Sunday, December 23, 2012

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Brazil nuts about education!

If you happened to have bought the Sun newspaper last Sunday, you will doubtless have read Nick Gibb’s piece (pp14 - 15) ‘The teachers aren’t letting down kids... it’s [the] methods of teachers’.
In the article, Gibb claims that one in ten boys leave ‘primary school with the reading age of a seven-year-old or worse’. The same is true, he says, for one in twenty girls.
I think he’s way too low on his figures. He’s probably going on SATs scores but, as everyone knows, SATs are notoriously misleading. As I have repeatedly argued, SENCos and other secondary staff responsible for screening their incoming Year 7s at the start of the school year report to us far larger numbers  than the ones Nick Gibb has given.
Nonetheless, what he goes on to say is absolutely right: the international competition is hotting up and standards in many countries are rising rapidly. Gibb mentions the usual suspects, Hong Kong, Singapore and China but only a few weeks ago, I read a very interesting report in the Spanish daily El País. The piece, by Juan Arias in Rio de Janeiro, reported on a decision made by the Brazilian government to allocate all the money obtained in fees from oil concessions in the country to the cause of education. According to the article, in 2011, the fee amounted to a massive 4,600 million Euros. This is the equivalent of Norway’s sovereign wealth fund and a measure of how serious Brazil views the development of its own knowledge economy.
 As the prime minister of Brazil Dilma Rousseff says, ‘education is the basis of all future economic development’. And, it will mean that something like 10% of the country’s GDP will be devoted to improving Brazil’s knowledge economy. 

This is the shape of things to come and bears out the former leader of the CBI Digby Jones’s prediction, which I reported in postings in 2009 and 2010, that if we don’t watch out India will have our lunch and China will have our dinner. 

Despite the fact that Gibb’s warning should be heeded, I still have a big beef with him. Although he is a tireless campaigner on behalf of ‘synthetic phonics’, he made a very big error in allowing the government’s match-funding initiative to include books and resources as well as training. The first priority, as indicated in the title of the article in the Sun, is the methodology. Teachers need proper training. They need to know how to go about  teaching reading and spelling. They need to understand how the English alphabet code works – how the writing system relates to the sounds of the language – and they need to know what skills are needed to use this knowledge. What has happened, and I fully expect the government’s own figures to bear me out when they are published, is that heads and literacy co-ordinators have spent the match-funding money on replenishing their bookshelves and not on training their staff.

I hope that the government will announce in the new year their decision to continue  match-funding and I hope that the money is allocated for training only.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The children at St Thomas Aquinas sound all right!

At the weekend I was asked to have a look at a child with literacy difficulties. One of the problems she had was that she hadn’t been taught to say sounds precisely.
Sounds-Write sets great store in emphasising to teachers the importance of saying sounds properly without adding an /uh / sound after every consonant.
Why? Because if sounds are said precisely, it is much easier to hear what a word is. For example, if you say the sounds in ‘mat’ as /m / /a / /t /, it is very easy to hear the word ‘mat’. On the other hand, if every consonant sound has an added /uh / sound after it, it is very difficult to hear what the word is.
This becomes more important as words get longer.
If you’d like some very helpful and amusing examples of how to say sounds correctly and how NOT to say sounds, you need look no further than the children of St Thomas Aquinas Catholic Primary School in Bletchley.
Here are a couple of examples:

And you can see them all here.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Independent? Only from the truth when it comes to phonics

You know what they say? There are lies, damn lies and press reports about the government’s phonics screening check - especially in the Independent. I think Leveson should be instructed to look into journalistic standards at the Independent.

The latest, penned pseudonymously by ‘Jennifer Jackson’, has got to be one of the most rebarbative fabrications I have ever seen. Shame on the Independent newspaper for publishing such trash!

