Sunday, December 25, 2011

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Linguistic versus synthetic phonics

Someone on the Reading Reform Foundation website recently asked what were the differences between linguistic and synthetic phonics. Although some people claim that the differences between linguistic phonics and synthetic phonics are minimal, I would contend that they are enormous and, furthermore, that these differences have profound consequences for teaching and learning.
To begin with, the emphasis in linguistic phonics is teaching learners that the sounds in speech are represented by print, a symbolic system of spellings. The great advantage of teaching from sound to print lies in several factors:
First, the sounds of the language are acquired/learned without any specific teaching: wherever you go in the world, children learn to talk, despite the different views and approaches to encouraging them to talk, such as for example, the use of ‘child directed speech’ (CDS or ‘motherese’ – ugh – as some people call it) people in this country tend to use.
Second, the sounds of the language are finite: there are in English, depending on accent, only (!) forty-four or so. Neither do the sounds of the language change (at least not in the short term): i.e. we don’t add a new sound every now and then or decide to drop one.
Third, the sounds of the language provide the basis for the code (‘The Study of Writing Systems’ – Daniels, P.). All alphabetic writing systems are written to match the sounds: the sounds drive the code; the spellings are the code (to paraphrase McGuinness). In other words, the sounds are what the written language was invented/borrowed (from Latin) for.
Fourth, although forty-four sounds are rather more than, say, Spanish or Italian, if you ground your teaching in the sounds of the language, you simply can’t ever go wrong. And here I’m not saying people don’t make mistakes: there’s no such thing as a perfect speller in English because, if you’ve never seen a particularly complex (in terms of sound/spelling correspondences) before, how would you know how to spell it? Nevertheless, if you are taught how to segment sounds in words and you give a plausible representation of each of those sounds, you end up with something everyone can read and make sense of in the context of text, even if the spelling isn’t orthographically correct.
Fifth, teaching children that the sounds in our speech are represented by the squiggles on the page we call spellings makes, according to Diane McGuinness, perfect psychological sense to them. This is why, in Sounds-Write trainings, we counsel strongly against using imprecise language like letters ‘making’ sounds, because if letters make sounds, then many children have no idea how the writing system works. They think that the sounds are completely random and don’t realise that they are connected to the sounds in their own speech. They don’t know where all these sounds come from and, if they are taught in the way many children are taught, this erroneous idea is further reinforced by the fact that our spelling system is complex. So, the spelling a can be ‘a’ in ‘mat’, ‘ae’ in ‘baby’, ‘or’ in ‘ball’, etc, etc. This would seem to give the appearance that the single-letter spelling a can be anything and, further, that if it can, there’s no point in trying to learn to read because there’s no discernible logic.
Sixth, if you teach from sound to print, you also avoid all the nonsense of ‘hard’ sounds and ‘soft’ sounds, kicking ‘k’ and curly ‘k’, ‘long’ sounds and ‘short’ sounds, and ‘silent letters’, all of which might be a shared code within the teaching community but they serve to confuse many young children.
Finally, if you teach from sound to print, pupils are presented with systemic, domain-relevant knowledge that is organized and structured, and knowledge that is organised and structured can be chunked into recognisable patterns that are much easier to learn.
Teaching from sound to print leaves you with a very simple (from a logical point of view) system: there are sounds and there are spellings, spellings and sounds – simple language that can be understood by anyone, including parents. Admittedly, spelling is more difficult than reading for all the reasons given by Diane McGuinness but complex spelling is always going to be more problematical for the reasons I’ve already stated. However, ultimately and to paraphrase the late Richard Rorty, this is a contest between an entrenched vocabulary which has become a nuisance and a new vocabulary which promises great things.
For more information on what a linguistic phonics programme does and doesn't teach, see also Susan Godsland's excellent website.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Farewell to the Hitch

In memory of Christopher Eric Hitchens, 1949-2011, writer and permanent oppositionist.

Policy in place, practice not undertaken!

Reflections on the statement by the DfE that only 27% of schools use phonics systematically:
Peter Crome, professor of geriatric medicine at Keele University and chair of the National Audit of Dementia, was talking on Radio 4 this morning about the Audit’s findings.
As I listened, I heard him say that the ‘policies were in place, but the practice was not undertaken’. Exactly the same situation is mirrored in the government’s attempts to promote phonics in schools: the policies are there, but the practice is not being undertaken!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

That Y1 phonics screening test again

Following on from my previous posting, although the Y1 phonics screening test should literally be ‘child’s play’ for pupils taught using a good quality phonics programme, it looks very much as if it won’t be much fun for the 73% of schools not teaching phonics well.
For them, the check is going to come as an unpleasant shock. Out of forty words on the test, twenty are pseudo or nonsense words – something Sounds-Write has been using since we started in 2003. A further ’40-60%’ of the remaining ‘real’ words will be ‘less common words’. The latter are defined by the DfE as words that pupils ‘are unlikely to have read previously’. This means that approximately 75% of the words will be pseudo words or words ‘pupils are unlikely to have read previously’.
It doesn’t take a genius then to realise that some schools aren’t going to be making a good showing and, given that the test will also include words with more complex structures, as well as a range of vowel and consonant digraphs and trigraphs(two-letter spellings and three-letter spellings), time is running short.
By the way, in case you weren’t aware, Sounds-Write teaches everything covered by the screening test and more. We also offer some advice to those schools looking for a phonics programme that will fit the bill.

