Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Statutory Spelling lists syllabified

As the government acknowledges in its document on spelling, throughout the whole of Key Stage 2, teachers 'should continue to emphasise to pupils the relationship between sounds and letters, even when the relationships are unusual'.

The word lists for Years 3 and 4 and for Years 5 and 6 are statutory and, again, in the government's words, they are 'a mixture of words pupils frequently use in their writing and those which they most often misspell... but the 100 words in each list can easily be taught within the four years of Key Stage 2 alongside other words that teachers might find appropriate'.

In the PDF document below, I have split each polysyllabic word in both lists into their constituent syllables, marked which syllable in each word is stressed and made the occasional note about sound-spelling  representations. 

I hope you find them useful :)

These lists will be posted on the Sounds-Write website as free downloadable PDFs.
Or, alternatively:

Friday, January 22, 2016

St George's Church of England Primary School: from crisis to calm

St George's - from crisis to calm is the story of a school that twelve years ago was failing, and failing so badly it was in special measures. What that failure meant was that a good number children moving on to secondary school were unequipped to cope with the demands of the secondary curriculum. A huge proportion of the children were classified as having special needs and they were failing in the two subjects most necessary to underpin any sort of quality education: maths and basic literacy.

Since that time, and with a considerable amount of hard work on the part of all the staff involved under the leadership of Ms Janet Hilary, a National Leader of Education, the school has been transformed into an oasis of learning and of calm. Situated in an area of ‘severe deprivation’ in the heart of London, the school now finds itself in the top 2% of schools in England and head teachers from all over the country are visiting to discover the secrets of its success. 

Recently, following in the footsteps of some Australian educators, two principals from Cedar Rapids in Iowa have been to see the key instructional influences that have been brought together to produce this success. The video above is the product of their visit. As one of the principals Joy Long recognises, this is what ‘no child left behind’ can really mean. Joy’s colleague Angie Hoyer really puts her finger on it when she tells us that what struck her was ‘the leadership and the focus on leadership’.

Although you will hear the words ‘joy’ and ‘outstanding’ being used in the video to describe what is taking place at the school today, the answer to its achievement lies not in fine words or overinflated rhetoric but in the programmes implemented to bring such a high degree of success.

As the current head Sarah Collymore makes clear, much of the previous lack of attainment and substandard behaviour was attributable to the poor quality of teaching in the classroom. To remedy this situation, Jan introduced a much tighter structure to the school because, for children, structure means safety and security, and a secure environment is one in which children flourish and learn.

Starting with what Jan calls ‘positive directives’ - ‘speak nicely, listen carefully, act kindly, move calmly’ - and because ‘language models in the home were very often so impoverished’, oral language was given a strong focus in teaching and learning. And, as we know, oral language is the foundation for the successful teaching of reading and writing.

Sarah also talks about how they had been searching for something that would help the school with early literacy and, although there are, as she says, lots of programmes out there, ‘none of them have the consistency of Sounds-Write’. By introducing a solid and consistent early literacy programme, the leadership team understood that a similarly rigorous approach needed to be applied across the curriculum.

Jan once explained to me that the foundation for everything that is done in the school depends on children being able to read and write, and that Sounds-Write has provided the answer to that most basic of needs. Theresa Plummer, the reading specialist at St George’s spells out just how important it is to get this right from the beginning: ‘If you haven’t caught them by the age of seven,’ she says, ‘the gap is too big to make up and you are playing catch up all the way through primary school.'

You can also see from deputy head Sam Limon’s comments, that this is a terrific learning environment in which everyone wants to improve, to learn and get better at teaching, and much of this comes from the fact that there is a huge emphasis on teacher development.

Many thanks to everyone involved in making the video and special thanks to Chuck Peters, who first conceived the idea and then made it happen.

Friday, January 15, 2016

What are the problems with Whole Language and why doesn't it work?

