Friday, July 31, 2009

The Reading Wars - again.

It's the silly season and there's precious little to report. There was a posting on the Reading Reform Foundation from Jim Curran, who flagged up a piece by one of Australia's leading proponents of phonics, Kerry Hempenstall. In his article 'The Whole Language-Phonics Controversy: A Historical Perspective', he outlines, as the title suggests, the history of the 'debate'.
If you've never read anything on the subject before, some of it is very interesting and he quotes from work by some of the major names in the field, my favourite being M.J.Adams's Beginning To Read.
However,there are some untidy errors: he describes writing systems as 'evolving', a notion that would surprise Peter T. Daniels and William Bright, authors of the highly authoritative The World's Writing Systems. In addition, Hempenstall tells us on one page that 'English has 1,120 ways of writing 40 sounds', and on the next, quoting Pollack and Pickartz (1963), that there are 'about 45 phonemes that can be spelled in at least 350 ways'!
Aside from that, he's right: teaching reading and spelling is right at the top of the agenda and there is, since Flesch published Why Johnny can't read in 1955, a degree of public accountability that didn't exist previously.
For all that, if you've got the time and the inclination, you can't beat Diane McGuiness's Early Reading Instruction: What Science Really Tells Us about How to Teach Reading. It's a cracker!

Friday, July 24, 2009

John is off to the beach for a few days.

Thanks to Microsoft for the pic.

SATs scores spun, science sidelined.

The BBC reports of the last two days highlight in stark terms what a bunch of interfering busybodies government ministers are. If proof were wanted to bear out everything the Policy Exchange report of a few months ago stated, it’s all here.
As the BBC news channel reported yesterday morning, far from being blameless for last year's SATs debacle, the Commons schools select committee said the DCSF had 'involved itself too much in the detail of the testing'. It is also significant that Barry Sheerman, the chair of the committee, felt that he had to say: "We are not saying Ed Balls and Jim Knight were manipulating everything...they weren't doing that, but at the same time their fingerprints are on part of this." Read into that what you may! Poor old Barry! The last time he stepped out of line and called for a ballot on the leadership, they had him up in front of his constituency committee the following morning for a dressing down.
It's the same old story with everything they lay their hands on: diktats from the centre, control freakery gone mad. The sort of thing that stifles innovation and ignores anything government ministers decide to turn its face against. This approach doesn't sit well with the second report from the BBC later in the day telling us that the government is also 'keeping scientists at "arm’s length"' and, it says, 'treating science as "a peripheral concern."'
We know very well what the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills committee group of MPs mean when they tell us that 'knowledge from experts is not being properly used to make informed policy decisions'. The fact that Gordon Brown and Ed Balls should personally decide that Reading Recovery should be rolled out in schools is the kind of madness that flies in the face of properly conducted scientific evidence into what works in terms of teaching children to read and spell.
OK, I’m spinning it! But, if the government had genuinely allowed schools to choose whatever phonics programmes they wanted and without the interference of an army of local authority advisors on whom 85% of the annual budget for the National Strategies has been spent, we wouldn’t be in the situation we are now in.
And, just to remind you exactly what that mess is: from the Policy Exchange document (p.26)
'Primary performance statistics:
1) Performance in English, maths and science has barely improved in the last two years, if at all
2) Children’s reading has scarcely improved since 2000
3) The performance of high achieving pupils is starting to fall by as much as 5% a year
4) Over 40% of the boys and almost 30% of the girls (around 200,000 children in total) who left primary school in 2008 cannot read and write properly
5) Only 56% of the boys and 66% of the girls who left primary school in 2008 can read, write and count to the minimum standard
6) Since the National Strategies began in 1998, over 1.6 million children have left primary school without achieving basic literacy, over 1.8 million have left without mastering basic numeracy and over a million have left not understanding basic science.'

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Auntie gets in on the act!

It was nice to get one in before the Beeb yesterday! They managed to catch up this morning by reporting the 'Teachers "are scared of numeracy"' story.
Of course, the report has been rubbished by the DCSF, who spun it by claiming that the degree is a 'well-respected three year education degree' and by talking about how teachers' pay has improved 'over the past twelve years' - don't they realise how people are sick to the back teeth of this kind of cheap party political point scoring?.
What they can't challenge, however, is the report's claim that trainees can get onto the degree course with only a C grade at GCSE in maths and English.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Standards required to teach.

