Saturday, April 30, 2016

One sound, different spellings: the Sounds-Write way

I’ve just been asked by someone in Australia why it is that the Sounds-Write programme aims to teach to young children  multiple spellings of a sound at the same time - the concern being about overloading children’s memories.

This is unquestionably the hardest aspect of learning how to read and spell for every single one of us. Why? Because there are so many different ways of spelling the 44 or so sounds in English. Even a person who regards him/herself as an almost perfect speller will admit that reading and spelling words they have never seen before and that contain less frequently encountered spellings is very troublesome. For example, could you read accurately or spell the word ‘laodicean’, /l/ /ae/ | /oe/ | /d/ /i/ | /s/ /ee/ | /schwa/ /n/, not having seen it before? I chose this seemingly random word because someone actually did! It happened in 2009, when Kavya Shivashankar from Kansas triumphed over 292 other entrants to win that year's Scripps Spelling Bee by spelling the word correctly.

So, why do we believe it necessary to introduce more than one spelling of a sound as soon as we have taught the basics. There is good reason for this. If a teacher teaches one spelling for a sound and three months later teaches another spelling for the same sound, followed, say, a few months later by another spelling of the sound, the connection between the sound and the spellings is lost! Furthermore, taught in such a piecemeal way, young children are likely to form the impression that there are endless spellings of a sound and that, therefore, there is no point in trying to learn them. In other words, such an approach is demotivating.

By the time they arrive in school, children have already acquired the sounds of their own language. This is our starting point and the anchor for our teaching of the code. If you tell the pupil that this [ ay ] spelling is the way we spell the sound /ae/ in ‘play’ but that there are other ways of spelling the sound and these others are introduced and are taught in the context of whole words, the idea isn’t difficult to grasp. From a conceptual point of view, children are easily able to identify different types of car or flower but still know perfectly well that they all fall under the superordinates of ‘car’ or ‘flower’.


The anxiety some teachers have when we tell them that we teach four spellings of a sound to begin with is that we expect the child to remember them and be able to use them in their writing immediately. This isn’t at all the case! For pupils to be able to use the spellings of sounds correctly in words, they still need to have lots of exposure from reading. For this, they need to be trained to notice which particular spellings are being used in the words they read, which they get from having lots of deliberate practice. By helping them to internalise the key points of learning, what we are doing is creating mental representations of the spellings of sounds in words.

To strengthen this, we make sure that pupils spend two weeks focusing on and practising, through a variety of activities, the spellings of target sounds in the context of words, sentences and texts. This gives them time to transfer the new knowledge into long term memory and to further build the schema for sounds and spellings we have helped them develop from the beginning of the programme.

After a sound and a limited number of spellings have been covered in the two-week period, they are recycled over the next two weeks when we introduce another sound and its spellings. The process is further reinforced a short time later, this time in the context of teaching polysyllabic words.

So, back to my Australian correspondent: after such rigorous exposure to the common spellings for each sound, taught over two years, we find that almost all children are able to cope very easily with multiple spellings of a sound for both reading and spelling.

Monday, April 25, 2016

What do young children learning to read and write have in common with the young Mozart?

When Matthew Syed, former table tennis champion, Times correspondent and author, trained his sights on what it is that makes someone a champion, he tackled the question head-on by dealing with one of our most cherished enigmas: in his superb book Bounce (2010), he asked the question 'How do you solve a conundrum like Mozart?'

The reason he asked this particular question was because, although many of those interested in the field of how people acquire expertise in any domain, Mozart appeared to contradict the so-called 10,000 hours rule. This ‘rule’ states that it takes around that amount of time to become an expert in any particular field. Never mind that this figure requires a large degree of qualification, the fact is that the acquisition of expertise requires a great deal of knowledge, practice and expert tuition and that this takes time

So, how was it that, at the age of six, Mozart was wowing the courts of eighteenth century Europe with his compositional skills, especially when, as Syed points out, he’d ‘scarcely even lived ten thousand hours’! Perhaps the only other explanation was that Mozart was a child prodigy, a genius.


Syed is quick to build the contrary case: Mozart’s father was, even for the standards of his time, a ‘tiger’ parent, who put his young (three years of age) son through a rigorous course of instruction in composition and playing. By the time he was six, according to the work of psychologist Michael Howe in his book Genius Explained, Mozart had put in 3,500  – still a long way from 10,000 – hours of practice before he was six.

Syed also points out that lots of other children were regarded as being child prodigies, until that is, investigators began to dig a little deeper into their backgrounds. There, they found that many children, who, through their interest in a specific domain, had had the benefit of a huge amount of practice under the tutelage of very experienced and knowledgeable teachers, turned out to be outstanding in their chosen enterprises. 

So far, so good! However, there was always a lingering doubt. Notwithstanding the rigour of the tuition and the amount of practice, the case made by Syed still, for some, does not necessarily explain Mozart's extraordinary ability. Could it also be attributed to the fact that, to be a musician of such remarkable ability, one needs to be born with 'perfect pitch'?

