Sunday, December 25, 2011

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Linguistic versus synthetic phonics

Someone on the Reading Reform Foundation website recently asked what were the differences between linguistic and synthetic phonics. Although some people claim that the differences between linguistic phonics and synthetic phonics are minimal, I would contend that they are enormous and, furthermore, that these differences have profound consequences for teaching and learning.
To begin with, the emphasis in linguistic phonics is teaching learners that the sounds in speech are represented by print, a symbolic system of spellings. The great advantage of teaching from sound to print lies in several factors:
First, the sounds of the language are acquired/learned without any specific teaching: wherever you go in the world, children learn to talk, despite the different views and approaches to encouraging them to talk, such as for example, the use of ‘child directed speech’ (CDS or ‘motherese’ – ugh – as some people call it) people in this country tend to use.
Second, the sounds of the language are finite: there are in English, depending on accent, only (!) forty-four or so. Neither do the sounds of the language change (at least not in the short term): i.e. we don’t add a new sound every now and then or decide to drop one.
Third, the sounds of the language provide the basis for the code (‘The Study of Writing Systems’ – Daniels, P.). All alphabetic writing systems are written to match the sounds: the sounds drive the code; the spellings are the code (to paraphrase McGuinness). In other words, the sounds are what the written language was invented/borrowed (from Latin) for.
Fourth, although forty-four sounds are rather more than, say, Spanish or Italian, if you ground your teaching in the sounds of the language, you simply can’t ever go wrong. And here I’m not saying people don’t make mistakes: there’s no such thing as a perfect speller in English because, if you’ve never seen a particularly complex (in terms of sound/spelling correspondences) before, how would you know how to spell it? Nevertheless, if you are taught how to segment sounds in words and you give a plausible representation of each of those sounds, you end up with something everyone can read and make sense of in the context of text, even if the spelling isn’t orthographically correct.
Fifth, teaching children that the sounds in our speech are represented by the squiggles on the page we call spellings makes, according to Diane McGuinness, perfect psychological sense to them. This is why, in Sounds-Write trainings, we counsel strongly against using imprecise language like letters ‘making’ sounds, because if letters make sounds, then many children have no idea how the writing system works. They think that the sounds are completely random and don’t realise that they are connected to the sounds in their own speech. They don’t know where all these sounds come from and, if they are taught in the way many children are taught, this erroneous idea is further reinforced by the fact that our spelling system is complex. So, the spelling a can be ‘a’ in ‘mat’, ‘ae’ in ‘baby’, ‘or’ in ‘ball’, etc, etc. This would seem to give the appearance that the single-letter spelling a can be anything and, further, that if it can, there’s no point in trying to learn to read because there’s no discernible logic.
Sixth, if you teach from sound to print, you also avoid all the nonsense of ‘hard’ sounds and ‘soft’ sounds, kicking ‘k’ and curly ‘k’, ‘long’ sounds and ‘short’ sounds, and ‘silent letters’, all of which might be a shared code within the teaching community but they serve to confuse many young children.
Finally, if you teach from sound to print, pupils are presented with systemic, domain-relevant knowledge that is organized and structured, and knowledge that is organised and structured can be chunked into recognisable patterns that are much easier to learn.
Teaching from sound to print leaves you with a very simple (from a logical point of view) system: there are sounds and there are spellings, spellings and sounds – simple language that can be understood by anyone, including parents. Admittedly, spelling is more difficult than reading for all the reasons given by Diane McGuinness but complex spelling is always going to be more problematical for the reasons I’ve already stated. However, ultimately and to paraphrase the late Richard Rorty, this is a contest between an entrenched vocabulary which has become a nuisance and a new vocabulary which promises great things.
For more information on what a linguistic phonics programme does and doesn't teach, see also Susan Godsland's excellent website.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Farewell to the Hitch

In memory of Christopher Eric Hitchens, 1949-2011, writer and permanent oppositionist.

Policy in place, practice not undertaken!

Reflections on the statement by the DfE that only 27% of schools use phonics systematically:
Peter Crome, professor of geriatric medicine at Keele University and chair of the National Audit of Dementia, was talking on Radio 4 this morning about the Audit’s findings.
As I listened, I heard him say that the ‘policies were in place, but the practice was not undertaken’. Exactly the same situation is mirrored in the government’s attempts to promote phonics in schools: the policies are there, but the practice is not being undertaken!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

That Y1 phonics screening test again

Following on from my previous posting, although the Y1 phonics screening test should literally be ‘child’s play’ for pupils taught using a good quality phonics programme, it looks very much as if it won’t be much fun for the 73% of schools not teaching phonics well.
For them, the check is going to come as an unpleasant shock. Out of forty words on the test, twenty are pseudo or nonsense words – something Sounds-Write has been using since we started in 2003. A further ’40-60%’ of the remaining ‘real’ words will be ‘less common words’. The latter are defined by the DfE as words that pupils ‘are unlikely to have read previously’. This means that approximately 75% of the words will be pseudo words or words ‘pupils are unlikely to have read previously’.
It doesn’t take a genius then to realise that some schools aren’t going to be making a good showing and, given that the test will also include words with more complex structures, as well as a range of vowel and consonant digraphs and trigraphs(two-letter spellings and three-letter spellings), time is running short.
By the way, in case you weren’t aware, Sounds-Write teaches everything covered by the screening test and more. We also offer some advice to those schools looking for a phonics programme that will fit the bill.

