Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Jan Hilary, head teacher extraordinaire!

Why is it that some schools are able to successfully teach every child to read but the majority still don’t? This was the question posed by Dr Derrie Clark in an interview with Jan Hilary, who was until recently head of St George’s C. of E. Primary School in Wandsworth, when they met at this year's Reading Reform Foundation conference. You can watch the whole interview here.

St George’s is a school in one of the most disadvantaged areas of the UK. To give you an idea, the school has the highest deprivation indicator in south London. It is also within the 2% of schools that suffer the blight of deprivation nationally and faces ‘all the challenges that children bring from homes that are low on resources’. When Jan took over the headship at St George’s, 76% of the pupils were deemed to have special needs. Today, that number has been reduced to two pupils with statements, meaning that special needs have effectively almost been eliminated.
Jan Hilary, head teacher extraordinaire!

Despite the difficulties the school has to overcome, St George's nursery stage has been awarded ‘centre of excellence’ status and the school has grown to become a national support school. Each year 100% of pupils pass the phonics screening check, demonstrating that, even with the limited resources a one-form entry school has to cope with, the outcomes achieved can still be outstanding. They are outstanding because of the commitment of the staff at all levels and, if you ask them, they’ll tell you that their passion is driven by the fact that they ‘change lives every working day’.

Jan believes that her leadership – she is, by the way, a national leader of education – and success can be attributed to one important factor in particular: as a head teacher, she ‘stays very close to the work of teaching and learning’, something that she says is ‘not typical of school leaders in the UK at the moment’. In fact, when she visits failing schools, she often sees heads undertaking leadership programmes of every kind and yet she finds that they have little or no understanding of teaching and learning.

The secret of successful teaching is to make sure that the leadership team in the school stay close to the classroom. For Jan, teacher training happens through the medium of classroom practice: the experts model the practice they want their apprentices (less experienced teachers) to adopt. ‘Lead through your classrooms!’ is Jan’s watchword.

Neither is Jan an advocate of dawn to dusk free play. Although she recognises the need to provide hours of free play during the early years, she strongly believes that there is plenty of time for structured teaching. And structured teaching means teaching children the right way from the start. Key to this is that children are not expected to work out how to learn by themselves and in the course of so doing to develop poor habits or misconceptions. They are taught how to learn from the moment they enter school.

As part and parcel of the children’s early literacy development, learning how to hold a pencil and how to form letter shapes are all of a piece with the phonics instruction that all children receive from the start. Language development is also a cornerstone of Jan’s approach. Many children arrive with such a ‘paucity of language – just a few word utterances’ in many cases – that the school privileges the practice of clear speaking and she has dubbed St George’s ‘a confident voice school’. In the interview, you can see clearly the pleasure Jan derives from reporting on the three-year-olds at her school: ‘Come into my school', she tells us, 'and you will hear every single three-year-old speaking in full sentences that ring out like a tinkling bell’.

Oral language plus clearly structured, Sounds-Write phonics instruction translates into the children’s learning and writing: children learn to write and can write whatever they want to communicate, even if everything isn’t yet spelled correctly. The exciting thing about children producing writing in this way is that they can read what they have written, the teachers can read it and the parents at home can read it too.

What has been a revelation for many visitors to the school from all over the UK is that boys are confident readers and highly motivated writers. This kind of experience flies in the face of the expectations many have of boys’ abilities in the early years. The school now has ‘sensational’ boy readers and writers and, as a corollary of experiencing this kind of success, behavioural issues have all but disappeared.

Reception year is regarded by the school as of critical importance because it is the time in which the one third of children just joining the school for the first time are integrated and caught up to the level of the rest. By the end of reception, all children are ready to learn and, as Jan says, ‘for a school in our context, we are already way over national expectations’.

Jan's message to other schools is: 'If we can do it, they can do it!'


*Jan Hilary is now executive head teacher at Floreat Academies and continues to work with St George's and other schools.

I would like to thank the Reading Reform Foundation for their kind permission to link to the interview with Mrs Hilary.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Learning to read made éśé II: the nonsense of silent letters

This post is a companion piece to the previous one ‘Learning to read made éśé!’

Today I want to deal with the claim that the notion of ‘silent letters’ can in some way assist children in learning to read because the authors of ‘Learning to read made easy’ seem have made this one of the key features of their programme. They are not alone!

Frankly, I thought that the notion of ‘silent letters’ had gone out with the Ark. Evidently not! What doesn’t seem to be understood by the authors of 'Learning to read made easy' is that all letters are silent! Speech is primary, writing is secondary. This is important to note because 'language skills are a natural product of the human mind, ... while writing is a product of the human intellect: no infant illiterate absorbs its script along with its language; writing must be studied'*. So, everyone everywhere in the world learns language naturally; writing, on the other hand, is an invention and has to be taught. The writing system was invented to represent the sounds of the language. 

