Tuesday, February 28, 2012

More on high-frequency words

In the next two hundred HFWs in Letters and Sounds, I’ve calculated that a further sixty-two are again easily decodable. This makes a total of ninety-four out of the three hundred listed which are commonly occurring words but which are easily decodable and should NOT be taught as ‘sight words’.
At Sounds-Write, our approach has always been to focus on transparency: that is to say that we teach pupils a transparent system within which if they can read a word, they can spell it. This focus on transparency could, in the initial stages of a child learning to read, restrict the child’s ability to read words even in fairly simple decodable texts. [By initial stages, we mean when the child is working at the level of one-to-one sound/ spelling correspondences or one sound/one two-letter spelling.] This is because there are a number of common but essential single-syllable words whose spellings at this early stage in their learning are not transparent to them.
Words such as ‘the’, ‘is’, ‘was’, ‘of’, and so on cannot easily be avoided when learning to read and write. Thus, when encountered in text, or in dictation, until they are taught formally during the course of programme, the teacher should take responsibility for these words and introduce them by saying the word for the child as they are reading or writing it.
In the case of reading, this can be done by saying the whole word, or by saying the sounds and saying the word, or even saying the sounds and asking the child what the word is. If the word has just one unfamiliar spelling the child has not yet come across, such as for example ea in the word ‘head’, the teacher would point to the ea and say, “This is ‘e’. Say ‘e’ here.” The child would then say the sounds, ‘h’ ‘e’ ‘d’, and read the word ‘head’. If the child wants to write the word ‘head’, but isn’t sure how to spell the ‘e’ sound in the word, the teacher can write and say, “This (ea) is the way we spell ‘e’ in ‘head’.”
In the case of other HFWs, such as ‘day’, ‘me’, ‘go’ and ‘her’, which appear in the list of the first 100 HFWs, again the teacher simply points to the spelling not yet covered and tells the child the sound it represents. The child says the sounds and reads the word. This approach also sensitises the child(ren) to what is going to be taught formally in the future.
Until they are covered in the programme, whenever these spellings appear in text, as far as possible, we recommend telling the pupils what sound the unknown spelling represents to allow them to decode the word for themselves.
Included in the lists are words containing very infrequent spellings. For example,  oh is a spelling alternative for ‘oe’ and eo in ‘people’ is a spelling alternative for the sound ‘ee’, but they are not common spellings and can mostly be taught as they arise in the context of everyday reading and writing.
After covering all the most common spellings of the vowel sounds by the end of Y1, what we are left with are ‘more spellings’ of some of the vowels and consonants, all of which will be taught in the Sounds-Write programme by the end of Y2. Examples would include the spelling of the sound ‘or’ as ‘door’, or the spelling of the sound ‘air’ in ‘bear’.
Finally, there are in the list of high-frequency words a few words which, admittedly, can be troublesome to teach. These are: ‘one’, ‘two’, ‘mr’, ‘mrs’, ‘many’, ‘any’, and ‘once’. However, an explanation about why they are written in their present form is often helpful. For example, the word ‘mr’ is an abbreviation of the word ‘mister’ and ‘mrs’ is an abbreviation of the word ‘mistress’. ‘One’ is derived from Old English forms ‘en’ and ‘ane’, whose pronunciation, by the fifteenth century, had changed to ‘w’ ‘o’ ‘n’ but whose spelling was retained. Similarly, the word ‘two’ derives from the Old English word ‘twa’. The words ‘any’ and ‘many’ simply reflect the changes in pronunciation with which the spellings have not caught up. Nevertheless, it is useful to draw attention to the unusual spelling in these words because it is then much more likely that the child will remember how to spell them in future.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

High frequency words

On our Sounds-Write courses, I’ve noticed that an increasing number of practitioners working in schools teaching phonics seem to believe that the three hundred high frequency words included in the Letters and Sounds manual should be taught as ‘sight words’.
What is the answer to this?
First, we think it’s a bad idea to teach ‘sight words’ or words which teachers think need to be memorised by heart. In fact, we go as far as to say that, because it has become synonymous with ‘sight words’, the term ‘high-frequency words’ should be accompanied by a reading and spelling health warning.
Second, the term ‘high frequency’ has become so clich├ęd, it seems, in the minds of some teachers, to have become detached from its meaning. What ‘high frequency’ means is that the words in the list are the most commonly occurring words in children’s books and stories. However, being the most commonly occurring words in children’s books and stories doesn’t mean that all of them are complex to teach.
In the list of the first one hundred high frequency words the following are relatively straightforward to teach:

2 and VCC6 in VC, 10 it VC, 14 on VC,
18 at VC, 20 but CVC, 21 that CVC, 
22 with CVC, 25 can CVC, 27 up VC, 
28 had CVC, 34 this CVC, 36 went CVCC, 
41 not CVC, 42 then CVC, 48 mum CVC, 
50 them CVC, 54 dad CVC, 55 big CVC,
56 when CVC, 57 it’s VCC, 64 will CVC, 
66 back CVC, 67 from CCVC, 69 him CVC,
71 get CVC, 72 just CVCC, 77 got CVC, 
91 if VC, 92 help CVCC, 96 off VC, 100 an VC.

