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.