Friday, June 22, 2012

Phonics food for thought

Until this morning, I’ve only received one result of the phonics screening test from a school in Kent and that doesn’t give me all the facts and figures, but I’ve been thinking more about this test.
Firstly, I was never really convinced that giving this kind of test at the end of Year 1 was a good idea. The reason for this was that when we looked at the data we collected, it was fairly obvious that some ten to fifteen percent of children would be entering Y1 having spent virtually the whole of YR maturing, both physically and mentally. We never thought that exposing them to phonics was going to be harmful and, in fact, when they entered Y1, their previous exposure to phonics seemed to have provided them with a foundation for an accelerated start. Nevertheless, for a significant percentage of children, even with good teaching, taking them through a good quality phonics programme would not get them far or fast enough to ‘pass’ this screening test.
Secondly, asking all children at age five or six years to take a test containing forty items with the expectation that they score 80% is probably asking too much. At this age, children’s concentration and attentional skills are not as developed as well as for older children and adults. As one head teacher put it to me this week, even his most able maths pupil would find it difficult to score 100% on a maths test because children of this age simply make mistakes, for all sorts of reasons.
Then there is the problem of the testing tail wagging the pedagogical dog. Many teachers, who for reasons of not being properly trained to teach phonics and still in ignorance of the substantial research on the subject, use mixed methods approaches. Many of those will have panicked as the test date loomed ever closer. Some will have spent the last few weeks doing phonics, phonics, phonics – or at least what they understood to be phonics (the flashcard flourish!). This would have been to the detriment of other aspects of the curriculum, aspects which are an important part of preparation to the big step up to Year 2. So, when the test is over, what happens? My prediction is that many teachers are going to be demob-happy, throw up their arms and say, “That’s phonics done! No more until September!”
While I’m strongly in favour of raising standards in education, I’m beginning to think that the imposition of this test was too soon. I’m aware that something needed to be done and it needed doing quickly, to focus minds. Bringing about change is very difficult and many ministers believe that unless they move decisively the opportunity for change may be gone. However, in this case, imposing a test across the country before teachers have been trained to teach phonics properly is a tactic that might seriously backfire. In classes where there is large scale failure to reach the 32/40 pass mark, teachers who sincerely believe they have been doing their best for their charges may become very disillusioned, demoralised and even angry – the law of unintended consequences?
What should have been the approach? Well, it’s clear that we need to be arguing strongly for phonics to be taught continuously and systematically throughout Key Stage 1. This requires that all Key Stage 1 teachers need proper, high quality training. And it needs to happen as soon as possible. Where it is possible, all teachers in Key Stage 2 also need to be highly trained because, although it may not be necessary for them to teach the basics of phonics, unless they have a clear and detailed understanding of the way in which the writing system relates to the sounds of the language, they won’t be able to teach the more complex aspects of the alphabet code. The same would also be desirable for Key Stages 3 and 4, especially if teachers are going to have the skills, knowledge and understanding to tackle the issue of spelling in secondary schools as Michael Wilshaw has indicated he would like in a recent Ofsted statement.
The danger here is that the government will start blaming teachers if large numbers of children don’t reach the 80% mark. If they do, they can expect a revolt. The government deserve credit (one cheer!) for introducing match-funding for the training of teachers in Key Stage 1. Where they went badly wrong was in not making match-funding available exclusively for training. As this blog has always argued, that’s where the priority lies. But, you can’t blame teachers for not teaching their children phonics properly if you haven’t trained them.
The government should also set about fundamentally restructuring initial teacher training so that new entrants to the profession receive the necessary skills to teach phonics before they qualify. An independent system of testing to find out which phonics programmes are the most effective should also be of prime concern.
Now, back to that one partial result! I can’t name the school except to say that it’s in Kent. The school began teaching Sounds-Write at the beginning of this academic year (September 2011), so this year’s Y1 had not had S-W in YR. Bearing that in mind, the teacher writing to me says that thirty-two out of sixty children got 40/40. She says they have ‘lots of 39s, 38s, 36s – so achieved the expected level’. The rest ranged from 28/40 to 31/40, which the school feel is not far off the threshold; and, she stresses, they do NOT see these children as ‘failing’. Had these children had Sounds-Write in YR, she feels confident they would have reached the government’s expected target. The school plan to catch up these children in Year 2 with some intervention and the teacher says she feels entirely confident about next year.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Bousted? A busted flush!

