Saturday, October 29, 2011

TES reloaded?

Since its revamp, have you noticed how the TES seems also to be shifting its political alignment? A few weeks ago, it ran a much more sympathetic piece on Chris Woodhead, former chief inspector of schools, than I’d have expected – notwithstanding the fact that Chris has motor-neurone disease.
This week, there’s an editorial entitled ‘The Red Flag has turned Burgundy. Unions must too’.  It is peppered with disapproval of the unions’ positions on a range of matters. Listen to this: ‘The biggest threat to the unions’ future, however, lies in their utter failure to be credible professionals. They talk excellence but tolerate mediocrity … They back school improvement but not at the expense of their branch network,’ and so on. Pretty strong stuff!
But the real sting in the tail comes towards the end, where it accuses union leaders of consigning the everyday detail of the job of teaching to the status of an afterthought. Their minds are set on higher things, such as the denunciation of the government, ‘so despicable it makes Herod look like Mary Poppins’. This, thunders Gerard Kelly, ‘is the language of ideological purists’; and he goes on to ask how unions are ‘supposed to appeal to the professional whose daily battles are a lot less epic, who loves teaching, who probably voted for the Tories, who packed in a good job to work in a school and who couldn’t give two hoots if it was called an academy’.
Whatever next? They might even begin to switch away from their slavish allegiance to the whole language lobby and towards the kind of balanced literacy teaching advocated by Sounds-Write.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Down with high-frequency words!


Recently, I’ve been posting on a thread on the RRF forum. The subject turned to questions about high-frequency words and, if you’re interested, you can follow what was being argued (here).
However, my main point was that there are thousands of teaching practitioners across the country who haven’t a clue how the writing system works in relation to the sounds of the language and, what’s more, have no idea how to teach it. The corollary of this is that many of them then resort to teaching the 100, 200 or 300 high-frequency words laid down in Letters and Sounds as 'sight' words. In other words, they present the words as words that have to be 'remembered'.
Here’s one example of what’s going on: today, my neighbour’s daughter, now in Y1, showed me the spelling list she had brought home to learn. It contains 198 high-frequency words. The only order in which they have been presented is alphabetical (!), which immediately undermines the logic of the code and serves only to confuse children. In YR the child was taught ‘some’ phonics of the one sound/one letter kind (but without any rigorous teaching of the necessary skills of blending, segmenting or manipulating sounds in words), plus the usual diet of ORT books. Now, in Y1, she’s being asked to supplement this with a list of HFWs to be learnt. The default mechanism by which the child is expected to ‘learn’ them is by sight.
My question is: in what way does this approach represent any sort of progress on what was being taught ten or fifteen years ago? The question is of course rhetorical because in my opinion it isn’t any sort of progress.
So, after sticking L&S (or other early years resources) into the hands of teachers, such as the KS1 team in the particular Buckingham school attended by my neighbour’s daughter, and not training them in how to teach it, those responsible for these things would find – if they only looked – that many teachers are doing what they always did. In fact, if you have a look at page 2 of the thread on the RRF, Susan Godsland has posted links to other forums on which there are examples of three teaching practitioners, all of whom are struggling in one way or another with the task of how to teach their pupils to read. All three ask for help in finding ‘resources’ and/or ‘ideas’.
The message we at Sounds-Write have been shouting from the rooftops is that it’s the training. No amount of resources or ‘ideas’ will on their own enable teachers to teach the pupils in question how to read and spell. Teachers need to be trained! Which is also why is was a massive blunder by the government to offer up to £3000 for resources and/or training in their match-funding initiative. When the argument has not been made for training, many schools spend money on resources without the teachers being trained in how to use them.
That list!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Reading with kids

