Friday, February 26, 2010

News in brief

The Independent was reporting yesterday that a group of experts set up by the government is demanding 'tougher maths and science exams' at GCSE.
Graeme Paton has two pieces in the Telegraph: one on the 'social engineering' controversy, claiming that 'Labour's mission to "socially engineer" university admissions is built on flawed evidence, according to independent school leaders’; the other reports that Ofsted is claiming that Labour's schools reforms aren't working because of red tape. Amen to that!
And by the way, if you want to know how much the National Strategies – those would be the ones they are scrapping from next year - have cost since 1997, the figure Paton gives is £2.5 billion for primaries and £2 billion for secondaries. What a waste of taxpayers money!

Report finds two thirds of Scottish children can't write

Yesterday (24/02/10) BBC news and The Scotsman reported the appalling statistics from a Scottish government report on the number of children failing to achieve 'expected standards' in writing. The figure is a stunning 66%. The figure for reading – 60% failing to reach 'expected standards' - is nearly as bad.
Meanwhile, the Scottish education secretary, Michael Russell, offered the usual platitudes that people are simply sick of hearing from politicians. In the Scotsman he is reported as saying that 'while there is much that is really good and much that maintains a high standard there are also some things that are average and – unfortunately – some things that are below average'.
Well, isn't it about time he got off his backside and did something about it? Every single one of the children who are failing to learn to read and write will struggle with the secondary curriculum. And after that, they will struggle in their jobs, if they manage to find anyone willing to employ them. Every one of the children represented by these egregious figures could end up blighted for the rest of their lives by the failure of the education system to deal with this problem.
Fiona Macleod tells us that the Scottish Survey of Achievement (the SSA), on which the report is based,
"is a measure of the levels attained by more than 13,000 pupils, aged seven to 14, at almost 400 schools. It is designed to produce a picture of education achievement across the country.
It used written tests sat by children and questionnaires given to a random sample of pupils and teachers.
Children who answered 65 per cent of questions correctly at the level for their age were regarded as having well-established skills.
The report also found teachers often vastly overestimated the actual skill levels of pupils."
My bet is that, if the children were given straightforward single word reading and spelling tests, the results would be even worse.
The situation is absolutely scandalous and yet it doesn't have to be like this. What can be done about it? As this blog has consistently argued, we need to start by training teachers to teach phonics properly. This means teaching them how the English alphabet code works and the skills children need to be taught in order to use this knowledge. Neither Scottish nor English governments are prepared to take on this vital task and, for as long as they ignore the problem, we are going to continue to read reports like this one and have to listen to the laments of business leaders who have to deal with the consequences of such neglect.
For a phonics programme that is proven to work, look at Sounds-Write's Longitudinal study of literacy development from 2003-2009, following 1607 pupils through Key Stage 1.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Messages from the Stone Age

I don't know! I pick up a piece from 'The History of the World in a Hundred Objects' about the development of early writing and then suddenly it becomes a hot topic!
This time it's the latest issue of the New Scientist, which is running the story 'Messages from the Stone Age'. We’re used to hearing from time to time about the wonder of the cave paintings, especially those in southern France. Those articles are almost always slanted in the direction of extrapolating from the representations of animals what the culture was like 30,000 years ago. However, according to Kate Ravilious, hardly any attention has been paid to the 'small and inconspicuous marks around the cave paintings'.
Well, that has just all changed. The researcher Genevieve von Petzinger wondered why no-one had compared the signs and markings to be found in different caves and set about doing just that. What she found was remarkable: signs, looking surprisingly similar in style seemed to pop up again and again from sites across France. Could this, she wondered, be the 'seeds' of some kind of early writing?
Apart from simple symbols, such as groups of dots, short lines in the shapes of crosses, and the like, she found clear examples of synecdoche, where the part symbolises the whole. An example of this would be where the tusks of a mammoth or the horns of an ibex represent the whole animal. This von Petzinger and her supervisor April Nowell argue is evidence for the shift from realistic to symbolic representation.
The date of this 'creative explosion' is being put at between 30,000 to 40,000 years ago and it is being speculated that these findings may be linked to evidence that goes back even further.
Was this the beginning of our ability to store information to pass on to subsequent generations? Does it reflect a significant cognitive leap in the way humans thought about their world? Of course, the problem is that we have no idea what the jottings stand for - yet.
Von Petzingera and Nowell have just published their research in the journal Antiquity.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Let the cork bob back up to the surface!

