Wednesday, September 10, 2014

What human cognitive architecture has to tell us about instructional design in phonics teaching.

The following post is what I intended to get across at the recent researchEd conference and didn’t have time to finish! The post covers some of the important issues raised by John Sweller, Paul Kirschner, John Hattie, Daniel Willingham, David Geary and others in a number of academic pieces published on human cognitive architecture and how we learn. I’ve tried to relate to the teaching of phonics some of what I think is most relevant for teaching practitioners to think about.

It is a long post, for which I apologise.The post is also a tacit plea to government to train teachers properly – something it (whether this or the last government) has signally failed to do. Learning to read and write underpins everything a child does and will do in the future, and it is vital that it is taught to a very high level of proficiency as soon as children enter school.

According to John Sweller, Emeritus professor of education at the University of New South Wales in Adelaide, instruction will only be effective to the extent that it takes into account the characteristics of human cognition ('Human Cognitive Architecture').

‘Ideal learning environments in accord with human cognitive architecture are are not always in accord with realistic learning environments that mimic the real world’ (Sweller, 'Human Cognitive Architecture', p.370) or we take for granted as naturalistic human behaviour. If they did, then there would be no need for schools and universities or indeed for specific instructional procedures. Simply being in the world with an eye and an ear to what is going on around us would be sufficient.

Sweller and others contend that we have evolved to ‘assimilate and process information’ in order to direct human action. In so doing we have evolved what they refer to as a ‘natural information processing system’: human long-term memory. This repository is no longer viewed as a jumble of unrelated facts we store and retrieve from time to time. It is now seen as absolutely central to the structure of human cognitive architecture. In other words, it is central to how we learn.

So, what it is that differentiates experts and novices in solving particular classes of problems, by which I mean domain-specific (mathematics, chess, writing systems, etc.) problems? The answer appears to be simply the amount of knowledge or information held in long-term memory. To be skilful in any domain, it is necessary to have at one’s disposal a huge stock of knowledge that is instantly available, a point also made by E.D. Hirsch on many occasions.

As Sweller et al contend, we have evolved cognitive systems to impart and receive knowledge from others around us. From our first moments we begin to imitate what others do. We are primed for naturalistic human behaviour, such as learning our own language or languages, recognising faces, assimilating our own specific cultural practices, and spotting predators and prey. These we learn pretty well without explicit instruction though that isn’t to say we can’t improve these abilities with further guided instruction and practice.

However, what we, as educators, are concerned with is what Sweller and his associates refer to as secondary learning, or ‘biologically secondary knowledge’. In this respect the essential task for educators lies in devising efficient instructional procedures for transmitting knowledge to the long-term memories of learners.

All efficient procedures for the transmission of knowledge are dependent on what Sweller calls the ‘borrowing principle’ or probably what we think of more generally as learning from presented information or direct instruction. The alternative is leaving the learner to work things out for themselves, or, as Sweller calls it, ‘random generation followed by effectiveness testing’, which is really another way of saying trial and error approach. Trial and error approaches are highly inefficient for a number of reasons, not least of which are that they are extremely time-consuming and, perhaps more importantly, they run the risk of pupils misunderstanding important concepts or being misled by surface impressions (classifying whales as fish because they live in the sea, for example). As Michelene Chi points out in ‘Two Approaches to the Study of Experts’ Characteristics’ (in Ericsson et al, p.23), experts are more able to ‘perceive the “deep structure” of a problem or situation’ because they are more knowledgeable. So, for a number of reasons, the research evidence seems to indicate that, at least in the early stages of learning a new domain, direct instruction is much more effective.

Now apply this to the situation of teaching reading and writing to young children in school. We have one of the most complex writing systems, if not the most complex, and we know that the long tail of underachievement in learning to read and write is enormous: as much as 50% if we rely on figures given by the OECD (Canada) in 1997. So, given the prodigious task of learning to read and write to a very high level of mastery – one which is vital to an individual if they are to maximise whatever potential for learning they have – why would we expect a young child to work out for him/herself how our complex writing system works? As Sweller confirms, ‘The absence of explicit instruction that works perfectly in the case of biologically primary knowledge is likely to fail abysmally when dealing with secondary knowledge’ (Sweller, J., ‘Human Cognitive Architecture and Constructivism’ in Constructivist Instruction: Success or Failure, (2009), p.130.

In my long experience of training teaching practitioners, I have found that very few have a clear and unambiguous idea of how the alphabetic writing system in English relates to the sounds of the language.

According to one of the world’s experts on writing systems Peter Daniels, '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.' (Daniels, P.T. & Bright, W., (1996), ‘The Study of Writing Systems’ in The World’s Writing Systems, London, OUP, p.3) A writing system must represent the sounds of the language and for that you need a graphic symbol inventory. The decisive step in the development of writing was phoneticisation of graphic representation. This came with the realisation that if you worked out how many sounds there are in a language and you invented a series of squiggles to represent those sounds, you would have an entirely accurate means of recording anything.  Writing, then, is a cognitive tool, a huge systemic mnemonic, if you like.

As Daniels is also at pains to point out, writing is different from spoken language ‘in a very fundamental way. Language is a natural product of the human mind ... while writing is a deliberate product of the human intellect: no infant illiterate absorbs its script along with its language; writing must be studied.’ (Ibid., p.2)

To make such a system work someone has to set about working out what the sounds of a language are and inventing symbols to represent them. Since its invention in Mesopotamia, it has passed from the Phoenicians to the Greeks, to the Etruscans and on to the Romans. The Romans brought it to the British Isles, since which time it has undergone many changes. Nevertheless, regardless of the changes to the language over time, it remains the case still that writing, no matter its complexity, represents the sounds of the language.

