Tuesday, August 02, 2016

A good time to start using letter names

Here’s another one I heard in the classroom recently. A teacher was teaching her children the sound /ow/, as in ‘cow’, and a member of the class came up to the whiteboard to write the word. After the child had written the first spelling and said the sound, the teacher told the child to write the sound /ow/, adding that it was the /o/ (as in ‘hot’) /w/ (as in ‘win’) spelling!

This is not a good idea because it is likely to be confusing to young children whose understanding of the code is still burgeoning. You cannot get /ow/ from the sounds /o/ and /w/. What the teacher should have said is, "This," pointing to the [ ow ] spelling, "is /ow/. It's two letters but it's one sound. Say /ow/ as you write it."

So how did this misunderstanding on the teacher's part come about? Well, anyone who knows pretty much anything about Sounds-Write will know that we do not teach letter names to beginning readers. The teacher, being unsure about whether she could use letter names at this point reverted to the above and this isn't the only example I've seen of teachers saying this kind of thing. The question then is: when is it a good time to start using letter names?

Once learners understand that spellings, comprised of one, two, three or four letters, are symbols for sounds, i.e. they know that the spelling system is a code for the sounds in speech, then letter names are an extremely useful short-cut. When a pupil asks how to spell the /ee/ sound in ‘seat’, the teacher no longer has to write the [ ea ] spelling in the pupil’s spelling book/on a whiteboard, they can simply say, “It’s the ‘ee’ ‘ay’ spelling.” Better still is, once having taught different ways of spelling, say, the sound /ee/, you could have an /ee/ poster on the wall of the classroom, which has on it the spellings of /ee/ you’ve already taught in the context of words, such as ‘deep’, ‘steam’, ‘happy’, ‘she’. And when a pupil asks how to spell the /ee/ in 'seat', you can point to the poster and say, “It’s the same one as in ‘steam’.” Again, it encourages children to be analytical and to think about the particular spelling in a particular word that they might not be sure about or that they simply don't know. 

This approach is one that can be used with learners/writers of any age.  Moving the level of difficulty on, suppose you are teaching the topic ‘the Egyptians’ and you are talking about archaeology. If a pupil asks you to spell it, throw it back to them by saying, “What’s the difficult bit in this word for you to spell?’ If the pupil says, “It’s the /ee/ sound,” you simply reply, “It’s the ‘ay’ ‘ee’ spelling.” That’s it! And you could even add it as another example of the different ways of spelling /ee/ to your poster on the wall.

Monday, August 01, 2016

'Curly c' and 'kicking k' or 'This spelling of /k/'?

Very often I hear teachers talking about "curly ‘kuh’" and "kicking ‘kuh" to register the difference between the spellings [ c ] and [ k ], representing the sound /k/.


Why don’t we use this language in Sounds-Write? The answer is simple. If instead we talk about "This kind of /k/,” or “This spelling of /k/” and then model it on a whiteboard or in the air, we are already orienting our learners towards the idea that sounds can be spelled in more than one way. Moreover, this is a concept that we will shortly be using a lot. For example, we shall be introducing different spellings of the sound /ae/, /ee/, etc.


If we teach explicitly that sounds in the English language can be spelled in more than one way (not a difficult concept to understand) when it is very easy to teach, young learners will already be thoroughly familiar with it by the time we have to teach different spellings of /ae/ and /ee/.


So, when a child is writing and wants to know how to spell, say, ‘kit’, we ask them first, “What’s the difficult bit for you in this word?” Invariably, the answer will be “The /k/.” and we then model the spelling and say, “This is the way we spell /k/ in ‘kit’.” The effect of this is two-fold: first, it makes the pupil aware of what is problematical in any specific word and encourages them to be more analytical about their own practice; and, second, it provides the correct spelling. 

The technique can be used for any spelling a pupil is unsure of in any word.

Thanks for the cartoon image go to Fernando. Muchas gracias!

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Graphemes and phonemes, or how NOT to teach reading and spelling

Although I’ve written about the differences between linguistic and traditional (graphemic) phonics a number of times to date, I’m often being asked for further clarification. This I am more than happy to give because it's in the detail of what we do at Sounds-Write that makes it so effective. So, how do the two orientations differ from one another? Let me count the ways!

