Monday, December 30, 2013

The very contented grandson!

I’ve just had my daughter and her two children over for a few days over Christmas and, while they were here, it set me thinking a bit more about a programme I’d been listening to recently on Radio 4 about Ladybird books, which you can look at here.

As I have a small collection of the Ladybird series, I read my grandson, who is still only three, the story The Discontented Pony (1951). He has a story read to him most evenings before he goes to sleep, is well used to listening to stories and is therefore happy to ‘snuggle up’ and enjoy them as they unfold. Because, too, his parents talk to him a lot and he has a very chatty older sister, his receptive language is already fairly extensive.


For the above reasons, stories like The Discontented Pony are absolutely ideal for furthering the development of his vocabulary, whilst also extending his exposure to grammatical forms less likely to be encountered in everyday spoken language, such as, for example, embedded relative clauses. The story was just a little above his current ability to comprehend everything on his own and, with a book such as this, the job of the adult/parent/carer is to mediate the occasional word the child doesn’t understand. So, the purpose of the story was not to teach him to decode. We will begin to teach him how to decode and read for himself in due course and this tuition will run alongside of the kind of thing we were doing in reading The Discontented Pony.

Of course, as the programme made clear, having been written so long ago, the books reflect pretty much life as it was at the time and gender roles were highly stereotypical. However, in another important respect, the books are dissimilar from many produced today: they are far more challenging.

Here are a couple of paragraphs from page 8 of the book to give you a flavour of how much more demanding these books were than many of those offered for reading to children today.
So, Merrylegs became more and more discontented, and grumbled when he had to deliver the milk, or take the farmer to market, or the farmer’s wife out visiting.One fine day the farmer harnessed Merrylegs to the little cart, and got ready to go to the market. In the cart he put new-laid eggs, butter and cheese, and red roses out of his garden. The brown pony grumbled to himself as usual, and fidgeted so much that the farmer had to call his son to hold the reins until he was ready.The opposite page contained a picture of the farmer, the farmer’s son, the pony and cart, as well as all the things the farmer was intending to take to market. So, it was easy to talk about them and explain the meaning of ‘grumbled’ and ‘fidgeted’.
There are fifty pages in the book, twenty-five relating the story and twenty-five accompanying illustrations. Each page of text contains around eighty-five to ninety words. The book is meant for reading for pleasure to a child who, as yet, is unable to read. For child who has reached a reasonable proficiency in reading, the book can be shared with help being given for the odd word here and there.

Is it a knock-your-socks-off story that will be remembered forever? Probably not, although I can still remember two similar titles from my childhood that I’ve never forgotten! The story contains a neat little twist that results in the ‘discontented’ pony becoming contented. However, the point is that it was enjoyable: my grandson liked it; we talked about it; and, it served other (bonding) purposes. Over the years, the cumulative effect of first being read stories and then reading for oneself pleasurable stories is likely to inspire a lifelong love of reading.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Now you know why we called it Sounds-Write!

Here are the SATs results from three schools that have implemented Sounds~Write.
What is really impressive about these results is that they all have very good results at Level 5. The head teacher of one of these schools I was talking to this morning was nonplussed about the fact that even when some schools do manage to get 100% or 95+% in their reading and writing SATs, they don't seem to produce the kind of performance at Level 5 you see here below.
St George's CEPS in Wandsworth are especially to be congratulated because over half of their children are on free school meals. They also scored a 100% pass rate in the phonics screening check this year.
Well done to all three!

St George’s CEPS in Wandsworth

%
LEA av %
Eng av %
Reading: Level 4
100
90
86
Reading: Level 5
  50
49
45
Writing: Level 4
100
86
83
Writing: Level 5
  62
36
30
Spelling, grammar and punctuation: Level 4

100
81
74
Spelling, grammar and punctuation: Level 5

  88
59
48

St Thomas Aquinas CPS in Milton Keynes

%
LEA av %
Eng av %
Reading: Level 4
  97
87
86
Reading: Level 5
  69
44
45
Writing: Level 4
  97
85
83
Writing: Level 5
  66
31
30
Spelling, grammar and punctuation: Level 4

  97
76
74
Spelling, grammar and punctuation: Level 5

  76
50
48

Priory Rise School in Milton Keynes

%
LEA av %
Eng av %
Reading: Level 4
 100
87
86
Reading: Level 5
  69
44
45
Writing: Level 4
100
85
83
Writing: Level 5
  55
31
30
Spelling, grammar and punctuation: Level 4

100
76
74
Spelling, grammar and punctuation: Level 5

  79
50
48

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The hydra of spelling!