When we present young children (or anyone for that matter) with the written material that makes up our writing system, this novel information for which they have little, incorrect or no prior knowledge, their working memories are very limited. What we must do therefore is to present them with a phonics approach that builds a schema for sounds and individual spellings and teaches them from simple to ever more complex, turning that schema into an ever more sophisticated tool.

Schemas enable us to organise and store knowledge. They categorise the elements of information you want to teach according to the way in which you want them to be used. They also reduce working memory load because, as K Anders Ericsson (Ericsson et al: The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance) and his colleagues have long argued, even a highly complex schema can be dealt with as if it is a unitary element in working memory.

Because schemas can incorporate facts, functions, procedures and entities specific to a domain, the building of schemas is a long process and there are no shortcuts. I was once told by a disdainful head teacher that phonics was a quick fix! If only that were the case! All the literature, tells us the same story: development of individual performance in any domain is ‘relatively slow and graduated even when a large amount of time is invested’ (Hattie, 2014, p.95). Growth, as we always tell people on our courses, is uneven and is punctuated by sudden improvements, long plateaus, and/or periods of regression. That’s what learning looks like. Messy!

To continue to make improvement in any domain, you need to devote time to deliberate practice, which is ‘mindful, sequential and highly structured’ (Hattie, 2014, p.96).

Of course, you also need expert tuition, persistence and goal setting. I don’t know whether you listened to Professor John Hattie talking on Radio 4 ( a few weeks ago but, aside from telling us what doesn’t work, he highlighted a few things that do. Chief among these was expertise in teaching… and to get that, you need to train the teachers.

In the beginning at least, confirms Hattie (Hattie, 2014, p.96), the focus should be on short-term, immediate goals, where the teacher concentrates attention on critical aspects of practice, helps to refine the procedural skills of blending, segmenting and phoneme manipulation, provides time and space for repetition, and offers corrective feedback where necessary.

One of the most critical aspects of successful teaching is practice. The more anyone practises an activity, the more able they are to switch from a conscious to an automatic function. Automaticity frees working memory capacity for other activities because, it is argued by the proponents of Cognitive Load Theory, a schema that has been made automatic acts as a central executive that directs activity without the need for processing in working memory. This is what enables people to perform an activity without even thinking about it: the activity dips below the level of conscious attention. In one way, this is very useful because it enables the performer, in Hattie’s words, to ‘peg a skill at a given level’.

Furthermore, as Fletovich, Prietula and Ericsson point out, ‘[a]utomaticity is important to expertise. It appears to have at least two main functions. The first has to do with the relationship between fundamental and higher-order cognitive skills, and the second has to do with the interaction between automaticity of processes and usability of available knowledge. With regard to the first, in complex skills with many different cognitive components, it appears that some of the more basic ones (e.g., fundamental decoding, encoding of input) must be automated if higher-level skills such as reasoning, comprehension, inference, monitoring, and integration are ever to be proficient.’ Fletovich, P.J., Prietula, M.J. & and K. Anders Ericsson, in ‘Studies of Expertise from Psychological Perspectives’, in K. Anders Ericsson et al, Eds, (2006), The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, London, CUP.

In terms of reading then, this is what enables us to decode text and understand it; in terms of writing, it is what enables us to think about what we want to write while actually writing it. The two processes can operate in parallel simultaneously.

The paradoxical thing about this is that simply spending time honing a skill you have already acquired doesn’t automatically enhance your actual level of performance in that skill. People tend to learn a complex skill to the extent that they are satisfied with its functionality and then they don’t usually bother to burnish it. They only want, as in, say, the case of golf, to be good enough to keep up with their friends, or, as with driving, to negotiate the particular driving conditions they are routinely faced with.

So, if we want learners in a domain to continue to improve, we need to present them with further challenges. This, in the case of learning a musical instrument may mean finding a more highly skilled teacher. In the case of teaching children to read and write, it means training teachers to a high level of proficiency.

Novel information (squiggles on a page combining to represent sounds in words) coming through the senses is unorganised and random and often imposes on working memory too heavy a cognitive load. Sweller maintains that ‘anything beyond the simplest cognitive activities appear to overwhelm working memory’. So, our problem as teachers of reading and spelling is one of how to present the information necessary for young children (or even older learners who are illiterate or semi-literate) in such a way as not to overload working memory and to enable successful transfer of information to long-term memory, where information is organised and structured. Throwing all the complexities of the English alphabet code at them in the form of whole words that they are asked to remember as wholes is an impossible task.

To help young children learn, we need, in the first instance, to restrict the amount of new information we present them with. In essence, this is one of the basic tenets of cognitive load theory. As Hattie says, ‘Novices need to concentrate as deeply as they can on specific ideas without encumbrance from other sources’ (Hattie, 2014, p.150). In other words, we need to take things one step at a time and do our best not to distract learners with unnecessary information, and distractions, such as the ‘all singing, all dancing’ features that often go alongside phonics activities: what Sweller and van Merriënboer call ‘extraneous cognitive load’, or load that is unnecessary for learning.