If you tuned in to the Radio 4 Today programme this morning, you would have heard Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, debating the relevance of phonics in teaching children to read with Greg Wallace, executive principal of the Best Start Federation of primary schools in Hackney.
After being informed by Mr Wallace that she was confused about phonics teaching ‘at a number of levels’, [she was, by the way], a nettled Dr Bousted was at some pains to inform the Radio 4 audience that she had ‘a PhD in the subject’. However, looking at her bio, there is nothing to suggest that she has any experience whatever of teaching reading to young children entering school for the first time. In fact, from the start, her ignorance was made transparent by her declaration that the English language ‘doesn’t correspond’ to phonics teaching. For example, she claims that, “children in Year 1 will not be able to read a book with the word ‘said’ in it”.
‘Said’, according the way she views phonics, is an ‘irregular’ word. If this is an example of the level of her expertise, then God help us all. She also made the absurd claim that the ‘English is not a phonetically regular language’.  Unfortunately, Mary doesn’t understand the logic of the English writing system: all words are comprised of sounds and all sounds have been assigned spellings. No exceptions! Like many people she has no idea how the system works.
Here’s how it works, Mary:
Sounds can be spelled using one-, two-, three-, or four-letter spellings;
All the sounds in the language can be spelled with more than one spelling;
Many spellings represent more than one sound.
Our alphabet system is, as Mr Wallace acknowledged in the programme, complex. However, just because it is complex doesn’t mean it can’t be taught very successfully indeed. As with any multi-skilled activity, it can be taught if the teacher is an expert in the subject and if the children learning the activity are given plenty of practice.
So, here again we have an example of yet another union leader coming on to a radio or television programme to offer their thoughts on the government’s decision to give the teaching of reading (and spelling) a consistent direction when they haven’t a clue what they’re talking about.
I’m convinced, as I’ve argued before on this blog, that people like this, union leaders, head teachers, lots of university lecturers , many of whom have never in their lives had any experience of actually teaching children to read, assume that they are authorities on the subject. Because they have in the past developed an area of expertise in a subject, they then feel qualified to pontificate on any subject. As Daniel Kahneman points out in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, the more power and authority people have, the more their trust in their own intuition tends to increase. Sadly intuitive judgements are very often completely misguided.
Nothing that Mary Bousted asserted is supported by the research on teaching children to read. As Mr Wallace made clear, the purpose of phonics is to enable children to decode words they are reading. This applies to any word in the language, whether the word be ‘said’ or ‘benightedness’, and what she clearly doesn’t understand is that if you can’t read a word successfully, you can’t understand what it means.
Late news: I’ve just discovered from John Bald here that Dr Mary Bousted’s PhD was titled A socio-political analysis of the personal growth ideology of English teaching.  Draw your own conclusions about how relevant this was to the teaching of synthetic phonics.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The annual Scripps National Spelling Bee

As reported by the Guardian, the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee, on which I always have a few words to say (here, here and here), has been won this year by Snigdha Nandipati, a fourteen-year-old from San Diego.
Funnily enough, the word she won the competition with reminds me of just how daft are the arguments contrived by the people who oppose the phonics screening check. The word was ‘guetapens’, a word which is derived from French and means an ambush, a trap or a snare. I wouldn’t go flying off to your OED, by the way, because you won’t find it. At least, it’s not in my rather weathered edition.
One has to admire the competitors as much for their single-minded dedication to the task, as for their sheer nerdiness. I suppose some people will think that the $30000 dollar prize is the main motivation. Not so! The money probably goes nowhere near compensating the entrants for the hours they put into studying word spelling, meaning and etymology. Nandipati reckons she spent between ten and twelve hours at weekends and six hours on weekdays preparing for the Bee.
As always, there were some agonising moments. To see competitors come so far only to fall at the final fence can only make your heart go out to them. Lena Greenberg, for example, was tripped up by ‘geistlich’, which means ‘soulful or with great feeling in music’; six-year-old Lori Anne Madison, the ‘youngest competitor ever to qualify for the bee and clearly a girl with a great future in front of her, couldn’t get past ‘dirigible’; while Nicholas Rushlow, the owner of a dog called ‘Cosmotellurian’, was unlucky enough to have to spell ‘vetiver’, the name of a perennial grass which is native to India and also of a band from San Francisco!
Oh well! There's always next year.