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.

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