Sunday, January 23, 2011

'Txtin iz messin, mi headn'me englis...'*

There were two stories which caught my eye yesterday in the Telegraph. The first, by Graeme Paton, looks into some research by academics at Coventry University suggesting that texting can improve children’s literacy.
This comes as no surprise to me! In order to be able to text successfully, you have to be able to segment words into sounds or groups of sounds and represent them symbolically. Thus 'CU L8R', for 'See you later'. So, in theory, if you can text, you can write in such a way that would enable a person reading what you’ve written to make sense of it. That doesn’t, of course, mean that the words are necessarily spelt correctly because, in conventional orthography, not only do you have to be able to separate words into sounds and represent those sounds, but you also have to know how to spell the sounds conventionally.
That isn’t to say that the genre of texting is acceptable in all circumstances. The language of text, like the language of poetry or of any other genre, is appropriate to its context - texting - which is why, when teachers see the genre being employed in, say, essay writing they tend to blame the genre and not its inappropriate use.

The other story by Richard Alleyne, the Telegraph’s Science Correspondent, reports that ‘children who write by hand learn better than those who type’. The claim, made by Professor Anne Mangen from the University of Stavanger in Norway, suggests that because writing takes longer, the temporal aspect may have a positive influence on learning. It also highlights the importance of repetition and the way in which it can change the structure of the brain.
This further supports the work by K. Anders Ericsson et al, whose book The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Behaviour has in the last few years begun to exercise such a powerful influence on teaching and learning.

* The headline is taken from the first line of the world's first text message poetry competition run by the Guardian and won by Hetty Hughes in 2001. The poem runs:
txtin iz messin,
mi headn'me englis,
try2rite essays,
they all come out txtis.
gran not plsed w/letters shes getn,
swears i wrote better
b4 comin2uni.
& she's African

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Rocket science? It is almost!

For a long time now I’ve been thinking seriously about why it is so difficult for phonics advocates to bring about change in the way in which we teach children in English speaking countries to read and spell.
The answer, of course, is complicated but one reason that seems to present itself more forcefully than most is that so many lay people have an opinion on how it should be done. Moreover, this ‘lay’ section doesn’t simply confine itself to people outside the educational establishment, it pervades the whole panoply of the educational apparatus.
It might surprise you to hear me say this but this is probably one of our greatest impediments to achieving success for all in teaching children to become properly literate. People working within the top echelons of the educational bureaucracy are there usually because they have some expertise in some area of education, be it management or a branch of pedagogy. However, once having attained a 'position of authority' - and I include in this umbrella term everyone from deputy heads, through heads and educational psychologists, educational journalists, to civil service mandarins - these people seem to take it upon themselves to pronounce on all aspects of education, whether they are qualified to do so or not. When it comes to the question of how best to teach literacy, mostly, they are not.
More or less every day on radio programmes like Radio 4’s ‘Today’ or ‘Woman’s Hour’ and the like, we hear educational pundits holding forth on this most important of areas of education, yet few if any of them have expertise in this particular area. Even at senior levels of government, the same is true. I remember talking to a person at the highest level of government charged with the responsibility for conducting a review into the teaching of reading who, when it came to it, didn’t really know the difference between one phonic programme and another.
In their respective capacities then, ‘the powers that be’, a phrase enfolding into itself the people I’ve talked about, wield considerable power to shape opinion, whether that is at the level of the staffroom, or more widely within public discourse. The problem is that, when it comes to the question of literacy they are quick to proffer their views when they have no real understanding of what they are talking about. And literacy is a subject everyone who is literate feels qualified to declaim on. You will notice, too, that the pundits, as they imagine themselves to be, become more muted the more technical or esoteric the area of an educational discipline becomes. So, the teaching of maths is almost invariably left to mathematicians or those holding, at the very least, a mathematics degree. The same is true for other subjects, such as physics, or advanced studies English literature.
The fact is that knowing how (and when) to teach children to read and write effectively is a very highly skilled job. In order to be able to do and do it well, the practitioner needs to understand the way the writing system relates to the way we speak, the sounds of the language. Now, never mind the rest of the educational superstructure rising above the level of the school, many heads and deputy heads have no idea whatsoever about how sounds link to spellings though, to listen to them, you’d think they were all experts on the subject of teaching reading. I’m sure it has something to do with the fact that many members of senior management in (especially) primary schools find it extremely difficult to concede to their staffs that they lack knowledge in particular areas of pedagogy.
Don’t misunderstand me either. I’m not suggesting that the people I’m talking about are wilfully selfish or that they have ulterior motives. For the most part, they are honourable and have nothing but good intentions. Their honest and abiding interest is in doing their best by the children for whom they are responsible. But good intentions and honest convictions don’t ensure that the vast majority (more than 90%) of young children learn to read and spell.
What does? Well informed training!