According to the author, when it comes to phonics teaching, parents are cowed into silence under threat of ‘retaliation’ from, presumably, teachers. I don’t know what kind of fantasy world the writer lives in but the scenario of terrorized parents meekly submitting before some kind of early years Gestapo is not one I recognise.
And, of course, we have wheeled out the usual ‘concern’ expressed by such ‘experts’ as Professor Joan Freeman, who has probably never taught an early years phonics class in her life.
After inveighing against the introduction of nonsense words into the test, the piece settles, as always, on the word ‘strat’, which, apparently, good readers misread as ‘start’.  I can see how that might happen, though if a child were to lose one mark because of this kind of error, no-one, not even Obersturmbannfuhrer Y1 teacher is going to bat an eye. However, one of the most common errors experienced practitioners see when children, who've not been taught through the medium of a good quality phonics programme, are reading and writing is that they look at the first letters or letters and guess the rest of the word. They might also attend only to the outer segments of a word and not pay attention to the internal details.
If a child reads ‘strat’ as ‘start’, they are not processing the word accurately and when children do this frequently, they can’t make sense of connected text. In other words, the check is useful in identifying the kinds of maladaptive strategies some children resort to because they haven’t been taught to decode properly.
To claim also that children are confused by nonsense words is frankly laughable. If teachers are doing their job properly, they are telling children taking the check that some words are not real words. There’s even a cartoon type figure to alert the child to which particular words are non-words.
The next red herring is meaning. Nonsense words, by definition, don’t have meaning. But then many words that children encounter in their reading are unfamiliar to them. They still need to be decoded accurately, as any reader of Roald Dahl or Edward Lear would confirm.
At this point the writer proves beyond all doubt that 'she' should have stuck to parenting because 'she' sure as hell don’t know anything about teaching reading! ‘She’ tells us next that ‘phonics is all about the sound a letter or group of letters make’. Wrong! Letters don’t make sounds. They represent the sounds of the English language. If young children are taught that letters ‘make’ or ‘say’ sounds, then they come to believe, because of the complexity of the code, that letters can ‘make’ or ‘say’ any sound. The alphabet code is driven by sounds. The arbitrary assemblage of squiggles we call letters represent those sounds.

In comparison with other European alphabet codes (Spanish, German, Italian), the English alphabet code is notoriously opaque. But to say that it is complex, doesn’t mean that ‘focusing on phonics gives out the wrong message’. The benighted writer demonstrates her complete ignorance of what phonics is by maintaining that ‘not all words can be decoded’. Oh dear! It is so sad that a newspaper like the Indie can give space to this kind of rubbish. All words are comprised of sounds. The sounds in every word in English have been assigned spellings, otherwise, doh, Jennifer Jackson, we wouldn’t be able to read them, would we? What's more, the words ‘one’ and 'was' make manifest the authors confusion. She says: 'In phonic speak, the former would read "wun" and the latter "woz".' Well yes, they, er, would. That's because that's how people (depending on accent) say those words. And, of course, it's true that in the early stages of teaching children to read, words containing greater complexities present the phonics teacher with a challenge. An answerable challenge, I would add. But language isn’t entirely orderly and there are anomalies. The fact is these anomalies are relatively few and they can be dealt with.

Another specious argument wielded by ‘Jackson’ is that children who can read ‘a fair number of words are being encouraged to go back to basics’. This recalls the oft-made claim that phonics is all about ‘kuh’ ‘a’ ‘tuh’. Actually, it isn’t! Phonics takes children from being able to read and spell ‘cat’ to being able to read and spell ‘catastrophe’, which is a ‘fair’ description of Jackson’s outpouring of nonsense.
However, the most mendacious and execrable part of the article is the utterly untruthful allegation that teachers are teaching children to write words incorrectly. If there is one iota of truth in the writer’s claim that a teacher is demanding that children spell certain words phonetically when they are able to spell them correctly, the teacher should be taken out of the classroom immediately. I suspect there is no such teacher and that the hysterical assertion has been made to create disquiet amongst parents who have no knowledge of what phonics teaching is truly about.
The piece by 'Jennifer Jackson' is not journalism. It’s agitprop and it should have no place in a reputable newspaper.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

WOTY - Oxford Dictionary style

Once again Mr Verb reminds me that the American Dialect Society, chaired by Ben Zimmer, will soon be plumping for its 'Word of the Year 2012'.

