Tuesday, December 21, 2010

PISA has Gove leaning Eastwards

The reverberations from the PISA bombshell continue with the New York Times picking up the story. The relentless improvement of education results in countries like China, Singapore and South Korea are undoubtedly exercising the minds of our politicians.
The NYT article quotes Andreas Schleicher, director of the OECD's testing programme, as describing Britain’s performance as 'stagnant at best'. To rectify this Michael Gove says that he intends to reform the education system to make it more democratic and stresses the need to 'learn from the best-performing countries'. To do this, his intention is to toughen up the examinations system, 'using tests from China and South Korea as benchmarks', and he insists that he will 'explicitly borrow from these tiger nations'.
On a slightly less reassuring note, the article goes on to quote Nick Gibb as blaming 'text messaging and social networks' as the possible culprit for pupils' lack of interest in reading for pleasure. This is surely not the case. Text messaging is and should be regarded by teachers as only another genre of written language, with its specific conventions like any other genre. I would venture that the reason why many children choose not to read for pleasure is because they find it very hard to do and, in general, children who find something difficult to do tend to avoid it. To get children reading for pleasure, we need to teach them to read so proficiently that their reading is automatic and they have immediate access to meaning.
So, stop worrying about text messaging Nick and train teaching practitioners to teach reading and spelling proficiently from the start.
By the way, if you want to see what standards are like in maths at primary level in Singapore, go to SingaporeMath.com Inc and view the placement tests. Scary, huh?
*With thanks to Catherine Johnson of kitchen table math, the sequel, for drawing my attention to the NYT article.

Friday, December 17, 2010

No excuses! All children can learn to read and spell

Despite the lame excuses of Michael Welsh yesterday on Radio 4 and Dr Bethan Marshall today in the Telegraph, there are plenty of examples of schools situated in poor areas having huge success in teaching all children -that's boys as well as girls! - to read and spell.
Michael Gove says that the Coalition is particularly keen to get hold of solid evidence to show which reading methods work. Below is a table showing the results for fifty children taught using a linguistic phonic approach to the teaching of reading throughout Key Stage 1.
The test used was a simple, properly normed and standardised spelling test. What is immediately striking is the fact that only one child has a spelling age below his chronological age. This means that 98% of the children are performing above their chronological age. What is also quite extraordinary is that 90% of these children are already at least ten months ahead of the average chronological age for the class and that 64% are more than two years ahead. What is no less remarkable is that 44% of this cohort scored at the ceiling of the test (11 years).
In other words, not only is this school teaching pupils at the lower end of the continuum to read and spell successfully, they are also doing outstandingly well at the higher end of the continuum. there is still a continuum but it has been shifted massively to the right.
The school lies in a relatively poor area of Milton Keynes. It has topped the league tables in Milton Keynes in SATs for years and, just over a year ago, it came nineteenth in the league table for the country for the number of Level 5s in the English SAT.
How did the school achieve this? The answer is both simple and complex: simple because the school made it their policy to ensure that the teachers in Key Stage 1 were all properly trained to teach literacy; complex because training teachers to understand the way the alphabet code works in English and teaching them the specific skills, conceptual and factual knowledge needed to enable their pupils to learn to read and spell proficiently required resources and effort.
And the programme? Sounds-Write.

Wuns mor deer frends, ...

How enormously irritating it was this morning to listen to Mike Welsh of the National association of Head Teachers talking to John Humphrys on the Today programme about new government figures showing that one in ten boys leaving primary school at eleven have a reading age of seven or below.
'There's nothing new here,' declared Welsh. He's right, though not in the way he meant it. For far too long there has been this same long tail of underachievement, which Welsh failed to explain other than to suggest that most of this is due to children with special educational needs. So, that's it! It's the fault of the children not the fault of senior managers, like Welsh, who fail to recognise that it's the methodology that's the problem.
Later in the programme, Michael Gove made a number of points that give an indication that he and Nick Gibb are on the right track. He firmly advocated systematic, synthetic phonics; he placed emphasis on evidence that programmes designed to teach children to read and spell actually work; and, he insisted that testing was one way of finding out whether schools are doing their job – after all, he said, 'Do we want our children to learn to read or not?'
He also insisted that government needs to follow through. The last government seemed to believe that if it issued a decree, then everyone would jump to it. They commissioned the Rose Review and then sat back and failed to ensure that it was implemented. As the results show only too clearly, despite the billions of pounds spent on improving standards, very little has been done to boost the fortunes of so many children entering secondary education without the ability to cope with a secondary curriculum.
Michael Gove and Nick Gibb have said that they are going to ensure that things improve. The problem is that they haven't spelt out how they are going to do it. As I've argued so many times before if teaching practitioners are going to teach children to read and spell proficiently, they must receive the proper training and that training must be in a programme that works.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

"The countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow." Barack Obama

Following the publication of performance tables by the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) today, the blogosphere in the USA is a-buzzing with debate about the decline in standards over there too.
'Your child left behind' is one of the latest postings on Kitchen Table Math, a clearly ironic response to the US government's 'No child left behind'. The title of the posting is a reference to the recently published article in the Atlantic magazine, in which Stanford economist Eric Hanushek and two colleagues raise the same kinds of serious questions as many are beginning to raise over here.
Two of the more important conclusions Hanushek drew were that: 'more money does not tend to lead to better results; smaller class sizes do not tend to improve learning'; and that even the 'most-advantaged students ... do not compete favorably with average students in other well-off countries'.
Massachusetts comes out as the best performing state, which isn't saying much, though it's a lot better than lowest performing Mississippi. Why? Because they have for some time been much more focused on outcomes and because they have raised the standards required for people entering the teaching profession. For example, new entrants to the profession are now required to pass a basic literacy test before they can enter the classroom.
In response to Catherine Johnson's posting on the Irvington Parents Forum posting, in which she has 'pulled' some of the more significant points made by Hanushek, I noticed that Matthew Tabor had this to say:
"Here are the 40 finalists of Intel's Science Talent Search 2010:
I'll list off the first series of surnames:
Christensen, Yeung, Anand, Shahmirian, Ye, Suh, Jakpor, Liu, Nelakanti, Gandelman, Rudolph, Puranik, Fein, Li, Sharma... etc
We can look at finalists in the famed Westinghouse competition and a dozen others if anyone's interested.
Here are the surnames for Michigan State University's Cardiovascular Fellows:
There are 9 fellows and their surnames are Ghanem, Mughal, Gadeela, Viqar, Vedre, Chandra, Skaf, Pervaiz and Shamoun. They might be members of the Francis Cooke Society - descendants of Mayflower Compact members - but probably not."
It is information like this that is exercising people's minds and encouraging them to think carefully about the way they are educating their kids.
Finally, Hanushek concludes his piece in the Atlantic with this little gem:
"Early last year, President Obama reminded Congress, "The countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow." This September, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, visiting a local school on the first day of classes, mentioned Obama's warning and smugly took note of the scoreboard: "Well," he said, "we are out-teaching them today."
Arne Duncan, Obama’s education secretary, responded to the premier's trash-talking a few days later. "When I played professional basketball in Australia, that's the type of quote the coach would post on the bulletin board in the locker room," he declared during a speech in Toronto. And then his rejoinder came to a crashing halt. "In all seriousness," Duncan confessed, "Premier McGuinty spoke the truth."

