Sunday, March 27, 2011

Why Of Mice and Men?

In his recent call for children to read more books, the Education Secretary Michael Gove has questioned the dominance enjoyed by Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men in many schools. 
I’m sure that a man of Michael Gove’s sophistication wasn’t for a moment suggesting that Steinbeck’s superbly constructed naturalistic novel Of Mice and Men doesn’t deserve a place on anyone’s list of novels to be read by pupils in their teens.
Of course, at first sight, the novel’s readability rating indicates the book as being very easy to read. The Flesch-Kincaid grade level puts it at about the level of Grade 4 or Year 5 in UK. However, readability isn’t everything!
The beauty of the novella lends itself to the depth of analysis and interpretation the reader is able to produce in response to it. In other words, for higher ability pupils (as well as university students) the novella, if set against the socio-historical background of the time, offers the possibility of producing a highly engaging reading. As a simple, tragic story of friendship and compassion, its taut, play-like form is complemented by the simplicity of its language; it’s a book that is ‘accessible’ to pupils at the lower end of the ability range.
As the names of the two protagonists, George Milton and Lennie Small, suggest, the themes are at once universal and microcosmic. In fact, Of Mice and Men was part of Steinbeck’s celebrated trilogy. Flanked by his other two great novels, In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath, the intertextual references give a clue to the measure of Steinbeck’s ambition: one signalling its debt to Paradise Lost, the other to the ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’.
The title Of Mice and Men is also a clear enough allusion to Burns’s ‘To a Mouse’, the penultimate stanza of which provides a tidy encapsulation of the theme of the book:
‘The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!’
So, let’s go with the rest of the estimable writers admired by Gove and at the same time make sure we hang on to Steinbeck’s classic.
Thanks to Susan Godsland for pointing me in the direction of the BBC News Magazine report.

Friday, March 25, 2011

A pot of gold!

At the end of my latest Sounds-Write course this week, Samantha Rushforth-Willoughby from Stone Church of England School in Aylesbury, came up to me and said:
“I feel as though someone has just handed me a pot of gold.”
 As the training had been spread over four weeks, Sam had had the opportunity to put into practice many of the Sounds-Write lessons and error corrections and her comment was a reflection on how effective she thinks the Sounds-Write training is.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Fifty books a year?

This morning’s Telegraph is reporting that Michael Gove expects that children aged as young as eleven should be reading fifty books a year.
Graeme Paton thinks that Gove’s latest ruminations probably reflect his thinking on the tour he’s just made ‘of high-performing “charter schools” – state-funded institutions that are run free of Government interference – in the United States’. 
According to Paton, the Infinity School in Harlem, a massively deprived area of New York, set their children the challenge of reading fifty books over the course of a year. The school, run by the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) charity organisation, is setting itself very high standards, with the result that it is the highest performing school in the city: this, despite the fact that a reported 80% of its children are from backgrounds poor enough to warrant them receiving free and reduced price lunches.
Michael Gove is certainly right in claiming that, in general, schools do far too little to challenge their pupils – and not just in the area of reading. However, it’s all very well talking about reading fifty books a year.
If, as was reported recently, the twelfth most popular book chosen by girls in the final two years of school is The Very Hungry Caterpillar, while boys favour ‘very easy’ books, readability needs to be taken into account. The challenge isn’t simply about quantity; it’s also about quality. Unless children are reading at or above their chronological age, they are unlikely to be enhancing their vocabulary, their facility with a range of different genres, or their exposure to a range of increasingly complex grammatical structures, all of which are part of the necessary preparation for their further education.
The other thing is that children need to be able to read with fluency if they are to cope with texts of increasing difficulty and that means making sure that they can actually read. For that to transpire, teachers need proper training in how to teach reading and spelling and all the evidence is that this is not yet happening.

