Friday, July 13, 2012

Pedagogy is paramount!

Some time ago I read a piece in the tescomment column by Michael Rosen entitled ‘Art doesn’t come with a set of instructions’. Since then, after reading his frequent rants against the government’s attempts to improve the standards in literacy teaching across the country and his tirades against the phonics screening check, I’ve come to see how much his view of how children learn is ideologically informed.
He says in the article, that he finds it 'odd that, throughout the history of education, an enormous amount of attention has been paid to this [“literacy”] as a skill involving instruction and exercise and much less to the substance of literate material – books, magazines, comics, signs, and, now, on-screen texts’. He goes on to claim that ‘even less attention has been paid to what we think goes on in readers’ minds as they read or in turn to how all this relates to what children might want to write’.
Apart from the fact that huge attention has been paid to what might be going on in the minds of readers, what the first statement suggests is that the skills (not skill – it isn’t a unitary activity!) are not as important as simply exposing children to print. It’s hard to be sure about this because Rosen never really spells things out so that we can pin him down.
He then recounts the experience of watching a mother sing ‘Row, row, row your boat...’ to her child, describing how the mother changed the words, how the child laughed with pleasure, enjoying the moment. This is a lovely encapsulation of the engagement between parent and child which is recognisable to anyone who has children and has learnt to make time for these and many other kinds of activities that are so enriching to the growing child.
But then, he makes a leap, an enormous ideological bound, by stating that ‘[w]henever we do something like this – in whatever medium [he mentions 'language, clay, our bodies, voices, music rhythm, paint, film etc') – we discover in ourselves that we have the power to change those materials and in so doing (because it’s us doing it) we change ourselves’.
I’m sure we do but not to the extent that Rosen claims. The truth is that, left to themselves, 'changes' children make can be minimal. Left to themselves, children arrive at wrong conclusions about the way in which the world works. Try sitting a child in front of a piano and, within minutes, they get bored with knocking out a staccato rhythm. And why, for example, would we expect children to work out for themselves something that is as complex as the English writing system. After all, scholars have spent centuries trying to decipher long dead writing systems. So, why would we expect young children to work out the English writing system for themselves. Much better to teach it in a structured and systematic way!
More broadly, Rosen is wrong about more than the teaching of reading. Some years ago I was teaching English in a secondary school and, having asked the pupils to bring to school front page news stories from a variety of papers, mostly red tops – the most difficult ones to emulate – I asked them to write a front page piece on the riot in a 'public place in Verona' – 'Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?' – involving the Montagues and the Capulets in Romeo and Juliet. I was amazed that they couldn’t do it – not even the best and the brightest. Their ‘newspaper’ headlines and stories looked nothing like a front page from the Sun or the Mirror. And yet, they saw these papers every day and some pupils actually read them.
Until we’d explored the graphology, the phonology, the grammar, the semantics and the discourse of these types of newspaper story in a structured way, the pupils had no idea how to go about the task. Once the ground had been well prepared, they relished the engagement. What they’d done was to learn how the genre worked and, we need to be aware that before one can begin to alter the genre, one has to appropriate it.
So, it’s quite the opposite to what Rosen is arguing. Art does come with a set of instructions. All genres and sub genres are defined by the conventions established for them. The term ‘art’ actually derives from the idea of painting and sculpture being crafts. The great Renaissance teachers of the masters, Cennino d’Andrea Cennini’s Il Libro dell’ Arte (The Craftsman’s Handbook), or indeed Leon Battista Alberti’s Della Pittura (On Painting), provided the Italian masters with a means of attaining expertise.
Cennini’s is a recipe book for all the skills involved in painting, from ‘mixing colours’ to deciding on ‘the proportions which a perfectly proportioned man’s body should possess’. Alberti, in particular, had an enormous influence on the development of Renaissance painting and sculpture. Their followers spent years and years under the tutelage of various maestri who taught them, painstakingly, every aspect of their crafts.
Of course, no one would ever argue that ‘how to make a green with blue and giallorino’ or ‘how to plaster reliefs on walls’ (Cennini), fully describes painting, any more than any phonics advocates would fully describe reading as ‘”decoding”, “reading for meaning”, “comprehension”, “retrieval” and “inference”.... (Rosen). This is Rosen’s caricature of what phonics proponents argue.
What Rosen doesn’t get and is ideologically incapable of getting is that before you can write a newspaper article or compose a symphony or play ‘Chopsticks’ on the piano, you need to understand and practise the conventions of the appropriate genre under the direction (teaching) of an expert, just as before you can enjoy or even understand the meaning of the words on the page, you need to be able to decode.
Rosen, as with so many of our ‘educators’ today, believes that exposure is enough. If he were to teach in a classroom, day after day, he would find that out soon enough that it isn’t  - that pedagogy is paramount.