Monday, December 12, 2011

New Y1 phonics screening check - child's play!

At the end of last week the Standards and Testing agency of the DfE sent out to schools its ‘Y1 phonics screening check’, and I have to say that it is great news for Sounds-Write.
It is proposed that the test will consist in a sample list of forty words. The structure will be as follows:
Section 1                                           Section 2
Page 1: Four pseudo words    Page 6: Four pseudo words
Page 2: Four pseudo words    Page 7: Four pseudo words
Page 3: Four pseudo words    Page 8: Four real words
Page 4: Four real words         Page 9: Four real words
Page 5: Four real words         Page 10: Four real words.
In Section one, the structure of the words tested will include CVC, VCC, CCVC and CVCC. It will comprise the following sound-spelling correspondences:
a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n. o, p, q(u), r, s, t, u, v, w, x, y, z, plus some consonant two-letters spellings, such as, ch, ck, ff, ll, ng, sh, ss, th and  zz; as well as what it describes as ‘consistent vowel digraphs’ or two letter spellings in common parlance: for example, ar, ee, oi oo and  or.
In Section two, the structure of the words tested is made a a little more difficult and will include CCVCC, CCCVC, and CCCVCC, and some two-syllable words. It will also add ‘some additional consonant digraphs’, such as ph and wh and more vowel digraphs, for which it gives the following examples: a-e, ai, au, aw, ay, ea, e-e, er, ew, i-e, ie, ir, oa, o-e, ou, ow, oy, ue, u-e, ur, and some three-letter spellings, such as air and igh.
Why is this music to the ears of any teacher teaching Sounds-Write? Because, by the Easter of YR, the children will have been taught formally all of the single letter spelling and all of the two-letter consonant spellings. In addition, even by Easter of YR, they will have practised blending, segmenting and phoneme manipulation in words with more complex consonant clusters, such as CCVCC/CCCVC/CCCVCC words.
What’s more, Sounds-Write-taught children will, from Christmas onwards, be working with nonsense (pseudo) words and coping with them with such facility as to make the test child's play.
By the end of Y1, all of the rest of what is comprised in the test and much more will have been covered, the 'much more' being the rigour with which Sounds-Write teaches the skills and an explicit understanding of how the writing system works in relation to the sounds of the language.
So, Sounds-Write’s response to the test: bring it on!

Friday, December 09, 2011

Two-thirds of children fail new reading test

We might at last be about to gain some real insight into how well children in England’s primary schools are being taught to read. It seems that in a trial run of the new reading test, in which some 8,963 children from 300 schools took part, and which is about to be rolled out at the end of this academic year to all Y1 pupils, only 32% passed.
According to Nursery World, only a quarter of the schools taking part in the trial are actually teaching systematic synthetic phonics. The rest are continuing to use the mixed methods approach that has been so discredited by the research.

Personally, I find it truly shocking that such a small proportion of schools are teaching systematic synthetic phonics when the last government was claiming that this is what all schools had been doing since the Jim Rose issued his report. Apparently, BBCNews is quoting the Department for Education as saying that only 27% of schools use phonics systematically.

These results are totally out of kilter with the results of the national curriculum tests, which show eight out of ten children meeting the levels expected of them at the ends of Key Stages 1 and 2. However, they tally almost exactly with the anecdotal evidence we get from SENCos of secondary schools who, after screening their Year 7 intakes to determine which pupils are going to need extra support in their reading, tell us that as many as seventy-five percent  have a reading age below their chronological age. It also gives us an insight into why so many young people are leaving schools without the literacy skills required for the world of work or for higher education.

Nick Gibb is today reported as saying that:
‘We need to face up to the uncomfortable truth that, despite the hard work of teachers, not enough of our children are able to read to a high enough standard. We have to take account of our place internationally and listen to business leaders concerned about many school leavers’ literacy. The Government can no longer simply congratulate itself on the proportion of pupils reaching the expected level.’
He’s right of course but the sad truth is that the government has not made its match-funding initiative a priority for training teachers.

If Michael Gove and Nick Gibb don’t change tack and give precedence to the training of teachers, we will continue to see the same kinds of results. When I visited Nick Gibb two years ago before he became a government minister, the advice Sounds-Write gave him was that he needed not only a reading test but a spelling test. Children’s writing (spelling) tells us much more about their understanding of how the writing system works and how it is used than tests of reading alone, valuable though they are.

