Monday, June 29, 2009

Master's degrees for newly qualifieds?

It is reported in the Independent this morning that, in an effort to raise standards in the classroom, the government is now going to offer a free Master's degree to 5,000 newly qualified teachers. One of the principal targets of this initiative is the four hundred schools still failing to get more than 30% of their pupils to pass five good GCSEs, including maths and English.
The government is to allocate £30 million to the programme, which, to begin with, is to be rolled out in the north-west.
What most people would like to know is: why aren't trainee teachers being taught the basics of classroom management, curriculum design and teaching methodology when studying for their first degree?

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Great results from Tyldesley Primary School in Wigan.

I have just been sent data for a Y5 class at Tyldesley Primary school in Wigan, whose pupils all received Sounds-Write tuition from the beginning of Reception. All twenty-five pupils scored above their chronological ages, the weakest by two months, the next weakest by eight months - in itself a remarkable achievement.
At the top end, four children scored a spelling age of 15 years or above.
On average, the chronological age in the class was 10 years and 2 months. Their average spelling age was 12 years and 10 months.
These are fantastic results. Well done to the teachers and to the school!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Balls to scrap Strategies!

The BBC has just announced this morning that the national Strategies are to be scrapped from 2011! Hurrah!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

O Rose, thou art sick!

Here's a follow up to 'A Rose but ...' Debbie Hepplewhite of the Reading Reform Foundation summed up the Report pretty well I thought:

"I've now read through Rose's Dyslexia Report - some parts too quickly so I need to re-read - however there is a lack of clarity and lack of mention of different types of phonics and different types of teaching.
Rose goes to some lengths to describe the details of various courses for training as a dyslexia specialist - but the report leaves many unanswered questions for me about the details of content and methodology of 'interventions'.
In fact, there is very little information indeed about 'interventions' and no real mention of the fact that many local authorities and the government itself and the National Strategies team currently promote interventions which are 'whole language'."

Frankly, I'm disgusted with the report. If it doesn't provide a clear vision of what to do about children who can't read and spell, then what good is it.
Now, here's a story for you:
In the seventies, the newly formed Anti Nazi League approached Ernie Roberts, an executive member of the AUEW(Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers)and one-time assistant General-Secretary, to ask him to lend his name in support. His executive were resolutely opposed to the ANL. However, Roberts, coming up to retirement anyway, went with his gut instincts and came out publicly in support. It might not sound like much but, in those days, it was quite a big deal for someone to go against such a powerful union body (which included Hughie Scanlon!), particularly when they had been such a central part of it for so long.

What a contrast with our not-so-fragrant knight, who had the opportunity to tell the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families that the DCSF shouldn't be promoting two antagonistic approaches. And to tell us what works in catching up these desperate, illiterate kids!

Blake's poem doesn't seem such a bad metaphor.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Schott takes aim at 'i before e, except after c'.

News again from National Public Radio or npr in the USA. They’ve recently noticed the jettisoning by the UK government of the 'i before e, except after c' rule.
Npr reports that Ben Schott has fixed the rule in his sights and declared it to be 'an annoying edict about an annoying rule'. On his blog he is quoted as saying "It's the kind of thing to seize a feisty, heinous foreigner like me. ... Seize, feisty, heinous and foreigner are all 'e before i' words that have no 'c'." - before going on to wonder whether the government hasn’t anything better to do.
I do like the introduction of 'poorgeoisie' into Schott's vocab, by the way.

A Rose is but ...

