Tuesday, April 21, 2009

What is to be done?

In the preceding blog postings, I have tried to focus attention on what are fairly straightforward ideas:
1) First, human beings invented speech and language.
2) Later on, for a variety of practical reasons, writing was invented as a means of consistently and accurately recording speech/language.
3) Various approaches to developing accurate writing systems were tried but the only completely successful solution came with the development of signs or symbols (letters) to represent the basic sound units of speech. One of these developments was what we now, in English, call the alphabet code.
4)In countries whose languages are written using a simple (transparent) alphabet, where each sound is represented by a different and unique letter, literacy rates for those receiving basic schooling approach 100%, with the teaching of the sound-symbol system being completed within about two years of primary schooling.
5) In English speaking countries, whose language is written using a more complex (opaque) code, barely 50% of pupils become properly literate, despite having had ten years or more of schooling.
What is meant here by opaque in this context means that the way in which sounds are represented in words may not be at all obvious from looking at spellings in different words. How the alphabet code works is as follows:
1) Letters are spellings of sounds, so the word 'dog' contains three sounds 'd' 'o' 'g' and we use the spellings to represent those sounds. These are one-to-one correspondences and we call this a transparent system.
2) Spellings can comprise more than one letter. The sound 'sh' in 'ship' is represented by two letters sh; the sound 'ie' in 'night' is represented by the three-letter spelling igh; and, the sound 'oe' in 'dough' is represented by the four-letter spelling ough.
3) Finally, spellings frequently represent more than one sound, so that the spelling ow can be 'oe' as in 'slow' or 'ow' as in 'cow'.
It seems quite obvious that teaching a transparent code, as they do in in, say, Italy or Spain, is considerably easier than teaching an opaque one, such as English. What advice are teachers of reading and spelling in the UK given about how to approach the task of teaching literacy? Advice is predominantly handed down by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), whose latest contribution to the task of improving reading and spelling in schools is Letters and Sounds. The major problem with this document is evident in the title. Letters do not come before sounds. The sounds of the language, even though they can't be physically seen, are the basis for the alphabet code - the spellings we use to represent the sounds in the language. Sounds in the language are stable; they don't change. And, linguists are in agreement that there are, give or take one or two depending on accent, forty-four sounds in UK English. If teachers base their teaching on the sounds of the language, which everyone learns naturally, and the teaching is taught from simple to complex, all children can learn to read and most can learn to spell to a high degree of proficiency. For a summary of many of the common spellings of the vowel and consonant sounds in UK English go to: http://www.sounds-write.co.uk/downloads.asp
Apart from being something of a dog's breakfast, Letters and Sounds doesn't give what Jim Rose in the The Review of Early Reading said all teachers need: proper training, delivered by knowledgeable trainers.
What is happening at the moment is not good enough for the nation's children. They all deserve to be taught by teachers who are accurately trained and supported in how to optimise their pupils' literacy development. If not, we will continue to produce hundreds of thousands of illiterate 16 year olds leaving our schools semi-literate and suffering a lifetime of blighted career and life opportunities as a direct result of the failure of the education system to teach them to read and spell.

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