Sunday, June 29, 2014

The tip of the iceberg

The recent Ofsted report ‘How a sample of primary schools in Stoke-on-Trent teach pupils to read’ makes shocking reading. It is a small sample of only twelve primary schools (out of 77) in Stoke-on-Trent and yet the report declares that in seven out of that twelve, ‘reading was not taught well enough’ and that six of the schools ‘were not well prepared for the requirements of the new national curriculum’. Moreover, it estimates that ‘over 7,000 children go to a school that is judged inadequate or as requires improvement’.

So, the first question that springs immediately to mind is: if that’s what nearly sixty per cent of the schools are like in a small sample, what is happening in the other 65 primary schools in Stoke-on-Trent? 
Can you see the tear in old Josiah's eye?

About the only positive thing the report has to say is that, in the five schools where children were being taught adequately, children were getting off to ‘a flying start in the Early Years Foundations Stage’. What this means is that these children have begun to establish a solid base on which, with good tuition, their abilities to read and write can be further developed. Which is more than can be said for their 7,000 peers!

According to the report, not all schools were teaching phonics decoding and, astonishingly, three head teachers were described as being unaware that this is a requirement of the new national curriculum. It hardly seems surprising then that teachers in the failing schools were not, as the report laments, linking early reading and writing – a clear indication that they don’t understand the reversibility of the code and almost certainly don’t know how the sounds of the language relate to the way the spelling system works.

Worse still, there is every indication that what phonics teaching was in place in Key Stage 1 disappears entirely in Key Stage 2, precisely the time during which pupils are introduced to more complex spellings of sounds. Many of these more complex spellings can be taught in the context of the everyday curriculum if, and only if, the all the basics have been put in place in Key Stage 1. Key Stage 2 is also the time in which children’s ability to read and spell polysyllabic words, a process which should already have begun in Key Stage 1, can now be further developed to include much longer, five and six syllable words (for example, 'biodegradable', 'choreography', etc.).

What this means for those Key Stage 2 pupils who have been so badly served is that as the challenges become greater – words get longer, more abstract, less frequently encountered, are less likely to heard in spoken language – they will struggle more and more to keep up, fall further and further behind and, by the end of the primary phase, they will be unable to meet the demands of a secondary curriculum.

Unless reading and spelling/writing are taught to such a level of proficiency that they become automatic, the cognitive load imposed by learning something (knowledge/other skills) new while still struggling to read it or write about it becomes an insurmountable handicap. This is why the procedures for learning word recognition need to be overlearned through carefully structured practice at Key Stage 1 because, if they are not, trying to learn two unrelated things simultaneously is almost impossible to do. This is why it is so vital for all pupils to learn to read and write fluently so that their conscious attention can focus on learning all the other things we deem to be important in our culture.
The report also noted in more detail some truly egregious examples of poor teaching:
  • ‘Almost all schools in the survey did not teach phonics as “the route to decode words”...’ Although teachers were said to be ‘positive’ about teaching phonics, they were mixing it up with other ‘cues’. As Dr Bonnie Macmillan makes clear in her book Why Schoolchildren Can’t Read, a book every bit as relevant in 2014 as it was when it was published in 1997, 'mixed methods' is in reality a whole word approach. Using ORT readers, such as the Go-Kart, as mentioned in the report, relying on picture cues, relying on initial sounds and guessing the rest of the word, are methods that ‘do not support early reading development, where acquisition of the alphabetic principle is key’ (Macmillan, B.).
  • Even more startling and disturbing was the fact that in the early years environments within the schools inspected there was very little evidence of children learning and rehearsing a wide range of stories, rhymes and songs’.  I’m not especially surprised that phonics is not being taught well but, really, that young children are not being offered a wide range of stories, rhymes and songs seems particularly bad. What an insipid diet these children must be being fed!

When children, especially those from deprived backgrounds, are not being inducted into a broader, deeper stratum of the culture through the medium of fictional and informational texts and through a wide range of oral genres, and, on top of that, they are not being taught to read and write to automaticity, they are almost certain to founder on the rocks of greater complexity as they pass further on up the school system.

More than most areas of Britain, the six towns and Newcastle-under-Lyme have suffered dreadfully from the disappearance of almost all of the traditional industries. Now, more than at any time, it is absolutely vital for children in schools in the Potteriess to get the very best teaching in reading, writing and basic mathematics so that they can go on to develop whatever potential they have and go on to find employment.

I don’t blame the classroom teachers in the schools concerned. What they need is training. Most institutions of initial teacher training do not train teachers in how to teach reading and spelling with anything like the rigour required when this, above all else, is the basis for all future learning.

Teaching children to become literate is very much more complex than many people outside the profession think, especially those who found learning the skill very easy when they were children. It is a highly specialised skill and it needs proper, thorough training if teachers are to do it well. It can’t be done in a twilight session after school and it can’t be done in a single day. To teach an understanding of how the sounds of the language relate to the spelling system, as well as the skills needed to teach it, requires expertise: expertise that all teachers need to acquire.

Although the present government did recognise the massive tail of underachievement in this area of teaching, where they blundered very badly was in providing primary schools with matched funding that could be spent on resources or training. Needless to say, hardly any spent their money on training, with the result that things have barely changed.