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

More news of falling standards from PISA

I hesitate to put this posting on the blog because it feels like, well, here we are again! What do you know? Britain is still falling behind in the world rankings in literacy, maths and science.
The latest performance tables, based on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), shows Britain dropping from seventh to seventeenth in reading and from fourth to fourteenth in science. In maths the picture is even worse: we are now ranked twenty-fourth, which is below the international average. The latest round of tests was taken in 2009.
The data, according to the Telegraph correspondent Graeme Paton, are based on 'on independent tests taken by 400,000 15-year-olds worldwide'. Of course, the Coalition will make hay of the fact that the decline has taken place in spite of the fact that the previous Labour government spent well over £2 billion on the literacy and numeracy strategies.
Over the last ten years, Britain participated in 2000, when a 'stronger performance' was reported, 2006 and 2009. For some reason the country didn't participate in the 2003 tests. In 2006, standards in all three subjects had already fallen and, it seems, things have gone downhill since then.
What Paton is arguing is that unless we wake up and realise that Britain is competing within a global market and that our competitors – many of whom speak a range of languages, including English – are forging ahead in the world rankings for literacy, science and maths, our line of travel southwards can only continue.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

'The truth will out'

For advocates of phonics, it can be especially galling to see reputable newspapers and magazines giving space to the claims of the Whole Language lobby, whilst denying advocates of phonics a right to an adequate reply. The question is: what to do about it?
In 'The truth will out', published in the New Scientist (15/05/2010), Michael Shermer has a number of suggestions:
First, let denialists be heard! Consider their arguments and, as he maintains, 'if they have anything of substance to say, then the truth will out'. However, having had the debate, and many phonics advocates feel that the debate has been conducted ad nauseam over the past forty years, what happens when healthy 'scepticism morphs into denialism'?
Shermer gives the example of the Holocaust: in the case of the Holocaust deniers, having engaged them 'in debate and outlined in exhaustive detail the evidence for the Nazi genocide' to no avail, he simply threw up his hands 'and moved on to other challenges'. Many scientists have done the same in the context of the global warming debate.
However, Shermer is also quick to point out that 'throwing up your hands' and walking away 'is not always an option'. And that is pretty much where we are with the Whole Language lobby. Their shifting of the debate towards a much broader perspective on what is constituted by the term 'literacy' is seen as an attempt always to avoid the huge amount of scientific evidence in favour of teaching the alphabetic principle. As Stanovich (2000), puts it: 'A beginning reader must at some point discover the alphabetic principle: that units of print map onto sound.'
In this kind of scenario, Shermer is adamant: 'Those who are in possession of the facts have a duty to stand up to the deniers with a full-throated debunking repeated often and everywhere until they too go the way of the dinosaurs.'
So far, so good! What we should not do, though, is try to suppress debate. Shermer argues that because we can never be certain of knowing the 'absolute truth', we should always be prepared to think about where we might need to alter our ideas. In fact, within phonics, there is a continuous and vigorous debate about whether the code should be taught from print to sound or from sound to print and, indeed, whether the orientation makes any difference. [I think it does and I'm an advocate of the latter.]
No matter what, we should never resort to censorship. Shermer reminds us that exercising tolerance towards those in a minority means that you stand a better chance of being heard when you are in the 'sceptical minority'.
The best way to rebut the arguments of Whole Language advocates is to confront them with evidence. Sounds-Write has, since its inception, been collecting evidence of its success as a programme for teaching young children to read and spell. You can read the report-back to the schools participating in our data collection here

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Creativity as important as literacy?

If you've never taken a look at TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design: ideas worth spreading) maybe it's time you did.
Here's Ken Robinson talking about how schools kill creativity.

Six myths about dyslexia II

The second myth on which Susan Godsland focuses is that 'dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty that can be readily diagnosed by an educated professional'.
As she quite rightly points out, until recently it was standard practice among educational psychologists to use the 'IQ/achievement discrepancy diagnosis'. As the descriptor suggests, it was thought that if a child had a high IQ or was a high achiever but at the same time had failed to learn to read, the child was dyslexic: QED!
As little evidence was produced to support this measurement, the dyslexia lobby dropped it and instead claimed that in fact dyslexia could be 'found across the range of intellectual abilities'.
The problem with this is exactly the same: no-one has ever produced any scientifically valid evidence for the hypothesis and the more focused the analysis of the various claims, the fuzzier the definition seems to get, so that dyslexia is now described as being on a continuum.
What all of this boils down to is, as Susan shrewdly and diplomatically encapsulates it, that 'all dyslexia diagnoses are presently based purely on professional judgement (opinion) or intuition (guesswork)'.
I can't help thinking that like so many other ideas - right-brain/left-brain dominated people, kinaesthetic/visual learners, for instance – dyslexia is just cod science. This doesn't mean that being unable to read isn't a very serious handicap for lots of people; it is! However, to situate the problem within the individual is not the way to look at it. The answer lies in the methods by which children are taught, which can help prevent or accelerate the development of many potential reading problems.
So, we come back again to the importance of training teachers in a method that works.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Six myths about dyslexia

The November/December issue of SEN Magazine has given well deserved space to Susan Godsland's article 'Six myths about dyslexia'.
Susan is well placed to write on the subject, 'being the parent of a once struggling reader' and she writes about how deeply she was affected by the 'frustration and anxiety which results from having a "dyslexic" in the family'.
Myth number one is the belief that dyslexics have a fault with their brains which doesn't enable them to hear and manipulate individual sounds in the language. As the writing system was invented to represent the sounds of the language one at a time as discrete spellings, this would be, if it were true, a pretty serious incapacity. Susan discredits this perspective by pointing out that if children have learned to talk, as the vast (98% +) majority do, they have at some point heard and learned to reproduce the sounds in speech. In fact, wherever you go in the world, all children do this, even though their carers adopt different approaches to encouraging this ability. Even from the beginning of the last trimester of pregnancy, research (and there's lots of it, so fascinated are psychologists by what infants are 'hard-wired' for) has revealed how attentive to sounds babies in the womb are.
Of course, as Susan makes clear, once infants move beyond the stages of reduplicated babbling (mama, baba, dada) to non-reduplicated babbling (consonant-vowel-consonant and vowel-consonant-vowel combinations) by the end of the first year and onwards, they no longer need to pay specific attention to the individual sounds in the language and the ability 'disappears into the background of the brain'.
Before the invention of writing, the requirement to 'hear' individual sounds was no longer needed after this last stage of vocal development. However, 'in order to learn to read and write using an alphabetic code,' Susan argues that 'it becomes necessary to bring this facility (attention to individual sounds in speech) once again to the fore'.
So, why is it that some children just simply learn to read? The argument put forward by Susan is that some children seem to be able to 'resurrect' this vital ability. It could also be that some children maintain that special attention to individual sounds in the language – which may possibly be one of the reasons why bilingualism is such a useful additional resource! Naturally, with sympathetic carer/parent/sibling help and an environment rich in cultural capital, those children give the appearance of learning to cope with the writing system naturally and effortlessly.
What about those less fortunate children? Susan is in no doubt. The ability to hear and represent sounds in words can be recuperated through teaching 'systematic synthetic phonics'. This formulation is the only thing in the whole piece with which I disagree. There are a range of available phonic programmes, which I would differentiate as 'synthetic' and 'linguistic'. The difference between them is not, as I imagine some people will think, a case of angels dancing on a pinhead, but has profound implications for our teaching and the success of our teaching. But that's a discussion for another day.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Off topic - maths in the UK

Here's an interesting interview conducted by Adam Shaw on Radio 4's Today programme this morning (18/11/2010) with Brian Butterworth, Emeritus professor of cognitive neuropsychology at the Institute of Neuroscience at the University College London.
BB: "The UK is not very good at maths. We're about average, looking at all OECD countries. So, we're significantly worse than Australia and Canada, much worse than China and Japan, though we are a bit better than Germany and significantly better than the United States. And we know from a recent OECD report that, actually, maths ability in the population is correlated with GDP growth, so the better at maths the country is, the better their GDP growth is."
AS: "What you’re saying is quite important here. It's not just that as one gets richer you tend to have more time for a better education. You're saying, if you get better at maths, that’s a major driver of economic growth?"
BB: "That's exactly what the OECD report has found and …"
AS: "Maths more than any other subject? It's maths that does it?"
BB: "Maths is the major component. Science is the next major component, reading a little bit … but maths particularly is important. And it's not just raising the overall level that helps. Of course, if you raise the overall level it will help, but if you just get the lowest ten or eleven percent, which is the percentage of our population that fails to reach the OECD minimum standard at fifteen – really very simple stuff that people can’t do – if you can get people up to the minimum level, this would increase GDP growth by 0.44% per annum. Now it might not sound very much but actually, over the years, this creates an enormous improvement in GDP for the country."
Actually, I don't at all agree with the professor about reading being important only to a small degree. reading is an absolutely vital skill: if a person has poor reading skills, they are automatically excluded from a greater and greater number of jobs and can't contribute to the growth of the economy, given that jobs which require no reading skills are disappearing by the thousand every month.
Still, it's yet another wake-up call to the UK to improve standards of teaching in maths if the UK is going to compete successfully with other major economies – or, as Digby Jones put it, 'India will have our lunch and China will have our dinner!'

