Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Reading Achievement Challenge - the child’s view at the point of learning

Following on from two previous postings (here and here) on the subject of cognitive load in the domain of the teaching of phonics, here is a practical demonstration of the cognitive challenges a four-year-old child has to contend with in just one simple word building exercise.

But first, why word building? Word building is our starting point because it is where we teach code knowledge explicitly. Rather than introduce young children to random spellings (letters) and then tell them that such and such is this sound or that sound, it's much better to give the learning a practical context. Word building offers the opportunity to learn a limited number of sound-spelling correspondences at any one time in the context of a word. This approach gives phonics teaching both a purpose and a psychological reality. For the child, who already knows what a mat is and what sit means, word building pulls back the curtain on the mystery of the connection between spoken language and writing.

Assuming the child does not fall within that very small percentage of children who have particular speech and language difficulties or suffers from a serious learning difficulty, what follows is a measure of the cognitive load involved in learning how to build words. It is designed to make concrete the relationship between the word, the sounds comprising the word, and the spellings that represent the sounds.

To start with, anyone wanting to teach word building and looking for tips on reducing cognitive load from the start would do well to introduce children to small whiteboards, pens and wipe-off cloths. Getting children to become familiar with these items and to get used to drawing lines on the board, like the one below, is very useful because teaching a child to link sounds to spellings and to manipulate them at the same time as thinking about drawing lines on a whiteboard without prior learning will overburden some children.


_  _  _

Now, if we are going to introduce the class to the three sound-spelling correspondences that we’ll need to build the word ‘sat’, we need three Post-Its, laminated squares with magnetic tape on the back, or even squares of paper on a sheet of paper on a table top. On these, the teacher writes the spellings, though not necessarily in the correct order because some children are adept at spotting the order in which the sound-spelling correspondences are placed on the board and then don't have any cognitive work to do.

The teacher places the three squares, jumbled up and out of order and slightly out of line, like this:


               s
 t         a
_  _  _

The children are sitting on the carpet or in desks with the classroom whiteboard in front of them looking like the above. To some children, it’s likely that, without prior learning, the symbols representing the sounds will be new to them. To others, whose carers/family members read to them and even teach them, the spelling symbols will not come as anything new and this will give them a huge learning advantage (prior knowledge).

The extraneous cognitive load we’re presenting them with is the lesson template itself. As I explained in the previous post, the lesson presentation in itself does not contribute to schema creation or to the teaching of procedural skills. The intrinsic content is what we want to create a schema for: sounds and spellings, starting with s, a and t. But that’s not all! We are also going to be teaching them the procedural skills of segmenting sounds in words and of blending. In addition, we are, simultaneously, going to be teaching explicitly that spellings are symbols for sounds in words.

The teacher stands by the board and says to the children, “I'm going to say the word ‘sat’ very slowly. Listen carefully to hear the sounds that make up the word 'sat'." This is scaffolded by the teacher drawing their finger in one sweeping movement under each sound as they stretch out the word, taking care not to do the segmenting for the children. This should be done so that the finger corresponds to each sound as it sweeps across the word.

Note too that we are also teaching a word that begins with a continuant (/s/: a sound we can hang on to) allowing the teacher to stretch out the sound so that all children have the opportunity to hear it. [We know that gesturing in a way in which the movement of the finger corresponds to what is being spoken is very helpful. Using continuants in the beginning also enables children to hear the separate sounds in words.]

Now the teacher says, "What is the first sound (gesturing to the first line) you hear in 'sat'? Listen to what you hear when my finger is under this line."

As already indicated above, say the word slowly, but don't segment it. (Example: 'sssssaaat') As you say the word, slide your finger along under the lines corresponding to each sound.

Now choose a child to answer. I personally have never seen a reception class in which there isn’t at least one child who is able to do this. I choose a child to respond with /s/ and the teacher should say, “Yes, you can hear /s/. Everyone say that sound." And, all the children say /s/. Now you have all children saying /s/ and not 'suh' or 'ess'.

Next, the teacher asks: “Which of these is the way we write/spell /s/?” [Notice the accurate, brief and explicit language.] And, we choose someone to come out and demonstrate which spelling is ‘/s/’. Having done that, the child pulls the spelling on to the first line and says ‘/s/’ and all the children are encouraged to say the sound as it is pulled into place ‘/s/’. If the child doesn’t know, simply tell them by pointing to the spelling and saying, “It’s this one!”

The process is now repeated for the second sound and then for the third.

When the word is built and we have the spellings s a t, sitting on the three lines. We now ask the children to say the sounds and read the word. Every day, I would choose four or five children to repeat the process by saying the sounds and reading the word. That way, the teacher makes sure that every child is able to do what is being asked and also that every child gets the kind of rehearsal and practice necessary for learning.

