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.