Last year it turned out to be ‘occupy’, a distinctly disappointing decision in my opinion, given the rich choice on offer. I preferred ‘bazinga’, from the 'Big Bang Theory'.
The year before, it was ‘app’, which got it over Sarah Palin’s attempt to outdo George Bush in lacerating the English language with ‘refudiate’.
I’m guessing that Twitter locutions will feature as contenders in the coming fray and I notice that Zimmer had his eye recently on new words being generated in the Twittersphere. His posting “How Twitter language reveals your gender – or your friends’” has some very interesting information about what you are likely to give away in your tweets. He also makes the point that, because it hasn’t yet had time to ‘establish well-defined norms of usage’, it’s a veritable ‘Wild West of language’.
Oxford Dictionaries (UK) has already plumped for ‘omnishambles’, although also in the running were: ‘pleb’, a word once commonly used has now been notoriously brought back to life; and, ‘mummy porn’, which seems to have superseded ‘chick lit’.
Oxford Dictionaries (USA) has also made its choice: ‘gif’, the verb, derived from the noun 'gif', which, according to the dictionary, is ‘a compressed file format for images that can be used to create simple, looping animations’. The also-rans were ‘Eurogeddon’ and ‘omnishambles’.

I can’t help thinking that my daughter’s favourite would be ‘gangnam style’, if 'One Direction' were disallowed, that is!
Update: my daughter tells me there's a good example of a 'gif' to be found at Tumblr, here.

With thanks to the OUP for the image:

Thursday, November 22, 2012

No wonder the whining schoolboy!

There’s a report in the Telegraph this morning under the heading ‘School reports: the 15 best school reports submitted to the Telegraph letters page’.
As with many of these amusing scraps of reportage, I think we need to exercise a degree of scepticism, as many such stories are likely to be apocryphal.
Never mind, the one that caught my eye read: ‘The improvement in his handwriting has revealed his inability to spell’. Delightful!
This takes me back to my own school days when, at a parents evening, my French master informed my father: ‘By the time your son learns French, he will be too old to cross the Channel!’
On a more serious note, alongside the above item, sits a piece on Northgate High School in Ipswich, which is seeking to employ someone to correct ‘spelling mistakes, poor or missing punctuation, incorrect capitalisation [as well as] ‘improving poor grammar’, in the school’s reports written by members of staff.
According to the Ipswich Star, the head David Hutton insists that the school employs ‘high calibre teaching staff’. I can understand a school wishing to ensure the formal acceptability of outgoing reports but, if the staff are so ‘high calibre’, why the need to employ a scrutineer?
Thanks to Webweaver for the image:

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Eastern education: a site of struggle

Readers of the blog will know that I keep my eye on the USA’s National Public Radio (npr) website for what people are talking about in the world of education.

Last week, npr ran a piece on the work of Jim Stigler, a psychology prof at UCLA. As a graduate student back in the 70s, Stigler had visited Japan, sitting in on classes to observe teaching methods.

One particular event stuck in Stigler’s mind. He was watching a Year 3 maths class and one pupil was having real difficulty drawing a three-dimensional shape. Rather than ignore the boy or intervene directly,  the teacher, much to Stigler’s surprise, asked the pupil to go and draw the shape on the board, thus drawing explicit attention to the child's hitherto lack of success.

To Stigler this seemed totally at odds with western practice in which the norm is to ask the best pupil in the class to demonstrate success.

However, in this case, the pupil came to board, tried to draw the shape and failed. Every so often, the teacher would stop the rest of the class, who were continuing with their work, to ask if the boy had got it right yet and each time they would shake their heads to indicate that he hadn’t.

For Stigler, as I imagine for many westerners, this situation was immensely stressful and he reports that he broke out into a sweat of emotional empathy and fully expected the child to burst into tears.

On the contrary, far from giving up or crying, the pupil stuck at the task until he had managed to draw the desired shape. At which point, the teacher stopped the class again, asked them to confirm the boy's success. The class looked up, agreed that he had completed the task and applauded him.