Monday, March 14, 2011

If you go down to the woods today, your mother obviously hasn't been telling you the right kinds of stories

There’s a story in the Telegraph this morning declaring that ‘politically correct’ parents who avoid telling their children folk tales are missing the chance ‘to teach children morality’.
Some parents, it is alleged, are refusing to read or tell the story of Little Red Riding Hood because it involves a child wandering off alone into the woods and straying from the path – a departure her mother has expressly forbidden. Whichever version you prefer, and there are many European variations (Das Rotkappchen from Germany, Caperucita Roja from Spain), the moral of the story is that if you don’t do as your mother/father/older and wiser relative tells you, you (and possibly your grandmother) stand a sizeable chance of coming to a sticky end!
That’s not all the children of PC parents are missing! To look at the issue solely from a moral angle is to ignore the fact that ‘wonder’ tales, fairy tales or folk tales are invested with the sociality and culture of the tellers and listeners. The authors of these tales draw on an oral and literary tradition going back, in some cases, nearly two thousand years. They offer an opportunity to induct children into a genre that has its own characters, motifs, narrative frames, settings and ideological conflicts, all of which may serve as useful preparation for more elevated genres introduced to children later in their schooling.
My friend Garry informs me that a new film of (little) Red Riding Hood, starring Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman, is soon to be released. Looks like a hide-behind-the-sofa movie to me, Garry.

Friday, March 11, 2011

And now for something completely… er, the same!

As Richard Garner reported in yesterday's Independent, apparently, Terry Jones has just written Trouble on the Heath, a book for struggling readers. It’s part of the Quick Read series of books published for World Book Day, and, well intentioned though this is, it’s yet another example of someone who is very, very good at doing something in one particular field but then thinks that they have the expertise to do something else in another, the something else in this case being the ability to write a book for struggling readers. See 'Rocket science? It is almost!'
Here’s a sample from the download offered by the BBC, which I have coded to show the relationship between sounds and spellings:
Ch a p t er  One
I t  w a s  N i g el ’s  f a v ou r i te  t r ee. H e  l i k ed  t o  p ee  o n  i t.  M a l c o lm  w oul d  h a ve  t o  w ai t        u n t i l  N i g el  h a d  f i n i sh ed, b u t  h e  d i d n' t         m i n d  b e c au se  wh e n  y ou  s t oo d  b y  th i s  
t r ee  y ou  g o t   a  g r ea t  v  i ew  o f   H a mp s t ea d H ea th.
As can be seen, I’ve put a space in between each sound-spelling correspondence. Amongst other things, what this shows is that there are numerous examples of the complexities a struggling reader is likely to encounter:
  • sounds being represented by more than one letter. As an example, there are three different ways of spelling the sound ‘ee’ (he, tree, and Heath);
  • the spelling ea stands for ‘ee’ in ‘Heath’ or ‘ae’ in ‘great’;
  • the number of schwas or weak vowel sounds, and a fair sprinkling of two- and three-syllable words in the book;
  • in addition, in the word ‘was’, the ‘o’ sound is represented by the single-letter spelling as represents the sound ‘z’. and the single-letter spelling.
There is 'here' enough level of difficulty to cause a beginning or struggling reader real problems.
We come back again and again to the same problem. There are very few decodable readers for older, struggling readers and people think that if they limit sentences to fewer than, say, twenty words and the number of syllables in words to two or three, that this alone will make texts accessible. 
A quick read rapidly turns into a very long read: the reader is expected to try and read texts like this by guessing what the words are (and probably guessing incorrectly), or making mistakes and being told what the word is by a teacher/mentor. This strategy quickly collapses back into whole language/sight word memorisation exercise, an approach that has almost certainly failed the struggling reader in the first place – precisely what Terry didn’t want.
My friend is teaching a seventy-year-old man at the moment. He was totally illiterate when he started. When he finally began his journey of starting to learn to read, did he mind reading from decodable texts even though they were very simple and written mostly for quite young children? Not a bit of it! As he’d waited for most of his life, he was willing to exercise a little more patience and to regard the simple readers on which he practised his fluency as the (temporary) stepping stones to reading the daily newspaper. It sometimes feels as if trying to get this message across is like trying to beat life into a dead parrot.
Thanks to Susan Godsland for bringing the Indie article to my attention.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Greg Brooks: no change in the spelling system! Well, just a bit.

