Monday, May 28, 2012

Adi's red physiognomy

This week's TES treats us to yet more phonics fantasy, this time in the ‘Comment’ section of the paper.
In a review of the Radio 4 two-part documentary ‘Reading between the lines’ by Michael Morpurgo, Adi Bloom displays the kind of ignorance about phonics and phonics teaching to which the practitioners have become all too fed up with in recent years.
This was my response:
'It seems to me that if someone is going to take it upon themselves to ‘comment’ on something, they should at least know what they are talking about.
The problem with this week’s ‘Comment’ in the TES is that Adi Bloom obviously doesn’t have the first understanding of what phonics is about. To assert that phonics ‘no use at all for many words in the English language’ betrays rank ignorance about what phonics is and how it is taught.
She claims, for example, that ‘physiognomy’ can’t be sounded out phonically. Can’t it? How about /f/ /i/ /z/ | /ee/ | /o/ | /n/ /o/ | /m/ /ee/? What is the problem with this word? Ph is a common enough spelling for the sound /f/; y is also not an uncommon spelling for the sound /i/ in many words derived from Greek; neither is s a peculiar spelling for the sound /z/ - think about the word ‘is’; the letter irepresents the sound /ee/, exactly as it does in ‘ski’ or ‘taxi’; o for /o/ I don’t need to talk about; while gn representing the sound /n/ is something any gnostic writer of reviews ought to know; m for ‘m’ is hardly worth discussing; finally, y for the sound /ee/ is probably the most common way of spelling the sound ‘e’ at the end of words with more than one syllable.
‘Physiognomy’ is a fairly high register word and not one I could see teachers teaching to young children. It contains some complexities, though there isn’t a single one that isn’t part of regular patterns we see in the English language. Besides, flip the question upside down. If you had to spell ‘physiognomy’, you’d have to split it into its syllables and then spell each sound across each syllable until you come to the end.
The trouble is that Adi, as is the case with so many people who write for the TES, doesn’t understand that writing (i.e. spelling) is a symbolic system (there’s that y for /i/ again!). Spellings represent the sounds of the language. Because of the history of the English language, it’s fairly complex to teach but, if you know how it works, most of it can be taught at Key Stage 1, leaving, let’s ‘face’it, more complex elements to Key Stages 2, 3 and 4.
If spellings weren’t assigned to sounds, we wouldn’t be able to write in English any new words that had never been heard before. Sounds are the basis for the writing system; spellings are the writing system! And, until the TES gives space to people who actually teach phonics and understand perfectly how it works and how it should be done, things won’t ever become any clearer.'

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Crystal LOLing at Rofling!

If you haven’t yet come across David Crystal’s blog, you might want to look at his thoughts on texting acronyms and their effects or rather non effects on the language. And if you’re not interested in rofling, there’s bound to turn up something of interest for anyone curious about language usage.
Quirky, precise, always entertaining, and still a prolific author, Crystal is a wonder of the English language world.
My favourite books by him are Stories of English and the beautifully illustrated The Cambridge Encylopedia of Language (3rd Edition).

Thursday, May 17, 2012

2015? It's still too late, Leighton!