Monday, December 12, 2011

New Y1 phonics screening check - child's play!

At the end of last week the Standards and Testing agency of the DfE sent out to schools its ‘Y1 phonics screening check’, and I have to say that it is great news for Sounds-Write.
It is proposed that the test will consist in a sample list of forty words. The structure will be as follows:
Section 1                                           Section 2
Page 1: Four pseudo words    Page 6: Four pseudo words
Page 2: Four pseudo words    Page 7: Four pseudo words
Page 3: Four pseudo words    Page 8: Four real words
Page 4: Four real words         Page 9: Four real words
Page 5: Four real words         Page 10: Four real words.
In Section one, the structure of the words tested will include CVC, VCC, CCVC and CVCC. It will comprise the following sound-spelling correspondences:
a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n. o, p, q(u), r, s, t, u, v, w, x, y, z, plus some consonant two-letters spellings, such as, ch, ck, ff, ll, ng, sh, ss, th and  zz; as well as what it describes as ‘consistent vowel digraphs’ or two letter spellings in common parlance: for example, ar, ee, oi oo and  or.
In Section two, the structure of the words tested is made a a little more difficult and will include CCVCC, CCCVC, and CCCVCC, and some two-syllable words. It will also add ‘some additional consonant digraphs’, such as ph and wh and more vowel digraphs, for which it gives the following examples: a-e, ai, au, aw, ay, ea, e-e, er, ew, i-e, ie, ir, oa, o-e, ou, ow, oy, ue, u-e, ur, and some three-letter spellings, such as air and igh.
Why is this music to the ears of any teacher teaching Sounds-Write? Because, by the Easter of YR, the children will have been taught formally all of the single letter spelling and all of the two-letter consonant spellings. In addition, even by Easter of YR, they will have practised blending, segmenting and phoneme manipulation in words with more complex consonant clusters, such as CCVCC/CCCVC/CCCVCC words.
What’s more, Sounds-Write-taught children will, from Christmas onwards, be working with nonsense (pseudo) words and coping with them with such facility as to make the test child's play.
By the end of Y1, all of the rest of what is comprised in the test and much more will have been covered, the 'much more' being the rigour with which Sounds-Write teaches the skills and an explicit understanding of how the writing system works in relation to the sounds of the language.
So, Sounds-Write’s response to the test: bring it on!

Friday, December 09, 2011

Two-thirds of children fail new reading test

We might at last be about to gain some real insight into how well children in England’s primary schools are being taught to read. It seems that in a trial run of the new reading test, in which some 8,963 children from 300 schools took part, and which is about to be rolled out at the end of this academic year to all Y1 pupils, only 32% passed.
According to Nursery World, only a quarter of the schools taking part in the trial are actually teaching systematic synthetic phonics. The rest are continuing to use the mixed methods approach that has been so discredited by the research.

Personally, I find it truly shocking that such a small proportion of schools are teaching systematic synthetic phonics when the last government was claiming that this is what all schools had been doing since the Jim Rose issued his report. Apparently, BBCNews is quoting the Department for Education as saying that only 27% of schools use phonics systematically.

These results are totally out of kilter with the results of the national curriculum tests, which show eight out of ten children meeting the levels expected of them at the ends of Key Stages 1 and 2. However, they tally almost exactly with the anecdotal evidence we get from SENCos of secondary schools who, after screening their Year 7 intakes to determine which pupils are going to need extra support in their reading, tell us that as many as seventy-five percent  have a reading age below their chronological age. It also gives us an insight into why so many young people are leaving schools without the literacy skills required for the world of work or for higher education.

Nick Gibb is today reported as saying that:
‘We need to face up to the uncomfortable truth that, despite the hard work of teachers, not enough of our children are able to read to a high enough standard. We have to take account of our place internationally and listen to business leaders concerned about many school leavers’ literacy. The Government can no longer simply congratulate itself on the proportion of pupils reaching the expected level.’
He’s right of course but the sad truth is that the government has not made its match-funding initiative a priority for training teachers.

If Michael Gove and Nick Gibb don’t change tack and give precedence to the training of teachers, we will continue to see the same kinds of results. When I visited Nick Gibb two years ago before he became a government minister, the advice Sounds-Write gave him was that he needed not only a reading test but a spelling test. Children’s writing (spelling) tells us much more about their understanding of how the writing system works and how it is used than tests of reading alone, valuable though they are.

