Saturday, September 22, 2012

SATs stats

The announcement of this year’s SATs results has generated the usual furore over how to interpret them.
The DfE’s‘First Statistical Release’ states that:
The percentage of pupils achieving the expected level, level 4 or above, in the 2012 Key Stage 2 reading tests in all schools increased by 3 percentage points from 84 per cent in 2011 to 87 per cent in 2012.
Historically girls have performed better than boys in the reading tests. In 2012, 90 per cent of girls and 84 per cent of boys achieved level 4 or above. Boys’improvement was more pronounced, increasing by 3 percentage points since 2011 compared to an increase of 2 percentage points for girls.
However, as the release goes on to say:
There were significant changes to the Key Stage 2 assessment arrangements in 2012 that affect this release. In 2012, schools were no longer required to administer a writing test and submit these for external marking. As a result, measures based on teacher assessments for writing have been introduced for the first time. Therefore, this year’s figures for English cannot be compared to the figures for English that were published in earlier years, which were based solely on tests.
The difference between last year and this is that the writing test, which used to be assessed externally, has this year been assessed ‘solely ... on teacher assessment’. What the release goes on to say is that ‘an externally marked writing test in 2012 [this year] showed 77% of pupils met the expected level’. As a spokesperson for the DfE makes clear,‘this suggests that there would have been a gap between test and teacher assessment outcomes for all pupils at national level’.
Presented with an array of figures I would contend that it’s easy to lose sight of the overall picture. I would ask how it is that 85% of pupils are reaching the expected level for reading and writing when secondary schools are gnashing their teeth in frustration at the number of pupils arriving in their schools unable to read and write to the level expected.
Meanwhile, one union leader, Christine Blower of the NUT, used the announcement to launch what is becoming a ritual display of her ignorance about phonics teaching. From her comments, it appears she expects that being taught phonics will have a detrimental effect on the performance of pupils in the years to come. She believes this because she just can’t seem to get into her head that being able to decode accurately enables pupils to read. Of course, if the pupil doesn’t have a particular word in their vocabulary, they probably won’t know what it means unless they are able to glean it from context. Neither can she seem to understand that if a pupil is able to decode fluently (automatically) they are much more likely to be able to read anything and to enjoy what they are read.
I find it utterly inexcusable that such a person as Blower – and she’s not the only one – working at such a high level in education circles can be so utterly lacking in knowledge of what phonics is and how it is taught.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Phonically challenged!

On a phonics training I ran on Tuesday for graduate teachers on the GTP course, I had a most interesting conversation with one of the trainees. The trainee has been asked to teach some phonics lessons in a Buckinghamshire primary school and showed me a list of spellings that were to be sent home each week.
I should say from the outset that the pupils were working in the Initial/Basic Code. The first list appeared to focus on the spelling ss at the ends of short words. The words included ‘grass’, ‘brass’, and so on. However, one word in particular stood out. The word was ‘ass’, meaning of course ‘donkey’.  Now, anyone speaking English with a ‘northern’ accent would not bat an eye at the list. However, in accents of the children in the area of the country in which the school is situated, the spelling a in all of the words in the spelling list, with the exception of the word ‘ass’, represented the sound ‘ar’, as in ‘father’.
The spelling a in ‘ass’ represents the sound ‘a’, as in ‘mat’. What this leaves the graduate teacher with is having to explain the fact that the spelling a is ‘a’ in the word ‘ass’ but ‘ar’ in all the other words. This, when the focus of the exercise was really on the spelling ss at the ends of short words!
Not that the focus was made explicit to the graduate teacher. The lists are handed out and it is assumed that the graduate teacher will know how they are to be mediated. Neither are the parents of the children told how the children are to learn the spellings, nor what the focus of the exercise is.
You may think that this list an anomaly? Sadly, not! The next list introduced the same kind of confusion. This time between sounds represented by the spelling oo. In this list, all words represented the sound ‘oo’, as in ‘book’ (‘southern’ pronunciation), again with one exception: the word ‘cool’, in which the oo spelling represents the sound ‘oo’ as in ‘moon’.
You might think that these are after all rather trivial examples. I wouldn’t agree. It is this kind of sloppy or just plain ignorant mediation of phonics teaching that causes such confusion in the minds of young children who need systematic, explicit and, above all, clear instruction.
The teachers at the school who produced these lists have, by the way, been ‘trained’ in phonics, using a well-known phonics programme. Unfortunately, the training didn’t extend to the teaching of how the alphabet code works in relation to the sounds of the language, nor how to teach the code.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Virtual school?