Aren’t you just sick of listening to ministers like Leighton Andrews telling us all how rosy everything in the garden is going to be with a bit of ‘upskilling’?
Apparently, Welsh pupils are going to be the latest beneficiaries of the ‘excellent teaching of literacy’ that Mr Andrews is going to bring in. There’s that word we hear so often from politicians: ‘excellent’, a word as utterly devalued of its currency as a Greek Euro will soon be.
According to a report on the BBC news site, Mr Andrews is telling us that "nothing is more important than ensuring all of our young people have the skills they need to read, write and communicate”.
Lest we forget, Andrews, the Labour minister of education for Wales, was telling us the same thing back in February 2011 – and this was after ten years of Labour being in control of education and allowing the crisis in literacy in Welsh schools to develop!
Having binned the old league tables and replaced standardised tests with teacher assessment, Andrews quickly found that as many as forty percent of pupils were arriving at secondary school unable to read well enough to cope with the curriculum. Now Leighton is so late to the task, he’s met himself coming back – he’s done a U-turn and is bleating now about how the new ‘National Literacy Programme’ is going to bring back accountability and challenge to schools and, er, teach pupils to read.
Well, I’d love to see how he’s going to train all these teachers to teach children to read. Ed Balls didn’t manage it. In fact the last Labour administration in England spent ten years and wasted £2billion implementing a National Literacy Strategy that didn’t work. They appointed literacy consultants in every authority to ‘advise’ schools on how to teach reading – except they didn’t have the expertise to do it.
Perhaps you’re wondering what it was that got me going on our friend Leighton this time? Well, if you are, it was that statement, and it must have come from him or someone close to him, which said that ‘the ambition is for Wales to be among the top 20 nations in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) by 2015’.
Three years then? Do they really think that they can turn it round in three years? High quality literacy teaching needs to begin in YR and go all the way through primary school at the very least before they will see a substantial difference, which does really show you how little they know about the job in hand. And that’s before they can roll out a programme of training for teachers!
For the sake of those poor Welsh kids out there, I’d love to be wrong. But I doubt it.

Thanks to Susan Godsland on the RRF for bringing the news article to my attention.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Ballad of a thin-king man. We're the geeks on this one!

Susan Godsland’s eagle eye in detecting references to the teaching of reading has spotted one buried inside a podcast by Mark Henderson and published in theguardian online, which she’s posted as a new thread on the RRF here.
The podcast, ‘The Geek Manifesto: why science matters’, is based on Henderson’s recently published book (2012) of the same name and it’s clear that the book and the podcast are part of a very worthy effort to encourage and embed in public life scientific thinking. Henderson is arguing for a more rational approach to public policy by basing policy decisions on scientific evidence.
What a pity, though, that Henderson begins the podcast by declaring that ‘we don’t really know what the best way to teach kids to read is. Is it phonics?’ he asks, or ‘is it the whole word approach, etc, etc? There are advocates on both sides.’

The word 'geek' has come a long way since I first heard it in Bob Dylan's 'Ballad of aThin Man' all those years ago. The problem is that on this one, Mark is on the wrong side of the argument - he's a freak! - because, on the question of teaching reading, we're the geeks! Yes, all those reading reformers out there! 

And you, Mark? 
"How does it feel
To be such a freak?"
And you say, "Impossible"...
Because something is happening here
But you don't know what it is
Do you, Mister Henderson? (adapted from 'Ballad of a Thin Man')
Anyway, Mark, you just couldn’t be more wrong! We do know how to teach ‘kids’ how to read and we have known for quite some time. We know what we know from scientific research that has taken place over the past fifty years on the world’s writing systems*, not one of which is based on a whole language approach.
In the words of Diane McGuinness**, ‘all writing systems, living or dead, are based on phonological units of sound below the level of the word. Writing systems cannot be based on the whole word, because languages have too many words’. In her book McGuiness goes on to explain exactly how writings systems are based on the sounds of the language and how they need to be taught.
Where Mark is right in what he says in the podcast is that teaching reading is a ‘question that’s completely amenable to being solved with the methods of science’. Spot on, Mark! But we already know from a huge amount of research which has taken place over the same period that phonics is overwhelmingly superior to whole word approaches.
So, all in all, Mark, when you get your facts as badly wrong as this, it is always going to be more difficult to persuade people that the other examples you deploy are correct!
*Daniels, P.T. & Bright, W., (1996), The World’s Writing Systems, OUP
Coulmas, F., (2003), Writing Systems: An introduction to their linguistic analysis, CUP
**McGuinness, D., (2004), Early Reading Instruction: What Science Really Tells Us about How to Teach Reading, MIT Press.
Thanks to for the Dylan photo.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Rosen unwound