Sadly, this latest news has attracted the usual adverse criticism. When it comes to teaching children how to read and spell, the leaders of the major unions can always be relied upon to make the usual rebarbatively ignorant comments, Russell Hobby, of the NAHT, and Christine Blower being amongst the latest. On the Reading Reform Foundation forum it was recently reported that Greg Wallace, head teacher at Woodberry Down school in Hackney and a champion of synthetic phonics, had appeared on a television programme with Christine Blower, the leader of the NUT, after which Blower had admitted never having seen synthetic phonics being taught in the classroom. As it says on the RRF, surely a case of the ideology being more important than the reality!

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

A tale of two cities

Morrisons announced this week that it had had to send back three-quarters of its new recruits from Salford for remedial training before they were ready to start working for the company.
Out of two hundred and ten staff recruited, a hundred and fifty had to be sent for ‘remedial training including refresher course in literacy and numeracy’.
The Telegraph quoted Norman Pickavance, the human resources director of Morrisons, as saying that "Many of the people were just not job ready. They lacked a lot of confidence and social skills. It is quite clear the education system has failed them."


Heres a story that might give Michael Gove and Nick Gibb pause for thought. On October 13th the New York Times ran a story on Moulshri Mohan, an Indian student from New Delhi, who had received multiple acceptances from universities in the States. She had applied to the US because even though she had a cumulative score of 93.5 percent in her final high school examinations from a private school in India, she couldnt get into Delhi University! Eventually, she was enrolled at Dartmouth in the USA.
Half of India’s estimated population of 1.2 billion is now under twenty-five and, with the middle class growing at an ever increasing rate, competition for places in India is daunting, hence the growing numbers of Indian students applying to US and UK universities. According to the article in the NYT, some students accepted by Delhi University had to achieve ‘the almost impossible’ cut-off scores of 100%.  Moreover, the Indian Institutes of Technology are now having to turn down 98% of applicants.
Indian students now represent the second largest grouping of students in the USA, with ‘almost 105,000 students in the 2009-2010 academic year’, coming only after the number of Chinese students.
This news is both good and bad: on the one hand, countries like the USA and the UK will benefit hugely (for the time being) from the income earned from these students; on the other, when these students return home, they will be the ones generating the new business start-ups, and filling the top slots in established companies and the universities, against which the West will have to compete.
What was it again that DigbyJones said back in 2006? Something along the lines that, unless we pull up our socks, 'India will have our lunch and China will have our dinner!'
Thanks to Kitchen Table Math for the heads-up on the NYT story.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Teach the teachers first!

It’s perhaps a little early in the day to be saying this but the signs are that the government has made a huge blunder in putting together resources and training for match funding. Already, it is becoming obvious to us that many schools are using the opportunity to replenish their libraries (a massive allocation of money (£3000). While, under other circumstances, I wouldn’t disagree – as can be seen from this blog’s support for Alan Gibbons’s ‘Campaign for the Book’ – in this case I shake my head in disbelief.
Why? Well, by and large the primary purpose of phonics books/decodable readers is to give pupils practice in what they have learnt more formally in class. Admittedly, the quality of some decodable readers will be of such a high standard that some pupils will ‘crack the code’ for themselves, so obvious is it that letters are symbols for sounds in the language.
That said, I would contend that for most pupils this kind of reader is a support to systematic and explicit phonics instruction. Such instruction can only be given by properly trained teaching practitioners. Right up to this moment, there are, as we have ascertained from the many NQT trainees who have already attended our courses, very few training institutions giving anything more than the most rudimentary training in phonics teaching – usually little more than half a day.
As for practising teachers, it seems that if they got any ‘training’ at all, it was a morning’s gallop through Letters and Sounds – the training amounting to little more than a familiarisation with the folder.There are some who argue that L&S is everything teachers need to remedy the problem of illiteracy in this country. They are wrong! To begin with, as has been demonstrated by past practice all too clearly, putting the latest government training initiative into document form and lobbing it into the schools, where more often than  not it gathers dust, is not training. Secondly, L&S does not make explicit the purpose for which the writing system was invented – to represent the sounds of the language. Thirdly, it doesn’t teach the necessary skills needed to develop fluency in reading and spelling with anything like the rigour required. Fourthly, it goes far too fast for the fifty percent tail. Fifthly, it doesn’t train teaching practitioners in what to do when pupils make errors.
Many school staff we talk to are still unaware that there is such a thing as matched funding; others believe it is only available for buying resources. This isn’t surprising if you look at the catalogue that has been sent out to schools.
If schools are spending their allocation on resources alone, we will be in the same place when the government funding dries up.
Train the teachers!

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Praise for Sounds-Write from former Teacher of the Year

Alison Hatch, Deputy Headteacher at Reculver CE Primary School in Kent was recently trained in Sounds-Write on one of our Kent trainings by Derrie Clark. She described it as a ‘light bulb moment’ in her career and in her understanding of how reading and spelling should be taught.
Alison won the National Primary Teacher of the Year 2000 and now does judging for the teaching awards. She says: "Once I get a headship ... I will champion Sounds-Write and get you to train up all the staff if they have not had it. Thank you so much!!"

