Wednesday, April 23, 2014

No non-phonetic words, Shakespeare and St George!

I just got the following comment on my blog posting The English writing system’ (26/04/2014) from Bruce Price, who describes himself as an ‘writer, artist, [and] education activist:
Rudolf Flesch and Denise Eide say that English is 98% phonetic, more or less. They get to this number by conceding every debatable point.
But I think this blog post makes the more profound point that EVERY English word stands for sounds and is therefore phonetic.
I wrote a piece a few years back called "Is English a Phonetic Language? Of course! 100%." (On CanadaFreePress.) I thought this was a better tactical position. If you try to be nice to the Whole Word crew, they'll claim that English is only 20% phonetic.
I try to explain to them that a genuinely non-phonetic word would be something like QG7R pronounced "shuffleboard." Now, THAT is a non-phonetic word. 
But English doesn't have any such words! 

I don’t normally promote comments to full postings but I liked the point Bruce was making so much, I thought it deserved to be more widely read. You can read Bruce's piece here. And well worth the trouble it is too.

I laughed out loud when I read in his posting that someone had actually 'set up a movement to teach Spanish with sight words' and that 'you can this minute find lists on the internet of “English-Spanish Dolch Sight Words.” By this device, kids can be made illiterate in two languages at once'! There's also a lovely rejoinder to those who would campaign to make English spelling 'phonetic'.

So, on St George's Day and the day on which we commonly celebrate Shakespeare's birthday (450, today, by the way), thank you Bruce for getting me at least off to a good start!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Down with miserablism!

Mike Lloyd-Jones’s new book Phonics and the Resistance to Reading is an absolute cracker!

Without in the least patronising his readership, Mike’s panoptic survey of the teaching of reading takes us back to the beginning of the nineteenth century and all the way to the present day.

His story begins in 1807, where, he says, the roots of the resistance to reading lie. He goes on to deconstruct the myth that there had ever been a time in which phonics was taught well, before bringing us into the twenty-first century, where the reading wars continue unabated.
Phonics and the Resistance to Reading isn’t an academic book in the sense that the reader won’t find a plethora of academic references but be in doubt that Mike knows his stuff and his judicious choice of quotations from such authorities as Keith Stanovich, Daniels and Diack, Joyce Morris and Jim Rose demonstrate in no small measure his familiarity with the subject matter and his in-depth knowledge. He shows what a dismal record whole language, look and say and mixed methods of teaching reading have had and why schools throughout the land should be teaching properly structured synthetic phonics.

And, this is a brave book! Mike doesn’t flinch from taking on the arguments launched by the anti-phonics lobby, sometimes with humour – I’m still chuckling at his withering description of many critics of phonics as having had a ‘syllogism bypass operation’ – sometimes with barely concealed anger at the shattering consequences of their resistance. In fact, he likens the phonics resisters to opposition to the provision of education to the labouring classes of the poor in the nineteenth century. ‘The phonics deniers, the anxiety makers and the phonicsphobics are,’ he asserts, ‘consciously or unconsciously heirs to those distant Jeremiahs who warned against the threat of mass literacy.’

That many of these phonics-deniers are most often from the political left is also puzzling. As Daisy Christodoulou put it recently in her book Seven Myths About Education, ‘[i]t is baffling to think about why people in the modern British Labour movement have assumed the same ideas as ultra-conservatives from nearly two centuries ago’. Indeed!

Mike’s book should be compulsory reading for every single student teacher on every teacher training course and if you are a teacher and sometimes feel stumped for an answer when you hear someone churn out those tired old anti-phonics arguments, Mike’s book will provide you with a well argued, coherent retort.

See also Debbie Hepplewhite’s acclaim for Mike’s book here.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The death of match-funding

Posting from Perth, Western Australia. 

I thought you might like to know that Pro5, the organisation charged with administering match-funding on behalf of the DfE has just sent us an email to confirm that the initiative has officially been wound up as of 31st March 2014.

