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.

Monday, June 27, 2016

A word to the Wyse


Today I’m wondering if ‘Stand Up for Education’ has been newly created for people, with the title of professor, to tell jokes about education, or whether they simply use it as a forum for displaying their ignorance about the process of teaching literacy to young children.

The latest post on SUFE is titled, ‘Phonics fanatics: politicians who think they know best’ and it’s been written by Dominic Wyse. Our Dominic has plenty of form when it comes to phonics. Basically, he’s part of a cabal which includes such people as Michael Rosen and Henrietta Dombey, phonics deniers all.
Phonics deniers avoiding angry parents


As with so many of these kinds of arguments, its kernel of distortion and misunderstanding is cloaked inside a patina of fact. Although it's a truism, Wyse informs us that phonics has been used for centuries (actually it’s millennia but never mind) to teach reading and writing in Latin. Of course, in this, he’s right! The Romans used phonic methods to teach children to read and write in Latin. I imagine that teaching basic literacy to young Roman children took about as much time as it takes to teach children to read and write in Spanish, both being almost entirely transparent: each sound in the respective languages being represented by one letter spellings. However, anything more complex than the simplicity of Latin and Spanish seems to send the professor into a tailspin of confusion.

He slips in the tendentious claim that the Chinese writing system is ‘based on pictures’. Why he lights on Chinese is really beyond me because the teaching of phonics really has nothing to do with Chinese or with pictures. In any case, Wyse is flat wrong! As Peter Daniels, an expert on the world’s writing systems, informs us, ‘Pictography is not writing because languages include many things that cannot be represented by pictures... It is thus necessary for a writing system to represent the sounds of language.’* One of the contributors to Daniels and Bright’s The World’s Writing Systems, and an expert of Chinese writing, Victor Mair, tells us that ‘a few philosophers still insist that the Chinese writing system is pictographic and “ideographic”, but their views have been effectively countered by empirical and historical evidence.’ So, not a good start after all, Dominic!

Wyse’s next move is to sow maximum befuddlement in the minds of those who have little specialised knowledge in this area: he plays the Randomised Controlled Test card. And, yes, he’s right: there is no strong RCT evidence that ‘any one form of systematic phonics is more effective than any other’. That is largely because the government is sitting on its hands and seems reluctant to initiate RCTs on a scale that would show beyond doubt whether phonics approaches work. The other problem is getting schools to agree to participate in an RCT – for fairly obvious reasons. For the record, any time an impartial academic wants to set one up, Sounds-Write will be there: any school, any time, any level of SES, any percentage of speakers of other languages.

Wyse next complaint against phonics teaching is that the SATs results haven't improved much over the period 2008 - 2015. It’s true and I know why! It's because a large majority of teachers are still using mixed methods, and because they haven't been trained to teach phonics properly and don't understand the relationship between the writing system in English and the sounds of the language. Some of the blame for this must be attributable to Wyse himself, who loses no opportunity for confusing the issue with disconcerting advice to teachers.

Are we surprised then that teachers' knowledge is so poor in this area? Not a bit! You only have to look at the errors made by Dominic Wyse in the piece to realise that if he, a professor at the prestigious Institute of Education, is so badly misinformed, how can we expect teachers to do better. Not only does he believe that Chinese is a pictographic system (It isn't!), he also believes that English isn't phonetic (It is!)? But aren't all words (no exceptions) comprised of sounds and haven't all sounds been assigned spellings at the point at which they entered the language? In addition, he doesn’t seem to know that the spelling < sh > is a digraph and not, as he indicates in the article a 'consonant blend’. It's in the detail that so much of his ignorance is revealed.


If a professor at the IoE has such a poor knowledge of what phonics is about and how it should be taught, we shouldn't be particularly mystified when teachers don't. That's why we need in this country a series of RCTs to demonstrate for once and for all that high quality phonics teaching all the way through primary school is essential to ensuring that all children are literate before they enter secondary school. If you want to put a stop to the constant sniping from these Wyse guys, you need to listen up, Mr Gibb!

Monday, May 30, 2016

The Oxford Roald Dahl Dictionary and the Scripps National Spelling Bee

As it’s half-term, I thought I’d draw readers attention to a couple of items you might have missed.