Saturday, November 26, 2011

'Silent letters'?

Something which keeps on coming up on Sounds-Write trainings we run is the question of ‘silent letters’. The explanation that there are such things as ‘silent letters’ is still one to which many teachers resort when they find themselves unable to explain the relationship between sounds and print. For example, in the word ‘knight’, although they will refer to the igh spelling as representing the sound ‘ie’, many talk about the k as being ‘silent’.
Apart from being logically inconsistent, the tendency betrays a lack of understanding of how the writing system works. Having recognised igh as representing the sound ‘ie’, it is but a short step to recognising the two-letter spelling kn as a spelling alternative for the sound ‘n’.
In English there are multiple spellings: ‘fun’, ‘winning’, ‘know’, ‘gnome’, ‘pneumatic’, and ‘gone’, are all examples of spellings of the sound 'n'. What is true for the sound ‘n’ applies equally to the other sounds in the English language and this makes learning to read and spell in English harder.
Why is the use of the term ‘silent letters’ potentially damaging to children’s understanding of how the English alphabet code works and to their ability to learn what is a complex system? For a start, young children are often very literal and when people talk about letters ‘making’ or ‘saying’ sounds, they take this literally. They think that letters do actually make sounds. In such a complex system as English when letters singly or in combination can represent multiple sounds - for example, the combination ea can be /ee/ in ‘meat’, /e/ in ‘head’ and /ae/ in ‘break’ – unless children are taught systematically and explicitly, the system can give the appearance of being completely random and chaotic. This makes the task of learning it appear impossible and, for some children, ‘magical’, for if letters ‘make’ sounds, then they can make any sound and there is no logic to the writing system. Letters do NOT make sounds. People make sounds and spellings (letters, singly or in combination) represent them.
Symbolic systems are fundamental to highly developed societies. We use them in music, mathematics, literature and, most importantly, in writing. In the writing system, spellings represent sounds in the language. The English writing system is complex but it is rendered consistent and coherent if learners are taught from the beginning how it works from a conceptual point of view. If learners, and this includes young children, are taught that the sounds in their speech, of which there are a limited and finite number, are represented by the squiggles on the page we call letters (I prefer the more accurate and specific ‘spellings’), we have a system that is ordered and can easily be taught from simple to complex. In teaching from sound to print, we avoid the contortions purveyors of the print-to-sound trajectory have to go through to explain the code, which result in illogical ideas such as 'silent letters'. To paraphrase Diane McGuinness: speech sounds are the basis for the code, the spellings are the code.
In a system in which all letters in a written word are orthographic symbols in their own right, there isn’t anything left out that can be designated a ‘silent letter’.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Visual rhetorical reverberations, or linguistics tattoos to you and me

Ever considered a linguistics tattoo? Probably not! But Team Verb showed how me how amazingly committed some people are to their academic disciplines and the legs (you have to look at the slide show  slide 10! ) to which they will go to display that commitment.
Running teachers’ courses I’ve seen some interesting tattoos in my time. After reading this, I shall be looking out in future for a little schwa, replacing that butterfly/bizarre Chinese aphorism on someone’s pinkie, shoulder or ankle!

b ʊ t  w aɪ  w ʊɛ n iːw ɒ n  w ɒ n t  
t uː  t æ t uː  ə  ɡ l ɒ t l  s t ɒ p  (ʔ ) 
ɒ n t uː  ð ɛər  h æ n d  ð oʊ?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Red faces at UKLA as Scarlett reads and spells non-words

Literacy 'experts' maintain that testing children on made-up words confuses children and that they can’t read or spell words that aren't real. As I’ve argued repeatedly, see here and here, they are talking utter claptrap.
Well, I thought, I’m sure my friend’s daughter Scarlett would love to show them just how wrong they are: http://vimeo.com/31894110. And she did!
Thanks to Scarlett. No adults were harmed in the making of the video.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

The parent factor in student performance (OECD)

It sounds like a headline from the Daily Stands-back-in-amazement: the BBC education news desk reported yesterday that an OECD study has discovered there is ‘a strong link between teenage reading skills and early parental help’. Hmmm, you're very likely calling to mind John Cleese's 'stating the bleeding obvious' remark!
Graeme Paton in the Telegraph has also picked up the story today, which he’s chosen to headline as ‘Reading with parents “improves children's exams results”'. I imagine it gets parents’ attention more effectively that the OECD's rather more muted ‘Reading to children has long-term impact’!
OECD studies are well conducted and are therefore worth considering. In this case, the research indicates that, even when social differences are taken into consideration, children who are supported by their parents in the early years, ‘were six months ahead in reading levels at the age of fifteen’.
The study also highlights the importance of talk at home. Interestingly, the report also suggests that parents don’t have to be well educated to be able to make a difference. Simply reading to children several times a week seems to make a difference. This chimes well with research done in the USA by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, (see here) which showed that the amount of talk given by a care-giver to their child, crucially in the first three years, correlated very highly with the child’s future academic success. And, it wasn’t the quality of the talk that was so important; it was the sheer quantity that made the difference.
However, certain other important questions remain. What constitutes parental support? Does this mean that parents merely read to their children? Does it mean that parents read with their children – the children reading what they can and the parents helping out when the children reached the limits of their abilities? Does it mean that parents actively taught their children to decode and then went on to engage their children in reading books which were commensurate with what they had taught, in terms of skills, concepts and knowledge about the code? How about the differences in ease with which some languages are encoded and decoded? All of these are pertinent questions and often obscure what is meant by the term ‘supporting children’s reading’.
Unless we operationalise the terminology we use, it’s not clear what important issues are being (sometimes deliberately!) elided.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Please Miss, what's a Grinch?