I’ve posted this on my blog because I couldn’t post such a long answer on Chris's blog. You can read what he had to say here.
Hi Chris,

You’re right about lots of the things you say in this posting. Spelling does ‘bug’ lots of people. It is accorded far too much importance partly because it is seen as a transparent marker of a person’s educational attainment or even intellectual ability. And so we become trapped in the poor speller/good speller binary, with each generating a range of negative/positive connotations on each side of the divide.

As one dad to another, your attitude towards your daughters seems exemplary. The sentence ‘a see cretur finds a shel’ is the kind of spelling any YR/beginning of Y1 teacher would be proud of. However, as you say, you wouldn’t be very happy if your daughters were in Y11 and still spelling like that. Leaving aside the issue of the grammar (children know something like around two-thirds of the grammar of the language by age 5), you are quite right in thinking that they will be subject to various approaches to the teaching of spelling as they progress through school. This is because, in the main, most primary teachers don’t understand the spelling system and how it relates to the sounds of the language.

Funnily enough, it’s interesting that you employ the simile of the hydra, for it was the hydra that, in Greek mythology, guarded Lake Lerna and it provides us with a possible analogy for the spelling system. In the days of yore, before the arrival of Thor Nogson, the Normans, the incorporation of all our Latinate and Greek spellings, and so on, we had a relatively simple system – pretty much one way of spelling a sound.  As Anglo Saxon heads were severed by our invaders, the spelling hydra’s heads multiplied: instead of one spelling for a sound, there grew to be many.

However, times have changed and instead of the post-Potter generations wanting to kill the hydra, as we might have wanted in our beastly past, we can now take it to our bosoms as a pet and utilise it to teach our children the way the writing system is a code for the sounds in our very versatile language.

So, how does it work? First and foremost, you need to teach those daughters of yours that the spellings stand for sounds in the language and you should be working on the one letter spellings-one sound to begin with. Afterwards, move on to teach two letters one sound in the context of words with ff ll ss and zz (‘huff’, ‘well’, ‘miss’ and ‘buzz’) at the end.

Now for the hydra! The hydra is the reason no-one can be a perfect speller, which incidentally puts us all in good company. How would one know how to spell a word which has many syllables, some containing less frequent spellings, if one had never seen it before? This is the major stumbling block for most learners: no-one tells them explicitly that there are multiple ways of spelling sounds in the language, never mind teaches them which spellings spell which sounds.

So, here’s what to do. You can put up little charts on the wall with each head of the hydra (or an octopus, or a tree – there are many possible models) representing a spelling of a particular sound, thus grounding the spellings in the sounds of the language, which remain constant and don’t change. Here’s an example of my /ae/ (as in ‘play’) hydra.
Equally, you could just write down some words with different spellings of /ae/ in them so that when, for example one of your daughters asks you how to spell a word, you can ask them which sound-spelling is giving them trouble and tell them that it is the same spelling as in XXX on the chart.

So, how would this work for your daughter’s sentence? Well, I’d leave the word ‘creature’ alone until they’re a little more experienced but I’d say that the way we spell the /ee/ in ‘sea’ is like this (pointing to the word on your chart with that spelling. With 'shel' you say, "This," pointing to the letter l "is a way of spelling /l/ but in this word we need this spelling." And now you write the double l spelling for her. That way, you make clear that all sounds can be spelled and you also make your daughters analytical into the bargain. This is exactly how I dealt with spellings my own daughter had problems with and it works at any and all levels. For your Y11s, you should never give them the whole word unless it contains so many complexities that it will overwhelm them.
Fortunately, there really aren’t that many. Here’s another example: in Year 5, my daughter once asked me how to spell ‘archaeology’. I asked her what the difficult spelling for her was and she told me it was the sound /ee/. I simply said that the sound /ee/ was spelled ae. That was it!

Of course, there’s much more to teaching children how to read and spell but if there's one thing worth keeping in mind it's they are two sides of the same coin and should be taught together from simple to more complex.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Second half: the dog whistle politics of the anti-phonics lobby

The closing keynote talk at Thursday’s conference, ‘EAL: testing the limits of phonics’, given by Frank Monaghan, was nothing more nor less than a crude caricature of phonics. As a matter of fact, he never attempted to engage with the principles behind phonics teaching. Rather he posed as the scourge of educational psychologists, of the inspectorate and of the government under the guise of friendly Frank, champion of the classroom teacher. And it was with a laugh and a joke and a smile that he poured scorn on anyone advocating phonics as a central plank in the teaching of reading to children.