While arguments rage about state versus private versus free schools, a quiet flanking movement is taking place: the growth of the virtual school or education online.
As a tutor for the Open University for sixteen years, as well as being an online student with the OU myself, I’m a big fan of online study. Every year thousands of people, mainly adults, sign up to the growing number of online courses available. Now though, especially in the USA, more and more families are turning to online alternatives for their children. Online education at both primary and secondary level, whether as full-time or a ‘blended’ tuition, is providing education to well over a quarter of a million children in the US.
According to a special report in this week’s (8th September 2012) New Scientist, what began with the opening in 1997 of the first ‘internet-based, state-run high school’ has now spread to more than thirty states. Out of around 55 million school-age children in the USA, 250,000 represents only 0.5 per cent of the school population but, claims the ‘Special Report’, this is already ‘a jump of 25 per cent over the previous year’.
As yet, no-one knows how effective online eduction is for the primary and secondary years. David Figlio, from Northwestern University in Chicago, says that ‘the research literature is extremely thin’. Kerry Rice, an education researcher from Boise State University in Idaho, maintains that ‘there are really good face-to-face schools and there are really bad face-to-face schools. And there are really good online schools and there are really ineffective online schools. What we really want to know is what is effective in each type of environment’.
At the moment, the majority of schools in the US measure their students’ progress using ‘Carnegie units’, also known as ‘seat time’. However, for students who master concepts, skills and factual knowledge faster or slower than the pace set by the individual school, ‘seat time’ can be demoralising. On the other hand, online learning can offer students the opportunity to progress at their own pace and courses can be individually tailored to their needs; and, as technology improves, this is becoming easier all the time. Apparently, according to the report, ‘New Hampshire ... recently redesigned its high school programme to do away with seat time in favour of mastery-based credit’.
Where might this lead in the future? Cathy Cavanaugh of Gainesville University in Florida believes that ‘every type of learning environment will be in a minority. There will be so many varying approaches that no single approach will prevail’.
It’s a development I expect we’re going to hear much more about in the next few years.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Goodbye Mr Gibb

As minister of state for schools, Nick Gibb knew very well the need for ringing the changes in education. He understood well that a bull in a china shop approach would be counterproductive in assisting Michael Gove in bringing about those much needed changes. As a result, he tended to be pretty even-handed, dispensing adverse criticism of schools and practices where it was warranted and giving praise where due. Despite the fact that he was seen by many as being an effective minister, he lost his job in this week’s cabinet reshuffle.
When I met him before the last election, he declared his intention, should the Conservative Party win the election, to promote phonics teaching in schools. He was as good as his word. Last summer began the initiative of match-funding, whereby for every pound spent by a school on phonics training or resources to support phonics teaching the government would match it up to a total of £3,000 per school. This applied only to schools with a Key Stage 1 component.
Aside from the rather obvious unfairness that some schools, simply because of the size of intake, have many more members of staff needing training than others, as well as other anomalies in the scheme, what has become more and more apparent as time has gone on is that by far and away the lion’s share of the money available under match-funding has been spent on resources (books, etc) and NOT on training.
Throughout the almost ten years we have been training teaching practitioners, our experience at Sounds-Write has been that while many practitioners sincerely believe they already know what phonics teaching is and think they have a good idea of how to teach it, in practice many don’t. They come to our courses without understanding, either from a conceptual or practical point of view, how the sounds of the language relate to the way we spell those sounds. neither do they have much idea of the particular skills required to teach reading. What’s more, their knowledge of how children learn and what motivates children is hazy at best.
Why is this? I would contend that it is mostly to do with the poverty of instruction in the training institutions, which is why Sounds-Write has always argued that training is so fundamental. Because Nick Gibb, like so many of his predecessors, didn’t really ever quite understand just how crucial this is, he lumped training and resources together with the consequence that we have huge numbers of teachers who still have the haziest knowledge of how to teach phonics. It was a big mistake.
The challenge for Gibb’s successor, David Laws, is to make good the error and give support to training. Where the government should also be spending our money is on setting up research projects to find out which phonics programmes are the most effective.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Plaudits for Sounds-Write

I thought Sounds-Write practitioners and other readers of the blog would like to catch sight of a couple of testimonials we received at the end of last term.
The first, from Pinchmill Lower School in Felmersham, Bedfordford, comes from the head teacher, Vanessa Coleman.
Vanessa writes:
Dear John,
I thought I would write to you to share our news and success with you.  We, at Pinchmill, have been using the Sounds-Write phonics programme consistently throughout the whole school over the last year. We have now trained all of our teaching staff, with our new teacher last September attending training in October of 2011. From this point on each class in the school has been taught Sounds-Write.
All of the teaching staff and some of our teaching assistants are involved in the delivery of sessions, and have seen the development in the children over the year. They are all delighted with how it is working with the children and have seen good development in reading and writing during this time.
We recently were visited by one of the Sounds-Write trainers, Jane Bent, who was very pleased with what she saw and has asked for some of my teaching staff to work with other schools through the ‘Leading Teacher Programme’, to support them with delivering the Sounds-Write.
We were also highly delighted with the outcome of the newly introduced ‘Year 1 Phonic Screening Check’ where 100% of the children were successful in passing the test, a great achievement for the children and our Year 1 teacher, Victoria Bailey.
We are very proud of our success, and I am sure that you will also be proud of developing a programme that has proven to be effective. I am sure that with growing experience and expertise our children will continue to make good progress with their reading, writing and spelling.
Yours sincerely,
Vanessa Coleman