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Illiteracy: another admission of failure

So Ofsted's chief inspector for schools Christine Gilbert has suddenly come to the conclusion that failure to teach children to read and spell is not to do with poverty or ethnic background. It's because they are not being taught properly!
The Sunday Times today (14.11.10) has reported Ms Gilbert as saying that progress in 'improving literacy had stalled for the past four years and blamed the failure of too many schools for not teaching reading systematically using synthetic phonics'. Apparently, Ms Gilbert has come round to the realisation that 'anybody from any school can teach almost any child to read if they go about it without compromise and with absolute commitment'.
There's only one thing she seems to have forgotten: it doesn't matter how committed a teacher is, if they haven't been properly trained, standards will not improve.
Twice in recent years Sounds-Write has sent Ms Gilbert our painstakingly gathered data and both times has received the briefest and most perfunctory reply. That's because Ms Gilbert thinks that she, Ofsted and the DoE know best. That they don't is signalled by the latest admission of failure.
What's the message? Train the teachers!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Irrationality - our default state?

We at Sounds-Write have long puzzled over why it is that government minsters, literacy specialists, college professors and whatnot aren't utterly and completely persuaded by the results we get with our programme. In our longitudinal study on over fifteen hundred pupils being taught using Sounds-Write throughout Key Stage 1, over ninety percent were within six months of their chronological age on a properly normed and standardised spelling test, a very good measure we thought of how literate they were.
What was even more amazing about these results is that they weren't cherry-picked. We took all the data teachers from a wide number of schools across the country gave us. Where the programme was being implemented with great fidelity the results were more impressive still: in one school 98% of children (forty-nine out of fifty pupils) scored above their chronological age on the test.
However, as the New Scientist points out in its latest issue (13 November 2010), 'for believers in rationality, the modern world is often a frustrating and bewildering place'. Why? Because quack superstitions, beliefs and irrational remedies are thriving and a 'cold-eyed blend of objectivity, data and logic' is just not sufficient. The editorial argues that 'human beings are not wired for logic'.
Whenever I run a training for teachers, I always bear in mind the late Jeanne Chall's dictum: twenty-five percent of trainees will embrace the ideas and the methodology presented with enthusiasm and implement the programme with absolute fidelity; fifty percent will also implement the programme, except that they will be unable to resist bringing in ideas and approaches they've always clung on to even when they run counter to the new approach; and, twenty-five percent either won't, for all sorts of reasons, implement the programme, or they'll do it so badly that it doesn't work.
H Rider Haggard explained it very well in his introduction to Allan Quatermain over a hundred and thirty years ago; but that's another story.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The truth behind the 'rise' in the education budget

The widely heralded increase in the schools budget is, it turns out, not what it at first seemed. The Financial Times this weekend (30th/31st October) spelt out the reality behind the rise.
The resource budget, which is used to fund day-to-day running costs will, it appears, rise by 0.4 %. However, the increase in the numbers of pupils means that the 'rise' will turn into a cut of 2.25%. The number of primary school age children is set to rise by 8% over the next four years, while the school population as a whole is predicted to rise by 2.7% overall.
Of the £39 billion allocated to individual schools for day-to-day spending in 2014-2015, £2.5 billion is a 'pupil premium'. The pupil premium is defined by the FT as 'money given to schools for each pupil who is eligible to receive free school meals, a widely-used indicator of poverty'. For a school to avoid losing money it would need to have more than a fifth of its pupils claiming free school meals. As the FT makes clear, at the average primary school only 17% of pupils are eligible. By this reckoning, the FT calculates that '62% of primary school children are in schools that will not meet that bar, and whose budgets will be cut in real terms'.
In the secondary sector, in order to receive the pupil premium, a school would have to have around 25% of its pupils on free school meals to maintain increased funding. At present, the average percentage of pupils receiving free school meals is only 14%, which, the FT suggests, will mean that '84% of secondary pupils are in schools that will experience cuts in real terms'.
In addition, as has been made more transparent, the schools building budget has been cut by 60%.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has already confirmed that the FT's analysis accords with its own.
What's the broad message from all this? As the FT puts it:
'Most schools will see cuts in funding per pupil over the next four years, with secondary schools more likely to see cuts than primary schools. Some schools with more deprived pupils could see increases in funding per pupil, depending on how the pupil premium is implemented.’
When I went to see Nick Gibb, the schools minster, at the House of Commons around this time last year, he hinted that were the Conservative Party to win the election, money would be made available in the form of a voucher system for schools to use to train teachers to teach phonics. One of the easiest ways of improving the educational chances of pupils in this country is to teach them to read and spell to a level that will enable them to reach their full potential, whatever that potential might be. There can be no doubt that all pupils can taught to read well enough for them to be able to access the full secondary curriculum. But, to achieve this means investing in training the teachers properly. It cannot be done by sticking a manual or handbook in the post and expecting teachers and teaching assistants to get on with it.
Like I said, it's the training, stupid!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Bald on Birbalsingh

I've mentioned before that John Bald's blog on language and literacy is well worth a visit. Like many others, he's been following the story of Katherine Birbalsingh as reported in the (mainly) broadsheet press and on this blog. His latest posting, 'Katharine Birbalsingh - the Guardian Knot', reports an interview with her in the Guardian. If you want to listen to what it was Katharine Birbalsingh said at the Tory Party conference that so upset the governors of her school, it has been posted on YouTube in its entirety. And, if you're a member of the Blob, best to sit down first.

Brogan on the Blob

Trying to effect change within the educational establishment is, as the former chief inspector of schools Chris Woodhead once put it, 'as slippery and hard for reformers to wrestle down as a greased cow in a swamp'. Woodhead (after the US education secretary William Bennett) called the 'tribe' that make up the civil service, the LEAs, the teacher unions and the occupants of ivory towers, the Blob.
The latest instalment in the battle with the Blob is reported on in the Telegraph today, where Benedict Brogan identifies the various organisations responsible for trying to slow down, stymie, or openly obstruct the process of change. Unsurprisingly, the main 'enemy within' turns out to be the civil service in the guise of the education department.
What is so amazing is that the people staffing the DfE who are themselves educated to the highest level would yet deny what they have had to pupils languishing in what even Alastair Campbell described as 'bog standard' comprehensives. Ironically, one of the Anti-Academies Alliance’s principal supporters is Campbell's partner, Fiona Millar.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Deliberate practice and expertise

A short while ago I was upbraided for daring to suggest that individuals we commonly refer to as geniuses are not born with abilities beyond the scope of ordinary individuals. My thinking was heavily influenced by the publication in 2006 of The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, where two approaches to the expertise of exceptional individuals are examined: the first suggests that some people have greater minds or that their 'greatness or creativity arises from some chance and unique innate talent' (p.22); the second approach is more relative and assumes that 'expertise is a level of proficiency that novices can achieve' (p.22).
It is impossible to try and present or summarise even a tiny part of this book, so wide is the range of areas it covers, but since its publication it has spawned a huge amount of interest. The Cambridge Handbook has generated a host of popularised versions of the academic arguments it has put forward: The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, and Matthew Syed’s Book Bounce. All pay homage to The Cambridge Handbook. [As an aside, Robert Morris provides a useful overview of Coyle's book on the Amazon site.]
What they all broadly agree on is that talent, in whatever area, be it chess, playing the violin, learning maths, or playing golf, depends less on innate talent and more on two fundamental factors: deliberate practice and expert tuition. But these two requisites need to be teased out a bit. In the case of deliberate practice, one needs to know what to practise: what does any particular skilled knowledge and ability entail and how can it be broken down into sub-components that can be taught and practised? In regard to expert tuition, a teacher may not need to be the most brilliant exponent of the learning target, but they do need to know how it should be taught, what the stages are and the order in which they should be introduced and mastered before moving on to the next level or stage.
If this is done well, there is no reason why just about anyone can't pretty much accomplish anything to a high level of skill, which is why teachers need proper training in whatever it is they teach.
However, to become a Rebecca Adlington, an Anamika Veeramani, or indeed a Stephen Hawking, you also need true grit, the willingness to practise every day for hour after hour, always in the knowledge that even that mightn't be enough to get you to the top.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Ms Birbalsingh departs

The Telegraph (yesterday) and the Sunday Times today are both running stories on Ms Birbalsingh's departure (sacking) from St Michael and All Angels Academy after she had spoken out against 'low standards and expecting the very least from the poor and disadvantaged' at the Conservative Party conference a few weeks ago.
Despite being given permission to speak at the conference by her head teacher, the board of governors at St Michael and All Angels Church of England Academy, where she worked, didn't like what Ms Birbalsingh had to say about the education system. In her speech, she had described it as 'broken' and as being 'so dumbed down even the children know it'. The claim made by the governors that her remarks were potentially damaging to the reputation of the school, or, as the governors statement put it, 'the position of the academy has been misrepresented', was clearly absurd, as she had only been at the school for a few weeks and was talking about the education system in general.
Neither she nor the school are prepared to comment on the details of her leaving but Mrs Birbalsingh was reported in the Telegraph to have said 'that she had resigned after being asked to comply with conditions she did not feel able to comply with'. In other words, it's quite likely that the school tried to gag her and she refused the gag.
As Nick Seaton of the Campaign for Real Education says, 'It sends a shocking warning to others in the teaching profession - they must not say anything which may expose the truth about the system, or they may lose their livelihood'. The Telegraph View today is even more forthright, likening 'bureaucrats in charge of the state education system today' to Stalinists.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

2010 Scripps National Spelling Bee

Ooops! I almost forgot the 2010 Scripps National Spelling Bee, held in the United States on June 5th.
This year's winner was Anamika Veeramani, from Ohio, who spelled the word 'stromuhr' correctly to win the competition. According to npr, a 'stromuhr' is a medical instrument 'that measures the amount and speed and flow of blood through an artery', which is just as well since Anamika wants to go to Harvard and train to become a cardiovascular surgeon!

