Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Andrew Davis's damp squib

As expected, yesterday’s interview with Debbie Hepplewhite and Andrew Davis on Radio 4’s PM programme followed the usual course of the debates between phonics advocates and the anti-phonics lobby. As such, it was highly instructive.

Before I could write about the exchange, I had to listen to it again because, as often happens with phonics deniers, I couldn’t remember a single thing of note that Davis had said, so feeble and spiritless was he. Whenever I listen to a phonics denier there is usually a lot of mumbling about rich literary texts and what not but never any evidence. On the other hand, Debbie Hepplewhite was, given the limitations of time, clear, confident and forthright in what she wanted to get across. Her message was simple: the English alphabet code is more complex than other alphabetic languages and it is harder to teach. For this reason alone, it needs to be taught systematically and in a carefully sequenced way.

The problem with Davis’s rhetoric was that it was full of innuendo, which subtly (and not so subtly!) tries to smear phonics advocates by accusing them of three things: that teaching children to decode isn’t teaching reading, by which they mean teaching reading for meaning; that phonics advocates are not interested in providing pupils with a diet of rich and ‘nourishing’ (to use Davis’s word yesterday) literature; and that phonics advocates have a one-size fits all approach. They also in addition occasionally try to claim that the English language isn’t phonic even though the ridiculousness of this claim has been comprehensively demolished by linguists many times.

In regard to the first claim, I’ve never met a phonics advocate who believes that decoding by itself is reading. Of course it isn’t! The reader has at the same time as decoding to be making meaning by understanding what the text is trying to communicate and interpreting it. This is what we all do when we are reading and, as Debbie pointed out, correctly, decoding and understanding, take place simultaneously, rather in the way that when something is read to someone, the person being read to will understand what is being read if they have the necessary background knowledge. It is a synchronous process. Of course, our understanding is dependent on our cultural capital, the store of knowledge we carry around with us. So, in Debbie's sense, all reading is for meaning!

The second point hardly needs justifying. Phonics advocates want children to be able to decode highly proficiently so that they have access to a wealth of rich literary texts as well as to rich informational texts. That is the raison d’etre of teaching through the medium of a phonics approach.

Debbie answered the third accusation about phonics being a one-size-fits-all superbly. The code, she declared, is the same code for all children. What she didn’t have time to say in such a short interview was that phonics advocates, like everyone else in the business of teaching, recognise that children are different. But then phonics instruction is graded according to need. For the beginning, inexperienced reader text will be simplified and presented as commensurate with what children are being taught. Decodable readers are, or should be, in harmony with phonics instruction. That doesn’t mean that pupils are only going to be engaging solely with decodable readers. Teachers are at the same time going to be reading texts which enrich their  pupils’ vocabularies, enhance their experience of different genres, etc. [Opponents of phonics often travesty decodable readers by caricaturing them as ridiculously inferior in quality to more traditional stories. What they don’t realise is that the purpose of decodable readers in the initial stage of learning to read is to enable fluency but that’s the subject for a separate blog posting.]

However, for children who can already read reasonably well or even very well, phonics provides a clear understanding of how the writing system relates to the sounds of the language. In such cases, tailoring the quality and the quantity of the phonics tuition requires well educated teachers who have a very high level of knowledge of the conceptual understanding, factual knowledge and the skills needed to teach their pupils to become highly proficient readers and spellers.

Despite the fact that Davis came across very ineffectually, every time he and others who are deemed, because of their positions as university lecturers or prominent authors, question the efficacy of good quality phonics instruction, it strengthens the hands of LEA advisers, head teachers and others who do everything in their power to undermine its progress. For that reason, we should always be prepared to challenge the siren song of the opposers of phonics. What's at stake is the future of our children's literacy.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Linguistic phonics: a practical example

For some time now, there have been various accounts of the differences between linguistic phonics and synthetic phonics. Some of the principal differences you can find here on SusanGodland’s excellent website dyslexics.org.uk, but the differences also extend far beyond those adumbrated by Susan into the detail of how linguistic phonics should be taught. And, of course, the devil is in the detail.

What I want to do here is to elucidate just one important difference between the two approaches. Of course, before advocates of SP programmes start jumping up and down and saying that what I’m about to expound on also comprises a part of their practice, I’m not saying that the basic technique I shall be talking about is wholly exclusive to LP. Nevertheless, in the totality of all of its parts, it probably is.

What Sounds-Write starts with is the proposition that the writing system was invented and developed to represent the sounds of the language, the sounds in everyday speech. From the start, Sounds-Write trainers encourage their trainees to make this fact explicit to the children they teach because knowing that spellings stand for the sounds in our speech gives the whole process validity from a psychological perspective.