Hattie describes working memory as ‘the workbench of the conscious mind’ and as a ‘bottleneck to our ability to learn’. It can only deal with a very limited amount of information at any one time. While this would appear to be an impediment to learning, in fact it safeguards long-term memory from being deluged with too much unstructured information pouring in at any one time

So, first, the question remains of how we can facilitate the loading knowledge from working memory into the long-term memory system. At the same time, we need to ensure that the material being loaded into the system is coherently structured so that new information can be processed and integrated in a way that is commensurate with what has already been learnt. For example, after teaching all the one-to-one sound spelling correspondences, it is very easy to teach the double consonants, ff, ll, ss and zz (because they look very similar to the single letter spellings), while making explicit that we can spell sounds with more than one letter. The third problem is one of retrieval: how to enable ease of access to the store?

Because teachers of good quality phonics programmes know how the alphabet system works in relation the sounds of the language, they should be the arbiters of what we deem important enough to transfer into long-term memory. How can we expedite this? The answer is simple: we create a schema in which the material we want young children to learn from the start is from simple to more complex. For this reason, we need to introduce a limited amount of information at any one time and to recycle information that has already been learned, by which I mean committed to long-term memory.

Thus we can begin by presenting simple information in cumulative steps in the form of a limited number of ‘templates’ or lessons or instructional procedures that are unchanging. If the way in which lessons are presented is unchanging and provided that they are an effective means of conveying what it is we want to teach, once established and practised, cognitive load is reduced to input of the new material.

If done properly, the learner can now devote all their attention to what Sweller et al call ‘intrinsic cognitive load’ or only what the learner needs to learn to achieve the desired outcome. At the same time, ‘extrinsic cognitive load’ or all the stuff that the intrinsic cognitive load comes wrapped up in (instructional design,  the practice that goes into creating automaticity) is reduced to a minimum.

As I’ve already made clear, working memory is limited. There’s general agreement that it can handle only about seven bits of information at any one time. We also know that it can actually only operate on between two and four new elements at a time and that, unless rehearsed constantly even those elements are likely to be lost within as short a period of time as twenty seconds.

These capacity limits only apply to the input of new knowledge because we also know that working memory has no known limits when operating on information stored in long-term memory. What this means is that whatever is stored in long-term memory has the capacity to alter dramatically what is happening in working memory.

So, how we develop expertise in reading and writing depends on how well we design instructional materials and build a comprehensive schema, which is additive, open to complexity and automation. When posed in this way, teaching reading and spelling is no different qualitatively from teaching mathematics or other knowledge domains.

Daniels, P.T. & Bright, W., (1996), ‘The Study of Writing Systems’ in The World’s Writing Systems, London, OUP.
Ericsson, K.A., Charness, N., Feltovich, P.J. & Hoffman, R.R., (2006), The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, London, CUP.
Hattie, J & Yates, G., (2014), Visible learning and the Science of How We Learn, London, Routledge.
Geary, D.C, ‘Educating the Evolved Mind: Conceptual Foundations for an Evolutionary Psychology’,
Van Meriënboer, J. & Sweller, J., ‘Cognitive Load Theory and Complex Learning: Recent Developments and Future Directions’, in Educational Psychology Review, Vol 17, No 2, June 2005 (p.150)

Sweller, J., (2009), ‘Human Cognitive Architecture and Constructivism’ in Constructivist Instruction: Success or Failure, London, Routledge.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Should key words be taught as 'sight' words?

I’ve just been asked a question that comes up with unfailing regularity: what should the advice to parents be ‘if a school insists on students learning "key words" by sight and asks you as a parent to help’.

The sad truth is that if a school is sending words home that are to be learnt 'by sight', it is clear that they don’t have confidence in their own understanding of how the sounds of the language relate to the spelling/writing system and how to teach that system. Words identified by schools as 'key words' almost invariably come from the list of high frequency words listed as an appendix in Letters and Sounds. All of these words can easily be taught as part of a good quality phonics programme. This is because all words are comprised of sounds and all sounds in words have been assigned spellings, even if some of those spellings are less frequent than others. That being the case, it’s a tall order to expect any parent to know what to do with lists of 'key words' sent home for a pupil to learn to read and/or spell unless they are (a) literate, and (b) know how the alphabet code works.

In addition, the question isn’t easy to respond to because the answer will also be predicated on the quality of the phonics programme the pupil is being taught (or not being taught!) at school and on the order in which sounds and spellings are introduced.  This means that what the pupil will need help with will always depend on the pupil’s prior knowledge. For example, has the pupil covered all one-to-one (one-letter spellings to one sound) correspondences? Has s/he been introduced to the idea that many sounds can be spelled with two letters in the context of double consonants? Has s/he improved their skills of blending and segmenting sufficiently to be able to spell four and five-sound words containing adjacent consonants? And, has s/he begun to learn the different ways to spell the remaining sounds in English and to understand explicitly how the code works?

So, to answer the question in practicable terms, I would always say to any parent, unless you really think the school is going to listen to you and to change its practice when you tell them that they shouldn’t be teaching  'key words' as ‘sight words’, you probably won’t get very far by fighting them. This means that if you’re not satisfied the school is doing the job properly and you don’t want to change schools – after all, the child may love their class teacher and everything else about the school may be just what you want – I would say take responsibility for teaching your child yourself! Then, when your child brings home a list of words taken from the first one hundred high frequency word list, do the following.