The incident gave Stigler much pause for thought and he has concluded that one of the principal differences between eastern and western cultures is that easterners view struggle as an opportunity, rather than as a sign of low ability. Struggle is seen as a valuable element in the process of learning something.

In fact, whereas many westerners will point to a child’s success in an enterprise and declare that the child’s success happened because the child is smart or intelligent, easterners are much more likely to remind the child that their success is predicated on the amount of effort they put in.

None of this is new but it’s a reminder that perhaps it isn’t necessarily a good thing for teachers to jump in the moment they see a pupil not having immediate success.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Debbie Hepplewhite confounds screening check critics

By kind permission of Debbie Hepplewhite, I am posting, in its entirety, her response on the Reading Reform Foundation to an article by Graeme Paton in yesterday’s Telegraph newspaper.

Debbie’s post provides an excellent risposte to many of the issues raised in Paton’s piece, titled “Compulsory reading test 'should be scrapped'” and straplined ‘Bright children are being “failed” by the Coalition’s controversial new reading test for six-year-olds, literacy experts warned today’.

By Graeme Paton, Education Editor
6:07PM GMT 15 Nov 2012
Pupils with fluent skills are being confused by the assessment that forces children to decode “nonsense” words using phonics, it was claimed.

If the pupils had 'fluent skills', they would not have been confused by the 'nonsense words'. Many words learners need to read in literature are not in their spoken vocabularies so they are the equivalent of 'nonsense words' until such time as they are taught, or can deduce, what the new words mean. 
The UK Literacy Association warned that the test – compulsory in all English state schools – may label some good readers as failures and knock children’s confidence.

No-one is saying the good readers are 'failures' and their confidence should not be knocked unless the adults in charge are incompetent in their capacity to conduct a short one-to-one word-reading activity with their pupils.

Children who are 'good readers' should have been able to read the nonsense words with no difficulty in the same way that they should be able to read new words within literature if they know the alphabetic code of the words. 
In a damning report, it was suggested that the checks were "costly, time-consuming and unnecessary".

We have a significant and historic record of weak literacy and illiteracy in English-speaking countries. Without large-scale standardised testing, we may never have been alerted to the effect of different approaches to teaching reading. It is essential that we know the effects of our reading instruction approaches in schools - literacy is life-chance stuff.

It is high-time that the union leaders and other professional bodies in the teaching profession distinguished between the fit-for-purposeness of quick, simple snapshot national testing which is objective (same test, same conditions etc) and teacher assessment. There is a need for both types of testing - and, clearly, the outcry about snapshot 'objective' testing indicates that the teaching profession does not share a common understanding of reading instruction in our schools - or the need for understanding the picture of teaching effectiveness of our teaching methods.

It is 'damning' that various professional bodies such as the unions and UKLA are making such a fuss about the screening check when it need not be a big deal to conduct it if teachers really understood its importance and conducted it professionally. 
The Department for Education has defended the test, which was introduced for the first time this year, insisting that it enabled teachers to identify pupils lagging behind in reading after at least a year of school.

The reality is that many teachers have been surprised by the results of the screening check - which shows that it has contributed to teachers' understanding of their pupils capability for reading nonsense words. Sadly, however, the comments of many teachers, and others, have demonstrated that teachers do not understand that children who they describe as being 'good readers' should be able to read simple nonsense words as readily as they can read their reading books.

The results of the screening check have also given teachers an indication of the effectiveness of their phonics teaching compared to national figures and the picture in other schools. Teachers need to know this information as part of their continuing professional development. This is essential understanding.
It is feared that any failure to improve reading skills at a young age can have hugely damaging effects on pupils throughout primary and secondary education.

This is a valid statement. Even 'good readers' may hit their own personal ceiling as they progress through school if they are not able to decode new words as the level of vocabulary in books becomes increasingly more challening. Teachers of young children may be oblivious to this development over time. Our secondary colleagues report to us that too many pupils cannot access the texts in secondary schools.

