Saturday, October 24, 2009

Sendak tells parents worried about the film of his book to go to Where the Wild Things Are!

Controversy has flared over the launch of Spike Jonze's adaptation of the Maurice Sendak's book Where the Wild Things Are.
Like the book, first published in 1963, the row, or rumpus as the book might have it, has erupted because some parents are worried that the images in the film will frighten the bejesus out of children because they are so unsettling. Sendak, not known for his willingness to suffer fools gladly, has apparently responded by saying that he would tell such parents to 'go to hell'. He went on to criticise Disney for the way it has sanitised Mickey Mouse. According to a recent interview with Newsweek, he remarked that "Mickey did things to Minnie that were not nice. I think what happened was that he became so popular – this is my own theory – they gave his cruelty and his toughness to Donald Duck. And they made Mickey a fat nothing. He's too important for products. They want him to be placid and nice and adorable. He turned into a schmaltzer."
In the same interview, he also made the point that "Kids are barbaric. They really have to be. They don't know what it is to be polite or nice. There is a toughness to being a child. Childhood is a very tough time. I always had a deep respect for children and how they solve complex problems by themselves." This is definitely one in the eye for Rousseau's myth of childhood innocence.
The release of Where the Wild Things Are coincides with the opening last week of The Fantastic Mr Fox, another uncompromising film that doesn't shy away from confronting childlike anxieties.
If this is the beginning of a move against all those cloying, mawkish Hollywood kid flicks, bring it on I say.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Sounds-Write study on 1607 Key Stage 1 pupils in state primary school across the country.

The Sounds~Write linguistic phonic teaching programme was conceived and written in 2002/3. An essential component of the authors' thinking about literacy tuition is that all teachers of literacy deserve high quality training. This is needed to help dispel the many myths and inaccuracies pervading teaching practices that stem from a variety of sources including: personal educational experiences of schooling from childhood, BEd and Teaching Certificate courses, local authority advisers, Department of Education publications up to and including Letters & Sounds, and Ofsted inspectors. We have been providing precisely this level of high quality training since 2003, during which time we have run more than 300 courses, attended by over 6000 teachers, teaching assistants and other education professionals.

Central to our thinking about literacy tuition is that all education professionals need accurate feedback about the effectiveness of teaching ideas and programmes. We therefore determined from the outset to encourage schools to collect data on the performance of their Sounds~Write taught pupils. Happily, like us, most teachers are concerned about the lack of good evidence to underpin their understanding of what actually works in the classroom. Consequently many schools containing hundreds of individual classroom teachers trained in Sounds~Write have been willing to test their pupils and send their data to us to evaluate the progress of their pupils.

At the beginning of our data collection procedure we had in mind the goal of trying to collect information on a pupil sample equivalent in size to 50 full classes of 30 pupils passing through Key Stage One. The data collected in June 2009 completed this project enabling us to report on the progress of 1607 individual pupils for whom we have spelling test results obtained during May to June at the end of each of their YR, Y1 and Y2 school years.

We hope that you will find the results and discussion of them both interesting and illuminating. It would be interesting to compare the results of this research with similar information about other literacy tuition programmes in use throughout UK schools, but we are not aware that any such data exists. This sadly reflects the fact that most literacy tuition practices in the English speaking world are based on beliefs, rather than any real evidence of their effectiveness.

Overview of main results

This study has produced an enormous amount of data. To avoid the reader drowning in figures we are initially presenting the overall results in the form of a simple visual picture where each pupil in the study is represented by a single dot. Each red dot represents a pupil scoring at or above their own chronological age level, whilst each pink dot represents a pupil scoring below their own chronological age level, but by no more than 6 months. Each dark blue dot represents a pupil scoring more than 6 months below their own chronological age level.
The box on the left shows the expected outcome for 1607 pupils at the end of Year Two based on the norms of the Young's Parallel Spelling Test* used to evaluate their progress. The box on the right shows the actual results of the 1607 pupils in the study taught by staff trained in Sounds~Write.

By the end of Key Stage One 413 pupils (25•7%) who traditionally would have been expected to score below their chronological ages have actually scored above them.

Including the pupils who scored below, but within 6 months of their actual age level (252 pupils), we get to a grand total of 1463 out of the 1607 that will be moving up to Key Stage Two with basic literacy skills at an age appropriate level, or above. This amounts to 91% of the children in the study.

