Friday, April 29, 2011


Over Easter, I was very excited to get hold of a copy of David Crystal’s Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices, the book to accompany the exhibition of the same name at the British Library. As the blurb says, the book is ‘the first history of the language to be fully illustrated with readable images of original texts, combined with transcriptions and translations’.
For anyone interested in the English language, this book is a cracker! It probably isn’t possible for anyone to tell the whole story of the English language but, gathered together within the pages of this book are many excerpts from canonical texts and texts that extend far beyond the canonical: Beowulf and the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, the writings of Chaucer, William Tyndale, Shakespeare, Noah Webster, Mark Twain, Shaw and, more latterly, Harold Pinter, to name but a few.
One of my personal favourites is an extract from John Hart’s An Orthographie (1569). Hart’s dream of bringing ‘in process of time … our nation to one certain, perfect and general speaking’ was one that would never be realised, though, as Crystal points out, Hart’s views ‘helped to form the climate that would eventually shape the character of English spelling’.
While it is beautifully illustrated, one of the most exciting things about it is the way it exemplifies how the language is held in tension between centripetal and centrifugal forces: the forces that tend towards standardisation and a cultural and political canon, and those that tend towards diversity, variation and resistance to a centralizing authority. Crystal has always been one who celebrates multiplicity.
If you’ve never read Crystal before, The Stories of English is one of the many books he’s written and which make him something of a national treasure.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Deliberate practice

There was an acknowledgement on kitchen table math yesterday of the huge importance of deliberate practice in teaching.  
As I wrote in my reply to the posting:
'I've been banging on about Ericsson's work for ages. Ericsson, Charness, Feltovich and Hoffman produced The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance in 2006, since which time Malcolm Gladwell, Matthew Syed, Geoff Colvin and others have produced books on the enormous value of deliberate practice.
To be successful at any activity more complex than sucking a lollipop, you need lots of practice if you want to achieve proficiency.
The other essential element is expert tuition - a requirement that should be music to the ears of kitchen table math fans, of which of course I am one!
However, in order to be able to provide expert tuition, the tutor needs to be an expert (!) and know how to teach from simple to complex. This means teachers having an excellent knowledge of their subject, how to break it down into discrete parts, recombine the parts into a coherent whole and apply it. Which, it seems to me, is pretty much what Singapore maths does.
Would that we applied the same principles to other areas of the curriculum, starting with the teaching of reading and spelling.'
What I didn't also add is that if you are looking for a programme that incorporates all the the elements essential to learning to read and spell - lots of deliberate daily practice, teaching from simple to more complex in carefully sequenced, incremental steps, and expert tuition through the medium of apprenticeship, guided participation, and appropriation - you need look no further than Sounds-Write.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Embedded phonics? What embedded phonics?

Last week I criticised the reporting in the TES of the government-commissioned Tickell report for its zeal in attempting to discredit phonics as an approach to teaching young children to read.
The latest offering from the TES (Friday 8th April) is more subtle in its disingenuousness. It plays cleverly on what it senses - I say ‘senses’ because it is obvious from what they print that they haven’t a clue what a properly thought-out phonics programme looks like – to be the true state of affairs: that people such as Clare Tickell have no more idea of what good phonics teaching is than they do! That’s because it is a specialised job requiring specialised knowledge and experience.
Apparently, the review has recommended that ‘separate assessments of phonics should be scrapped’. What separate assessments are these that teachers across the country are implementing? I see no evidence for this. Teachers should also be using ‘a wide variety of techniques to help prepare children for reading’. This is code for talking about meaning, extending vocabulary, and so on. Can there possibly be a teacher in the whole country that doesn’t already do this? Well, there might be one or two, but you get my drift. The TES also claims that the review says that ‘children’s attainment in phonics has improved’. How would we know this when, at present, there is no mechanism in place to collect such information? Even more ludicrously, it is claimed that ‘many children can grasp the theory of phonics’. This assertion is truly laughable when hardly a teacher I have met - and we’ve trained nearly eight thousand of them at Sounds-Write - has come to our courses with a clear conceptual understanding of the way in which the writing system and the sounds of the language are related to one another.
The TES and the so-called experts it trots out to stigmatise phonics pretend, like the last government, that phonics is a well understood method for teaching children to read and that it has been widely implemented. It hasn’t! Eclecticism is still firmly in the saddle.
As Geraldine Carter of the Reading Reform Foundation points out: 
"only a small percentage of schools teach rigorous phonics to their early years children - most add some 'mixed methods' teaching or haven't quite grasped how to teach SP."
Until the training of teachers and teaching assistants in how to teach phonics properly begins in earnest, the teaching of reading and spelling will continue to be the rag bag assemblage of mixed methods it has been for more years than I care to remember.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

