Friday, January 27, 2012

Lightman fails to dispel gloom

The BBC has just broken the news that ‘just one in 15 (6.5%) pupils starting secondary school in England “behind” for their age goes on to get five good GCSEs including English and maths’. Moreover, only 34% of children classified as disadvantaged (children entitled to free school dinners or in care) reached the government benchmark.
The new data also indicate that 95% of pupils reaching Level 5 in their SATs at the end of Key Stage 2 (Year 6) go on to achieve five good GCSEs, while only 45.6% of children getting Level 4 went on to get five good GCSEs.
This is exactly what Sounds-Write has been arguing to be the case since we started training teachers in 2003. Many secondary SENCos and special needs staff have reported to us the enormous numbers of children entering secondary school with reading ages far behind their chronological ages, notwithstanding their ‘good’ SATs results.
What Sounds-Write does is to train the staff in these schools to catch up some of the neediest, though this is hugely difficult when there are so many children requiring help. What these heroic teachers also have to contend with is the unwillingness of head teachers and line managers to allow them the time needed to do their jobs thoroughly. Half an hour twice a week has never been enough time to ‘catch up’ a child who is already as many as five or six years behind in their reading and spelling. Some special needs teachers are even expected to sit next to pupils during their timetabled class lessons and remediate whatever problems they have!
On its website, the BBC carries an interview with Brian Lightman, the General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. All I can say is that Mr Lightman did little to illuminate the discussion by whining about the ‘difficulties’ and by claiming that every school he knows ‘is doing everything it can to help disadvantaged children’.
Equally breathtaking was Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg’s accusation that, while he acknowledged disadvantaged pupils were not reaching their potential, the government is promoting ‘pet projects over real need’. Has he somehow forgotten that the systematic failure we are now looking at results directly from the last government not getting to grips with the extent of the problem?
The truth is that parents are sick of the kinds of excuses offered by union leaders such as Lightman, and what really took the biscuit yesterday was his suggestion that ‘parents should go in to help and actually make sure when they’re choosing a school that the school will actually be suited to the needs of their individual child ’. Fat chance of that if your child is allocated to one of the 909 in which ‘not one low-attaining pupil (those not reaching Level 4 at the end of primary school) reached this level’.
No wonder the demand for change is so insistent. The time has come for serious reform and that can only happen when all concerned look squarely at the evidence showing what works and what does not.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Take-up of match funding

Since the government launched its scheme to encourage schools to train teaching staffs in how to teach phonics, only 1,000 primaries have booked such training.
Graeme Paton, writing in the Telegraph, reported last week that in many areas of the country in which pupils are failing to reach the national average in reading, schools are simply ignoring the opportunity to take up the government’s offer of matched funding. As the scheme suggests the arrangement matches pound for pound up to a maximum of £3,000 the money any school with a Key Stage 1 component spends on phonics training.
This is an important moment for education in this country because it is abundantly clear that Michael Gove and Nick Gibb are resolutely determined to drive through reform of the education system.
With the newly announced Y1 phonics screening check about to be introduced across all schools in England in June, there will be no hiding place for those schools ignoring advice on the teaching of phonics.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Mumsnet postings and an offer not honoured

For anyone interested, I posted a couple of replies to questions on Mumsnet this morning. You can read them (and the rest of the thread) here and here.

The other thing that’s on my mind is that I have recently offered two local primary school the opportunity to train one member of their Key Stage 1 teams entirely free of charge. This is partly because I would genuinely like to contribute something to my local community and, of course, partly because I hoped that, if they did agree to send someone, they would be so blown away by the efficacy of the Sounds-Write programme, they’d be banging on the door within six months begging to train more.
So, what was the response? In the case of one of the schools, the head teacher, who said he’d look at the website and, presumably, see that Sounds-Write has been accepted for match funding, as well as being scrutinised by the DfE, never even bothered to reply. In the case of the other school, after an initial reply – a couple of days after the course began – on a second prompting, replied that the school was ‘ok’. This, I hasten to add, is a school attended by two children I have been teaching to read and spell and who clearly have not been getting clear instruction.
Again, in both cases, I also offered to go in and talk them and/or their respective staffs about Sounds-Write and to explain how the programme works and the kinds of results one might expect if they were to implement the programme. In neither case was there any response.
I shall be very interested to see what kinds of results are produced by both schools after the DfE’s new phonics screening check in June. We’ll see then whether or not they are justified in having confidence in what they are doing.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sue Palmer - too much, too often