Goodbye to Michelle Rhee, children’s champion

My guess is that unless you keep abreast of US politics, you probably won't have heard of Michelle Rhee. She was, until very recently, children's chancellor to Adrian Fenty, mayor of Washington, DC, until he was defeated in the Democratic primary on September 14th.
Over her three years in tenure Rhee turned education in Washington schools around and, as The New Republic, put it, 'imposed competence on Washington's shambolic schools'. She achieved this by closing failing schools and sacking incompetent teachers. In so doing, she caused the percentages of secondary students passing competency tests to shoot up by 14 points in reading and 17 points in maths; she rationalised the procurement of text books, devised new mechanisms for measuring the performance of teachers, and supported children with special needs; and, she stabilised enrolment in the state school system. To accomplish this, Michelle Rhee did what many mayors and governors throughout the United States would like to do: she took on the teachers' union, 'the base of the base' of the Democratic Party, as Steven Brill in tnr calls it.
When it came to priorities, Rhee was in no doubt where hers lay. In a recent interview on National Public Radio (npr), she said:
"… for me, I think it's very clear that the focus and main priority of the school district has to be educating its children well, and that jobs have to take a backseat to that. And we can't forsake what's happening to schoolchildren every single day in the classroom in the name of maintaining jobs for adults, because I think in many school districts - not just in Washington, D.C. - that has been the case, and that protecting jobs was more important than children achieving. And that's what's led to the incredibly poor academic outcomes in this nation."
Sadly, when Fenty lost the primary and Vincent Gray, the candidate backed by the American Federation of Teachers and a hardline critic of Rhee won, Rhee's position became untenable and she resigned. This is a significant setback for Obama, whose 'Race to the Top' programme has stimulated a raft of legislation throughout the states intended to hold teachers accountable for their performance. It is also a setback for the much needed reform of state schooling in the USA.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Desmond Morris on books v TV for toddlers

Many years ago I enjoyed very much watching Desmond Morris’, at the time, utterly captivating TV programme 'Zoo Time', where he would get up to, amongst other things, all sorts of antics with a number of favourite chimpanzees. His books, The Naked Ape and Manwatching, were also great fun, if a little speculative in places. Last week, he published his latest book, Child, in which he claims, according to an interview in the Guardian, that favouring book reading to children over watching television is 'cultural snobbery'.
Already criticised for encroaching onto biologists' territory for his previous work, Baby, one must question the evidence on which he bases his claims. There are undoubted benefits to watching some television and Morris is surely right in saying that even quite young children can watch a film with total concentration. Many television programmes are enriching in all sorts of ways and many are just, well, plain fun! And what busy parent hasn't just plonked their young child down in front of the TV so that they could attend to something else, like making dinner?
However, it's easy and a bit facile to make statements like 'films can be better than books'. Unless Morris specifies exactly what he means by 'films' (What kinds of films? And which films is he talking about?) and 'better', the statement he makes is meaningless.
Stanovich, one of my favourite researchers in the field of reading, produces a considerable weight of evidence to contradict some at least of what Morris is arguing. Quoting from the work of Hayes and Ahrens (1988, CUP), Stanovich states how relatively lexically impoverished most human speech is, as compared with the written word. Stanovich argues that 'opportunities to acquire new words occur when an individual is exposed to a word in written or oral language that is outside their current vocabulary'. Furthermore, 'this will happen vastly more often while reading [or being read to] than while talking or watching television' and he goes on to point out that children's books contain '50% more rare words in them than does prime time television and the conversation of college graduates'.
According to Stanovich, 'an oral culture plus visual images (increasingly the environment of children) is no substitute for print'*.
* Quoted from Stanovich, K.E., (2000), 'Measuring Print Exposure', in Progress in Understanding Reading, London, The Guilford Press.

Friday, October 01, 2010

The New Scientist on neuroscience and education

This week's New Scientist (October 2nd 2010) is carrying an interesting piece entitled 'Supercharge Your Brain' but it's also the introductory editorial 'From neuromyth to reality' that has much to commend it.
Firstly, I can't resist including the remark once made by John Maynard Keynes quoted at the beginning of the editorial. He is recorded as saying that education is 'inculcation of the incomprehensible into the indifferent by the incompetent', an encapsulation that will give many of us working in the field of education much food for thought.
However, on a more serious note, the question is raised about whether the gap between neuroscience, cognitive science and education can be bridged. Although neuroscientists have brought home to the teaching profession the importance of sensory motor learning and the active involvement of learners in their own learning, as well as dispelling 'half-baked' neuromyths such as the value of 'brain training', 'left-brained/right-brained' nonsense, and the like, as the article makes clear, 'even today, a grand theory of learning that can exert a direct influence on education looks a distant prospect'.
That said, what we do know about what works is still not finding its way into classrooms. A pupil I know well told me the other day about being introduced to simultaneous equations at school for the first time. The teacher 'explained' the elimination method for ten minutes and the class were then given a homework in which they had to solve an assortment of these equations. Next lesson, the pupils have been told, they will be learning the substitution method. In contrast, in Singaporean math, the pupils are first given an explanation of why simultaneous equations are useful in solving certain problems – the reason for knowing how to do them. The next step is to offer worked examples, beginning with the most simple and moving towards the more complex. After that, the pupils practise, not with ten example questions but with fifty! During this practice, the pupils are also practising the skills and knowledge they have previous learnt: basic algebraic manipulation - addition, subtraction, multiplication and division of algebraic terms -, linear equations, and so on.
This kind of apprenticeship model of learning is precisely the one employed in Sounds-Write's methodology: the teacher models what it is they want the pupils to learn; next, they invite the pupils to take part in guided participation; finally, after plenty of rehearsal and consolidation – i.e. practice – the pupils gain independence before moving on to the next stage. Which is why, as an approach to the teaching of reading and spelling, it is so successful.
It's not just the training; it's the practice, stupid!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Nick Diaz on bigotry and mathematical ability

This is a bit off the usual track but I happened to notice that Nick Diaz has written a guest column on Laurie Rogers' blog 'Betrayed: Why public education is failing'.
In the piece, Diaz takes on the stereotyping of 'Asian' students (by which people in the USA mean students whose parents are of Chinese, Korean, Indian, Taiwanese, and Japanese extraction). The stereotype has it that Asian students are 'smarter, can learn math much faster, know "stuff" more deeply, and are much quicker at arriving at answers'. As he quite rightly points out, this is as racist and bigoted as negative discrimination.
However, it is certainly the case that many Asian students do tend to do better in 'math' than other students and Diaz explains this by pointing out that many Asian parents are recent immigrants and are very highly qualified, many of them employed in the USA as engineers, scientists and mathematicians. And, guess what? These families – because these people come with kids! – are usually exceptionally highly motivated and supportive of their children's learning in school.
Culturally, too, according to Diaz, many of these children are trained to be more focused and to engage their brains before they commit to answering questions. Neither are these parents usually given to making statements to the effect that they were 'no good at math' when they were at school.
There's also an interesting discussion on kitchen table math at the moment on the subject of placing maths students by mastery not age.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Money, money money? Or autonomy, mastery and purpose?