So, what’s the message? Train the teachers!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Stepping stones to beginning reading

This post has been written in response to a number of questions I’ve been asked or come across (especially on Mumsnet) asking what parents can do to prepare their children for learning to read and spell. The advice below is derived from my own experience in teaching my youngest daughter and my grandchildren, as well as from the advice I’ve given to friends and colleagues who've wanted to get their children off to a good start. 

Some years ago when my youngest daughter was about two-and-a-half, I began playing games with sounds with her. It started as a family game around the table at meal times. As an example, I would tell a simple story and instead of saying all the words as whole words, I’d segment the words into their constituent sounds and say to our daughter’s mum, "I wonder what that word is?" She, of course, would pretend to think about this before coming out with the word. So, it would have gone like this:
Me: “One day a big, brown /f/  /o/  /k/s/ crept into the farmyard. What’s a /f/  /o/  /k/s/, Mummy?”
Mummy: “Errrm. It’s a ....fox!”
And the game would continue in that vein until, after a relatively short period of time, our daughter caught on and would delight herself by ‘getting’ the word before me or her mother.
We then quickly progressed to other simple games. I-Spy was very popular. Either one of us would say something like, “I-Spy with my little eye something in the kitchen with the sounds /m/ /u/ /g/.” And our daughter would, quick as a flash, say ‘mug’.
By the time she was three, she could put together the sounds of virtually anything and say what the word was. So, we progressed from CVC words, through CVCC (lamp), CCVC (flag), CCVCC (swift) to two-syllable words – usually the names of shops, such as /t/ /e/ /s/ /k/ /oe/ /z/ (Tesco’s). As a matter of fact, when I was collecting her from nursery one day, I said to her that we were going to go to /t/ /e/ /s/ /k/ /oe/ /z/ and the nursery nurse was astonished she was able to say Tesco's.
Shortly after she turned three, we began to play similar games with segmenting sounds in words. Again, these began with simple CVC words and quickly, from a structural point of view, got more complex. At the time, I was teaching some Japanese students and picking up everyday words in Japanese. When I was at home, I would sometimes use these words as nonsense words and ask our daughter to tell me the sounds in them. Amazingly, after very little practice, she was better – in that she was faster and more accurate –  than I was!
Why did we do this? The answer is that, babies, even when still in the womb in the last trimester of pregnancy, are sensitive to the sounds of their L1 (mother tongue). This sensitivity persists until young children are speaking in whole words, when the attention to this kind of fine detail drops below the level of conscious attention, as it quickly does. However, attention to this kind of detail is once again required when children begin to learn to read so, as a kind of bridging exercise or a stepping stone, we played games like this to facilitate the skills of blending and segmenting.
All of this was done without ever looking at any letters! In fact, we didn’t want to start teaching our daughter to read until she was four. This is because we think there’s lots of interesting language work one can do which will also provide a solid base from which to begin teaching reading and writing later. For example, we read and told lots and lots of stories, as well as informational texts. We spent huge amounts of time talking and listening and learning simple poems and songs by heart. Then there was the drawing, sticking, painting and other such activities which are terrific fun and help to promote good fine-motor control skills.
The other reason we didn't want to start linking spelling to sounds was that, until children reach the age of about four – and clearly some children show willingness earlier and some children later – they often find it difficult to connect sounds to spellings. Remembering the differences between the abstract squiggles on the page and linking them to the sounds of the language can be quite challenging for children at this age. For that reason and as there are many other interesting things to do in the meantime, our advice is to wait until the child is four. [Interestingly, in the Spanish school to which we sent our daughter in what would have been her reception year, they didn’t teach reading or writing at all. The time was spent teaching children to swim, dance, paint, eat at table properly, to socialise and so on. This is because Spanish is so much easier (less complex) to teach than English and teachers are more relaxed about when to begin!]
All of the above (and more!) are absolutely essential to providing the language skills necessary for beginning reading and writing and anyone wanting to learn more will probably enjoy reading Diane McGuinness’s superb Growing a Reader from Birth, which provides an excellent background to the subject.
If you choose to follow the trajectory of this advice, here are some tips:
  • Say sounds as precisely as you can: say /s/ and not ‘suh’, thus adding an extra sound.
  • Use words for blending that begin with continuants or sounds that can easily be extended. These are /f/, /h/, /l/, /m/, /n/ /r/, /s/, /v/, /w/, /z/. The vowel sounds can also be extended. Extending sounds in the beginning greatly helps children to hear them. If you say the sounds /s/ /i/ /t/ and you extend the /s/ and the /i/, you can hear the word ‘sit’.
  • Begin with CVC words and give plenty of practice before moving on to CVCC, CCVC and CCVCC words, also remembering to keep using continuants at first – /s/ /l/ /a/ /m/.
  • As this game is being conducted orally/aurally, you can use words like ‘church’, ‘ship’, ‘gate’, ‘feet’, and so on, because they are all CVC words. Again, complexity can be built in by adding adjacent consonants – ‘crash’, ‘sleep’, etc.
  • Keep it light and make it fun! Stop when the child has clearly had enough.
  • If the child can't do what has been suggested straight away, discontinue and wait a few months more before trying again.
  • Don't expect the child to 'catch on' to the game immediately. It often takes time for them to learn how to play.
This post should be seen as a companion piece to this.
Thanks to http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stepping_stones,_Hebden,_bench.jpg for the pic.