Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Rose Report is out!

The Rose Report is out. (Thanks to Susan Godsland who was quick enough out of the traps to post this on the RRF website.)

I haven't had time to read all of it yet online and, when I rang them to ask for hard copy, the government department wasn't able to send me one. It won't be ready until next week! Nevertheless, what's clear is that the priorities should be literacy, numeracy and ICT, which should form the 'new core of the curriculum'.

What is likely to stun many people into silence is the claim the report makes that the

"vast majority [of children] move successfully from 'learning to read' to 'reading to learn' by the age of seven."

If so many children are able to read to learn so 'successfully', how is it that the middle schools and secondary schools are tearing their hair out trying to cope with the problem of having so many pupils entering them not able to read, much less spell? The Report goes on to assert that, by seven, this 'vast majority' of children have acquired automaticity in reading and spelling. What I'd like to know is: where's the evidence?

I agree that '[t]hese skills are not acquired by chance' and that they 'require well-structured, systematic teaching, regular application and practice'. This is exactly the kind of instruction all children should be getting, but, again, where's the evidence that this is happening?

It's also noticeable that the question of assessment has been neglected by Jim's latest report, according to the BBC education news channel, because Ed Balls has set up a body of experts, - at which point we all cringe! - , which will be reporting shortly. Don't hold your breath in the hope that they'll come up with anything that will tell us whether or not children are learning to read.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Is the teaching of reading any better in the States?

Is the teaching of reading and spelling any better in the United States? Not apparently in Indiana. This report makes depressing reading (Thanks to Nurture A Reader for the link to the report). Yet, what the report makes clear is that turning the situation around is perfectly straighforward: teach systematic phonics from the start on a daily basis, give pupils enough practice for them to reach automaticity, build vocabulary knowledge and comprehension strategies, and test to make sure the children are making progress and to adjust the teaching programme where necessary.
I wonder how many UK training institutions for teachers would pass the criteria set for Indiana? Not many, I bet.

Boris Johnson on reading

What is Boris Johnson's answer to the problem of teaching children to read and spell? In an interview with Mary Wakefield in the Spectator this week, he was asked:

You’ve said that the most important political issue facing
 Britain is that too many children leave school without the basics of 
reading, writing and maths. How do you plan to fix this?



'Synthetic phonics,' he replied, amongst other things.

If a rigorous programme of linguistic/synthetic phonics were to be implemented in London schools, the difference would be noticeable within Boris's term of office. And if he could do something about this one seemingly intractable problem, it would stand as a fitting testament for which he would earn Londoners' eternal gratitude.

'It's enough to make you weep' says Harriet Sergeant .

Did you read Harriet Sergeant's piece in the MailOnline? It asks why bright children from poor families aren't making it to universities. The problem, she says, begins in the primary schools, 'where children from poor backgrounds are no longer learning to read'.
Leaving aside the fact that it isn't just children from poor backgrounds who are failing to learn to read, Sergeant attributes the failure to the unwillingness of the teaching profession to embrace phonic approaches.
She goes on to point out that if a child has a low reading age, they are hardly likely to have success in preparing for GCSE. She says that as many as a third of 14-year-old boys have a reading age of 11 or below.
Actually, Harriet, I think it's worse than that! The government would not dare to test all 11-year-olds using a standardised reading and spelling test before they leave primary school. Why? Because if they did, it would provoke a national scandal. Figures given to me by a number of special needs coordinators working in secondary schools and screening their Year 7s (first year of secondary school in most authorities) to find out who needs extra support tell us that as many as 60% of children have reading ages below their chronological age and that the number of children with very low reading ages (6 to 7 years) is growing.
It is absolutely vital that we teach all children to read and spell to a very high level of proficiency. If all children are taught these skills, they can at least, whatever their abilities, fulfil their potential.
It is possible to teach well over 95% of children to read. Schools that are using Sounds-Write and teaching the programme with fidelity are achieving results many people previously thought unthinkable.