They also added the following:
The DfE have provided some key information below, based on an analysis of the match-funding data from September 2011 to the end of October 2013 which showed that: 
  1. A total of £23.7 million match-funding (including VAT) was claimed by around 14,300 schools, 80% of eligible schools.
  2. Approximately 84% of eligible schools with key stage 1 pupils claimed match-funding (around 13,900 schools).
  3. Around 1,260 schools with key stage 2 pupils became eligible for match-funding from January 2013. Of these around 390 claimed match-funding (31%).
  4. Most of the funding (95%) was used to purchase phonics products rather than training.
 We would like to thank you all for your support and hard work from the start of the process in 2011 to date and for making the initiative a success. We would appreciate any feedback (good, bad or indifferent) that you have about the initiative including the procurement and the operational management of the contracts.  Please reply by return by Tuesday 22nd April.
 As you can see, Pro5 hail the initiative as a ‘success’. I don’t! Although I’ve always thought it essential for schools to support the development of pupils’ reading skills through the medium of phonics books and other materials, I've also consistently made the point that it was a huge mistake not to place the emphasis on training. As I have always argued on this blog (here and here), most education officials at government and local authority level, heads and senior management team staff have never really understood the need for a thorough and intensive training in the why and how to teach phonics.

Nick Gibb could have steered the enterprise towards training had he understood more clearly what the problem is and how it needs to be dealt with. He was much too timid and too willing to be guided by his counsels in the DfE and others. as a result, he missed a fine opportunity to make the kind of difference Michael Gove has recently been speaking about: the chance to eradicate the blight of illiteracy within a lifetime. A different approach would have privileged the introduction of RCTs to find out which phonics programmes are likely to yield the most promising results and fund training on the back of the outcomes.

As it is, although those schools that have spent their funding on Dandelion Readers or Sounds-Write readers will find that that their understanding of phonics teaching has been enhanced, the crucial first step should have been training.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Sounds-Write in Zambia

Casey-Lee hard at work!
Caron Callaghan is a member of the teaching staff at St Thomas Aquinas CPS, where Sounds-Write first piloted the Sounds-Write training course. Over the years, many, many children have passed through Caron’s capable hands on their journey to the fully literate life of independent readers and writers.

Being a woman who relishes a challenge, in the past couple of years, Caron has branched out in a big way by travelling to Zambia and supporting the development of literacy in a catholic diocese of the country by training staff to teach young children who otherwise would never get the opportunity.
Caron Callaghan in action in the classroom

In February, Sounds-Write trained Casey-Lee Callaghan on one of our courses so that she could go out to Zambia with Caron, her mother, to help in their ongoing venture and, on their return, Caron sent us a couple of photographs of their teacher training.

We thought you might like to see them.

Thanks to Caron and Casey-Lee, as well as to St Thom for lending their support too!

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Andrew Davis's philosophical phonics fantasy

