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 < 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).



Sunday, November 27, 2016

The continuation of the war against phonics by other means

Once again I feel obliged to respond to an article posted by Misty Adoniou in The Conversation and, as I have pointed out previously here and here, Misty is as foggy as her name when it comes to talking about phonics. In order to arrest the decline in reading ability, Australia is currently considering adopting the England’s Phonics Screening Check. Misty's opposition to a screening check is yet another opportunity to exercise her opposition to the rigorous implementation of phonics teaching throughout Australia - a step teachers and children are crying out for.
To begin with, she claims that the impact of phonics on reading outcomes is ‘underwhelming’. According to Misty, the check has been successful in England because the children get better at doing it over the year. Actually, Misty, that is the point! Teachers teach children to segment and blend simple one-to-one sound-spelling correspondences. That is to say, when children see the word ‘mat’, they say, “/M/ /a/ /t/, ‘mat’.” When you are four years old, this is what reading looks and sounds like. It's true that reading is more complicated than that but if you know how to teach phonics, you can teach from simple words like 'cat' to more complex ones like 'catastrophic'.
Misty also objects to the use of nonsense words like ‘zab’. What she doesn’t realise is that teachers need to know if children can segment and blend sounds in words and, when it comes to real words, they can’t always be sure a child hasn’t simply memorised them or guessed. Nonsense words provide a simple way to find out whether the child is reading or guessing.
Secondly, Misty claims that teachers already test for phonics. The sad truth is that most teachers haven’t the first idea how the sounds of English are linked to the spelling system, much less are they taught in their training courses the skills needed for children to become proficient readers.
Her next ploy is to muddy the waters by misleading us into thinking that the English government made phonics a priority with the introduction of the screening check (2011) when, in fact, phonics was given much more emphasis after the publication of the Rose Report in 2006. However, even though governments have favoured phonics, it hasn't meant that schools know how to teach phonics correctly and the evidence suggests that mixed methods still dominate. And, the siren song of the anti-phonics lobby can always be heard in the background attempting to lull the unwary onto the rocks of whole language illiteracy.
Predictably, we then come to that hoary, old chestnut: being able to sound out words doesn’t mean that children can necessarily understand them. Of course it doesn’t! And no phonics advocate would ever claim that it does, but one thing is for sure, Misty, if you can’t read a word, you are never going to be able to understand it!
I won’t even begin to answer the remarks Misty poses about teaching English to speakers of other languages, except to say that it is garbled nonsense. Teachers in UK and elsewhere use phonics to teach such children who speak other languages at home enjoy phenomenal success. Speech therapists and teachers alike constantly attest to the fact that phonics helps children to hear and speak the sounds of the target language.
In the final paragraph of her piece, 'Monkey see, monkey do', we see how the mask finally slips to reveal the contempt Misty has for phonics teaching. What she is implying is that, as a teaching approach, phonics is a less than human - not really something a sentient and creative human would ever engage in. How unfortunate that she doesn't read the work of her Australian peerless peers John Sweller and John Hattie to see how human inventions, such as writing systems, need to be taught systematically and explicitly.
In her opposition to the teaching of phonics, Misty is either grossly ignorant or she is a deliberate deceiver. Nearly five thousand years ago, the Sumerians realised that because of the limitations on human memory, a whole word approach (remembering each word and associating with its meaning) would never work. The decisive step came when they phoneticised writing: invented symbols for the sounds in the language. Although this detached writing systems from meaning, it meant that with the limited number of sounds in a language, if symbols were invented to represent those sounds, you would have a generative system that is capable of representing any new word in the language.
And that is what happened: phonics solved the problem memory overload.

NB Susan Godsland has pointed out to me that though John Hattie is professor of education and director of the Melbourne Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, he is in fact a New Zealander. Thanks for the correction.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Decoding the top 100 high frequency words

The following are the 'top 100 hundred high frequency words', as listed in Letters and Sounds.

Word
sounds
spellings
Notes
the
/th/ /schwa/ or /ee/,
depending on context
[ th ] [ e ]

and
/a/ /n/ /d/
[ a ] [ n ] [ d ]

a
/a/ /ae/ or /schwa/,
depending on context
[ a ]
/ae/ is the sound you hear in 'rain', 'say' and 'made'.
to
/t/ /oo/
[ t ] [ o ]

said
/s/ /e/ /d/
[ s ] [ ai ] [d ]
[ ai ] is a very infrequently encountered spelling of the sound /e/ in a very commonly encountered word.
in
/i/ /n/
[ i ] [n ]

he
/h/ /ee/
[ h ] [ e ]

