Sunday, December 06, 2015

What a bad list!

I’ve just been looking at Cumbria County Council’s ‘Reading Intervention Resources’ and, frankly, I’m stunned. You would think that the Rose Review (2006), not to mention all the research that’s been done over the past thirty years, has passed by Cumbria County Council’s reading intervention team without them even noticing.

I remember Roland Barthes*, the French structuralist, once making the point that if you want to convince someone of the realism (believability) of a text, you need to make it as dense with detail as possible by packing it with factual information. This has the effect of masking the constructed nature of the text, its artificiality, if you like. In publishing the list of books they are recommending to, presumably, teachers and parents/carers, Cumbria have supplied precisely the density of detail I am talking about: the titles of hundreds of books. The very length of the catalogue masks the fact that the books you’ll find listed there are not graded for decodable difficulty but simply for the sheer amount of text on each page.

You might think this is a good thing and it certainly is if you know how and when to use such books but, and here’s the thing, you will have to look long and hard to find a reader that supports children learning to read in the early stages of their literacy tuition.

A good many of the books on the list include examples from the Oxford University Press’s Oxford Reading Tree series and these are entirely representative of many of the other educational publishers’ books. This is how they work:

  1. They contain lots of frequent repetition of words and phrases – a sure indicator  that the books are whole language base
  2. They rely far too much on memory
  3. The written text is presented alongside richly embellished illustrations, which are  designed to encourage the reader to guess
  4. No matter how short or long the text on each page, the words are not graded for  their sound-spelling correspondences, and so all the complexities of the English  alphabetic code are thrown at the reader from the start
  5. They are based on the assumption that children infer sound-spelling  correspondences for themselves - something directly contradicted by cognitive  psychologists
The truth is that these books differ hardly at all from the Janet and John, Dick and Dora, Peter and Jane books of what now seems a bygone era.

By contrast, how do decodable readers work?

  • They introduce text that is commensurate with the sound-spelling correspondences the child has already been taught.
  • The books ensure that the young reader doesn’t have to guess.
  • They also ensure that the reader gains regular practice in what they have just been taught.
  • They make the reader independent and self-confident.

To exemplify the points I am making, here is a sentence from the Oxford Reading Tree book ‘What a Bad Dog!, a Stage 2 book that would normally be given to a child in YR or Foundation Stage 2 (aged 4-5): ‘Floppy pulled the washing down.’ In order to read the sentence, this is what the child would have to know – 

F  l  o | pp  y    p  u  ll  ed    th  e    w  a | sh  i  ng    
d  ow  n

-       that the spelling < pp > represents the sound /p/ in ‘Floppy’

-       that the spelling < y > represents the sound /ee/ in ‘Floppy’

-       that the spelling < ll > represents the sound /l/ in ‘pulled’

-       that the spelling < ed > represents the sound /d/ in ‘pulled’

-       that the < th > in ‘the’ is a two-letter spelling for /th/ (voiced)

-       that the spelling < e > in ‘the’ is a schwa (weak vowel sound)

-       that the spelling < a > in ‘washing’ represents the sound /o/ - a common pattern in the language ('was', 'wasp', etc.) but not something a child in YR would be aware of yet

-       that < ng > for readers in many parts of the country represents one sound

-       And finally, that the spelling < ow > represents one sound, the sound /ow/.

For any young child being taught a quality phonics programme that starts with simple one-to-one sound to spelling correspondences, every single word in the example sentence is too difficult for the child to read independently. The child is thus forced to try  to memorise the words and, for many children, this, even in itself, will prove an insurmountable task. For an overview of the strategies employed by a Whole Language approach, Susan Godsland's wonderfully informative website has more information here.

On the other hand, if a child who has been taught many of the one-to-one correspondences is presented with the sentence, ‘A big red pig ran in wet mud’, it is easy to see how a child would have success.

Decodable readers build on the complexity of text in a way that is commensurate with what the child is being taught formally and this gives the child a chance to practise the skills of segmenting and blending and to recycle the code knowledge already covered before they go on to learn new and more complex elements of the code.