For reading:
Take however many squares of paper are required and write the spellings for the sounds in each of the words in the list sent home. For example, if the first word is ‘said’, write the spellings for the sounds in ‘said’ on three squares: thus, s ai d for the sounds /s/ /e/ /d/. Then word-build the word by following the instructions I have already outlined in this blog post. At the end of the process, when you have asked the pupil to read the word /s/ /e/ /d/ ‘said’, point to the ai spelling of /e/ and say, ‘In this word, we spell /e/ like this.’ Now, ask the pupil to write the word, saying each sound as they write the spelling: /s/ /e/ /d/ and then again read the word sound by sound at the end. You will probably need to repeat this process a number of times during the week.

You might also want to add that the spelling ai is a less frequent spelling of /e/. If the pupil is a bit older, you could also add that the spelling reflects the way the word was once pronounced. It would at one time have rhymed with ‘spade’ and, in fact, many people today in, say, the West Country today still say the word in this way.

Similarly, you teach ‘they’ in exactly the same way and point to the ey spelling and say, ‘This is one of the ways in which we spell the sound /ae/. [You find the same spelling of the sound in other words like ‘grey’ and ‘prey’.]

For spelling:
Take the word list. Here’s one my own daughter brought home many years ago: ‘she’, ‘mum’, ‘dad’, ‘that’ and ‘go’.

Sit next to the pupil with the list of words out of their line of sight and on a small white board or piece of paper, tell the pupil that the first word is ‘she’. Ask the pupil to say the sounds in ‘she’. As they say /sh/ /ee/, you write the spellings sh and e. Now you point to the spelling e and say, ‘In this word, we spell the sound /ee/ like this, pointing to the e. Now, you ask the pupil to read it back, /sh/ /e/, perhaps also reminding them that sometimes we spell a sound with two letters, pointing to the sh. Finally the pupil writes the word, saying the sounds as they do. After a couple of days of this, responsibility for writing the spellings of each word passes to the pupil. Now, repeat the procedure with the other words.

What you need to remember is that you use straightforward, simple language: there are sounds and there are spellings. If you’re not sure of a word yourself, ask yourself what the individual sounds you hear in a word are and match each sound to each spelling. When you are reading together and you come to a word that contains a sound-spelling correspondence that your pupil/child has never seen before, you run your pencil under the spelling and say that this is /x/. For example, in the word ‘through’, you might have to run your pencil under the ough and say, ‘This is one sound. It’s /oo/. Say /oo/ here.’ And the pupil should say /th/ /r/ /oo/ 'through' [always assuming that they’ve already encountered the th spelling for /th/ unvoiced.].

Having given all of that advice you need to be aware that simply by responding to what a school sends home is only going to enable you to teach part of what needs to be taught and, given that your teaching will always be reactive to what the school sends home, even using the above techniques, your teaching will not be systematic. What you really need to do to teach a pupil to read and spell to a high degree of proficiency is to teach a high quality, coherently and systematically structured phonics programme that teaches all the sound-spelling correspondences, the skills of segmenting, blending and phoneme manipulation, and conceptual understanding of how the code works in practice. And for that you need high quality training!

You can read our handout on high frequency words in Letters and Sounds here.

NB: It should also be stated that the advice the DfE is now giving is explicitly against teaching any of the high frequency words listed in Letters and Sounds by ‘sight’.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

How many sound-spelling correspondences to teach in a phonics session?

I have recently been asked how many phonic patterns (sound-spelling correspondences) I would teach pupils in a half-hour session on average. Though at first sight this sounds pretty straightforward, in reality, it’s a complex question.

I’m going to assume that the pupils are beginning readers, aged between four and five years. I’m also assuming that while some pupils in any YR or Y1 class are going to have picked up a certain amount of prior knowledge from nursery, parents, and from ‘interested parties’ of one sort or another, many children will know very little and in some cases nothing at all about phonics.

For this reason, it is best to start from scratch. People may object to this but when one considers that many pupils who have already been taught some rudimentary ‘phonics’, may come in knowing only letter names, saying sounds with the ubiquitous /uh/ attached, and other maladaptive strategies.

Teaching phonics to a Reception class for the first time needs careful handling and how this can be done can be seen clearly from the advice I give in this blog posting. The posting makes clear how best to introduce sound-spelling correspondences for the first time and gives a clear rationale for the approach.

Now we come to the why. According to a number of eminent cognitive psychologists – John Hattie, John Sweller, Paul Kirschner, Daniel Willingham and Jeroen J.G  van Merriënboem – new material should always only be introduced in small steps.

Presenting anyone with too much new information at one time is likely to overwhelm the learner. Working memory is what John Hattie refers to as the ‘workbench’ of the conscious mind and the problem with it is that it can only hold on to a limited number of items at a time or it suffers cognitive overload. Moreover, unless the material in the working memory is being put into productive use, it is quickly lost.

It used to be believed that the number of items which can be held in working memory at any one time is between five and seven. However, one is better erring on the side of caution and confining the number to as few as four or five and, if those items are new (i.e. never introduced before), then two or three should be the limit.

If two or three items are introduced in the context of a lesson, such as the one outlined in the link above, then exposure is maximal because pupils are given lots of opportunities for rehearsal, with the consequence that children are much more likely to remember them. What’s more, after having already introduced /s/ /a/ /t/ (spelled s, a, t), the next day or the day after we might then add another sound-spelling correspondence, /m/ (spelled m), say, and word-build ‘mat’ and write it in the same way as the previous day. Thus, the combinations /a/ and /t/ are recycled. In this way, five sound-spelling correspondences [This includes /i/ in Sounds-Write.] can be introduced in the first two weeks of Reception, allowing time for the pupils to get the hang of the ‘game’.

