Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Reform the spelling system? Not likely! Train the teachers!


In spite of having written on this issue a number of times before (here, here and here), after reading Nathaniel Swain’s piece in The Conversation ‘Trying to change English’s complex spelling is a waste of time’, I feel moved to say more on the subject.

Essentially, Swain is quite right! The trouble is that, although he demonstrates how complex a spelling system we have in English, he doesn’t provide an answer to how we go about teaching it. And, as we see right from the start of his article, he falls into the misunderstanding that so many commentators fall foul of: he doesn’t understand the orientation of the sound-spelling system.

His eleven-year-old students sighs when asking ‘[h]ow can the same letters make* so many different sounds?’ The answer is that letters don’t make sounds; humans do! You may think that this is a trivial point. It isn’t! And it affects not only the way in which we teach but also the degree of success we are likely to have in teaching beginning readers to become literate.

As Peter Daniels and William Bright[1], two experts on the world’s writing systems insist: writing systems were invented to represent the sounds in language. People learn to speak naturally. In fact, we are primed for speech and quickly learn to articulate the speech sounds we use in our community, be that community monolingual or multilingual. Furthermore, we don’t have to send children to school to learn to speak. What isn’t natural is learning to read and write. This is because the writing system was invented to represent the sounds in our speech. It is this fact that should be the starting point for our teaching of reading and spelling.

When we say to young children that the squiggles on the page, or spellings as I prefer to refer to them, stand for the sounds in our everyday speech, we have immediately a reason or a logic for learning how the system works. The orientation also steers us away from confusing young learners. As Swain maintains (correctly), there are around forty-four sounds in Australian English, as there are in English English. If those forty-four sounds provide us with an anchor for our teaching, we will be less inclined to confuse children with inessential and/or wrong information.

Here’s how the English alphabet code works:

Letters are symbols (spellings) for the sounds in the language.

We spell those sounds with one, two, three or four letters (e.g. d o gsh o p, s igh t and 
w eigh t).

There are multiple ways of spelling the sounds in English (e.g. we can spell the vowel sound /ee/: s ee, t r ea t, b r ie f, sh e, k ey, h a pp y, s k i; and we can spell the consonant sound /n/: n o t, f u nn y, kn ow, gn a t, g o ne, pn eu m o n i a).

Many spellings also represent (stand for) more than one sound (e.g. the spelling o can be /o/ in ‘hot’, /oe/ in ‘no’, /oo/ in ‘to’, and /u/ in ‘son’.

If we view these four elements as being fundamental to our conceptual understanding of the whole domain of sounds and spellings and recognise that they are generalisable across the whole domain, we don’t need to talk about such things as  ‘silent letters’ (because all letters are silent!), or ‘hard c’ and ‘soft c’, or even long vowels and short vowels. There are sounds and there are spellings and we need to teach them from simple to complex, along with the skills needed to access them.

Of course, with this degree of complexity, unlike, say, Spanish or Italian, it’s going to take some time to learn such a system. At Sounds~Write, we reckon on three years, but then that is three years well spent and what you have at the end of it is 90% plus children able to read and spell more than well enough to be able to contend with any aspect of the curriculum thereafter.

What the English Spelling Society doesn’t seem to realise is that to ‘fix’ spelling, you have to decide on a single accent on which to pin it. The variation in English accents will inevitably mean that whatever the Society comes up with will not represent how many people talk. Our present system not only allows for this, it also allows for, in English, the vast number of:

heteronyms – words with the same spellings but with different meanings and different pronunciations (e.g. ‘row’ and ‘row’);

homophones/heterographs – words with the same sound but different spellings and different meanings (e.g. ‘pour’, ‘paw’, ‘pore’, and ‘poor’, though this doesn’t work for all accents of English);

homonyms – words with the same spelling and the same sound but with different meanings (‘bank’).