I
/ie/ (as in 'tie')
[ i ]

of
/o/ /v/
[ o ] [ f ]

it
/i/ /t/
[i ] [ t ]

was
/w/ /o/ /z/
[ w ] [ a ] [ s ]
The spelling [ a ] representing the sound /o/ is a frequent pattern in words following the sound /w/.
you
/y/ /oo/
[ y ] [ ou ]

they
/th/ (voiced) /ae/
[ th ] [ey ]

on
/o/ /n/
[ o ] [n ]

she
/sh/ /ee/
[ sh ] [ e ]

is
/i/ /z/
[ i ] [ s ]

for
/f/ /or/
[ f ] [ or ]

at
/a/ /t/
[ a ] [ t ]

his
/h/ /i/ /z/
[ h ] [ i ] [ s ]

but
/b/ /u/ /t/
[ b ] [ u  ] [ t ]

that
/th/ (voiced) /a/ /t/
[ th ] [ a ] [ t ]

with
/w/ /i/ /th/ (voiced)
[ w ] [ i ] [ th ]

all
/or/ /l/
[ a ] [ ll ]

we
/w/ /ee/
[ w ] [ e ]

can
/k/ /a/ /n/
[ c ] [ a ] [ n ]

are
/ar/
[ are ]

up
/u/ /p/
[ u ] [ p ]

had
/h/ /a/ /d/
[ h ] [ a ] [ d ]

my
/m/ /ie/ (as in 'tie')
[ m ] [ y ]

her
/h/ /er/
[ h ] [er ]

what
/w/ /o/ /t/
[ wh ] [ a ] [ t ]

there
/th/ (voiced) /air/
[ th ] [ ere ]

out
/ow/ /t/
[ ou ] [ t ]

this
/th/ (voiced) /i/ /s/
[ th ] [ i ] [ s ]

have
/h/ /a/ /v/
[ h ] [ a ] [ ve ]

went
/w/ /e/ /n/ /t/
[ w ] [ e ] [ n ] [ t ]

be
/b/ /ee/
[ b ] [ e ]

like
/l/ /ie/ (as in 'tie') /k/
[ l ] [ i-e ] [ k ]
Split spelling
some
/s/ /u/ /m/
[ s ] [ o ] [ me ]

so
/s/ /oe/ (as in 'toe')
[ s ] [ o ]

not
/n /o/ /t/
[ n ] [ o ] [ t ]

then
/th/ (voiced) /e/ /n/
[ th ] [ e ] [ n ]

were
/w/ /er/
[ w ] [ ere ]

go
/g /oe/ (as in 'toe')
[ g ] [ o ]

little
/l/ /i/ | /t/ /l/
[ l ] [ i ] | [ tt ] [le ]

as
/a/ /z/
[ a ] [ s ]

no
/n/ /oe/ (as in 'toe')
[ n ] [ o ]

mum
/m/ /u/ /m/
[ m ] [ u ] [ m ]

one
/w/ /o/ /n/
[ o ] [ ne ]

them
/th/ (voiced) /e/ /m/
[ th ] [ e ] [ m ]

do
/d/ /oo/
[ d ] [ o ]

me
/m/ /e/
[ m ] [ e ]

down
/d/ /ow/ /n/
[ d ] [ ow ] [ n ]

dad
/d/ /a/ /d/
[ d ] [ a ] [ d ]

big
/b/ /i/ /g/
[ b ] [ i ] [ g ]

when
/w/ /e/ /n/
[ wh ] [ e ] [ n ]

It’s
/i/ /t/’ /s/
[ i ] [ t ]’ [ s ]
Should be taught as a contraction of 'it is'.
see
/s/ /ee/
[ s ] [ ee ]

looked
/l/ /oo/ /k/ /t/
[ l ] [ oo] [ k ] [ ed ]
The [ oo ] can be pronounced as the /oo/ as in 'could' or as /oo/ in 'moon'.
don’t
/d/ /oe/ (as in 'toe') /n/’ /t/
[ d ] [ o ] [ n ]’[ t ]

come
/k/ /u/ /m/
[ c ] [ o ] [ me ]

will
/w/ /i/ /l/
[ w ] [ i ] [ ll ]

into
/i/ /n/ | /t/ /oo/
[ i ] [ n ] | [ t ] [ o ]

back
/b/ /a/ /k/
[ b ] [ a ] [ ck ]

from
/f/ /r/ /o/ /m/
[ f ] [ r ] [ o ] [ m ]

children
/ch/ /i/ /l/ | /d/ /r/ /schwa/ or /e/ /n/
[ ch ] [ i ] [ l ] | [ d ] [ r ] [ e ] [ n ]

him
/h/ /i/ /m/
[ h ] [ i ] [ m ]