Spending this amount of time is vital if ALL children are going to be given the chance to become properly literate because the rigour of such an approach promotes automaticity or the ability to access the material stored in long-term memory immediately.

What can plainly be seen from this procedure is that we are building a schema, which the children practise every day and on which we build more and more sound-spelling correspondences over time. Because the sound-spelling correspondences are taught at the beginning in the context of real words with which children are instantly familiar, the material isn’t random; it is ‘chunked’. Chunking is the way in which our minds can bring together formerly disparate elements into a coherent pattern.

In addition, we are building simultaneously the children’s skills of blending and segmenting, skills which are essential if children are going to achieve mastery level. And, we are teaching them conceptual understanding: that the individual sounds in our speech are represented by one-letter spellings in this case.

All of the above creates the basis from which we can go on to teach more complexity over time: two-letter spellings, CVCC, CCVC and CCVCC words, followed by teaching one sound-different spellings and one-spelling-different sounds, and how to read and spell polysyllabic words.

You might ask how long might it take for a class of Reception children to be taught all the one-to-ones, plus the two letter spellings ff, ll, ss and zz. Again, it does depend somewhat on the cohort and cohorts vary from year to year, though not usually by very much. Certainly, by Christmas of YR, I would expect most classes to have got there. So, not too fast and not too slowly.

Further reading
Hattie, J. & Yates, G., (2014), Visible learning and The Science of How We Learn, Routledge.
Willingham, D.T., (2009), Why Students Don’t Like School, Jossey-Bass
Sweller, J., ‘Human Cognitive Architecture’:

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The tip of the iceberg

The recent Ofsted report ‘How a sample of primary schools in Stoke-on-Trent teach pupils to read’ makes shocking reading. It is a small sample of only twelve primary schools (out of 77) in Stoke-on-Trent and yet the report declares that in seven out of that twelve, ‘reading was not taught well enough’ and that six of the schools ‘were not well prepared for the requirements of the new national curriculum’. Moreover, it estimates that ‘over 7,000 children go to a school that is judged inadequate or as requires improvement’.

So, the first question that springs immediately to mind is: if that’s what nearly sixty per cent of the schools are like in a small sample, what is happening in the other 65 primary schools in Stoke-on-Trent? 
Can you see the tear in old Josiah's eye?

About the only positive thing the report has to say is that, in the five schools where children were being taught adequately, children were getting off to ‘a flying start in the Early Years Foundations Stage’. What this means is that these children have begun to establish a solid base on which, with good tuition, their abilities to read and write can be further developed. Which is more than can be said for their 7,000 peers!

According to the report, not all schools were teaching phonics decoding and, astonishingly, three head teachers were described as being unaware that this is a requirement of the new national curriculum. It hardly seems surprising then that teachers in the failing schools were not, as the report laments, linking early reading and writing – a clear indication that they don’t understand the reversibility of the code and almost certainly don’t know how the sounds of the language relate to the way the spelling system works.

Worse still, there is every indication that what phonics teaching was in place in Key Stage 1 disappears entirely in Key Stage 2, precisely the time during which pupils are introduced to more complex spellings of sounds. Many of these more complex spellings can be taught in the context of the everyday curriculum if, and only if, the all the basics have been put in place in Key Stage 1. Key Stage 2 is also the time in which children’s ability to read and spell polysyllabic words, a process which should already have begun in Key Stage 1, can now be further developed to include much longer, five and six syllable words (for example, 'biodegradable', 'choreography', etc.).

What this means for those Key Stage 2 pupils who have been so badly served is that as the challenges become greater – words get longer, more abstract, less frequently encountered, are less likely to heard in spoken language – they will struggle more and more to keep up, fall further and further behind and, by the end of the primary phase, they will be unable to meet the demands of a secondary curriculum.

Unless reading and spelling/writing are taught to such a level of proficiency that they become automatic, the cognitive load imposed by learning something (knowledge/other skills) new while still struggling to read it or write about it becomes an insurmountable handicap. This is why the procedures for learning word recognition need to be overlearned through carefully structured practice at Key Stage 1 because, if they are not, trying to learn two unrelated things simultaneously is almost impossible to do. This is why it is so vital for all pupils to learn to read and write fluently so that their conscious attention can focus on learning all the other things we deem to be important in our culture.
The report also noted in more detail some truly egregious examples of poor teaching:
  • ‘Almost all schools in the survey did not teach phonics as “the route to decode words”...’ Although teachers were said to be ‘positive’ about teaching phonics, they were mixing it up with other ‘cues’. As Dr Bonnie Macmillan makes clear in her book Why Schoolchildren Can’t Read, a book every bit as relevant in 2014 as it was when it was published in 1997, 'mixed methods' is in reality a whole word approach. Using ORT readers, such as the Go-Kart, as mentioned in the report, relying on picture cues, relying on initial sounds and guessing the rest of the word, are methods that ‘do not support early reading development, where acquisition of the alphabetic principle is key’ (Macmillan, B.).
  • Even more startling and disturbing was the fact that in the early years environments within the schools inspected there was very little evidence of children learning and rehearsing a wide range of stories, rhymes and songs’.  I’m not especially surprised that phonics is not being taught well but, really, that young children are not being offered a wide range of stories, rhymes and songs seems particularly bad. What an insipid diet these children must be being fed!

