Saturday, March 24, 2012

Heads' nervousness increases as phonics check looms

As June approaches and more heads across the country realise that, in a little over two months, their Year 1 pupils will be sitting the government’s new phonics screening check, the level of panic is beginning to rise.
Yesterday’s TES (‘Heads read the riot act over new phonics test’) was reporting that some heads are beginning to squirm because they think the pass mark for the test is too high, a sure sign that some have decided to get their excuses in first. Tony Draper, head of Water Hall Primary School in Milton Keynes, was quoted as saying:
“Who in their right minds thinks about telling the parents of six-year-olds and the children themselves that they are failures?  It’s moronic. They are not failures, they are learners. They are at different stages of their learning journey.”
Tony obviously isn’t thinking too much himself. No-one is suggesting that children should be told they are ‘failures’ and it’s pretty ‘moronic’ to believe that the government would be asking heads to do this.
Never one to resist the opportunity to grab a headline, Sue Palmer also pops up to inform us that the drive to raise standards over the past fifteen years ‘has made not one bit of difference’, though what she bases this claim on isn’t clear. She says:
“Children are being crammed rather than learning and it makes reading and writing far less enjoyable. I think if two-thirds of children are failing a pilot, it suggests that the standard they have set is too high for that age group.”
Of course, another view might be that children are not being taught to read and write well enough and that standards weren’t set highly enough in the past. In optimistic vein, Palmer bleats that children starting Year 2 (their third year of school) won’t have any sand and water in which to play. She claims that ‘knowing they have to do this reading stuff which they didn’t do very well in last year and have another test to do at the end of the year, it may well put them off’.
What Palmer is saying is that if pupils can’t read words like ‘grit’, ‘best’, and ‘chill’ and nonsense words like ‘bim’, ‘vap’, ‘sproft’ and ‘chom’ by the end of Y1, the test is too hard. It really makes you wonder what kind of world people like Draper and Palmer live in.
Other heads are more sanguine. Kevin Bullock, head at Fordham Primary School in Cambridgeshire, declared that ‘the test is just an indicator of how children are progressing in phonics.’ Sensible chap!
Unfortunately, as Helen Ward recognises, the publishers are licking their lips, hoping that the screening check will frighten teachers into buying DfE-approved phonics resources under the match-funding scheme in the hope that these will somehow provide them with a panacea. It won’t! What teachers need, as they have always needed in the past, is proper training in how to teach phonics. Nick Gibb needs to de-couple resources from training under the match-funding arrangement and to start promoting training much more vigorously, as his head of Ofsted is recommending.

Friday, March 23, 2012

What is wrong with the culture within Ofsted?

I have twice now visited schools which have had Ofsted inspections. Both praised the schools’approach to teaching children to read and spell.
Here is an extract from the latest:
"Good progress in reading continues across the school, the result of the consistent approach in teaching daily phonics sessions, and older pupils demonstrate increasingly accurate spelling skills when writing sentences. For those pupils who find reading particularly challenging, daily, individual support sessions, taught by specialists, are closing the gap between them and other pupils. Specialist support is utilised effectively to provide in-class support for those pupils who speak English as an additional language, ... , narrowing the gap between them and other pupils in their reading and writing.
The introduction of a commercial writing programme that is implemented systematically is ensuring all pupils are developing a structured approach to their writing. Their skills are progressing well, particularly those of the boys so that the gender gap is narrowing quickly. A sharper focus on boys’writing from Reception onwards, providing more interesting books and writing activities that engage their interest are having a positive impact. Most boys express a positive enjoyment in reading matching that of the girls."
Well and good, you may think. What a fine testimonial to the programme being used! What is significant though is the refusal of the inspectorate to name the commercial programme responsible for the good work in the phonics teaching and the writing. It is, of course, Sounds-Write but the inspectorate seem to have this crazy idea that to mention the particular programme that is helping to achieve the desired results would somehow compromise their independence. Surely, the job of the inspectorate is to spread good practice and tell others about what works?
Aside from a few charitable organisations running phonics trainings, most notably Fiona Nevola’s excellent Sound Reading System, all phonics trainings and materials are commercial; so why do Ofsted inspectors refuse to make public the success that programmes like Sounds-Write are enjoying?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Friday, March 16, 2012

That Ofsted report – ‘Moving English forward’