In the past few days, two teachers in different settings have commented to me, for example that they have children who are apparently 'good readers' ('free readers' they said) who stick to the 'safe books' that they have already read and are reluctant to progress on to more challenging books. 
But David Reedy, UKLA general secretary, called for the tests to be made voluntary.

"This shouldn't be a compulsory test and we strongly recommend that the Government re-thinks this,” he said.

"We know phonics is important, but for some children it is holding them back. It should be part and parcel of what teachers have to hand and they should be able to use it when they think it's necessary."

Phonics isn't just 'important', it's 'essential'. There are worrying numbers of people, however, who think phonics is an either/or skill - that some children don't need it because they have different learning styles or can use a range of reading strategies. In reality, phonics for reading and spelling is adult-stuff and it is a very rare adult who does not use phonics application in some form to read and spell new and more challenging words routinely. Many adults simply don't realise this because they do it so automatically. When this is drawn to their attention, it opens their eyes to the reality and they begin to understand that phonics is, indeed, really important to us all - young and old alike. Phonics teaching and learning is certainly not 'holding' children 'back' - on the contrary it is empowering them to read and write.
The check is taken by around 600,000 pupils at the end of their first year of formal schooling. Pupils are supposed to use phonics – a system which breaks words down into a series of sounds – to decode a list of 40 words.

The list includes made-up words such as "voo", "terg", "bim", "thazz" and "spron” to ensure pupils are properly using the phonics system.

A study conducted by the UKLA analysed teachers' opinions of the test at 494 primary schools in England.

Many schools said the results of the check, which is used as an indicator of a child's reading skills, "did not reflect children's reading abilities as there is much more to reading than decoding".

I suggest that a body such as the UKLA having conducted a survey of teachers' 'opinions' should be very concerned if teachers believe that the screening check results had no contribution to make to our 'understanding' of the processes of reading. If teachers were familiar with the Simple View of Reading model, they would not need to protest along the lines of 'there is much more to reading than decoding' because absolutey no-one is saying any different from this!
Only around one in six of those questioned said that all of their pupils who were fluent readers achieved the required level to pass the phonics check, the study found.

Then doesn't this suggest that those children described as 'fluent readers' are not nearly so fluent as their teachers might like to think.
Almost three-quarters said that one or more of their good readers failed to meet the expected standard to pass.

Which might indicate that the children concerned were relying heavily on context to access their reading material and their 'reading reflex' was not erring towards seeing words clearly and decoding them accurately. This might bode ill for their long-term reading reflex as the vocabulary in the books becomes increasingly challenging.
UKLA's study found that teachers felt there were "far too many nonsense words".

"These confused more fluent readers, who had been taught to read for meaning, and therefore tried hard to make sense of the 'alien words' they read," it said.

Children should not be taught to 'read for meaning' at the expense of reading words accurately in or out of the context of sentences. Not only that, the children were actually told that the words were nonsense words - so there should have been no confusion whatsoever when children came to decode the words - they even had the 'aliens' alongside the words to further distinguish them from the list of real words.
The study warned that the check focuses on decoding words without their meanings, which "goes against everything the children have been taught".

The check should not have gone 'against everything the children have been taught' because the children should have been taught to scan printed words to recognise any letter groups within them (scanning from left to right) and then to sound out and blend the words. By the end of Year One, children should have had the regular experience of decoding thousands of words as words and within sentences.

One teacher told researchers: "The test took longer for some able readers who read for meaning. I felt that words very close to real words were unfair - e.g. 'strom'."

And another said: "Almost all children, regardless of ability said 'storm"'.

Certainly the word 'strom' is the most quoted word as having caused confusion or errors, but it is only one word out of 20 nonsense words and should not have affected the overall result of the check. We need all children to be able to attend to words carefully and clearly - not take a quick stab at coming up with a pronunciation. 

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “The phonics check is based on an internationally proven method to improve children’s reading.

“Too many children are not reaching the expected levels of reading whilst at a young age, do not catch up, and then struggle in secondary school and beyond.

