Thursday, December 11, 2014

Why the Chair of the English Spelling Society doesn't understand the English orthographic code

As Charles Perfetti wrote in his article ‘The Universal Grammar of Reading’ (Scientific Studies of Reading, 7:1, 3-34) in 2009, ‘examples of the variability of English spelling-pronunciation mappings are stock-in-trade for some opponents of phonics teaching, as well as the traditional call to arms for spelling reformers. The parallel is quite superficial, however, because although letters can have variable mappings, the mappings they have are systematic and constrained’. Stephen Linstead's piece 'English spellings don't match the sounds they are supposed to represent. It's time to change' in today's Guardian is just such a call to arms and just as incorrect as Perfetti implies.

It is true that the many influences on English have left us with a much more complex alphabet code than, say Spanish, or Italian. This doesn’t mean it can’t be taught or that, taught correctly, it can’t be learned. Stephen Linstead’s examples are clearly intended to bamboozle us into believing that there is a need for spelling reform. He gives us the spelling ou, which can represent the sound /u/ in ‘southern’ and /oo/, as in ‘soup’. At first sight, this fact about the way English orthography works seems to prove his point. In fact, a closer look at these examples reveals them to be very straightforward indeed. The truth is that if you are a proficient reader, you probably wouldn’t even notice that ou can represent two sounds: you would simply have read ‘southern’ and ‘soup’ automatically.

Of course, presenting what appears at first sight to be the sheer randomness of the spelling system to someone about to embark on the journey of becoming fully literate is another matter. Let’s see what a beginning reader needs to learn to be able to read proficiently:
First, the learner needs to understand explicitly that spellings represent the sounds in our language, in all its varieties. There is no doubt at all about this. All experts on writing systems are of one mind: the spelling system in English was invented to represent the sounds of the language. Young children, therefore, need to be taught that the squiggles on the page stand for the sounds in their speech. Is it a difficult concept to understand? Not at all! Even young children of pre-school age understand the idea that something can stand for something else, otherwise we wouldn’t see them engaging in symbolic play. The idea that the squiggles on the page stand for the sounds in speech also makes perfect sense from a psychological point of view - Oh! That's what this is all about!
Second, the learner must be taught that sounds can be spelt with one letter (‘m a t’), two letters (‘ship’), three letters (‘night’) or four (‘eight’) letters. Is this too complicated to learn? Not a bit, because if you show children a square and then a triangle and then put the triangle on top of the square, they’ll tell you it’s a house! We combine arbitrary symbols to form other symbols all the time.
Then, there is the fact that all the sounds in English can be spelt in different ways, e.g. the sound /oe/ in ‘go’ can be spelt oe (‘toe’), o-e (‘home’), ow (‘grow’), o (‘go’) ou  (‘mould’) and ough (‘dough’).  Again, if children can understand that such and such is a daisy, such and such a dandelion and such and such is a rose and you ask a child what they are all have in common, they’ll tell you they are flowers.
Finally, many spellings represent more than one sound, so that ou can be /u/ in ‘southern’ as well as /oo/ in ‘soup. The last concept, which Stephen Linstead finds so very hard to get to grips with, is that a symbol (many spellings) can represent more than one thing. Present any child with a circle and ask them what it can be. They’ll quickly tell you that it can be a moon, a sun, an orange, a pizza. However, as Perfetti points outs in his article, spellings can't represent anything: 'the mappings they have are systematic and constrained'. Of course, to know which sound ou represents in a word will be determined from context and the learner will need to have been taught the possible sounds ou can represent. To take another example, ea can be /ee/ in ‘sea’, /e/ in ‘head’, or /ae/ in ‘steak’. If I read the sentence ‘Last night I had a tasty steak’ and I read the word ‘steak as ‘steek’ or ‘stek’ (which is possible in some varieties of English!), my brain is quickly going to tell me neither makes sense and that I need to try the other possibility. I wonder if Linstead gets confused about how his name should be pronounced?
These are the basic ideas one needs to understand if one is to teach reading and spelling to beginners. Clearly, they are not difficult concepts to grasp.  So, understanding how English orthography works isn’t difficult. What is difficult is learning it if the person doing the teaching doesn’t understand the alphabet code, which skills are needed to teach it, and that it needs to be taught from simple one-letter spellings to one-sound to more complex structures. Linstead demonstrated his lack of understanding of the code by mixing up one spelling/different sounds and one sound/different spellings. He also seems to believe that the spelling ou in ‘loud’ is the same as that in ‘should’.  And, he can’t code ‘weird’, which he should have separated as /w/ /ee/ /er/ /d/ and in which the /er/ is a schwa.