In large part this new report has been motivated by the need to respond to a growing tide of complaints from employers’ organisations and from higher education institutions about the standards of literacy of school leavers. There is also a growing awareness that, in the globalised world in which this country operates, other countries have already overtaken us academically, or are rapidly catching up – hence the current interest in what the teaching establishment can learn from Finland, China, India and Singapore.
There’s far too much in ‘Moving English forward’ to comment on at length and in detail but it’s worth raising one or two of the points it makes.
For example, it states as prerequisite in any phonics programme worth its salt many of the things Sounds-Write has been arguing for years: good subject knowledge of both teachers and classroom assistants, creative use of well-designed resources and activities, effective modelling, saying sounds precisely, good use of dynamic or formative assessment, lots of differentiation, and so on.
What is interesting though is that reading and spelling do not seem to be recognised as two sides of the same coin. Spelling is linked only to handwriting. This is bizarre because if reading and spelling are not linked, it is very difficult to develop a coherent and consistent vocabulary for explaining and teaching the relationship between the two. All the best phonics programmes will teach the two in parallel. This makes them mutually reinforceable and it helps pupils to learn both at the same time.
I was also struck by the point made in the document that reading (I’d add spelling/writing) skills needs to be taught across the curriculum, which is why, as well as Key Stage 1 teachers, all Key Stage 2 teachers require proper training in how to teach reading and spelling as they come up in the course of teaching the broader curriculum. The same applies to the secondary phase, notwithstanding that, according to the report, secondary teachers ‘do not even accept ... they have a responsibility for improving literacy within their own subject’!
Nonetheless, what the report does is to lay down a marker that this government and Ofsted are speaking with one voice. That voice is saying that they are, from now on, going to demand ‘a new minimum, or “floor” standard’, which they will ‘expect all schools to meet’.
The report concludes by saying that ‘it seems clear that more effective training is now needed in many schools’. Yes, it does! And we’re very happy the inspectorate has arrived at this conclusion. What they need to do now is to make sure it happens.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Teachers need proper training to teach phonics, says Michael Wilshaw

Since 1995, standards in literacy have stalled, says Michael Wilshaw. He claims that one in five children in primary schools have such low standards of literacy that they can’t access the secondary curriculum when they make the transition.
So, what’s going wrong? Michael Wilshaw is in no doubt. The training that many teachers have been receiving is inadequate. He says that teachers are telling him that they need better professional development for teaching phonics, which, he concedes, ‘is not an easy thing to do’.
From what he says in the interview, it is quite clear that he believes that it isn’t just the training institutions that must improve the quality of their teaching in this area; schools also need to invest in ‘a lot more professional development’ for their teaching staff.
This is music to the ears of Sounds-Write. We have long argued that standards in the teaching of literacy are falling far short of what we ought to be achieving and that the bar needs to be raised. At last we have someone who seems to be prepared to push through the kinds of changes necessary to make this happen.
Wilshaw, who is going to be in post for the next five years, also told Emily Maitlis of Newsnight that he expects ‘better results from primary children at seven, a vital age, and eleven as well’.
What is also very interesting is that he is looking at how well getting a Level 4 in the SATs at age eleven predicts success at GCSE. Again, for a very long time, we have been drawing attention to the mismatch between the number of children getting a Level 4 and the screening tests being conducted at the beginning of Year 7 when children transfer to secondary school. Certainly, the government could very easily ask secondary schools to report these results.
Nevertheless, it needs repeating that the government match funding venture, while full of good intention, should never have been made available for both resources and training. Training should have been the first priority. This is because many people in education with their fingers on the purse strings still have no idea about what is involved in training teachers to teach phonics well.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Hey Phoebe, leave those phonics teachers alone!

In a piece supoosedly arguing ‘against a phonics versus books stand-off’, yesterday’s Guardian gave space again for Phoebe Doyle, described on their pages as a former primary teacher who now writes on education, parenting and health issues’, to bellyache about how phonics is being used in school. She had previously written ‘Boy-friendly practice is just good teaching’ here, on which I also left a comment.
Although there were things in 'Hey teacher, leave those books alone!' with which one could quite happily agree - reading at bedtime is not only great for introducing young children to the pleasures of the text, it is also one of the best times to bond with one’s child - it was also, sadly, a grand gripe about phonics teaching.
In yesterday’s piece, she says, 'I'm not anti-phonics...It can't teach though what I want most, for children to have a hunger for books, for books that bequeath knowledge and those which help the mind flourish'.
That's just where Phoebe couldn't be more wrong. Does she seriously think that all the teachers working so hard to teach children to read don't want the children they teach to develop a hunger for books, or to acquire the knowledge and pleasure that books bring? Of course they do. That's why they're so passionate about teaching them to read, because they know that if children can't read, they can't enjoy books or learn from them!
Lives are blighted by illiteracy, which is why the government is so determined to make sure that all children are taught to read and write at an early age. It's also why they want to put checks in place to make sure that all schools are making that happen.
When our youngest daughter was three years old, she could recite 'The Owl and the Pussycat' verbatim and she loved the huge numbers of books and poetry we read to her on a nightly basis. But, she couldn't read them for herself. So, at age four years, the daily diet included phonics lessons because English is a complex language to learn to read and write in terms of matching the sounds of our language to the way those sounds are spelt in print. For this reason, it takes time and patience to teach and bring a child to fluency.
Now, here's the thing, Phoebe, good quality phonics teaching – and, you're right, it's not all good by any stretch of the imagination – can teach a child to read virtually anything by the time they reach Key Stage 2 at the age of around seven and a half. When a child can read virtually anything and they can do it with fluency, they have direct access to meaning for themselves and it is enjoyable. That's because they find it easy.
If children find reading difficult, they don't enjoy it and they don't practise it. What's more, they spend so much mental energy trying to read the words on the page that comprehension suffers and unrewarding experiences mount and lead to less involvement in anything to do with reading.
Good teachers provide good quality phonics programmes to teach children to read and, because the activities are not mutually exclusive, they also read good quality literature to children and use it for a wide variety of different purposes.
Thanks yet again to Susan Godsland for drawing my attention to the article.