“The pilot last year found that the test only takes a few minutes to complete, and that many children enjoyed it.

There are teachers who have described that their pupils enjoyed undertaking the screening check - even asking if they could do something similar the following day. There are also teachers who tried it out on their Reception children with great resuts - and there are teachers who cannot wait until the screening check next year to see if they have taught even more effectively than this year. I know which profile of teacher I would prefer to teach my grandchildren!

“Ensuring all children master the ability to decode and sound out new words is essential if they are to become confident readers. The phonics check will ensure that no child slips through the net still struggling with this basic skill.”

The advent of the screening check is already sharpening teachers' minds for the need to become effective phonics teachers - and alerting them to the reality of whether they are effective teachers compared to others or not. Where children are not able to decode words through application of phonics knowledge and blending, they are seriously disadvantaged and teachers do a disservice to children if they do not teach them the alphabetic code and blending skills well.

Teachers, parents, people in professional associations should be concerned that there is so much protestation against the government's efforts to discover the outcomes of reading instruction in our schools when so many people's life-chances are seriously ruined by weak literacy or illiteracy.

This is very serious stuff indeed

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Clear vision, consistency and effortful practice

The latest issue of teach PRIMARY has just come out and there are two articles (at least) of note that are worth a look at.
The first, ‘Good education doesn’t change every time there’s a new secretary of state’, is about Belleville Primary School in Wandsworth. According to Jacob Stow, the head teacher John Grove has worked steadily over the past decade to raise standards and it looks as if he and his staff are succeeding. From a base of low standards and low attainment, the school was adjudged ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted in 2007, and has now been awarded the coveted ‘Teaching School’ status.
They attribute their achievements to date to clear vision and consistency. The ‘clear vision’ looks to have been inspired to some degree by a visit to Singapore, which has inspired the school to adopt a number of important practices, such as, for example, acknowledging the enormous value of research and allowing staff time out to pursue it. They have also employed a retired professor for one day a week, an idea I saw being used to excellent effect in Shanghai schools through an OECD video.
The other article I liked very much is by Mike askew and focuses on Singapore Maths. Its main message is that ‘productive dispositions’ are not born but develop with effortful practice. This could have been taken straight out of the research findings in K. Anders Ericsson’s The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. High levels of ability or even expertise in any domain require more than ‘nascent talent, initial task interest, and high quality instruction; [they] also involve personal initiative, diligence and especially practice’. (Zimmerman, B., Chapter 39, p.705).
In fact Ericsson and Lehman (1996) ‘found that measures of basic mental capacities are not valid predictors of attainment of expert performance in a domain, and systematic differences between experts and less proficient individuals nearly always reflect attributes acquired by the experts during their lengthy training’ (p. 10).
In other words, with high quality instruction, plenty of opportunity to problem solve and practise, and the encouragement of effort, all children can make substantial progress in mathematics, or anything else for that matter.
These are also precisely the principles on which Sounds-Write is based.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Back to nature study?

While listening to the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning, who should pop up but the naturalist Chris Packham? He was deploring what he and David Attenborough see as a loss of interest in nature study.
To begin with Packham was saying how unfortunate it was that today's children seemed content just to sit back and enjoy what’s served up on television instead of getting out there in the wild and experiencing it for themselves. Aside from the influence of the box, he also put this down to the current obsession with health and safety.

Although teachers are still in many early years environments encouraging their charges to go digging for ‘mini-beasts’ and what not, there seems less often to be an appreciation of the value of collecting things – leaves, nuts, berries, and so on – for the purpose of categorising and classifying.
I have often remarked on this phenomenon on many of the teachers’ courses I’ve taught. Teaching children to look closely at something and to differentiate it from something else that is very similar but subtly different is a vital skill. Similarly, taking, for example, a leaf, examining it and drawing it combines a number of useful skills that will be of indispensable importance in learning to read and in differentiating letters one from another.
And it’s not just skills and knowledge that are nurtured through the collection and classification of objects in nature study. The practice can also, carefully developed, help to promote the growth of simple scientific concepts, which play such a vital part in the child’s mental development.