The G-Men come good

When I went to see Nick Gibb eighteen months ago at the House of Commons, he indicated that, if the Conservatives won the next election, he and Michael Gove would do two things.
The first would be to invite providers of phonics programmes to submit themselves to a revised [The last government introduced the idea.] system of self-evaluation, which would then be scrutinised by the government. The second was to promise funding for schools wanting to train their staff to teach phonics.
He got the first of these tasks under way some time ago and those providers who have already entered the lists are duly being measured against the criteria laid out in the Department’s Self-Assessment Form for Phonics Providers. Yesterday, Nick Gibb fulfilled the second of his promises. The Department for Education announced that:
"Primary schools will be able to claim up to £3,000, if they match that funding, to spend on materials which meet the Department for Education’s criteria for an effective phonics programme.
A list of approved resources – including phonics products for teachers and pupils and training for teachers – will be published by the Department by September although some products and training will be available by the end of June. Schools will decide which of the resources will help them to deliver high-quality phonics teaching for their pupils and will be able to buy products and training with the match-funding any time up to March 2013."
This is a major step forward and will enable schools to accomplish what Sounds-Write have always argued strongly for: that all teaching practitioners engaged in the teaching of reading and spelling, whether as a beginning strategy or as an intervention, should be properly trained to teach what Jim Rose recommended: a structured, cumulative, sequential, explicit and code-oriented instructional programme for teaching all children to read and spell. This may not be rocket science, but it is almost!
As we have consistently maintained, thrusting a manual into someone’s hands and expecting that them ‘to get on with it’ was never going to be enough. It has always been about adequate training.
Nevertheless this is only a start! Even if money is found and training takes place, everyone concerned with education needs to know which phonics programmes are the most effective.
Thanks to Susan Godsland for bringing this new information to my attention.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Not much Insight from Olivia O'Sullivan

Olivia O’Sullivan’s  ‘beef’ with synthetic phonics in the 'Insight' column of the TES is, she says, after examining ‘hundreds of writing samples’, observing lessons and interviewing teachers and children, that she found that some - she doesn’t say how many – children who had spelling difficulties ‘did not seem to notice many of the visual patterns  of English spelling and continued to use a phonetic approach’. She gives as an example Jonathan in Y5, whom she reports as spelling ‘cloak’ as ‘cloack’ and ‘tights’ as ‘tites’.
To begin with, there is nothing at all wrong with using a phonetic approach to the problem of spelling. In fact, there is everything right about using a phonetic approach to spelling. If the person spelling can access the sounds in single-syllable words and syllables and sounds in polysyllabic words and represent them, they stand a chance of making them legible.
Choosing the accepted orthographical spelling is, however, more difficult. How would anyone know how to spell a complex word unless they had already seen it before? For example, in Y7 at my daughter’s school, the pupils were introduced to various species of worms. One was a platyhelminthe. Most adults would be unlikely to spell this word correctly without having at least seen it beforehand and noticed that, for example, the ‘th’ sound is spelt . In addition, even if one has seen a word before, recalling how to spell it is more difficult than recognising it when one sees it – the psychological imbalance of reading and spelling.
So, as well as learning to blend, segment and manipulate sounds in words, and learning that a sound can be spelt with one-, two-, three-, or four-letter spellings, the learner also needs to learn the different (orthographical) possibilities for spelling a sound and they need practice – more practice for some, less for others.
That ‘Jonathan’ made the wrong choices in spelling the words above was not, as claimed by O’Sullivan ‘largely a visual issue’. It was an aural and visual issue with significant pedagogical implications. Of course, what she doesn’t also say is how the child was being taught.
There’s much more wrong with the O’Sullivan piece. To pull out one or two things: She seems to believe that ‘most young children use a phonetic approach as a basic early reading strategy in writing and spelling’. They don’t! - unless they are taught. She says ‘older children with difficulties tend to see each word as a separate unit – using “sounding out” as their main strategy for spelling words they don’t know.’ What else would they do if they can’t spell a word?
The imprecision of the language, the lack of basic linguistic knowledge and understanding, and the wilful distortion of what synthetic phonics is for, undermines the credibility of the piece.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Wud a litrasy expurt no a gud cwalitee phonix program if thay sore won?

