening check, Australian style.

It is obvious from the sort of interventions they make that many academics have never tested their thinking by teaching a phonics lesson to young children, nor, from the level of ignorance they display, do have know how the code works or how best to teach it. Anthony Radice asks in his latest blogpost ‘Why don’t progressives want to debate?’ In the main, the answer, Anthony, is that they throw around half-baked generalisations and the moment you challenge them on the detail, they collapse like a deflated balloon.

Here’s my challenge to the ‘progressives’: set up an RCT, pitting whole language, traditional (graphemic) phonics and linguistic phonics (a la Sounds-Write) against one another. Any time, any place, anywhere! How the challenge will be denounced - but they won’t take it up!

*Daniels is not making a value judgement here. 'Civilisation' is meant in the archaeological sense and refers to the life and culture of cities.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Of polydactyls

If you were listening to the last five minutes of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday, you will have caught a short item on, allegedly, how pupils’ spelling has deteriorated.

The item began by stating that new research from Cambridge Assessment is telling us that ‘we are making more spelling mistakes than our parents’.  Words, such as ‘too’, ‘off’ and ‘said’ are causing us problems. However, when the research was examined more closely, it turns out that, at least at GCSE level, inability to spell words like these – and the bar here is very low indeed – is found mostly in the weakest writers in Grades G and F.

And no, you can’t blame it on texting. Contrary to popular opinion, there seems to be a correlation between texting and good spelling. This makes sense: if can hear the sounds in words, you can represent them, albeit in this case in the coding of the texting genre. For example where the word ‘great’ is written as ‘gr8’, the writer needs to be able to hear the sounds in ‘great’ to be able to represent them.

What professor Debra Myhill, vice-chancellor of the University of Essex, who reviewed the research, hypothesised was that the reason for pupils achieving at Grades G and F’s inability to spell may be because schools are targeting pupils in the range C and D in the hope that grades can hold up or be improved. However, she thought that this may be at the expense of pupils working at a Grade E, F or G level and who are thought to be incapable of raising their performance to gain that magical C grade.

We hear a lot about this sort of thing going on in secondary schools and I have to say that I think it is not only pedagogically unacceptable, it is also morally repugnant that pupils are not given every opportunity to learn to read and write before they leave school.

At this point in the Today programme, listeners were introduced to 10-year-old Rhea, speller par excellence.

Out of the mouths of babes

When asked by the interviewer if she just learned words to spell, she responded by asking what use it was ‘knowing how to spell a word if you don’t know what it means’. Wise words! Why, for instance, would a teacher ask a child to spell a word they didn’t know the meaning of or hadn’t seen before? How would you, for instance know how to spell ‘eleemosynary’ if it wasn’t within your vocabulary and if you hadn’t seen it before? You might not know how to spell the /ee/ as [ ee ], or the /i/ as [ y ], or even the schwa as [ a ].

So, how has she become such a terrific speller? She tells us that reads a lot - from The Secret Garden to the Junior Edition of The Week magazine. Her mother also informed us that she has been read to since the year dot. But then she also added something highly significant: she said that Rhea ‘doesn’t just skip over words. She doesn’t just read with inference’. In other words, Rhea reads every word, she looks carefully and she doesn’t guess.

Putting it another way, when you can decode accurately, you don’t need to guess, your already very good decoding skills are supported by the context; whereas, poor readers cast about desperately in the hope that they can glean meaning from contextual clues because they can’t decode efficiently. As professor Keith Stanovich says in his paper ‘Individual Differences in the Acquisition of Literacy’, ‘Fluent readers are not engaging in the wholesale skipping of words, nor are they markedly reducing their sampling of visual features from the words fixated.’*

The item finished with Rhea testing the team on spelling ‘polydactus’ and ‘lyophilisation’ and on the meaning of ‘diaphanous’. A Year 2 class I used to teach using Sounds-Write would easily have been able to spell ‘polydactus’, though the meaning would have to have been explained first. ‘Lyophilisation’ might have proved slightly more difficult – but only slightly!

*Stanovich, K., (2000), ‘Individual Differences in the Acquisition of Literacy’, Progress in Understanding Reading, Guilford Press, London, (P. 167).