Cause and effect

Two postings ago I wrote that English literacy teaching practices seem to be based on belief systems rather than high quality evidence-based research. This assertion deserves further clarification. One overarching belief that needs tackling is that the achievement of basic literacy skills happens as a result of what is taught in schools. Curiously, out of the thousands of research papers written on the subject of literacy, I am not aware of a single one that demonstrates causality, i.e. that the literacy tuition that pupils receive actually causes them to learn to read and spell. The evidence from large scale studies indicates that around 50% of those speaking English as a first language learn to read quite fluently, with about half of them also learning to spell accurately. There is also considerable evidence that this outcome can be reached from diametrically opposed teaching practices, e.g. whole word or traditional phonics. Furthermore, we know that many children learn to read before actually arriving at school by just attending to the text of stories read to them by parents, siblings, etc. These children would appear to have brains that can visually match text with what is being spoken and thereby deduce the English alphabet code. It could be that this is the process followed by all of this 50% of pupils who end up being able to read properly, even though, for some, the amount of exposure to written text needs to be much greater than it is for others. The longer pupils spend in school, the more opportunities they have to hear words and sentences read accurately whilst they are actually looking at them, and it may purely be this that leads to them learning to read rather than any other activities that are going on.
In the absence of any quality research that demonstrates a causative link between the achievement of reading and spelling skills, a hypothesis worth investigating further is that: English speaking children have NOT become able to read and spell as a direct result of the way in which they are taught in school.
In scientific thinking, the usefulness of any idea is the extent to which it helps us to understand things that previously we didn't. So, what are the implications of the idea that traditional teaching practices don’t actually teach literacy? I suggest this merits some careful consideration and reflection., so I will be posting again about it shortly.

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.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Written and spoken language

As Usha Goswami made clear (see my post 'Research on reading') written language is a representation of spoken language. In other words, written language was invented to stand for the sounds in speech. Wherever you go in the world, humans speak and listen. However, not all societies possess writing: they simply don’t have writing systems to represent their languages. Peter T. Daniels puts it like this: 'Humankind is defined by language; but civilization is defined by writing. Writing makes historical records possible; and writing was the basis for the urban societies of the Old World. All humans speak; only humans in civilizations write, so speech is primary, and writing is secondary.' Daniels, P.T. and Bright, W., (1996), The World's Writing Systems, Oxford, OUP.

In order to think about how to teach reading and spelling, it is worth thinking carefully about the relationship between speaking and writing. For writing to work, it is necessary to represent the speech sounds of a language. To paraphrase Daniels, writing is a system of more or less permanent marks used to represent speech in such a way that it can be recovered quite accurately without the intervention of the speaker. ('The Study of Writing Systems', in Daniels and Bright, p.3) It does not matter how many writing systems have been invented, the point is that for complete functionality they must represent the individual speech sounds of the language they encode.

It was no coincidence that the development of writing ran parallel to the development of more complex societies. To keep records of business and rudimentary forms of government requires accurate recording systems. Arriving at the idea that ALL words in any language could be represented using arbitrary symbols representing individual speech sounds enabled people to keep accurate and complex records. In addition, it offered those who could read and write this invented code the possibility of sending accurate messages over vast distances, as well as keeping records for posterity.

Most European languages are alphabetic and relatively transparent: meaning that, for example in Spanish or Italian, most sounds are represented by just single-letter spellings. This makes them easy to remember and results in most children learning to read and write quite quickly. The problem with written English is that it does not have this simple transparency. In fact, English has one of the most complex alphabetic codes, thereby requiring very careful and accurately sequenced teaching.

What seems to have passed unnoticed by the English-speaking educational establishments, both historically and currently, is that in order to teach ALL children to learn to read and spell successfully, an appropriate teaching methodology has to be developed based upon both an understanding of the English alphabet code itself and knowledge of child development and learning theory - not, as in traditional 'phonic' approaches, a top down analysis founded on what literate adults mistakenly believe might have been the processes they went through to achieve their own literacy. Teaching a child that the marks on the page that we call spellings (letters or combinations of letters) stand for the sounds in their speech makes the system immediately accessible and roots it in everyday experience. Of course, as with any kind of skilled behaviours, reading and spelling need to be learned systematically, starting with the simplest concepts before moving on to the more complex ones.