Thursday, April 18, 2013

Illiteracy in London secondary schools? It's Standard practice.

Today, yet again we see a London newspaper highlighting yet another attempt to put a tiny piece of sticking plaster on what seems to be the ever festering sore of illiteracy in schools.

The London Evening Standard reports that university students are being sent in to five London secondary schools to provide ‘urgent’ help for secondary pupils who can’t read and write to a level that will enable them to cope with the secondary curriculum.
Five London secondary schools are taking part in a £458,000 ‘pilot programme’ to help catch up the estimated three hundred pupils needing this kind of support. This, of course, could be only the tip of the iceberg because it is reckoned that between ‘70 and 100 per cent’ of pupils entering these secondaries have reading ages below ten years.

Of course, this is nothing new. We’ve known about it for years and I’ve been writing about it ever since I began this blog. Why? Because it is a common occurrence for secondary teachers and teaching assistants arriving on our courses to tell that this is exactly the kind of thing they are faced with every year. We know this because, as soon as pupils arrive at secondary school, a screening process takes place in which decisions are made about which pupils will need specialised help in reading. The truth is that only the most needy, in other words, those with such low reading abilities that they can barely function at all can be given help. This is because there are so many pupils with reading ages below their chronological ages. Sixty and seventy per cent are the kinds of figures regularly quoted.
For me, the first question that springs to mind is: what the hell is not going on in the feeder primary schools that is causing so many pupils to leave without the ability to read or write properly?

As Katie Ivens, leader of the charity Real Action, which is running the project, makes clear in the article, illiteracy blights opportunities for these young people. It also creates huge problems for secondary teachers who have to cope with pupils in their classes who can’t read from fairly simple textbooks, never mind make notes or write down their thoughts on paper.
The second question is: why is nearly half a million pounds being spent on trying to rectify a problem by the time it reaches secondary school level instead of going to the root cause: the primary schools that are failing to teach these pupils to read and write.

For the kind of money being spent, Sounds-Write could easily train well over a thousand primary teachers on our four-day intensive and highly specialised courses and in so doing easily prevent this kind of thing happening in the first place.
Time to get out those grapes again, though this time I’m thinking that instead of Cato’s warning we should instead be thinking about Steinbeck and getting good and mad!

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Does spelling matter?

Last week in the oxforddictionaries blog, professor Simon Horobin posed the question ‘Does spelling matter?’ and, in truth, it’s very hard to answer largely because it is so multidimensional. One of the most immediate and obvious of problems when dealing with correct spelling is the seemingly enormous amount of emotional investment people have in the issue.

Naturally, being someone who is engaged in the teaching of reading and spelling, I can't claim to be neutral on the question. From the perspective of teaching young children to read and spell accurately from the start, Sounds~Write's answer would be an unequivocal yes to Horobin's question. In general, I've always felt that as long as a written text is legible, there’s nothing fundamental about which to object. But then I'm a literate adult. Of course, even for adults problems might arise in cases where differences in accent might cause a word to be read one way when it is more usually read in another. The differences in standard pronunciation between the United States and the UK are very often immediately noticeable but then so are many regional differences within the UK. Moreover, I suppose it is possible for a misspelt word to convey the wrong meaning, though context normally provides a simple check. There is as well the social aspect: in some settings, if your job application contains a spelling mistake, you can be sure it won't get past the Cerberus guarding the gates of HR!

In a number of his books, David Crystal makes the point that there has always been a degree of variation in spelling. He points out that from Anglo-Saxon times until the eighteenth century very few people worried about the 'consistent use of a standardised spelling system as a sign of an educated person' (Stories of English, p.41) Since the eighteenth century, there has been a tension between centripetal (pulling in to the centre – the standardisers) and centrifugal (tendencies that pull away from the centre – the divergers) forces in the English language. As the names suggest, the standardisers want to 'fix' the language as far as possible, whereas the divergers are happier to tolerate difference, which is why, as the pendulum swings between the two poles, the argument over spelling arises so often.

In the blog posting ‘Does spelling matter?’ what quickly becomes obvious is that the piece betrays some confusion about how the spelling system works in relation to the sounds of the language.