It is true that in learning to read and write in English there is much more to learn than, say, in Spanish in which young children only have to learn somewhere just over thirty spellings for the twenty-two to twenty-four sounds (depending on accent) in the language. In English we have forty-four or so sounds, again depending on accent, and there are about a hundred and seventy-five common spellings. However, if teaching is anchored in the sounds of the language and taught carefully over the three years of Key Stage 1, it is entirely possible to teach children to read and spell English to a very high level of proficiency.


What’s more, English spelling as defined by Samuel Johnson in his famous dictionary has hardly changed since he wrote it. In the words of Diane McGuinness, ‘[t]oday, over 240 years later, most people of America, England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, and India have little difficulty understanding each other’s English’*. Aside from the help spelling gives us in understanding the etymology of English, the orthography of English is very well suited to encompass all the rich varieties of our language.

Footnote: In the Guardian article there is an accompanying image of fish linked to the word 'ghoti', which George Bernard Shaw, an early advocate of spelling reform, thought provided a good example of the randomness of English spelling. This reference seems to be almost obligatory when people who don't know what they are talking about decry phonics or call for spelling reform. And, it is just as wrong now as when Shaw first wrote it. See this for a more complete explanation.

* Quoted from Why Children Can't Read.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Teaching literacy skills the write way

I’ve blogged on the subject and importance of writing by hand a number of times before: here, here, and here. I return to the subject because this week’s New Scientist (29th October 2014) devotes no less than the cover page, an editorial and four of its pages to how the latest technology may be affecting the ways in which we read and write and learn to read and write.

As the article points out, more and more we are opting to read and write digitally. Whereas twenty or thirty years ago you’d see people commuting into work by bus or by train deeply engrossed in a book, newspaper or magazine, nowadays they’ll be reading a digital book, or, more likely, a mobile phone or notebook of one kind or another. Whereas twenty or thirty years ago you'd see students in a seminar or lecture busily scribbling away in longhand, today many of them are typing into laptops.

Are technological changes affecting the way in which we learn and retain information? Yes, says Tiffany O’Callaghan in ‘Lost for Words: the writing is on the screen’. Certainly, since I last wrote about the work of Karin James at Indiana University and also that of Marieke Longcamp at Aix-Marseille University in France (see links above), both of whom figure in the New Scientist article, the research evidence seems to confirm what has long been argued: that writing by hand helps create neuronal pathways in the brain that assist the learner in remembering not only the way in which way letters are formed and how to recognise them when reading, but also the process of writing in longhand seems to aid retention of the information encoded in the writing itself. Moreover, the evidence strongly suggests that typing letters does not have the same effect.

On the issue of retention of information, Pam Mueller, of Princeton University, and David Oppenheimer, now at UCLA Anderson School of Management, ran a number of studies which indicate that taking notes in longhand on the subjects of lectures is superior to taking notes on a laptop. Mueller speculates that the reason for this may be that taking notes very rapidly on a laptop or digital device encourages students to write down transmitted information verbatim. In so doing, they may not be paying attention and processing the information in the way that taking notes in longhand forces the writer to do.

In the New Scientist piece, O’Callaghan also brings into her piece the issue of ‘multitasking’, or the ‘widely held fallacy’, as Hattie calls it, and talks about the numerous distractions we, as readers, face when reading online. Apart from the kinds of things that are likely to distract, such as advertisements and other items competing for our attention, it takes the determination of Ares to resist that quick peek into our Facebook page, Twitter feed, or email account. As John Hattie, in his book Visible Learning and Science of How We Learn, affirms, allowing oneself to be distracted in this way, reduces mental focus and depletes attentional resources, which leads to poorer comprehension.

