Sunday, March 27, 2016

‘The best that we can be’

For years we have been handed excuses by schools for failing to teach their children basic literacy: ‘We’ve got lots of boys in the class’. ‘Many of the children have summer birthdays’. ‘A majority of our children are from very poor backgrounds’. ‘Lots of our children don’t speak English as a first language’. Time and again the excuses have been trotted out until they have become clich├ęs, as if by their very invocation the school/class teacher are absolved of the responsibility for ensuring that all their children become literate.

Now, the teachers at St George’s Church of England Primary School have shown conclusively just how wrong are the claims made by the jeremiahs and by those who have never understood how the sounds of the English language relate to the writing system!

Ten years ago this year Sounds-Write published evidence of what could be achieved over the first three years of schooling in a school (St Thomas Aquinas) that by no means lies in some affluent, leafy suburb. Today, we are presenting you with further confirmation that high quality phonics teaching works. What’s more it works for all children, with the possible exception of a tiny percentage of children with speech and language difficulties.

St George’s is a school in one of the very most deprived areas of London, where well over half the children are entitled to free school meals, and where the language spoken at home by many children is not English. The evidence provided by the school is so powerful it speaks for itself.

The table below presents the results of a spelling test taken by all children at St George's Church of England Primary School at the beginning of Y2 in September 2015. There were, at the time of the test, apart from a pupil who had joined the school in September, twenty-nine children in the class, all of whom had been taught using Sounds-Write in YR and Y1. The same twenty-nine children (100%) had also passed the Phonics Screening Check the previous summer. The class contains twenty boys and nine girls.

It is immediately obvious that not a single one of the children from this very poor neighbourhood scored a spelling age below their chronological age (CA). In fact, apart from two pupils who were five months and eight months ahead of their CA respectively, all the remaining 27 children were ahead by double figures – eighteen of them by more than eighteen months ahead of their CA. Two, at ages 6 years and 3 months and 6 six years and 8 months respectively, hit the ceiling (11 years) on this test.

We used Dennis Young’s Parallel Spelling Test because, as we have long argued, spelling gives a more reliable indication of a pupil’s literacy than a reading test. Firstly, as everyone knows, spelling is harder than reading because what you have in front of you gives an immediate visual prompt – recognition memory; whereas, when spelling, we have to access the sounds we hear and represent them by using our recall memory. It is also pretty obvious that if you spell a word, there is a very strong likelihood that you can read it.

The teachers at St George’s are able to achieve these fantastic results because they have been properly trained in linguistic phonics and because the leadership in the school make sure that no child is left behind and that all children are taught to read and write. Every school should aspire to that same goal.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

St Thomas Aquinas's remarkable results

This post follows on from my last, where I implied that teaching is an extraordinarily specialised job and requires that teachers who teach literacy are very well trained. In this post, I am making the point that, where teachers are well-trained, they produce results that knock your socks off!

Way back in December 2010, I published a post that included the Key Stage 1 spelling results for the school in which we piloted Sounds-Write. The two-form cohort was taught Sounds-Write for the first three years of their schooling, at the end of which we tested the pupils using Dennis Young’s Parallel Spelling Test, which, as the name suggests, has a number of parallel forms. I like the Young's test because it tests (pretty much) from simple to more complex in a fairly coherent way from the point of view of phonics: CVC, CVCC, CCVC, CCVCC, double consonants, etc.

I'm publishing it again because it shows how, when Sounds-Write is taught with fidelity, i.e. teaching everything we say needs to be included for half an hour a day, every day, over three years, the results are eye-wateringly good. You can also see that the SATs results achieved by every one of the fifty children corresponded fairly closely with what they scored on the test.

We used a spelling test for the reason that Sounds-Write has always argued that, because it depends so much on recall memory rather than recognition memory, spelling is more difficult than reading and much more likely to give an accurate indication of a pupil’s literacy than a reading test.

Somewhat fortuitously for the purposes of enabling people to see how transparent the results are, Key Stage 1 ended with fifty children having begun at the start of YR and finished at the end of Y2. Of course, more children began in YR and some children joined the school during the three years; some children also left the school. However, we only took data on the children who had received Sounds-Write teaching throughout the whole three years and that happened to be 50 pupils.

As you can see from the table below, the results were remarkable! At the age (on average) of 7 years and 4 months, 21 (44%) of pupils had a spelling age of 11 years. Because, even we didn’t expect the results to be quite as good as this, we hadn’t prepared to use the test up to a spelling age of 16, but many of the 44% would undoubtedly have scored higher than the 11 years at which we stopped the test.

A further eleven (22%) pupils had a spelling age of between 9.6 and 10.6, which takes us to a total of 66% of pupils scoring well over two years ahead of chronological age and reaching a level of literacy that would probably just about enable them, in sheer encoding and decoding ability, to cope with the start of a secondary curriculum.

Thirteen (26%) pupils scored between 8.0 and 9.0 and another four (8%) pupils scored between 7.6 and 7.10, all of them scoring at six or more months ahead of chronological age. Only one pupil out of the fifty scored below chronological age.