Here’s one that will shock everyone… I think. It is reported in the Guardian today that primary teachers in England are 'among the worst qualified in Europe'. Politeia, a right-wing think tank, claims that all primary teachers should have passed A-level maths and English, as a minimum, before being unleashed on eight- to eleven- year-olds.
At the moment, a primary teacher need only pass GCSE at grade C to be admitted onto a teacher-training course. Elsewhere in Europe, trainee primary teachers need to have studied maths and their L1 language (mother tongue) before being allowed to start primary education courses.
In addition, there’s the problem of wastage. You don’t have to be a right-wing think-tank to worry about the fact that between thirty and fifty percent of primary and secondary school teachers in England leave within five years of starting teaching. In many countries in Europe, the figure is between three and six percent, according to the OECD.
What’s the solution? Two proposals are suggested: pay teachers more to start with and raise academic standards?
Do we really want a situation in which, according to David Burghes, a professor of maths at the University of Plymouth, '[o]ne of the issues that bedevils our teaching profession, and particularly my subject of mathematics, is that of the inadequate subject knowledge of teachers'. Burghes goes on to say of primary school teachers who had only GCSE maths that they often had 'little knowledge beyond basic numeracy' and that, in some cases, 'even basic numeracy scares them'. He also added that the situation was the same for English and science.
By the way, before you scramble for Wikipedia, the definition they give for 'politeia' is 'the conditions and rights of the citizen, or citizenship', which is the equivalent of the Latin 'polis', or the somewhat better known 'constitution'.

Friday, July 17, 2009

T's cross about not dotting 'i' row!

Here's a thing from the Indie yesterday. You really couldn't make it up, could you?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

David Crystal - a diamond geezer!

Anyone familiar with the work of David Crystal will already know what a prolific author on all questions to do with the English language he is. If a single year doesn't bring at least two new publications, I begin to wonder if he is at last beginning to slow down. So, it was with particular pleasure that I received from my brother-in-law a copy of Crystal's latest - Just a Phrase I'm Going Through: My Life in Language. It is, as the title suggests, an autobiography, a life in which he describes himself as being 'surrounded by an ever playing linguistic orchestra'.
As a writer, Crystal has it all: erudite, witty, humorous and wry - at one point in his book there is a photo of him in 1968 with the caption 'Looking after the data - sorry, children'!
His books span the development of the English language from the arrival of the Germanic tribes fifteen hundred years ago to the multiverse directions the language is taking today.
If you've never read a book by Crystal, you can do no better than to begin with his The Stories of English.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Torchwood gives boost to government figures.

A friend of mine and regular Torchwood watcher has emailed about last week’s showing. Apparently, and to cut a longer story short, a bunch of aliens had landed and was demanding 10% of the world's children. The UK government (who were not portrayed in a very sympathetic light) quickly decided this was reasonable enough, and had a discussion about how to pick the 10%. They concluded that it wouldn't make sense to get rid of the best kids, so they'd take all of the UK's 10% from schools that were at the bottom of the league tables. At some point one of the ministers made a comment along the lines of, 'what would be the point of having the tables, if we weren't going to do something like this'.
Perish the thought, but such a manoeuvre would boost the success stats at a stroke, wouldn’t it? Would this be the 10% for whom one-to-one tuition is supposed to be offered in Key Stages 2 and 3 classes from next year, thus saving the Ed Balls lots of money? Of course, to make any significant impact, the percentages would have to be the 44% of boys and the 34% of girls ‘who left primary school in 2008’ unable to ‘read, write and count to the current minimum standard’ (Policy Exchange document, p.11).
Look out for reports from government minsters that aliens have landed and that negotiations are afoot.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Blowing the whistle on the stats

Every year teachers working in secondary schools screen the new Year 7 intake to see who needs help in reading and spelling. Two years ago, one such secondary school in the north-west told us that 72.6 percent of their Year 7 had scored below their chronological ages on entry!
Since then, on trainings, many other practitioners have said that these figures are very similar to the ones they find. In many cases, neither do the figures produced by these tests seem to bear any relation to the SATs scores.
If you are involved in testing and would like to share your findings with me, I'll blog the information - anonymously, of course.
An excellent spelling test is the Young's Parallel Spelling test. It's very easy to administer to a whole class at a time.
Thanks to for the picture of the whistle.

Private Eye gets in on the act of questioning education policy

I veritably LOLed when I opened the latest issue of the Eye (10th July, 2009). 'Prime Ministerial Decree No 48' announces the sweeping away of 'the hated Milburnite-Blairite targetology' and its replacement with 'universal human rightism'. The second of the rights is 'The right of every child to be given a place in the best school in the country (subject to availability).'
Pip, pip, as they say!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

More evidence of the fall in standards in maths and literacy.

