Sunday, September 27, 2009

'Literacy Standards in the UK – A Reality Check' by David Philpot

Since the UN started large scale surveys of adult literacy in the developed world in the mid 90's, politicians in all those countries that have English as their mother tongue have been at a loss to explain their appalling results.
In English speaking countries around half of all adults are not sufficiently literate to cope with basic reading and writing tasks, yet data collected on pupils leaving schools gives much more optimistic information about their literacy standards than later proves to be the reality.
Why is this? The fundamental problem is an erroneous belief. The belief is that reading tests are a good measure of literacy – they are not! Why are they not? Reading tests do not generally distinguish between words that are read using knowledge of how they are phonetically represented by the letters used to spell them and simple sight-memorisation of the whole word (i.e. taking a visual snapshot of the whole word without understanding the relationship of the individual letters to the actual word as spoken.) If you test pupils on a word reading test and subsequently set all the words 'read' correctly as a spelling test you will discover that, for many pupils, between 15% and 65% of those words that were read correctly are subsequently spelled wrongly! Reading Ages are therefore not only a very poor guide to actual reading ability, but bear hardly any relationship to spelling ability and therefore to writing ability.
For most of the 50% of English speaking pupils who subsequently end up as illiterate adults, if they are tested at any age beyond Key Stage One (infants) we find that they usually understand single-letter phonic decoding of the initial alphabet sounds and also cope with the common consonant two-letter spellings (ch sh th ck ng bb dd ss, etc.). Sometimes they also know what the two-letter vowel spellings ee and oo represent. Beyond this, the complexity of the English sound-spelling system has defeated them and they tend to approach it (very often fearfully) using a variety of irrational and spontaneous behaviours, which are often underpinned by such anti-phonic notions as 'silent' letters, to take one example.
The UK National Curriculum is, in part, built around a core of key words. As pupils with serious phonic difficulties grow older, they naturally adopt a strategy of attempting to memorise visually as many of the core key words of the curriculum as they can to help them cope in the classroom. Ability to succeed with this sort of memorisation is very varied, but by the age of eight, two to three hundred words have been memorised by many of these pupils, increasing to perhaps four to six hundred words by age eleven and getting on for a thousand by the school leaving age of sixteen.
Not surprisingly, many of these key words also appear in standardised reading tests. So the reading ages of these pupils appear to improve slowly throughout primary education rising towards 8½ or 9½ by the time of secondary transfer. The test results on these pupils are completely misunderstood by many educators and administrators, who believe that they are achieving relatively poor, but nonetheless lifelong, basic literacy skills. However, having struggled throughout their schooling, once that schooling is over and they are no longer faced with practising the words they have sight-memorised on a daily basis, what happens? They rapidly forget many of them and, on testing later as adults, end up with more accurately representative reading ages in the range 6½ to 7½.
The published data tends to corroborate the above hypothesis: How many children fail to get a good GCSE in English? In the 1997 OECD study, how many adults in all English speaking countries were found to be poorly literate or illiterate? How many adults did the Moser Report as being poorly literate? Every time the figures converge towards between 40% and 50 %.
Q: How can this parlous state of affairs be changed? A: Only by: (a) adopting an effective teaching system and then; (b) giving all teachers high quality training in how to implement it in the classroom; and, (c) developing accurate ways of measuring the process to ensure that all pupils make steady progress towards life-long literacy skills throughout the whole of their primary education (All pupils may be an over optimistic goal, but at the very minimum at least 96% should achieve proper adult levels of literacy).

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Umberto echoes my fondness for the fountain pen.