The allure of using Whole Language to teach children to read lies mainly in the fact that, as you'd expect, humans are heavily biased towards meaning and a whole word approach has an immediate appeal because, at the beginning, it seems so easy. On the other side of the methodological divide, learning how to recognise letter shapes as representations of sounds is hard work from the start even though it gets easier as learning progresses.

So, what is wrong with a Whole Language approach?

Well, firstly, whole word instruction isn’t generative! Each word has to be learned from someone who already knows that word. Thus, every unknown word constitutes potentially a barrier to meaning and understanding.

Secondly, and this follows on from the previous point, whole language is hugely time-consuming. Each new word requires oodles of practice and teachers need to provide multiple opportunities for practice, which is why books with a Whole Language orientation are filled with endless repetition of ‘key’ words. 

If on the other hand we teach children even a small number of sound-spelling correspondences and we get them to practise the skills of segmenting and blending, they can quickly read (and spell) dozens and dozens of words.

Here's an example of what I mean: if we teach children just 12 sound-spelling correspondences (< a >, < i >, < m >, < s >, < t >, < n >, < o >, < p >, < b >, < c >, < g > and < h >) and we teach them to segment and blend, they will be able to read and spell around 70+ words, as well as to be able to read and write sentences in which those words appear.

Thirdly, by demanding that pupils attend to whole words, there is no reason why they should give attention to the detail of words. In fact, research shows that children are likely to attend to the outer segments of words but not to the internal details. As there are so many words in the English language that look very similar, a Whole Language approach always makes children susceptible to mis-reading and mis-spelling even very common words. And this is exactly what we see in practice.

Finally, a Whole Language approach is very frustrating for children who simply cannot remember words as wholes from the start and anybody who teaches young children knows and can identify such pupils within weeks of them beginning school. However, it isn’t just such children who have trouble from the outset. In fact, pupils with lots of prior learning and very good visual memories are likely to be even more at risk in the long term because, inevitably, as they are required to learn more and more words, they begin to run out of visual memory and begin to guess wildly or to try and work out what words are from other, contextual clues, such as syntax, illustrations and discourse. Furthermore, once these bad habits have become ingrained, as with any habit that is practised, the longer it goes on, the harder it is to correct.

And all of this is compounded by teachers who haven’t been properly trained to teach the sensible and only alternative to Whole Language/Look and Say/Mixed methods.

So, I say again: train the teachers!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Bowie bows out

One particular news item reporting on the death of David Bowie harked back to an interview he did with Jeremy Paxman on BBC2’s Newsnight programme, which you can see here.

As probably everyone knows by now, Bowie changed his name from David Jones  early on his career but what was fascinating about his meeting with ‘Paxo’ was his admission that he wasn’t sure any more how the name should be pronounced.

Phonics aficionados are well aware that the spelling < ow > can be /oe/ as in ‘grow’ and it can also be /ow/ as in ‘cow’, which reminds me of the confusion people have/had over how to pronounce J.K. Rowling’s name. She prefers the /oe/ version, I believe.

It seems somewhat ironic that a spelling in his assumed stage name should anticipate the life of a performer whose roles could be read in so many ways.

In the interview, Bowie also acknowledged the Scottish version ‘Booie’, although he claimed that the provenance of the name derives from Davy Crockett’s old mate, the eponymous Jim Bowie, who died at The Alamo and popularised the famous ‘Bowie knife’.

Of course, this brings us back to the idea that many spellings in English can represent more than one sound. By and large, as fluent readers, we don't have a problem with this feature of the writing system unless we come across the name of a person (Here's a nice example) or a place name or even a less frequently encountered word we've never come across before. In cases like this, we simply ask someone who is already in the know or we consult a pronouncing dictionary.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

What a bad list!

I’ve just been looking at Cumbria County Council’s ‘Reading Intervention Resources’ and, frankly, I’m stunned. You would think that the Rose Review (2006), not to mention all the research that’s been done over the past thirty years, has passed by Cumbria County Council’s reading intervention team without them even noticing.