Sadly, this latest news has attracted the usual adverse criticism. When it comes to teaching children how to read and spell, the leaders of the major unions can always be relied upon to make the usual rebarbatively ignorant comments, Russell Hobby, of the NAHT, and Christine Blower being amongst the latest. On the Reading Reform Foundation forum it was recently reported that Greg Wallace, head teacher at Woodberry Down school in Hackney and a champion of synthetic phonics, had appeared on a television programme with Christine Blower, the leader of the NUT, after which Blower had admitted never having seen synthetic phonics being taught in the classroom. As it says on the RRF, surely a case of the ideology being more important than the reality!

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

A tale of two cities

Morrisons announced this week that it had had to send back three-quarters of its new recruits from Salford for remedial training before they were ready to start working for the company.
Out of two hundred and ten staff recruited, a hundred and fifty had to be sent for ‘remedial training including refresher course in literacy and numeracy’.
The Telegraph quoted Norman Pickavance, the human resources director of Morrisons, as saying that "Many of the people were just not job ready. They lacked a lot of confidence and social skills. It is quite clear the education system has failed them."


Heres a story that might give Michael Gove and Nick Gibb pause for thought. On October 13th the New York Times ran a story on Moulshri Mohan, an Indian student from New Delhi, who had received multiple acceptances from universities in the States. She had applied to the US because even though she had a cumulative score of 93.5 percent in her final high school examinations from a private school in India, she couldnt get into Delhi University! Eventually, she was enrolled at Dartmouth in the USA.
Half of India’s estimated population of 1.2 billion is now under twenty-five and, with the middle class growing at an ever increasing rate, competition for places in India is daunting, hence the growing numbers of Indian students applying to US and UK universities. According to the article in the NYT, some students accepted by Delhi University had to achieve ‘the almost impossible’ cut-off scores of 100%.  Moreover, the Indian Institutes of Technology are now having to turn down 98% of applicants.
Indian students now represent the second largest grouping of students in the USA, with ‘almost 105,000 students in the 2009-2010 academic year’, coming only after the number of Chinese students.
This news is both good and bad: on the one hand, countries like the USA and the UK will benefit hugely (for the time being) from the income earned from these students; on the other, when these students return home, they will be the ones generating the new business start-ups, and filling the top slots in established companies and the universities, against which the West will have to compete.
What was it again that DigbyJones said back in 2006? Something along the lines that, unless we pull up our socks, 'India will have our lunch and China will have our dinner!'
Thanks to Kitchen Table Math for the heads-up on the NYT story.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Teach the teachers first!

It’s perhaps a little early in the day to be saying this but the signs are that the government has made a huge blunder in putting together resources and training for match funding. Already, it is becoming obvious to us that many schools are using the opportunity to replenish their libraries (a massive allocation of money (£3000). While, under other circumstances, I wouldn’t disagree – as can be seen from this blog’s support for Alan Gibbons’s ‘Campaign for the Book’ – in this case I shake my head in disbelief.
Why? Well, by and large the primary purpose of phonics books/decodable readers is to give pupils practice in what they have learnt more formally in class. Admittedly, the quality of some decodable readers will be of such a high standard that some pupils will ‘crack the code’ for themselves, so obvious is it that letters are symbols for sounds in the language.
That said, I would contend that for most pupils this kind of reader is a support to systematic and explicit phonics instruction. Such instruction can only be given by properly trained teaching practitioners. Right up to this moment, there are, as we have ascertained from the many NQT trainees who have already attended our courses, very few training institutions giving anything more than the most rudimentary training in phonics teaching – usually little more than half a day.
As for practising teachers, it seems that if they got any ‘training’ at all, it was a morning’s gallop through Letters and Sounds – the training amounting to little more than a familiarisation with the folder.There are some who argue that L&S is everything teachers need to remedy the problem of illiteracy in this country. They are wrong! To begin with, as has been demonstrated by past practice all too clearly, putting the latest government training initiative into document form and lobbing it into the schools, where more often than  not it gathers dust, is not training. Secondly, L&S does not make explicit the purpose for which the writing system was invented – to represent the sounds of the language. Thirdly, it doesn’t teach the necessary skills needed to develop fluency in reading and spelling with anything like the rigour required. Fourthly, it goes far too fast for the fifty percent tail. Fifthly, it doesn’t train teaching practitioners in what to do when pupils make errors.
Many school staff we talk to are still unaware that there is such a thing as matched funding; others believe it is only available for buying resources. This isn’t surprising if you look at the catalogue that has been sent out to schools.
If schools are spending their allocation on resources alone, we will be in the same place when the government funding dries up.
Train the teachers!

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Praise for Sounds-Write from former Teacher of the Year

Alison Hatch, Deputy Headteacher at Reculver CE Primary School in Kent was recently trained in Sounds-Write on one of our Kent trainings by Derrie Clark. She described it as a ‘light bulb moment’ in her career and in her understanding of how reading and spelling should be taught.
Alison won the National Primary Teacher of the Year 2000 and now does judging for the teaching awards. She says: "Once I get a headship ... I will champion Sounds-Write and get you to train up all the staff if they have not had it. Thank you so much!!"