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.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Why are advocates of phonics so defensive?

In an interview for a BBC news item about phonics with Reeta Chakrabarti, Christine Richmond, from Cannon Lane First School, said that, ‘anything that comes into schools that is going to allow children who are not achieving to be picked up by schools has got to be a good thing.’
Now, it’s not that I object to Ms Richmond saying that it’s of paramount importance to identify children who aren’t achieving. I don’t! It’s tremendously important. But, what about very able children? Phonics is hugely important for them too.
St Thomas Aquinas school in Bletchley is a primary school where Sounds-Write has been used for a number of years. In 2006, we tested fifty children in Y2 [average age seven years and three months] who had been taught using Sounds-Write from the beginning of YR. On the spelling test we used (Dennis Young’s Parallel Spelling Tests, 2nd edition, which has a ceiling of eleven years), 44% (22 out of 50) of pupils hit the ceiling on the test, 64% (32 out of 50) of all pupils had a spelling age above nine years and six months, and 90% (45 out of 50) had a spelling age of eight years or above. Only one pupil had a spelling age below their chronological age.
So, not only were the least able pupils performing very much better than anyone had ever expected, but the most able were able to read almost anything that was thrown at them. At the end of Key Stage 1, in terms of being able to read and spell, they were already equipped to cope with the demands of a secondary curriculum. What’s more, they enjoyed reading because reading was something that was very easy to do. In other words, they had acquired the kind of automaticity that allows immediate access to the content of what is being read.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that these pupils would have been able to understand every word they were able to read. Given a text to read from, say, the New Scientist, they might well struggle to comprehend meaning. Understanding comes with cultural capital but much cultural capital is acquired through reading. As Keith Stanovich* has pointed out, ‘print is a uniquely rich source of content. Personal experience provides only narrow knowledge of the world and is often misleading and unrepresentative’.
What’s the message? Exactly the opposite of what the whole language zealots in the UK Literacy Association and the NAS/UWT are saying! To develop a love of reading, you need to be able to decode print and this is a skill that needs to be taught by trained teachers who know how the writing system works and how to teach it. That isn’t to say that we neglect other things. Teaching children how to read and spell should take place in the kind of rich, literary environment that lovers of reading so rightly advocate.
*Stanovich, K., (2000), 'Does Reading Make you Smarter', in Progress in Understanding Reading, London, The Guilford Press.

Friday, September 16, 2011

They used to hunt animals

Yesterday’s Radio 4 programme carried a fascinating little piece on the work of Dr Paul Tench, a retired linguist from Cardiff University. Paul has been helping the Shanjo people of Zambia to develop a writing system for the first time.
The twenty thousand or so Shanjo people are but one group in a country of 13.5 million people in which some seventy-three languages are spoken.
Until Paul’s work, the Shanjo had to be content to use siLozi, the official language of Zambia’s Western Province, or English. SiLozi is the L1 (first language) of around 600,000 Lozi people and thousands of others as an L2 (second language).
Why then did the Shanjo people want a written language of their own? This was a question Paul Tench understood very well. having worked in a linguistics department at a Welsh university, he knows only too well what it feels like for people to speak a minority language when there is a very powerful dominant one available.
As the Shanjo people had long wanted to ensure the survival of their culture in all its aspects, working with five farmers, only one of whom had received a secondary education, Paul set about creating an alphabet to represent the sounds of ciShanjo (the Shanjo’s language). So far, the project has been tested on a young Shanjo woman, who was able to read ‘everything without much difficulty’.
Already there is a dictionary and a Bible in the making. Eventually, the project should enable the Shanjo people to record their stories, their poetry, and forms of entertainment, as well as enhancing the group’s standing and sense of dignity in the region.
Even more importantly, the significance of the move for children cannot be understated. As Gareth Evans writes in his piece ‘Taking pride in learning how to write a language for the first time’ in the Western Mail: 
"Primary education in the mother tongue is a 'commodity' that Wales can be proud of, and can export. The mother tongue in early education enhances cognitive development because it is the language of a child's thinking, understanding, knowing and learning. It has a psychological advantage in that it is the language that children are at ease in; there is no extra, special effort in attention as there is when a less familiar language is used."
And, Shanjo? Apparently, it means 'they used to hunt animals'.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Freshmen common reads

National Public Radio (npr) in the USA are currently running a piece on recommended ‘Freshmen common reads’. These are books many colleges and universities ask their new intake of students to read over the summer and be prepared to talk about in the first week of the first semester on campus.
Npr have been asking their listeners and readers to contribute their choices, which include Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, as well as Natalie Angier’s The Canon: A Whirligig Tour Of The Beautiful Basics Of Science. Oddly enough, Angier’s book is one of the books I’m currently reading and it’s a cracker. It’s a pity that more head teachers and literacy co-ordinators don’t pick it up and read the chapter on ‘Thinking Scientifically’!
Anyway, you’ll find more where those came from on the npr website. And, if you would like to listen to Jared Diamond, professor of geography and physiology at UCLA, talking about his book and responding to questions from listeners you can catch it on npr’s podcast.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Cognitive connections in the early years!

Talking of cognitive connections, my friend Ginny has just directed me to this!

Looks as if some of the kids are not making the kind of cognitive connections we'd want!

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Crystal clear

David Crystal has posted a couple of noteworthy pieces on his blog just lately. One is ‘On linguistic apps’, in which he points readers in the direction of a grammar app from the Survey of English Usage at University College London. According to David, ‘it's called iGE, the interactive Grammar of English, and it's available for iPhone 3 and 4, iPod Touch, and the iPad’.
I hope he right when he suggests that it won’t be long before we see the emergence of lots more linguistic apps, ‘especially’, as he says, ‘in areas of language which are difficult to handle in traditional ways, such as phonetics and phonology’. Mmm. I do hope so. Then perhaps the DfE will provide one for the scrutinisers of the self-evaluations submitted to them by phonics providers.
And, if, as I’m sure you’ve always wondered, you want to know the difference between ‘On being persuaded and convince’, there’s the usual elegant and descriptive explanation.

Language and LEGO? Where's the connection?

I have to admit that it’s a bit nerdy of me to return from holiday – not really! I was doing an intensive course in Spanish – and direct readers to Diacritics, a blog I discovered through Mr Verb.
The latest posting by John Stokes asks the question: ‘Why are humans smart? Language and LEGOs’. The piece is based on work by Elizabeth Spelke, who argues, not unreasonably, that what distinguishes humans from animals is language.
What is particularly fascinating about the line of argument, which, I add, is as yet unproven, is the link between our ability to connect different aspects of core knowledge and the development of language in humans in endlessly interesting ways.
LEGO comes into it by way of analogy. Try to combine bumpless LEGO blocks into more and more complex structures and they soon collapse. Add the bumps and corresponding dips and almost infinite complexity becomes possible. So, Spelke argues, it is with language: ‘language capacity… allows the most basic building blocks of cognitive ability to communicate and interact’.
When did all of this happen? Apparently, in evolutionary terms, relatively recently – a mere thirty thousand years ago! But, it happened very fast and here the analogy turns towards computer technology. Drawing on the work of Chomsky et al, John suggests that all it might have taken for humans to make that great evolutionary leap was the critical ‘upgrade’ of a ‘cognitive connector’ that enabled the core knowledge systems to combine – one small step… one giant leap … and all that.
All rather speculative but no less interesting for that - much like the kind of short article one might find in the New Scientist! The posting and the website are well worth a visit.