I've just seen this rather fascinating video, originally posted on the irvingparentsforum. I picked it up on the kitchen table math blog, posted by the inimitable Catherine Johnson, and it's certainly worth sharing.
The context for the interest in this subject relates back to a story, reported by npr, that broke into the news earlier this week in the USA about bonuses for teachers and whether they are effective in raising standards.
So, does paying out big bonuses work? According to a study by Vanderbilt University's National Center on Performance Incentives, which looked into whether paying teachers big bonuses for improving pupils' tests scores works and 'was described by the researchers as the nation's first scientifically rigorous look at merit pay for teachers', it doesn’t!
The youtube video may explain why. Watch and enjoy!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Decline in SpLD numbers in the USA

Catherine Johnson from kitchen table math is reporting that the number of students in the USA identified as having a 'specific learning disability' has declined over the past ten years from 6.1% in 2000-2001 to 5.2% in 2007-2008. The figures come from the U.S Department of Education's 2009 Digest of Education Statistics.
As is the case here in UK, about 80% of pupils to whom the classification applies are those struggling with learning to read. This is very similar to the figure arrived at by Dr John Marks ten years ago.
What's the cause for the drop? Are they counting differently or has teaching methodology improved? Speculation has it that its the former.
For the record, kitchen table math is an excellent source of ideas and resources, particularly in respect of how to teach mathematics. However, Catherine Johnson often posts on more general areas of education. Following her recommendation, I'm currently reading Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College. It's a great, no-nonsense book, full of excellent advice by Doug Lemov, managing director of Uncommon Schools. I'd put it into the hands of every trainee- and practising teacher.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Introducing the new Battle Cries series of books


Sounds-Write is pleased to announce the publication of its new series Battle Cries, which features the heroine Amy Blade, 'all action, all heart, already two steps in front of you'!
The series is designed to help struggling, older readers (from about eleven years and onwards). Each book focuses on a particular sound and is deliberately contrived to contain multiple spellings of the sound. The first book, Caves of Danger, starts with the sound /ae/.
The books are meant to be challenging and work on a number of different levels simultaneously: adventure series, a brief history of writing systems, and as allegory.
We hope you like them.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

SEN, or just poor teaching?

Has Ofsted recovered its nerve? Apparently so. In its recent report 'The special educational needs and disability review: a statement is not enough', Ofsted reveals that, while the number of pupils with a statement of special educational needs 'decreased slightly' (from 3% to 2.7%), 'the proportion identified as needing less intensive additional support at School Action or School Action Plus has increased from 14.0% in 2003 to 18.2% in 2010'. In the next paragraph of the report, Ofsted wastes no time in cutting to the chase, stating baldly that 'as many as half of all pupils identified for School Action would not be identified as having special educational needs if schools focused on improving teaching and learning for all, with individual goals for improvement'.
Anyone working in the field and not wearing blinkers will know very well that all this has been common knowledge for years. Ten years ago, Dr John Marks drew attention to the alarming rise in the numbers of children and young people 'with special educational needs but without Statements'. He reported that over the four years from 1995 to 1999, numbers rose from 9.6% to 16.5%.
As Marks noted at the time, the system of SEN is 'perverse': 'the system has a vested interest in failure: the more children with Special Educational Needs that can be identified, the greater the resources that can be claimed.'
At the heart of Marks’ analysis is the estimation that 'the main problem with about 75% of special needs pupils' both in 2000, when he was writing, and a decade earlier, 'is that they can’t read'. Ten years later, in 2010, this egregious state of affairs remains the same – in spite of the huge sums of money put into the literacy strategy by the last government.
In its latest report on SEN, Ofsted contends that some schools are using 'low attainment and relatively slow progress' as a criterion for designating children as having SEN, from which it goes on to state:
A conclusion that may be drawn from this is that some pupils are being wrongly identified as having special educational needs and that relatively expensive additional provision is being used to make up for poor day-to-day teaching and pastoral support.
Ofsted is absolutely right in its report to make explicit that pupils learn best when they are being taught by practitioners who have a thorough and detailed knowledge of the subject they are teaching, have knowledge and understanding of proven and effective teaching approaches and strategies, and have 'a sound understanding of child development'.
Would that it were that easy! We come back time and again to the same thing: the training of teaching practitioners. On the latest Sounds-Write course I am teaching, there are three NQT’s, all of them working in an early years setting. When asked what training in the teaching of reading and spelling they had received from their training institutions, they all said the same - not a one of them had had anything practical. And this is exactly what we hear on all the courses we run attended by NQTs. It is obvious that most training institutions couldn't care less about training their trainee teachers to teach this fundamentally important ability on which rests the whole educational edifice and that they are openly flouting the requirement that they give adequate time to the teaching of phonics. It's a scandal and unless Michael Gove and Nick Gibb show some resolution in attending to the problem, we'll be reading the same thing in another ten years.

Busy bureaucrats must be braver!

As a postscript to yesterday’s story about Lincolnshire county council's desire to pursue Mark McCullough for allowing his daughter to walk twenty yards to the stop for her school bus, Toby Young, in the Telegraph (13/09/2010) – 'Schools must be braver with our children: Spending a childhood wrapped in cotton wool is no preparation for adult life', says:
According to Dr Amanda Gummer, a psychologist who advises the British Toy & Hobby Association, a completely safe childhood is actually more dangerous than one containing its fair share of bumps and scrapes… A survey of over 2,000 parents of primary school children commissioned by Play England found that three-quarters of them thought schools were too concerned with health and safety. We need to dismantle the whole edifice of mollycoddling rules and regulations so our children are free to play proper, old-fashioned games even if they involve risk of injury.
You can now add Lincolnshire county council to your complaint, Toby!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Busybody bureaucrats at it again!

I expect people will have been pretty shocked to read in today's papers of another county council that doesn't seem to know where to draw the line when it comes to minding its own business. This morning's Telegraph is reporting that Mark McCullough is being threatened by Lincolnshire county council for allowing his seven-year-old daughter to walk twenty yards from their home to a bus stop. Because this involves crossing a country road in the village of Glentham, the council have decided to consider this a child protection issue. A council spokesperson is reported as saying that they are 'simply trying to be responsible'.
This smacks of the same kind of interfering nonsense I reported on in July, when a school in Dulwich was 'threatening to report a couple to children's services because they allow their two children, aged eight and five, to cycle to school every day'.
Perhaps it's about time Lincolnshire county council realised that they don't have the right to poke their noses into every aspect of people’s lives.
The parents of the child are refusing to be intimidated.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Illiteracy’s carbolic

As it's the silly season again I couldn't help musing on one of Peter Day's In Business programmes on BBC Radio 4 some time ago. In 'Now Wash Your hands Please', Val Curtis of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in London declared that the single most cost effective intervention to save lives in developing countries is washing hands with soap. As many as one million lives could be saved every year, which is more than Aids and malaria kill each year put together.
There is a not inapt analogy. Did you know that in developed English-speaking countries millions of children could have been prevented from being illiterate by the simple expedient of being taught linguistic phonics?
Wash away illiteracy today with a daily immersion in phonics!

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

New figures on illiteracy, or It's the latest SATs results.


At school, my old Latin master, Georgie Lamb, once told us how Cato, in the face of the rising power of Carthage, used to include in every speech he made in the senate, the words, 'Carthago delenda est!' - Carthage must be destroyed. Allegedly, he (Cato) finally got his point across by holding up a bunch of fresh grapes from Carthage to indicate the proximity of the growing threat to Rome.
In the Telegraph, as in a number of other newspapers, once again there has been shock at the publication of this year's SATs results, in which it was revealed that twenty thousand boys will begin their secondary education with the reading age of children of seven. That, according to the Telegraph represents one in ten boys finishing primary school with a reading age of seven!
I don't believe these figures myself. I think that if children were to be given a properly standardised test that focused on reading and spelling only, the figure would be even worse. I know from working with special needs staff in many secondary schools that pupils entering Year 7 are screened for their reading ability and that many of these schools are reporting as many as seventy percent of pupils scoring below chronological age. Even more worryingly, of those scoring below chronological age, increasing numbers are unable to read at all.
As Nick Gibb conceded, 'getting the fundamentals right is crucial to a child's success in secondary education and throughout their adult life'. Now is the time for the Coalition government to do something about the problem. Illiteracy can and must be eradicated!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Gross puts Bangs to rights!

