Thursday, December 08, 2005

Your Pedagogical Pedant-General goes walkabout

... at the Sharpener.

Who could ever have thought that your mild and self-effacing Pedant-General would have such a rant inside him?

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The WikaBlog Strikes

The great Tim Worstall supplies, via his piece at Open Democracy, a new vernacular for the clich├ęd "hat tip":
"... a full-throated cheer with mass tossing of headgear and marching bands."
Marching Bands are duly despatched in the direction of Squander Two - give or take the tricky Northern Irish connotation - for his discovery on the WikaBlog of InkyCircus.

Looks like a good read.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Told you so

Cameron wins.* Just as I predicted. And quite some time ago at that...

* Explanation of exactly what it is that Mr Cameron has won is given here.

Monday, December 05, 2005

The result of the Conservative Party Leadership Election is....

.... not announced yet.

So we will have to make do with this remarkably succint status report from my correspondent in the "Big Apple":
" the new water meters have everyone in an uproar, the new library will not be built, and the piles of leaves I was going to pick up this weekend are now all covered with snow, so I won't have to worry about them again until April. Other than that, there is no news on the Rialto: Natalee Holloway is still missing, the war in Iraq is still raging, and Brad and Angelina are still together. All is well."

Carry on.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Phonics Roundup

So where are we?

I got very cross here and here.

ninme was so staggered by the idea that children might not be taught how the alphabet works that she missed the point. This is entirely understandable.

Unity followed up with a lovely little insight into where all the research has gone wrong:
"All the research which describes the psychological process of reading is based on assessment of people who can already read - ergo, it tells us quite nicely how people read once they've learned to read but next to fuck all about the process of learning to read itself."
Brilliantly simple.

Timmy puts his customary free market view on things here.

The site administrator at the Reading Reform discussion board picked up on this and linked to me, prompting the delightful "Lesley" to intone with a sigh:
" What a very, very, very satisfying read.
I only wish I'd written it myself!"
Well, Lesley, the feeling is mutual. This is superb:
"Bethan is nothing more than a whole language dinosaur whose time has come. One can sense the desperation in the plodding predictable prog-prose of a creature who knows the show-case in the museum beckons.

Cue David Attenborough in hushed tones..

"And here we see a group, found together in late 2005, reassembled in its natural habitat, the education department of a prestigious university.
There, by the glow of the searchlight, the mighty psightvocabodon is devouring whole words. Beside him the smaller, but equally ferocious guessisaurus and predictoraptor search for clues amid the bushes. And last, but not least, the superficially alluring picturedactyl, seducing its victims into its welcoming arms, lies in wait for small humans."

"We shall not see their like again."
"the superficially alluring picturedactyl": Absolutely top notch.

Friday, December 02, 2005

More On (Moron?) Phonics

I see today an illustration of spectacular, almost divine, clarity of the correctness of my decision to drop the Times from my regular reading matter in favour of the Torygraph.

Following on from my little rant yesterday, both have letters and both have Leading articles, but only the Telegraph seems to make any sense, so I shall start here.

From the leader, the money quote is:
"the life-chances of up to four million children could have been harmed by the abandonment of synthetic phonics as the means of teaching reading."
FOUR MILLION CHILDREN. I think we deserve to know how this came about. Who recommended dropping phonics? Why?

From the letters to the Editor:
Having a non-photographic memory, I could not have learnt to read using the "look and say" method. If I had been born later, I could have ended up illiterate.
A recent visitor at my manifesto would be delighted to see the subjunctive mood used correctly here.

All good stuff. Now let's look at the Times. The Leader is generally OK:
"... it has permitted a “pick and mix” approach in which rather too many teachers have plumped for the fashionable but flawed “whole word” or “look and see” formula. As its critics have noted, “sit and hope” would be more accurate."
"Look at the pictures" might be another passable description of this method.
This is admirably followed up with:
"One in five children is falling short of the level desired. Only 60 per cent of children obtain these scores in each of the modern “3Rs”. A sharp gender gap is becoming embedded, with boys falling behind girls at a young age and never quite recovering. [My emphasis]"
We will return to this, but there is more that is laudable in this leader:
"One of the many mistakes that the “whole word” lobby makes is in insisting that children be allowed to learn to read at their own pace and that it should be a labour of love, not a chore. This is patronising, destructive nonsense. Children need to learn to read as soon as is possible. Until they can, they are left in a state of academic limbo. To teach them to break words into key sounds is not to return to Victorian schooling. It is to liberate them to enter a world of learning."
Nicely put.