Of course, he wasn’t saying that he disapproved of all phonics teaching entirely. To be so extreme would be a step too far in front of this audience. It has a place, he conceded, though not for him. He didn’t learn like that! He didn’t say how he learnt but Frank Smith’s name came up and Frank Smith was man who was of the opinion that learning to read is like learning to speak: we all do it naturally. The fact that there was and is a massive amount of evidence to the contrary never troubled him.

In case you are unfamiliar with the work of Frank Smith, this is the kind of thing he made his name on: ‘Learning is continuous, spontaneous, and effortless, requiring no particular attention, conscious motivation, or specific reinforcement.’ (Smith, F., Learning to Read: The Never-Ending Debate). Have you ever heard of any learning that is as Frank Smith claims? I suppose this might be true if you’re talking about sucking your thumb, but for learning the piano, learning a second language, how to drive a car, learning to read, learning is nothing like what Smith claims it is. In one of his other books, The Psychology of Reading, he treated us to the observation that ‘Reading without guessing is not reading at all’.

Now, had I been listening to all of this on my own, I would have chortled to myself a bit and busied myself with something else. I guess the thing that began to irritate me enough to want to reply and challenge some of Monaghan's diatribe was that he managed so successfully to capture the interest of at least some of the audience. Naturally, anyone who has not got very good subject knowledge indeed is always prone to being bent by the first counterblast that appears and Monaghan is a persuasive speaker.

So how did he do it? Well, he began by ingratiating himself with the audience by making jokes about Michael Gove. There’s no direct link to phonics there but the association is left floating in the air, the suggestion that I don’t like Gove and I’m guessing you don’t ... and I don’t like phonics either.

Next, you try to undermine and confuse people whose knowledge of some of the complexities of phonics isn’t quite as extensive as it might be. It wasn’t as crude as the notoriously inane ‘ghoti’ example but, in this case, he raised the issue of a boy reading the word ‘started’ and drew attention to the fact that letter e sounds like an /i/. This, of course, a schwa problem but Frank didn’t explain how and why schwas occur in words, though I know he knows, or what teachers can do to help pupils read and spell those words correctly, which I suspect he doesn’t.  As the schwa is the most common vowel sound in the language, the example was completely disingenuous.

This was followed by the implication that phonics advocates teach Received Pronunciation, when, as he put it, ‘even the Queen stopped using it thirty years ago’. How some people laughed! Poor Frank has been away from the classroom for so long that he doesn’t realise that most good quality phonics programmes recommend teaching to the accent of the children they are teaching. So, if someone in Lancashire says /s/ /t/ /er/ /z/ instead of /s/ /t/ air/ /z/, we put the spelling in the /er/ categories.

Another tactic used to cast doubt on phonics teaching was to refer to people, in this case Stephen L. Strauss, who are simply out-and-out phonics deniers. In a paper entitled ‘The logographic nature of English alphabetics and the fallacy of direct intensive phonics instruction’, Strauss maintains that ‘the English phonics system operates at a level of complexity that essentially defies teachability’.


Finally, in a move that would have done justice to Michael Rosen, Frank enjoined teachers to be subversive and to resist the authoritarian dictates of the agents of government, Ofsted inspectors, as, he claimed, they always have. Actually, many teachers probably will resist the government’s efforts to get them to implement phonics teaching – but not for the reasons Frank thinks. The reason phonics teaching may not be implemented successfully for many years yet is that, in the main, teachers don’t understand how the writing system was designed to represent the sounds of the language, which was precisely the point from which Gordon Askew began.

Friday, December 06, 2013

A game of two halves: first half

Yesterday I attended ‘The Future of Phonics in Education and Learning’ conference in London, organised by ‘Inside Government’.

Gordon Askew, literacy adviser and phonics expert, was one of the keynote speakers tasked with the job of providing guidance on the direction in which government is going to take phonics. Both of Askew’s talks set out clearly where writing comes from – it’s a system invented to represent the sounds in speech –, how important it is to teach it in the manner for which it was designed, and what the expectations are for the new National Curriculum.