What has happened is an improvement in the literacy functioning ability of the whole cohort: all pupils show improvement when compared with the progress made in the past by those pupils on whom the test was originally standardised. Much research in this area is short term, looking for effects on pupils based upon interventions of less than 6 months. These effects often seem to mysteriously disappear over the following 12 months. Results are also frequently presented as average scores that can mask the fact that the positive effects claimed were achieved solely by the pupils at the upper end of the literacy ability range, leaving those functioning at the lower end no better off, and additionally even further behind those that are doing well. Sounds~Write was written with its main goal being the improvement and acceleration of the development of literacy skills for ALL pupils, and tracking this large sample of children individually through Key Stage One has demonstrated that this goal has largely been achieved.

Gender differences in speed of literacy skills acquisition are a continuing problem for the National Literacy Strategy because of the relatively poor performance of boys. With the linguistic phonic teaching used in this study this has not proved to be the case. For those pupils developmentally ready to engage with formal literacy tuition at the time of school entry, the performance of the boys and girls is very similar with girls pulling ahead over the three years by only about 1•5 months at the end of Year Two (a difference of no pedagogical consequence). It is, however, apparent from the data that about 18.6% of pupils were not really ready to engage intellectually with formal tuition when starting their Reception Year. More of these pupils were boys than girls, as would be predicted from basic knowledge about gender differences in early development, particularly speech and language. The data shows almost twice as many boys as girls were not ready to benefit fully from the formal tuition of literacy in Reception (the actual figures being 195 boys to 104 girls. The boys to girls ratio is therefore close to 1•9: 1•0).

These results will soon be available in very close detail on the Sounds-Write website. Watch this space.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Education Non-Myths

I was so taken with this posting on Kitchen table Math from Palisadesk that I asked permission to reproduce it in full and disseminate the maxims a little more widely. So here it is:

Education Non-Myths
I couldn't resist sharing these maxims from a new blog :
whose author I know from a previous book he wrote entitled Power Teaching (it's in the list of books I recommended in a post a few months ago:

What follows is from the "Book of Right", the set of assumptions which will produce learning.

1. Although students come from different backgrounds, and some are much easier to teach than others, what education brings to the student is much more important than what the student brings to education.

2. All subjects are hierarchically arranged by logic and there is a sequence of instruction which must be followed by all but the most exceptional of high-performing students.

3. Reinforcement is a very powerful determinant of student achievement. The main reinforcer in education is the improvement the student sees in his skills. Ill-constructed curricula, the kind found in almost every government school, result in a steady diet of failure for most students.

4. Having a system of education which is not a civil servant bureaucracy is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for effective education. You can’t do it with such a bureaucracy, but just because you don’t have a bureaucracy doesn’t mean you can do it.

5. Higher order thinking skills are explicitly taught, not fondly hoped for.

6. Methods of teaching are determined by scientific research, not consensus based on experience and sincere belief.

7. Teachers use a curriculum and lesson plans which have been demonstrated to work best and are not expected to create their own.

8. Psychological assessments are used rarely, but assessment of student progress, which means assessment of the effectiveness of teaching, occurs at least daily.

9. Teachers are taught how to teach in detail rather than being expected to apply vague philosophical maundering.

10. Special education is rarely needed because students are taught well on the first go round.

11. If a student does not learn, the blame is not placed on neurological impairment, but on faulty teaching methods.

12. Self-esteem is not taught because it does not have to be.

13. Students are not given "projects" until component skills have been mastered and rarely thereafter.

14. No attention is paid to individual "learning styles" because these hypothetical entities have no effect on learning.

15. Academic success can be measured by reliable and valid standardized tests, although many of these tests are too simple.

16. Students are expected to perform correctly in spelling, writing, reading, and mathematics and it does not stifle creativity.

17. The precepts of Whole Language are not used to teach reading because these precepts are wrong.

18. Students are not expected to create their own reality because this leads to frustration and slow learning.

19. Students are not expected to learn when it is developmentally appropriate but when they are taught.

20. The concept of multiple intelligences is ignored because it has no positive effect on learning.

21. The teacher is a teacher and not a facilitator.

22. The spiral curriculum is not used because things are taught properly the first time.

23. The customer is the parent and the customer must have the economic power to move his child to another teaching situation when unsatisfied.

24. In private education, the cost of education is known. In public education, the cost can never be known because there is no motivation to tell the truth and every motivation not to.

25. The curriculum must be tested on children and provision must be made for mastery learning. Passage of time or exposure does not guarantee learning.

26. Students are not tortured by "creative problem solving" because this is just another crude IQ test and has no value aside from categorizing students yet again.

I'm not sure I agree that "special education will rarely be needed," because I have observed that students with certain exceptionalities (autism, some LDs, some language impairments) need the same effective instruction but can't benefit from it in an inclusive setting, at least not initially. However, I agree with the general case, that much "special education" is simply ineffective general education, watered down in in a smaller group. As Lloyd Dunne (I think) observed, "It's not special, and it's not education."