Another government report: 'Identifying and Teaching Children and Young People with Dyslexia and Literacy Difficulties'! They’re churning them out faster than David Crystal can write books on language these days. Probably so that we don’t have time to read them thoroughly!
With this latest offering, we’re treated to the usual platitudes – 'every child to succeed', 'no quick fixes', 'research and best practice converge on the principles that define effective provision', 'young people with dyslexic difficulties generally do not read unless they have to' (p.10), children with reading difficulties need 'highly structured, sytematic' instruction, '...often' [I’m not sure about the 'little' referred to in the 'little and often'. It depends on the child.], and so on.
Then there's the gobbledegook! The report begins by asserting that it is broadly agreed that dyslexia exists. In actual fact, 'dyslexia' is still a highly controversial subject. There are no universally accepted and agreed criteria for establishing what 'dyslexia' might be, or whether someone is 'dyslexic, other than to say that they cannot read (or spell). Moreover, although it is universally agreed that there are many people in all English speaking countries who cannot read, many would maintain that the reason for their lack of success is attributable to poor teaching, rather than this being a problem with the individual.
We're also told that that 'different environmental experiences will influence the impact of genes, the severity of the reading difficulty and the long-term outcomes' (p.11). This is indeed shameful nonsense. Have we developed a gene for reading in the last couple of hundred years? And, if it is genetic, why are the problems responsible for causing 'dyslexia' mostly restricted to English speaking populations?
And, yes, Jim, the earlier that children who can't read and spell get the kind of teaching that enables them to read and spell, the better. That is why the Government should set about implementing the recommendations of the Rose Review (2006) and make sure that high quality phonics programmes are introduced into every school. Furthermore, schools should be encouraged to choose their own programmes, for which there should be proper and rigorous training, and the results strictly monitored through the medium of standardised tests.
Oh, and Reading Recovery should be scrapped.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Standards stall - more evidence.

You might, if you were watching, have seen last week's 'English at the crossroads' Report from Ofsted declaring what we all know already: that English standards are 'not good enough'.
As I've written in a number of posting before (see the postings on the Policy Exchange Report), although the government have spent huge amounts of money on improving performance in maths and English, the latest Ofsted Report shows the Government is 'still failing to get the basics right in our education system'. This is despite the implementation of the national strategies and the new one-on-one booster classes.
David Laws, spokesperson for the Lib Dems, seems to have taken the trouble to read the Policy Exchange document and reaffirms that standards in reading and writing are improving far too slowly. In fact, there's been a decline in performance at Key Stage 1 and only a marginal improvement at Key Stage 2, of which the latter is probably accounted for by the fact that the marking has got more lenient.
The report, 'English at the Crossroads' (p. 4), also reveals that poor white boys are 'amongst the lowest performers in the country' and that (p. 5) '[i]n the primary schools visited, standards in writing were considerably lower than in reading'.
Most shockingly, despite all the money (£2.1 billion) no impression has been made on the gap between the most deprived and the most affluent in society.
It's a funny thing but there appears to be a close correlation between the percentage of children who fail to get five good GCSEs, including English and maths, and the number of people the OECD categorises as being illiterate or poorly literate. The pointers are there at every stage of the educational process: the Ofsted Report reveals that the majority of white working class boys fail to reach the required standard in English national curriculum tests for 14-year-olds. As Richard Garner, from the Independent, points out, ‘[o]nly 40 per cent succeed. Nearly half of seven-olds (47 per cent) also fail to make the mark in their tests’.
As I have consistently argued on this blog, it’s in the writing. The writing is the harbinger of what is going to happen later and tells us much more about how literate children are than reading tests or SATs tests of reading ability.
The fact is that there is an approach to the teaching of reading and writing (spelling) that works for all children regardless of background, sex, or who is actually teaching it; and it's called linguistic phonics. That Reading Thing, The Sound Reading System, and Sounds-Write all offer a tried and tested method that helps prevent reading failure or intervenes to remedy it when it has already taken place.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

How many children are read to by their parents?

John was in Northern Ireland last week training teachers at a primary school in Lurgan. This is the second time I've run a training at the school and, after training the teachers in P1/P2 last year, this year we trained the P3/P4 teachers. And an enthusiastic lot they were too! (P1 in Northern Ireland corresponds to Reception in England, by the way.)
One interesting bit of information that emerged from the training was that one of the P4 teachers had recently asked her class of twenty-two children how many were read to by their parents. The answer: four! I think we were all a bit shocked, especially when relatively few of the children came from low SES homes.
Reading to one's children is one of the most valuable things a parent can do. It's a wonderful opportunity to familiarise them with a very wide range of vocabulary, expose them to different genres of writing, and, not least, strengthen the parent/child bond. And for twenty minutes an evening, say, four to five nights a week, what could be better?
If you are a teacher and would like to tell me how many of your children in the class are read to, I'd love to hear. Let's take a straw poll.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Campaign for the Book