Going back to Miriam Gross's pamphlet 'So why can't children read', I listened to her debate with John Bangs, Head of Education at the NUT, on Woman's Hour ('Illiteracy in primary school children') last week.
To be honest, she didn't put her case across particularly well she did make two central points.
First, synthetic phonics wasn't being taught in virtually any of the schools she visited. Most, she reported, were still using the mixed methods that have dominated the mis-teaching of reading for the past forty or more years. This, as discussed by Bonnie Macmillan in her superb book Why Schoolchildren Can't Read is exactly what was found by the National Foundation for Educational Research in 1992 and what has been subsequently found to be the case pretty much ever since.
The second point was to do with general approach and, in the pamphlet, Gross makes the case for a more teacher-centred as opposed to child-centred approach. The 'pricklies' versus the 'gooeys' as Time magazine called their respective advocates back in 1981. This, again, is old ground we’re covering. For an erudite examination and assessment of the issues, the late Jeanne Chall's The Academic Achievement Challenge is very good. I'm with Bruner on this. He noted that '… culture is not discovered; it is passed on or forgotten'. Gagné went further, saying that '[t]o expect a human being to engage in a trial-and-error procedure in discovering a concept appears to be a matter of asking him [sic] to behave like an ape'.
For his part, although Bangs agreed with the teaching of synthetic phonics, he raised the old chestnut about 'meaning'. Well of course meaning is important. That's the purpose of reading. But, unless one is able to decode (read!) in the first place, one is not likely to get meaning. I thought it interesting that as Head of Education at the NUT he should have accused Miriam Gross of 'literally tilting at windmills'. Ahem, ahem.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Train the teachers, stupid!

When Bill Clinton dashed George Bush senior's hopes of a second presidential term in 1992, he did so by focusing, not on foreign policy (the recently fought war to retrieve Kuwait from Saddam Hussein), but on the economy: 'It's the economy, stupid!' was the phrase that caught it in a nutshell.
In 2010, we’re still wrestling with the massive and serious problem of illiteracy and while the economy changes, the solution to teaching children to read and spell doesn’t.
A slogan for the decade: 'Train the teachers, stupid!'

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Charter schools and reality

I haven't said anything about Michael Gove's education initiatives before but I've just noticed an interesting posting by Allison on the subject of charter schools on Kitchen Table Math.
You might also want to look further at Allison's source, 'The Virtue of Speaking Plain Truths on Charter Schools' by Frederick Hess in the Journal of the American Enterprise Institute.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

So, why on earth can't they read?

As soon as it hit the media the other day, Miriam Gross's new report for the Centre for Policy Studies, 'So why can’t they read' sent one or two newspapers into a frenzy of breast beating, indignation and bewilderment over the scandalously high levels of illiteracy in London. In London? Well, the report is about illiteracy in London and you need to keep reminding yourself as you read it that, if the figures for London are so egregious, what are the figures like for the rest of the UK?
The foreword by Boris Johnson, London’s mayor, quotes many of the more alarming figures given by the report: in London alone there are 'a million adults who cannot read'; 'one in six working Londoners is functionally illiterate' (if this is the figure for 'working' Londoners, what is it like for unemployed Londoners?); 'twenty-five percent' of children are leaving primary school ‘unable to read and write’. This is pretty much in line with the Moser Report in 1999 and the OECD statistics Canada survey of 1997, which found that between a quarter and a half of the adult population are functionally illiterate.
Boris is quite right: Miriam Gross 'has performed a valuable public service' in writing the document and bringing to our attention (again) the awful fact of decades of government failure to address this problem. The real question is: what do we do about it?
Gross places the blame for the decline in reading and writing on the poor quality of teaching, teachers having to fulfil endless government targets, the endless psycho-babble that goes on in PSHE, discovery learning and the lack of focus on basic skills. She also concludes that, even though it has been proved 'beyond reasonable doubt that "phonics first and fast" is the most effective way for beginners to learn to read', the reading wars ('Phonics v Whole Language') are still being fought out in English-speaking countries throughout the world.
Why then is this problem so persistent? Part of it seems to lie in the powerful myths surrounding the debate: that teaching phonics stifles children’s creativity and blights their development of a love of literature. Gross is under no such illusions: how can a child learn to love literature and be creative if they can’t read and write?
Nobody can pretend that there are easy solutions to this problem – if only because successive governments, local authorities, the teaching profession and the academic establishment have, in the past, been so unwilling to accept the research findings and act upon them. When I spoke to Nick Gibb, the (now) Schools Minister, at the House of Commons at the tail-end of last year, he told me that the Labour government had spent far too much time trying to micro-manage education and that a future Conservative government would not impose on schools an injunction to teach phonics. This seems sensible to me: teachers hate prescriptive directives. And Miriam Gross agrees. But an annual contest among primary schools to see which teaches reading best, which is what she is advocating? Never in a million years!
This government should resist the temptation to intervene in the way that the previous one did. That isn’t to say that they haven’t got an important part to play. Nick Gibb said that he was thinking about a voucher system that would offer funding for schools to train staff in how to teach phonics. Naturally, they would have to decide which phonics programmes they'd support. That's one thing. Another major step they need to take is to fund research into what works - even though, as I'm sure Diane McGuinness would complain, we already have the answer to that question! – and into which phonics programmes are most effective. The third decisive step they need to take is to force the training institutions to teach trainee teachers how to teach reading and spelling.
As I've argued repeatedly, unless we teach children to become literate and numerate in the primary years, we will continue to see a high level of underachievement in our secondary schools.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Masha Bell rings the wrong note on reading and spelling - again.

Masha Bell has been at it again! She claims that the reason children are failing to learn to read and spell is because the English language is too complex. See the Telegraph (08/07/2010).
Is she right? Well, in one sense, she is. Reading and spelling in English is certainly harder to learn than, say, Spanish or Italian. I'm being a little bit simplistic but in languages like Spanish and Italian the sounds of the language are represented in the writing system mostly by one single letter. This makes it very easy indeed to learn to read and write in those languages. English, largely because of its history, is more complex and this, claims Bell, is why there are so many children leaving school functionally illiterate.
Is she right about the need to 'simplify' the spelling system? The short answer is no! She contends that English is unique in that ‘identical letters make different sounds’. This, of course, is nonsense. Anyone learning to speak Spanish quickly comes to apprehend that the letter [c] can represent the sound /k/ or /th/ or /s/, depending on the variety of Spanish one is learning.
Much more fundamentally, what Masha Bell doesn’t seem to be able to grasp is that the writing system is a representation of the sounds in the language. Letters do not and never have ‘made sounds’. People make sounds and the writing system has been developed to represent them. Like music, mathematics and so on, it is a symbolic system.
Because English is more complex doesn’t mean that it can’t be taught very successfully; but, in order to teach it successfully, teachers need to understand how the writing system works in relation to the sounds of the language.
First, children need to be taught that letters, singly or in combination, stand for the sounds in our speech.
Second, they need to learn that a sound can be denoted by a single letter spelling (as in d o g), by a two-letter spelling (as in sh o p), a three-letter spelling (as in n igh t), or a four-letter spelling (as in w eigh t).
Third, they need to understand that sounds can be spelt in multiple ways: thus the sound ‘ee’ can be spelt in the following different ways: m ee t, s ea t, k ey, h a pp y, ch ie f, sh e, s k i, s w e d e (the split spelling), and r e c ei ve. This may seem a lot but the list is finite and predictable. If the four or five most common spellings are taught first and others are added in later, success is guaranteed.
Fourth, most spellings in English can represent more than one sound but this really isn’t a problem. The spelling can be ‘o’ in ‘pot’, or ‘oe’ in ‘go’. Again, if pupils are taught this and learn to try one if the other doesn’t work, they are likely to have success. And yes, I know, [o] can also be ‘oo’ and ‘u’ in lots of commonly encountered words.
The point is this: if teaching practitioners are given training in understanding exactly how the writing system relates to the sounds of the language and they are taught which skills pupils need to learn, their pupils will learn to read and spell with a high degree of proficiency.
And, Masha, for a hundred and one other reasons, you are never going to persuade people to change the spelling system.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Teaching Freddy to read