The Guardian: Reading with kids

Today’s Guardian is selling itself on its twenty-four page pull-out ‘Reading with kids’. If you’re looking for good books to buy your young relatives, it offers plenty of advice: ‘The book doctor’ pages for 0-4s and 5-7s contain lots of occasions for what Francis Spufford in his The Child that Books Built once referred to as ‘excited delight’.  Where’s My Teddy, Mog the Forgetful Cat, Owl Babies, The Tiger Skin Rug, and many more remarkable stories proffer opportunities for many happy hours of reading, listening, talking and simply enjoying your children’s company.
Children’s laureate Julia Donaldson discusses the power of books to help children understand their own emotions and feelings. This particular aspect of reading is endorsed by Spufford when he describes the book as becoming ‘part of our self-understanding’ and as freeing us ‘from the limitations of having just one limited life with one point of view’. Sensibly, in my opinion, Donaldson decries the practice of reading to children solely for instrumental purposes. 
Towards the end of the supplement, there‘s a double-page spread on authors in performance. In more recent years, enticing a well-known author into schools has become very popular. A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of listening to Michael Morpurgo and watching him hold the attention of dozens of children as he told one of his stories. The Guardian’s piece focuses on John Hegley and Anthony Browne as performers as well as writers. For my part, Anthony Browne is superb at combining image and text in playful and ironic ways which are appealing to children and adults alike.
Sadly, for parents hoping for some sensible advice on how to teach their children to read, this pull-out isn’t of any help at all. In fact, the most insubstantial of the pieces included is the first by Tim Dowling. Dowling believes reading to be ‘a solitary pursuit’ and, rather incongruously for this selection, confesses to having read to his children in a ‘bored monotone’ and to having skipped several pages at a time, sometimes rendering ‘the plot incomprehensible’. What a way to encourage one’s readership!
After admitting that he believes reading to one’s children is ‘oversold’ and that ‘he did what he had to do’, he claims that his three children learned to read at school on, you’ve guessed it, the Oxford Reading Tree series. Phonics is dismissed in a parodic sentence and he asserts breezily that, in learning to read, the children ‘found it easier still to commit whole chunks of text to memory’. Dowling is yet another example of people who seem to think that because they have a level of expertise in one area (in his case music journalism); they're experts on how we teach children to read.
Apart from recommending the Open University course 'Children’s literature', my own favourite children’s books, in no particular order of preference, are: Oliver Jeffries’ Incredible Shrinking Boy, Colin Thompson’s How to Live Forever, Anthony Browne’s Voices in the Park, Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo, and Maurice Sendak’s superb Where the Wild Things Are.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Crystal's ology

If you live in England and teach literacy, you’ll have heard of 100 high-frequency words! You may also remember Neil MacGregor’s recent and marvellous 'History of the World in 100 Objects' series. Well, now David Crystal has turned his attention once more to the subject of language and produced the Story of English in 100 Words.
The words he has chosen are meant to ‘tell a story’, be redolent of their time and the culture they represented. The first is the oldest known word carved in the runic script, known as the futhorc, after the first six letters of its alphabet, on a roe-deer’s ankle bone and found in a cemetery site in Norfolk. The word appears to be, ra├»han or roe-deer.
From thence, the list, which as you might expect is chronological, includes words from Anglo-Saxon, though probably not as many as you’d think, Early English, Middle English, right through to Modern English.
They embrace not only the words we write but colloquial words like ‘doobry’ and ‘dilly-dally’. Then there are dialect words, such as ‘brock’. [My own favourite is the north Staffordshire word ‘sneeped’], grammatical words, and ‘rude’ words, of which there are three, introduced ‘blushingly’ by their initials alone!
As the English language is a veritable ‘vacuum cleaner, eagerly sucking in words from other languages whenever English speakers find it useful to do so’, you’ll also find ‘dinkum’ and ‘schmooze’. Of course, no such list would be complete without a word from Harry Potter – ‘muggle’ –, or one spawned from the new technologies – ‘Twittersphere’ – which is where he leaves us, for now!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Why the pen is mightier than the keyboard


There’s a very interesting article in the TES by Adi Bloom this week (14th October 2011) about handwriting. In it Mr Beswick from Greave Primary school in Stockport is quoted as arguing strongly that handwriting is redundant and that keyboard skills are the future. On the other hand, Mr Gibbons of Nettlesham Junior school in Lincolnshire and his Y3 teacher Rachel Moreton believe that handwriting is hugely important in building ‘muscle memory’, that writing words helps pupils remember how to spell them. 