[The number preceding the words in the list corresponds to the place in which the word appears in the list of 100 high-frequency words in Letters and Sounds.]
If you look carefully at all of the thirty-two words above, you can see very clearly that almost all of them are comprised of one sound/one letter spellings. Indeed, most are either simple VC (‘it’) or CVC  (‘big’) words. The level of complexity in these words increases slightly with the introduction of the idea that a sound can be spelt with two letters (‘will’, ‘back’).
From a structural point of view, the complexity also increases slightly with the inclusion of adjacent consonants in words which take the form VCC, CVCC and CCVC (‘and’, ‘help’ and ‘from’). Having said that, all of these words are very easy to teach and to learn.
So, in the list of one hundred high frequency words, at least a third of them are very or relatively easy to teach.
Tomorrow – what to do with words containing more complex spellings?

Monday, February 20, 2012

‘Every student, every day’

Here’s a heart-warming story I’ve just picked up from kitchen table math in the USA.
Catherine Johnson co-founded the Irvington Parents Forum in 2006 with the aim of providing an open forum for the discussion of public school quality and spending in Irvington, New York.
One of the schools in the Mendham School District has as its motto ‘Every student, every day’, which means ‘every child counts, every day’! What has got Catherine fired up is the fact that the district has just appointed a new superintendent, Kris Harrison. The difference between Harrison and many other superintendents is that, apparently, Harrison believes in the philosophy behind the motto and is serious about it.
He is, as Catherine describes him, ‘a school leader who believes in accountability: a school leader who believes schools should be mission driven, and who believes the mission is student achievement’.
So, what is your school motto? And, is it meaningful and is it upheld?

Friday, February 17, 2012

Poor children lagging behind 'on a grand scale'!

Figures released by Professor Sir Michael Marmot, Director of University College London, Institute of Health Equity, on Wednesday in the Telegraph revealed that four out of ten children are failing to reach the basic skills level expected of a five-year-old.
As reported, Sir Michael pointed out that ‘Britain lags behind other countries including Poland, Hungary, Denmark and Finland, in the gap between the children who do best and those who do worst’.
The criteria for deciding if children have a good level of development are that children are able to dress themselves, count to ten, read simple sentences, know some of the alphabet, and can take turns in holding a conversation. Staggeringly, forty-one percent of children are, according to Sir Michael, ‘thought not to have a good level of child development' and are failing to meet these goals.
He is clearly rather angry about these disgraceful statistics because the children most affected are from poorer areas of the country. One example he gives is that of Blackpool, where only half of five year olds had achieved ‘good’ development in 2011, a figure that has not changed since 2010.
Sir Michael insists that poor children are being ‘failed on a grand scale’, caused by low levels of literacy and other inequalities. And these, as he rightly points out, have consequences for individuals’ long term health and for the economy. His remarks included a withering criticism of the government’s lack of support for Sure Start children’s centres, a scheme David Cameron promised to support.
The problem, though, with schemes like this is that there is precious little evidence both here and in the United States that they make anything more than a marginal difference and even that difference seems to evaporate within a few years. In principle, they are an excellent idea; however, much depends on what they are doing. If the Sure Start centres are not closing the language gap between poor children and the children of the better off, questions need to be raised about the pedagogy. Perhaps they need to be adopting the kinds of Direct Instructional approaches and practices advocated by Sig Engelmann and Shep Barbash.
Thanks to Palisadesk for drawing my attention to Barbash’s article ‘Pre-K Can Work’, which you can read here.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Clear teaching, Part II