Why are education journalists such dupes?
Once again, this time in the pages of the Independent and on the BBC website, education journalists have swallowed the nonsense propagated by ‘literacy experts’ who are calling on the government to abandon the planned tests of reading for six-year-olds.
The opposition to the tests is in truth an attack on the government’s determination to tackle the scandalous problem of illiteracy in this country by making sure that children are taught phonics by the age of five. However, the focus of the attack is on the ‘pseudo words’ or the words that are not really words in the English language (yet anyway!) which comprise one part of the reading test.
The ‘experts’ siren song so far has been to try attract the gullible with claims that because the words aren’t real words, they will confuse children. They see this as the Achilles heel of the government proposal. The Sounds-Write programme has used nonsense words for the past eight years, and, out of eight thousand teaching practitioners trained, not once have we had a single complaint about children becoming confused. If presented as a sort of game and children are told that the words they are going to read are not real words but are made-up or nonsense words, they have no difficulty whatsoever. In fact, they regard it as fun. Not only that, they are amazed and excited by the fact that they can read and spell words they have never seen before.
Non-words aside, what are we trying to achieve by teaching children phonics? We are teaching children how the sounds of their language relate to the spelling system and, in so doing, equipping them to be able to read anything, regardless of whether they recognise the meaning of the word immediately or not.
Much new vocabulary is learnt in context. When an unfamiliar word is decoded (read), the reader uses their contextual knowledge to discern meaning, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Regardless, they need to be able to decode it before meaning can be established.
The arguments put forward by people who obviously have never taught phonics to young children and quite obviously don’t know what they are talking about are specious. Frankly, journalists ought to be making more of an effort to present the other side of the argument by going in to schools and finding out for themselves the merits or demerits of the case in question. If any are listening, I can provide plenty of evidence to demonstrate.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

TES reloaded?

Since its revamp, have you noticed how the TES seems also to be shifting its political alignment? A few weeks ago, it ran a much more sympathetic piece on Chris Woodhead, former chief inspector of schools, than I’d have expected – notwithstanding the fact that Chris has motor-neurone disease.
This week, there’s an editorial entitled ‘The Red Flag has turned Burgundy. Unions must too’.  It is peppered with disapproval of the unions’ positions on a range of matters. Listen to this: ‘The biggest threat to the unions’ future, however, lies in their utter failure to be credible professionals. They talk excellence but tolerate mediocrity … They back school improvement but not at the expense of their branch network,’ and so on. Pretty strong stuff!
But the real sting in the tail comes towards the end, where it accuses union leaders of consigning the everyday detail of the job of teaching to the status of an afterthought. Their minds are set on higher things, such as the denunciation of the government, ‘so despicable it makes Herod look like Mary Poppins’. This, thunders Gerard Kelly, ‘is the language of ideological purists’; and he goes on to ask how unions are ‘supposed to appeal to the professional whose daily battles are a lot less epic, who loves teaching, who probably voted for the Tories, who packed in a good job to work in a school and who couldn’t give two hoots if it was called an academy’.
Whatever next? They might even begin to switch away from their slavish allegiance to the whole language lobby and towards the kind of balanced literacy teaching advocated by Sounds-Write.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Down with high-frequency words!