Here, adapted from Diane McGuiness*, is a classic example of ‘graphemic’ practice from a generic phonics programme, whose name I’ve invented, called Graphemes and Phonemes. As the name of the programme implies, G and P presents from letters to sounds, what McGuinness describes as an 'entirely visual logic'. In other words, it does not make explicit from the start that the finite number of sounds in our speech are represented in print by spellings of those sounds.

In week 2 of G and P, the letter [ c ] is introduced. This, the children are told is the letter ‘see’ and the letter ‘see’ ‘says’ (or 'makes') the sound ‘kuh’. We'll leave aside the fact that now young children have several things to remember: the visual symbol on which they are focused, the letter name, and the imprecisely rendered ‘kuh’ (two sounds, not one!). Some teachers will also link the spelling to a character and/or an action, making yet more things to learn and remember - a serious case of cognitive overload for young children. There are several things in this kind of practice that could easily confuse a young child. The first is what they are to focus on? Is it the letter name or the sound, or both? Is the addition of a character (a snake for /s/, for instance) or an action (weaving your hand like a snake) likely to help, or are these yet more things to hold in the working memory of a young child?

Even if the letter [ c ] is presented on its own without introducing the letter name and the teacher starts to say /k/ /k/ /k/, the sound-spelling corespondence is being taught out of context and, in that sense, the sound /k/ has no meaning. Doing this for all the letters of the alphabet and then expecting young children to remember the associations is extremely hard for them.

You might at this point object that not all teachers say sounds imprecisely. In fact, I readily concede that if there has been one singular improvement in the nearly fourteen years we have been running Sounds-Write trainings, it’s that our participants are much more likely to be aware that saying sounds accurately is very important. Fair enough! You might also object that not all programmes include characters or actions to go with sounds. Fine!

What you do have is teachers telling children that letters ‘make’ or ‘say’ sounds. They don’t! And I’ve explained why here and here. But let’s explore this further in the context of how things progress. Having been taught [ c ], the children might be asked to bring in some item from home that has a ‘kuh’ in it and they’ll turn up with a car, a cup, a picture of a cat and/or a caterpillar, and so on. That's if they don't bring a koala or a picture of some games kit!

A few weeks later, the class is introduced to the letter [ k ] and told that it's the letter ‘kay’ and that ‘kay’ says ‘kuh’. So now we have two letters, ‘see’ and ‘kay’, and they both 'say' ‘kuh’, or /k/ if the teacher is articulating the sound precisely. Remember that these children are four years old and there is huge potential for getting confused. Do they try and use sounds or letter names or both? In the child's mind, do the sounds these letter names 'make' change? Is the sound /k/ that ‘see’ is ‘making’ different from the one ‘kay’ is ‘making’? Although the idea that the sound /k/ can be spelt in different ways may be obvious to an adult, it will probably be far from obvious to a young child.

There is also the issue that highly acoustically perceptive children will notice that the sound /k/ will differ very slightly depending on where the sound happens to appear in a word. The /k/ at the beginning of a word is likely to differ slightly to the /k/ in the middle or at the end of a word, and this may further confuse the issue.

So now, the programme moves on a bit more and a few more weeks later the teacher introduces [ ck ], almost certainly without making explicit that the spelling is two letters but that it is one sound. ‘These’, too, the children are told ‘make’ the sound /k/.

By this time, many children will be completely baffled and probably assume that they have misheard or misunderstood what is being taught. Bear in mind also that some programmes will be teaching these letters out of context as paired associate learning, something adults as well as young children find difficult to do.

What should happen? Sound-spelling correspondences should be taught in the context of words, initially through word building exercises as I explain here, and not through the teaching of letters in isolation. Presenting sound-spelling correspondences in this way makes it psychologically ‘real’ to children – the sounds in speech are represented by spellings. Once word building has been completed, the children write the word. This process quickly builds up to hundreds upon hundreds of words, beginning first as isolated words but then quickly building into sentences and then whole texts. The simple one-to-one sound-spelling correspondences should be taught first, giving children the opportunity to practise the vital skills of segmenting, blending and phoneme manipulation to mastery level before embarking on teaching the greater complexities of the code. Children who can blend and segment with aplomb do not read words like 'strom' as 'storm'!