  1. I think you will find that Rosen is fully aware of the usefulness of teaching children phonics in order that they can read, but he is promoting the necessity of using the phonics skills to read for meaning, not to simply decode (bark at print). His position would be that children need to be exposed to good quality texts, shared with adults or read independently, so that they understand that reading is a pleasure through which you can find out about the world and discover story. Over-emphasis on the mechanics of reading (eg phonics) creates and imbalance that can harm motivation and enjoyment. One aspect is the trend to present children with books that are at their decoding level. These aren't really book, they are manuals. Another aspect is prompted by the phonics check, ie the concentration on words in isolation and nonwords.

  2. Dear Anon,
    Michael Rosen doesn't understand the usefulness of phonics because he doesn't understand the code. If he did, he wouldn't come out with the nonsense he regularly pours forth.
    Second, neither you nor Rosen understand what reading is if you think that decoding isn't reading. It is! If you were a teacher who taught beginning readers or struggling readers you would know this.
    Of course you probably think that you are more knowledgeable than Keith Stanovich, a researcher who is regarded the world over as gold standard. This is what he has to say about 'barking at print': 'There is no research evidence indicating that decoding a word into phonological form often takes place without meaning extraction, even in poor readers. To the contrary, a substantial body of evidence indicates that even for young children, word decoding automatically leads to semantic activation when the meaning of the word is adequately established in memory'.
    This means that, as long as the word is in the reader's repertoire, they will understand it.
    Sadly, neither Rosen nor you have managed to grasp the difference between reading (decoding) and understanding.
    And, who says that an 'over emphasis on the mechanics of reading ... creates an imbalance...' What is an 'overemphasis'? Every day, once a week, once a month? What is an imbalance? Again, you obviously don't teach young children or have never seen good quality phonics in use because if you had you would see that good quality phonics lessons are highly enjoyable, highly motivating and they teach all children to read.
    As for the phonics check, it's wonderful! I, personally, think that it would be better employed at the end of Y2. But, in principle, it's an excellent idea. It tests children's code knowledge - can they link spellings to sounds - and it gives a good indication of how good their blending skills are. However, I would have included a spelling test, which I think gives a clearer picture of how literate children are.
    It's the kind of rubbish Rosen espouses that leads to the 100,000 children (government figures) who enter secondary school unable to read, although if there was a separate test of reading at the end of KS2, that figure would climb considerably.
    And, I don't need patronising with 'I think you'll find that Rosen ...' I've been reading Rosen's poetry and children's stories for a very long time - and I like them, by the way, enough to have read them to my own children - but, on the subject of teaching reading, he doesn't know what he's talking about. And that's flat!

  3. No, I'm not being patronising John, I'm just speaking as I find having read Michael Rosen's blogs. A lot of people regard him as anti-phonics, but it's a bit more subtle than that. Reading his blogs properly, you too will find that. As regards the difference between reading and decoding, it's also quite subtle. A child may well pick up on the meaning of a word he is decoding but may also be focused on decoding, that being the nature of the task as presented, rather than on thinking about the meaning. I'm sure Stanovich has plenty of evidence that decoders recognise words and the meaning if it is in their vocabulary. Getting the meaning of one word does not tell you the meaning of the phrase, sentence or text, this requires reflecting on the content, not just decoding and recognising the words as being known words. By the way, I do teach young children.

  4. Thank you for your comment, Anon.
    While I appreciate that Rosen often inserts caveats into his statements about phonics, I see no evidence that he understands the code. I'm sure he would gain if he were to read Daniels and Bright, Florean Coulmas or even Diane McGuinness on the nature of writing systems and how they relate to the sounds of the language.
    I thought Stanovich had answered the question about 'focusing on decoding... rather than on thinking about meaning' in the 'even for young children, word decoding automatically leads to semantic activation when the meaning of the word is adequately established in memory'.
    Nevertheless, Stanovich does go further. In his paper 'Individual Differences in the Acquisition of Literacy', he maintains that, as long as the word being decoded is within the child's 'listening vocabulary', 'comprehension might fail not because of overreliance on decoding, but because decoding skill is not developed enough'. This also underscores the point that teaching code knowledge on its own is often insufficient in itself to producing good readers. They also need to have proficient skills, which in the research are blending, segmenting and phoneme manipulation.
    Now, though, you shift your ground from looking at reading from the perspective of decoding at word level to 'phrase, sentence or text' level. This is another old chestnut presented as a reason for not doing phonics rigorously in the beginning stages. I don't know a phonics advocate worth their salt who would deny the importance of work at the levels you mention. In fact, I have often in the past pointed people in the direction of the superb 'Improving Comprehension Instruction' by Cathy Collins Block, Linda G. Gambrell and Michael Pressley.
    Our own programme, Sounds-Write, also introduces phrase, sentence and text level work with weeks of beginning YR.
    Phonics advocates are also hugely enthusiastic about presenting children with good quality literature. As I taught literature at university level, this question is never far from my mind. The problem is that the anti-phonics lobby can't see that purpose is the key element here. When presenting a child with a book, the teacher needs to have a clear idea of why they are giving the particular book to the particular child. Is it to improve their decoding skills and to further strengthen the connections between sounds and symbols (spellings), or is it to extend vocabulary, expose the child to the grammars of different genres, to amuse, entertain, etc? The two need to go hand in hand.
    As you do teach young children, I wish you a dry and fun-packed last week of term!