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Borovik backs phonics

In his ‘Personal take on synthetic phonics’, Alexandre V. Borovik sheds some interesting light on how, as a child, he learned to read in Russian, which is written in Cyrillic script, an alphabet writing system.
What most interested me about the article was how one day, as a young boy, Borovik, while ‘sitting in a quiet corner with Vladimir Suteev’s book  ПοД  Гρибом’,  realised that letters were representations of sounds. The title of the book “Pod Grimon” means in English ‘Under the mushroom’ and it doesn’t take a linguistic genius to see that the title in Russian is comprised of two words and that in both words one letter represents one sound. Borovik goes on to describe the moment when he realised what the game was about: “So this is how they are doing that”, he says he thought to himself and promptly announced the fact that he had ‘read a book’ to his apparently unimpressed mother.
This is the kind of simple one-to-one mapping that makes learning to read very easy indeed. Although, as he points out, Russian isn’t quite as straightforward as this, it is much easier to learn than the more complex mapping relationships in English. Even easier are the alphabetic writing systems used in Italian and Spanish, which, as I have argued before, is why most children in those countries learn to read quickly and without difficulty.
It is not, therefore, surprising that the more transparent the writing system in representing the sounds of any given language, the easier it is to learn, and, presumably, the more children that will be able, with often minimal help, to work out the system for themselves. In contrast, the more complex the mapping relationships, as in English, the fewer children are able to do this, even though we know very well that some do.
Where Borovik’s argument doesn’t stand up is when he writes about teaching children to read in English. He’s quite right to support ‘synthetic phonics’, of course, though there’s no question in my mind that linguistic phonics is far superior. Where he muddies the waters is in discussing i.t.a., the Initial Teaching Alphabet, developed by Sir James Pitman, grandson of the originator of modern shorthand Sir Isaac Pitman. I.t.a. was a very clever idea. Pitman took all the basic vowel and consonant sounds which were already represented by one letter. He then invented a symbol for every one of the remaining sounds. Brilliant! A system in which all forty-four sounds of English are represented by a single spelling!
There were, however, two major problems. The first was that once having learned the i.t.a. system, children had to make the transition to conventional orthography, a task which many found very hard to make. The second problem was even more momentous: to use such a system, one has to decide on one accent of the language on which to base the writing system, which means that for all other accents the system works more or less imperfectly.
Borovik claims rightly that English is non-transparent but wrongly that it is non-phonetic. This latter kind of argument is the one we often hear from opponents of phonics. How can a language be non-phonetic? All words are comprised of sounds and sounds are represented by spellings. The problem with learning to read and write in English is that, not only are there, relatively speaking, lots of sounds, but the writing system is complex and, unless taught by people who understand exactly how it works, difficult to learn.
This is why, as I consistently argue on this blog, all teachers of reading and spelling need to be properly trained in an area which may not be ‘rocket science’ but is one that requires considerable professional expertise.
Thanks to Susan Godsland on the Reading Reform Foundation website for drawing my attention to Borovik’s piece.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Exploration Return to the Lost World

The moment I saw the terrifying picture of Tyrranosaurus Rex and Chris Middleton’s headline in today’s Telegraph, ‘Make Reading into an Adventure’, I thought 'The Lost World'. That would be the The Lost World of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which I read for the first time as an eleven-year-old. This and my father's copy of Exploration Fawcett, the story of the somewhat apocryphal adventures in South America of a Lieutenant Colonel from the British army, as well as Rider Haggard’s novels, were the books that excited my imagination as a youngster.
In Return to the Lost World, authors Steve Skidmore and Steve Barlow, do an Anthony Horowitz and re-visit a previously successful story genre in which now the heroes are young people. In the re-versioning, the eponymous Professor Challenger is replaced by Luke Challenger. As the names of the book and the protagonist suggest, the story is, as one of the authors describes it, a ‘medley of Steven Spielberg: Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones.’
Apparently, the two writers have already written a hundred and thirty books and, according to Middleton, spend half the year touring schools not merely encouraging children to read but generating real excitement around them.
This sounds great, though from what I’ve read of Middleton’s piece, what the critics might make of the neo-imperialist mode of emplotment and the accompanying western-centric sermonising, remains to be seen. I look forward to reading it!
And, best not to forget that before children can enjoy this thrilling genre, they need to be able to read!   

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Word of the year II

Since yesterday’s posting, I’ve spotted an interview on npr (National Public Radio) with Ben Zimmer, who writes the 'On Language' column for The New York Times Magazine.
He offers the following contributions to the American Dialect Society's 'Words of the year' nominations: ‘junk’, his particular favourite – you’ll see why if you look at his column; ‘hacktivism’, from the Wikileaks scandal; ‘shellacking’, a somewhat tortuous journey from resin (shellac) through boxing to politics - Obama being on the receiving end; and, with one of my daughters in mind, I have to say that I’m suddenly rather fond of ‘gleeks’, as in fans of the TV show ‘Glee’.

Monday, January 03, 2011

From 'Bushlips' to 'static kill'. OK?

On Sunday, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported that linguists from all over the world will be descending on Pittsburgh later this week to discuss, amongst other things, (naturally) Pittsburghese, endangered languages, and linguistic map-making. They'll also be deciding on the word of the year.
Previous favourites have been: 'google', the word of the decade last year; 'plutoed', meaning to be reduced in value; and, from the South African World Cup event, 'vuvuzela' – I'm sure you can remember that one.
In 1999, it turns out the society voted on the word of the year, the decade, the century and the millennium and that the winners were, respectively, 'Y2K', 'web', 'jazz' and 'she'. And, if you’re wondering about the word 'she', it didn't exist before the year 1000, though no-one is quite sure whether it's derived from Old English or Old Norse. You might also be interested in knowing that, according to Allan Metcalf, executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, the USA's favourite word ever is 'OK'. OK?
Thanks to Mr Verb for giving me the heads-up on this one!