I can’t see very many books in the Cumbrian list that are likely to have the kind of orientation I am talking about and that will promote fluency and confidence. Indeed, you only have to look at the titles of most of the books to be able to see this.


Does this mean that the books on the list don’t have a place in teaching children to read? Not at all! In fact, as soon as children have been taught a good bit of the code, these books will serve to provide opportunities for promoting fluency and for recycling the code knowledge they have, at an earlier stage in their literacy tuition, been taught.

So, it's not the list per se that I object to: it's the undiscriminating way in which it has been presented and the lack of knowledge and understanding on the part of those who published it. The trouble is that, without proper training, teachers (and compilers of lists such as the Cumbrian model) often fail to appreciate how important decodable readers are in the beginning stages of children's learning to read and spell.

*Lukács also made a similar point in his The Historical Novel.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The whys and hows of using non-words.

Ever since the Phonics Screening Check was introduced, an argument has raged around the introduction of non-words as a means by which to test the literacy of children in Y1 (aged five to six years).

Sounds-Write has been using non-words in an activity/game called Nonsense Word Sound Swap for many years. The activity involves asking a pupil to read a nonsense word by saying the sounds in the word, in other words segmenting the sounds, and then reading the word, blending the sounds. The pupil is then asked to change the word to another word and this move involves changing a single sound. Having accomplished this, the pupil again segments the word and then blends the sounds to form the new word. Here is an example: grop -> glop -> gop -> op -> nop -> snop. [Of course, the non-words must contain sounds that go together in English.]

The activity provides terrific practice in the skills of segmenting and phoneme manipulation, both of which correlate very highly to learning to read. Notice too that the aim here is NOT to teach non-words to children but to improve their skills. Because many teachers have never had any proper training, they often don’t know the difference and seem to believe that they should be teaching lots of non-words. This is crazy! If pupils have learned sound-spelling correspondences and they have learned the skills of segmenting, blending and phoneme manipulation to mastery level, they can read any non-word anyway.

Sounds-Write has been showing teachers how to teach this activity for at least eleven years before the PSC was even a glimmer in Michael Gove’s eye and there are very good reasons why the activity is useful.

First and most importantly, the pupil has never seen these words before and therefore can’t rely on having already read them. This means that the pupil has to use the skills of segmenting and blending, neither of which are taught particularly robustly in Letters and Sounds. And, as an added bonus, the activity also recycles sound-spelling correspondences.

Second, the activity prepares pupil in the early stages of learning to read to cope with the fact that many spellings in English represent more than one sound.  For example < ea > can be /ee/ in ‘seat’, /e/ in ‘head’ and /ae/ in ‘steak’. Thus, if a pupil reads the sentence, ‘Last night I had a tasty steak’ and reads the word ‘steak’ as ‘steek’ or as ‘stek’, they can instantly substitute either of these with the sound /ae/ and arrive at ‘steak’. Of course, they will have had to have already been taught that < ea > can be /ee/, /e/ and/or /ae/ in the first place.

Another reason for using this game is that it prepares pupils for reading nonsense syllables in long, unfamiliar polysyllabic words. For example, in the word ‘petrochemical’, the syllables ‘pe’, ‘tro’, ‘che’ ‘mi’, ‘cal’ are all, as separate entities, nonsense syllables. My point is that, if we are going to provide pupils with the tools to be able to decode and encode any word, no matter how long and complex, we need to teach them how polysyllabic words are structured and how to decode and encode all the way through the word.


Finally, the use of non-words in the way outlined above encourages pupils to decode all the way through a word from start to finish without trying to guess and this prepares them for reading real words that they have never come across before.

Thanks to Pixabay.com for images.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Hunt for word-combining elements

If you are watching the latest David Attenborough series, ‘The Hunt’, you’re probably being reminded of the kinds of terminology we rarely come across in everyday, spoken communication. Words like ‘megaherbivore’ and ‘biogeodiversity’ keep popping up, both of which, as I type, my spellchecker doesn’t want to recognise and is complaining about.