I remember Roland Barthes*, the French structuralist, once making the point that if you want to convince someone of the realism (believability) of a text, you need to make it as dense with detail as possible by packing it with factual information. This has the effect of masking the constructed nature of the text, its artificiality, if you like. In publishing the list of books they are recommending to, presumably, teachers and parents/carers, Cumbria have supplied precisely the density of detail I am talking about: the titles of hundreds of books. The very length of the catalogue masks the fact that the books you’ll find listed there are not graded for decodable difficulty but simply for the sheer amount of text on each page.

You might think this is a good thing and it certainly is if you know how and when to use such books but, and here’s the thing, you will have to look long and hard to find a reader that supports children learning to read in the early stages of their literacy tuition.

A good many of the books on the list include examples from the Oxford University Press’s Oxford Reading Tree series and these are entirely representative of many of the other educational publishers’ books. This is how they work:

  1. They contain lots of frequent repetition of words and phrases – a sure indicator  that the books are whole language base
  2. They rely far too much on memory
  3. The written text is presented alongside richly embellished illustrations, which are  designed to encourage the reader to guess
  4. No matter how short or long the text on each page, the words are not graded for  their sound-spelling correspondences, and so all the complexities of the English  alphabetic code are thrown at the reader from the start
  5. They are based on the assumption that children infer sound-spelling  correspondences for themselves - something directly contradicted by cognitive  psychologists
The truth is that these books differ hardly at all from the Janet and John, Dick and Dora, Peter and Jane books of what now seems a bygone era.

By contrast, how do decodable readers work?

  • They introduce text that is commensurate with the sound-spelling correspondences the child has already been taught.
  • The books ensure that the young reader doesn’t have to guess.
  • They also ensure that the reader gains regular practice in what they have just been taught.
  • They make the reader independent and self-confident.

To exemplify the points I am making, here is a sentence from the Oxford Reading Tree book ‘What a Bad Dog!, a Stage 2 book that would normally be given to a child in YR or Foundation Stage 2 (aged 4-5): ‘Floppy pulled the washing down.’ In order to read the sentence, this is what the child would have to know – 

F  l  o | pp  y    p  u  ll  ed    th  e    w  a | sh  i  ng    
d  ow  n

-       that the spelling < pp > represents the sound /p/ in ‘Floppy’

-       that the spelling < y > represents the sound /ee/ in ‘Floppy’

-       that the spelling < ll > represents the sound /l/ in ‘pulled’

-       that the spelling < ed > represents the sound /d/ in ‘pulled’

-       that the < th > in ‘the’ is a two-letter spelling for /th/ (voiced)

-       that the spelling < e > in ‘the’ is a schwa (weak vowel sound)

-       that the spelling < a > in ‘washing’ represents the sound /o/ - a common pattern in the language ('was', 'wasp', etc.) but not something a child in YR would be aware of yet

-       that < ng > for readers in many parts of the country represents one sound

-       And finally, that the spelling < ow > represents one sound, the sound /ow/.

For any young child being taught a quality phonics programme that starts with simple one-to-one sound to spelling correspondences, every single word in the example sentence is too difficult for the child to read independently. The child is thus forced to try  to memorise the words and, for many children, this, even in itself, will prove an insurmountable task. For an overview of the strategies employed by a Whole Language approach, Susan Godsland's wonderfully informative website has more information here.

On the other hand, if a child who has been taught many of the one-to-one correspondences is presented with the sentence, ‘A big red pig ran in wet mud’, it is easy to see how a child would have success.

Decodable readers build on the complexity of text in a way that is commensurate with what the child is being taught formally and this gives the child a chance to practise the skills of segmenting and blending and to recycle the code knowledge already covered before they go on to learn new and more complex elements of the code.

I can’t see very many books in the Cumbrian list that are likely to have the kind of orientation I am talking about and that will promote fluency and confidence. Indeed, you only have to look at the titles of most of the books to be able to see this.