Tory plans to allow groups of parents to set up and run their own schools have been called into question by the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP), as reported in the Independent (18th February).
Helena Holmlund, a Swedish academic, and Sandra McNally, a director of CEP, claim that adopting the system begun in Sweden to widen choice and improve standards in schools, 'may not make very much difference to the UK's educational status quo'.
Well, that may be so but one thing is for sure, in the words of Fraser Nelson in his recent 'Winning is not enough' (2010 Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture):
If a new government signs up to the ideas of the old one, then that’s not change. It's more of the same.
What we want from the next government is to be liberated from the dead hand of a government bureaucracy that is stifling the life out of initiative. Swedish style reforms may not be the only answer to the ills that beset our current educational system but they would certainly wrest control out of the hands of those LEAs and literacy advisors who do everything possible to prevent any departure from what they deem fit.
As Mona McNee said recently: let the cork bob back up to the surface!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

How the English alphabetic system needs to be taught

I ought to state from the outset that, in my opinion, the academic writer most worth reading on this subject is the Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of South Florida, Diane McGuinness. Her Early Reading Instruction (2004), Language Development and Learning to Read (2005) and Why Children Can’t Read (1996) have all had an enormous influence on the way we teach reading and spelling. What's more, she writes with a clarity that many other academics can only dream about.
In her chapter 'On the nature of writing systems' in the first of the aforementioned books, she makes several fundamental points, the first of which is that '[a] writing system is a code in which specific elements of a language are mapped systematically to graphics signs or symbols'. In the case of English, the specific elements of the language to be encoded are the speech sounds: these, as McGuinness puts it, 'are the basis for the code, and the letters are the code'.
Unlike, say, Italian or Spanish, the English orthographic code is complex – there are many ways of spelling most sounds in the language and most spellings represent a number of sounds. As a consequence, it shouldn't be left to children to work out the code for themselves. If children (or illiterate adults for that matter) are to be taught to read and spell successfully, they need systematic instruction, properly taught by properly trained teachers. And, as I've argued before, the teaching should not be 'time-limited'.
If the Diane McGuinness prototype for the teaching of reading and spelling were to be adopted throughout the English-speaking world, illiteracy would be an unfortunate historical aberration.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The World's Writing Systems

In The World’s Writing Systems, Peter Daniels begins the book with the declaration that '[h]umankind is defined by language; but civilization is defined by writing'. Of course, as he makes clear later in the book, 'civilization' can mean a number of things. However, in terms of writing systems - 'and this is the sense taken over by literacy scholars' - he means that civilization 'is marked by the appearance of writing in a culture' (p.21).
He defines writing as:
'A system of more or less permanent marks used to represent an utterance in such a way that it can be recovered more or less exactly without the intervention of the utterer.'
And, after dispensing with the belief held by some that pictograms, like the tablet depicting beer in the previous posting, were the forerunners of writing, he makes explicit that 'it is necessary for a writing system to represent the sounds of a language'.
Actually, when you think about it, this approach - the phoneticisation of writing - is a brilliant idea. If you work out how many sounds there are in a given language, which is always a finite number, categorise them, and use a symbol to represent them, you can record anything you want for any purpose. Whether this be for what John Searles was suggesting or simply to communicate across time and space, you will have an accurate way of communicating information.
What I'm getting round to is that the purpose for which the writing system was invented determines the way we need to teach it. As Daniels and a host of other experts have made clear: speech is primary; writing is secondary. We all grow up learning to speak and listen without having to attend classes to do it. What we don't learn naturally is reading and writing. These need to be taught and taught explicitly. So now the question is: how?
I'll be taking up this and other questions in the next few days.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Writing: the greatest invention the world has ever known?

In the series A History of the World in 100 Objects, Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, asks us to imagine a world without writing. 'It is,' he says, 'inconceivable because our modern life and above all our modern government is based almost entirely on writing.' He claims that 'of all of mankind's great advances, the development of writing is surely the giant... [Y]ou can say that it's had more impact on the evolution of human society than any other invention.'
In the programme, MacGregor asks where, when and how writing began and he takes a simple clay tablet produced from a Mesopotamian city as 'one of the earliest examples of writing that we know'.
MacGregor's contention is that writing developed out of the challenge faced by the rulers of the new cities that were springing up around five to six thousand years ago and he posits that, in order to rule large numbers of people, one would need to 'write things down'.
As MacGregor points out, the crucible for writing was not literature or poetry, which would have been committed to memory and sung or recited; rather, writing was about record-keeping: 'money, laws, trade, employment'. 'The accountants get there before the poets,' as he puts it.
The tablet in question, ironically enough, is about the same size as a computer mouse and comes from the city of Uruk, which lay between the modern cities of Baghdad and Basra in Iraq, and it depicts beer. In an age where money was yet to be designed, it seems that beer was at least one of the currencies of exchange!