When spelling alternatives for a sound are taught, the teacher should be making the point explicitly through practical activity that makes crystal clear how the code works: "This [ c ] is the way we spell /k/ in this word. Later, I'm going to show you some other ways of spellings the sound /k/." A few weeks afterwards, we can introduce the spelling [ k ] and say, "In this word, we spell /k/ like this [ k ]. Now we have two ways of spelling the sound /k/!" and so on. As long as instruction is grounded in the 44 sounds of the language, adding more alternatives, such as [ ck ] ('stick'), [ ch ] (‘chemist’), or [ qu ] (‘mosquito’), is then much easier to do later as children’s ability improves with practice. We can also expand on the idea that we can spell sounds with one letter by introducing two-letter spellings, such as [ ck ], by saying "This," pointing to the [ ck ], "is two letters but it's one sound."

Children can’t be expected to learn what is a highly complex (opaque) code if they are not presented with a programme that is taught explicitly, systematically, and from simple to more complex:
  • sounds are spelled one at a time from left to right across the page
  • a spelling can contain one, two, three or four letters
  • we spell sounds in more than one way and teach over time the different ways of spellings all the sounds
  • most spellings can represent more than one sound.
None of these ideas is difficult to teach if presented carefully and from simple to more complex.

*McGuinness, D., (2004), Early Reading Instruction, MIT Press, (page 42).

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Phonics across the curriculum

Three weeks ago, the government released the threshold mark for the Phonics Screening Check. The check was implemented by the government because it provides a quick and cost effective way of determining whether teachers are teaching phonics effectively. This is because top quality phonics instruction, taught to young children from the moment they enter school, is the surest way to give them access to the written word in all its manifestations. 

Whole word/Look and Say approaches to teaching reading are extremely poor by comparison with phonic approaches because they are not generative. With Whole word/Look and Say, every word has to be learned from somebody else. As a corollary of this, a Whole Word 'approach', if you can call it that, is enormously time-consuming, each word having to be learned and then practised over and over again, very often without success.

In contrast to whole language, phonics is extraordinarily generative: the moment a pupil has been taught but a dozen sound-spelling correspondences and they’ve been taught to segment and blend, they are able not only to read but also to spell many dozens of words.
And, the check works. See this post from Andrew Old’s ‘Scenes From The Battleground: Teaching In British Schools’, which shows, as Andrew makes clear, that 'the differences between those who passed first time, those who passed second time and those who didn’t pass are striking'.

Ten years ago, at the end of a three year pilot, we tested fifty pupils from St Thomas Aquinas CPS in Bletchley. You can view the table of results here. What is immediately obvious is that all the pupils in the study, taught using a quality, sound-to-print phonics programme, were not only able to spell to a remarkably high level but that their spelling age bore a conspicuously close relation to their reading and writing SATs results.

Of course, when this study was conducted, there was no Phonics Screening Check. This time round, we are going to try and follow a number of schools who have reported to ustheir Phonics Screening Check results by asking them to use Dennis Young’s Parallel Spelling Test at the end of Y1 and Y2. At the end of KS1, bringing together the results of the PSC, the Parallel Spelling Test and the reading and writing SATs scores should be very interesting and I would fully expect all three to correlate very strongly. For an insight into the shape of things to come, you can see at St George's CEPS (100% in the PSC in 20115 and 2016) how well the results of the Check correlate with the spelling test here.

However, all of this this doesn’t answer the complaint that the phonics deniers make when they claim that phonics doesn’t impact SATs 2. There is some truth in this but not for the reasons they assert. As I have pointed out before, and as the DfE acknowledge, huge numbers of teachers are not teaching phonics as it should be taught, but are mixing phonics up with a variety of strategies that actually run counter to teaching reading accurately. Principal among these is the maladaptive strategy of encouraging pupils to guess.