Yesterday, the Guardian, to its shame, in my opinion, chose once again to give space to Andrew Davis for yet another opportunity to launch a diatribe against the teaching of synthetic phonics.
Why do I say ‘to its shame’? Because, at bottom, Davis, an academic philosopher, doesn’t know what he’s talking about and anyone with the barest knowledge of phonics teaching ought to know that Davis's charges against phonics teaching are either disingenuous or so riddled with errors that the piece should never have been published. The article ‘argues’ that synthetic phonics isn’t the way to teach children to read.
To begin with, as I've indicated, Andrew Davis is a philosopher. Nowhere does he claim to be an expert on linguistics or on phonetics and phonology. So, it rather beggars belief when he begins his diatribe against phonics by claiming that a ‘phoneme’ is not a sound. What does the writer of dozens of books (The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, for example) on all aspects of the English language have to say on this? David Crystal points out that the distinctive sounds in our language, by which we are able to differentiate one word from another – for example ‘tip’ from ‘hip’ or ‘sip’ –, are called phonemes. No less an authority than Peter Roach (English Phonetics and Phonology, CUP) says that, ‘in any language we can identify a small number of regularly used sounds (vowels and consonants) that we call phonemes’; and he goes on to differentiate ‘pin’ and ‘pen’ in which the vowel sounds are identified as different phonemes.
Davis’s next move is to state that, when following a phonics approach ‘[s]tudents aren't meant to get help from clues such as context, meaning or illustration’. This sounds as if synthetic phonics practitioners refuse to talk about context, whereas what Davis means – I think –  is that pupils aren’t meant to get clues when they are doing the phonics check. In a test of decoding ability, it shouldn’t seem unreasonable that pupils aren’t given help. After all, testing is a way of finding out something you want to know: in this case, whether the pupil in question can read the words on the page without having recourse to such contextual clues as syntax, illustrations and global meaning (i.e. of the kind a sentence or larger text would provide).
So, why does the government believe it to be so important for pupils to be able to decode accurately without using any other contextual features? The answer is quite simple: fluent, accurate readers, in other words readers who can decode or turn the symbols on the page into sounds, which they are then able to blend into words, are able to expend more energy and attention on higher order skills, such as comprehension, inference and so on, than readers who struggle to decode. Indeed, lack of automaticity and speed at the level of word-recognition level makes reading for meaning difficult. What happens then is that, in the words of Keith Stanovich, ‘unrewarding reading experiences multiply, and practice is avoided or merely tolerated without real cognitive involvement. The downward spiral continues – and has further consequences’ (Progress in Understanding Reading, 2000).
In what follows in the Guardian article, Davis discloses his total and quite egregious lack of understanding of even the most basic grasp of the area into which he has blundered. No wonder he is confused about phonemes and sounds: he claims that the ‘term “phoneme” doesn’t mean “sound”; it actually refers to sets of sounds in speech that distinguish one word from another’. While it is true that words are differentiated by sound or sounds one from another, Davis is utterly confused. He seems to believe that the word ‘cat’ is a sound, whereas anyone with the most rudimentary knowledge of phonics knows that the word ‘cat’ is comprised of three sounds /k/, /æ/ and /t/.
In actual fact, I harbour the strong suspicion that Davis is playing the philosopher’s game: does he really believe the things he claims? Or, are these ‘moves’ he makes to undermine the confidence in phonics of those whose knowledge is shaky: in other words, a deliberate obfuscation of the issues in order to throw sand into people’s eyes.
So, let’s take his next ‘move’, which is to assert, correctly, that a northerner is likely to say the word ‘fast’ as /f/ /æ/ /s/ /t/ and a southerner is likely to say /f/ /a:/ /s/ /t/. For him, this is another reason for claiming that synthetic phonics doesn’t work. Again, the real problem is that Andrew doesn’t understand conceptually how the code works in relation to the sounds of the language. The spelling |a| can be /æ/ in words like ‘cat’ but it can also be /a:/ in words like ‘father’. Is this a difficult concept to understand? If you’re not sure, draw a circle and try asking a four-year-old what it is. They might say a zero, a moon, a sun, a ball, any number of things that are round. In other words, they understand that symbols can represent different things. So, coming back to Davis’s example, if a ‘southern child’ were to read ‘fast’ as /f/ /æ/ /s/ /t/, the teacher would simply point to the spelling |a| and say, “This can be /æ/ but in this word, it’s /a:/, Say /a:/ here.” And, bingo! If the child is old enough to understand, the teacher could expand the explanation by talking about different accents.
The same issue occurs again in Davis’s examples ‘The wind is blowing’ and ‘I can wind the clock’. In a way, this is his ‘ghoti’ moment and, like Shaw’s example, it is entirely disingenuous. The human brain is a remarkable organ; it can perform a large number of tasks at once. As we are decoding the first sentence ‘The wind is blowing’, we are alerted to the oncoming presence of a noun by the definite article. We do not expect the word to be a verb. We are hard-wired for this. Our brains are also capable of processing information in millionths of seconds – so fast it takes place beneath the level of our conscious attention – and our simultaneous processing tells us that it can be ‘wind’ (noun) or ‘wind’ (verb). However, the presence of the definite article leads us to the noun. That’s what happens in the brains of even moderately fluent readers.
Now, supposing a child, who is not such a fluent reader, reads the word ‘wind’ in the first sentence as the verb. As before, the teacher points to the spelling |i| and says, “This can be /ie/. In this word, it is /i/. Say /i/ here” – problem solved!
Next, Davis, apparently not noticing that he is raising a completely different aspect of the way in which the alphabet code works (see his use of the word ‘likewise’), makes this observation: ‘blending the sounds appropriate for "paws" could produce something that also fits "pause", "pours" and "pores". So if "paws" is encountered out of context, you cannot identify your sound blend with a real word unless you already recognise the word "paws" as text’. Presumably, Davis is referring to the phonics check, where a child might be expected to read the word ‘paws’; otherwise, the word would be in some sort of context. Quite apart from the fact that Davis is confusing the issue by alluding to the concept that we spell all sounds in the language in more than one way, wouldn’t we expect that a pupil in Y1/Y2 would have been taught and therefore know that the spelling |aw| represents the sound /or/?
In the examples Davis gives to show how important context is, he’s right. Phonics advocates would have no argument with the suggestion that we need context to decide what a word might be, but then phonics advocates teach children how to decode accurately and to automaticity so that they can pay attention to context. As for his claim that the word ‘paws’ can also be spelled as ‘pause’, ‘pores’, and ‘pours’, if he was a teacher he would know immediately that, as long as the child has the word in their spoken vocabulary, this is never a difficulty. Where it is a difficulty is in knowing which spelling of the /aw/ sound we need to use in any of these heterographs.
Is Davis correct when he says that phonics advocates assert that simply blending sounds is reading? No! He’s not and they don’t! I played blending games with my daughter when she was three years old. Were we reading? No! There wasn’t any written text in sight. But blending sounds together to make recognisable words on the page is called decoding and of course it is major part of the process of reading. The other part is understanding the words being decoded and that is comprehension.
When talking about the phonics screening check, Davis is right about one thing: if the word being decoded is a real word, the child is expected to decode it accurately. Thus the word ‘blow’ would be expected to read as /b/ l/ /oe/, rather than /b/ /l/ /ou/ to rhyme with ‘cow’. That is certainly the case, though what he doesn’t say is that, on average, children at age six have vocabularies of many thousands of words. Their spoken vocabularies far exceed what they are able to read. So, it is probably fairly reasonable to expect that they can read the word ‘blow’ correctly. If not, the sensible teacher would investigate the child’s ability to comprehend common words. Even so, if one or two words in the check were misread/mispronounced, they should still fly through it if their decoding skills are up to scratch.
I’ve said it before on this blog and I’ll say it again: phonics is not only fundamental to teaching children to read and spell right from the start, it is also a very powerful strategy in enabling older and all adults to both read and spell very much more complex words. It’s time people like Andrew Davis took the trouble to find out more about modern phonics teaching before they spout off. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The English writing system