What Matthew Syed wasn’t able to know at the time he wrote his book was what has emerged in a new contribution to this debate in K. Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool's new book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise is some very interesting, new research.K. Anders Ericsson’s

Wolfgang Mozart did indeed possess the, for musicians, invaluable ‘gift’ of perfect pitch, which is, apparently, an ability that only one in ten thousand of us have and, until recently, was thought to be an innate talent. Thanks to what Pool and Ericsson call a ‘beautiful experiment’, conducted at the Ichionkai Music School in Tokyo by the Japanese psychologist Ayako Sakakibara, we no longer regard perfect pitch in the same light.

Sakakibara trained twenty-four children, aged between two and six years, to identify ‘by their sound, various chords played on the piano’. The sessions were short and delivered for only a few minutes, four or five times a day over a period of between twelve and eighteen months. At the end of this training, all children – every single one! – had developed perfect pitch and were able to identify notes on the piano. This was an unprecedented discovery!

Mozart worked for very much longer and very much harder than any of the children involved in Sakakibara’s training. It is hardly surprising then that he developed the talent at such an early age. What is likely is that Mozart wasn’t born with perfect pitch but, as Pool and Ericsson put it, was born with ‘ability to develop perfect pitch’, a gift almost all of us have, given the right kinds of exposure and teaching.

Now my speculation is this: given the same kind of exposure to very high quality phonics teaching and at a relatively early age, virtually all children can be taught to identify the individual sounds of their own language – in this case I’m talking about English, or even the sounds of English as an additional language. After all, if our naturally evolved hearing, through which we are primed to pay attention to the sounds of our own language even before we leave the womb can be co-opted to identify and differentiate the individual sounds produced by a musical instrument, how much harder can it be to train children to identify and differentiate consciously the sounds of their own language in the context of learning to read and spell?

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The phonics achievement challenge

Following on from my last post in which I reported the results of a spelling test taken by a class about to begin Y2 in St George's Primary School in Wandsworth, this time I'm publishing the results from the same spelling test for a class just about to begin Y3. 

The reason I'm putting the posts back to back is that their juxtaposition will give you a good idea of the kind of progression you can expect to see from the extra year's tuition the pupils get from the Sounds-Write programme.

I’d make clear that the test (Dennis Young’s Parallel Spelling Test) was not developed for teachers of phonics. In fact, the test moves very quickly from simple two-sound and three-sound words made up of simple one-to-one correspondences, plus some initial consonant digraphs, to the greater complexities of the code: more than one way of spelling a sound.

After Y2, the class’s third year of phonics teaching, you can see that the effects of their exposure to the code and their practice of the skills, through the excellent teaching they receive at St George’s and a wide variety of reading, is now beginning to have a much more profound and qualitative effect on their spelling.

As you look at the results, bear in mind, too, that this school is situated in the most deprived area of London, south of the river. You can see that boys do as well as girls and that summer-born children do as well as children who entered school well after their fourth birthday.

You can also see that there is not a single child whose spelling age is lower than their chronological age. The same is true also of the previous year. On a test that has been normed and standardised on thousands of children, the achievements made by the staff and children of St George’s is remarkable.
What’s more, this is a challenge to all those who say that mixed methods and whole language are superior to a systematic, very high quality phonics approach. 

To all of those sceptics, I throw down the gauntlet.

St George’s Church of England Primary School

Year 3 Young’s Parallel Spelling Test September 2015

Male/Female
Raw Score
Age yrs.mo
Spelling Age
Standardised

M
28
7.5
9.4
120
+ 23 mths
M
27
7.7
9.3
116
+ 20 mths
F
36
7.4
11.1
133
+ 45 mths
F
32
7.4
10.2
125
+ 34 mths
M
29
7.8
9.6
117
+ 22 mths
M
36
7.6
11.1
130
+ 43 mths
M
23
7.10
8.6
108
+   8 mths
F
32
7.10
10.2
120
+ 28 mths
F
32
7.3
10.2
127
+ 35 mths
F
33
7.8
10.4
123
+ 32 mths
F
19
7.5
8.1
107
+   8 mths
F
38
7.9
11.9
>135
+ 48 mths
F



abs

F
17
7.3
7.8
106
+   5 mths
F
34
7.6
10.6
126
+ 36 mths
F
33
7.2
10.4
129
+ 38 mths
F
28
7.1
9.4
124
+ 27 mths
M
38
7.9
11.9
135
+ 48 mths
M
34
7.1
10.6
133
+ 41 mths
F
33
7.7
10.4
125
+ 33 mths
F
30
7.10
9.8
117
+ 22 mths
M
23
7.9
8.6
109
+   9 mths
M
19
7.3
8.1
109
+ 10 mths
M
32
7.1
10.2
130
+ 37 mths
F
724
7.1
8.8
118
+ 19 mths
F



abs

M
31
7.2
10.0
126
+ 34 mths
M
22
7.10
8.5
106
+    7 mths
F
39
7.11
12.5
135
+ 54 mths
F
20
7.0
8.2
112
+ 14 mths