Lost for Words: the writing is on the screen’ is a thoughtful and provocative piece, although I’d question O’Callaghan’s conclusion when she claims that ‘the nature of knowledge is changing’. It isn’t the nature of knowledge that is changing; it’s the way that knowledge is encoded and is disseminated that is changing. And we need to bear in mind that while the technology constantly mutates, human cognitive architecture and the way we learn remains pretty much as it did thousands of years ago. Keeping that distinction clear is vital. As Hattie writes: ‘Skills such as becoming highly familiar with  the digital world, being adept on mobile phones, being able to perform Internet searches, and being able to use clever graphics packages, ought not to be confused with actual advance of knowledge acquisition, genuine understanding of complex ideas, and becoming aware of deeper understandings’.


Thursday, October 16, 2014

How confused can Key Stage 1 teachers be about high frequency words?

Well, how confused can Key Stage 1 teachers be about HFWs? Answer? Very confused!
Here is a letter to parents sent home recently from a primary school somewhere in the south east of England.
Dear Parents/CarersThis week in phonics the children have been learning the following sounds:a, i, m, s, t, n, o p
They have been using the sounds to spell words. For example:at, it, an, as, sat, sit, mat, man, not, potThere are 100 common words (key words) that occur frequently in much of the written material young children read and which they need when they write.  In order to read simple captions and sentences, it is also necessary to learn to read the key words before reaching that stage in the phonics programme. The high frequency words are taught by sight from memory and we explain that we can not sound out these words. [My emphasis] Below is a list of the first 100 high frequency words.0 high-frequency words in order
1. the               21. that            41. not             61. look             81. put
2. and              22. with           42. then           62. don’t            82. could
3. a                  23. all              43. were          63. come            83. house
4. to                 24. we             44. go              64. will              84. old
5. said             25. can             45. little           65. into             85. too
6. in                 26. are             46. as              66. back             86. by
7. he                27. up              47. no              67. from             87. day
8. I                   28. had            48. mum          68. children       88. made
9. of                 29. my             49. one            69. him              89. time
10. it                30. her             50. them          70. Mr               90. I’m
11. was            31. what          51. do              71. get               91. if
12. you            32. there          52. me             72. just              92. help
13. they           33. out             53. down         73. now             93. Mrs
14. on              34. this            54. dad            74. came            94. called
15. she            35. have           55. big             75. oh                95. here
16. is               36. went          56. when         76. about            96. off
17. for             37. be              57. it’s             77. got               97. asked
18. at               38. like            58. see            78. their              98. saw
19. his             39. some         59. looked       79. people          99. make
20. but             40. so              60. very           80. your           100. an
Of course, what is being asserted here is, to use an old fashioned expression, poppycock! To begin with, all words are comprised of sounds and all sounds have at some point in time been assigned spellings. So, what the teachers who have written this rubbish haven’t seemed to have understood is that the structure of the writing system is conceptually very straightforward: there are sounds and there are spellings to represent those sounds. So, contrary to the piffle being peddled by the teachers concerned, ALL words can be sounded out.

Now, let’s examine the list they provide, which, incidentally comes from Letters and Sounds, a government document which has now been archived. If you look at it carefully, you will see that no less than thirty-two of the words in the list are very easily decodable. Given that pupils are being taught how to blend and segment properly and that they are learning to link sounds to spellings, what could possibly be difficult about reading or spelling words such as ‘in’, ‘it’, ‘not’, ‘mum’ and so on? In fact, you can see how confused the writers of the letter to parents are by the fact that they say in their preamble that they using ‘sounds to spell words’ and yet haven’t seemed to have noticed that one of the words listed – ‘it’ – is then presented in their list of undecodable words!! if it were not more serious, it would be laughable.

It is undoubtedly the case that the alphabet code gets more complex to teach because there are many ways of spellings individual sounds and that many spellings represent different sounds. This is complex because it means that there is a lot to learn. However, it doesn’t mean that it cannot be taught if it’s taught from simple to progressively more complex.
What the school is doing goes against not only what the research on the teaching of reading and spelling has found but also what Ofsted and the government are saying teachers should be doing.

It is shame that, in spite of the training, research and evidence available, teachers insist on reverting to the practices of a bygone age.