For example, although it states (correctly) that the spelling systems in Finland and Spain are ‘transparent’, it also says that there is a ‘closer relationship’between spelling and pronunciation’ in those countries. Of course, regular readers of this blog will know that the writer probably means that the relationship between sounds and printed symbols is transparent to the extent that most are one-to-one. That doesn’t mean though, as I have have pointed out many times in this blog (here and here and here), that there isn’t a ‘close relationship’ between the sounds in English and the spelling system. The relationship in English is just more complex. The question is: can it be taught?

Of course, it is impossible to be a perfect speller in English. With, we are told, over a million words in English, no-one is, as professor Horobin puts it, 'up to scratch'. How would anyone know how to spell a word if it was relatively complex from a structural point of view (i.e. polysyllabic and containing less frequent spellings of sounds) and the speller had never seen the word before?

The problem with the way most people look at spelling is that they put the cart before the horse: they start with spellings and not with the sounds of the language. There are, depending on accent, around forty-four sounds in the language and these sounds provide the anchor for spellings. If we teach (even quite young) children how the spelling system works in relation to the sounds, we have something that is relatively easy to learn in the first three years of schooling for most children.

As Horobin points out, it's also true that there are anomalies, such as the fact that for many people the spelling T represents the sound /ch/ in 'Tuesday' and there are some archaisms or words we simply say differently than we did a thousand years ago, such as 'any' and 'one'. Still, these really aren't difficult to teach if the teacher knows how the alphabet code is structured and they know how, in terms of concepts and skills, to teach it, not forgetting how young children learn of course.

The real reason why the whole question of spelling comes up so frequently is that many commentators have never thought of spellings as representations of sounds (or symbols for sounds) in the language. That’s what the writing system was invented for! Once we think of the system in this way, we have something that is easy to mediate: there are sounds and there are spellings. All words are comprised of sounds and all sounds have been assigned (at some point in time) spellings.

Copies of Horobin's newly published book Does Spelling Matter? can be got from Amazon here.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

The LB gives UKLA F for PSC

If there’s one thing The United Kingdom Literacy Association (UKLA) never misses, it’s the opportunity to attack approaches to teaching all children to read and spell successfully and from the moment they enter school. Of course, I’m talking about good quality phonics approaches and, in particular, linguistic phonic approaches, such as Sounds-Write or Fiona Nevola’s Sound Reading System.
UKLA conducted a ‘survey’ on the phonics screening check and got 494 responses. The following, under the heading ‘Phonics Screening Check fails a generation of able readers’, is a summary of the results of that survey:
·         The Phonics Screening Check is not fit for purpose

·         The Phonics Screening Check impedes successful readers and has failed a cohort of the most fluent readers

·         The Phonics Screening Check misidentifies pupils who are beyond this stage of development as readers and favours less developed/emergent readers

·         The nonsense words were very confusing for children

·         The Phonics Screening Check undermines pupils’ confidence as readers

·         There are negative implications for relationships with parents

·         There are implications for school organisation.

Not being a member of UKA, I can’t post a reply but here’s what I posted on a thread on the Reading Reform Foundation.
During the last year, we, at Sounds-Write, have trained over a thousand teaching practitioners. In that time we have not heard a single objection to the phonics screening check.

To take some of your alleged objections to the check:

Children are confused by nonsense words? As part of our programme of teaching children to read and spell, we have been using nonsense words for over ten years. Never has there been any suggestion that children are 'confused' by them. In fact, just the opposite is the case: mediated correctly, children think that nonsense words are fun, especially when teachers say that these words are words we haven't yet met.

The check ‘impedes successful readers’ or fails ‘a cohort of the most fluent readers’? How anyone can arrive at this conclusion is beyond me. If a child cannot read simple words accurately, then they can't read, much less read fluently! Fluent readers should be capable of reading every word in the check accurately. This objection sounds much more like special pleading on the part of those who advocate whole language and who fail to teach children to decode words correctly.

As for undermining children's confidence as readers, when delivered appropriately, there is no reason why a child should have any inkling how they do on the check.

On any of our trainings, before the course starts, it is a rare occurrence to meet a single teacher who has a clear and explicit understanding of how the sounds of the language relate to the spellings of those sounds. Much less do they know how the English alphabet code is structured conceptually, nor do they know the skills necessary to be able to use that knowledge. Moreover, most head teachers are even less informed about how to teach reading and spelling than their early years teachers.

I would suggest that your survey – it’s hardly likely that teachers in favour of the check are going to be falling over themselves to respond! – is nothing other than a blatant attempt to attack and undermine the value of phonics teaching at what you consider to be its weakest link.