Unfortunately, the catchphrase ‘phonics fast and first’ was only partially correct. The ‘first’ bit was right; the ‘fast’ bit wasn’t. This might perhaps sound a bit contradictory coming from someone who is pointing to the kind of results obtained from schools such as St Thomas Aquinas, where 80% of pupils whose average age was still only 7:4 yet were scoring spelling ages of 8:0 and above. The hard truth is what pitifully few people seem to understand: the English orthographic code is complex to the degree that even into Key Stage 2, pupils need plenty of deliberate practice and explicit instruction. To read, never mind, spell words from the government’s recommended list, such as ‘mischievous’, ‘pronunciation’, ‘rhythm’ and ‘sufficient’, phonics is key. Children hot-housed for a few months in a desperate attempt to get them through the Screening Check never to do any phonics again are going to fall back on whole word memorisation and guessing to the detriment of their education and the chronic, long tail of underachievement will go on.

If we want our children to be literate enough to read for pleasure – something that can’t be done unless decoding skills are automatic – and to enable them to read words from the domains of science, mathematics, history, geography, and so on, we must be prepared to train our teachers to teach the most important thing pupils will ever learn: the ability to read and write proficiently. It has been done and it can be done. Parents and teachers themselves should demand nothing less.


Wednesday, July 13, 2016

'Tying thine ear to no tongue but thine own' (Henry IV, Pt I)

A subject I keep coming back to is the ‘nature’ of the English writing system. I keep doing this because lack of understanding of how the sounds of the English language relate to the spelling system causes so many, (particularly) academics, to arrive at the most absurd and reactionary conclusions about how to teach it. And there can be no doubt that this has serious consequences for young learners.

The main culprits responsible for misdirecting teachers and, indeed, the public at large, are university academics. Almost every one of them is stuck in a conception of what phonics teaching is about that it is outdated and inefficient. As they sit in their ivory towers poring over more academic research that ‘validates’ their own thinking, they never set forth to test rigorously and over time the correctness of their theories in the classrooms of the English-speaking world. And yet they pontificate and pour scorn on anyone who has the temerity to challenge their view of the world.


That view of the world, clung to so tenaciously, is wrong, and it is wrong because it starts from a narrow and introspective view of what reading is about in the first place. As teachers of reading and spelling, let me state what our orientation should be. It should be from sound to print, an approach airily dismissed by Tom Nicholson, a New Zealand academic. Why it is sound to print is because a writing system represents the sounds of the language (Daniels and Bright, 1996) and this is no less true for the most complex of the alphabetic systems: English.

As professor Helen Abadzi (University of Texas) has remarked, the only constant in the spelling system is the sounds of the language. This is the ‘real’ basis for the alphabetic code and it is the sounds that ‘drive’ the code. The combinations of letters we call spellings are arbitrary symbols for those sounds.

Sounds, as I am constantly reminding trainees on our courses, are acquired naturally. They don’t need to be taught in school. On the other hand, a writing system is an invention and must be taught. As Peter Daniels has written, ‘no infant illiterate absorbs its script along with its language: writing must be studied’.

The question is: how? For a code to be reversible, it must be taught using the correct logic and in the right direction, i.e. from sound to print. A sound to print orientation enables the teacher to ground the teaching of phonics in the forty-four (or so) sounds of the language. If children are made aware that phonemes are the specific sound units on which the writing system is based, then they have a logic on which a schema can be built. 

Starting with mutually implied sound to spelling correspondences, which are easy to learn, and which approach most clearly resembles a transparent orthography, such as Spanish, the complexities can then follow. The process begins slowly at first and then with increasing speed and accuracy over time to teach all the 175 or so common spellings of the forty-four sounds in the language.

Of course, learning the 175 spellings of the sounds takes time and patience: at least the first three years of schooling, after which knowledge, skills and understanding should be further developed through the greater complexities of more abstract, more technical, less frequently encountered spellings in genre-specific, polysyllabic words.

On the contrary, if, as the vast majority of academics believe, the code is taught from print to sound, from 175 spellings to several hundred ‘sounds’, the process collapses into chaos and into the absurd explanations, such as ‘silent letters’, ‘magic’ letters, ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sounds, that graphemic phonics has to fabricate to try and make sense of it.

As anyone who reads this blog regularly will recognise: the posts are often polemical. And I make no apology for saying that the problem we have with the teaching of reading and spelling in UK, Australia, the USA, Canada, New Zealand, and so on, is that many academics seem to be mentally confined ‘within the “small circumscribed world” of their field of specialization’ (M. T. Clanchy, 2013). There is a disconnect between the theory and practice being developed by the practitioners of the new phonics and the untested theory of the academics and researchers.