Does this mean that the books on the list don’t have a place in teaching children to read? Not at all! In fact, as soon as children have been taught a good bit of the code, these books will serve to provide opportunities for promoting fluency and for recycling the code knowledge they have, at an earlier stage in their literacy tuition, been taught.

So, it's not the list per se that I object to: it's the undiscriminating way in which it has been presented and the lack of knowledge and understanding on the part of those who published it. The trouble is that, without proper training, teachers (and compilers of lists such as the Cumbrian model) often fail to appreciate how important decodable readers are in the beginning stages of children's learning to read and spell.

*Luk√°cs also made a similar point in his The Historical Novel.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The whys and hows of using non-words.

Ever since the Phonics Screening Check was introduced, an argument has raged around the introduction of non-words as a means by which to test the literacy of children in Y1 (aged five to six years).

Sounds-Write has been using non-words in an activity/game called Nonsense Word Sound Swap for many years. The activity involves asking a pupil to read a nonsense word by saying the sounds in the word, in other words segmenting the sounds, and then reading the word, blending the sounds. The pupil is then asked to change the word to another word and this move involves changing a single sound. Having accomplished this, the pupil again segments the word and then blends the sounds to form the new word. Here is an example: grop -> glop -> gop -> op -> nop -> snop. [Of course, the non-words must contain sounds that go together in English.]

The activity provides terrific practice in the skills of segmenting and phoneme manipulation, both of which correlate very highly to learning to read. Notice too that the aim here is NOT to teach non-words to children but to improve their skills. Because many teachers have never had any proper training, they often don’t know the difference and seem to believe that they should be teaching lots of non-words. This is crazy! If pupils have learned sound-spelling correspondences and they have learned the skills of segmenting, blending and phoneme manipulation to mastery level, they can read any non-word anyway.

Sounds-Write has been showing teachers how to teach this activity for at least eleven years before the PSC was even a glimmer in Michael Gove’s eye and there are very good reasons why the activity is useful.

First and most importantly, the pupil has never seen these words before and therefore can’t rely on having already read them. This means that the pupil has to use the skills of segmenting and blending, neither of which are taught particularly robustly in Letters and Sounds. And, as an added bonus, the activity also recycles sound-spelling correspondences.

Second, the activity prepares pupil in the early stages of learning to read to cope with the fact that many spellings in English represent more than one sound.  For example < ea > can be /ee/ in ‘seat’, /e/ in ‘head’ and /ae/ in ‘steak’. Thus, if a pupil reads the sentence, ‘Last night I had a tasty steak’ and reads the word ‘steak’ as ‘steek’ or as ‘stek’, they can instantly substitute either of these with the sound /ae/ and arrive at ‘steak’. Of course, they will have had to have already been taught that < ea > can be /ee/, /e/ and/or /ae/ in the first place.

Another reason for using this game is that it prepares pupils for reading nonsense syllables in long, unfamiliar polysyllabic words. For example, in the word ‘petrochemical’, the syllables ‘pe’, ‘tro’, ‘che’ ‘mi’, ‘cal’ are all, as separate entities, nonsense syllables. My point is that, if we are going to provide pupils with the tools to be able to decode and encode any word, no matter how long and complex, we need to teach them how polysyllabic words are structured and how to decode and encode all the way through the word.

Finally, the use of non-words in the way outlined above encourages pupils to decode all the way through a word from start to finish without trying to guess and this prepares them for reading real words that they have never come across before.

Thanks to for images.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Hunt for word-combining elements

If you are watching the latest David Attenborough series, ‘The Hunt’, you’re probably being reminded of the kinds of terminology we rarely come across in everyday, spoken communication. Words like ‘megaherbivore’ and ‘biogeodiversity’ keep popping up, both of which, as I type, my spellchecker doesn’t want to recognise and is complaining about.

Many of the kinds of textual discourse used across subject domains contain words such as these and, very often, they are comprised of bound morphemes put together to create new, longer words.