Recently, I’ve been posting on a thread on the RRF forum. The subject turned to questions about high-frequency words and, if you’re interested, you can follow what was being argued (here).
However, my main point was that there are thousands of teaching practitioners across the country who haven’t a clue how the writing system works in relation to the sounds of the language and, what’s more, have no idea how to teach it. The corollary of this is that many of them then resort to teaching the 100, 200 or 300 high-frequency words laid down in Letters and Sounds as 'sight' words. In other words, they present the words as words that have to be 'remembered'.
Here’s one example of what’s going on: today, my neighbour’s daughter, now in Y1, showed me the spelling list she had brought home to learn. It contains 198 high-frequency words. The only order in which they have been presented is alphabetical (!), which immediately undermines the logic of the code and serves only to confuse children. In YR the child was taught ‘some’ phonics of the one sound/one letter kind (but without any rigorous teaching of the necessary skills of blending, segmenting or manipulating sounds in words), plus the usual diet of ORT books. Now, in Y1, she’s being asked to supplement this with a list of HFWs to be learnt. The default mechanism by which the child is expected to ‘learn’ them is by sight.
My question is: in what way does this approach represent any sort of progress on what was being taught ten or fifteen years ago? The question is of course rhetorical because in my opinion it isn’t any sort of progress.
So, after sticking L&S (or other early years resources) into the hands of teachers, such as the KS1 team in the particular Buckingham school attended by my neighbour’s daughter, and not training them in how to teach it, those responsible for these things would find – if they only looked – that many teachers are doing what they always did. In fact, if you have a look at page 2 of the thread on the RRF, Susan Godsland has posted links to other forums on which there are examples of three teaching practitioners, all of whom are struggling in one way or another with the task of how to teach their pupils to read. All three ask for help in finding ‘resources’ and/or ‘ideas’.
The message we at Sounds-Write have been shouting from the rooftops is that it’s the training. No amount of resources or ‘ideas’ will on their own enable teachers to teach the pupils in question how to read and spell. Teachers need to be trained! Which is also why is was a massive blunder by the government to offer up to £3000 for resources and/or training in their match-funding initiative. When the argument has not been made for training, many schools spend money on resources without the teachers being trained in how to use them.
That list!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Reading with kids

The Guardian: Reading with kids

Today’s Guardian is selling itself on its twenty-four page pull-out ‘Reading with kids’. If you’re looking for good books to buy your young relatives, it offers plenty of advice: ‘The book doctor’ pages for 0-4s and 5-7s contain lots of occasions for what Francis Spufford in his The Child that Books Built once referred to as ‘excited delight’.  Where’s My Teddy, Mog the Forgetful Cat, Owl Babies, The Tiger Skin Rug, and many more remarkable stories proffer opportunities for many happy hours of reading, listening, talking and simply enjoying your children’s company.
Children’s laureate Julia Donaldson discusses the power of books to help children understand their own emotions and feelings. This particular aspect of reading is endorsed by Spufford when he describes the book as becoming ‘part of our self-understanding’ and as freeing us ‘from the limitations of having just one limited life with one point of view’. Sensibly, in my opinion, Donaldson decries the practice of reading to children solely for instrumental purposes. 
Towards the end of the supplement, there‘s a double-page spread on authors in performance. In more recent years, enticing a well-known author into schools has become very popular. A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of listening to Michael Morpurgo and watching him hold the attention of dozens of children as he told one of his stories. The Guardian’s piece focuses on John Hegley and Anthony Browne as performers as well as writers. For my part, Anthony Browne is superb at combining image and text in playful and ironic ways which are appealing to children and adults alike.
Sadly, for parents hoping for some sensible advice on how to teach their children to read, this pull-out isn’t of any help at all. In fact, the most insubstantial of the pieces included is the first by Tim Dowling. Dowling believes reading to be ‘a solitary pursuit’ and, rather incongruously for this selection, confesses to having read to his children in a ‘bored monotone’ and to having skipped several pages at a time, sometimes rendering ‘the plot incomprehensible’. What a way to encourage one’s readership!
After admitting that he believes reading to one’s children is ‘oversold’ and that ‘he did what he had to do’, he claims that his three children learned to read at school on, you’ve guessed it, the Oxford Reading Tree series. Phonics is dismissed in a parodic sentence and he asserts breezily that, in learning to read, the children ‘found it easier still to commit whole chunks of text to memory’. Dowling is yet another example of people who seem to think that because they have a level of expertise in one area (in his case music journalism); they're experts on how we teach children to read.
Apart from recommending the Open University course 'Children’s literature', my own favourite children’s books, in no particular order of preference, are: Oliver Jeffries’ Incredible Shrinking Boy, Colin Thompson’s How to Live Forever, Anthony Browne’s Voices in the Park, Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo, and Maurice Sendak’s superb Where the Wild Things Are.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Crystal's ology

If you live in England and teach literacy, you’ll have heard of 100 high-frequency words! You may also remember Neil MacGregor’s recent and marvellous 'History of the World in 100 Objects' series. Well, now David Crystal has turned his attention once more to the subject of language and produced the Story of English in 100 Words.
The words he has chosen are meant to ‘tell a story’, be redolent of their time and the culture they represented. The first is the oldest known word carved in the runic script, known as the futhorc, after the first six letters of its alphabet, on a roe-deer’s ankle bone and found in a cemetery site in Norfolk. The word appears to be, raïhan or roe-deer.
From thence, the list, which as you might expect is chronological, includes words from Anglo-Saxon, though probably not as many as you’d think, Early English, Middle English, right through to Modern English.
They embrace not only the words we write but colloquial words like ‘doobry’ and ‘dilly-dally’. Then there are dialect words, such as ‘brock’. [My own favourite is the north Staffordshire word ‘sneeped’], grammatical words, and ‘rude’ words, of which there are three, introduced ‘blushingly’ by their initials alone!
As the English language is a veritable ‘vacuum cleaner, eagerly sucking in words from other languages whenever English speakers find it useful to do so’, you’ll also find ‘dinkum’ and ‘schmooze’. Of course, no such list would be complete without a word from Harry Potter – ‘muggle’ –, or one spawned from the new technologies – ‘Twittersphere’ – which is where he leaves us, for now!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Why the pen is mightier than the keyboard