Monday, October 22, 2012

One spelling, different sounds

I wrote this post and then thought that it would be easier to listen to than to read, so here's the link to the audio file.

As I was asked to post the transcript, here it is below:

In this audio file I’m going to talk about how spellings in English can represent different sounds.
In written English spellings can represent different sounds and this is something that people can find troublesome to teach.
Fluent readers rarely even notice this feature, until, that is, they come up against a word they’ve never seen before, visit a place whose name they don’t recognise, or come across someone’s name they are unsure how to pronounce. However, teachers and parents notice it all the time and, if the forums on MumsNet or the TES are to be believed, are utterly baffled about how to go about teaching it.
Amusingly, this particularity of the language could be witnessed at first hand  yesterday on the ‘Today’ programme on Radio 4, when Evan Davis was introducing a guest by the name of Niall Crowley. Davis wanted to call him /n/ /ie/ /l/   /k/ /r/ /ow/ /l/ /ee/; whereas, in fact, his name is /n/ e/e/ /l/  /k/ /r/ /oe/ /l/ /ee/.
Another example of this is the place name ‘Broughton’. Broughton is a place in Northamptonshire and is pronounced /b/ /r/ /ow/ /t/ /ǝ/ /n/. In Milton Keynes, however, there is also a place of the same spelling that is pronounced /b/ /r/ /or/ /t/ /ǝ/ /n/. So, the spelling ough can be /ow/ and it can also be /or/.
The question is how would you know this? To which the answer is that you wouldn’t unless someone in the know told you. Now, here’s the thing: this is only likely to happen in the case of fluent readers with examples such as the ones I’ve given above. In virtually all other cases where this happens in everyday reading, as I’ve already indicated, fluent readers don’t even notice this aspect of the language. For example, when reading the sentence ‘Last night I ate a tasty steak.’ a fluent reader would have no problem with the spelling in the word ‘steak’. Of course, in this word, the ea spelling represents the sound /ae/. In other words, though, it can be the sound /ee/ (‘seat’) or /e/ (‘head’). So, how do we know that in ‘steak’ it’s /ae/. Well, firstly, as fluent readers, we process all the information in the word so fast (in milliseconds) that our brain isn’t aware of what we’re doing above the level of consciousness. We are also simultaneously processing meaning: ‘Last night I ate a tasty ‘stek’ or a ‘steek’ just doesn’t make sense and our brains ‘know’ this before we ‘know’ it (are consciously aware of it). There are also orthographical patterns in the language that are so common (and insistent!), they ‘demand’ a certain response. For example, the spelling a most usually represents the sound /a/ but when we see it positioned in front of the spelling ll for /l/, we immediately read it as /or/ (‘ball’, ‘tall’, etc.).
The problem for beginning readers and for people who are having trouble learning to read is that they are rarely explicitly taught that, in most cases, a spelling can represent/stand for/be more than one sound. Why this should be, goodness only knows because this is by no means a difficult concept to grasp. We live in a world of symbolic tools: signs, symbols, graphs, musical notation, etc. Spellings are no different. Even quite young children have no difficulty in understanding that a circle can represent different things: a ball, a pizza, a moon. Exactly the same is the case for, say, the spelling o: it can be /o/ in ‘hot’, and it can also be /oe/ in ‘no’.
Neither are many beginning readers or poor readers given the skills and the systematic code knowledge to enable them to engage successfully with this aspect of the code. If they read the name ‘Gemma’ as /g/ /e/ /m/ /a/, it won’t be recognisable as a name they are familiar with and, in this case, they should be being taught to ask themselves what the potential problem is. If we teach them that the spelling g can be /g/ but in some words it can also be /j/, then /j/ /e //m/ /a/, which in turn becomes normalised as /g/ /e//m/ /ǝ/, is likely to make sense.
Good quality phonics teaching does NOT involve teaching code knowledge alone. It also requires that learners understand how the code works – how the spelling system relates to the sounds of the language – and that they are given the skills necessary for them to use the knowledge they have.
Of course, as always, to teach children these elements of conceptual understanding, of code knowledge and the skills needed, teachers themselves need to know exactly how the system of spellings and sounds works, or there will be huge potential for confusing children.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Broadcasting grouse!