A question that arises which proponents of phonics have to keep coming back to challenge over and over again is whether the writing system is truly phonic. Many words, it is alleged, contain ‘unphonetic spellings’. A moment’s pause for reflection will persuade any right-thinking person that this is baloney. As I never tire of reminding anyone who confronts me with this nonsense, all words are comprised of sounds and all sounds have been assigned spellings. Ergo, there are no ‘unphonetic’ words, however complex they might seem to the layperson.

Daniel and Bright’s strictures on the subject are illuminating. From the outset, their scholarly tome The World’s Writing Systems, makes explicit that experts on the subject of the writing systems of the world’s languages are in total agreement about one important fact: that writing systems represent the sounds in languages.

Furthermore, Daniels maintains that writing, or ‘the marks that record the languages of the documents produced by civilizations…must be studied’. Moreover, and despite claims to the contrary, while all human infants learn their own language(s) naturally, ‘no infant illiterate absorbs its script with its language: writing must be studied’. 

To claim, therefore, that some people learn to read and write as naturally as they learn to speak is simply a fiction. People who make such a claim are suffering from amnesia - and I’m not being flippant. It is a fact that, after the age of seven years or thereabouts, our memories of early childhood rapidly deteriorate to the extent that we can remember very little of what happened in the early years.
At some point, whether it is simply that someone reading to a young child slides their finger under the words – thus, of course, making explicit, in some way, that the squiggles on the page represent sounds and words – or, more likely, the other thousand and one interventions that take place in the life of a child growing up in a literate society, a child needs to learn the alphabetic principle. If the interventions are insufficient or incoherently presented, it is highly unlikely that a child will become literate; whereas, even in the teeth of a degree of inconsistency of presentation, given adequate resources, another child may well scramble through the complexity of cracking an opaque code.

Of course, it is much better for everyone concerned if the child is presented from the off with a coherently structured system showing how the sounds of the language are related to those squiggles on the page, which Daniels defines 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’. He also, from the outset, dispenses with the idea that pictograms, the representation of things through the medium of whole images, were the precursors of writing systems. They were not and, what is more, there is no evidence to support such an idea! This is because, among other things, writing systems have to include numerous things that cannot be embodied by pictures. These would include not only such things as abstract nouns and verbs but also the complexities of the language, such as verb inflections and morphophonemic elements of the language.  ‘It is,’ Daniels asserts, ‘thus necessary for a writing system to represent the sounds of a language.’

Most scholars also agree that numerous early lexical texts unearthed by archaeologists and studied by philologists were manuals for the teaching of writing. This would ensure the structured transmission of the system from generation to generation and that the method of instruction was passed on along with the practical knowledge of the script. It would seem that this would constitute an excellent idea to return to en masse within the teaching profession.