Chapter I: Radical Optimist
The creator of the ‘Direct Instruction’ is Sig Engelmann and it’s not for nothing that Chapter I of Barbash’s book is titled ‘Radical Optimist’. In it, he describes Englemann as believing ‘that the mind of every child, even the least impressive, is an incredible thinking machine gifted with extraordinary powers’ (p.9). Since the moment I read that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it and, if we accept the proposition, it isn’t difficult to believe that every child is ‘perfectly capable of learning anything we have to teach’. The idea turns the education world and how we look at it upside down, or arsey versey, as Hugo Dewar once coined it.
Barbash goes on to cite a study which looked at over 5,000 cases of students evaluated by educational psychologists as falling behind in their studies. What the study found was that, while the children’s problems were invariably attributed to the individual student or to their family, not one connected the children’s failure to learn to the teaching methodologies being employed.
I tested an eight-year-old child only the other day. The child has a reading age of seven years and two months. Her spelling age is considerably lower and has stayed that way for a year. We know this because it’s in the educational psychologist’s report. To what would I ascribe the child’s difficulties? Unquestionably to poor teaching! Her skills of blending and segmenting are not quite perfect but they’re really quite good, certainly good enough to start learning the complexities of the alphabet code. What she is prone to is guessing and, of course, because she doesn’t know any more of the code than the one-to-ones, double consonants and the basic consonant digraphs (sh, ch, and so on), she makes errors in every sentence she reads. The result is that she no longer expects to make sense from anything she reads.
You might want to know that the educational psychologists noted in her report that, when asked to say the sounds in CCVC words, the child was separating sounds, so that in the word ‘plum’, the child said ‘p’ ‘l’ ‘u’ ‘m’. The ed. psych. seemed to believe that the correct response was ‘pl’ ‘u’ ‘m’. Is it any wonder that children experience failure when professionals within the psychology service aren’t trained to teach reading and thus misdirect parents and teachers alike?
As Engelmann is quoted as saying, ‘it’s not the teacher’s fault; it’s the theorists’ fault’ (p.9). Barbash elaborates: ‘Constructivists,’ he writes, ‘say the mind creates its own knowledge largely through its own efforts. Learning styles theorists say different minds learn the same things in physiologically different ways, requiring different teaching methods for different children. Developmentalists say the mind matures in phases we cannot change – a notion derived from the theories of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget...’
It’s easy to see how, when a child fails to learn, that failure is attributed to the incapacity of the child or to their unreadiness to learn. For Englemann, the corrective lies in the pedagogy. Get the curriculum right, train teachers properly and ensure good management of schools. [Engelmann appears in this regard to be just the educator for our times!]
Barbash concludes the chapter by underlining three principles Engelmann considered of paramount importance:
  • Do away with ambiguous language which confuses children. Talking about magic letters, hard and soft sounds, letters saying their own names, short sounds and long sounds, letters that ‘make’ and ‘say’ sounds is enough to confuse the sharpest mind.
  • Teach children the necessary knowledge. When it comes to reading and spelling, teach them essential skills of blending, segmenting and phoneme manipulation; teach them conceptual understanding of how the writing system works; and teach them how the sounds of the language are spelt. And do all of this from simple to complex.
  • Lastly, give children the requisite practice, the amount varying with the child.
As Barbash writes, ‘fix these problems and the mind will learn’ (p.11).

Monday, February 13, 2012

Clear teaching, Part I

A short while ago, Yvonne Meyer posted on the Reading Reform Foundation to a downloadable book on direct teaching, called Clear Teaching, With Direct instruction, Siegfried Englemann discovered a better way of teaching by Shephard Barbash.
The posting has generated some discussion, which you can read here.
Nevertheless, I thought I’d add my thoughts on theliteracyblog and probably the best way of doing that is to take up some of the points chapter by chapter.
J.E.Stone in the 'Foreword' tells the reader that Direct Instruction is ‘a scripted step-by-step approach to teaching. This is music to the ears of Sounds-Write practitioners because every Sounds-Write lesson is scripted, a point we’ll return to later.
The approach is also described as being ‘old-school’, by which is meant that there are lots of ‘teacher-led exercises, skill grouping, choral responding, and repetition’. It does what good sports coaches, trainers and physical education teachers did years ago and continue to this day to do. Many years ago, as a rookie teacher, I learned from reading Barbara Knapp's* Skill in Sport that ‘skill is the learned ability to bring about predetermined results with maximum certainty, often with the minimum outlay of time or energy or both’, a principle that applies equally well to the classroom.
As Stone says, if you determine which skills are key to any activity and you teach them first, and you follow this by building on the foundations, from simple to more complex, you teach to ‘mastery’ and you can iron out any errors as you go along. So, to the honing of the skills, we’re adding expert tuition, based on having already worked out the sequence by which something should be taught if it is to proceed in short, easy steps, and high quality feedback.
Although teachers can adopt the role of ‘facilitator’ from time to time - and there will always be occasions when this is appropriate - for the most part, learners make the most rapid progress if they have ‘clear direction, close monitoring, and encouragement’.
As Stone notes and as many teachers of literacy and maths in UK will recognise, the task of implementing such approaches in school is a labour of Sisyphus. In order for this type of methodology to work effectively in a single school, not to mention in a local authority, there needs to be resolute ‘leadership, training and supervision that are capable of making progress against a headwind of collegial skepticism’.
This is precisely the problem Dylan Wiliam writes about in his book Embedded: formative assessment (2011). What he says is that ‘because teachers are bombarded with innovations, none of those innovations has time to take root, so nothing really changes’ (p.29).
Stone concludes the foreward by calling for ‘empirically validated methodologies’ to be adopted for the benefit of the many, many thousands of children who, after the first three years of education, are reading at below their chronological age levels.
Knapp, B., (1963), Skill in Sport: The Attainment of Proficiency, London and Henley, Routledge.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Will Michael Wilshaw? He sure will!