When children, especially those from deprived backgrounds, are not being inducted into a broader, deeper stratum of the culture through the medium of fictional and informational texts and through a wide range of oral genres, and, on top of that, they are not being taught to read and write to automaticity, they are almost certain to founder on the rocks of greater complexity as they pass further on up the school system.

More than most areas of Britain, the six towns and Newcastle-under-Lyme have suffered dreadfully from the disappearance of almost all of the traditional industries. Now, more than at any time, it is absolutely vital for children in schools in the Potteriess to get the very best teaching in reading, writing and basic mathematics so that they can go on to develop whatever potential they have and go on to find employment.

I don’t blame the classroom teachers in the schools concerned. What they need is training. Most institutions of initial teacher training do not train teachers in how to teach reading and spelling with anything like the rigour required when this, above all else, is the basis for all future learning.

Teaching children to become literate is very much more complex than many people outside the profession think, especially those who found learning the skill very easy when they were children. It is a highly specialised skill and it needs proper, thorough training if teachers are to do it well. It can’t be done in a twilight session after school and it can’t be done in a single day. To teach an understanding of how the sounds of the language relate to the spelling system, as well as the skills needed to teach it, requires expertise: expertise that all teachers need to acquire.

Although the present government did recognise the massive tail of underachievement in this area of teaching, where they blundered very badly was in providing primary schools with matched funding that could be spent on resources or training. Needless to say, hardly any spent their money on training, with the result that things have barely changed.

So, what’s the message? Train the teachers!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Stepping stones to beginning reading

This post has been written in response to a number of questions I’ve been asked or come across (especially on Mumsnet) asking what parents can do to prepare their children for learning to read and spell. The advice below is derived from my own experience in teaching my youngest daughter and my grandchildren, as well as from the advice I’ve given to friends and colleagues who've wanted to get their children off to a good start. 

Some years ago when my youngest daughter was about two-and-a-half, I began playing games with sounds with her. It started as a family game around the table at meal times. As an example, I would tell a simple story and instead of saying all the words as whole words, I’d segment the words into their constituent sounds and say to our daughter’s mum, "I wonder what that word is?" She, of course, would pretend to think about this before coming out with the word. So, it would have gone like this:
Me: “One day a big, brown /f/  /o/  /k/s/ crept into the farmyard. What’s a /f/  /o/  /k/s/, Mummy?”
Mummy: “Errrm. It’s a!”
And the game would continue in that vein until, after a relatively short period of time, our daughter caught on and would delight herself by ‘getting’ the word before me or her mother.
We then quickly progressed to other simple games. I-Spy was very popular. Either one of us would say something like, “I-Spy with my little eye something in the kitchen with the sounds /m/ /u/ /g/.” And our daughter would, quick as a flash, say ‘mug’.
By the time she was three, she could put together the sounds of virtually anything and say what the word was. So, we progressed from CVC words, through CVCC (lamp), CCVC (flag), CCVCC (swift) to two-syllable words – usually the names of shops, such as /t/ /e/ /s/ /k/ /oe/ /z/ (Tesco’s). As a matter of fact, when I was collecting her from nursery one day, I said to her that we were going to go to /t/ /e/ /s/ /k/ /oe/ /z/ and the nursery nurse was astonished she was able to say Tesco's.
Shortly after she turned three, we began to play similar games with segmenting sounds in words. Again, these began with simple CVC words and quickly, from a structural point of view, got more complex. At the time, I was teaching some Japanese students and picking up everyday words in Japanese. When I was at home, I would sometimes use these words as nonsense words and ask our daughter to tell me the sounds in them. Amazingly, after very little practice, she was better – in that she was faster and more accurate –  than I was!
Why did we do this? The answer is that, babies, even when still in the womb in the last trimester of pregnancy, are sensitive to the sounds of their L1 (mother tongue). This sensitivity persists until young children are speaking in whole words, when the attention to this kind of fine detail drops below the level of conscious attention, as it quickly does. However, attention to this kind of detail is once again required when children begin to learn to read so, as a kind of bridging exercise or a stepping stone, we played games like this to facilitate the skills of blending and segmenting.
All of this was done without ever looking at any letters! In fact, we didn’t want to start teaching our daughter to read until she was four. This is because we think there’s lots of interesting language work one can do which will also provide a solid base from which to begin teaching reading and writing later. For example, we read and told lots and lots of stories, as well as informational texts. We spent huge amounts of time talking and listening and learning simple poems and songs by heart. Then there was the drawing, sticking, painting and other such activities which are terrific fun and help to promote good fine-motor control skills.
The other reason we didn't want to start linking spelling to sounds was that, until children reach the age of about four – and clearly some children show willingness earlier and some children later – they often find it difficult to connect sounds to spellings. Remembering the differences between the abstract squiggles on the page and linking them to the sounds of the language can be quite challenging for children at this age. For that reason and as there are many other interesting things to do in the meantime, our advice is to wait until the child is four. [Interestingly, in the Spanish school to which we sent our daughter in what would have been her reception year, they didn’t teach reading or writing at all. The time was spent teaching children to swim, dance, paint, eat at table properly, to socialise and so on. This is because Spanish is so much easier (less complex) to teach than English and teachers are more relaxed about when to begin!]
All of the above (and more!) are absolutely essential to providing the language skills necessary for beginning reading and writing and anyone wanting to learn more will probably enjoy reading Diane McGuinness’s superb Growing a Reader from Birth, which provides an excellent background to the subject.
If you choose to follow the trajectory of this advice, here are some tips:
  • Say sounds as precisely as you can: say /s/ and not ‘suh’, thus adding an extra sound.
  • Use words for blending that begin with continuants or sounds that can easily be extended. These are /f/, /h/, /l/, /m/, /n/ /r/, /s/, /v/, /w/, /z/. The vowel sounds can also be extended. Extending sounds in the beginning greatly helps children to hear them. If you say the sounds /s/ /i/ /t/ and you extend the /s/ and the /i/, you can hear the word ‘sit’.
  • Begin with CVC words and give plenty of practice before moving on to CVCC, CCVC and CCVCC words, also remembering to keep using continuants at first – /s/ /l/ /a/ /m/.
  • As this game is being conducted orally/aurally, you can use words like ‘church’, ‘ship’, ‘gate’, ‘feet’, and so on, because they are all CVC words. Again, complexity can be built in by adding adjacent consonants – ‘crash’, ‘sleep’, etc.
  • Keep it light and make it fun! Stop when the child has clearly had enough.
  • If the child can't do what has been suggested straight away, discontinue and wait a few months more before trying again.
  • Don't expect the child to 'catch on' to the game immediately. It often takes time for them to learn how to play.
This post should be seen as a companion piece to this.
Thanks to,_Hebden,_bench.jpg for the pic.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Why can't children read... Dickens?