A new report in the Sunday Express this morning claims that more and more teachers are struggling with basic spelling and numeracy. The article reports that 'Michael Gove, the Shadow Schools Secretary, pledged that a future Conservative government would raise teaching standards'.
The real question needing to be addressed is: how do we improve standards in literacy and spelling? The answer does not lie in ploughing money into secondary schools. The task needs to be undertaken in the primary phase. The evidence lies behind statistics like those published each year by Sounds-Write. Year after year dozens of teachers all over the UK and using the Sounds-Write programme test the children they are teaching in spelling and the results are simply incontrovertible. Children can be taught to read and spell to a very high level, in most cases far exceeding their chronological age.
Instead of spending money on setting up bodies to deal with parents’ complaints, the government should be making sure that the training institutions are equipping teachers to deal with the national scandal that leaves so many children leaving school without basic competency in these areas.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

What to do about maths

On trainings I run for practitioners teaching literacy I am increasingly being asked about maths teaching. I recommend two materials' sites. The first, for young children, is the Schofield and Sims website and their Mental Maths series. My youngest daughter benefited hugely from doing three or four of these exercises every week throughout the primary phase, so much so that she was streets ahead of most other children by the end of Year 6. The second is the Ichthus Resources site, which sells Singapore Maths books. The Singapore Maths books are amazingly comprehensive and teach fundamental concepts and facts, as well as providing loads of practice.

Picture thanks to

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The unnamed goverment source, Ed Balls and LEAs.

I had to smile when reading Martin Ivens's column in the Sunday Times (05.07.09) the other day. He reported a government minister as saying that "Ed Balls is the only man in politics who believes that local education authorities can get their schools right."

Laurie H. Rogers on 'Betrayed - Why Public Education is Failing'.

Here's a piece well worth reading by Laurie H. Rodgers (author of "Betrayed") about the 'reform mathematics curricula' in the USA. For 'maths' you could substitute 'reading and spelling', and for 'administrators' read 'head teachers, local education authority advisors and government education department mandarins'.
Thanks to Yvonne Meyer for posting this on the RRF and alerting me to it.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The new White Paper on education is going to be announced today at 2.30 pm.

As a taster to this, you might like to listen to Barry Sheerman, Chair of the government's Select Committee on education and Nick Gibb, Shadow Schools Minister for the Tories, picking over the carcass of the past twenty years and talking about what to expect.

Replacing the Strategies? Who will lead on expertise and 'good practice'?

Anonymous has just written a reply to the posting on MAs for NQTs, saying:
John said, "Policy Exchange advocates allowing schools to innovate and share tried and established good practice. Let's hope that the abandonment of the Strategies allows that to happen."
Unfortunately John, what will happen is that schools will share their practice. But they all believe what they do is good practice, without any evidence as to whether it is or not. So lots of practice will be shared, most of it of very little use. If current practice in teaching literacy were good, then we wouldn't have 300000 effectively illiterate pupils leaving our schools every year!
Unfortunately, Anonymous is spot on! If schools ‘cluster’ together, as many of them are already doing, there’s no guarantee that what they’re doing will work. In fact, I can think of a cluster of schools in Milton Keynes who have adopted a system of teaching reading and spelling which purports to be phonic, is based on no evidence whatever that it works, and which I have seen crash time after time. They have invested a considerable sum of money in the project and the likely outcome is that: a) the head responsible for taking it on will refuse point blank to consider that she might have been wrong; b) that the teaching staff are put off phonics for good; c) in the meantime, another significant group of children are not taught properly and will later join the ranks of children failing to gain five good GCSEs (if they still exist!) that include maths and English. In the meantime, this cluster is slowly haemorrhaging pupils to two other schools in the area that are using, with great success, a linguistic phonics approach. Crazy!

While politcians bicker, schoolchildren suffer

The Observer last Sunday has it about right – in part at least. The implication is that while politicians bicker over 'policy', important aspects of the education system desperately need fixing.
The truth is that on the major issues of teaching children to read, write and do basic maths, this government's record is very poor indeed. There's no hiding when even the Observer cannot resist reminding us of the stark facts:
Last year, around 90,000 pupils left school without five GCSEs of any grade. Since 1997, around 1 million teenagers have left school with no meaningful qualification. Up to 10,000 children every year drop out of school by the age of 14. Many of those young people are unemployable: 18.3% of all 16- to 25-year-olds in Britain are currently out of work.
The article goes on to accuse both major parties of failing to address the problem. This week has seen more of the latest government initiatives unveiled: parental entitlements, five-year 'MOTs' for serving teachers, scrapping the Strategies, and masters degrees for NQTs – a good slogan for a demo, but slack educational thinking!
Most worrying of all is the planned promise to give children falling behind in reading, writing and maths one-to-one tuition. The BBC this morning reports that 'legally enforceable guarantees' for one-to-one and small group teaching may become statutory. We all know where this is going: more money for Reading Recovery! The good news is that it really doesn’t look as if Balls has the money to finance it.
Where the effort and the money should be placed is in making sure we get these things right first time round - by guaranteeing that reading, writing and basic maths are taught properly in the first place.
We live in hope!