Mr (mister)
/m/ /i/ /s/ | /t/ /schwa/
[ m ] [ i ] [ s ] | [ t ] [ er ]

get
/g/ /e/ /t/
[ g ] [ e ] [ t ]

just
/j/ /u/ /s/ /t/
[ j ] [ u ] [ s ] [ t ]

now
/n/ /ow/
[ n ] [ ow ]

came
/k/ /ae/ /me/
[ c ] [ a-e ] [ m ]
Split spelling. /ae/ is the sound you hear in 'rain', 'say' and 'made'.
oh
/oe/ (as in 'toe')
[ wh ] [ a ] [ t ]

about
/schwa/ | /b/ /ow/ /t/
[ a ] | [ b ] [ ou ] [ t ]

got
/g/ /o/ /t/
[ g ] [ o ] [ t ]

their
/th/ (voiced) /air/
[ th ] [ eir ]

people
/p/ /ee/ | /p/ /l/
[ p ] [ eo ] [ p ] [ le ]

your
/y/ /or/
[ y ] [ or ]

put
/p/ /u/ /t/
[ p ] [ u ] [ t ]
Depending on accent, the [ u ] can be pronounced as the
/ ʊ / as in ‘could’ or as /u/ in ‘but’
could
/c/ /u/ /d/
[ k ] [ oul ] [ d]
The [ oul ] is pronounced as the
/ ʊ / as in ‘bush’
house
/h/ /ow/ /s/
[ h ] [ ou ] [ se ]

old
/oe/ /l/ /d/
[ o ] [ l ] [ d ]
əʊ
too
/t/ /oo/
[ t ] [ oo ]

by
/b/ /ie/ (as in 'tie')
[ b ] [ y ]

day
/d/ /ae/
[ d ] [ ay ]
/ae/ is the sound you hear in 'rain', 'say' and 'made'.
made
/m/ /ae/ /d/
[ m ] [ a-e ] [ d ]
Split spelling. /ae/ is the sound you hear in 'rain', 'say' and 'bake'.
time
/t/ /ie/ (as in 'tie') /m/
[ t ] [ i-e ] [ m ]
Split spelling
I’m
/ie/ (as in 'tie') /m/
[ I ]’ [ m ]
Should be taught as a contraction of ‘I am’.
if
/i/ /f/
[ i ] [ f ]

help
/h/ /e/ /l/ /p/
[ h ] [ e ] [ l ] [ p ]

Mrs
/m/ /i/ | /s/ /schwa/ /z/
[ m ] [ i ] [ ss ] [ u ]
[ s ] or [ m ] [ i ] [ss ] 
[ i ] [ s ]
The schwa sounds something like an /i/ or an /uh/, depending on accent.
called
/k/ /or/ /l/ /d/
[ c ] [ a ] [ ll ] [ ed ]

here
/h/ /eer/ or /h/ /ee/ |/schwa/
[ h ] [ere ] or [ h ] [ e ] | [ re ]
The way we say this word very much depends on accent.
off
/o/ /f/
[ o ] [ ff ]

asked
/ar/ /s/ k/ /t/ or /a/ /s/ /k/ /t/
[ a ] [ s ] [ k ] [ ed ]

saw
/s/ /or/
[ s ] [ aw ]

make
/m/ /ae/ /k/
[ m [ a-e ] [ k ]
Split spelling. /ae/ is the sound you hear in 'rain', 'say' and 'made'.
an
/a/ /n/
[ a ] [n ]


*sounds are indicated in forward slashes; spellings are indicated by [ ] brackets. Polysyllabic words are split with a |.

As I’ve made clear before, out of this list of a hundred words, thirty-two are very straightforward to teach. These are:

  2 and VCC        6   in VC            10 it VC                 14 on VC
18 at VC              20 but CVC        21 that CVC         22 with CVC
25 can CVC         27 up VC           28 had CVC          34 this CVC
36 went CVCC    41 not CVC       42 then CVC         48 mum CVC
50 them CVC      54 dad CVC       55 big CVC           56 when CVC
57 it’s VCC         64 will CVC        66 back CVC        67 from CCVC
69 him CVC        71 get CVC        72 just CVCC       77 got CVC
91 if VC               92 help CVCC    96 off VC            100 an VC.

All the rest should be sorted according to sound and taught as spelling alternatives of those sounds. For example, the words 'they', 'day', 'made' and 'make' can be taught as spelling alternatives of the sound /ae/: [ ey ], [ ay ], or [ a-e ].

Why does this make sense? Because all children absorb the sounds of their own language naturally and teaching children anything they learn naturally, i.e. without having to be taught it, is a waste of time – theirs and the teacher’s. What children do need teaching is the writing script because no infant illiterate learns how the sounds of the language relate to the ways in which those sounds are spelled.


The only really difficult word to teach in this list is the word 'one', where, in modern pronunciation, it sounds like /w/ /o/ /n/. This word was once said as 'ane' and, while the way we say it has changed, the spelling remains similar. How should you teach it? It’s probably a good idea to teach it as a word pupils need to remember, because teaching the spelling [ o ] as two sounds /w/ and /o/ is probably more complicated, although children certainly don’t seem to have a problem recognising that the spelling [ x ] represent the sounds /k/ and /s/. Furthermore, 'Mr' and 'Mrs' are abbreviations and can be taught as indicated. 

Of course, it goes without saying that no high quality phonics programme will have the slightest difficulty in teaching any of the above words - or any words for that matter!