The current spelling system is also very well suited to the variety of Englishes across the world. For this, we have, amongst others, Dr Johnson to thank. As Diane McGuinness put it in her Why Children Can’t Read, ‘It was as if he [Dr Johnson] tied the English language to a stout oak tree to which all the dialects of English are connected by shorter or longer pieces of rope’[2]

Finally, I do want to say that where I agree with Swain completely is in his contention that, in the main, most pupils aren't currently benefiting from evidence-based literacy tuition. For that to happen, we need not to change the spelling system but to ensure that teachers are properly trained to understand how to teach the one we have.

* My emphasis



[1] Daniels, P.T, and Bright, W., (1996), The World’s Writing Systems, OUP
[2] McGuinness, D., (1997), Why Children can’t Read, Penguin.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Niece in Brussels sprouts

While in Madrid two weeks ago, I taught my niece (nearly seven years of age) something very interesting. She is being taught whole language at her school in Brussels. [Phonics is to the school as Brussel sprouts are to a seven-year-old.] She is pretty smart and speaks three languages already. Her father is English/Spanish, her mother is Spanish and speaks to her daughter in French all the time, and the language of instruction at the school is English. Not a bad start in life, eh!

My niece loves writing and has an inexhaustible curiosity and she wanted me to quiz her on some reading and spelling. So I gave her a quick dictation of words. In terms of meaning, they were random; in terms of spelling, they were ordered from simple (CVC) to more structurally complex (CCVCC).

I started with 'vet', a word she knows the meaning of and I told her that if she listened to the sounds and wrote the spelling for each one, she’d have no trouble. Nobody had ever put this to her before and she looked at me as if to say, ‘Hmm. That’s an interesting idea’ and wrote the word – correctly, I might add.

Next, I asked her to write a word she’d never read or written before, ‘asp’. I said to her that an asp is a name for a kind of snake and resisted the temptation to go into a Cleopatra riff! Even more interesting! ‘Asp’ is a VCC word and she had no trouble writing it.

As we progressed through, what were to be ten spellings, I could see that the realisation was dawning that if she could hear the sounds in the words and write them, she would always be right. And, at this level, the one of one sound to one-letter spellings, she would!

The last few words included ‘fresh’, ‘chimp’, and ‘when’. As she knew how to spell /sh/ and /ch/, she had little difficulty with either of the first two words, but I knew that the spelling of the /w/ sound in ‘when’ would be beyond her current knowledge. So, I told her that the next word would be ‘when’ and that we spell the /w/ sound like this (and wrote on a piece of paper wh). I pointed out that, like the sh spelling in ‘fresh’ and the ch spelling in ‘chimp’, wh was a two-letter spelling for one sound. With a big smile on her face, she wrote ‘when’. My youngest daughter, whom my niece adores, then marked each answer very ostentatiously and pronounced the verdict: ten out of ten.

We then read ‘Jane’s great baking day’, a story with the focus on different spellings of /ae/ and, frankly, because no one had ever taught her that there are different ways of spelling sounds, it was much harder work than the structurally more simple spellings.


That’s as far as we got. Unfortunately, she’ll now go back to school and try and make sense of the greater complexities of the code and, I’m sure that with time, she’ll figure it all out. The thing is that just a couple of school terms of systematic teaching of an understanding of the code, the teaching of the sound-spelling correspondences (taking care to ground the teaching in the sounds of the language), and lots of practice in the skills, would have the girl reading and writing like a demon. Sigh!

Sunday, February 08, 2015

The Reading Achievement Challenge revisited and Cognitive Load Theory (2 of 3)

To begin with I need to re-state what is at the heart of Cognitive Load Theory (CLT), according to its proponents John Sweller, Jeroen van Meriënboer, Paul Kirschner, Daniel Willingham and others.

What CLT emphasises is that working memory is severely constrained in terms of both capacity and duration. The argument is that we can only store in our working memories about seven items at any one time and that we are only able to operate on (manipulate) between two and four of those items.

Furthermore, the consensus seems to be that almost all information in working memory is lost after about twenty seconds unless it is constantly rehearsed. Think about what you do when someone gives you an unfamiliar phone number. You have to keep repeating it to yourself until you’re able to record it somewhere more permanent or else it is gone.

However bleak a prospect this may seem for us in managing to remember anything at all, in fact, once established in long-term memory, there is no known limit to the amount of information/knowledge that can be retrieved from long term memory into working memory.