I can’t help thinking that Sue Palmer, the literacy consultant and author of Toxic Childhood, doth protest too much, too often. This time she’s complaining about the government’s new EYFS writing targets.
Just to be sure what we’re talking about, the target in reading is for children ‘to read and understand simple sentences. They use phonic knowledge to decode regular words and read them aloud accurately. They also read some common irregular words. They demonstrate understanding when talking with others about what they have read’.
The target for writing is for children ‘to use their phonic knowledge to write words in ways which match their spoken sounds. They also write some irregular common words. They write simple sentences which can be read by themselves and others. Some words are spelt correctly and others are phonetically plausible’.
For Sue Palmer, getting children ‘manipulating pencils across paper when they’re scarcely out of nappies’ is ‘cruel’. If there is any manipulation going on, it lies in the rhetoric Palmer deploys to talk about questions of teaching reading and writing.
She is quoted as saying that the above targets are ‘unrealistic’ because 'for boys especially the hand-eye co-ordination and small-scale motor control involved in writing can take years to develop’.
While it is certainly true that a small number of children in YR in particular will need practice in developing further fine-motor control skills, there are plenty of activities which can be used in the classroom to link spellings to sounds. Writing in the air, writing in sand, writing with tools for a suitable size for the hands of small children, art work, and so on, are all activities which can be pursued in the first years of school.
The reason, she claims, for delaying the teaching of writing is that ‘many children from less advantaged homes’ need to develop their spoken language. Again, this is perfectly true, but these children are in a minority in the vast majority of schools across the country. By the age of four to five years, most children know three-quarters of the grammar of the language and have vocabularies of four to five thousand words, far in excess of anything they will be expected to read or write in the early years. In any event, ensuring that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are made literate from an early age will give them the best chance they have of catching up.
Another argument put forward by Palmer is that teaching children to write too early can put them off. Well, it can if the expectation is that the child will write words and sentences containing all the complexities of the English alphabet code. However, this is NOT the case. According to the government’s guidelines, children are expected to write ‘simple’ sentences, the implication being that the sentences are commensurate with where they are in their phonics programmes. This means being able to write sentences like ‘The pig sat in wet mud’, or, perhaps at a slightly later stage, ‘The twin frogs must swim in the pond’.
None of the above precludes any of the activities Sue Palmer would like to see happening in early years classrooms, such as the reading of stories, singing, teaching children how to co-operate with one another, how to eat at table and all the other lovely things good teachers want for their charges.
Just about everything Palmer objects to flies in the face of the research and nowhere is this revealed more clearly than in her assertion that, in her visits to Dutch and Scandinavian schools, she didn’t see children ‘being forced to do something beyond their developmental level’. Apart from the ideologically loaded ‘forced’, the developmentalist approach of which she is so enamoured would leave most of our children in kindergarten until they are eight.
The best kind of teaching, Sue, is aimed not at the ripe functions of the child but at the ripening functions. In this way, it is learning that drives development, but only when the instruction has been organised properly.

Thanks to Susan Godsland for bringing the article in Nursery World to my attention.

Sunday, January 08, 2012


It’s the time of the year once again for the WOTY! What’s this, you wonder? WOTY is the Word of the Year, each year decided on by the AmericanDialect Society. At the annual conference in Portland, Oregon, Ben Zimmer* is chairing the New Words Committee, which decides on the WOTY.
This year’s nominations (from Zimmer’s VisualThesaurus) are the usual mix of the spellbindingly creative to the unambiguously abhorrent. Some of the words are off the cultural register for many, shall we say, older people in the UK. For example, I had no idea what a ‘kardash’ might be but my youngest daughter worked it out straight away. Apparently, Kim Kardashian’s marriage to Kris Humphries lasted only seventy-two days and a ‘kardash’ is now a short-lived union of two people in matrimony.
Some of the words have already passed their sell-by date: utter the words ‘Arab Spring’, ‘cloud’, ‘tablet’ and ‘occupy’ and it’s difficult not to stifle a yawn.
However, uncomfortable it feels in the mouth, ‘humblebrag’ – according to Zimmer, ‘an expression of false humility, especially by celebrities on Twitter’ – seems particularly apposite at the moment. ‘Tiger mother/Tiger mom’ may also gain in popularity as parents raise their expectations for their children’s academic performance.
My favourite word of the moment – a year’s a long time in neologisms – ‘bazinga’! OK, so you don’t watch ‘The Big Bang Theory’, to which I am fast becoming addicted, but if it’s getting my daughter to think that it’s cool to do physics, it’s fine by me.
For all my yawning, ‘occupy’ is the WOTY!

Thanks to Mr Verb for giving me the heads-up from the conference.