Many of the kinds of textual discourse used across subject domains contain words such as these and, very often, they are comprised of bound morphemes put together to create new, longer words.

Many prefixes and suffixes are derivational morphemes. They are used to form different words in English. At a very simple level, ‘happy’ and ‘unhappy’ have different meanings, the function here of ‘un-‘ being to express converse meaning. They also serve to change word classes: for example, the bound morpheme ‘er’ can change many verb forms to noun forms (‘swim’ - ‘swimmer’).

From the perspective of teaching learners to read and spell, is it worth entering the territory of morphology to teach how affixes are structured? As you’ve probably guessed – otherwise why would I be writing this post? – the endeavour is well worth the trouble. Through the medium of bound morphemes, learners can learn a huge amount about decoding, about meaning and about derivation, all of which are interrelated and bound up together.

Let’s take but a simple example. When I was a boy, like many children of a certain age, I was fascinated by the world in the past and, as part of that, I was particularly interested in dinosaurs. One that especially captivated me was the archaeopteryx. This creature, looking to all intents and purposes like a bird, also had teeth, which was why it looked so odd in the representations of it I had in my encyclopaedia.

‘Archaeo-‘ is a prefix, or in the jargon of the trade, a word-combining element, derived from Greek ‘arche’, meaning ‘beginning, origin’. ‘Ptero’ is also a word-combining element, derived from Greek ‘ptero(n)’, meaning ‘feather, wing’. By putting the two together, you get something like ‘origin of the wing/feather’, or in other words, an ancient bird, one of the first examples of a bird-like creature. At the same time, from an intellectual point of view, we have taught two useful prefixes and their meanings enabling learners to combine them with other words: ‘archaeology’, or ‘pterodactyl’, for example.

At the same time as providing us with meaning, these prefixes can be analysed systemically to reveal how they work in regard to sounds and spellings. Taking ‘archaeo’ to begin with, we have a three-syllable prefix: /ar/ | /k/ /ee/ | /o/: ‘ar’, ‘kee’, ‘o’. For KS2, 3 and 4 pupils, being introduced to the idea that the spelling < ch > represents the sound /k/ and the spelling < ae > represents the sound /ee/ in words derived from Greek is knowledge that can be generalised across the whole domain of reading and writing. You only have to bring to mind words like ‘mechanic’, ‘chemist’, and then ‘aeon’, ‘aesthetic’ to see the usefulness of paying some attention to this kind of knowledge.

Although these bound morphemes can be taught formally, teaching them doesn’t have to be turned into a formal routine; it sits very happily within the teaching that is taking place in the round. And, furthermore, for that reason, will engage and excite pupils, who then often start to notice instances of these bound morphemes in other words.

This afternoon, I gave my fourteen-year-old pupil a sheet from the information pack sent out by the BBC to supplement ‘The Hunt’. The reading is by no means easy and we had lots of worthwhile discussion about how finely connected is the web of biodiversity on the African plains.

He read words like ‘herbivore’ and ‘carnivore’ with aplomb and I was able to elicit that ‘carne’, from the Latin, means ‘meat’ or ‘flesh’ and that ‘herb(a)’ is derived from Latin for ‘plant’, ‘weed’, or ‘flowering plant’. What he wasn’t sure about was the ‘-vore’ element. He guessed, correctly, ‘eat’ and I was able to confirm that ‘vore’ does indeed derive from ‘vorare’ meaning ‘to swallow, eat up’, hence ‘devour’ and ‘voracious’ in English.

Nevertheless, and the point needs to be made, none of this could be achieved unless he could decode: thus /h/ /er/ | /b/ /i/ | /v/ /ore/. Only by saying or sub-vocalising the sounds to build syllables and then combining the syllables to create meaningful words can we then begin to talk about the meaningful semantic and grammatical elements that combine together to form the word.