If you want to know what to do about high frequency words which contain sound-spelling correspondences that have not yet been taught formally in a phonics programme, you can find out here in one of my previous postings.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Potton Lower School in Bedfordhsire

A very short message but a no less powerful one for that!

Frances Woodward, one of our team of Sounds-Write trainers tells me that yesterday she finished another training at Potton Lower School in Bedfordshire. She was also able to pass on that she has just ‘finished a course in Potton, Beds. The school now has all the staff trained. In the two years they have been using Sounds-Write, they have achieved 98% and 96% pass rate in the Yr1 Phonics Screening Test!

The power of a good programme and thorough teaching!’

Well done to Potton and well done to Frances for training them!

Sunday, October 05, 2014

The Eyes to the Write (in English orthography)

Following on from my previous posting, I want to consider what the implications are for what our eyes are doing when we are learning to read?

Certainly, because the span of fixations are more limited, the beginning reader needs more fixations and saccades to hold text in foveal view. This and the fact that publishers increase font size may, the authors speculate, lead beginning readers to look at the initial letters in a word and to guess. Of course, as we are well aware, many teachers promoting multi-cueing techniques reinforce this tendency by asking young children to look at the first letter or the accompanying illustrations and to guess what word might come next.

Such a strategy may seem to offer a quick solution, especially if a word is guessed correctly. However, this is rarely the case! Multi-cueing must always collapse back into a whole language approach, which, to paraphrase Diane McGuinness, promises everything and delivers nothing’*.

On the other hand, in their research article 'Literacy Development: Insights from Research on Skilled Reading', Jane Ashby and Keith Rayner insist that by attending carefully to the detail of words and linking print to sound, a child is embedding and anticipating advances in later reading development. After all, it is the internal details, the complexities of the spellings of many of the vowel sounds, that are fundamental to successful decoding. The corollary of this is that it is vitally important to teach beginning readers using high quality phonics programmes because children who can recode spellings into speech sounds are able to match them to their oral/aural repertoire. This skill is also an indispensable device in ‘generalizing the meaning of spoken words to written words [and] is a valuable self-teaching tool’.

In addition, being able to identify (read) words without having to resort to context has a number of crucial ramifications:
First, it helps to build high quality representations of word-specific sound-spelling correspondences.
Second, the ability to process text automatically enables a reader to apply themselves entirely and without distraction to such things as ambiguity of language, lexical choice, the ‘vagaries’ of plot construction, as well as the complexities of syntax and grammar in more challenging texts. As I have pointed out before in postings, if the cognitive load of decoding text is low, resources can be allocated to other, higher order skills. 
Third, automatic word recognition (or decoding) also reduces the difference between reading and listening comprehension. In the beginning, readers’ listening comprehension skills vastly exceed their reading comprehension skills; yet, as decoding ability improves to the point of automaticity, the disparity between the two reduces to the point where written text is easily comprehensible. 
Moreover, given how lexically impoverished everyday speech is in comparison with written language, reading will offer vastly more opportunities for learning new words than oral language alone can offer [cf Keith Stanovich’s ‘Measuring Print exposure’ in Progress in Understanding Reading].
Interestingly, the authors also point out that ‘[b]ooks with short words allow children to register all the letters in a word during a fixation’ (p.58), a contention which would lend strong support to the use, in the beginning stages of learning to read, of decodable readers containing short words.

However, the central message conveyed by Ashby and Rayner I will leave in their words:
“Instruction that develops a child’s ability to read unfamiliar words accurately (and familiar words quickly) will, by definition, build the efficient word-recognition processes that are necessary for text comprehension.”
Ashby, J. & Rayner, K., 'Literacy Development: Insights from Research on Skilled Reading', in Dickinson, D.K and Neuman, S., Eds, (2006), Handbook of Early Literacy Research, Vol 2, London, Guilford Press, pp 52-63
McGuinness, D., (2004), Early Reading Instruction, London, The MIT Press.




Wednesday, October 01, 2014

The eyes have it!

To most competent readers, reading is something they do naturally, much like walking or talking: things we do that we have developed to the point of automaticity. Because we seem to be unable to look at text without gaining meaning, we are rarely aware of the cognitive processes that go into this most complex of skills.