Daniels and Bright are in no doubt: ‘It is … generally agreed that strategies for teaching reading that do not incorporate the study of phonics (correspondence between spelling and sound) are at least inefficient, and probably ineffective as well.’

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Prate and Lyle

A few weeks ago when I read Misty Adoniou’s piece in The Conversation, I really thought the depths had been well and truly plumbed. [See blog posting] I was wrong! Susan Godsland has just passed me a link to an execrable piece soon to be published in SchoolLeadership Today.

The article ‘The limits of phonics teaching’ betrays a lack of knowledge about the way in which the writing system is linked to the sounds of the language that is, even by the poorly informed standards of whole language proponents, quite staggeringly awful. The fact that it also comes from someone who is a Welsh teacher trainer from Swansea Metropolitan University and that it is going to go out in TeachingTimes simply compounds the awfulness of this caricature of what phonics teaching is.

Once the nonsensical and snide allusion to ‘commercial’ schemes has been dispensed with, Sue Lyle starts off well enough, informing the reader that a phoneme is the smallest unit of sound and that there are forty-four sounds in English. But that’s about it!

We get the usual stuff: the government, it seems, ‘assumes that simple decoding is all that is required in reading’. Of course, the DfE thinks no such thing. However, this is small beer in comparison with the egregious errors she makes in her attempt to travesty phonics.

There are simply far too many absurd inaccuracies to devote time to scrutinising everything so I’ll give a few samples. Apparently, ‘the alphabetic principle (phonics) doesn’t work for even the simplest CVC words… While it may work for ‘fit’ and ‘sit’, it doesn’t work for ‘fir’ and ‘sir’. And here you can see immediately the inaccuracy into which she has fallen: she considers ‘fir’ to be a CVC word when, in fact, it is a CV word. ‘Fir’ is comprised of two sounds /f/ and /er/. What she’s done is to flip the way the alphabetic system works from a phonics orientation – what the alphabet code was invented for – to a graphemic system, which, if analysed in the way she does (mesmerised by the visual), quickly breaks down into incomprehensible chaos.

This is also why Sue thinks that the letter a in ‘cat’ doesn’t correspond to the letter a in ‘bay’, ‘day’, or ‘hay’ [Sue’s examples]. Because she reads everything graphemically, she doesn’t seem to understand that ay, a two-letter spelling, in each of these words represents the sound /ae/, as in, well, ‘hay’.

Next, she launches an assault on ‘magic ‘e’’, as she calls it. Frankly, I don’t know anyone these days who teaches ‘magic e’ but we’ll let it pass because she goes on to demonstrate that she hasn’t the faintest idea of how the split spelling works or how to segment sounds in words. For her information the sounds in ‘dance’ are /d/ /ar/ /n/ /s/, although in some accents of English, it could easily be /d/ /a/ /n/ /s/. In both versions, the two-letter spelling ce represents the sound /s/. Again, the real problem is her lack of understanding of how the code works.

At this point, I really had to laugh, because she asks the reader if they’re ‘getting confused’. Actually, I wasn’t but I could see how Sue was and how a reader might be if they were similarly misinformed. And I won’t contradict her when a paragraph or so later Sue tells us that ‘it gets worse’. It certainly does because now she informs us that the common combination th is further evidence that ‘letter-sound correspondence simply won’t work’. Is it voiceless /th/ as in ‘thin’, or is it voiced /th/ as in ‘this’, she asks. It appears that Sue can’t understand what a four-year-old child I taught recently understood with ease: that spellings are symbolic representations of sounds and that many spellings can represent more than one sound, as in the case of the spelling th. If a child can understand that a circle can be a ball, a moon, a pizza, etc, etc, they can also understand that th can be /th/ in ‘thin’ or /th/ in ‘that’.

There's much more of this rubbish and I’d go on but I think you probably get the picture. The truth is that because Sue doesn’t understand the nature of the alphabet code and can’t explain it, she thinks phonics doesn’t work. No, Sue! Good quality phonics works very well. It’s you!

The really depressing thing about all of this is that Sue Lyle’s students may well be taken in by all of this twaddle only to find themselves working in a school and wondering why it is they don’t know how to teach reading and spelling to young children. Is it any wonder that the problem of illiteracy in Wales is so serious?