In September last year, the children's author, Alan Gibbons (Shadow of the Minotaur is a terrific read!), launched a campaign to protect libraries in schools and to try and prevent library closures in the community.
He's now organised an e-petition, which reads:

We, the undersigned, call on Her Majesty’s Government to accept
in principle that it will make school libraries, run by
properly qualified staff, statutory and to prepare the
necessary legislation in consultation with the appropriate
professional associations and trade unions.

The petition has been approved by the Number 10 web team, and is now available on the Number 10 website.

To find out more, visit Alan's blog.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Joys of Our Truly Global Language

In case you missed it, the one millionth word passed into the English language sometime around last week, according to Telegraph writer Simon Winchester.
If you've never heard of autopeotomy, nor still linked the word with Dr James Murray, two elderly lexicographers at Oxford station, or Simon Winchester himself, you may shudder a little and cross your legs, especially if you are a man, but you'll gain some insight into how words gain currency and enter the language.
While there may be some lingering reason for the continued use of the word - the event it describes happens from time to time! - can you honestly see 'Phelpsian' and 'wonderstar' lasting the course?
Picture from the OUP.

100 Billion dollars to spend on education!

More news from npr in the USA. One of the latest pieces the station has run is with the new Secretary for Education, Arne Duncan. You've heard of 'Education, Education, Education' but Arne has $100 billion to spend across the education spectrum! It's the 'civil rights issue of our generation', he says, and the Obama plan is to educate 'our way to a better economy'.
Let's hope they have more success than Policy Exchange reckon this government has had.

Support for Spelling (Part 2)

I have previously written that true literacy tuition is about teaching reading and spelling together because they are inextricably linked. What most children can do when they start their schooling is talk. They are already very accurate at using the grammatical structures of English and have vocabularies running into many thousands of words. David Crystal estimates that by the age of four/five, children give the impression of having absorbed about three-quarters of all the grammar there is to learn (Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language) and, according to many researchers, children as young as six have vocabularies of several thousand words. Those that haven’t, need to start their schooling by being brought up to this level of communicative speech before being introduced formally to reading and writing.
So, most children arrive at school already communicating very well through language. But how many five or six-year-olds do this knowing consciously the history, morphology, etymology, phonetic and phonological knowledge of the words they are using? Absolutely none of them, of course! These are adult analyses and have no bearing at all on teaching these youngsters how to spell accurately, at least in the early stages.
Spelling is basically a very simple and completely logical activity. We use symbols (that we call letters) to represent our speech sounds and we write them down sequentially in the same order as they are spoken. To write the word 'dog', we just need to segment it into its three component sounds, 'd' 'o' 'g' and to write the most likely symbol that would represent each of these sounds in written English, which in this case results in 'dog'.
At this point some readers may be thinking, "OK, but it's not always that simple!" And they are right! We use multiple ways of spelling many English speech sounds, which, at at some point in the child's education, all need to be known and the correct ones selected for each word. If the correct spelling(s) are not chosen, then even a 'simple' word such as 'was' may end up looking like 'woz'.
The teaching trick is to sequence carefully the introduction of the 175 (or so) common spellings of English whilst accurately directing pupils towards using their sound-based memory system, which has already been so successful in helping them learn to talk and to retain new vocabulary, in order to link sounds to spellings! What is needed is to use associative learning in order to group words they already possess in their spoken vocabulary. At a really early stage in literacy development, we need to teach children to form associated groups of words. An example might be words containing the sound /k/, which can variously be spelled in English as , , & (and for older pupils , & as well!). This will lead to groups of words organised together in sound-format such as: cat, cast, carry; kit, bake, like; duck, pick, sack; and, quiz, queen, quack.
Our brains are actually very good at sorting and categorising. If teaching instruction maximises the brain’s facility in this regard and proceeds from simple transparent sound-spelling correspondences to the more complex, it can, in the words of Marilyn Jager Adams, proceed for 'maximum progress and minimum confusion'*.
In addition, after a certain point, not all of the complexities of the English alphabet code will have to be taught explicitly. If pupils have been accurately taught how the code works and if the code is taught from simple ('cat') to more complex ('caught') in properly designed and targeted literacy teaching lessons, then their brains will gradually get on with doing the organising without the need for direct personal control or teacher involvement.
Finally, a simple example! A six-year old pupil wishes to write the word sunny (something pupils accurately taught by a linguistic phonic approach would normally be able to do by age five). Are we to believe from Support for Spelling that our pupil should be thinking along the lines of 'sunny' being an adjective created from the root word 'sun'? And that then to get to the adjectival form they need to double the final consonant of the root word, after which they have to think about the way they spell the final 'ee' sound? Or perhaps this little six year-old should be considering that the origins of the word 'sunny' lie in the Old English word 'sunne', which originally came to us as an Indo-European word.
There is plenty more in this document that either doesn't work or simply doesn't need teaching (-ed endings, for instance). What I'd also like to know is: in how many schools has it been trialled and where's the evidence that it has made a significant impact on children's reading and spelling.
* Quoted from Adams, M.J., (1994), Beginning to Read, p.253, Cambridge, Mass, MIT.