There’s a very interesting article in the TES by Adi Bloom this week (14th October 2011) about handwriting. In it Mr Beswick from Greave Primary school in Stockport is quoted as arguing strongly that handwriting is redundant and that keyboard skills are the future. On the other hand, Mr Gibbons of Nettlesham Junior school in Lincolnshire and his Y3 teacher Rachel Moreton believe that handwriting is hugely important in building ‘muscle memory’, that writing words helps pupils remember how to spell them. 

Who is right? Well, not Mr Beswick, if the research evidence is to be credited! His argument that ‘you need to think about what’s going to happen when children meet the big, wide world’ in ’10 to 15 years time’ makes little sense to me. In 10 to 15 years time, Mr Beswick, computers will probably have been superseded by new technologies.
Leaving aside aesthetic considerations, as Mr Gibbons and Ms Moreton intuit, the practice of handwriting in school fulfils a much more important and fundamental function than merely presenting an elegant hand to aged aunts in thanks for birthday presents.
There is a significant body of research that demonstrates that copying letters is by far away the most efficient way of learning them. In 'How handwriting boosts the brain',  Gwendolyn Bounds looks at the work of Karin James, of Indiana University, whose work shows how important handwriting is in learning to read. Learning is even faster and effective if pupils say sounds as they are writing the sound/spelling correspondences.
Writing in this way is a multi-sensory activity. Firstly, the teacher needs to model the shapes of letters and, if necessary, to show orientation of the letters – where to start, which way to go and where to finish. To copy, children’s eyes need to look at the letters and to follow the shapes with their eyes and they need to form the letters with a pencil, whiteboard marker pen, or paintbrush. Or, they can simply write in the air, write in sand, and use finger paint, and so on. While letters are being copied, pupils need to be saying the sounds they represent. They will also say the whole word as they complete it.
As they are saying the sounds and writing the sound/spelling correspondences, they are hearing them at the same time. So, they are simultaneously looking, touching, speaking and listening. Psychologists are firmly convinced of the value of multi-sensory approaches: the more senses one uses, they believe, the more likely it is that the brain will remember whatever it is working with.
On Sounds-Write trainings, teaching practitioners are encouraged to get pupils practising writing from the start of the programme. As long as the writing they do is commensurate with where they are in the programme, they get lots of opportunity to write words and simple sentences, which has the added effect that pupils also realise that the code is reversible: what they see is what they hear, what they hear is what they see.
See my other blog postings on the subject of handwriting here and here.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Wrong Stuff!