The 64,000-dollar question is: how do we get information/knowledge into long-term memory? The answer to that question lies in our ability to create schemas. Schemas are mental models that organise and store knowledge. I’m not sure quite how valid this simile is but it’s a bit like opening a bank account which only allows you to deposit small amounts of money at a time. The process is cumulative and each small deposit adds to the whole, which, in turn, is changed as a result. It’s a dialectical process.

That’s about as far as I can push the analogy because schemas are much more dynamic in that they act, according to Sweller et al, as a central executive for processing and assimilating new information and adjusting accordingly the schema already created.

Here’s a concrete example: a child has been taught to blend, segment and manipulate one-to-one sound-spelling correspondences in CVC words. As the child is reading a class reader, the child comes to the word ‘ship’. The child, doing exactly up to this point what they have been taught, tries to decode the word by saying each individual sound /s/ /h/ /i/ /p/ and, after several tries without success, looks at the teacher wondering why what the teacher has been teaching doesn’t work. The more capable teacher steps in at this point, runs her pencil under the spelling and says to the child, “This is two letters but it’s one sound. Say /sh/ here.” Whereupon the child says /sh/ /i/ /p/, ‘ship’. The child has been sensitised to what is going, in due course, to be taught formally. The child has also been given a better way of conceptualising how the alphabet code works: we can spell a sound with two letters, in this case . This understanding can and will be generalised across the domain to include all the consonant and vowel digraphs.

So, the role of the teacher is to help learners to build schemas systematically and structurally. Of course this presupposes that teachers have a clear understanding of how their domain is structured from simple to complex and that they know how best to teach it. This is where cognitive load theory is particularly relevant.

The corollary of Sweller et al’s view of how we learn is that in order to get novel information into long-term memory most effectively requires lots of rehearsal or practice, Moreover, once incorporated into long-term memory, it also needs to be made automatic.

Here, it is worth quoting Feltovich et al. on the value of practice:

Research on the effects of practice has found that the character of cognitive operations changes after even a couple of hours of practice on a typical laboratory task. Operations that are slow, serial and demand conscious attention become fast, less deliberate, and can run in parallel with other processes. [In the case of reading, this means that the reader is able to decode efficiently and fluently while simultaneously attending to meaning.]
With enough practice one can learn how to do several tasks at the same time. Behavioural studies of skill acquisition have demonstrated that automaticity is central to the development of expertise, and practice is the means to automaticity.’ Feltovich, et al, ‘Studies of Expertise from Psychological Perspectives’, in K. Anders Ericsson et al, Eds, (2006), The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, CUP, p.53.

Developing cognitive schemas depends on the ability of the individual to process novel information and integrate it into an ever more sophisticated model and this is precisely where the teacher comes in: the ease with which novel information is processed in order to create schemas in long-term memory is highly dependent on how it is presented (by the teacher).

This raises another problem for us: it isn’t just that there is information which needs to be taught; the manner in which it is mediated is also an important factor. Sweller and his colleagues refer to the ‘what we have to learn’ as the 'intrinsic cognitive load'; the way in which it is conveyed they refer to as 'extraneous cognitive load'. Extraneous cognitive load is, in the word of van Meriënboer, ‘not necessary for learning (schemata construction and automation)’.

Now, the problem with many instructional procedures is that if the extraneous cognitive load is too great, intrinsic cognitive load cannot be absorbed into working memory and thence into long-term memory. At the risk of another analogy, do we go for the Model T Ford as our conveyance, or do we decide on the gaudiest of stretch limos, fully equipped with all the latest, distracting gizmos?

The fact is that the more the conveyance intrudes on the learning process, the greater the imposition on working memory and the less likely that what we want children (or anyone for that matter) to learn will be learnt.

This is why what you want is a Model T template, simple and direct, and not the stretch limo. For the purpose of instructional design and efficacy of method, lesson templates need to be consistent. The pupils quickly get used to the conveyance and can then attend to the addition of new content.