For the reasons outlined above, it is a mistake to use loose language and to tell children that letters MAKE or SAY sounds! People make or say sounds and the alphabet code is a symbolic system designed to represent the sounds in English. If children are encouraged to think that letters 'make' or 'say' sounds, because the writing system in English is complex, it is easy for them to start thinking that letters can 'make' or 'say' anything and then they think that the system is unlearnable.

Bearing in mind that the alphabetic writing system was invented to record the sounds of the language, when talking, there are no silences in speech within words, between words or between sentences, unless we are pausing to breathe, or for dramatic effect, or to punctuate our speech to help the listener follow our train of thought. But none of these reasons would result in silent letters being encoded to appear within the spelling of individual words.

Instruction may also be inconsistent with the pupils' own observations of words. In the situation in which a pupil is told that the letter spelling k at the beginning of the word 'know' is silent, then, in the interests of consistency, one might assume that the letter spelling w at the end of the word 'know' is also silent, which, of course, is NOT the case: the sound /oe / in 'know' is spelled ow. It is indeed an oddity that many 'traditional' phonics programmes seem to have no difficulty in teaching that the ow at the end of the word 'know' is a spelling representing the sound /oe / and teach it as such, but don't acknowledge that the kn at the beginning is another spelling representing the sound /n /. In fact, teachers on our courses who have always accepted the idea of silent letters often laugh, albeit a little sheepishly, when this inconsistency is pointed out.

Once this idea is fully appreciated, it becomes completely obvious that English is actually spelled in a very logical, although complex, manner – complex because, unlike in many other European alphabetic languages, there are so many spelling alternatives for the sounds in English.

Due to various historical quirks and changes in pronunciation, there are well over 200 spellings to represent around 44 or so sounds In English. Fortunately, we only need to teach up to about 175 of these (at most) before the brain starts self-organising the remainder just by virtue of the reader regularly reading new texts. However, if the concept of silent letters takes hold, the pupil may come to view all new words with suspicion in the belief that any of the letters in them, in any position, may be silent.

Here is an example from an educational psychologist’s clinical practice. A 12-year-old student with a reading age of about six-and-a-half read the word 'animal' correctly from a reading test. But the psychologist testing the pupil felt that there was something 'amiss' with the student’s decoding process, so he wrote the word on a whiteboard and asked the pupil to underline which letters in the word represented which sounds. This the pupil did as follows:
a n i m a l

The examiner pointed to the two letters i and a, asking, "What are these letters doing in this word then?"  
"It's because they're silent!" the pupil replied. 
The examiner rubbed them out. "So we could just as easily write the word 'animal' like this then?" he said, writing:
a n m l

"Yes," said the pupil. 
"Go on then, sound it out for me please." 
The reply was confident and immediate: 'a''nuh' … 'muh''l' …  'animal' – a triumph for the combination of silent letters and imprecise pronunciation of consonant sounds!

Consider pupils struggling quietly to read a word such as 'whistle' and think about what might be going on in their heads if there is no understanding that the spellings in the word represent individual sounds. In fact, 'whistle' contains four spellings: wh  i  st  le (/w/ /i/ /s/ /l/. If the hypothetical pupil is using single-letter decoding in combination with the idea of silent letters to try to find the real word, they might hit on the idea that the h, t and e could all be silent, then 'wisl' suddenly appears to be correct. But there again, if they decide that it is the  h s and l that are silent, the word could be 'white'; or indeed if in another instance it is h t and l that are silent, the word would be 'wise'! In all these situations the poor reader is almost certainly going back each time to read the sentence slowly to see if the word that they have 'decoded' makes sense in context. But, of course, in most situations the pupil does not find a correct solution to this puzzle, and much intense thought is directed at a problem that, with the right instruction, the competent reader would solve immediately.

How long, we wonder, can motivation and enthusiasm be sustained for pupils with such an inaccurate strategy that can never succeed? The answer is all around us: pupils, particularly but not necessarily boys, badly taught, appear to give up at about age eight because they believe that the reading process, as they have been taught it, is irrational and they cannot access it successfully.

Teaching that sounds can be spelled with one, two, three or four letters and that we spell sounds in different ways removes the need for the absurd notion that there are ‘silent letters’ in words. It also removes the potential need for having to teach later how the orthography of English really works.

When a pupil tells me that such and such is a silent letter, I hold up the text to my ear and listen carefully, after which I say, "You're right! I can't hear anything. But then I can't hear any of the others saying anything either. They're all silent!"