After the word has been read, I remove the squares and I ask the children to tell me the sounds in ‘sat’. As they tell me, I write them, thus providing a model of how the letters/spellings are formed. Then, to check that we got what we wanted, we say the sounds and read the word, the teacher gesturing to each spelling as the children say the sounds.

Finally, with the word still on the whiteboard, I ask the children to draw three lines on their board and show me their boards. Now comes the writing. I ask them to write and say each sound as they write it. After they’ve finished writing, everyone puts their finger under the first line and we all say the sounds and read the word.

Of course, making a child fully literate, which for me means teaching them to be able to read and write very long, complex words, takes time and patience but this is the kind of practice required to turn novices into experts over time.

Can you expect this process to go smoothly from the start? The short answer to this is no! It will take children time to grasp the format of the ‘game’ (because that’s what it is) and some will take longer than others. Teachers need to remember what learning new activities are like from the perspective of what Jean of VAS blog calls ‘the child’s view at the point of learning’. They also need to remind themselves just how much effortful practice goes in to learning a new activity from scratch. In laboratory activities involving unfamiliar materials, even adult participants evidence surprisingly poor performance; on the other hand, when presented with tasks and materials to which they are accustomed, people demonstrate competent thinking, they grasp things readily and they can manipulate materials to problem solve.

So, just to summarise how carefully we've been to follow the kind of advice given by John Sweller and his colleagues, we've:
  • introduced only three items for children to learn
  • begun to give practice in procedural learning skills of segmenting and blending, skills the children will need all their reading lives
  • begun to build a schema for sounds and spellings
  • kept down the amount of teacher talk to a minimum and made sure that the language used is accurate
  • introduced a simple lesson template which will serve for lots of other similar lessons in which we introduce new elements of learning
  • challenged the children to combine their auditory, visual and oral skills in a way that offers success very quickly.

Here's an example I contrived on a course to help teachers see the difficulty they had in learning just four new symbols to represent sounds in English and to manipulate them in a word building exercise.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

The know-nothing world of the academic opposition to phonics

If you want to know why so many Australian (and English) academics are so strongly opposed to a Phonics Screening Check, which really is a fig leaf for their hostility to phonics teaching itself, it is that, at bottom, they don’t understand the relationship between the sounds of the language and the writing system itself.

Five thousand years ago people were struggling to create a means by which nascent city states might be able to record everyday business.

For urban societies to be able to work, there have to be systems in place to enable them to function smoothly. Cities need legal, tax and business systems, which, in turn, require an accurate method of recording transactions: legal systems, for example, cannot rely on word of mouth. For a legal system to work, judgements have to be made and recorded so that they may be referred to in the future.

This is what made writing the basis for urban societies. In the words of Peter Daniels, ‘All humans speak; only humans in civilizations write*, so speech is primary, and writing is secondary: writing underpins the culture of cities’.

The reason initial attempts to record information, such as pictography, failed is that they were unable to represent the complexities of language: abstractions, the ambiguities, the intricacies of the tense system, and so on. But there was another and more elemental logic for the switch to the phoneticisation of writing: the limitations of human memory. People couldn’t remember more than a few thousand pictograms.

Phoneticisation liberated humanity from memory overload through the invention of the symbolic representation of sounds in language. There are forty-four or so sounds in the English language and roughly 175 symbols/spellings for representing them. The 175 or so common spellings are capable of representing any word and any new word in the language. In other words, it is extraordinarily generative. By the standards of most alphabetic languages, this is a lot to learn. The Spanish language, for instance, contains around twenty-two to twenty-four sounds and these can be represented by around thirty to thirty five spellings. For this reason, Spanish is relatively easy to learn; English, on the other hand and for reasons of its history, is more complex, less transparent, harder to learn. It makes sense then that it takes longer to teach.

What also makes sense is that because the English writing system is complex, teachers must be properly trained. Evidence that this is not happening abounds. It isn’t good enough to set up a screening check alone and hope that somehow this will ensure that phonics is taught well. It won’t be if teachers are not taught how our writing system functions and the steps required to teach it to mastery level.