Who is right? Well, not Mr Beswick, if the research evidence is to be credited! His argument that ‘you need to think about what’s going to happen when children meet the big, wide world’ in ’10 to 15 years time’ makes little sense to me. In 10 to 15 years time, Mr Beswick, computers will probably have been superseded by new technologies.
Leaving aside aesthetic considerations, as Mr Gibbons and Ms Moreton intuit, the practice of handwriting in school fulfils a much more important and fundamental function than merely presenting an elegant hand to aged aunts in thanks for birthday presents.
There is a significant body of research that demonstrates that copying letters is by far away the most efficient way of learning them. In 'How handwriting boosts the brain',  Gwendolyn Bounds looks at the work of Karin James, of Indiana University, whose work shows how important handwriting is in learning to read. Learning is even faster and effective if pupils say sounds as they are writing the sound/spelling correspondences.
Writing in this way is a multi-sensory activity. Firstly, the teacher needs to model the shapes of letters and, if necessary, to show orientation of the letters – where to start, which way to go and where to finish. To copy, children’s eyes need to look at the letters and to follow the shapes with their eyes and they need to form the letters with a pencil, whiteboard marker pen, or paintbrush. Or, they can simply write in the air, write in sand, and use finger paint, and so on. While letters are being copied, pupils need to be saying the sounds they represent. They will also say the whole word as they complete it.
As they are saying the sounds and writing the sound/spelling correspondences, they are hearing them at the same time. So, they are simultaneously looking, touching, speaking and listening. Psychologists are firmly convinced of the value of multi-sensory approaches: the more senses one uses, they believe, the more likely it is that the brain will remember whatever it is working with.
On Sounds-Write trainings, teaching practitioners are encouraged to get pupils practising writing from the start of the programme. As long as the writing they do is commensurate with where they are in the programme, they get lots of opportunity to write words and simple sentences, which has the added effect that pupils also realise that the code is reversible: what they see is what they hear, what they hear is what they see.
See my other blog postings on the subject of handwriting here and here.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Wrong Stuff!