*Daniels, P.T. 'Grammatology' in Daniels, P. T., and Bright, W., Eds, (1996), ‘The Study of Writing Systems’ on The World’s Writing Systems, OUP, Oxford, p.2.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Learning to read made éśé!

I have just read about and watched the latest in a long line of doomed attempts to solve the problem of the complexities of the English alphabetic code. It’s called ‘Learning To Read Made Easy’ and you can get a flavour of it here. Like its predecessors, it is doomed because the authors don’t understand how the English writing system (or any writing system, for that matter) works in relation to the sounds of the language.

I’ll take first the programme’s most seductive 'innovation' (to people who don’t know better): the introduction of diacritics or ‘glyphs’ for spellings that represent more than one sound. In doing so, the authors ignore or forget that accents in English vary from place to place. Setting in stone the pronunciation of a word according to one accent isn’t going to work for another. Take the word ‘book’ for example. In some parts of the country, the spelling oo is pronounced in the same way as the oul in ‘should’; on the other hand, many people say the word to rhyme with ‘moon’. The answer provided by LTRME is to put a ‘glyph’ over the spelling oo to indicate that it doesn’t ‘make’ its ‘usual’ sound. As you can see, I’m problematising the words ‘make’ and ‘usual’ here because letters don’t make sounds and what is ‘usual’ depends on one’s accent of English.

This kind of approach was tried many years ago by the grandson of the inventor of shorthand Isaac Pitman, James Pitman. James Pitman, invented a system of teaching children to read called i.t.a., which retained all the spellings in which one letter represented one sound and then invented other symbols to represent the remaining sounds. [Actually, even though it didn't work, it was a better idea than the one LTRMA have come up with and I wrote about it here.]

In Pitman’s system there were forty-four symbols to represent forty-four sounds in English. All of this sounds as if it might be a brilliant way of overcoming the undeniable complexity of the English code – except that, again, people around the country have different accents and Pitman’s system was fixed to represent one accent of English. The other problem was that, once having learned the system, the children had then to unlearn it and adapt to our accepted, orthodox spelling system. ‘Learning to read made easy’ fails on both of the same counts, as well as which it is never a good idea to teach something that has then to be unlearned.

Here’s how the English code works: 
  • Letters are symbols that represent sounds: ‘it is necessary for a writing system to represent the sounds of the language.’* 
  • A sound can be spelled with one, two, three or four letters: m a t, sh i p, l igh t, eigh
  • Sounds can be spelled in multiple ways. For example, we can spell the sound /oe/ as g o, c oa t, s l ow, th ough, t oe, h o m e and mould. This is what makes the English spelling system difficult to teach and learn unless there is a clear understanding of how it works  
  • Many spellings represent more than one sound. For example, the spelling o can represent the sound /o/ in hot, /oe/ in most, /oo/ in to and /u/ in monkey.

3    The authors of LTRME understand none of this and yet these concepts are NOT hard to grasp and they should not present us with any difficulty as long as we teach the code from simple to complex, starting with one-to-ones (one spelling to one sound) and increasing the complexity as we go.

To demonstrate just how confusing LTRME is, let’s take one of the words in their promotional video: ‘technique’. The first thing the authors do is to drop the so-called ‘silent’ h from the spelling ch. Making this move may appear to work, though why it’s necessary when there are so many words in which the sound /k/ is spelled ch (‘chemist’, choir, ‘mechanic’, etc.) is not explained. Tomorrow, I will explain why teaching ‘silent’ letters is confusing for children and why it doesn’t work.

The next revision the authors make to ‘technique’ is to place a ‘glyph’ over the spelling i. Now, the problem here (as in point 4 above) is that i can be /i/ in ‘sit’; it can be /ie/ in ‘kind’ and it can be /ee/ as in ‘ski’. Putting a glyph on it doesn’t indicate which of the two latter sounds it can be, taking it for granted that the authors assume that i represents the ‘usual’ sound /i/ in ‘sit’.

HMS Pandora - in this case an aptly named shipwreck!
The last modification to the word ‘technique’ they make is to drop the ue from the spelling que representing the sound /k/. But immediately we have a problem, a problem their ‘system’ is supposed to eliminate. They have already told us that the spelling c represents the sound /k/! Now, we have another spelling (q) for /k/! The trouble with attempts at spelling reform and with ill-thought out programmes like this is that they quickly founder on the rocks of the complexity of the English language – no sooner do they ‘solve’ one problem than another pops up elsewhere. 

The truth is that ways of approaching the difficulties of teaching and learning to read and write in English are not well served by systems that attempt to dodge the complexities and then quickly dissolve into an incoherent mess.


*Daniels, P. T., and Bright, W., Eds, (1996), ‘The Study of Writing Systems’ on The World’s Writing Systems, OUP, Oxford.