Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Reading experts go in to bat for phonics in Australia

A new skirmish in the so-called 'reading wars' has once again broken out. This time in Australia!
A group of reading experts has written to the Education Minister Julia Gillard to complain that draft recommendations on the shape of the new English curriculum have omitted significant elements from previous recommendations made in an initial advice paper on English, released by the curriculum board last October. The most important of these omissions is the explicit teaching of sound to print correspondences, required to teach children to read and spell.
The details of the latest spat are set out pretty clearly by Yvonne Meyer on the Reading Reform Foundation site. And, you can read how The Australian has reported the issue.
The long and short of it is that this is yet another head-on clash between the advocates of whole language, in the guise of the three-cueing system (Searchlights strategy in the UK), and the proponents of synthetic and linguistic phonics. Unfortunately, Barry McGaw, the chair of board charged with overseeing the new guidelines, is no Jim Rose. McGaw seems to have turned his back on evidence-based research, leaving the reading experts on the outside looking in – for now!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Cruel Illusion

What has been the result of the introduction of the National Strategies, ask the authors of the Policy Exchange report Tom Richmond and Sam Freedman? Despite claims that major improvements have taken place, they claim that '… in retrospect it is clear that much of this success was a cruel illusion.' This is because many of the claimed improvements in SATs had already taken place before the strategies were introduced. They go on to argue: ‘[b]y the time that the National Strategies were first assessed in 1999 and 2000 in English and maths respectively, the initial burst in performance had already begun to tail off, though incremental increases continued...

In short, the majority of the progress towards the Government’s targets happened before the National Literacy Strategy and National Numeracy Strategy were introduced. Moreover, this progress was largely artificial: partly due to teachers acclimatising to the tests and partly due to a reduction in testing standards that was first picked up in 2001 by researchers at Durham University.’

These remarks would appear to be borne out in the figures they quote earlier in the report. One of the more shocking statistics to come out is that, after all the money spent on raising standards (over £2 billion) ‘[o]nly 56% of boys and 66% of girls who left primary school in 2008 could read, write and count to the current minimum standard’.

It has got to be the right of every child leaving primary school to have been taught well enough to achieve functional literacy for life that ensures they can fully participate in their forthcoming high school curriculum.(In terms of current reading and spelling tests that would mean age equivalent scores above an average 10 year-old level!!) It is frankly amazing that there is, in this and every other English-speaking country, such complacency. Were parents to express the kind of anger about the situation that we have seen recently expressed towards politicians, things might be as likely to change as fast as we've seen some MPs resign.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Children of the Code


You may have noticed that in the previous posting, I created a link to the work of Betty Hart and Todd Risley. This link takes you to the website Children of the Code. As Cartwheel says in a posting on the Reading Reform Foundation, the website is 'a combination of a book/periodical and a documentary'.

Susan S (Palisadesk, for those who follow Kitchen Table Math and the RRF) adds:

'It’s likely that most who view the many resources (videos, interviews) on the Children of the Code website are unaware that it is pretty much a one-man show. David Boulton is a passionate individual from outside the education sector who is not funded by government or school districts or private industry; his Children of the Code project is financed largely by donations of time and money by the many individuals who are supportive of his efforts to get the whole issue of reading and how to teach it on the front burner. Volunteers help with transcribing the interviews, organizing events and technical stuff as well. With donations from individuals and organizations, Boulton is also able to cover expenses, services and materials.'

If you've never been there before, a trip to Children of the Code will not go unrewarded.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Now let us praise Jim Rose

The recently published Rose Report into the primary curriculum draws praise from Vicky Tuck, principal of Cheltenham Ladies College. She believes it highlights a problem educationists have been grappling with for years: 'word poverty'.
'Word poverty' refers to the huge deficit in some children’s language skills in comparison with other children. Why would this be? In a study conducted by Betty Hart and Todd Risley looking at parent-child interactions, it was found that:
'Professional mothers not only talked much more to their babies (1500 words per hour between nine and twelve months), but this increased systematically with the child’s age, levelling off by thirty months at around 2,500 words per hour. The middle-class parents spoke less overall, and their initial rate was lower and increased more modestly (1,000 to 1,500 words). The range for the welfare mothers was virtually nonexistent (600-750 words). (Quoted in Diane McGuinness’s fascinating and comprehensive book Growing a Reader from Birth)
In addition, the vocabulary used by professional mothers was 'richer' and the interactions were 'more positive'.
What can we glean from this? It’s simple. Children’s vocabulary development is closely related to the vocabulary they are exposed to in the early years (0 to three). Vicky Tuck, in arguing, how important the role of teachers is in fostering an 'appetite for reading' by the time children leave the primary school is only partly right. What seems to be crucial is the years before children get to school.
It's something of a clich̩ but what parents/carers need to do is read to their young children every day, talk to them a lot, sing songs to them Рin short, immerse them in as rich and as wide a range of spoken language as possible right from off.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Billions wasted on literacy strategy says Policy Exchange report