*Ben Zimmer, now working for the Boston Globe, is the former ‘On Language’ columnist for The New York Times. He also contributes to the weblog ‘Language Log’.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Reading Harry Potter by 11

Graeme Paton in yesterday’s Telegraph has headlined Nick Gibb’s latest attempts to raise standards in reading by reporting him as saying that ‘all children should read Harry Potter by 11’.
At first blush, it sounds nauseatingly off-putting. Another prescriptive injunction delivered in a tweetable sound-bite by a government minister! Actually, as you read on, you find that Harry Potter is only one among many suggested, worthy contenders for the literary attentions of children, Roald Dahl, Michael Morpurgo, Jacqueline Wilson being among the others mentioned.
According to Nick Gibb, as many as a half of teenagers are not reading such books because they haven’t learnt to read properly. He cites evidence from a study done by the OECD, which shows England as dropping from seventh to fifteenth position in an international league table. How helpful the comparison with other countries is has been challenged because the variables are so numerous. One immediately obvious variable would be the fact that the English writing system is considerably less transparent than, say, the Finnish or the Spanish or Italian writing systems, making English harder to master.
More worryingly, the study reports that almost forty percent of people in their teens do not read for pleasure. In the past, many reasons for this have been put forward, but the most plausible for me has always been that if a child finds reading difficult, it’s unlikely that they will spend their leisure time doing it. Studies in the United States have suggested that unless a child’s reading age is two years above their chronological age, they won’t read for pleasure. If you think about it, it makes sense. Does a child that isn’t good at sport throw themselves into opportunities to take part in sporting activities? Unlikely!
If we want children to read and read widely, we need to make sure they can decode by the end of Key Stage 1. The fact that the writing system is more difficult to learn than many others doesn’t mean it can’t be taught. It simply takes longer and it requires that teachers are properly trained to teach it.
Where Nick Gibb hits the mark is in his insistence that all primary schools teach children how to read (and spell, I would argue) through the medium of phonics. He is also right to say that once children can read they need to be practising all the time on the books already commended.
This is why he is introducing the new phonics reading check – to pinpoint children who, by the end of Y1, are already falling behind. With only a third of children passing the pilot test last summer, it isn’t so much a question of children falling behind as a question of the professional expertise of the teachers teaching them. This isn’t a diatribe against teachers but it is a warning to Nick Gibb. It isn’t enough to exhort teachers and parents to encourage children to become voracious readers. You need first to ensure that they are taught to read - which is why the match funding being offered by government should have been earmarked exclusively for the training of teachers.
In education it is very hard indeed to decide what the priorities are and to remain single minded in one's pursuit of them.
Apart from the match-funding issue, Nick Gibb has made a good start. He mustn't lose sight of the fact that the priority lies in the training of the teachers!

Monday, January 02, 2012

The Written World

This morning on Radio 4 Melvyn Bragg began the first in the series ‘The Written World’. He starts by saying what I always begin every Sounds-Write training with: that writing is ‘the most important idea that anyone has ever had’. Bragg then goes on to talk about the development of writing systems.
What he doesn’t do as explicitly as I’d have liked is to draw the connection between language and writing. As Peter Daniels (1996) says:
‘Humankind is defined by language; but civilization is defined by writing. Writing made historical records possible, and writing was the basis for the urban societies of the Old World. All humans speak; only humans in civilizations write, so speech is primary, and writing is secondary.’ [My emphasis]
And it is this connection that is so important in the training of teachers of reading and writing to young children: teachers need to understand that while everyone learns to speak naturally, writing is, to use the words of Steven Pinker, ‘a bolt-on extra’. It needs to be taught explicitly and systematically.The Greeks introduced spellings for the vowel sounds into what had previously been a consonantal spelling system; thus, every sound in every word was represented by a discrete symbol and we now had a fully phonetic alphabetic script. And to underline a point Diane McGuinness (2004) never tires of making: for writers and readers of alphabetic languages, the sounds of the language are the basis for the written code; the spellings are the code. The acquisition of the written language is essential therefore to learning to read.
In spite of this lack of emphasis Bragg’s series is very interesting, and, in this first programme, he traces the development of written language throughout relatively recent history. As he establishes from the outset, the crucible for the invention and development of writing over five thousand years ago was the somewhat prosaic and mundane need to keep accounts. With the growth of the first cities around the Middle East in areas like Mesopotamia and Sumeria, some kind of system was required for recording the ever multiplying number of financial transactions. From a functional perspective, writing assisted greatly in ‘the administration of government institutions’.
Since that time, the roles of written language have increased enormously. Nevertheless, in all this time, one thing hasn't changed: now as then, learning to read is one of if not the most important tasks children must accomplish. In the programme, Richard Parkinson, assistant keeper of ancient pharaohnic culture at the British Museum, draws a distinction between the ‘dreadful life‘ of the humble farm labourer in ancient Egypt and that of the educated scribe: if you were able to read and write, even then you could ‘become your own boss’.
All of which brings me back to thinking just how crucially important it is for children to learn how to read and write: everything they do subsequently in school and in life depends so much on this skill, without which no-one can develop their full potential.