Once again, reminding you that the average age of the children in these two classes was 7 years and 4 months, the figures show that a whopping 98% of pupils were scoring well above chronological age and many of these were hitting spelling ages that many teachers would only dream about.

If reading and spelling were taught together, starting from an Initial Code based on one sound-one spelling correspondences before moving on to teach that sounds can be spelled with more than one letter, that there is more than one way to spell a sound, and that many spellings represent more than one sound, as these children were, and if the teachers were trained to understand the relationship between the sounds of the language and the writing system, and if literacy were led by a very determined head, then results like these would be commonplace.

Friday, March 18, 2016

How to correct common spelling errors

A question I’m often asked in regard to correcting spelling in pupils’ work usually runs along the lines of: My child is in Y3 and the teacher hasn’t corrected such and such a spelling mistake. Is the teacher right and if not, what should the teacher be correcting?

Well, as the writing system in English is complex, the answer, too, is complex. For example, in the first year of schooling, if a child has been taught all the one-to-ones and the double consonants [ ff ], [ ll ], [ ss ] and [ zz ] and the child spells the word ‘buzz’ as ‘buz’, I would correct it. What differs in the way we, at Sounds-Write, correct errors from what many teachers and parents do, however, is crucial. First, we wouldn’t underline the whole word. After all, the child knows how to spell the /b/ and the /u/. What the child is still grappling with is that we can spell the sound /z/ with the spelling [ z ], but at the end of short, single-syllable words, we spell it like this [ zz ]. And we would add that the spelling is two letters but that it’s one sound.

As the teaching moves into the more complex area in which a sound can be spelled in multiple ways, error correction should be dependent on whether the sound-spelling correspondences have been covered or not. For example, in Y1, if a child has been taught four spellings of the sound /ee/ ( [ee ], [ y ], [ ea ] and [ e ]), it is reasonable to correct the word ‘steam’, which the child spells as ‘steem’. We would do that by pointing to the [ ee ] and saying, “This is a way of spelling the sound /ee/ but in this word we need this [ ea ] spelling of /ee/.” And the child would then be asked to correct the error.

Moving on to Key Stage 2 and into the area of Y4 or 5, here is a list I saw on Twitter: ‘Yr 5. E.g. gowing, whent, releif, caculater, ester, shakspier etc.’ The writer of the tweet made clear that all of the errors had been made in the context of writing in a ‘home journal, dictation and copying’.

The first thing to say is that, had these errors occurred in one piece of writing, I wouldn’t have corrected them all at the same time! As they didn’t, let’s look at what might have helped the pupil when spelling these words in future. As a general rule of thumb, take the place where the error has been made and discuss it. Thus, you can spell /oe/ as [ ow ] in ‘grow’ but in ‘going’, it is spelt [ o ] and I’d take the discussion further by looking at the free morpheme ‘go’, examining the spelling of the sound /oe/ in that word and talking about how it doesn’t change when we add the bound morpheme ‘-ing’ to it. I’d do something similar with ‘whent’, by pointing to the [ wh ] spelling and saying that, “In this word, we spell /w/ like this [ w ]”. With ‘relief’ I might also draw on analogies, such as ‘brief’, ‘grief’, ‘retrieve’, ‘belief’, and so on.

The problem with this approach is that it is very unsystematic, which leaves the parent/carer/teacher constantly ‘fire fighting’ as the errors crop up. Much better is to get down to the business of teaching the code systematically according to sound.
In teaching from sound to print, the human brain begins to spot and record the common patterns of the spellings of a sound in words and, with careful teaching, the pupil is trained to look carefully at and to notice the particular spellings for sounds in words.

How to correct errors simply and without confusing the learner is a specialised job and requires teachers to be trained in how the code works – from sound to print –, the knowledge of the code – which spellings represent the sounds in English , and the skills involved in manipulating the sound-spelling correspondences.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Sarah Donarski's 'Sophisticated spellings' syllabified

The following lists are provided courtesy of Sarah Donarski's perspectEd blog. Sarah is an English teacher at Wellington College in Crowhorne in Berkshire.  The lists are updated ‘sophisticated spellings' for GCSE English. Many thanks to Sarah for sharing them!

All I have done is to syllabify the words in her lists and, in so doing, show how in almost every one of these words there is rarely more than one less frequently encountered spelling.

The stressed syllable in each of the polysyllabic words is indicated by an apostrophe, which precedes the stressed syllable. The intention here is to make teachers and students aware that unstressed syllables often contain a schwa, a weak vowel sound that is often not spelled as it sounds. Included in the notes below is advice on how to overcome the problem schwas cause students when they are spelling.