This is why our starting point is always word building. In a properly structured word building lesson, teachers can introduce a small number of items, in this case sound-spelling correspondences, to learn at any one time. This is consistent with how young (and older) children learn. The approach also provides the basis for the development of a schema on which to build, in time, the whole edifice of proficient reading and spelling.

So, how does it work? I know that the evidence against constructivist approaches has recently come under heavy fire and that explicit approaches are now in vogue. However, some of these debates polarise the two camps unnecessarily, as has been shown in Tobias and Duffy’s Constructivist Instruction: Success or Failure. So, you will see from what unfolds that there is a small element of guided construction in what is being taught.

In Sounds-Write we begin by teaching five sound-spelling correspondences in the first week or two of children arriving in school for the first time. Our very first lesson is word building and it goes as follows.

We place three sound-spelling correspondences (writ large on PostIts, or laminated squares) on a whiteboard. They are placed on the board jumbled up and out of order and we draw three lines, roughly the size of the PostIt/laminated squares underneath. 

To being with we would always choose the sound-spellings that make up a word beginning with a continuant (which Roache describes as a sound you can hang on to or stretch out) to make it easier to hear: for example, /sssss/. Suppose the word we’ve chosen is ‘sat’. We run our finger under the first of the three lines we’ve drawn and tell the child(ren), “We’re going to build the word ‘sat’. What’s the first sound we hear in ‘sat’. What sound can you hear when my finger is under this line (with finger under the first line), when I say ‘sat’?” And the teacher says ‘sssssssat’. Now, as you can stretch out the sound /s/ almost until the cows come home, there will be many children in a Reception class who will be able to tell you that the first sound they hear is /s/. Because the lines give the children, in the words of David Wood in How Children Think and Learn, a ‘simple, physical, locational cue’, the children’s listening and visual focus is on exactly what you want them to learn: that the first sound is /s/. When identified, all the children say the sound. This makes sure that none of the children are saying the letter name and that all children are saying the sound precisely.

As we also need to build into the lesson lots of practice, the teacher should ask some of the children to repeat the sound. Now, the teacher asks the children to identify which of the sound-spelling correspondences is /s/: “Who can come to the board and show me which of these is /s/?” As I’ve never come across a Reception class in which there isn't at least one child is able to identify which of the three spellings is /s/, this shouldn’t be a problem. A child comes to the board and identifies the /s/, takes the spelling and places it on the first line, saying the sound as they do, with the rest of the class echoing the /s/.

And so the lesson continues: “What’s the next sound in ‘sat’. Tell me what you hear when my finger is under this line.” Here, the teacher draws their finger, starting under the first line from under the first line and across the three lines, saying ‘saaaaaat’ and stretching out the /a/. It is important not to segment for the children. They are the ones who must do the segmenting. What the teacher is doing is giving them a place to listen and scaffolding by stretching out the target sound each time slowly. The last sound in ‘sat’ is /t/, which is not a continuant and, in this case, may need to be said with a little more emphasis so that the children can clearly hear it.

At this point, the word is built and we’ve begun to teach the children how to segment sounds in words, a vital skill in teaching reading and spelling. The next step is for the children to say the sounds and read the word, thus blending the sounds together. And, we give them lots of opportunity to repeat this individually: “Okay, Susanna, say the sounds and read the word. Now, Sherah, you say the sounds and read the word.’ In this way, we’re not asking children to blend when they haven’t yet been taught the sound-spelling correspondences: they’ve been learning them when they were doing the word building exercise! We also give every child in the class multiple opportunities to link sound to spelling, spelling to sound, to segment and blend those sounds in the word ‘sat’.

After another step, which for reasons of space I’ll leave out, the children write the word on whiteboards, saying each sound as they write it, and finish off by saying the sounds once again and reading the word. Sounds-Write trainees are also taught all the common errors children are likely to make in this activity and how to correct them using simple and straightforward language.

To summarise, from a conceptual point of view, in so doing, we have taught the class that spellings are symbols (representations) of sounds; we’ve taught the code knowledge, the spellings s a and t by linking sounds to spellings; and, we’ve taught the beginnings of segmenting and blending skills. We’ve taught a limited number of sound-spelling correspondences so that children are not presented with too great a cognitive load and we have begun to put in place a schema on which to build. The approach also incorporates the kind of deliberate practice advocated by K.Anders Ericsson et al in The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. And, finally, we've taught all of this in the context of a recognisable word without having first to teach sound-spelling correspondences separately and out of context.


In this approach are contained a number of major differences between some of the haphazard and random approaches adopted by some phonics programmes and a rigorous and systematic, linguistic phonics approach. It is both explicit and constructivist in the sense that the construction is carefully guided and scaffolded at all times so that children don’t form incorrect concepts or waste time guessing. In addition, it presents the learning in the form of a puzzle, which, in the hands of skilled teacher, should be enjoyable. Most important of all, it gives all children the chance to experience the sweet smell of success right from the start.