For reasons of space I’m not going to go into the ins and outs of everything he said but what came through loud and clear was his assertion that:
“Systematic synthetic phonics, well taught and consistently applied as the prime strategy for word reading and fully balanced by both the enthusiastic sharing of a love of literature and the development of comprehension, is not the door to a very small room. It is a door to the vast cathedral of all books have to offer.”
Anyone who has taught reading and spelling would wholeheartedly agree with Askew in his contention that guessing is neither a reliable nor an acceptable strategy and that phonics should always be used first before other strategies. As an aside, a boy in Year 8 I was working with today read the word ‘baseball’ as ‘basketball’, as well as a host of other similar unforced errors. This is because the boy has been taught to guess and look at the first sound or sounds and then guess. It doesn’t work and when there are two or three errors like this every couple of sentences, all meaning is quickly lost and the pupil gives up.

Askew is surely right too when he calls for consistency: phonics needs to be school-wide and everyone involved in teaching should be giving the same messages and, as far as possible, using the same language. For that reason, he says, good quality phonics teaching should also be reviewed regularly, discussed and updated.

In terms of content, all of the code should be taught. It is not enough to teach bits of the code and stop. On this question, he didn’t elaborate but we at Sounds-Write would argue that all the common spellings of the vowel and consonant sounds should be taught. It follows from this that phonics teaching should be taking place right across the curriculum; domain areas taught in KS2 are the obvious place to fine-tune and introduce much less frequently encountered spellings of sounds and broaden discussion to etymology.

Acknowledging that children don’t progress at exactly the same rate, Askew also insisted that provision be made for differentiation and catch-up.

When handing books to children, Askew is unequivocal: the pace of teaching needs to be fast and speedy decoding is going to the watchword of the inspectorate. Teachers will also need to be fully aware about why they are giving a particular child a particular book at any particular time. If the child needs to practise the knowledge, skills and understanding they have been learning in their phonics programme, they should be given decodable books that are commensurate with that programme. If the purpose is to develop language skills, build vocabulary and foster an enjoyment of reading, then the child will be given books they can share, with a mentor/carer taking responsibility for some or even all of the reading. What’s more, there should be a balance between the two.

On the subject of writing, Askew was also at pains to say that phonics isn’t just an approach to the teaching of reading; it’s the way the writing system works! Which means it is going to be the basis for writing. Writing should be taught in parallel with phonics for reading because they are two sides of the same coin and he was adamant that blending and segmenting are reversible processes.

Gill Jones, Ofsted’s principal officer for policy and guidance for maintained primary schools, was also unambiguous about the government’s determination to do something about the 40% of children leaving primary school still ‘not secure in their literacy’.
She went on to say that Ofsted would, in future, be looking carefully at how schools performed on the phonics screening check and would not be accepting the excuses put forward by some schools that their children are ‘falling down on the nonsense words’. The check, she said, was about ‘how well children can decode’.


Of course, this will be music to the ears of phonics advocates, though I felt that, in some of the other presentations, the principles of systematic, synthetic phonics had not been entirely absorbed. My feeling was that the biggest problem with the conference was that no opportunity was given to the delegates to draw out some of the more contentious issues or discuss what had been presented. Perhaps because of this lack of intellectual commitment to the core principles behind phonics teaching, the last speaker of the day was able to undermine some of what had been established by Gordon Askew and Gill Jones, but more about that tomorrow...

Friday, November 29, 2013

My week in the round

What a week! My visit to Blackthorns Primary School in West Sussex turned out to be hugely enjoyable. I was shown round the school and into all the classes by Marianne Brand, the school’s new head teacher. Years ago, Marianne was a teacher at my daughter’s former primary school, St Thomas Aquinas, and so it was great to see her again and in the role of head teacher.

Since arriving at Blackthorns, Marianne has trained her staff in Sounds-Write and on Tuesday I dropped in to give a talk to her parents and one or two members of staff from a couple of local schools. The talk was attended by sixty-five parents and was designed to give them a clear idea about where writing comes from and how it is linked to the sounds of the English language in particular. I also talked a bit about why other European alphabetic languages are so simple and straightforward to learn and about what it is that makes English more complex. However, as I made plain, in the hands of competent teachers, reading and writing in English is not difficult to teach. It does though take time and effort and the teaching needs to be systematic and explicit.

Some members of the Blackthorns Primary School staff
After the parents’ talk, I had a very enjoyable discussion with the staff on some of the finer points of teaching the Sounds-Write programme. From the quality of some of the questions they asked and from their enthusiasm, I think their parents are going to be very pleased with their children's reading and writing. The thing that the staff have noticed in particular is that the children’s writing has improved, something all teachers new to Sounds-Write notice immediately. 