I see that Michael Rosen has been ‘sounding off’, if you’ll excuse the pun, on his blog about phonics again.
It is really rather baffling that someone who is clearly very inquisitive and who actually listens carefully to the people he interviews and talks to on his Radio 4 programme ‘Word of Mouth’ should be so unwilling to listen to the arguments put forward in favour of phonics.
He claims that ‘using phonics in the teaching of reading is fine’, only to undercut the statement with a long series of objections. What always emerges from those objections is that he doesn’t understand the relationship between the sounds of the language and writing system. He appears to believe that we have a part phonic, part logographic system which necessitates the learning of (presumably) large numbers of (undecodable?) words.
Of course, all words are comprised of sounds and all sounds have spellings assigned to them. What Mr Rosen either doesn’t seem to appreciate or doesn’t believe is that, however complex the system, it can be taught successfully if it is taught from simple to complex.
To teach from simple to complex, teachers must understand how the alphabet code works. They need to know that there are forty-four sounds, as well as how those sounds are spelt in English words. Admittedly, when we arrive in the realms of highly specialised and esoteric language, this can be difficult even for the best spellers. However, for the most part, the task of teaching reading and writing is easily within the capabilities of a literate teacher.
Knowing how the code is structured also requires that teachers understand it conceptually. The need to impart to their pupils that sounds can be spelled with more than one letter, that sounds are spelled in more than one way, and that most spellings can represent more than one sound.
Mr Rosen understands some of this. What he doesn’t understand is what synthetic phonics teaches and why. For instance, he says that ‘many words in English cannot be entirely decoded using synthetic phonic methods’ and gives as an example the word ‘wound’. Any teacher of SP worth their salt knows that the spelling can represent the sounds ‘oo’ (in ‘soup’), ‘u’ (in ‘trouble’), ‘ow’ (in ‘sound’), and ‘oe’ (in ‘mould’). Mr Rosen knows this too. Where his understanding of what phonics teaching is fails him is in his seeming to assume that phonics teaching is conducted in a hermetically sealed capsule, when, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. It takes place in a context, the context of everyday language usage.
Good quality phonics teaching always takes places within the context of words, sentences and texts in English. That is its purpose! So, if a child is reading the sentence, ‘Peter wound up his watch last night’ and they read the word ‘wound’ as ‘woond’, or ‘wund’, or ‘woend’, their brain should be telling them that none of those alternatives makes sense in the context of that particular sentence! When they try the ‘ow’ alternative, it suddenly makes perfect sense. However, the child needs to know the alternatives in order to try them.
Teaching this might sound more difficult than simply trying to get the child to recognise by ‘sight’ the whole word and that is why whole word approaches seem so attractive, ‘promising  everything and delivering nothing’, in the words of Diane McGuinness. The problem is that it is impossible to learn the million or words there are in existence in English. On the other hand, it is entirely possible to teach the, roughly, 175 common spellings for the forty-four sounds, to teach the requisite skills of blending, segmenting and phoneme manipulation, and to teach how the writing system works in relation to the sounds of the language conceptually.
In teaching the above, the knowledge and skills can be generalised and applied to any word in the language. Spellings are symbolic tools that have a deliberate as opposed to a spontaneous character in the teaching process. They can be systematically taught because they are systematically organised around the forty-four sounds in the language, which give the system its basis. And, they can be generalised and applied.
What we have here is a functional linguistic system of the sort Halliday (much admired by Mr Rosen, it seems) would have approved.
There’s more to disagree with in Mr Rosen’s posting, not least of which is his aversion to the government’s Y1 phonics screening check. He appears not to be aware that the check isn’t punitive; it’s being conducted to find out something, that something being whether a child can decode successfully or not. If they can’t, someone needs to teach them because if a child can’t decode, they can’t read. Which brings us back to a point Dorothy Bishop made recently in a blog posting about Rosen’s views: ‘you can’t read for meaning if you can’t decode the words’.