First up, the Oxford University Press have just published the Oxford Roald Dahl Dictionary. It’s been produced by Susan Rennie, a lecturer in English and Scots
language at the University of Glasgow, where she works on a wide and very interesting range of projects, which include a Scot's Thesaurus and work on the newly re-discovered Boswell's Dictionary of the Scots Language. You can read more about her work here and here.

The Dahl dictionary is a cornucopia of rich vocabulary, both real and made up by Dahl. Just about any word you can think of that has turned up in one of the Dahl books is contained in this dictionary, along with the sentence, a definition and the book in which it appeared.

And, for those of you who are sick and fed up with people trying to foist on you heaps of ‘alien’ words, look no further than the almost endless variety produced by Dahl’s inventive mind. Whether you’re a muggle-wump who likes mudburgers, a maidmashing meatdripper partial to mouldy muckleberries, or a nincompoop after a nishnobbler, you will be sure to tickle the interests of children and provide yourself with an endless array of grist to your phonics mill.

And, talking of strange words, you might be interested in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which for third time in succession has resulted in a tie.

Reported on by USA Today, the winners this year were Nihar Jangar from Texas and Jairam Hathwar from New York. From an entry list of 285 competitors, the two contestants had fought their way through thirty-nine rounds of the competition to share the trophy and prize money of $45,000 in cash. Their winning words were: ‘feldenkrais’, which is apparently a somatic educational system designed by Moshé Feldenkrais; and, ‘gesellschaft’, which is German for ‘community and society’.

These days competitors are so well rehearsed in spelling words with Greek and Latin roots that the organisers of the event have introduced more obscure words that are less well embedded in English, such as Afrikaans, Irish Gaelic, Danish and even Mayan.

Believe it or not, Jairam’s favourite way of relaxing is to play golf with his dad. Both boys, whose parents are recent migrants from southern India, continue an astonishing run of success by Indian American entrants and both are aiming to become doctors.

If you have time to read more about the Spelling Bee, I've posted a number of pieces about it in the past, which you can select from here.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Linguistic v traditional phonics- an afterword

Thanks to reminder in a tweet from Maggie Downie, I’m adding a further point to my previous post ‘Linguistic v traditional phonics’.

As I’m always arguing, linguistic phonics gives primacy to the spoken language. The reason is because all children grow up learning the spoken language naturally, which is not the case with written language!

As I argued in the other posts, teaching children that words are comprised of the sounds in their language and that every one of those sounds has been assigned a spelling at some point in the past makes perfect psychological sense: “Oh that’s what this game is all about! Why didn’t someone tell me that before?” is the response I often get when teaching older pupils for whom this is revelation.

Now, here’s a claim I want to make: linguistic phonics is perfect for teaching any variety of English, regardless of accent (!) and this is why: it all depends on one simple idea - many spellings represent more than one sound. Moreover, it’s a very easy concept to understand. Show a four-year-old child a picture of a circle and ask them what it could be. They’ll give you innumerable examples: an orange, a ball, a face, a pizza, etc, etc. If they can understand that, they can understand that the spelling [ea] can be /ee/ in 'seat', /ae/ in 'great', and /e/ in 'bread'.

If you understand that, you can adapt your teaching of phonics to any accent of English:
If you’re teaching the word ‘bath’ in North Staffordshire, the spelling [a] represents the sound /a/ in ‘hat’. It is /a/ for the people living there and also in many other places in the UK. However, for a large number of other people who live across a great swathe of the South, the [a] represents the sound /ar/ as ‘father’.
So, it can be /a/ and it can also be /ar/. If one doesn't work, what do you do? Try the other! As long as teaching is grounded in the forty-four sounds of the language, it’s an absolute cinch to teach: does the [a] go in the /a/ category or in the /ar/ category?

This also allows for interesting classroom discussions: the spelling [oo] can be the sound you hear in ‘could’ in words like ‘cook’ and ‘book’ in many accents; it can be the sound you hear in ‘moon’ and ‘soon’ in others.

Linguistic phonics is simple and logical because it is always anchored in the forty-four or so sounds in the language, whether you come from Manchester in England, Glasgow in Scotland, Austin in Texas, USA, or Perth in Western Australia, teachers can adapt their phonics instruction to the accents of the children they are teaching. 

With 359 million native speakers in the world, why isn't everyone teaching linguistic phonics? You know it makes sense!


Thanks to Andrew Weldon for the cartoon image: http://andrewweldon.com/