What I remember Umberto Eco best for, and my goodness I enjoyed The Name of the Rose, is a long-forgotten piece he wrote on the Bond novels. On reading said piece, I was amazed to see that, apart from The Spy Who Loved Me, all the others conformed to a strict structural pattern. I'd wager that Eco picked up his method from Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale but, at the time, I was delighted to gain insight into an alternative way of analysing fiction.
He is still of course a prolific author and reader – he used to claim that he had solved the problem of trying to read in the shower so that he didn't waste any time not reading! Well, his latest musings are on the art of handwriting. There is, as you would expect, the classical allusion, an affectionate remembrance of his parents' handwriting, along with some schoolboy reminiscing - what makes his writing so good is that he always draws the reader into a more intimate relationship with the subject.
In yesterday’s Guardian (originally it was in The New York Times) Eco recommends a return to handwriting, not as opposed to using the computer or the mobile phone, but as an addition: to encourage children to slow down and think before they commit to paper, to improve hand to eye coordination, and for aesthetic pleasure, one of Eco's greatest loves.
Having only on Saturday bought my youngest daughter her first decent fountain pen, – Fie on the ballpoint, which they are NOT allowed to use at her school –, I think I know what he means.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The end of SATs?

Polly Curtis reported in Friday’s Guardian that 10,000 people have signed a petition to scrap SATs.
Independent and objective testing is an appropriate way of seeking to find out if pupils are successfully remembering and understanding what society wants them to be taught. Unfortunately there is little evidence that the Government's SATs papers actually do this and there is much evidence that pupils can be trained to give correct answers to questions on these papers despite them having limited literacy skills.
Just ask any local high school whether the English SAT scores achieved by their new pupil intake each year bears much resemblance to the independent academic work they can carry out in the classroom. Almost all schools will report numbers of pupils achieving the Level 4 standard expected by the end of Key Stage Two, but whose classroom performance is only at Level 2 or 3 (i.e., between 2 to 4 years lower than Level 4). One of the grounds on which many teachers, parents and pundits want to see SATs done away with is because they encourage teaching to the test. But who can blame teachers for doing this when these unreliable and poorly validated tests are used to construct league tables purporting to have some relevance to their school's academic standing in the community?
However, people have very short memories. The reason why the testing regime was put in place was because there were plenty of schools around in the seventies and eighties in which children were NOT getting a decent education in English, maths or science. I know because it happened to two of my own children. One of the reasons this occurred was because, whether you like the 11+ or not, teachers had a standard to teach to and when they were abolished in most counties of England that standard disappeared.
It is all very well for Michael Rosen to go around telling everyone how SATs should be abolished because they 'drive children, teachers and parents nuts', as was reported in the Guardian piece, but Michael Rosen's parents were both senior and committed academics, who, no doubt, ensured that Michael got an excellent education when he was a lad. Who is going to ensure that everyone's children get a sound enough education to ensure that they leave primary school capable of reading, spelling and performing basic arithmetic to a high enough standard to enable them to cope satisfactorily with their high school studies and their future adult lives?
I certainly do want to see these SATs abandoned - not because I think children and the education system shouldn't be scrutinised, but because they are bad tests being manipulated by government for political ends. What parents and society definitely need to know is that, by the end of the primary phase of education, their children are literate and numerate. If SATs are to be abandoned, they need to be replaced with more accurate and independently verifiable forms of assessment.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Vital statistics? The 'sexy job' of the future, says Google's chief statistician.