Academics! You need to get out more often!

M. T. Clanchy, (2013), From Memory to Written Record, Wiley-Blackwell.


Daniels, P. T. and Bright, W., (1996), The World’s Writing Systems, Oxford

Monday, July 11, 2016

Phonics Screening Check - results from seven Sounds-Write schools

Sounds-Write would like to pay tribute to all the schools, wherever they are, who managed to achieve over 90% of children passing the Phonics Screening Check threshold of 32/40.

I am particularly proud of the following Sounds-Write schools that have sent their results to us to make public. Well done to:

St George’s Church of England Primary School, Wandsworth

Once again this year, 100% of pupils crossed the threshold.
Of the 30 children in Y1, 16 children (53%) are Pupil Premium children; 8 children (27%) children are identified as requiring SEN support, 3 of which are Pupil Premium children.

The Academy of Woodlands Gillingham

95% of 62 Year 1 children reached or exceeded the threshold of 32 and 100% of those from Year 2 who didn’t reach the threshold last year did so this year.

In 2016, two of the three children in Y1 who didn't reach the 32 threshold came to the school Christmas this academic year. One of them had completely missed nursery and YR. In the case of one of the pupils who entered in Y1, it was the child's first time in a school and the child still got 16/40. The other arrived with severe emotional and behavioural problems and was starting from scratch. That pupil got 23/40. The third is a child with learning delays but who still scored 28/40.

Of the 62 children in Year 1, 16 are Pupil Premium and 9 are EAL.

Greenbank Primary School

97% of Year 1 children reached or exceeded the threshold of 32 in the Phonics check.
Here is a summary of the results.
All Pupils
Scoring 32 and above 58/60 children 96.7%    (This was also the same for scoring 33+)
34     57/60   95%
35     53/60   88%
36+  50/60    83%
40    13/60    22%

SEN: 6/6 scored 33 and above; Pupil Premium: 11/11 scored 36 and above; EAL   26/28 scored 32 and above.


Previous Results: 2013  61%; 2014  84%; 2015  77%.

St Thomas Aquinas RC Primary School

Of the 60 children taking the PSC, 57 reached or exceeded the threshold mark of 32.
Of the three who didn’t, one is SEN, one is Pupil Premium, and one has special medical needs.

Bozeat Community Primary School

100% of children passed the check. This is an amazing achievement for the school and for the new head teacher Ms Gujit Virk because last year only 44% of pupils passed the check.
What is also interesting about this year’s Y1 is that every single pupil also scored above their chronological age on the Young’s Parallel Spelling Test.

Stop Press: On a Sounds-Write course in Durham last week, participants from two schools also reported that 100% of their pupils had also crossed the government's threshold mark of 32. They were: Cockfield Primary School in Bishop Auckland and St Michael's Church of England Primary School in Bishop Middleham. Well done to them, too!


Would any other Sounds-Write schools who would like to share their achievements please get in touch with us.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Castles in the air

This morning, I'm posting a reply I made to this post on Read Oxford. It’s by Anne Castles, a professor at Macquarie University in Australia and it’s yet another egregious
example of how professors responsible for teaching teachers how to teach literacy come unstuck: they are so rooted in graphemic phonics approaches, they can’t see that we need to teach from sound to print and not from print to sound. You’ll probably need to read the post before you read the reply.

In her blog, Anne Castles asks the question 'Are sight words unjustly slighted’? Here’s the answer, Anne: No! And here’s why:

I will say at the outset that there are so many ideas and assertions in this blog post that simply cannot be justified, it’s difficult to know where to begin. I won’t, therefore, try and deal with them all, only two or three.

Firstly, I would question the mantra of ‘phonics first and phonics fast’. It’s only half correct. ‘Phonics first and only’ should be the mantra; ‘fast’ is not possible because the English alphabet code is highly complex. It takes about three years for most children to learn the (roughly) 175 common spellings of the 44 or so sounds in English. It then takes a further four years of exposure and explicit teaching for the 50% of children who are likely to need this kind of explicit teaching if they are to become properly literate and to cope with secondary education (11-18 years). After that, we are further refining and building our understanding and knowledge of the code for the rest of our lives, especially when dealing with new ways of spelling sounds (e.g. the < bh > and < dh > spelling s that have come into the language through Indian English.

