Friday, July 29, 2011

R&R time

Time for some R&R

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Murphy's law corrected

I would like to apologise to Dianne Murphy in jumping the gun by suggesting that her approach to the teaching of reading was Whole Language.
Dianne has written a comment on the tail of the posting to say that the approach is “definitely not 'Whole Language' and nor is it 'drill and practise' in the sense of mindless repetition”.
Guess what I’m having for Sunday lunch? Another slice of that humble pie, please!

Biff and Chips to go? Oh no!

There’s been a lot of adverse criticism recently of the Oxford Reading Tree series, featuring Biff, Chip et al, and teachers often ask me on Sounds-Write courses if they shouldn’t just throw them all out because they do not conform to what most people recognise as decodable readers.
The answer, of course, is absolutely not!
Here’s why. It’s certainly true that the series isn’t easily decodable for beginning readers. Here are the first two pages of The Go-Kart, a Stage 2 reader, which I have coded according to sound-spelling correspondences:
D a d  m a d e  a  g o-k ar t.
B i ff  w a n t e d  th e  g o-k ar t.
Anyone who teaches synthetic or linguistic phonics knows immediately the difficulties a beginning reader would have in trying to read a text like this. There are two schwas, one split spelling, the spelling of the sound ‘o’ after the sound ‘w’, five two-letter spellings, and more. In fact, the degree of complexity is so great that many beginning readers get the idea that the words need to be memorised as whole words because the words are too difficult to read, which is why, for some teachers, these books have lost their appeal..
However, after the Initial Code – i.e. all the one-to-ones in CVC, CVCC, CCVC, and CCVCC words, (etc), plus the double consonants and ‘sh’, ‘ch’, (etc). – has been covered and once pupils have been taught four or five ways of spelling the sounds ‘ae’, ‘ee’, ‘oe’, ‘er’, ‘e’, ‘ow’, ‘oo’ and ‘ie’, ORT books are fantastic for building fluency and confidence. In fact, with a little help from a knowledgeable teacher, The Go-Kart is easily accessible to a beginning reader who knows the one-to-ones and understands that sounds can be represented by two-letters spellings. In addition, common sound-spelling correspondences, such as the ar spelling for the sound ‘ar’ can build code knowledge along the way.
In addition, our course attendees are almost always united in their enthusiasm for the characters, the story lines with their simple plot structures, the illustrations and their familiarity. They can also be fun to read to children.
Take ‘Charlie’ for example. Charlie came to me as a complete non-reader at the end of YR. What had happened is that he had been taught Whole Language and he simply didn’t 'get it'. After just three months work on the Initial Code, well supported with lots of reading decodable materials – Sounds-Write readers and Dandelion Readers – we went straight on to Oxford Reading Tree books, again supported by decodable readers to focus on the issues of adjacent consonants and on the ways in which particular sounds are spelled.
Despite the drawbacks, as long as teaching practitioners have a clearly established purpose in mind for using the ORT series, they should be a very useful adjunct to our teaching.  All of which is why Biff doesn’t make me want to chip*.
*London slang for ‘leave’, ‘depart’.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Murphy's law re-stated

What was Christopher Middleton at the Telegraph thinking when he called what Dianne Murphy is doing a ‘literacy revolution’? He evidently has never read Marx’s 18th Brumaire of Louise Napoleon, which, prompted Marx to remark famously that history repeats itself, ‘first as tragedy, then as farce’. Far from being a revolution, this kind of methodology - flash card/sight word drill - is both tragic and farcical. And, far from being revolutionary, it is, in literacy terms, profoundly reactionary.
The principal reason for the failure of many of these kids at secondary school to learn to read and spell properly is precisely because the approach used to teach them throughout their primary years was whole language. So, what do they do when these children arrive at secondary school unable to cope with the demands of the curriculum? Throw more of the same at them!
‘Whole language,’ as Diane McGuinness has said, ‘is based on faith, promising everything and delivering nothing.’ Of course, if you drill a pupil for half an hour, three times a week, you can expect some progress. But, for how long? Set up some independent testing of word reading a year down the line and then see if the effects wash out. Of course, some children will ‘crack the code’, as some of their peers have already done in primary school. Most won’t!
Teaching children to link hundreds and hundreds of words (paired associate learning) to abstract symbols is something that humans find every difficult to do. And then what about all the thousands upon thousands of words that haven’t been taught. 
Unless, pupils are taught explicitly how the writing system works (conceptual understanding), are taught the spellings for all the sounds in the language (factual knowledge) and the skills needed to use the aforesaid conceptual and factual knowledge, they will continue to struggle.
And, Chris, if you don’t understand what you’re writing about, don’t write it!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Why ‘ghoti’ is a red herring

In my last posting, I wrote that Rod Liddle’s invocation of ‘ghoti’ as a way of spelling ‘fish’ – ostensibly to demonstrate how ‘unphonetic’ (ridiculous term!) English is – was nonsensical.
I also wrote that the notion had been entirely discredited. Well, apparently not! Some of my readers have informed me that they are confronted with it from time to time. I was myself a few years ago. The occasion was a talk I was giving at the University of Canberra, when one of the ‘reading specialists’ tried to slap me round the head with this wet ‘ghoti’.
So, how does it work and why is this alleged example so completely implausible? Well, first, gh is a spelling alternative for the sound ‘f’, but never at the beginning of a word. Then, the letter o can represent the sound ‘i’ in ‘women’, but it’s a one-off or so infrequent as not to be worth considering. Finally the combination of letters ti can represent the sound ‘sh’ but only as part of suffixes, such as ‘station’, or ‘essential’, as well as a few other words, like ‘initial’, for example.
According to Wikipedia, ‘linguists have protested that the placement of the letters in the constructed word [ghoti] are inconsistent with the claimed pronunciation'.
However, this isn’t quite right. To say that we pronounce letters puts the cart before the horse. Letters or spellings represent sounds: there are the sounds of the language and there are the agreed (conventional) spellings for those sounds. Sounds come first and the spellings, otherwise meaningless squiggles on the page, symbolise the sounds. So, while it is perfectly acceptable to spell the sound ‘f’ at the beginning of the word ‘fish’ with the spelling f, or even ph (as in a ‘phishing’ trip, an Internet scam, or ‘Phish’, an American rock band!), the combination gh is not – currently!
The real point is that the English spelling system is actually highly regular and, with good teaching and enough practice, can be learned by just about anyone.
I see that this week’s Speccie carries a letter (‘Phonic boom’) from Tom Burkard, Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies, admonishing Rod Liddle for his anti-phonics article last week.