I haven't written anything about the actual practice of teaching reading and spelling for some time now so I thought I'd add something about one of the children I'm teaching at the moment.
The pupil is a boy of seven who is about to start Y3. When he left reception, he couldn't read at all and was furious in his frustration at being in this predicament – the school, by the way, had told parents of children entering reception that all children would be reading by the end of the year! [This is an incredibly stupid promise to make since we know that at least some children are simply not ready to start formal learning by the age of four. In case you're not aware, a child can start school if their fourth birthday is on or before September 1st.] He was also made to sit on the 'bottom' table with several other children who couldn't yet read at all.
The boy, we'll call him Freddy, was being fed a diet of the usual 'letter of the week', plus a large helping of Look and Say; and he just didn't get it at all. Within a few weeks of teaching him, using Sounds-Write, I had him reading and spelling three-sound words (mum, dog, jam, etc.) with ease. By Christmas, Freddy was reading four- and five-sound words (help, swim, crisp, scrap, etc.) and we were on to the complexities of the code, teaching him the ways of spelling the sounds /ae/, /ee/ and so on.
Since then, largely because his parents listen to him read most days, Freddy has made more and more progress and yesterday he read me a piece called 'Flowers' from the Kingfisher First Encyclopedia. This book presents informational texts in neat, bite-sized chunks. These have the advantage of being short, and therefore not overwhelming, as well as being challenging. Here's a sample of the text Freddy read with fluency and without making a single error:
Many flowers have bright colours and a sweet smell to attract insects, such as bees and butterflies. The insects carry tiny grains of pollen from one flower to another so that seeds can be made.
The school are still blathering on about him passing through several stages of 'graded' readers, though they don't seem to have any idea of what a graded reader is because they aren't able to explain how one grade supposedly moves on or up to the next grade. An examination of the 'readers' shows that the only criterion for deciding that one grade is a progression from another is that the number of words/sentences on a page increases. If a pupil can already read, this is fine for building stamina (reading muscle); but if they are still having trouble decoding, they stumble laboriously from one 'tricky' word to another – and lose meaning along the way.
However, notwithstanding the fact that he can read complex text, in the school's eyes, Freddy is still not a 'free reader', which means that he has to plough through one book after another in any 'book band' until he reaches the end, at which point he is 'promoted' to the next band. In other words, they don't trust him to choose his own books. Of course, if he can read with fluency the above text, he can read anything that is within his range of interest.
Incidentally, you can get hold of a copy of many of Kingfisher's encyclopedias through Amazon for little more than the price of the postage.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The EYFS review

Yesterday’s Telegraph is reporting that the sixty-nine targets set by the previous Labour government for children to reach by the age of five – the so-called ‘nappy curriculum’ – are to be reviewed.
First on the list to go should be the insistence that children in nursery, YR and Y1 learn letter names. Ten years ago, the advice given to schools was that letter names should be taught at the end of Y1/beginning of Y2. This was about right, though perhaps for one or two children it was still too soon.
Saying letter names does not help children to read and spell – a fact that the people who devised Letters and Sounds seem not to understand. Take the word 'Sam'. Simply repeating the letter names 'es' 'ay' 'em' does not help a reader to hear the word 'Sam'. In fact, a child can say those letter names until they are blue in the face and they will never get to 'Sam'. For words with more complex spellings, this strategy is even more ridiculous. Take the word 'house'. If the reader uses the letter names 'aitch' 'oe' 'ue' 'es' 'ee', it is impossible to hear 'house'.
On the other hand, if the name 'Sam' is read by sound, 's' 'a' 'm', the reader can hear the word 'Sam'. Similarly, with 'house', hearing the word is easy if the reader says 'h' 'ow' 's'. [I once stood next to a teacher 'helping' a child read the word 'little'. She told the child to say the sounds 'l' 'i' 't' 't' 'l' 'e' and then wondered why the child sat looking at the word uncomprehendingly!] Naturally, in the case of 'house', it goes without saying that the pupil is going to need to be taught that the sound 'ow' is represented by the two-letter spelling and also that the sound 's' can be spelt .
All this, of course, presupposes that the teacher understands the way the sound system of the language relates to the writing system and therein lies much of the problem. Most teachers are still not being trained to teach how the two are linked. The writing system for English is complex. However, as Sounds-Write and the Sound Reading System have shown, it can be taught very successfully indeed and to all children if it taught from simple to more complex over a period of time. Teachers need to be properly trained and their pupils must be given the amount of practice they require to become proficient.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

School stops child cyclists

This one's not about literacy but it's certainly worth a comment. Yesterday's Guardian newspaper has picked up on a report entitled 'We're trying to restore our kids' freedom' from the Sunday Times (04/07/2010) about a school in Dulwich, south London, which is threatening to report a couple to children's services because they allow their two children, aged eight and five, to cycle to school every day.
The children have to travel about a mile to school and they cycle on the pavement until they have to cross a busy main road. Here, a 'lollipop lady' sees them across safely and they then proceed to school. The parents, Gillian and Oliver Schonrock, strongly believe that the 'benefits to our children far outweigh the potential risk from "stranger danger", road traffic accidents and other factors'. The school disagrees, asking what would happen if the five-year-old 'had a tantrum'. My thirteen-year-old daughter was quick to point out that a child can have a tantrum even if they're being accompanied by a parent and that if everyone were that risk averse, none of us would ever go out of the house!
The Institute of Policy Studies estimates that the number of children who went to school unaccompanied forty years ago was 80% and that by 1990 it had fallen to just 9%. The research seems to support the views of Frank Furedi, Professor of Sociology at Kent University, who believes that this is yet another aspect of the state encroaching on people's lives. He thinks that this kind of over-protectiveness has a detrimental effect on children's development and is quoted in the Sunday Times as saying that 'the irony is that the measures these parents took actually protect the children by developing resilience and resourcefulness through facing challenging situations'.
In a recent university seminar on children's literature, the subject came round to differences between how we live now and how we lived then - then being before c. 1970. Everyone over the age of forty remembered having an enormous amount of freedom to play outside the confines of the house, to roam pretty much where they liked, and to walk or cycle to school unaccompanied. Students in their twenties looked at us as if we were stark staring bonkers and couldn't seem to imagine what this must have been like.
The Guardian website is giving readers two days on which to vote on whether 'children of eight and five are too young to cycle to school unaccompanied'.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Why Johnny will never learn to read if teachers aren't properly trained!

I'm just re-reading Rudolph Flesch's Why Johnny Can't Read (1955) and reminding myself why it is still after all this time such a fantastic book. Flesch wrote it because of the failure of the school system in the USA to teach so many children to read and spell. Reading, Flesch insisted, was not being taught at all in ninety percent of schools. 'Books,' he wrote, 'are put in front of the children and they are told to guess at the words, or to wait until the teacher tells them.'
As Flesch points out in his 'Letter to Johnny's Mother', since goodness knows how long – certainly before 1500BC – wherever an alphabetic language is taught, the teacher has to make children aware of the individual sounds in speech, show them how those sounds are represented, and teach them how to write the symbols and combine them into words. In this way, reading and writing are taught simultaneously because, as he says, they 'are two sides of the same thing, and the trouble starts as soon as you separate the two.'
The sad thing is that, although there are in the English-speaking world examples of successful teaching taking place, the training institutions here in the UK, in the USA, in Australia, and so on, are still refusing to teach anything but 'Look and Say', with perhaps the most perfunctory of nods in the direction of phonics. As a consequence, the illiteracy rates are estimated variously at between twenty-five and fifty percent, depending on how reading and spelling is being measured.
Trainee and practising teachers need to be taught how the forty-four or so sounds in the English language can be represented in writing, along with the skills and elements of conceptual understanding required for their pupils to gain mastery of the system. In so doing, they also need to know how to teach from simple to more complex, starting with words containing one sound one letter, such as 'sat' and 'swim', before going on to teach:
words containing sounds spelt with two letters, three letters or four letters: 'fish', 'night', 'weight';
sounds that can be spelt in multiple ways: 'feet', 'she', 'key', 'funny', 'leaf', 'brief', and so on;
words containing spellings which can represent more than one sound: 'spot', 'go', 'do' and 'mother'.
It sounds complicated but it isn't if it is taught slowly and systematically, giving pupils the practice they need to acquire mastery. The result, as Flesch argued, would be that hardly any children would fail to learn to read and write.
There are very few programmes that teach teachers how this can be achieved. Sound Reading System is one: Sounds-Write is another.
Why Johnny Can’t Read is still available through Amazon.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Illiteracy - the blight on the UK economy.