My second point of disagreement is the implied acceptance by Castles of Coltheart et al’s contention that reading is a dual-route process. The idea that there need to be separate processes is not supported by plenty of other research (see McGuinness, D., Beginning Reading Instruction for chapter and verse). But let’s take the examples Castles cites of ‘sail’ and ‘sale’ and claims ‘we would not be able to distinguish the two by sounding them out’. Why not? The first thing you need to be able to do is precisely to ‘sound them out’. As they are being decoded, the brain is searching the mental lexicon for meaning. Why wouldn't the two processes take place simultaneously as the word is being decoded? The two homonyms do sound the same – when you’ve decoded them – but the sound /ae/ in the words is spelled differently. If children are taught to segment and blend sounds in words to automaticity and they are taught that < ai > and the split spelling < a-e > represent the sound /ae/, they get to ‘sail’ or ‘sale’ without trouble.  At this point, context does the rest.

Chomsky once implied that the English spelling system was well suited to the language partly because of this feature: there are thousands of homonyms in English and spelling sounds in different ways is one means by which they are ‘distinguished’. Teaching children the different ways of spelling sounds is also generative; teaching individual words, one at a time, is very, very time consuming, it is not generative and many children can’t do it (paired associate learning!). So, the way we answer Castles’s dilemma is to teach all the common ways of spelling the sounds in English over the first three years in school.

Next, and central to Castles’s argument, is her assertion that ‘phonological decoding... doesn’t always produce the right pronunciation’. Ah, the rock on which so many professors founder! In support, she offers us the words ‘the’, ‘I’, ‘said’ and ‘come’. Again, I ask why? The < e > in ‘the’ is a schwa. If a child is reading, they say /th/ /e/ or /th/ /ee/ and then normalise it. If they are writing, they need to be taught how and when schwas are likely to be a problem and how to overcome the problem. The professor obviously has no idea. I taught my five-year-old grandson how to deal with schwas and he then proceeded to read lots of words on the London tube and to tell me where the schwas occurred! It then took me about five minutes to teach him how to spell them - using a spelling voice when he is writing. Now here’s the thing: if you also teach children that many spellings can represent different sounds in the language and teach them which sounds they represent in a coherent and structured system, the problem evaporates. If you don’t believe that children can understand this idea, draw a circle and ask any four or five-year-old what it can be. They’ll tell you that it can be a circle, a moon, a pizza, a ball... If the spelling < o > can be /o/ in ‘hot’, it can also be /oe/ in ‘go’, /oo/ in ‘to’, or /u/ in ‘come’. The difficulty comes in teaching exactly which sounds it can be. So, the spelling < I > can be /i/. It can also be /ie/ as in ‘tie’. In ‘come’, the spelling < o > (for historical reasons) is spelled < o > and consonant plus < e > is a common way of spelling many sounds at the ends of words (sleeve, some, borne, engine, gauche, route – I could go on.).

And I could go on! Teaching ‘sight words’ is very dangerous because most teachers are not taught to teach phonics properly. Learning to teach phonics properly enables a teacher to dispense with all the nonsense of ‘silent letters’, ‘magic e’, ‘sight words’, ‘hard sounds and soft sounds’ and so on. Our orientation should be to teach from sound to print and NOT print to sound, to teach the essential skills, to teach children to understand how the code works, and to teach all the common sound-spelling correspondences (for starters).

If you teach phonics as it should be taught, even though it’s a complex business, you’ll never need to teach all these so-called ‘sight words’. And herein lies the danger: when teachers don’t understand the code, everything quickly becomes an excuse to teach ’sight words’, as well as all the 'cute' little tricks that don't work, and teachers quickly fall back into teaching Whole Language/Look and Say.

The real problem lies with the professoriate, many of whom also have no idea about how to teach children to read and spell and, furthermore, don’t actually get into a classroom and do it. It’s in the classroom that ideas such as teaching children lots of ‘sight words’ are put to the sword.