While I agree with Greg Brooks in his piece in the Guardian yesterday, where he argues that changing English spelling simply won’t work, the way in which his argument is couched seems to contradict the initial message.
There are, as he points out, forty-four or so sounds – it depends to some extent on accent – in the language; and, although I have never counted them, he states that there are five hundred sound-to-spelling correspondences if you count all the infrequent ones. I have to say that this figure seems unnaturally high and doesn’t take into account the redundancy factor.
He then goes on to tell us that there are ten ways to spell the sound 'e'. He's right! Though in the context of his discussion, which is to do with the problems in teaching the sound-to-spelling system to children in school, there is just one spelling of 'e' (the letter e) you'd teach to reception-aged children before, shortly afterwards, adding two more, the ea and the ai spellings of 'e' in words like 'bread' and 'said'. After that, you’d bring in the rest of the spellings of 'e' in the context of the subject curriculum or as they come up in the round.
When it comes to the issue of spellings representing more than one sound, Greg Brooks is not clear about how the writing system works. He says that we pronounce the letter a in various ways, as if letters somehow mysteriously have sounds of their own. Even in the phonics community, this a point not always well understood. However, if children think that letters 'make' sounds, instead of representing sounds that we make in our speech, they may never get to understand the fundamental logic of the writing system: that letters are symbols for sounds. So, Brooks has got the thing back to front here. It should be that the letter a, like many spellings, represents more than one sound. In the word 'mat' it is 'a'; and, in the word 'baby', it is 'ae'.
Brooks is also less than explicit on a couple of other things: for example, the spelling a in 'about' and in 'village' are both schwas, or weak vowel sounds.
Apparently, according to Brooks, spellings in the words ‘should’ and ‘enough’ are ‘absurdities’. Why? The spelling oul for the way most people in the south of England pronounce the oo in ‘book’ only occurs in a small number of words and isn’t difficult to teach or learn. In ‘enough’, what is the problem with the sound ‘u’ being represented by the spelling ou or the sound ‘f’ by gh? After all, we have the words ‘cousin, ‘young’, ‘couple’ and ‘trouble’ and then there’s ‘tough’ and ‘rough’, which contain the gh spelling of ‘f’.
Moreover, to say that there’s not a ‘high level of illiteracy in the UK’, as Brooks claims, is simply disingenuous. It’s probably true that there are relatively few people who cannot read or write at all. However, there are huge numbers of illiterates, as defined by the OECD and various other bodies, including the Moser Report. And, where is the evidence for his claim that there are ‘also’ (Methinks he does contradict himself here!) low levels of literacy in countries with transparent orthographies?
Brooks ends his piece by suggesting we make the task of learning to read and write English ‘less difficult’, though he doesn’t say how. So far, his drift has been that we shouldn’t change the spelling system but then he flips about to a ‘Oh go on then - but only a bit!’ position.
What can we do to make sure that children become properly literate? Train the teachers to understand how the writing system works, and then get them to teach children in school from simple to complex, by which I mean:
  • teach them one-to-one correspondences and give them lots of practice in blending, segmenting and manipulating sounds in words; 
  • teach them that a sound can be spelt with two-letter spellings; after that teach a limited number of ways of spelling a sound; 
  • then teach that many spellings represent different sounds; 
  • and finally teach them how to put all the above together in polysyllabic words and how to recognise schwas or weak vowel sounds in polysyllabic words. Simples!
And yes, children should be reading texts that are commensurate with where they are in the teaching programme, as well as being read a wide variety of rich, literary texts.