The next post will show the kinds of cognitive impositions we are making when we teach word building activities to young children who are just beginning to learn to read.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

The reading achievement challenge

In her education blog for the Huffington Post, Karin Chenoweth cites recent figures from the (United States’) Nation’s Report Card on reading. Even though there has been a marginal improvement since the early nineties, the statistics are still shocking: 52% of ‘eighth-graders (year 9 in UK) whose parents graduated from college can't read at the proficient level as measured by the Nation’s Report Card’; and, another 14% can’t read ‘at a basic level’. As you may imagine, if the numbers are so poor for the children of parents who have graduated from college, what then might the figures be like for those whose parents didn’t graduate, or for those from disadvantaged backgrounds?

Chenoweth is right to point out that the persistence of the massive achievement gap in the USA (for which read too the UK, Australia, and other English-speaking countries) is a blight on the education system. [In fact, the great Harvard academic Jeanne Chall devoted a whole book – The Academic Achievement Challenge – to the subject fifteen years ago.] She is also correct in underscoring the importance of teaching knowledge and information, without which, even if children are taught to read fluently, understanding will inevitably be impaired. I, and of course many of my fellow phonics advocates, completely agree with what she is arguing. The purpose of teaching phonics is to enable children to access meaning from text. What children need is the cumulative growth and development of cultural capital: from a very young age they need lots of interactive talk, preferably quality talk, and caregivers who read a wide range of literary and non-literary texts, amongst many other things. In short, they need to know lots of ‘stuff’.

However, when Chenoweth, in her article, writes that she hasn’t heard ‘the term “whole language” in a school in a long time, and [that] most early elementary teachers know that they need to teach kids phonics in some kind of systematic way’, I suspect that just because she hasn’t heard the term doesn’t mean that it has ceased to exist; after all, as Hamlet says, ‘the devil hath power t’assume a pleasing shape’. In the case of reading, the ‘pleasing shape’ comes in the form of ‘mixed methods’, which, as Bonnie Macmillan demonstrated in her book Why Schoolchildren Can’t Read, reduces to whole language. She may also not be aware of how utterly dreadfully badly trained in teaching reading most trainee teachers in ed. schools are – at least if the UK and Australia are anything to go by.

Where Chenoweth is absolutely on the money is where she declares that ‘reading instruction is one of the most complex tasks our schools undertake’. I would contend that poor training of teachers and poor instructional design of reading programmes are the principal reasons why children aren’t ‘proficient’ readers by Grade 8. If reading and spelling (two sides of the same coin) are rigorously taught during the first three years of schooling and children acquire automaticity, they have direct access to meaning. The process of reading becomes ever easier and, if the subject matter is suitable and well pitched, reading is pleasurable. When reading is pleasurable, children are much more likely to want to read: the rich get richer!

At Sounds-Write we have long argued that teaching teachers how to teach phonics and thus how to teach young children how to read and spell to a very high level of proficiency is an immensely skilled job. It doesn’t involve only the simple mapping of one-to-one correspondences between sound and spelling – as we sometimes hear from the denigrators of phonics: ‘Oh phonics! That’s just kuh a tuh, isn’t it?’ Neither does phonics ‘merely’ involve the teaching of all the complexities of how the writing system maps to the forty-four or so sounds of the English language. It includes the teaching of the procedural skills of segmenting, blending and phoneme manipulation. It involves making clear conceptually how the alphabetic code works*. And, just as importantly, teachers need to have a good understanding of how complex learning takes place and what good instructional design looks like. This latter aspect of the teaching and learning process is something that never crosses the radar screen of the vast majority of trainee teachers and yet is an essential element of successful teaching. What I am alluding to here is cognitive load theory and in the next couple of days I shall explain the relevance of CLT to the teaching of phonics.

* See what Pamela Snow, associate professor of Psychology at Monash University, and Alison Clarke of Spelfabet have to say on this here.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Lennie Gwyther's true grit

On Australia Day, here's a post for all those Aussies out there.

In her writings on the value of effortful practice, determination and having a ‘growth mindset’, Carol Dweck concludes that the secret of great accomplishments depends not so much on IQ but on passion, dedication and sustained effort.