  5. Thank you, John, the sun is out here, so maybe sports day will go ahead after all. Well, reading for meaning has to be at the level of phrases, sentences and texts, as well as at word level, so I protest at your assessment that I am shifting ground! When does decoding turn into effortless recognition of words? It is at that point that the mind is freed up to concentrate maximum effort on meaning. That is the point that we should be aiming to reach with our children. And this automatic reading has to apply to the texts children need to read to find out about the world and about story, not just to tailor-made reading books. Does it matter how we reach that stage? Well, we need to show children from the first stages that reading is worthwhile and for what it is worthwhile. And similarly we need to give them skills for decoding the words to support them in learning the words (to recognise them instantly). Synthetic phonics training is very good for that, and, as you hint, we hope children will learn 'the code'. However, the code is so complex that there are many possibilities for various graphemes, and many words which manifest odd outlying bits of 'code'. So knowing the code is actually not enough to elicit instant recognition. It is my view (and Rosen's I think) that it is not proven that synthetic phonics on it's own can elicit automatic recognition of words and therefore the freeing up of brain-power for reading for meaning. For some children it may actually stand in the way of these necessary aims.

  6. Dear Anon,
    You ask: 'When does decoding turn into effortless recognition of words? It is at that point that the mind is freed up to concentrate maximum effort on meaning?'
    The answer to that question has been answered by many researchers prominent in the field, not least Jeanne Chall, the great and much missed Harvard professor, Marilyn Jagar Adams, Diane McGuinness, and many others. But it is to Stanovich I'd turn to for a neat encapsulation of what is needed. You'll be pleased to see that he part confirms what you are saying. What is needed is automaticity. 'Lack of exposure and practice on the part of the less skilled reader,' writes Stanovich, 'delays the development of automaticity and speed at word-recognition level. Slow, capacity-draining word-recognition processes require cognitive resources that should be allocated to higher-level processes of text integration and comprehension. Thus reading for meaning is hindered, unrewarding reading experiences multiply, and practice is avoided or merely tolerated without real cognitive involvement...'
    What is he saying? He's saying that word processing needs to be instantaneous. And, by the way, in case you are in any doubt, he is NOT advocating a whole word approach. He is adamant that '[a] beginning reader must at some point discover the alphabetic principle: that units of print map onto units of sound'. As you say, '[t]hat is the point that we should be aiming to reach with our children'.
    There is a difficulty though and you put your finger on it when you say that 'the code is so complex'. You're right! The problem is that most people, actually this also includes some phonics advocates too (!), don't understand how the code works.
    What we insist on is that, although the code is complex, if it is taught systematically from simple to complex (from 'cat' to 'catastrophe') as one of our trainers puts it, it is possible to teach all children to read and spell to a very high level of proficiency. And, again, you are right when you say that merely 'knowing the code is not enough to elicit instant recognition'. What children also need is high level skills practice through focused instruction. Similarly, they need to understand how the code works conceptually. After all, the writing system is a symbolic system. No-one would disagree with this statement if we were talking about maths, but when it come to reading ...
    And, by the way, the data we have collected from classroom teachers using Sounds-Write would indicate that phonics does exactly what Rosen claims it doesn't: it enables automatic recognition of words.
    If you have never come across it, I would strongly recommend you read the collection of Keith Stanovich's essays in Progress in Understanding Reading: Scientific Foundations and New Frontiers.

  7. Thank you for responding. You won't convince me that synthetic phonics is enough to ensure automaticity. I think that automaticity happens when children get to know a large range of words (these days this is through phonics, an excellent route) and gets very good at using their known words to infer the pronunciation of other words which they have not come across (to read) before. I think they need to do this to supplement their knowledge of the units of the code to be really flexible in their approach. You need to be flexible because of the complexity of the code. Dare I say it, I also think context plays a part.
    I will certainly try to find and read the Stanovich reference you mention.