This post arose out of a tweet I read this morning which said that ‘a friend had to read the first page of Oliver Twist aloud to university students because it was too difficult for them’. Thinking back to the time I was teaching literature courses at university, I also found that my students in one of them (I mention no names!) had considerable difficulty in reading complex novels (Rushdie, Naipaul, Jean Rhys) and the theoretical texts which went with the course. How did I know? They openly admitted as much. 

That should, if you think about it, give us a clue as to why there is this persistent problem in getting children to read canonical works: it extends right back to the first years of schooling. Children need to be taught to read and spell to a very high degree of proficiency by the end of Key Stage 1. When this is done well, children get off to a good start: reading is something they derive pleasure from and have success with. If this happens and well trained teachers in Key Stage 2 continue to fine-tune reading and spelling skills by teaching many of the less frequent, more obscure sound-spelling correspondences and they teach their pupils to read and spell ever longer polysyllabic words, with practice, children find that reading becomes more and more fluent. This is important because they are now at the stage of reading to learn and fluency guarantees direct access to meaning on the page. In fact, reading should become so fluent that, unless a particular word contains a less frequent sound-spelling correspondence or is not in the reader’s spoken vocabulary, the process of decoding slips beneath the level of conscious attention.

Interestingly, Jeanne Chall, an expert in ‘readability’, demonstrated that during the period 1920-1960, when sight-word and meaning-based approaches were more common, ‘the number of different words in primary reading textbooks decreased substantially...In contrast, from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, a time when decoding-based methods were more popular, the number of different words in primary reading books increased’*!

That isn’t to say that there aren’t other factors at work. As suggested above, vocabulary difficulty is also likely to be a strong and consistent factor in predicting text difficulty. Vocabulary difficulty is measured in two ways: the first is one of the frequency of words in print; the second, by the number of ‘new’ and/or ‘difficult’ words introduced in a text and how often they are repeated. Beyond that, syntactic features such as the length of sentences, cohesion and the complexity of sentences - the presence or absence of embedded clauses and prepositional phrases - are also aspects for consideration.

Some would argue that the proliferation of readability formulas have been responsible for the long-standing and steady reduction in text difficulty. This has been because publishing houses measured readability and deliberately reduced the level of text difficulty. Chall et al (1977) discovered that, between the 1940s and 1970s, ‘social studies, literature,  grammar and composition textbooks’ had all diminished in ‘difficulty on measures such as readability scores, maturity level, question complexity, and ratio of illustrations to text’*. By contrast, one rarely hears either primary or secondary teachers talk about readability, with most secondary teachers almost exclusively preoccupied with filleting everything for meaning.

Scores can tell us how difficult a text is but not how difficult a text should be. The most common way of establishing text difficulty is a test of reading comprehension. If a pupil can answer successfully a series of multiple-choice questions on the main ideas being conveyed, on some of the detail in the text and on inference, the match is thought to be optimal. 75% success is the score required by Bormuth (1975); Thorndike (1916) put it at 80%. I wonder how many teachers still use regular comprehension quizzes.

Going back to Dickens, on the Flesch-Kincaid readability formula, for which a higher score indicates easier readability and on which scores usually range from 0 to 100, the first paragraph of Dickens’s Oliver Twist scored -10! Such a text would then be regarded as being very difficult to read. [God knows what Bleak House would score!] Using, a random paragraph taken from Philip Pullman’s The Tiger in the Well scored 88.5 on the Flesch-Kincaid, and at an average grade level of 4.5 in the USA (UK Year 5). Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz scored 82.9 on the Flesch-Kincaid and at an average grade level of 6.1 (UK Year 7). An excerpt from The Hunger Games scored 77.3 on the Flesch-Kincaid readability formula and at an average grade level of 7.2 (UK Year 8). And, you might be interested to know that Of Mice and Men scored 82.5 on the Flesch-Kincaid index and at an average grade level of 7 (UK Year 8). As is obvious, a fairly accomplished reader will hardly break sweat reading any of the more contemporary works.