Not content with traducing phonics on its front page, the TES also decided to devote their 'Insight' section of Friday's paper (page 25) to Olivia O’Sullivan in order to do another caricature.
O’Sullivan has penned a piece entitled ‘Wood a child tawt to reed using phonix alone notis anything wrong with this hedline?’ Like the spelling of the headline, her article is a travesty of what good quality phonics teaching is about.
She begins by claiming that ‘the most fervent supporters’ of synthetic phonics argue that ‘the forty-four sounds of the English alphabet system … be taught before a child has any contact with books or is “taught” whole words’. Leaving aside the somewhat loose language, her statement is a blatant distortion of common practice in synthetic phonics teaching. I cannot think of a single synthetic phonics programme that withholds books from children until they have learned the spellings for the forty-four or so sounds in the English language.
All of the best-known advocates of synthetic phonics in fact are involved in encouraging the production of phonic (decodable) readers for children, as well as inspiring the reading of a wide variety of rich literary texts to their own children and the children they teach.
As the most perfunctory of glances at the websites of any of the providers of synthetic phonics programmes will reveal, O’Sullivan’s claim is utterly without foundation. If she is unable to bring herself to examine these websites, she could at least visit the government's website, where their 'self evaluation' form lists as one of its criteria the following:
"ensure that, as early as possible, children have opportunities to read texts (and spell words) that are within the reach of their phonic knowledge and skills even though every single word in the text may not be entirely decodable by the children unaided."
As any phonics practitioner knows, providing beginning readers with decodable texts is the surest way to fluency.
However, what is at the heart of O’Sullivan’s critique of synthetic phonics is her claim she has seen a huge 'growth' in 'phonetic' spelling. You might think that this would be a real step in the right direction; after all you can at least decipher words spelt phonetically, as opposed to the indecipherable invented spelling so highly regarded by whole language proponents. Tomorrow, I’ll be examining what she means by this and what this entails for good quality phonics advocates.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Tickelled pink?

I’ve long thought that, when it comes to the teaching of reading and spelling, the TES simply hasn’t got a clue what it is talking about. Never does it miss the opportunity to denigrate the teaching of phonics, even though the evidence in favour of a phonics approach is overwhelming.
Yesterday (Friday 1 April 2011), for example, it couldn’t wait to emblazon across its front page ‘Phonics knocked off perch by official review’, a claim vigorously and immediately denied by the author of the said review Clare Tickell.
What the TES had lighted upon was the statement, referring to the early years foundation stage profile results, by Bernadette Duffy, head of Thomas Coram Early Childhood Centre and a member of the review panel, that ‘linking sounds to letters has gone up, but that has not necessarily been matched by a similar increase in children’s reading’.
Dame Tickell, issued an immediate rebuttal on the Department for Education website, saying: 
'I have not recommended that phonics should be downgraded. Phonics is one of the most robust and recognised ways of helping children to learn to read and write. My report clearly highlights the importance of children starting school ready and able to learn, and I set out in the reading and writing goals the phonic development children should have reached by the age of five.'
The TES has, ever since I can remember, adopted a brazenly ideological stance against the teaching of phonics and, like a dog returning to its own vomit, it seizes every opening to renounce it. The problem is that it makes no effort to find out what a proper phonics programme looks like or how it is taught. This is not only ignorant journalism, it’s also lazy journalism.