Monday, January 21, 2013

The Magic Belt series from Phonicbooks

The Magic Belt series is the latest offering from the Phonicbooks stable. It is promoted as being a ‘catch-up’ series of twelve books for 8-14-year-olds ‘who would benefit from starting a phonics course from the beginning’.
It covers the structures at word level from CVC, through CVCC and CCVC to CCVCC, as well as the consonant digraph spellings sh, ch, th, ck, ng, wh and le.

The series begins with Zak, a young boy whose grandpa, with whom he lives, is very ill. Zak sets off to find help. In so doing he encounters ‘The Man in the Mist’, the title of the first book, and thus begins a sequence of quests culminating in a battle with an evil wizard.

This is the classic triumph of good versus evil through the heroic exploits of a young protagonist. In every story a challenge is posed and overcome and what is so cleverly executed is that the exciting tales are told within the confines of the basic one-to-one sound to spelling correspondences and some consonant digraphs.

The series also makes a deliberate effort to introduce less frequently encountered vocabulary – I love the expression ‘smelt rank’ for ‘smelt horrid’ and words like ‘lush’, ‘talons’ and ‘pluck’, though there are many more. And, all of these words are glossed at the beginnings of the books for the teacher to mediate.

In addition, the author and editors of the series are clearly making a conscious effort to introduce a number of bound morphemes, such as -ed, and -ing endings. This development should provide teachers with an excellent opportunity to talk about sound/spelling correspondences and meaning simultaneously. I hope we see more of these in future series.

All of these books conform exactly to what the Tickell Report (2011) strongly advocated: they provide readers with practice at reading entirely decodable texts ‘so that they experience success and learn to rely on phonemic strategies’.
Phonicbooks are managing to do what was previously thought impossible: combining decodable text with storylines likely to appeal to the reader.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Jaber whacky!

There was a very interesting (and very muddled) piece in the Times yesterday on the subject of the sounds of the English language and its spelling conventions.

The story begins with former investment banker Jaber Jabbour sitting on an aeroplane reading the safety instructions and wondering why two languages, in this case Portuguese and English, could use what is essentially a Latin alphabet and sound so different. This would probably give the first indication to the knowledgeable reader that Mr Jabbour has got it arsy versy: we start not with the spellings but with the sounds of the language: it is the spellings that represent the sounds and not the other way about. And that different languages contain different sounds should not surprise us.

Turning his attention to English Jaber began looking in detail at the alphabet and decided that the letters [c], [q] and [x] could be dispensed with immediately. This, he claims, is because they are replicated by [s], [k] and [g]/[z] respectively. He’s right about this but it is here that things begin to go awry. Of course, in (mostly) northern pronunciations, [x] can represent the two sounds /g/ and /z/, as in the word ‘exit’, /e/ /g/ /z/ /i/ /t/; however, in southern pronunciations they are more likely to be /k/ and /s/, as in /e/ /k/ /s/ /i/ /t/.
He also, according to the article, feels it necessary to add a new letter to the alphabet, a [ǝ], which is how, in the International Phonetic Alphabet, the schwa (the most common vowel sound), is represented in English. The example he chooses to give is the word ’oven’ and he believes that the schwa symbol should replace the letter [o] in ‘oven’. Actually, there’s a reason why the spelling [o] represents the sound /u/ in English: it’s because until 1630 the spellings [u] and [v] were used interchangeably for the sounds /u/ and /v/ - imagine for a minute trying to read the word vuula [uvula] before 1630! Alexander Gill decided that henceforth the spelling [v] would represent the sound /v/. Even so, given that there were no typewriters or computers around at the time, when these two letters appeared together handwritten or when the letter [u] appeared next to other ‘stick’ letters, people often found words difficult to decipher: again, imagine trying to read the word ‘muney’. In the typeface I’ve used, it isn’t too difficult to distinguish one letter from another but, in other handwriting scripts, separating them could be much more difficult.

This was the moment when someone closed off the [u] to turn it into a letter [o]. This enabled everyone to see clearly where one letter finished and another one started: hence, ‘money’, ‘another’, ‘mother’, etc. What didn’t happen was that people started pronouncing words differently: the letter [o] still represented the sound /u/.
Going back to the word ‘oven’, the schwa sound (ǝ) is the spelling [e] in the unstressed syllable and not the spelling [o], the vowel in the stressed syllable. I know this sounds nerdy but it does have important implications for helping pupils with spelling because it is the schwa sound that causes so many pupils to misspell words.

What Mr Jabbour also does not understand is that many spellings represent more than one sound. This isn’t a difficult idea to come to grips with. For example, even small children will tell you that a circle can represent different things: a moon, a pizza, a face, a ball, etc. We live in a culture where symbols are used interchangeably all the time. So, it’s not a great intellectual jump to understand the spelling [o] can be /o/ in ‘hot’, /oe/ in ‘go’, /oo/ in ‘to’ or /u/ in ‘money’.

He also doesn’t appreciate that having more ways than one of spelling each sound has a function: it helps to differentiate homonyms, words which sound the same but have different spellings and different meanings. And, again, it isn’t a difficult concept. After all, any child can tell you that such and such is a rose, a tulip, a dandelion, a daisy but that they’re all flowers.
So, Mr Jabbour, better stick to banking than enter the linguistic graveyard in which are buried the bodies of other would-be spelling reformers.

Oh frabjous day!

Thanks to Nicholas Mutton, who has licensed  the photo for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Music, Father Brown and phonics teaching

As a boy, I often enjoyed reading G.K.Chesterton’s Father Brown’s stories. So, when I noticed there was a programme on Radio 4 on Tuesday entitled ‘Scoring Father Brown', I decided to tune in to listen to what it was all about.

According to the trail on the Radio 4 website, the programme was about ‘a unique exploration of the world of writing music for film and television’. However, what really got my undivided attention was when Professor Eric Clarke of the Faculty of Music at Oxford University came on to contribute to the idea of how important it is for what the viewer is seeing, a television series based on the Father Brown stories, to be in harmony with what they are hearing, the accompanying music to the series.
What he said articulated perfectly Sounds-Write’s thinking on how we should be teaching phonics’, i.e. through the medium of a multi-sensory approach, and you can read his words verbatim below:

“Human beings are basically multi-sensory animals and we are used to encountering the world in the full richness of sight and sound and smell and touch and movement and all of those things. So, purely auditory information in the absence of the visual or the visual in the absence of the auditory is something that we are not biologically programmed for. So, there must at root be a strong inclination to receive information from the world in these various modalities together. This allows for some very powerful relationships between the visual and the auditory, most obviously of course when they are congruent with one another, so when what we are seeing is supported and confirmed and elaborated upon and by what we hear.”

So, what we see, as we turn each spelling into a sound inside our heads, blending them together to make recognisable words, should correspond to what we hear; and, by the same token, what we hear should, when we’re writing a word, correspond to what we see.

Well taught, that’s the beauty of good quality phonics teaching!

Thanks to admiral.ironbombs here for the image.