What MacGregor is examining on the clay tablet is a pictograph, which, as he quite rightly says, is not 'writing in the strict sense [but] more a kind of mnemonic, a repertoire of signs that can be used to carry complex messages. The crucial breakthrough to real writing came when it was first understood that a graphic symbol … could be used to refer not just to the thing it showed but what the word for the thing sounded like. At this point, writing became phonetic and then all kinds of new communication became possible.'
He goes on to speculate that 'when writing in this full sense was taking off, life as a pioneer scribe must have been very exciting. The creation of new sound signs was probably quite a fast-moving process and, as they developed, the signs would have to be listed – the earliest dictionaries, if you like – beginning an intellectual process of categorising things and relationships that has never stopped since.'
According to John Searle, a professor of philosophy who was also speaking on the programme, 'writing isn't just 'a way of recording for the future, the past and the present'. The invention of writing brought about a revolution in the way we think. He says that we 'don't understand the full import of the revolution brought by writing if [we] think of it as just preserving information into the future. [There are] two areas where writing makes an absolutely decisive difference to the whole history of the human species. One area is complex thought: there's a limit to what you can do with the spoken word. You cannot really do higher mathematics or more complex forms of philosophical argument … unless you have some way of writing it down and scanning it. So, it's not adequate to think of writing as just as a way of recording for the future, facts about the past and the present. On the contrary, it is immensely creative. But now a second thing about writing which ... is just as important is that … when you write down, you don't just record what already exists, there are elements where you create new entities. You create money, you create corporations, you create governments, you create complex forms of society. Writing is essential for all of that.'
Tomorrow: we'll be looking at how Neil MacGregor and John Searle's views chime with those of the expert views of professors Peter T. Daniels and William Bright, authors of The World's Writing Systems.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Why the Government is wrong about advocating a time-limited approach to phonics teaching (Part III).

Continuing the theme I developed yesterday, for pupils operating at a level below or just above their chronological age, we at Sounds-Write strongly believe they will still need a lot of further exposure if they are going to become independent readers and spellers by the time they leave the primary phase. For this reason, we would advocate at least two more years of explicit, structured teaching of phonics (i.e. throughout Y2 and Y3). Furthermore, we think that ALL pupils would benefit from this extra instruction – the more able pupils working at polysyllabic level and developing greater fluency.
In addition, any pupils, and these would mostly be pupils who have made a very slow start in YR and Y1, not making the kind of progress needed to enable them to become independent, would need extra small group or one-to-one high quality targeted intervention.
To return to a point I have made a number of times before: All spoken languages are phonic in nature and our brains have developed phonically-based structures for: (1) memory and recall of information stored in the form of language; (2) thinking that involves language; and (3) knowledge of the meaning of words in line with increasing human comprehension of the world around us.
Our language is completely phonic and therefore phonic knowledge and understanding of our language underpins our thinking throughout the whole of our lives and must necessarily underpin our understanding of the written word.
Phonic tuition is not something that promotes a quick start to literacy development and can then rapidly be neglected. Accurate phonics tuition must continue to be taught to each and every pupil until they achieve the same level of mastery necessary for fluent literacy skills as the level of mastery they originally achieved to become fluent speakers of English.
Sounds-Write completely repudiates facile injunctions which claim that phonics tuition is only relevant for Reception and Y1 after which it can be rapidly dropped from the curriculum in Y2.
The bottom line is that ALL children have an entitlement to be taught to be literate.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Why the Government is wrong about advocating a time-limited approach to phonics teaching (Part II).

In the last posting, I stated that about thirty to thirty-five percent of children of the sample (average age 7 years and three to four months) I was talking about were not yet more than two years above their chronological age. However, only between two and six percent were below their chronological age.
Is the two to six percent figure surprising? Not at all! In any human population, one would expect differentiation across the continuum, which is why it is fatuous for the Government or anyone else for that matter to prescribe an all encompassing formula and to try and apply it to an educational setting.
In our view, the pupils who are already well ahead (reading ages of nine and a half years and above) are off to a flying start and, with the right encouragement and the opportunity to develop further their reading and spelling abilities, they will continue to do well throughout the rest of their schooling and most of them will read for pleasure. Could they still benefit from the expert tuition provided by highly skilled teaching? Of course they could – and do!
But what about the pupils who lie in the rather more uncertain territory of being able to read and spell somewhere between just below or just above their CA (seven years and three to four months) and those who are up to two years above their CA - in other words, on the continuum between a reading and spelling age of six years and nine years and three months?
Tomorrow I hope to provide a partial answer to this question.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Why the Government is wrong about a 'time-limited' approach to phonics teaching (Part I).

The question of how long pupils in school should be taught phonics before explicit teaching is dropped is one that has exercised teaching practitioners ever since the expression 'time limited' was coined in the Rose review.
Since then, many phonics advocates have suggested variously that teaching should conclude at the end of YR, Y1 and Y2. What we think at Sounds-Write is not only theoretical, but clearly supported by the evidence of the data we have collected over the past six years.
Our starting point is this: teach Sounds-Write every day for half an hour a day as soon as pupils in Reception have built up the ability to concentrate (usually, if taught with pace and enough variety is introduced, this is achieved very quickly – certainly by the first half-term). If this is done by the end of Y2, teaching always from simple to more complex, building children's understanding and knowledge of the code and developing their skills of blending, segmenting and phoneme manipulation, very large numbers of children will rapidly become proficient readers and spellers.
Our data collection indicates that, where schools do exactly that, as many as sixty-five to seventy percent of Y2 classes are reading and spelling at a level two years and three months above their chronological age (CA). Only a very small percentage (two to six percent) are reading and spelling at a level below their CA.
Tomorrow: more about the thirty-five percent who are not yet at a level two years and three months above their CA. And more about the two to six percent who are reading and spelling at a level below their CA.