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.

Friday, November 22, 2013

WOTY 2013

In case you missed the announcement last week, ‘selfie’ is the Oxford Dictionaries' new WOTY (word of the year). Apparently, given its ubiquity, the decision was almost unanimous. Since its rise in popularity, it has also spawned a host of bizarre derivatives: ‘helfie’, ‘belfie’, ‘welfie’, as well as ‘legsie’! Last year Oxford Dictionaries went for ‘omnishambles’, though ‘pleb’, ‘chick lit’ and ‘mummy porn’, courtesy of Fifty Shades, were also in the running.

Last year’s in-word for the American Dialect Society was ‘hashtag’. In 2011, it was the eminently forgettable ‘occupy’ and, amazingly, because it seems as if it’s been with us forever, the year before that it was ‘app’. Something tells me that, until the technology is superseded, ‘hashtag’ and ‘app’ are going to be around for some time.

The American Dialect Society doesn’t choose its WOTY until January so we’re going to have to wait and see what emerges as the winner in the US. At the moment there are a number of contenders. According to the always likeable lexicographer and linguist Ben Zimmer, ‘twerking’ is a strong runner.

I quite like ‘derping’. It’s a Paul Krugman invention for people who ‘take a position and refuse to alter it no matter how strongly the evidence refutes it, [and] who continue to insist that they have The Truth despite being wrong again and again’. Krugman is an economist and professor at Princeton University in the US so I suspect only economic nerds and political geeks will have heard of the word.

Anyway, for all of you lovers of the language out there, Zimmer’s Visual Thesaurus is a cornucopia of delights.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn

I’m reading what I think is by far and away one of the best written books I’ve come across in many a year: Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn by John Hattie and Gregory Yates.

One of the most obvious assets of the book is that it is enormously accessible to teaching practitioners while, at the same time, covering some of the most up-to-date research findings.
I found just about every chapter as exciting (Yes, that’s right! Exciting!) as the one before. Not only does it cover and give excellent advice on what relationships between students and students and students and teachers should look like but it also deals with many of the gritty issues teachers demand answers to and often don’t get from training courses.

How is knowledge acquired? How are skills developed? How important is deep learning (skills, knowledge and understanding)? What is short-term memory and how does it relate to long-term memory? All of these and more hot topic questions are answered.

Of course, what many teachers will want to know is whether Hattie and Yates favour constructivist or direct instruction approaches and on this controversial subject, they are suitably nuanced. In case that brings a jolt to your heart, they are very much in favour of direct instruction for novices in any domain, though, in such a short review, this sounds crude and doesn’t do justice to the richness and complexity of their findings.

Ultimately, I particularly enjoyed reading the chapter on ‘The impact of cognitive load’, which deals with why it is so hard for humans to learn things for which they are not hard-wired and how teachers and instructional design can make learning so much easier for learners. 

Whether you teach learners who are six or sixty-six, this book is a must. You can get it here or put it on your wish-list.