Going on my own experience, most modern teenagers who do read for pleasure seem to read books that rarely progress beyond the Year 8/Year 9 level of readability. Oh yes! they love them and gobble them up. One of my own daughters read three John Green (The Fault in Our Stars) books in a matter of days and it was a delight to see her so engrossed. But, if they stick at this point, they arrest! Is it then any wonder why, when confronted by novels written in the nineteenth century or even those written in the first half of the twentieth century, they find them so daunting as not to even try and tackle them?

If you run through a readability calculator many of the kinds of books those teenagers that do read are reading, you will find what Jeanne Chall found: the further forward in time you go, the easier children’s novels and textbooks are to read. So, what’s the answer? It's very sad to have to say this but if pupils are already years behind their chronological ages by the time they enter secondary school, it’s probably too late, given the lack of expertise in and commitment to teaching pupils to read in many secondary schools. However, even pupils already doing well need pushing to make continual improvements in performance. Too often the velleities of secondary school expectation are to blame. Thus, all children entering secondary school should be screened for reading and teachers in every subject made aware of their pupils' abilities and made responsible for developing them. Textbooks of all kinds should be made progressively more challenging in terms of content, vocabulary and sentence complexity. Otherwise fewer and fewer children will be able to read a wide and challenging range of imaginative and informational texts.

* Quotations are taken from Chall, J. &Conard, S.S, Should Textbooks Challenge Students: The case for Easier or Harder Textbooks, (1991)

Friday, May 16, 2014

How valid is the phonics screening check?

The Journal of Research in Reading has just published an important and timely paper on the government’s phonics screening check ‘Validity and sensitivity of the phonics screening check: implications for practice’ (Duff, F.J., Mengoni, S. E., Bailey, A.M. and Snowling, M.J.
It asks two ‘critical ‘ questions: First, how well do scores on the screening check ‘correlate with reading skills measured by objective tests’? And, second, ‘is the check sensitive?’, which refers to how sensitive is the check is in detecting children ‘showing early signs of being at-risk of encountering a reading difficulty?’
The study involved eight primary schools in York and included 292 children. Aside from the screening check, an array of other tests was administered. These included school-based assessments, class spelling tests, individualised word reading, comprehension, nonword reading and phonological awareness tests.
So, how valid is the check? Does it measure what it claims to measure? The authors conclude that the check is ‘a highly valid measure of children’s phonics skills’. Moreover, the check ‘showed convergent validity by correlating strongly with other measures of phonics skills and with broader measures of reading’. The latter includes ‘single-word reading accuracy, prose reading accuracy and comprehension’. This should provide strong justification on the part of the government to introduce the check, though as Hans Eysenck once remarked, [i]deological thinking is not easily swayed by factual evidence’*.
The authors also agree with previous studies in concurring that ‘a rigorous assessment of phonics skill is important for early identification of children at risk of reading difficulties’, which they define here as ‘not yet attaining the phonics phase expected by the end of Year1 (i.e., not attaining phase 5)’.
An unexpected boon from the study was that there was ‘a slight tendency to overestimate the prevalence of at-risk readers (as compared with standardised tests of reading accuracy and fluency)’, which the authors, in my view rightly, contend to be ‘a favourable property for a screening instrument’.
Where the authors are more equivocal is around the issue of whether the check is necessary. Although they conclude that it is valid, they also suggest that, where teachers are well trained ‘in the teaching and assessment of phonics, their judgements are sufficient for the purpose’. They go further and add that ‘the use of resources to better equip teachers to conduct ongoing phonic assessments would be more cost-effective, not least because this would place them in the best position to intervene before reading difficulties set in’.
Although it is hard to disagree with the proposition that there wouldn’t be a need for a screening check if teachers were sufficiently well trained to monitor and assess children’s abilities and capabilities in regard to their phonics knowledge and understanding, the authors seem to be ignoring a number of important findings. As Jeanne Chall revealed in her seminal book Learning to Read: The Great Debate (1967), teachers have a strong tendency to be eclectic. They find it very difficult to abandon previous approaches, many elements of which can often be seen to run counter to the principles of a new programme. Neither do they easily relinquish their old pedagogical ideologies unless given training that provides a clear rational for what it is they do and the way in which they do it.
More recently, the NFER report ‘Phonics screening check evaluation: Research report’ (May 2014) bore this out. ‘Even amongst those who are strongly supportive of phonics,’ it reported that there ‘was a firm conviction that other strategies were of equal value and that phonics as a method of teaching reading was most successful when used in conjunction with other techniques’.
As was made clear by a number of respondents to the survey carried out by NFER, there is still a huge amount of confusion, particularly around the areas of decoding and comprehending, in the minds of many teachers. Indeed, one percipient teacher remarked, ‘I think the moment you start to use other methods, you aren’t actually doing synthetic phonics’.
Another rather conspicuous omission from the paper was any comment on the match-funding programme initiated by the government and the appalling disclosure that over 90% of allocated funding had been spent by schools on resources (meaning mainly books) and not on training.
Two things: why is it that so few research articles on the teaching of reading spelling ever quote from or comment on the work of Diane McGuinness? And, why is there such a disconnect between the practitioners out there in the field training teaching practitioners (nearly 12,000 alone in the case of Sounds-Write) and academic researchers in our universities? In case you’re listening out there, there is much better stuff out there than the insipid and meagre diet doled out to many children in the form of Letters and Sounds.

* Quoted from Robert Peal's Progressively Worse: The burden of bad ideas in British schools, p.62.