Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The English writing system

A question that arises which proponents of phonics have to keep coming back to challenge over and over again is whether the writing system is truly phonic. Many words, it is alleged, contain ‘unphonetic spellings’. A moment’s pause for reflection will persuade any right-thinking person that this is baloney. As I never tire of reminding anyone who confronts me with this nonsense, all words are comprised of sounds and all sounds have been assigned spellings. Ergo, there are no ‘unphonetic’ words, however complex they might seem to the layperson.

Daniel and Bright’s strictures on the subject are illuminating. From the outset, their scholarly tome The World’s Writing Systems, makes explicit that experts on the subject of the writing systems of the world’s languages are in total agreement about one important fact: that writing systems represent the sounds in languages.

Furthermore, Daniels maintains that writing, or ‘the marks that record the languages of the documents produced by civilizations…must be studied’. Moreover, and despite claims to the contrary, while all human infants learn their own language(s) naturally, ‘no infant illiterate absorbs its script with its language: writing must be studied’. 

To claim, therefore, that some people learn to read and write as naturally as they learn to speak is simply a fiction. People who make such a claim are suffering from amnesia - and I’m not being flippant. It is a fact that, after the age of seven years or thereabouts, our memories of early childhood rapidly deteriorate to the extent that we can remember very little of what happened in the early years.
At some point, whether it is simply that someone reading to a young child slides their finger under the words – thus, of course, making explicit, in some way, that the squiggles on the page represent sounds and words – or, more likely, the other thousand and one interventions that take place in the life of a child growing up in a literate society, a child needs to learn the alphabetic principle. If the interventions are insufficient or incoherently presented, it is highly unlikely that a child will become literate; whereas, even in the teeth of a degree of inconsistency of presentation, given adequate resources, another child may well scramble through the complexity of cracking an opaque code.

Of course, it is much better for everyone concerned if the child is presented from the off with a coherently structured system showing how the sounds of the language are related to those squiggles on the page, which Daniels defines as ‘a system of more or less permanent marks used to represent an utterance in such a way that it can be recovered more or less exactly without the intervention of the utterer’. He also, from the outset, dispenses with the idea that pictograms, the representation of things through the medium of whole images, were the precursors of writing systems. They were not and, what is more, there is no evidence to support such an idea! This is because, among other things, writing systems have to include numerous things that cannot be embodied by pictures. These would include not only such things as abstract nouns and verbs but also the complexities of the language, such as verb inflections and morphophonemic elements of the language.  ‘It is,’ Daniels asserts, ‘thus necessary for a writing system to represent the sounds of a language.’

Most scholars also agree that numerous early lexical texts unearthed by archaeologists and studied by philologists were manuals for the teaching of writing. This would ensure the structured transmission of the system from generation to generation and that the method of instruction was passed on along with the practical knowledge of the script. It would seem that this would constitute an excellent idea to return to en masse within the teaching profession.

Daniels and Bright are in no doubt: ‘It is … generally agreed that strategies for teaching reading that do not incorporate the study of phonics (correspondence between spelling and sound) are at least inefficient, and probably ineffective as well.’

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Prate and Lyle

A few weeks ago when I read Misty Adoniou’s piece in The Conversation, I really thought the depths had been well and truly plumbed. [See blog posting] I was wrong! Susan Godsland has just passed me a link to an execrable piece soon to be published in SchoolLeadership Today.

The article ‘The limits of phonics teaching’ betrays a lack of knowledge about the way in which the writing system is linked to the sounds of the language that is, even by the poorly informed standards of whole language proponents, quite staggeringly awful. The fact that it also comes from someone who is a Welsh teacher trainer from Swansea Metropolitan University and that it is going to go out in TeachingTimes simply compounds the awfulness of this caricature of what phonics teaching is.

Once the nonsensical and snide allusion to ‘commercial’ schemes has been dispensed with, Sue Lyle starts off well enough, informing the reader that a phoneme is the smallest unit of sound and that there are forty-four sounds in English. But that’s about it!

We get the usual stuff: the government, it seems, ‘assumes that simple decoding is all that is required in reading’. Of course, the DfE thinks no such thing. However, this is small beer in comparison with the egregious errors she makes in her attempt to travesty phonics.

There are simply far too many absurd inaccuracies to devote time to scrutinising everything so I’ll give a few samples. Apparently, ‘the alphabetic principle (phonics) doesn’t work for even the simplest CVC words… While it may work for ‘fit’ and ‘sit’, it doesn’t work for ‘fir’ and ‘sir’. And here you can see immediately the inaccuracy into which she has fallen: she considers ‘fir’ to be a CVC word when, in fact, it is a CV word. ‘Fir’ is comprised of two sounds /f/ and /er/. What she’s done is to flip the way the alphabetic system works from a phonics orientation – what the alphabet code was invented for – to a graphemic system, which, if analysed in the way she does (mesmerised by the visual), quickly breaks down into incomprehensible chaos.

This is also why Sue thinks that the letter a in ‘cat’ doesn’t correspond to the letter a in ‘bay’, ‘day’, or ‘hay’ [Sue’s examples]. Because she reads everything graphemically, she doesn’t seem to understand that ay, a two-letter spelling, in each of these words represents the sound /ae/, as in, well, ‘hay’.