I’ve just been watching Michael Rosen on Matthew Wright’s show 'The Wright Stuff', broadcast on October 6th. After talking about the plight of the independent booksellers, he was asked by one of the guests on the show what he thought about the government’s support for phonics.
What followed had me howling with laughter. For a chap who knows what kinds of literature children find exciting and funny and whose books and poetry, not to mention the Radio 4 programme ‘Word of Mouth’, are so good, when it comes to talking about how to teach children to read, he is appallingly ignorant.
On ‘The Wright Stuff’, Michael began by saying that phonics is ‘sounding out’, a travesty of a description if ever there was one. Phonics is a proven and effective means of teaching all learners an explicit awareness of the sounds in English and how these sounds map to the spelling or writing system, the write stuff, if you like! The disparaging 'sounding out' is of course calculated to trivialise what is in reality a skilled pedagogical approach.
He gave the example of the word ‘bed’, which he said would be dealt with in phonic terms as ‘buh’ ‘buh’ ‘buh’ ‘e’ ‘e’ ‘duh’ ‘duh’. [It might seem a small point but even the way he says the sounds is part of the rhetoric he employs to caricature what phonics teaching actually is.] The ’b' 'b' ‘b’ would be put together with the ‘ed’, which he described as being one sound (!), after which one would read the word ‘bed’. This is, it is true, one particular (and rather discredited) phonic approach. It is commonly known as ‘onset and rime’, an approach Diane McGuinness reports as correlating very poorly to learning to read and spell and which has now been largely abandoned.
Rosen claimed that children wouldn’t be able to decode the word ‘would’. He says that when, for example, they try to read the word ‘would’ by saying the sounds ,  ‘wuh’, ‘oe’, ‘l’, ‘d’ , they’d get something like ‘wold’. And, of course, he is playing around with this nonsense to a studio audience who have terrific respect for him as a children’s author but don’t realise that, when it comes to knowing anything about good quality phonics teaching, he clearly hasn’t a clue.
Any well-trained phonics teacher would teach words like ‘would’, ‘could’ and ‘should’ with words like ‘bush’, and ‘cook’ (as said in most southern accents of English), where the sound ‘oo’ as in w’oo’d is taught as being represented by the three spelling alternatives oooul and u.
Michael goes on to give further examples, such as ‘was’, which he describes as a ‘tricky word’ and suggests that a phonic strategy would lead a child to say ‘w’ ‘a’ ‘s’, instead of ‘woz’, which is how it sounds. 
I don’t know where Michael has got his information but this is poppycock! Words like ‘was’ are perfectly decodable. What’s more, such examples form part of very common patterns in the language: after the sound ‘w’, we often spell the sound ‘o’ with the letter a. Think about it! There’s ‘want’, ‘swap’, ‘what’, ‘wallow’, wasp, etc., etc.
So, he concludes, a single strategy doesn’t work. There is, he states, another one, which he says phonics people secretly admit to using: Look and Say. [Actually, Michael, here’s one who doesn’t!] Because, he says, twenty-five per cent of words are ‘tricky words’, which in Rosen-speak means ‘un-decodable’, children need a Look and Say strategy. Of course the truth is that all words in English are decodable. All words are comprised of sounds and all sounds can be represented by spellings even if some of those spellings are less frequent than others. What Michael doesn’t seem to understand is that the writing system was invented to represent the sounds in the language. So, when he says that the two letters ‘e’ and ‘d’ (actually Michael, they are sounds not letters) make the ‘ed’ sound, he's just plain wrong. Letters do NOT make sounds. They represent sounds made by people and there are a finite number of sounds in the English language. However, because the relationship between sounds and spellings is not transparent as it is in many other languages, English is harder to teach and takes more time.
Telling people that the spelling system in English is complex and that it takes time and patience and that teachers need proper training in how it should be done isn’t as entertaining as sitting in front of a television audience ridiculing phonics with cute and erroneous jokes.
Phonics advocates are just as passionate about children enjoying books and having access to books as people like Michael Rosen. The marvellous thing about phonics advocates is that they are the ones with a truly balanced approach: they encourage children to read and they also teach children to read.
My thanks to Susan Godsland for drawing my attention to the programme.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Teaching languages by five

Having at one time worked for the British Council and the (as it was then) Bell Educational Trust, I know from first-hand experience that it is entirely possible to teach young children to speak, read and write foreign languages.
Michael Gove’s suggestion that language teaching should start at five is by no means radical. In countries, such as Luxembourg for example, where several languages are spoken, children grow up acquiring or being taught as many as four different languages. In other countries, teaching foreign languages from an early age is taken for granted. For example, when I visited a school in Vallecas in Madrid in 2002, children as young as five were already spending part of their day learning English through a variety of different activities.
In Italy, the children I saw who had started learning English at five with the British Council had already by the age of eleven and twelve attained a high degree of proficiency. This means that they were able not only to cope with the more formal aspects of speaking, reading and writing in English but also they were able to use it when pursuing their particular pastimes – watching films, playing computer games, listening to music, etc.
The idea of teaching ‘English through ...’ is not a new one. It is based on the simple idea that learning a subject of interest through the medium of a foreign language presents a much more powerful purpose than learning the language out of context.  At the Bell in the eighties we were already teaching youngsters from all parts of the world English through science, art, and sport.
While I’d be more cautious about making claims that learning languages improves an individuals’s brain power, as Gove is quoted as saying, he is almost certainly right in saying that, ‘learning a foreign language, and the culture that goes with it, is one of the most useful things we can do to broaden the empathy and imaginative sympathy and cultural outlook of children’.
As Suzanne Romaine, in her book Bilingualism, put it: ‘What distinguishes bilinguals from monolinguals is that bilinguals usually have greater resources...’.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Paton - tly obvious!

You’ve got to give credit to Graeme Paton. He is nothing if not dogged. When it comes to trying to get something done about the numbers of children being unable to read and write, persistence is a key attribute.
Yesterday, he revealed that around ‘15 per cent of children in England have reading skills no better than a five-year-old’. This in spite of the billions the last government spent on the Literacy Strategy!
What is equally alarming is that a third of boys from poorer families can’t read properly. The figures are even worse for writing: according to Paton, only 59 per cent of boys from poorer backgrounds ‘can write properly’.
The trouble is that many head teachers seem still to be blissfully unaware that being able to read and write proficiently underpins everything else. That or they pay lip service to the importance of teaching reading and spelling and the time it takes to do it properly.
On Sounds-Write trainings, we constantly come up against the complaint that ‘in our school we aren’t allowed to spend more than ten or fifteen minutes two or three times a week’ on teaching children to become literate. And yet, everything flows from that ability. If a pupil can read and write, they are much more able to develop whatever potential they have.
Because of the complexity of the English alphabet code - something else many heads don’t understand - phonics lessons need to be taught for half an hour a day every day. If that is done and done properly, pupils emerge from Key Stage 1 fully capable of contending with the greater textual demands placed on them in Key Stage 2.