All students deserve better.

Hear, hear! And, thanks to Palisadesk for permission to reproduce the above.

Standards in education 'woefully low', says Tesco boss Terry Leahy

The Guardian and The Independent are today both reporting Terry Leahy’s attack on Gordon Brown's 'woefully low' standards in education.
It's the usual complaint – huge amounts of money spent for a very poor return – though for the UK's largest private employer (Tesco) to voice such an outspoken attack is highly significant.
Leahy claims that standards are too low, that government bureaucracy is stifling and that government ministers spend too much time meddling. As a result, employers are 'having to pick up the pieces', he says.
The DCSF, of course, issued its customary denial and claimed that standards have never been higher, etc. etc. (Does anyone believe anything they say any more?), while the director general of the lobby group of the CBI, John Cridland, declared that Leahy's concerns were echoed throughout industry as a whole. So whom do we believe then?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Of nursery rhymes and picture books

I had to confess to some surprise the other day listening to the P.M. programme on Radio 4. The programme included a piece in which people were interviewed and asked to recite 'Jack and Jill' and other, what I thought were well known, nursery rhymes. What did I know? Hardly anyone who was interviewed could!
One woman said that she didn't sing the rhymes to her child because they were short on content. 'I don't see them as particularly educational,' she declared. She preferred to read books to her child - We're Going on a Bear Hunt, The Gruffalo, etc. While I think it's terrific to read books such as these and they may well be, as the woman suggested, the 'new generation of rhymes', it seems such a shame that parents are so fixated on instrumental learning these days.
The current obsession with instrumental learning - there must be a target to reach or an outcome to be got – can smother so much that is pleasurable. What about fun, pure and simple, immersing oneself in the pleasure of oral language? I blame the suffocating effects of the bureaucratic approach to everything educational these days.
Not that I think, as some who contributed to the PM blog, that chanting and singing nursery rhymes contributes directly to teaching children to read. The research evidence does NOT support this view: the teaching of reading needs to be much more systematically presented. Nevertheless, nursery rhymes are valuable for all sorts of less easily quantifiable reasons – enhancing children's vocabulary, introducing a range of different prosodic features of the language, and, as Albert Jack, who wrote Pop Goes the Weasel: the Secret Meanings of Nursery Rhymes, pointed out on the programme, they contain, at least in part, an oral history of the culture.
A similar point was made recently by Anthony Browne, the new Children's Laureate. He remarked that picture books were becoming increasingly marginalised and wondered whether this wasn't driven by the focus on national tests. He thought that children may be being pushed too soon towards 'more serious books', when they ought to be enjoying favourites such as Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are.
The fundamental truth is that speech precedes literacy and is essential for full human communication. We do not normally speak as we write because when we are writing we are usually trying to communicate with others who are not present with us and therefore cannot see the visual expressions on our face as we talk, nor hear the changing auditory expressions of our voice as we try to explain what we wish to say. The rhythms, rhymes and cadences found in nursery rhymes are all beneficial in terms of teaching children about how to communicate ideas – but they are just as important in terms of adults and children sharing fun situations together. It is in these simple enjoyable interactions with nursery rhymes that much can be done to initiate children's life-long love of theatre, music and literature.

Friday, October 09, 2009

English Language Day

David Crystal is proposing that we give every language its ‘special day’. As he reminds us, we already have two: the European Day of Languages on 26th September and the World Mother-Tongue day on 21st February.
Crystal’s posting on his blog has drawn attention to work done by the Winchester English Language Project, which will celebrate 13th October as English Language Day. Why 13th October you ask? Because it was on 13th October 1362 that the Chancellor of England opened parliament with a speech in English for the first time. It was also in the same parliament that a Statute of Pleading decreed that law-suits should be in English, making English an official language of law and law-making, when hitherto this domain had been dominated by French.
According to their website, the English Project has decided to make this year’s theme 'citizenship and the language of the law'.
If you would like to get involved in some of the activities being planned, go to to find out how.
Thanks to the English Language Project for permission to use the picture of its logo.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Lamb's linguistic lament