What's the future going to be in terms of preparing oneself for a worthwhile job? Is it the law, economics, politics? Not according to Hal Varian, Google's chief statistician. For Hal, the sexy job to be doing in the next ten years is going to be statistics!
In an interview with Tim Harford on Radio 4’s More or Less, he explained why stats is the 'career of the future'.
"There's data everywhere," he says, "and so being able to analyse that data and being able to make sense of that data, being able to apply it to solve problems - that's a very critical skill in today's world. I don’t want to indicate that it's simply statistics narrowly defined but there's a whole set of skills surrounding statistics and data analysis: being able to access the data, being able to organise the data, being able to visualise the data. All of those are critical skills."
So, how would the data give someone a competitive edge? Hal believes that data "can be immensely valuable in improving the performance of [a] business." His advice: "I think it is important to study mathematics ... My view is that you should find something you're really passionate about. Maybe it's economics, maybe it's oceanography, maybe it's law, whatever. But within that field there will be opportunity and maybe a necessity to analyse data, so acquiring the skills that enable you to do that is going to be important to your success in any field."
You’re probably wondering what this has to do with literacy. Well, at Sounds-Write, David Philpot, a man who is passionate about improving children's literacy (and who can do maths!), has been collecting data from schools using the Sounds-Write programme for the past six years. The data has proved vital in proving how effective the programme has been in raising literacy standards.
He tells me that data collected on 1500+ pupils who were taught using Sounds-Write throughout Key Stage One (i.e. from age 4 until 7) showed that just over three quarters (75•4%) of them were able to move up to Key Stage Two with literacy skills (reading AND spelling) equal to or above their actual age level. The AVERAGE Spelling Age for these 1500+ pupils was 8 years 3 months.
This is over a year ahead of their actual ages. And, in case you're thinking that these children were privately educated, they were all drawn from local authority state primary schools and taught in whole classes. Of the remaining pupils, 22% scored within 12 months of their actual age and only 2.6% scored more than 12 months below.
Today, it isn't enough for teachers to say how much they like this programme or that programme, or for them to say that they believe that this programme or that programme works. Head teachers and their staff are increasingly demanding evidence before they will consider adopting new approaches.
The full statistical story of these latest figures will be published on the Sounds-Write website before very long. But in the meantime you will already find a report based on five years of whole class usage on the site.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Naughty names - a nadir in newsreporting.

You can tell we’re still becalmed in the silly season when the Indie reports a poll taken in New Zealand ranking 'naughty' kids by name!
Top of the list was Callum for boys and Chelsea for girls! Not very encouraging for the Clintons then! With not a naughty Nick in sight, Chardonnay came in at number three – you'd have to be under the influence, wouldn't you? Casey came in at number five on the girls' list. When I was a kid, Casey was the name of the very masculine driver/engineer of the Cannonball Express in a US TV series. You don't believe me? Take a listen to Johnny Cash. Johnny? Now there’s a good name for a boy, unless you'd rather Sue? Anything but Brooklyn!
Thanks to TV for the picture of the Cannonball Express.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Them as can do. And then they teach!

The Telegraph is asking today if teaching assistants should be allowed to teach. This is a follow-up to the previous day’s piece entitled "School pupils 'taught by untrained staff", in which it was revealed that 'assistants were used as temporary cover in more than 80 per cent of schools'. The blow hards claim everything from TAs being used as cheap labour (which in many cases they are), to them filling in for teachers snowed under by the rising tide of bureaucracy, to them being unqualified to do the job.
We all know that TAs teach groups of children and individuals all the time, as well as filling in for teachers who are undertaking other duties. It happens. In lots of ways, it's a good thing we have TAs. In my old school, when a master was otherwise engaged (anything from meeting the head to nipping out to place a bet on a horse or dropping into the local pub for a swift one – I kid you not!), we were left to our own devices.
The quality of TAs often depends very much on the area in which the school is situated. When recruitment is difficult, heads often take what they can get and this might mean, as I have seen myself, taking on staff who are semi-literate and using them to teach literacy. Very often the newly employed TAs have previously been employed in occupations totally unrelated to teaching - and so what? It is not uncommon to see parents who are very highly educated – in some cases very much more so than the average teacher and who have previously been holding down high powered jobs - who decide to take on a TA role while their children are at school. At the other end of the spectrum, a parent could have been stacking shelves in a well known supermarket.
The truth is that, as in any line of work, you get good and bad. As far as TAs go, the good far outweighs the bad. The important thing is for senior management in schools to make sure that TAs are not asked to do jobs they are not qualified for because, when they are, children’s education can suffer and TAs can lose confidence through being unable to cope with the demands placed on them.
So, Graeme, what is the point in asking the question? Each situation needs to be judged on its merits or is, as one of my masters of the drinking kind would have said, sui generis.