For this boy, the mental effort of decoding complex text, often containing sound-spelling correspondences that are infrequently encountered, meant that having read and discussed three or four paragraphs of the text in question at length, we had to go back and re-read to improve the boy’s fluency and enable an integrated understanding of the text as a whole.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Why Misty makes me see magenta

How can I tell that we're back in autumn, which seems to be not so much a season of mellow fruitfulness as a season of a dearth of academic 'astutefulness'? Well, because Misty Adoniou, a senior lecturer at the University of Canberra, has been at it again! What is the ‘it’ that she’s been ‘at’? Answer: operating way beyond her area of expertise in the matter of understanding how writing systems in general and the English language in particular work.

In her most recently published Op-ed ‘Seven things to consider before you buy into phonics programs’, in The Conversation, Misty once again reveals her appalling lack of knowledge when she claims that English is not a phonetic language.

I don’t propose to re-rehearse all the arguments I made previously (here) on this subject when Misty, in an article in the same publication – you’d think the editor would know better by now! - , wrote a similarly misinformed piece about spelling.

This time I thought, who better to lay to rest Misty’s claims once and for all? Peter T. Daniels and William Bright are two of the foremost experts on the world’s writing systems. It may seem a little odd to lay people when the subject of teaching children to read and write pops up, but writing systems are human inventions designed to represent the sounds in our speech.

As I’m privileging the work of the two aforementioned academics, I thought it might be wise to quote from their seminal book The World’s Writing Systems (1996) directly.

Completely in accord with the work of leading cognitive psychologists, such as David Geary, John Sweller and Steven Pinker, Daniels writes:

‘Writing differs from language, though, in a very fundamental way. Language is a natural product of the human mind – the properties of people that make it possible for everyone to learn any language, provide they start at a young enough age – while writing is a deliberate product of the human intellect: no infant illiterate absorbs its script along with its language; writing must be studied.’

This statement in itself does not offer a rebuttal of Adoniou’s argument that English is not a phonetic language. However, Daniel’s in his essay ‘The Study of Writing Systems’, goes on to make clear what we’re talking about. He writes:

‘... writing is defined 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... It is necessary for a writing system to represent the sounds of a language.’ (Daniels’s emphasis)

In getting on for 900 pages of analysis and investigation of the many and varied writing systems in the world, through the work of an impressive range of scholarly experts on the subject, what emerges is irrefutable: writing systems are based on the sounds in speech. Though they may be complex, as is the case of modern English, in comparison with rather more transparent scripts, such as Spanish or Italian, all writing systems can be taught, and the best way to teach them is through properly developed phonics programmes in which the complexities have been worked out and understood.


What is so especially irritating about Misty Adoniou is that she is mystifying for people who have little or no understanding of how the English language works in relation to the writing system this the most important aspect of children’s education: the process of how we should be teaching children to read and spell English.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Meaning no harm...?

Many years ago, I developed a taste for the novels of Graham Greene and, although I didn’t find his tale The Quiet American (1955) as enthralling as some of his others, nevertheless, a phrase from the book has always reverberated in my  mind. It's a complex meditation on the changing order of power relations in, particularly Indo-China, as it was then. Greene, in the context of growing American involvement in Vietnam (post Dien Bien Phu), writes that “Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm”, the implication being that innocence is, in fact, capable of doing great harm. The 'innocent' in this labyrinthine web of foreign intrigue is Pyle, an American agent, who is emblematic of what Greene considers to be the naiveté of the new kid on the international block, the United States, whose intervention in the Far East causes, so the book alleges, untold harm and suffering to the Vietnamese.
When Greene wrote the book, the fear of contracting leprosy was terrifying – it wasn’t until the 1940s that a cure was finally developed – and the prospect of being consigned to a leper colony was an ever present horror for those living and working in many regions of Africa, India and South America.
Similarly, this kind of dangerous innocence reminds me of defenders of whole language and its many manifestations, the main one of which is mixed methods. They infect the gullible and unwary with the bacterium illiteracy. As with leprosy, the victims suffering from the contamination are often unaware of the symptoms, which can remain latent for many years. Unlike the case of leprosy, there has always been a cure for the disease of illiteracy. It was developed by the Sumerians around five thousand years ago. Sadly, like the quacks down the ages offering curatives for leprosy, innocence in the guise of quick and easy answers –  "Look at the first letter and guess", or "What do think it says from the picture?" or "What do you think it might be from its position in the sentence?" –  to the difficulties posed by the English alphabetic code has damaged the teaching of universal literacy by promoting methods that promise everything while delivering nothing.
In 2006, I was working with a school that was collecting for CAFOD, an organisation that offers aid to underdeveloped countries. In this particular year, the school was collecting money for the victims of leprosy, a chronic infection caused by Mycobacterium leprae and Mycobacterium lepromatosis.