In a report due to be published next month in the Queen's English Society's journal Quest, professor Bernard Lamb of Imperial College London claims that his British undergraduates made 'three times as many grammatical, punctuation and spelling mistakes' as his overseas students.
The figures Lamb refers to are taken from a class of twenty-eight final-year undergraduates and it ought to be said that the overseas students came from Singapore, China and Indonesia, countries where ambitious students are not known for being inattentive to the kinds of issues thrown up by the study. However, anecdotal evidence of the same kind frequently emerges from other university lecturers when their profile is high enough to get their doubts about the education system in the UK aired in the media.
Professor Lamb lays the blame squarely at the door of the English education system, which, he says, needs 'to raise the very poor standards of English of the home students by more demanding syllabuses and exams, more explicit teaching and examining of English (including grammar, spelling and punctuation) and by consistent correction of errors by teachers of all subjects.'
The article covering this lament is by Richard Garner in the Independent and contains some horrifying examples of the sort I should imagine most university tutors see every day. So, if you don’t want to give yourself nightmares, look away now: examples are 'separate', 'alot', 'theorys', as well as lots of grammar-agreement and punctuation problems.
As a person who has taught both UK and foreign undergraduate students for the past twenty years, I couldn't possibly comment.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Wirral council rescinds library closures

On June 12th I posted on Alan Gibbons' 'Campaign for the Book'. Here's the latest from Alan on attempts to close libraries. Looks like Alan and his fellow campaigners have won a victory … for the time being at least! Well done to them!

Below is a portion of Alan’s campaign email. You can read more on Alan’s blog.

Wirral council rescinds library closures
In a surprise move, Wirral's Labour/Lib Dem council has backtracked on its proposal to close eleven of its libraries, some half its branch network. This is a major victory for local residents, librarians, library users, trade unionists and campaigners. A council which refused to budge from an ill-considered piece of philistinism has been forced to think again.
Many will point to Andy Burnham's decision to invoke the 1964 Libraries Act and call for an inquiry. We should remember that this didn’t come out of the blue. At first Burnham was 'not minded' to intervene. But there were protest meetings attended by hundreds of angry local residents, marches, lobbies and letter-writing campaigns. Quite simply, it was popular pressure that forced the re-think.
Though everyone who has been fighting the Wirral closures is delighted with this development, we should strike a note of caution. The council leadership issued an extremely mealy-mouthed statement regretting the fact that it had been forced to retreat.
This is what council leader Steve Foulkes had to say:
"We firmly believe that our initial decision to invest £20m in the modernisation of our library service and the creation of 13 Neighbourhood centres was the right decision for the future of Wirral."
The Department of Culture, Media and Sport seems disturbed that the council has done a volte face before the publication of Sue Charteris' report on the issue and is reviewing the situation, considering whether the council has acted legally.
In an offensive article in Saturday's Liverpool Echo local Labour MP Frank Field characterized the U-turn as a 'defeat for local residents'. He even dared ask where campaigners would like cuts to fall on other services! I have just written to the Echo reminding Mr Field that local campaigners have often stood united with those fighting cuts in other sectors. His chutzpah is staggering.
Until the Charteris report is published and the cuts finally consigned to the dustbin of history, none of us should be complacent. The pressures on the public purse that led Wirral to take the action in the first place have not gone away. There is talk many of community libraries being under threat nationally. Wirral shows protest can have a profound effect but our resistance has only just begun.

In case you didn't know, Alan is the writer of some fantastic children's books. My favourite is the Shadow of the Minotaur, a gripping read that links modern technology to Greek myth.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Personal beliefs or evidence-based practice?

When I come into contact with practising teachers and teaching assistants on the Sounds-Write literacy training courses, I am constantly coming up against people who think that their personal opinion, based on nothing but their practice and beliefs, has the same validity as research in the field of teaching reading and spelling.
According to Caroline Cox*, there are four principal grounds on which teachers justify their practices. They are: 'tradition (how it has always been done); prejudice (how I like it done); dogma (this is the 'right' way to do it and ideology (as required by the current orthodoxy).'
Unless and until the teacher training institutions educate student teachers in the importance of evidence-based practice, many teachers will continue to base many of our educational practices on mere whimsy.
*Quoted by David Hargreaves in his well known 1996 TTA lecture 'Teaching as a research-based profession: possibilities and prospects'.

The social cost of illiteracy.

If you’re a teacher and you can get past the headline, the article by Harriet Sergeant in the Mail on 22nd September is about as hard hitting as it can get. The message is that illiteracy is a blight on our society and that the price we pay for continuing to allow huge numbers of or children to enter secondary school unable to read and write is appalling.
The trouble is that it needn’t be so. Phonics does work! In collecting data over the past six years, Sounds-Write has proved that the vast majority of children can be taught to read and spell by the time they get to the end of Key Stage 1. This is because it offers training in how to teach and the best way for children to learn – and that isn't through trying to discover things for themselves!
What the DCSF just doesn't get is that if you want teachers to teach effectively, you can't stick a manual in their hands and expect them to get on with it. Teachers need proper training: training in how the English reading and writing system works, training in how to introduce it and teach it from simple to complex, and training in how to know what to do when children make errors. Unless all practitioners are given rigorous training the problem will continue.