Monday, January 18, 2010

Why Letters and Sounds doesn't work

Why are Letters and Sounds manuals already gathering dust on the shelves of the staff and resources rooms in so many schools? Admittedly L&S is an improvement on some of the rubbish the government has allowed to go out in its name previously - remember the ALS? – but it's still a very long way from providing the kinds of tools that teachers need to teach literacy properly.
Here are a few of the reasons:
First, most teachers think that the phoneme awareness activities at the beginning of the programme are a complete waste of time. Neither is the teaching of them borne out by the research.
Second, teaching letter names (as well as sounds) to young children is bound to cause many children huge confusion. Until young children (Reception/Y1) are secure with sounds – i.e. they understand that letters are representations of sounds in words – they should not be introduced to letter names.
Third, because they don't fully understand the process, the government gurus don't know where to go after teaching children the easiest bit of phonics: CVC words like 'mum' and 'cat'. So, what do they do? They leave it up to the teacher and say that the next stage is either: to teach words with a greater structural complexity and improve the skills needed to enable children to become proficient readers and spellers, such as CVCC and CCVC words; or go on to teach further spellings of the vowel sounds before making absolutely certain that the essential skills are in place. Even in the latter instance, the advice given is so timid that they advocate teaching only one spelling per vowel sound, when we know that even young children (Y1 and Y2) can cope perfectly well with a limited number of spellings of a sound. What's the message here? They're not sure which way to go, or think it doesn't matter, when we know very well that it does matter a great deal.
Fourth, L&S doesn’t even attempt to teach words of more than one syllable, when systematic, well-structured teaching enables children to be able to read anything and everything. Instead, I presume the DCSF think that children will 'discover' how to learn to read and spell words with more than one syllable for themselves. As Gagné wrote as far back as in the 1960s:
"To 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." (Gagné R.M. 1966), 'Varieties of learning and the concept of discovery', in Shulman, L.S and Keislar, E.R. (Eds.), Learning by discovery: a critical appraisal (p.143), Chicago: Rand McNally.
Human progress depends on each generation appropriating the knowledge accumulated by previous generations, not reinventing it!
Fifth, what is most exasperating is that teaching children to read and spell successfully is not something that can be accomplished in a matter of weeks. It takes time – for many children, probably most of Key Stage 1 – and it requires that teaching practitioners are properly trained. Sounds-Write has now trained nearly seven thousand practitioners and the evidence we are confronted with on a daily basis on our trainings is that many of the people attending our courses have a very low knowledge base when it comes to knowing exactly the combination of skills, conceptual understanding and code knowledge that needs to be taught.
The civil servants and bureaucrats working in the DCSF and the LEAs are almost without exception people who learned to read and spell in highly advantaged environments (home and school). They simply don't understand how skilled practitioners in the classrooms of schools around the country have to be to teach this indispensable competence to children from backgrounds in which they hardly ever clap eyes on a piece of reading material.
Along with basic arithmetic, learning to read and spell is the single most important thing a child needs to learn at school. For teaching practitioners to be able to do the job, they need proper training. They also need to be supported by training that has been trialled and proven – a requirement that was not satisfied in the case of Letters and Sounds.
Evidence for a programme that works can be found in Sounds-Write's 'Longitudinal study of literacy development from 2003-2009, following 1607 pupils through Key Stage 1 (children aged four to seven years)' which can be downloaded from:

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