As I was teaching a Year 2 class how to read and spell polysyllabic words, I thought it would be helpful to make use of the fact that they were collecting for sufferers from leprosy and integrate it into our phonics lesson. Only a matter of weeks before, I’d happened to read an article in the New Scientist on this very subject. The article explained that there were two main types of the disease: paucibacillary and multibacillary leprosy.

After giving a short talk about the disease and how it had taken until the 1940s to find a cure, I wrote the words ‘multibacillary’ and ‘paucibacillary’ on the board. We talked about what the words meant. As readers will readily work out, ‘bacillus’, is the Latinate word for pathogen or germ, ‘multi’ means many, while ‘pauci-‘ comes from the Latin ‘paucus’, meaning ‘a few’ or ‘lack of’ and from which we get the word ‘paucity’. Armed with this knowledge, the children quickly suggested that ‘paucibacillary’ leprosy might be easier to cure than ‘multibacillary’ leprosy. They were right!
Having established meaning, we now turned our attention to the structure and spelling of the words. In the case of ‘paucibacillary’, I asked them what syllables they could hear. They agreed to divide it as follows pau | ci | ba | ci | lla | ry. Next, we looked at the individual sound-spelling correspondences within each syllable. Thus, /p/ /or/ | /s/ /i/ | /b/ /a/ | /s/ /i/ | /l/ /a/ | /r/ /ee/. And then we talked about what might or might not be difficult to spell were we to need to write the word.
Most of the children thought that the spelling au for /or/ would be the one they’d have to think about and we analogised it by linking it to other words with the same sound-spelling correspondence. They suggested ‘August’, ‘autumn’, and ‘Paul’. One or two other children felt that the spelling of the sound /s/ might need to be noted, though, after already having been taught explicitly the various ways of spelling /s/, most thought it wouldn’t be a problem.
After saying the word precisely by saying it aloud in its syllables, we all wrote it, saying the sounds in each syllable as we wrote them, leaving gaps between the syllables. Then we repeated the process by writing the word as it would normally be written, i.e. without gaps.
Two weeks later, in the context of the fundraising, we asked the same class of children to write the words again. Three quarters of the children spelt the words correctly and the quarter that didn’t spell them correctly spelt them with plausible (in other words ‘readable’) spellings, spelling the /or/ as or and /s/ as s.
Phonics, as my friend Debbie Hepplewhite has often said, is not something for teaching children in the early years alone. It is an approach that enables people of all ages to read and, potentially, to spell any word in the English language. If children as young as seven can read and spell words like ‘paucibacillary’, they can learn to read and spell anything however seemingly complex. And yet we still have supposedly intelligent adults telling us that words like ‘have’, ‘said’ and ‘was’ cannot be decoded.
The only constant in the writing system is the sounds of the language. It is the sounds that drive the code; the spellings are the symbolic representations of those sounds. This is why whether a person is four or eighty-four, phonics provides well substantiated answers to the problems of reading and spelling in the first instance.
As with Pyle, of whom Fowler, the story's 'protagonist' says, “I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused”, so it is with the mixed methods and whole language 'innocents' who peddle their self deceptions in an ostensibly noble cause. 
The point is that, without having been inoculated from the life-long blight of illiteracy with a daily dose of linguistic phonics, the children referred to above wouldn’t have been able to read and spell not only the words associated with the blight of leprosy but also with all and any words.