Many prefixes and suffixes are derivational morphemes. They are used to form different words in English. At a very simple level, ‘happy’ and ‘unhappy’ have different meanings, the function here of ‘un-‘ being to express converse meaning. They also serve to change word classes: for example, the bound morpheme ‘er’ can change many verb forms to noun forms (‘swim’ - ‘swimmer’).

From the perspective of teaching learners to read and spell, is it worth entering the territory of morphology to teach how affixes are structured? As you’ve probably guessed – otherwise why would I be writing this post? – the endeavour is well worth the trouble. Through the medium of bound morphemes, learners can learn a huge amount about decoding, about meaning and about derivation, all of which are interrelated and bound up together.

Let’s take but a simple example. When I was a boy, like many children of a certain age, I was fascinated by the world in the past and, as part of that, I was particularly interested in dinosaurs. One that especially captivated me was the archaeopteryx. This creature, looking to all intents and purposes like a bird, also had teeth, which was why it looked so odd in the representations of it I had in my encyclopaedia.

‘Archaeo-‘ is a prefix, or in the jargon of the trade, a word-combining element, derived from Greek ‘arche’, meaning ‘beginning, origin’. ‘Ptero’ is also a word-combining element, derived from Greek ‘ptero(n)’, meaning ‘feather, wing’. By putting the two together, you get something like ‘origin of the wing/feather’, or in other words, an ancient bird, one of the first examples of a bird-like creature. At the same time, from an intellectual point of view, we have taught two useful prefixes and their meanings enabling learners to combine them with other words: ‘archaeology’, or ‘pterodactyl’, for example.

At the same time as providing us with meaning, these prefixes can be analysed systemically to reveal how they work in regard to sounds and spellings. Taking ‘archaeo’ to begin with, we have a three-syllable prefix: /ar/ | /k/ /ee/ | /o/: ‘ar’, ‘kee’, ‘o’. For KS2, 3 and 4 pupils, being introduced to the idea that the spelling < ch > represents the sound /k/ and the spelling < ae > represents the sound /ee/ in words derived from Greek is knowledge that can be generalised across the whole domain of reading and writing. You only have to bring to mind words like ‘mechanic’, ‘chemist’, and then ‘aeon’, ‘aesthetic’ to see the usefulness of paying some attention to this kind of knowledge.

Although these bound morphemes can be taught formally, teaching them doesn’t have to be turned into a formal routine; it sits very happily within the teaching that is taking place in the round. And, furthermore, for that reason, will engage and excite pupils, who then often start to notice instances of these bound morphemes in other words.

This afternoon, I gave my fourteen-year-old pupil a sheet from the information pack sent out by the BBC to supplement ‘The Hunt’. The reading is by no means easy and we had lots of worthwhile discussion about how finely connected is the web of biodiversity on the African plains.

He read words like ‘herbivore’ and ‘carnivore’ with aplomb and I was able to elicit that ‘carne’, from the Latin, means ‘meat’ or ‘flesh’ and that ‘herb(a)’ is derived from Latin for ‘plant’, ‘weed’, or ‘flowering plant’. What he wasn’t sure about was the ‘-vore’ element. He guessed, correctly, ‘eat’ and I was able to confirm that ‘vore’ does indeed derive from ‘vorare’ meaning ‘to swallow, eat up’, hence ‘devour’ and ‘voracious’ in English.

Nevertheless, and the point needs to be made, none of this could be achieved unless he could decode: thus /h/ /er/ | /b/ /i/ | /v/ /ore/. Only by saying or sub-vocalising the sounds to build syllables and then combining the syllables to create meaningful words can we then begin to talk about the meaningful semantic and grammatical elements that combine together to form the word.

For this boy, the mental effort of decoding complex text, often containing sound-spelling correspondences that are infrequently encountered, meant that having read and discussed three or four paragraphs of the text in question at length, we had to go back and re-read to improve the boy’s fluency and enable an integrated understanding of the text as a whole.