But then the ball is dropped. That which is given with one hand is deftly taken away with the other. The Letters Editor must be having an off day. I shall, naturally, take the second letter first:
Sir, It is a big mistake to order all children to be taught to read by the phonic method. Much research has shown that the method is best suited to girls, while boys, with superior visuo-spatial skills, are best taught by the look-and-say method because of their ability to recognise the shapes of words.
"Much research", indeed? Doesn't really fit with the Leading Article, does it? If boys have such an innate "ability to recognise the shapes of words", why does that not apply to individual letters?


But then we have to deal with this moron:
Fifty years ago the battle raged in the opposite direction. The phonic synthesis method used by most teachers was decried as “barking at print” by proponents of look-and-say (whole word recognition) and the Sentence method.
The "Sentence" method!!!!

He [David Bell, Ofsted Chief Inspector] is equally right to insist that it should not be the sole method, since it does not get one very far with a word such as “laughter”.
Quite so. English is indeed full of irregularities. So what? A child of two is able to cope with this irregularity - the verb "to be", the plurals of "man" and "sheep" - with little difficulty: you just don't expect them to deal with it before they have burbled "dada" for the first time.

What our correspondent does NOT tell us is that he is talking total tosh. A child taught with phonics WILL be able to decode
Try doing that with "look and say". Indeed, if the same child came across a picture of our intrepid letter writer in a newspaper, he would be able correctly to decode the caption that reads
and will understand the full force of the meaning of the word to boot.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Someone Needs a Sound Flogging

And that someone is Dr Bethan Marshall, quondam "Senior Lecturer in English Education" at King's College, London.

Before I set out the details of this case, I might add that your clairvoyant - almost mystical - Pedant-General worked himself into a frenzy just yesterday on this very topic. I suggested that it might be a good idea to...
Ask every single teacher, LEA administrator, teacher training college troll and DfES troll one question:

"Do you now or have you ever AT ANY STAGE since you were out of nappies agreed with or advocated anything other than the Synthetic Phonics method for teaching children to read?"

Any one that answers "yes" to be relieved of whatever position of responsibility into which they may have connived themselves, then rounded up and put in a field where all pupils leaving primary school without the ability to read should, accompanied by their parents, beat them with big sticks.
So to the Today programme at 0810 this morning and the publication of Jim Rose's report on the use of phonics for teaching to read. (Listen again here) First up, we had a little explanation of the difference between Synthetic and Analytic Phonics, nicely done by Aunty's reporter.

In a nutshell, when trying to read the word "street", analytic phonics would break this into a beginning - "str" - and an ending - "eet". Synthetic Phonics first teaches children the 44 distinct sounds of each letter of the alphabet plus key combinations of letters. These can then be used to render "street" as "s", "t", "r", "ee", "t".

So far so good. Let's see what issues are raised by this relatively non-contentious discussion of the topic:

Question 1: How does analytic phonics teach a child the beginning "str" without an understanding of the sounds of the individual letters? i.e. How does analytic phonics work if you have not already covered synthetic phonics?

Question 2: Given the inevitable answer to question 1, what is the purpose of analytic phonics at all?

The BBC (aren't they nice?) has an excellent little page on their website if you want to read more. It contains this quote:
"[Synthetic Phonics] also helps children to break down unknown words, experts say."
I bet "experts" would say that. Indeed, we can now ask some more questions:

Question 3: How on earth would you expect a five year old to read a word he had not seen before unless he can identify and sound out the individual letters?


Questions 4, 5 & 6: Errrrmmmm, we use an alphabetic (as opposed to symbolic) language. Isn't this the whole point? Why - for goodness sake this is incredible now that one thinks about it - on earth do we ditch the whole advantage of an alphabetic system to try and teach children as though our language were symbolic? Are these people mad? (actually - don't answer that. Particularly if you have children of primary school age)

Fast forward to 0850 and we get the accused on the blower to discuss this tricky topic.
Jim Naughtie: "Do you think that the Govt has got it right to make Synthetic Phonics central to the teaching of reading?"

The Accused (Dr Bethan Marshall): "No I don't. I think that what they have listened to is a very very powerful lobby group with enormous commercial interests that are set to make enormous amounts of money out of schools having to change their reading schemes."
She then goes on to say that a survey by the National Reading Panel the US shows "absolutely no difference in success rates between synthetic and analytic phonics."

The press release for this survey is here. It dates from April 13th 2000. The first paragraph of findings might - just, at a pinch - support her claim.

The panel's review focused on the following areas: alphabetics (phonemic awareness and phonics instruction), reading fluency, reading comprehension, teacher education, and computer technology.

