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'.