After spending a huge amount of time training teachers and teaching on a children's literature course for the OU, I'm back.
The Sunday Times (27 06 10) and the Telegraph yesterday reported the chairman of BT Sir Mike Rake as saying that around a quarter of applicants (six out of twenty-six thousand applicants) for places on BT's apprenticeship scheme 'were unable to complete the form because they could not spell, put it together or read properly – completely illiterate'.
He is merely the latest in a long line of chief executives (Sir Terry Leahy, the outgoing boss of Tesco, and Sir Stuart Rose, the honcho-in-chief at Marks and Spencer) who contend that people applying for work in their companies simply don’t have the literacy and numeracy skills required in the business world today.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about freeing up the education system and about a serious attempt to improve standards. Much of this has once again focused on the role of secondary schools. Yet, unless radical improvements are made in the teaching of reading and spelling and basic mathematics at primary level, pupils will not have the knowledge or skills to participate properly in the secondary curriculum, much less be able to engage with the demands of the world of work. How can children cope with J.K. Rowling, or Philip Pullman, not to mention Shakespeare, if they can't read? How can they hope to embark on a physics course or manage 'standard form' in mathematics if they can’t add, subtract, multiply and divide fluently and accurately?
The answer lies in training all trainee and practising teachers to be taught how to teach phonics and basic maths properly. This requires commitment and resources but it will be an effort well spent.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Reading for pleasure

I was listening to Broadcasting House this morning on Radio 4 when the Beeb decided to do its bit for 'reading for pleasure'.
They had Daisy Milligan, aged nine, reading from Joyce's Ulysses. Later her sister Lotte read from Melville's Moby Dick, and, finally, Daisy again, this time from Hawking's A Brief History of Time. Melville, we were told, would, if he were still alive, be 191. And, if he were still alive, I'm sure he’d be completely bemused by the broadcast.
While both girls coped tremendously well with the difficulties of reading such complex vocabulary and sentence structure, the piece was puffed as 'reading for pleasure'! What pleasure, I’d like to know, do two such young girls get from reading books that they probably didn't understand? The whole thing was completely bizarre.
What the two girls demonstrated was that they could probably read anything and, by reading, I mean they could decode the words on the page with a very high degree of fluency (automaticity). Such a high level of skill would enable them to read anything within their intellectual capabilities with ease. In other words, they would gain immediate access to meaning without expending energy trying to decode the words on the page. This undoubtedly would enable them to read for pleasure.
What research on reading consistently shows is that if a child has a reading age approximately two years ahead of their chronological age, they will read for pleasure – because reading is easy. If they have a reading age at or below their chronological age, they probably won't read for pleasure. That is why this phenomenon is called the Matthew principle (Matthew, Chapter 25 v 29). Children who read with facility read a lot and they get richer; those that don’t fall further behind.
Pity the makers of the programme don't understand that!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Campaign for the Book

Here's the latest news on the Campaign for the Book, which is being driven by Alan Gibbons, author of Shadow of the Minotaur.
In his latest campaign newsletter, Alan tells us that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport has finally published its review and that 'there is no attempt to dilute the 1964 Libraries Act, which helped thwart Wirral's attempt to close eleven of its libraries'. However, apart from some fine-sounding talk about 'responding to the 24/7 culture', Alan says there is little in the detail and, for him, too much talk about digitization, Starbucks and e-books.
As the report states, 81% of users go to the library to borrow a book. The healthiest area is children’s borrowing, which is rising at a time adult borrowing is struggling. 725,000 children took part in the Reading Challenge with 47,000 becoming new members. Meeting the needs of the core book-reading audience, and more importantly the potential book-reading audience, reaching them through marketing, seems to be a better bet than leaping headlong into a world of Facebook and cappuccinos.
As can be seen from the figures above, the maintenance of the school and public library system is of vital importance, particularly in helping to nurture young readers. You can get involved and support Alan’s campaign by going to the School Library Association (SLA) and signing their petition.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Friends of Classics

Following up on my posting on the teaching of classics, I note that Boris is going to launch a campaign to try and convince more schools to start teaching them.
Graeme Paton in the Telegraph is reporting that the charity 'Friends of Latin' have produced new research in which it has been found that 'pupils taught Latin and ancient Greek gained improved analytical skills and increased awareness of linguistic differences'.
You can read more about classics at the Friends of Classics website:
Nick Collins, also in the Telegraph, reports that the number of pupils gaining three A grades at A-level has doubled under Labour. There is a saying they have in Italy which goes: 'La somma dell'intelligenza sulla terra è costante, la populazione è in aumento', but some people are slightly less sceptical and have an alternative notion: they call it grade inflation.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Boris blasts Balls, or et tu Boris

I don't know what you think about Boris Johnson. Whether you like his politics or not though, you have to admit that he's a fine journalist and that he's very, very funny at times. He's also been for I don't know how long a tireless campaigner for encouraging the teaching of Latin and Greek in schools across the country.
So, it was no surprise to see in the Telegraph that Boris had taken exception to the latest fatuity by Ed Balls, who apparently 'dismissed the idea that Latin could inspire or motivate pupils'.
As Boris quite rightly points out, there has been a resurgence in the teaching of Latin and, according to the Cambridge Classics Project in a 2008 study, 'no fewer than 500 secondary schools had started teaching Latin in the past eight years'. And did you know that there are now more state schools teaching the subject than private schools?
As Boris insists, reasons for teaching Latin are many. If you've been taught the subject at school you can probably 'surprise your family and delight your friends by deciphering inscriptions', as my wife and I did for our daughter when visiting the Bayeux tapestry in France last summer.
He goes on to argue that 'the reason we should boost the study of Latin and Greek is that they are the key to a phenomenal and unsurpassed treasury of literature and history and philosophy, and we cannot possibly understand our modern world unless we understand the ancient world that made us all'.
Furthermore, how right he is to castigate the anti-elitism of 'spheroids', as Boris dubs Balls. For someone who went to private school and was taught Latin, it is disgraceful and 'viciously elitist' that a Labour minister should deny that right to less privileged children.
If you are interested in learning more about the ancient world or want to learn Latin or ancient Greek, by the way, the Open University run some excellent courses in both and no prior knowledge is necessary.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Read my lips, LibLabCon: it's the basics wot count!

Returning to my previous posting, a poll commissioned by the Newsnight programme was shocking in a number of ways. According to Newsnight, despite current spending reaching £86 billion a year – a 72% increase since 1977 -, two thirds of people 'don't think the government has invested our money on education in the most effective way'. The statistics taken from the international rankings would seem to support this: we have now slipped to seventeenth in the international tables in reading and to twenty-fourth in maths. This, as Professor Dylan Wiliam from the Institute of Education makes clear, is bad news because, as he says, 'there's an extraordinarily strong link between economic prosperity and educational achievement'.
And yet, half the schools inspected by Ofsted are not 'providing up to a good standard'. This week's Economist declares that '10% of the 2,140 schools it assessed in the four months to the end of December were inadequate, a category that might more accurately be termed "dire" '. At the same time, Lucy Neville Rolfe, director of corporate and legal affairs at TESCO, has also weighed into the debate about education by criticising 'the standards of many school-leavers'. In an article in the Daily Mail, she claims that 'growing numbers of British school-leavers have "attitude problems" and believe the world "owes them a living" '. This is exemplified by the fact that she says too many young people turn up late for work or for interviews, fail to dress appropriately for the occasion and are unable to work in teams. All this, as well as the fact that many can't read and write or do basic maths.
With four hundred 'no qualification' jobs disappearing every day, the inability to raise achievement for the fifty percent of children leaving school each year with inadequate educational qualifications is a disgrace.
That said, you'd think the opposition parties would be knocking Labour into a cocked hat on the whole question of education. You'd be wrong! Since last year the Conservatives have slipped ten percentage points in polls asking people which party has the better educational policies, while Labour has increased from 25% to 27%. So, why, if Labour has been such a disaster have they now taken a slight lead over the Conservatives?
Andrew Hawkins, one of the pollsters, summarised it in stark terms. He said
"To talk about Swedish style free schools, it’s a mouthful. People don’t understand the concepts and the problem that … the Conservatives have got are that they’re in danger of complicating the issue. They need one or two high profile policies that are easy to communicate to people who are worried about their children’s education. And, it may be a great model to look at but it’s not been communicated that well to the public."
A classic example of understatement!
All the focus at the moment seems to be on secondary schools and there is, it's true, a huge problem with indiscipline and with fewer than fifty percent of children achieving five good GCSEs including maths and English. The fact is that unless whoever governs the country after the next election sorts out the underachievement at primary level, which is being masked by the ridiculous and discredited SATs tests, problems at secondary level will continue unabated.
Read my lips: Boost the benchmark in the three Rs!