I’ve just been watching Michael Rosen on Matthew Wright’s show 'The Wright Stuff', broadcast on October 6th. After talking about the plight of the independent booksellers, he was asked by one of the guests on the show what he thought about the government’s support for phonics.
What followed had me howling with laughter. For a chap who knows what kinds of literature children find exciting and funny and whose books and poetry, not to mention the Radio 4 programme ‘Word of Mouth’, are so good, when it comes to talking about how to teach children to read, he is appallingly ignorant.
On ‘The Wright Stuff’, Michael began by saying that phonics is ‘sounding out’, a travesty of a description if ever there was one. Phonics is a proven and effective means of teaching all learners an explicit awareness of the sounds in English and how these sounds map to the spelling or writing system, the write stuff, if you like! The disparaging 'sounding out' is of course calculated to trivialise what is in reality a skilled pedagogical approach.
He gave the example of the word ‘bed’, which he said would be dealt with in phonic terms as ‘buh’ ‘buh’ ‘buh’ ‘e’ ‘e’ ‘duh’ ‘duh’. [It might seem a small point but even the way he says the sounds is part of the rhetoric he employs to caricature what phonics teaching actually is.] The ’b' 'b' ‘b’ would be put together with the ‘ed’, which he described as being one sound (!), after which one would read the word ‘bed’. This is, it is true, one particular (and rather discredited) phonic approach. It is commonly known as ‘onset and rime’, an approach Diane McGuinness reports as correlating very poorly to learning to read and spell and which has now been largely abandoned.
Rosen claimed that children wouldn’t be able to decode the word ‘would’. He says that when, for example, they try to read the word ‘would’ by saying the sounds ,  ‘wuh’, ‘oe’, ‘l’, ‘d’ , they’d get something like ‘wold’. And, of course, he is playing around with this nonsense to a studio audience who have terrific respect for him as a children’s author but don’t realise that, when it comes to knowing anything about good quality phonics teaching, he clearly hasn’t a clue.
Any well-trained phonics teacher would teach words like ‘would’, ‘could’ and ‘should’ with words like ‘bush’, and ‘cook’ (as said in most southern accents of English), where the sound ‘oo’ as in w’oo’d is taught as being represented by the three spelling alternatives oooul and u.
Michael goes on to give further examples, such as ‘was’, which he describes as a ‘tricky word’ and suggests that a phonic strategy would lead a child to say ‘w’ ‘a’ ‘s’, instead of ‘woz’, which is how it sounds. 
I don’t know where Michael has got his information but this is poppycock! Words like ‘was’ are perfectly decodable. What’s more, such examples form part of very common patterns in the language: after the sound ‘w’, we often spell the sound ‘o’ with the letter a. Think about it! There’s ‘want’, ‘swap’, ‘what’, ‘wallow’, wasp, etc., etc.
So, he concludes, a single strategy doesn’t work. There is, he states, another one, which he says phonics people secretly admit to using: Look and Say. [Actually, Michael, here’s one who doesn’t!] Because, he says, twenty-five per cent of words are ‘tricky words’, which in Rosen-speak means ‘un-decodable’, children need a Look and Say strategy. Of course the truth is that all words in English are decodable. All words are comprised of sounds and all sounds can be represented by spellings even if some of those spellings are less frequent than others. What Michael doesn’t seem to understand is that the writing system was invented to represent the sounds in the language. So, when he says that the two letters ‘e’ and ‘d’ (actually Michael, they are sounds not letters) make the ‘ed’ sound, he's just plain wrong. Letters do NOT make sounds. They represent sounds made by people and there are a finite number of sounds in the English language. However, because the relationship between sounds and spellings is not transparent as it is in many other languages, English is harder to teach and takes more time.
Telling people that the spelling system in English is complex and that it takes time and patience and that teachers need proper training in how it should be done isn’t as entertaining as sitting in front of a television audience ridiculing phonics with cute and erroneous jokes.
Phonics advocates are just as passionate about children enjoying books and having access to books as people like Michael Rosen. The marvellous thing about phonics advocates is that they are the ones with a truly balanced approach: they encourage children to read and they also teach children to read.
My thanks to Susan Godsland for drawing my attention to the programme.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Teaching languages by five

Having at one time worked for the British Council and the (as it was then) Bell Educational Trust, I know from first-hand experience that it is entirely possible to teach young children to speak, read and write foreign languages.
Michael Gove’s suggestion that language teaching should start at five is by no means radical. In countries, such as Luxembourg for example, where several languages are spoken, children grow up acquiring or being taught as many as four different languages. In other countries, teaching foreign languages from an early age is taken for granted. For example, when I visited a school in Vallecas in Madrid in 2002, children as young as five were already spending part of their day learning English through a variety of different activities.
In Italy, the children I saw who had started learning English at five with the British Council had already by the age of eleven and twelve attained a high degree of proficiency. This means that they were able not only to cope with the more formal aspects of speaking, reading and writing in English but also they were able to use it when pursuing their particular pastimes – watching films, playing computer games, listening to music, etc.
The idea of teaching ‘English through ...’ is not a new one. It is based on the simple idea that learning a subject of interest through the medium of a foreign language presents a much more powerful purpose than learning the language out of context.  At the Bell in the eighties we were already teaching youngsters from all parts of the world English through science, art, and sport.
While I’d be more cautious about making claims that learning languages improves an individuals’s brain power, as Gove is quoted as saying, he is almost certainly right in saying that, ‘learning a foreign language, and the culture that goes with it, is one of the most useful things we can do to broaden the empathy and imaginative sympathy and cultural outlook of children’.
As Suzanne Romaine, in her book Bilingualism, put it: ‘What distinguishes bilinguals from monolinguals is that bilinguals usually have greater resources...’.