In fact, when we read, our eyes are moving forward very rapidly and stopping a number of times along each line of written text. Each one of these rapid movements is called a saccade and it these saccades that carry the eyes forward from one part of the text to another in staccato fashion. I say ‘staccato’ because in between each of these saccades, the eye pauses and becomes relatively still and it is in these moments of stasis, known as ‘fixations’ that we gain information from whatever it is we are reading.

According to Ashby and Rayner*, each saccade lasts for about a quarter of a second [see also Crystal’s Encylopedia of the English Language, p.218], making the reading process, as they put it, ‘similar to a slide show, in which the text appears ..., is interrupted briefly by a saccade, then reappears, and so forth’.

There is good reason for why this happens. The human visual system enables us to see with greater acuity in the centre of what is known as the fovea, the area of the retina which offers the best visual detail, hence the need to fixate on a limited group of letters before moving on to fixate the next group. Outside the fovea in the parafoveal and peripheral regions of the retina, our visual receptors are unable to discriminate the detail of letters to distinguish one from another: in other words, the further from the fovea, the poorer our perception of difference in detail.

The authors of the piece liken the visual field to a bull’s eye, with the fovea at the centre, surrounded by the parafovea, which is, in turn, encircled by the peripheral region. However, to be more accurate, you would need to imagine a bull’s eye skewed or attenuated to the right for readers of English. Thus, perceptual spans are not symmetrical, extending three or four letters to the left and, in the case of skilled readers, ‘only seven or eight letters to the right of fixation to support their recognition of upcoming words’. However, as they point out, much of that information is parafoveal. [Perceptual span also varies according to the writing system, with perceptual span in Arabic and Hebrew, for instance, operating in the reverse direction.]

For obvious reasons, fixations are also influenced by factors such as word length and by lexical access. So, when a word is less frequently encountered or it contains a less frequent spelling, fixations are longer. This factor would appear to link ‘lexical access processes that operate very efficiently during skilled reading’ to eye movements. Furthermore, skilled readers are, as you would expect, able to glean syllable information parafoveally during a fixation.

So, how do young, beginning readers differ from skilled readers? The answer is that their eye movements reflect the problems they have in decoding words in connected text: fixations last longer, their perceptual span is shorter, and they tend to regress more often. Neither in the beginning stages of learning to read is fixation symmetrical, as it is in more fluent readers.

What the authors speculate is that more fixations and shorter saccades, as well as a more restricted perceptual span, limit the amount of text a reader can hold in foveal view.

What are the implications of this for teaching beginning readers? In my next posting, I shall be looking at some of the suggestions put forward by the authors.

* Ashby, J. & Rayner, K., 'Literacy Development: Insights from Research on Skilled Reading', in Dickinson, D.K and Neuman, S., Eds, (2006), Handbook of Early Literacy Research, Vol 2, London, Guilford Press, pp 52-63.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Dr Louisa Moats on spelling

The following is a short video of Dr Louisa Moats talking about how "spelling deserves much higher status in the attention of reading educators". We, at Sounds-Write, have always argued this, which is why we have collected so much data on children's spelling.

Below is a verbatim transcript of why Dr Moats believes spelling is so important.
"...spelling is a visible record of language processing. It is language written down. If we know how to look at a child's spelling, we can tell what a child understands about speech sounds, about how we use letters to represent those and, as it turns out, anything that is going to cause trouble with a child's reading will show up even more dramatically in the child's spelling and writing.
So, it's a wonderful diagnostic tool. It provides very detailed insight into what children need to know and it can also tell us when children are gaining insight and what improvements they are making in their understanding of language."
Dr Moats also goes on to mount a defence of the use of nonsense words, which, she says, indicate so well how much a child understands about
"the sounds in a word and the sound-symbol correspondences that are used to spell those words and, possibly, you also understand the structure of the words: whether they have a prefix, a root, and a suffix. English is very pattern-based and people who are proficient at reading and spelling nonsense words in fact are better at reading for meaning".
I would like to thank Alison Clarke of Spelfabet for bringing this video to my attention and you can read more about the work of Dr Moats here at Children of the Code.