The other testimonial came in the form of an email from Theresa Plummer, who is the learning support manager at St George’s CE primary School in Wandsworth.
She writes, ‘I thought you would be delighted to know that St George's achieved the highest pass rate in Wandsworth in the recent National Y1 Phonics Assessment!
28/29 children reached the required standard (31+/40 correct). Our thirtieth child was absent during the assessment period, so is not counted in the figures, but she passed when assessed on her return. 93% officially, but 96.5% including our absentee!
The average pass rate for the Borough was 66%, with a range from 42% to 93%. The National pass rate is not yet public knowledge!
Sounds-write has been successfully implemented across the school. KS2 have seen a marked improvement in spelling in particular. Teachers and teaching assistants feel so much more confident in what they are teaching and how.  We have achieved our highest ever SATs results at KS2 this year.
Best wishes

Congratulations ought also to go to Sarah Horner, the Sounds-Write trainer who trained the St George’s team, and to Jane Bent and Pamela Gross, who were trainers of the Pinchmill staff.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Spelling crystallised

The new school year starts with me looking forward to the publication on September 6th of David Crystal’s new book on spelling. As readers of this blog well know, I am a huge fan of Crystal’s work. Crystal’s knowledge of the English language is encyclopaedic and he is one of the few writers on the subject who manage to remain intelligible to all. I suspect that Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling is a more focused and concentrated version of his previous (and excellent!) The Stories of English.
Just over a week ago, The Guardian published a brief taster, ‘The Story of English Spelling’, of what to expect. In it I was interested in several of the points he made. As he states, Old English, or Anglo Saxon English, as some prefer to call it, was ‘largely phonetic’, by which he means one letter, one sound. I must say that I don’t much like this description because, like it or not, some people get it into their heads that spellings containing more than one letter are somehow not ‘phonetic’ and that the spelling system is therefore highly irregular. This is very far from the case.
Of course, the fact that many spellings contain more than one letter is partly what makes English so difficult to learn to spell. The other thing is that there are so many spelling alternatives in English. Unlike many other European languages in which the spelling systems are very much like that of Old English, one letter spellings to one sound, English, because of its history, has multiple spellings of individual sounds. An example chosen by Crystal in the Guardian piece is the word ‘rhubarb’. The spelling ‘rubarb’ is now proliferating rapidly on the Internet, he claims, and I’m sure he’s right, though my spellchecker doesn’t like it at all. Neither do any of my dictionaries!
However, I think that Crystal’s seemingly strong preference for diversity sometimes runs away with him. By the time of the fourteenth century, English spelling was so inconsistent that, in order to make it more intelligible, it began to undergo a process of standardisation. Caxton has been credited as a major influence in this direction, though the many scriveners’ guilds also had a strong influence.
This tendency towards uniformity and standardisation reached its height at about the time of Dr Johnson’s famous dictionary and continued for some time after. Nevertheless, during the last couple of hundred years, there has been a slow but, some would argue, accelerating tendency towards variation. The newly independent states in America contributed somewhat to this process. Noah Webster (1789), the American lexicographer, deliberately and explicitly differentiated ‘American’ from ‘English’ spelling for political and economic reasons.
Since the arrival of the Internet, a powerful centrigugal force has been unleashed and the sounds in many ‘English’ words are being ‘interpreted’ in different ways, hence the ‘preference’ for ‘rubarb’ as opposed to ‘rhubarb’. While I’m sure that ‘rubarb’ is immediately recognisable and intelligible, one might ask how far such a movement in the direction of variability can go.
Of course, to some extent, these two forces, centripetal and centrifugal, are held perpetually in tension and are dependent on a huge range of cultural, economic and political factors, which is why language and language related conventions change.
Ultimately though, one factor must be maintained: the relationship between sound and spelling. Whatever the spellings we decide on (or agree to differ on?), the fact remains that it is necessary for a writing system to represent the sounds of the language. As the sounds in the language remains constant, at least in the short term, we have an anchor and thus a starting point for teaching the writing system to children in school.
My thanks to Susan Godsland for bringing the Guardian article to my attention.