So, apart from knowing which sounds are represented by which spellings, what are the levels of complexity which teachers and particularly university lecturers need to understand about the code? They are these:
  • A sound can be spelled with one, two three or four letters (mat, rain, night, through)
  • Sounds can be spelled in multiple ways (rain, play, great, gate, they, eight, vein, David)
  • Many spellings represent more than one sound. (hot, no, monkey, do)

I see large numbers of examples that disclose how many university teachers lack of understanding of these concepts. Take example three. The other day – as is typical in lines of questioning such as this – someone tweeted a demand to know how a child might deal with the word ‘read’, the assumption being that the recipient of the question wouldn’t know how to answer. As readers of this blog will know, the word can be read in two ways: as /r/ /ee/ /d/ to rhyme with ‘need’, or as /r/ /e/ /d/ (the simple past tense) to rhyme with ‘bed’. What could be easier! When I responded in this way  rather politely, I thought  I was blocked! This is amazing behaviour from someone allegedly interested in debating the pros and cons of the possible introduction of a phonics screening check, Australian style.

It is obvious from the sort of interventions they make that many academics have never tested their thinking by teaching a phonics lesson to young children, nor, from the level of ignorance they display, do have know how the code works or how best to teach it. Anthony Radice asks in his latest blogpost ‘Why don’t progressives want to debate?’ In the main, the answer, Anthony, is that they throw around half-baked generalisations and the moment you challenge them on the detail, they collapse like a deflated balloon.

Here’s my challenge to the ‘progressives’: set up an RCT, pitting whole language, traditional (graphemic) phonics and linguistic phonics (a la Sounds-Write) against one another. Any time, any place, anywhere! How the challenge will be denounced - but they won’t take it up!


*Daniels is not making a value judgement here. 'Civilisation' is meant in the archaeological sense and refers to the life and culture of cities.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Of polydactyls

If you were listening to the last five minutes of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday, you will have caught a short item on, allegedly, how pupils’ spelling has deteriorated.

The item began by stating that new research from Cambridge Assessment is telling us that ‘we are making more spelling mistakes than our parents’.  Words, such as ‘too’, ‘off’ and ‘said’ are causing us problems. However, when the research was examined more closely, it turns out that, at least at GCSE level, inability to spell words like these – and the bar here is very low indeed – is found mostly in the weakest writers in Grades G and F.

And no, you can’t blame it on texting. Contrary to popular opinion, there seems to be a correlation between texting and good spelling. This makes sense: if can hear the sounds in words, you can represent them, albeit in this case in the coding of the texting genre. For example where the word ‘great’ is written as ‘gr8’, the writer needs to be able to hear the sounds in ‘great’ to be able to represent them.

What professor Debra Myhill, vice-chancellor of the University of Essex, who reviewed the research, hypothesised was that the reason for pupils achieving at Grades G and F’s inability to spell may be because schools are targeting pupils in the range C and D in the hope that grades can hold up or be improved. However, she thought that this may be at the expense of pupils working at a Grade E, F or G level and who are thought to be incapable of raising their performance to gain that magical C grade.

We hear a lot about this sort of thing going on in secondary schools and I have to say that I think it is not only pedagogically unacceptable, it is also morally repugnant that pupils are not given every opportunity to learn to read and write before they leave school.

At this point in the Today programme, listeners were introduced to 10-year-old Rhea, speller par excellence.

Out of the mouths of babes

When asked by the interviewer if she just learned words to spell, she responded by asking what use it was ‘knowing how to spell a word if you don’t know what it means’. Wise words! Why, for instance, would a teacher ask a child to spell a word they didn’t know the meaning of or hadn’t seen before? How would you, for instance know how to spell ‘eleemosynary’ if it wasn’t within your vocabulary and if you hadn’t seen it before? You might not know how to spell the /ee/ as [ ee ], or the /i/ as [ y ], or even the schwa as [ a ].

So, how has she become such a terrific speller? She tells us that reads a lot - from The Secret Garden to the Junior Edition of The Week magazine. Her mother also informed us that she has been read to since the year dot. But then she also added something highly significant: she said that Rhea ‘doesn’t just skip over words. She doesn’t just read with inference’. In other words, Rhea reads every word, she looks carefully and she doesn’t guess.

Putting it another way, when you can decode accurately, you don’t need to guess, your already very good decoding skills are supported by the context; whereas, poor readers cast about desperately in the hope that they can glean meaning from contextual clues because they can’t decode efficiently. As professor Keith Stanovich says in his paper ‘Individual Differences in the Acquisition of Literacy’, ‘Fluent readers are not engaging in the wholesale skipping of words, nor are they markedly reducing their sampling of visual features from the words fixated.’*

The item finished with Rhea testing the team on spelling ‘polydactus’ and ‘lyophilisation’ and on the meaning of ‘diaphanous’. A Year 2 class I used to teach using Sounds-Write would easily have been able to spell ‘polydactus’, though the meaning would have to have been explained first. ‘Lyophilisation’ might have proved slightly more difficult – but only slightly!

*Stanovich, K., (2000), ‘Individual Differences in the Acquisition of Literacy’, Progress in Understanding Reading, Guilford Press, London, (P. 167).