While some of you are pondering the expenses claims put forward by Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, School and Families, and his 'chippy defence of the SATs fiasco', you may want to know what the Policy Exchange report I posted about the other day had to say about Government policy during the past twelve years.
Its principal findings were that:
'…the current Government's attempts to raise literacy and numeracy standards over the past twelve years in primary schools have largely failed. Given the high priority correctly attached to this issue when they took power and the billions of pounds spent to boost performance, this is quite extraordinary.'
It goes on to say that '[t]he approach has failed for two key reasons. First, it disengages schools.' As most of the money spent on the literacy strategy has gone into employing local authority literacy consultants who tell schools what to do, schools are forced to follow them. To do otherwise, the report points out, poses a significant risk. 'To strike out on your own requires a headteacher of rare initiative and bravery,' it says.
Furthermore, the pursuit of this one-methodology strategy, 'combined with the Government's use of high-stakes tests', has had the effect of stifling innovation and has deterred 'many talented professionals' from entering teaching. The promotion of this single approach 'crowds out alternative programmes that may work better' and it slows innovation.
What the report refers to as the 'collective bureaucratic mindset' also makes it very difficult to change tack when an alternative approach is found to work better, as was the case with synthetic phonics. And it asks if it is wise for Government ministers and senior civil servants to commit themselves to a single model.
If the Government had put in a fraction of the money that Policy Exchange claims has been wasted into trialling different approaches and deciding, on the basis of the evidence, which among them were the most effective, perhaps we'd be a little further along the road to improving significantly the number of children leaving primary school able to cope with the demands of a secondary curriculum.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Can't Read? No job!

More news from npr. The recession in the the USA is causing huge anxiety for those whose reading skills are less than adequate. Apparently, the unemployed are filling up adult literacy programmes.

It’s a particularly desperate time for those with only basic language (for which read 'elementary reading') and maths skills.

One 'Friends of Literacy' call centre is reported having taken more calls in one month than in nearly all of 2007 and 2008 combined.

David Harvey is President of ProLiteracy, an international literacy agency in New York. He says most of ProLiteracy’s twelve hundred member organisations in the US have seen a rush of inquiries from people suddenly caught without a job and a basic education.

Matt Murray of the University of Tennessee’s Centre for Business and Economic Research says those workers are discovering their jobs have either disappeared or have gone overseas and that job prospects will be very bleak 'because the jobs will simply not be there'.

'Rising Marks, Falling Standards' - a report from Policy Exchange

Thanks to Susan Godsland of the RRF for the heads-up on a new report that launches a blistering attack on the Government's education policy. It's by the Policy Exchange, 'an independent, non-partisan educational charity', and it's called: 'Rising Marks, Falling Standards: an investigation into literacy, numeracy and science in primary and secondary schools' by Tom Richmond and Sam Freedman.
What are the main findings in the report?
- After spending £2 billion (Yes, that's two billion pounds!) on the Primary Literacy Strategy, the effect on pupil achievement has been minimal
- Progress has been far slower than has been claimed and has now ground to a halt
- The Government's insistence on opting for a single approach has reduced innovation. And, when it has got it right, as in the case of the change of tack towards synthetic phonics following the Rose Review, it has taken so long and the process is so bureaucratic that change is not taken up with enthusiasm and the drive necessary to implement it properly.
In the course of the next few days, I shall be looking at some of the more important findings in the report.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

'Child Spelling Prodigy Takes to World Stage'

Here's an interesting success story from npr news station in the USA - 'Child Spelling Prodigy Takes to World Stage' . Fourteen-year-old Yulkendy Valdez went to live in the United States less than four years ago. At the time, she had no English. Her interviewer Michel Martin describes her as having learnt English faster than most people can spell 'chrysanthemum,' 'antediluvian', or 'obsequious', yet she came first in the St Louis spelling bee and is going to compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington DC later this month.
To what does she attribute her success? She reads a lot books and watches a lot of American television! Oh, and, she says, "It's all about learning the roots and the etymology, such as Greek and Latin, and the rest is about luck."

Saturday, May 02, 2009

More thoughts on cause and effect

I wrote about cause and effect on a previous post. Here are some further thoughts. Every teaching approach to literacy used in schools that doesn't work still probably ends up with about the same 50% of the pupil population being able to read. The practitioners who are trying to teach by these approaches can ALL therefore claim that they do work and that those pupils that can learn to read were actually taught by them! This is probably why the argument between whole word and traditional phonics tuition has continued for so long, with both sides claiming that it is only their efforts that teach children to read, when quite possibly neither do so because neither side has any scientific, causative evidence to support it.
The betting is that when, after ten years from now, the next lost generation, currently being taught in the UK with Letters and Sounds, leaves school 50% of their number will still effectively be illiterate or semi-literate.
Perhaps a good starting point would be to view all research data on the outcomes of any literacy teaching programme by assuming that 50% of pupils will learn to read despite their tuition, not because of it, and to look only for successful teaching practices from within the achievements of the other 50% of pupils who have historically failed to become properly literate.
In order to minimise antagonistic responses to this train of thought, I would like to make it clear that I do understand that the world is full of teachers teaching children to become literate in English who honestly believe that what they teach benefits their pupils. Unfortunately, their beliefs stand to be contradicted by the hordes of illiterate 16-year-olds leaving school every year.
*Note on causality: if pupils' literacy abilities are measured throughout their primary schooling, on average, they will be found to be improving year on year. Also, year on year, they will be growing taller. The variable, number of years attending school, is therefore directly correlated to both the variables of literacy skill development and height. Without knowing anything about the underlying causality, we might erroneously conclude that literacy skill development is a direct result of growing older, eating more, or becoming taller.