Next, she launches an assault on ‘magic ‘e’’, as she calls it. Frankly, I don’t know anyone these days who teaches ‘magic e’ but we’ll let it pass because she goes on to demonstrate that she hasn’t the faintest idea of how the split spelling works or how to segment sounds in words. For her information the sounds in ‘dance’ are /d/ /ar/ /n/ /s/, although in some accents of English, it could easily be /d/ /a/ /n/ /s/. In both versions, the two-letter spelling ce represents the sound /s/. Again, the real problem is her lack of understanding of how the code works.

At this point, I really had to laugh, because she asks the reader if they’re ‘getting confused’. Actually, I wasn’t but I could see how Sue was and how a reader might be if they were similarly misinformed. And I won’t contradict her when a paragraph or so later Sue tells us that ‘it gets worse’. It certainly does because now she informs us that the common combination th is further evidence that ‘letter-sound correspondence simply won’t work’. Is it voiceless /th/ as in ‘thin’, or is it voiced /th/ as in ‘this’, she asks. It appears that Sue can’t understand what a four-year-old child I taught recently understood with ease: that spellings are symbolic representations of sounds and that many spellings can represent more than one sound, as in the case of the spelling th. If a child can understand that a circle can be a ball, a moon, a pizza, etc, etc, they can also understand that th can be /th/ in ‘thin’ or /th/ in ‘that’.

There's much more of this rubbish and I’d go on but I think you probably get the picture. The truth is that because Sue doesn’t understand the nature of the alphabet code and can’t explain it, she thinks phonics doesn’t work. No, Sue! Good quality phonics works very well. It’s you!

The really depressing thing about all of this is that Sue Lyle’s students may well be taken in by all of this twaddle only to find themselves working in a school and wondering why it is they don’t know how to teach reading and spelling to young children. Is it any wonder that the problem of illiteracy in Wales is so serious?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Philistines are upon us!

On January 26th the Telegraph’s chief education correspondent Graeme Paton reported that Cambridge University has been given the go-ahead by the government to establish a primary school for 630 pupils. The University of Cambridge Training School will be overseen by Cambridge dons and will be used to train teachers undertaking their PGCE training.

The idea is supposed to provide a bridge between conventional university-based courses and on-the-job training offered by many schools. It is also intended to promote ‘school-focused academic research’. This set me to thinking: if they want to do ‘school-focused academic research’, why not offer to train another school matched for SES and other relevant variables and make comparisons over, say, seven years of the primary schooling?

So, I decided to put my money where my mouth is and I wrote to Charlie Taylor of the National College for Teaching and Leadership and made the following proposal: 
I saw reported in the Telegraph that the National College for Teaching and Leadership is sponsoring the opening of a University of Cambridge Training School, which will be 'overseen by senior dons from the university'. I believe strongly that Sounds-Write can do a better job of teaching children literacy than Cambridge University, and would like to make you a serious offer. The offer is that Sounds-Write will train all the primary staff in any school you would like to match for SES and other salient variables with the newly established school. We will pay for the training of the teachers and we will supply all the materials required to teach our Sounds-Write programme. I will do this if you will agree to provide independent assessors of the progress of the children in the two schools and we can agree on the methods of assessment, which, as far as I am concerned, would be the phonics screening check, an agreed test of reading and one of spelling, as well as the SATs results.Sounds-Write provides phonics training for teachers and has been operating for eleven years. It was approved for matched funding by the DfE during the period in which it was available, and our trainings have been inspected by Ofsted twice and found to be excellent. To date, we have trained eleven thousand teachers and teaching assistants in UK, the Republic of Ireland and Australia.As Mrs Janet Hilary, the head of St George's CEPS in Wandsworth put it to me recently, literacy is the foundation on which the whole of the rest of the curriculum rests. Her school's latest results amply demonstrate that philosophy as can be seen from the table below. They are even more remarkable when one considers that over half the pupils at the school are on free schools meals.

St George’s CEPS in Wandsworth 2013 results
LEA av %
Eng av %
Reading: Level 4
Reading: Level 5
Writing: Level 4
Writing: Level 5
Spelling, grammar and punctuation: Level 4
Spelling, grammar and punctuation: Level 5

This is a genuine and, I think, an exciting offer and I sincerely hope that you will consider it. I look forward to hearing from you, John Walker
 On February 4th, I received this letter from Charlie Taylor’s secretary:

Dear Mr Walker Thank you for your email. I have passed on the request to Charlie. He mentioned that your programme sounds really interesting, but unfortunately he is considering no such trial at the moment. He will be sure to come back to you in the future if this ever changes. Kind regards, Veronica, PA to Charlie Taylor, Chief Executive of the National College for Teaching and Leadership Department for Education
Of course, I never did believe for one minute that Taylor would take up the offer and, even if he had been interested, the dons would almost certainly have torpedoed it. I mean, what would happen if some upstart little outfit like Sounds-Write were to outperform the mighty dons? What a shame we can’t ‘go compare’ when we have Professor Morag Styles, a professor at Homerton College, part of Cambridge University’s Faculty of Education, recently making public her support of the anti-phonics ‘academic’ Andrew Davis. She went further, demonstrating her clear lack of understanding of what modern phonics teaching is, when she talked about ‘tedious drills’ and other such nonsense that has nothing whatever to do with good quality modern phonics programmes like Sounds-Write. Not that Morag has ever done any phonics teaching to young children, of course.

So, what with their apparent, according to the Telegraph article, interest in ‘learning styles’ and their likely antipathy to phonics, I just can’t wait to see how they get on. But it would have been an interesting encounter had they had the courage to challenge my impertinence!