While I was in Melbourne last week, I came across a newspaper article by Carolyn Webb in The Age about a boy who had in spades the kind of tenacity and grit Dweck is talking about. It is the story of nine-year-old Lennie Gwyther, whose dream was to be at the opening of the Sidney Harbour Bridge in 1932. [The Bridge, as many Australians call it today, was known at the time as 'The Iron Lung of Australia on acount of the amount of work it brought and the hardship it alleviated at the time of the depression.]

As a reward for looking after their farm in Leongatha, in south-eastern Victoria, after Lennie’s father had broken his leg and couldn’t get in the crops or do the ploughing, Lennie was allowed to plot his route to Sidney and to undertake the 1,000-kilometre expedition with no other companion than his horse Ginger. In the fierce February heat, this was no mere summer saunter!
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/93/Boy_on_a_Horse.jpg

At a time when the mood in Australia was at a particularly low ebb, the story of what this boy was intending to achieve became one that fired the popular imagination. Boy and horse were cheered on through town after town until they arrived in Canberra, then still a small town, where Lennie proudly shook the hand of prime minister Joseph Lyons and was invited to take tea in the then members’ refreshment rooms.

By the time he reached Sydney, crowds were waiting to greet him and he was invited to take part in the opening parade across the bridge. Having been given a signed cricket bat by his cricketing hero Don Bradman, Lennie was given permission by his father to do the whole journey in reverse and, on June 10th, just over three months after setting out, Lennie arrived home at Leongatha to the cheers of an 800-strong crowd and a civic reception.

As I'm sure Carol Dweck would agree, the combination of self regulation and determination possessed by this young Australian boy are an inspiration to all young people everywhere.

As Stephanie Owen Reeder, author of Lennie the Legend: Solo to Sydney by Pony, to be published on February 1st by the National Library of Australia, remarks, “these days a nine-year-old child is probably not even allowed to walk to the shops by themselves”*.

Footnote: Lennie’s father Leo Tennyson Gwyther, a captain in  Australia’s 2nd Field Artilllery, won the Military Cross and Bar during the First World War.


*Quoted from the article ‘Epic trek of boy and his horse inspired a nation’ in The Age, Friday January 23rd 2015.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Dr Helen Abadzi

Here is a short You Tube video, featuring Dr Helen Abadzi, on, amongst other things, the role played by memory in education.

In the extract Dr Abadzi begins with the neuromyth of brainstorming and (at 1:13) she goes on to talk about the part played by memory in the learning process. Here, she talks about the relationship between long-term memory, which she likens to the ‘biggest bottle in the world’, and working memory, the very narrow ‘neck of the bottle’.

The analogy is apt because the problem with working memory, part of which is comprised of short-term memory, is that it is very narrow in terms of its capacity and its time-frame: it holds only a few items – anywhere between three and seven – at any one time; and, it does so over a very short time period – anywhere between five and twenty-five seconds.

This has implications for teaching and learning because, for someone to make a decision/solve a problem/think effectively about anything, they need to combine whatever is stored in long-term memory with what is currently in working memory.

As knowledge already held in long-term memory can be chunked (so that many items are combined and processed as if they constitute a single item), there is theoretically at least no limit to what can be brought into working memory.

For this reason and as I have pointed out before here, it is essential to get lots of knowledge into long-term memory. This is why Dr Abadzi places so much emphasis on the teaching of basics such as literacy through phonics and arithmetical computation: unless decoding and arithmetical processes are automatised, working on them takes up too much space in working memory.
Fundamentally, what she is advocating is that when we are teaching young children to read and spell or do basic arithmetic, we need to introduce new knowledge a bit at a time and we need to practise the skills particular to the manipulation of that knowledge to automaticity.



Helen Abadzi is described in UT Arlington, the University of Texas Magazine, as a maverick because she has five college degrees and two doctorates. She is a Greek psychologist who worked as Senior Education Specialist at the World Bank and is now a researcher in education at the University of Texas. She is also an enthusiastic proponent of education for poor students in low-income countries. You can view some of her publications here.