I've long been thinking that radical and fundamental change in education will only happen in the UK when our economy is so seriously threatened by the likes of China, India, Singapore, South Korea, and the like, that the ‘powers that be’ would be forced to take corrective action. Indeed, five years ago Digby Jones, then head of the CBI warned us that if we didn’t pull ourselves together, China would be having our lunch and India would have our dinner.
In the past year or two, there are signs that this is beginning to happen. The present government (and, by the way, I strongly believe that this is a cross- party issue) has begun to release schools from the (often) dead hand of local education bureaucracy and has also begun to look at other, apparently successful models elsewhere in order to drastically improve the quality of education currently on offer in many schools across the country.
The latest example of this burgeoning tendency emerged at the weekend with the announcement from Sir Michael Wilshire that head teachers in ‘more than 5,000 schools are not up to standard and bear responsibility for unacceptably high levels of poor teaching’.
I don’t know Michael Wilshaw but I do know what he managed to achieve at Mossbourne Academy in Hackney. I know because my grandson goes to the school and I’m only too aware of the magnificent job he did there.
So, what changes is Wilshaw proposing?
·         From the start of the new school year in September, Ofsted inspections will take place without warning, enabling inspectors to scrutinize the schools warts and all;
·         The language of Ofsted reports will be simplified and comments in ‘blunt, straightforward and frank terms’ will be on the first page of each report, allowing parents to see how a school is performing at a glance;
·         There will be a new Parent View website for parents to post opinions about schools online;
·         There will be more frequent inspections of schools designated as requiring improvement. They will have two chances to make improvements within three years, after which they will have a twelve- to eighteen-month period in which to improve or be placed in special measures;
·         What’s more, poverty will not be accepted as an excuse for low levels of achievement. Wilshaw is quoted in the Sunday Times (05/02/2012) as saying that schools should have ‘the “moral purpose” of improving the life chances of the poor’; and, furthermore, that if low SES pupils are not getting the kind of enrichment that their more middle class peers get from home, it is the responsibility of the school to make good the difference.
Clearly, this will be a challenge and there is a long way to go, but three cheers for Wilshire for setting the benchmark!

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Welsh education - 'producerism's last hurrah'!