Monday, June 08, 2009

DCSF publication: Support for Spelling (released from captivity May 2009)

This latest DCSF publication pulls together much traditional thinking about how spelling has been taught in British schools for over a hundred years without providing any evidence that anyone learns to spell as a result of it.
From the very beginnings of the development of our compulsory schooling system, spelling was identified as a major obstacle to the development of literacy. This was in the days before teacher training colleges and university departments of education had been thought of, and long before any really serious scientific studies into important areas such as child development, learning theory, pedagogical techniques, etc.
Those concerned with teaching literacy engaged in what seemed most obvious to them, i.e. a top-down, intellectual analysis of how English spelling had developed into the standard forms enshrined in Johnson’s Dictionary. They looked at areas of study that were available to them such as: historical influence – Germanic, Romantic and Greek sources of spelling patterns; morphological and etymological knowledge – roots, prefixes, suffixes, compound words, etc; phonetic knowledge – differences between long and short vowels, spelling conventions, homophones, etc; and phonological knowledge – syllables, rhymes, etc. (See the Introduction to Support for Spelling, pages 2, 3.)
What this over-complex approach betrayed was: a complete lack of thought and understanding about what knowledge and skills primary-aged children bring to their schooling; how accurate teaching methods could support and develop to optimise their literacy development, particularly in terms of accuracy of spelling. This was not surprising given that the scientific disciplines involved had barely started in the 19th Century.
Over a hundred years later this is no longer true, but our rapid increase in knowledge about learning theory and child development appears to have by-passed many teacher training institutions, as well as the policy wonks in the DCSF, where there is little evidence of any re-thinking about educational strategies for teaching literacy.
If we take a step back and look at the list above, it is quite obvious that in the main it outlines a curriculum for academic teaching about grammatical structures and the evolution/history of the English language – both spoken and written. In their place and at the right time, some aspects of it have a proper place for teaching our children about their language and extending the range of their vocabulary. However, such an approach could only ever have a marginal bearing on the accuracy of spelling of a very few pupils. Virtually all of the difficulties in the area of both spelling and reading stem from the inaccurate literacy instruction most pupils receive from the first day of their schooling.
So, how should we be teaching these two most important of aspects of the school curriculum? I will be posting more on this in a few days.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

London teachers do brilliant job catching up underperforming readers and spellers.

The literacy blog has just been sent some interesting statistics by Anne Neal, a special educational needs co-ordinator at Stillness Junior School in Forest Hill, Lewisham. She and her inclusion team have been teaching a group of six children three times a week, thirty minutes a session, for seven weeks.

She tested all six before and after using the Salford Reading test and the Vernon Spelling test.
These are the results:
The asterisk indicates that the ceiling on the test was too low to show whether the child in question had a higher reading age.