You can also access my analysis of the DfE’s statutory spelling lists for Year 3/4 and 5/6 here and, as a free download, on the Sounds-Write website here.

a | 'cro | stic
a | 'lli | te | ra | tion
au | 'bade
a | 'na | pho | ra
'ba | llad
a | sso | nance
com | 'plaint
ca | 'co | pho | ny
'do | gge | rel
'ca | dence
'e | le | gy
'con | so | nance
free verse
e | 'li | sion
e | pi | tha | 'la | mi | on
'eu | pho | ny
'hai | ku
'ho | mo | nym
la | 'ment
'ho | mo | phone
'ly | ric
in | 'flec | tion
'mo | no | dy
'o | no | ma | to | 'poe | i | a      [light stress on the                                                             first syllable]
o | 'cca | sion | al   verse
'rhy | thm                           /r/ /i/ | /th/ /schwa/ /m/
'pae | an        < ae > = /ee/, as in  ae | on    
'si | bi | lance
'pa | li | node
'rhap | so | dy
'syn | cope
'so | nnet
i | 'am | bic
'thre | no | dy
tro | 'cha | ic                     < ch > in Gk words = /k/
to | po | 'gra | phi | cal
'me | ter

Schwas are the most likely vowel sounds to cause pupils problems. This can happen when a pupil is reading: if a word containing a schwa is not within the pupil’s spoken repertoire, they may not know how to pronounce it. However, far more commonly, pupils tend to spell schwas as they sound. For example, the word 'chicken' is often spelled 'chickin' because, in most accents of UK English, that is how it sounds.

The best way of getting round this is to encourage pupils to use a spelling voice when they are writing words that contain schwas and which give them problems. This technique is NOT meant to change the way pupils talk. It is quite normal for schwas to appear in spoken language because English is a stress-timed language, which inclines us to lay stress on the dominant syllable in a polysyllabic word. If you want to identify where schwas occur in polysyllabic words, first find the stressed syllable. Then, very often but not always, the unstressed syllable or syllables will often contain a schwa. Schwas are the most common vowel sounds in the English language. For example, in the word list, the word 'elegy' has been split as 'e | le| gy, with the stress on the first syllable. The second syllable contains an unstressed vowel sound, which, when spoken normally sounds like an /uh/ sound. If you ask the pupil to say the word with a spelling voice, they should emphasise the /e/ in this syllable.

If you find it helpful to go deeper, you might teach elements of meaning. Examples might be: ‘-phone’, meaning ‘sound’, from which we get ‘telephone’ (‘tele-‘ meaning ‘far away’); homophone (‘homo’ meaning ‘the same’ + ‘sound’); euphony (‘eu-‘ meaning ‘well, good’ + ‘sound’), etc. Many students find derivation very interesting and teaching it also also functions as a mnemonic, helping students remember both meaning and spelling. Another good example is ‘epithalamion’: ‘epi-‘ means ‘on, upon, in, near, by, against or over’ + ‘thalamium’ (‘a bed chamber mainly for women, marriage’), hence a poem written for a bride on her way to the bridal chamber.

The word 'rhythm' is bi-syllabic:  rhy | thm. There is a schwa between the /th/ (voiced) and the /m/ in the second syllable. This is probably because it is derived from the Greek 'rhythmos', which has been shortened to 'rhythm'; in English, the word retains it’s two syllable structure by means of the schwa.

ro | 'man | ti | ci | sm
'Marx | i | sm
u | 'to | pi | an
psy | cho | 'a | na | ly | tic
dys | 'to | pi | an
'struc | tu | ra | list
'hu | ma | ni | sm
'se | mi | o | tics
ex | i | 'sten | tia | li | sm     < ti > = /sh/
'sto | i | ci | sm
'Freu | di | an
i | de | a | li | sm
'fe | mi | ni | sm
'he | do | ni | sm
'mo | der | ni | sm
'ra | tion | a | li | sm
post | 'mo | der | ni | sm
u | ti | li | 'ta | ri | a | ni | sm
co | 'lo | ni | a | li | sm
con | se | 'quen | tia | list    < ti > = /sh/
post | co | 'lo | ni | a | li | sm
em | 'pi | ri | cist
re | 'nai | ssance
Pla | 'to | nic
tran | scen | 'den | ta | li | sm
'ni | hi | li | sm
re | a | 'li | sm
'chi | val | ric
ca | va | 'li | er
Vic | 'to | ri | an
me | ta | 'phy | si | cal
E | li | za | 'be | than
'con | scious | ness                < sci > = /sh/
Ja | co | 'be | an

As with the lists I produced for KS2, all words with ending in the suffix ‘-ism’ I have separated as a syllable. This is because we hear it as a syllable. It derives from a common noun-forming element through Middle English and French –ism(e) from Greek –(i)sm(os).
It means:         1. ‘An action or practice’: idealism Fauvism, Marxism
                        2. ‘A state or condition’: alcoholism, criticism, fetishism
  3. ‘Principles, doctrines, or beliefs, or an organisation founded to support   them’: structuralism, communism, modernism
  4. ‘A linguistic usage or characteristic: archaism, Anglicism, Americanism.

*There are many more words lists available in Wellington College's English department's 'Student Booklet: spelling lists and key English vocabulary', which are available here.