This week's TES is reporting that the chief inspector of Estyn (the Welsh equivalent of Ofsted) Ann Keane has just published a report claiming that 40% of pupils starting secondary school in Wales do so with a reading age of six months below their chronological age.
What I would like to know is how she came by that figure. If the average age of pupils starting secondary school is about eleven years and six months, this means that only 40% are below a reading age of about eleven years and six months.
I don’t believe it! The figure confounds everything we hear on our courses from English secondary teachers and TAs who screen secondary children from the moment when they arrive in secondary school. What they tell us is that around sixty percent plus of children regularly test below their chronological age. What’s more, many of those are falling below a reading age of nine years and six months, the level below which many practitioners believe it is possible for a pupil to cope at all successfully with the secondary curriculum.
The figures given for Wales make no sense at all. If 60% of pupils have a reading age at or above their chronological age (C 11.6) and the other 40% of pupils have a reading age of eleven, everyone would be functioning at secondary level perfectly well. So, why does Professor David Reynolds, a senior policy adviser to the Welsh government and educationist at the University of Southampton, describe the findings of the chief inspector as ‘shocking’ and even go as far (here) as characterising Wales as ‘producerism’s last hurrah’?
It’s because everyone knows that if every pupil were to be tested using a properly normed and standardised test, the results would be so egregious as to cause a national scandal.
With only two out of seven local authorities in Wales rated as ‘good’ and one in special measures, the teachers’ union ATL Cymru blames the local authorities. Philip Dixon of the ATL Cymru is quoted as remarking that, while high level of social deprivation cannot be used as an excuse – nice bit of rhetorical special pleading that, Philip –, ‘the English prescription is not one that we’d want to take, as it is far too rigid in its approach’. I take this to be code for repudiating the need to teach phonics to beginning readers and/or the need to test to find out if children are learning. The heads’ union the NAHT said that there was ‘agreement about what was needed to be done’ and felt that ‘the diagnosis is attracting far more energy than making sure the remedies are developed properly’. I’m sure they would far rather no one published any nasty statistics about how many pupils their schools are failing every year so that everyone could go back to enjoying a quiet life.
And Leighton Andrews, who has presided over this debacle as minister for Children Education and Lifelong Learning since 2009? He prattles on about how the report identifies ‘where we have been successful and where the education sector in Wales needs to raise game’. Notice how the statement mentions success and associates it with the inclusive ‘we’, which is carefully positioned before that part of the statement that says it (Wales) ‘needs to raise its game’ - a subtle way of distancing the minister from the ‘shocking’ results.
And what were the successes he is so keen to celebrate? Oh yes, 95% of pupils feel safe and 95% of them ‘know who to talk to if they are worried or upset’. I wonder if they would feel as ‘safe’ if many of them knew that they would find it desperately hard to find work when they leave school because they can’t read very well or because they are innumerate.
Parents in Wales should be outraged by the spin and prevarication of government at all levels and of the unions. A proper, publicly accountable system of independent testing needs to be established and there needs to be an immediate return to phonics teaching for beginning readers and for those children who have fallen behind as a matter of the most urgent priority.

Friday, February 03, 2012

More on the take-up of match funding

An article titled ‘Sounds like this phonics scheme has started badly’ in the TES today by Helen Ward provides some decidedly revealing insights into what is going wrong in getting schools to take up match funding for phonics.As the piece points out, match funding isn’t ‘free’ money. For every pound provided by the government, the school also has to commit a pound, and the latest statistics  show that the lion’s share of the match funding money is being spent on phonics ‘products’, ‘products’ being books and other resources. Only a third of the money spent on resources is being spent on training and, thus far, in this respect, there has been a pitifully disappointing take-up of the funding offer.
Why is this? The general-secretary of the NAHT Russell Hobby’s response provides deep insight into the mindset of many head teachers when he is quoted as saying that the scheme ‘hasn’t been rejected but you can’t expect every school to need them’. The ‘them’ refers of course to resources, not to training. He goes on to say that ‘every school teaches phonics already and all have a lot of material. A minority of schools will need to refresh their materials, but when budgets are tight they are not going to waste their money.’
What is clear from this is that he sees the match funding offer from the government as an opportunity (or not) to buy resources. He doesn’t consider that schools need phonics training. And, this is precisely where he is wrong! All the evidence we have from the thousands of teachers we have trained on our courses points to the fact that training in how to teach reading and spelling is exactly what they do need.
The same lack of understanding is evidenced in Christine Blower’s contribution to the issue. She tells us that ‘many schools will already have well-resourced and planned reading/literacy schemes, which are relevant to the pupils in that school and are well used and well understood by the teachers’. This is highly debatable. How many schools have bought decodable books for their beginning readers and how well do teachers know how they should be used? Sounds-Write’s argument has consistently been that teachers need proper phonics training, without which they will always be prone to giving misguided instruction. If a child can’t read or has very poor reading skills, that child needs expert tuition, tuition that teachers are only able to provide if they’ve been trained to give it.
If the TES is going to interview figures like Blower and Hobby, surely they ought to be employing journalists who have a thorough knowledge of the subject under discussion and who are able to interrogate their interviewees much more rigorously. Moreover, they need to interview people in the field who have expertise and can defend their views by recourse to evidence.
Ward’s coda provides yet another example of the kind of lazy journalism we have come to expect from the TES when they choose to include a piece on phonics. What she suggests is that if Nick Gibb ‘wants to see universal take-up of his initiative, [he] ought to drop the match-funding element and just give the schemes away’. This would involve the wholesale government funding of decodable books for schools, as well as funding all the training providers considered by the government to be delivering high quality phonics training. The throwaway flippancy of her conclusion to the article is plainly an absurdum, given where we are in the process.
What Nick Gibb does need to do is to maintain focus on making sure that children in the early years are taught properly. To that end, he has introduced the Y1 phonics screening check, to be introduced in June. Will he publish the results school by school?