Saturday, November 26, 2011

'Silent letters'?

Something which keeps on coming up on Sounds-Write trainings we run is the question of ‘silent letters’. The explanation that there are such things as ‘silent letters’ is still one to which many teachers resort when they find themselves unable to explain the relationship between sounds and print. For example, in the word ‘knight’, although they will refer to the igh spelling as representing the sound ‘ie’, many talk about the k as being ‘silent’.
Apart from being logically inconsistent, the tendency betrays a lack of understanding of how the writing system works. Having recognised igh as representing the sound ‘ie’, it is but a short step to recognising the two-letter spelling kn as a spelling alternative for the sound ‘n’.
In English there are multiple spellings: ‘fun’, ‘winning’, ‘know’, ‘gnome’, ‘pneumatic’, and ‘gone’, are all examples of spellings of the sound 'n'. What is true for the sound ‘n’ applies equally to the other sounds in the English language and this makes learning to read and spell in English harder.
Why is the use of the term ‘silent letters’ potentially damaging to children’s understanding of how the English alphabet code works and to their ability to learn what is a complex system? For a start, young children are often very literal and when people talk about letters ‘making’ or ‘saying’ sounds, they take this literally. They think that letters do actually make sounds. In such a complex system as English when letters singly or in combination can represent multiple sounds - for example, the combination ea can be /ee/ in ‘meat’, /e/ in ‘head’ and /ae/ in ‘break’ – unless children are taught systematically and explicitly, the system can give the appearance of being completely random and chaotic. This makes the task of learning it appear impossible and, for some children, ‘magical’, for if letters ‘make’ sounds, then they can make any sound and there is no logic to the writing system. Letters do NOT make sounds. People make sounds and spellings (letters, singly or in combination) represent them.
Symbolic systems are fundamental to highly developed societies. We use them in music, mathematics, literature and, most importantly, in writing. In the writing system, spellings represent sounds in the language. The English writing system is complex but it is rendered consistent and coherent if learners are taught from the beginning how it works from a conceptual point of view. If learners, and this includes young children, are taught that the sounds in their speech, of which there are a limited and finite number, are represented by the squiggles on the page we call letters (I prefer the more accurate and specific ‘spellings’), we have a system that is ordered and can easily be taught from simple to complex. In teaching from sound to print, we avoid the contortions purveyors of the print-to-sound trajectory have to go through to explain the code, which result in illogical ideas such as 'silent letters'. To paraphrase Diane McGuinness: speech sounds are the basis for the code, the spellings are the code.
In a system in which all letters in a written word are orthographic symbols in their own right, there isn’t anything left out that can be designated a ‘silent letter’.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Visual rhetorical reverberations, or linguistics tattoos to you and me

Ever considered a linguistics tattoo? Probably not! But Team Verb showed how me how amazingly committed some people are to their academic disciplines and the legs (you have to look at the slide show  slide 10! ) to which they will go to display that commitment.
Running teachers’ courses I’ve seen some interesting tattoos in my time. After reading this, I shall be looking out in future for a little schwa, replacing that butterfly/bizarre Chinese aphorism on someone’s pinkie, shoulder or ankle!

b ʊ t  w aɪ  w ʊɛ n iːw ɒ n  w ɒ n t  
t uː  t æ t uː  ə  ɡ l ɒ t l  s t ɒ p  (ʔ ) 
ɒ n t uː  ð ɛər  h æ n d  ð oʊ?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Red faces at UKLA as Scarlett reads and spells non-words

Literacy 'experts' maintain that testing children on made-up words confuses children and that they can’t read or spell words that aren't real. As I’ve argued repeatedly, see here and here, they are talking utter claptrap.
Well, I thought, I’m sure my friend’s daughter Scarlett would love to show them just how wrong they are: http://vimeo.com/31894110. And she did!
Thanks to Scarlett. No adults were harmed in the making of the video.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

The parent factor in student performance (OECD)

It sounds like a headline from the Daily Stands-back-in-amazement: the BBC education news desk reported yesterday that an OECD study has discovered there is ‘a strong link between teenage reading skills and early parental help’. Hmmm, you're very likely calling to mind John Cleese's 'stating the bleeding obvious' remark!
Graeme Paton in the Telegraph has also picked up the story today, which he’s chosen to headline as ‘Reading with parents “improves children's exams results”'. I imagine it gets parents’ attention more effectively that the OECD's rather more muted ‘Reading to children has long-term impact’!
OECD studies are well conducted and are therefore worth considering. In this case, the research indicates that, even when social differences are taken into consideration, children who are supported by their parents in the early years, ‘were six months ahead in reading levels at the age of fifteen’.
The study also highlights the importance of talk at home. Interestingly, the report also suggests that parents don’t have to be well educated to be able to make a difference. Simply reading to children several times a week seems to make a difference. This chimes well with research done in the USA by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, (see here) which showed that the amount of talk given by a care-giver to their child, crucially in the first three years, correlated very highly with the child’s future academic success. And, it wasn’t the quality of the talk that was so important; it was the sheer quantity that made the difference.
However, certain other important questions remain. What constitutes parental support? Does this mean that parents merely read to their children? Does it mean that parents read with their children – the children reading what they can and the parents helping out when the children reached the limits of their abilities? Does it mean that parents actively taught their children to decode and then went on to engage their children in reading books which were commensurate with what they had taught, in terms of skills, concepts and knowledge about the code? How about the differences in ease with which some languages are encoded and decoded? All of these are pertinent questions and often obscure what is meant by the term ‘supporting children’s reading’.
Unless we operationalise the terminology we use, it’s not clear what important issues are being (sometimes deliberately!) elided.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Please Miss, what's a Grinch?

Why are education journalists such dupes?
Once again, this time in the pages of the Independent and on the BBC website, education journalists have swallowed the nonsense propagated by ‘literacy experts’ who are calling on the government to abandon the planned tests of reading for six-year-olds.
The opposition to the tests is in truth an attack on the government’s determination to tackle the scandalous problem of illiteracy in this country by making sure that children are taught phonics by the age of five. However, the focus of the attack is on the ‘pseudo words’ or the words that are not really words in the English language (yet anyway!) which comprise one part of the reading test.
The ‘experts’ siren song so far has been to try attract the gullible with claims that because the words aren’t real words, they will confuse children. They see this as the Achilles heel of the government proposal. The Sounds-Write programme has used nonsense words for the past eight years, and, out of eight thousand teaching practitioners trained, not once have we had a single complaint about children becoming confused. If presented as a sort of game and children are told that the words they are going to read are not real words but are made-up or nonsense words, they have no difficulty whatsoever. In fact, they regard it as fun. Not only that, they are amazed and excited by the fact that they can read and spell words they have never seen before.
Non-words aside, what are we trying to achieve by teaching children phonics? We are teaching children how the sounds of their language relate to the spelling system and, in so doing, equipping them to be able to read anything, regardless of whether they recognise the meaning of the word immediately or not.
Much new vocabulary is learnt in context. When an unfamiliar word is decoded (read), the reader uses their contextual knowledge to discern meaning, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Regardless, they need to be able to decode it before meaning can be established.
The arguments put forward by people who obviously have never taught phonics to young children and quite obviously don’t know what they are talking about are specious. Frankly, journalists ought to be making more of an effort to present the other side of the argument by going in to schools and finding out for themselves the merits or demerits of the case in question. If any are listening, I can provide plenty of evidence to demonstrate.