On the following morning, thanks to an invitation from Katherine Lucor, I gave a two-hour talk to the West Sussex educational psychology team on the principles underlying the Sounds-Write approach. This included what specifically it is that anyone learning an alphabetic language must learn, why some alphabetic languages are easier to teach and learn than others, and something about how children learn most effectively. From the informal feedback I’ve been given, the talk generated quite a bit of discussion, interestingly enough, some of it on the question of how thorough a training should be. Their feeling seems to be that it should be thorough!

On the latter point, we have always stuck out for a comprehensive four-day training. In our view, this is the least amount of time needed to teach trainees how the writing system relates to the sounds of the language and all the things teachers need to do to teach it effectively.

Finally, yesterday, it was with real happiness I was able to return to the school where Sounds-Write was first piloted twelve years ago and where Marianne Brand once taught – at St Thomas Aquinas Catholic Primary School. I have long loved this school, so much we sent our youngest daughter there, yet all these years on, the moment one steps into the school, the atmosphere is as vibrant and exciting as ever. Teachers have come and gone but the energy and commitment to the education of the children remains exactly the same. What pleasure!

Monday, November 25, 2013

De-misty-fying spelling!

I’ve just been reading ‘Why some kids can’t spell and why spelling tests won’t help’ by Misty Adoniou, who is a ‘Senior Lecturer in Language, Literacy and Teaching English as a Second Language' at the University of Canberra.
The piece, which appeared on the website ‘The Conversation’, begins from the perspective that spelling does matter. On that we can certainly agree! Although when people make phonically plausible errors, other literate people usually have no trouble in understanding the message intended, people do, fairly or not, make judgements about poor spelling.
I think Misty is absolutely correct in many of the things she says in her preamble:
  • that spelling is one of the most tested of literacy skills but is the least taught
  • that sending home lists of words to spell is not teaching spelling skills
  • that ‘look, cover, write, check’ doesn’t explicitly teach spelling
  • and, that looking for words in words and other detrimental practices teachers often use are a waste of time.

I also agree with her when she says that children ought to know the meanings of words they spell, although this one is a bit of straw man: if a child is writing something, they clearly have meaning in mind and, in this instance, spellings would be corrected in context. However, if words are being presented randomly, of course meaning should first be established. Personally, I’d never ask a child to spell a word whose meaning they didn’t understand.
Where I part company from Misty is in her assertion that the English language isn’t phonetic and, frankly, for a senior lecturer in literacy to make such an absurd claim is preposterous. English is a phonetic language! Shout it from the rooftops! The kind of mystification which she and others like her create is partly what holds us back in making real progress in the teaching of literacy.
All English words are comprised of sounds – no exceptions – and all sounds in all English words have been assigned spellings at some point – again, no exceptions. The reason why spelling in English is a lot more difficult than spelling in Spanish or Italian or Finnish, or German, whose spelling systems are relatively transparent, is because English is relatively opaque. That is to say that there are many ways of spelling the sounds in the language and that many spellings represent different sounds. In addition, some spellings are simply not very commonly used and are therefore more difficult to remember. However, to say, as Misty does, that ‘only about 12% of words in English are spelled the way they sound’ is not only patently incorrect, it demonstrates a total lack of understanding of how the writing system in English is linked to the sounds of the language.
All of this is not to say that the spelling system can’t be taught. It can! As long as it’s taught systematically, from simple to more complex. Whereas Misty seems to separate spelling from reading altogether, I would take a much more holistic approach. Reading and spelling are two sides of the same coin and should be taught simultaneously. The difference is that reading draws on recognition memory and writing or spelling draws on recall memory. Recall memory is a deeper kind of memory and, because there are no cues to help, it is harder.
When testing spelling, teachers should be using words that are commensurate with where children are in a phonics programme. For example, one wouldn't (or shouldn't!) expect a child to spell words with more complex spellings before they have mastered one-to-one correspondences.
Teachers also ought to ask themselves where good spellers and poor spellers begin to part company from one another. Although not always the case, even poor spellers can often spell simple CVC words like ‘dog’ and ‘mat’. Where some children begin to have trouble is in spelling words containing adjacent consonants. They tend to miss out the second consonant when they’re reading and spelling words with the structure CVCC and CCVC (‘mist’ and ‘crab’). These children need lots of skills training.
Moreover, many poor spellers often haven’t been taught explicitly that sounds can be spelled in more than one way and what those ways are. Even when they have, it is difficult sometimes for them to remember which particular spelling is required in any particular word. This is where teaching methodology, practice, and lots of exposure through reading and writing are essential.
What children in schools learning to read and write in English need, wherever they are in the world, is systematic, linguistic phonics.