On average, then, after just seven weeks of teaching, the average gain in reading was 17.6 months and the average gain in spelling was 9.8 months. The average age of the children would be about 10 years and four months.

This is very significant, especially as these children had had plenty of time to pick up all sorts of bad habits in the past that hold them back.

Well done to that SENCo and her team! And the programme used to get these results? Sounds-Write.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Spelling Bee final won by Kavya from Kansas

About month ago I reported on Yulkendy Valdez’s attempt to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington DC. Well, sadly, Yulkendy didn’t manage to win. Instead, as broadcast by npr news, Kavya Shivashankar from Kansas triumphed over 292 other participants to take home the competition trophy and a cash prize of $40,000!
Somewhat bizarrely, this year the words were presented in the form of joke sentences! Targeting the word 'apodyterium', a room in an ancient Greek bathhouse, the prompt sentence went: 'It was always a challenge to tell whose toga whose in the apodyterium.'
Other words included: 'geusioleptic', 'menhir', and, the one on which Kavya won her laurels, 'Laodicean', which, in case you didn’t already know, means ‘Lukewarm, neither hot nor cold’, according to my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.
According the Scripps website, the first winner of the competition in 1925, Frank Neuhauser, has just turned ninety-five and planned to attend this year's contest.

Handwriting and spelling

This posting arises out of a couple of things I've seen recently. The first is very nice piece of video from Teachers TV on the way handwriting is taught in France. The second is intended to anticipate the new publication Support for Spelling by the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

Quality writing is based upon three fundamental supports:

1) Knowledge and understanding of language.

2) The development of good fine-motor skills that result at the very minimum in legibility of handwriting, but where the final result may also be visually pleasurable and even exciting! (Some might argue that that the development of word processors and keyboards are rendering the development of handwriting skills as unnecessary. However, many of us find that making marks on paper is not only useful throughout our daily lives, but also facilitates our creative processes when we are faced with blank sheets of paper.)

3) Accurate spelling: the ability to spell the words we use in our thoughts accurately, enabling us to write those thoughts down as we think them. Poor spelling constrains many pupils by restricting their written vocabulary to just those words they believe they can spell properly. (To quote an old chestnut: many pupils think ‘gigantic’ or ‘enormous’, but end up writing ‘big’!)

The first pillar, knowledge and understanding, is clearly of central importance to the whole of the curriculum, not just writing. In fact, I would argue that the primary curriculum should have language development and tuition as its central core. Initially, the teaching of key concepts should not emerge from a variety of subject-based areas, such as geography, history, literature, science, etc., but from out of a core language curriculum that, from the very start of nursery schooling, is aimed at developing the understanding of the key concepts that underpin all our thinking. For example:
Concept: size (vocabulary: big, large, vast, colossal, enormous, small, little, tiny, etc.)
Concept: clothing (vocabulary: shoe, sandal, sock, stocking, shirt, skirt, blouse, hat, coat, trousers, slacks, etc.);
Concept: shape (vocabulary: square, triangle, rectangle, circle, oval, horizontal, vertical, regular, irregular, etc.);
And so on until the dictionary is exhausted!
This is not to say that within an overarching language development curriculum there would not be work/project areas that might focus upon aspects of specific subjects within which particular concepts are of greatest use.

The second pillar, quality teaching of how to make marks on paper, well illustrated in the excellent short video from Teachers TV, has already been brilliantly thought through in France, where it has been an integral part of the primary school Art curriculum!

The third pillar, the teaching of spelling, has in the English speaking world been woefully inadequate for over a hundred years. The little research evidence that exists broadly suggests that barely 50% of our children learn to read both accurately and fluently, with only about half of these being able to spell reasonably well. The fundamental problem here is that reading and spelling are taught largely as though they are independent subject areas – and with an outstanding lack of success dating back over many generations. About a week ago the latest DCSF publication on this subject, Support for Spelling was made available as part of the National Primary Strategy. This document exemplifies all that has traditionally bedevilled and confused the teaching of spelling for over a hundred years. More on this in the next few days.