The anti-phonics crackpots have been out again this weekend. On Saturday, Mike Lloyd-Jones made me smile when he pointed out the spurious logic of one anti-phonics writer of a letter to the Guardian newspaper. The writer attempted to discredit phonics by using the kind of invented spelling that phonics advocates have by now become used to: ‘fonics’ and ‘krazie’.
As Mike points out so cogently:
"What is actually amusing about this attempt at humour is that it concedes the very point it’s trying to attack.  We can understand this letter because we know that letters in words are used to represent the sounds we hear in those words and we can use our phonic knowledge to read it because it is written using phonemically plausible spelling…"
Yesterday (Sunday) saw a similarly crude attempt to invalidate the reasoning behind phonics teaching, this time by the BBC. Paddy O’Connell introduced the piece on ‘Broadcasting House’ by saying that ‘teachers and parents have been poring over the first results of new reading tests for half a million year 1 children. The tests in England and Wales involve phonics in which six-year-olds are encouraged to spell words on the basis of sounds rather than recognising just the letters in the written word.’
To begin with, other than their own children’s results, ‘parents certainly are not ‘poring over the results’ because they have not been made public. Secondly, the ‘tests’, as he referred to them, were not taken by any children in Wales. Thirdly, the children were asked to read the words and not 'spell' them, as O’Connell stated. This is, of course, a typical example of the kind of shoddy journalism we have come to expect from people writing or broadcasting on the subject of phonics.
The programme went on to invite listeners to send in sentences made up any of the following nonsense words: dar, veng, quoam, yurk, doit, ploob, spunch, grint, pronk, gax, zort, koob, zog, vot, jound, terg, jape, snemp. Naturally, there was no effort on the part of the programme to contextualise this nor to state clearly that nonsense words constituted only a part of the phonics screening check brought in by the government last year.
At the end of the programme, someone proffered the following contribution: ‘Michael Gove is a terrible terg. Fancy calling a phonics decoding test with made up words a reading test. Yerk! What kind of pointless pronk is that. I’d like to spunch him.’
As Mike pointed out in his response to the Guardian writer, this kind of thing ‘concedes the very point it’s trying to attack’. Any literate person, for which read any person who is able to decode the words on the page, will be able to read what is written and will, from the contextual clues in the sentences, interpret the terms ‘terg’, ‘yerk’ and ‘pronk’ to signify the writer’s disapproval of Gove and of the check.
Despite the fact that children as young as six-years-old are, on average, understand the meanings of as many as 10,000 words* (many more words than they are able to read at this point), there will often be many words, real or made-up, they don’t recognise. Some of these words may be of the kind favoured by Edward Lear or Roald Dahl. (It's ironic, isn't it, that many of the anti-phonics fanatics are the most fervid champions of Carroll, Dahl, and Lear.) Adults will also come across unknown words in the writings of, amongst others, Philip Dick, the great science fiction writer. Nevertheless, to understand words in print, the first thing a reader needs to be able to do is decode - translate spellings into sounds in words. If then a word is not within the individual’s vocabulary, the reader can ask someone who is more likely to know the meaning, consult a dictionary, or guess from the context.
What anti-phonics campaigners are ideologically blind to is the fact that to be able to derive meaning from print, a person has to be able to decode. English is much more complex than most other alphabetic languages and thus harder to learn. It must, therefore, be taught systematically from simple to more complex by well-trained teaching professionals. When that doesn’t happen, we have what we have been left with for the best part of the last century, a long tail of people who aren’t able to read the kinds of things that everyone in such a print-rich environment as ours needs every day.

*William O'Grady in How Children Learn Language (Cambridge Approaches to Linguistics) says that the figure is nearer 14,000 words and that, from around that time, children learn as many as twenty new words a day.