Phonemic awareness is knowledge that spoken words are made up of tiny segments of sound, referred to as phonemes. For example, the words "go" and "she" each consist of two phonemes. Phonemic awareness is often confused with phonics, which refers to the process of linking these sounds to the symbols that stand for them, the letters of the alphabet. ...

The panel found that the research conducted to date strongly supports the concept that explicitly and systematically teaching children to manipulate phonemes significantly improves children's reading and spelling abilities. The evidence for this is so clear cut that this method should be an important component of classroom reading instruction.

This would appear to support some analytic phonics. The problem is that the VERY NEXT PARAGRAPH blows her out of the water:
"The panel also concluded that the research literature provides solid evidence that phonics instruction produces significant benefits for children from kindergarten through 6th grade and for children having difficulties learning to read. The greatest improvements in reading were seen from systematic phonics instruction. This type of phonics instruction consists of teaching a planned sequence of phonics elements, rather than highlighting elements as they happen to appear in a text. Here again, the evidence was so strong that the panel concluded that systematic phonics instruction is appropriate for routine classroom instruction.

For children with learning disabilities and children who are low achievers, systematic phonics instruction, combined with synthetic phonics instruction produced the greatest gains. Synthetic phonics instruction consists of teaching students to explicitly convert letters into phonemes and then blend the phonemes to form words. Moreover, systematic synthetic phonics instruction was significantly more effective in improving the reading skills of children from low socioeconomic levels. Across all grade levels, systematic synthetic phonics instruction improved the ability of good readers to spell. [my emphasis]"

Synthetic Phonics doesn't improve success rates? Not from my reading of this survey.
Whatever. I'm sure this is a minor point.

JM: Why use a study from the States when we have a more recent study here that shows the opposite?

BM: No it doesn't show the opposite. The Clackmannanshire study was an extremely small study and used schemes such as the Oxford Reading Tree which relies very heavily on analytic phonics rather than synthetic phonics, so it was a very blurry study and a VERY VERY small one."
Errr... My eldest is being taught entirely using Synthetic Phonics (and he is at a private school. How odd...). He is also using the Oxford Reading Tree.

There is then some largely uninteresting discussion about the motivations of the various lobby groups etc.

JM then brings in Nick Gibb, the Shadow Education Minister for Young People.
NG: The Reading Reform Foundation are a group of teachers who have been volunteering to campaign for phonics in their own time because they know that it works.

JM: Just to be clear: they do not have a financial interest in this.

NG: Not the Reading Reform Foundation. There are those like Ruth Miskin and Chris Jolly who do.
"A powerful lobby group with enormous financial interest"? Shove off. NG continues:
The Clackmannanshire study wasn't a small study. It followed 300 children, divided into 3 groups. One had pure synthetic phonics, one had analytic phonics and the third used a combination of methods and the results were staggering. [His emphasis] In fact they were so staggering that they had to move the other 200 children onto the synthetic phonics programme [My emphasis] and they had a reading age 3 years ahead of their chronological age by the time they were 11.

JM: I haven't read the study in detail, but the interesting thing about it is that it did follow them over a long period.

NG: Yes, it was a longitudinal study. Children were followed over seven years. It was very powerful. When you look around the country at the schools that have used phonics, such as St Michael's in Stoke Gifford, they went from 78% of children achieving level 4 in English at age 11 to 95%. These are staggering results [His emphasis] and often in the most deprived parts of Britain.

The Accused is then allowed back in and mutters some piffle about real comprehension versus "sounding the word out". She also moans that the Clackmannanshire study had only 300 pupils versus 5000 used in the US study.

NG responds superbly:
"The US study doesn't say what you say it does. ... Of course you have to have comprehension and all those other things, but it is easier to comprehend a word if you can actually decode it."
He then summarises the enormous body of reports and reviews that have come out in favour of synthetic phonics before the Accused sums up with this:
"If you come across children that do not respond to this method and you [as a teacher] have no other strategies in order to encourage them to help them to read then you will disadvantage as many children as you advantage."
So let's summarise Dr Marshall's arguments against a "first, fast and only" use of synthetic phonics:

BM View:Rebuttal
"government has been knobbled by a powerful lobby with huge financial interests at stake"This is her first objection. It is an ad hominem attack. Read from that what you will.

In any case teachers volunteering doesn't sound like a "powerful lobby group" to me, particularly when they are proposing to drop a system that has completely failed a generation of state school pupils.
National Reading Panel study in the US shows absolutely no difference in success rates between synthetic and analytic phonics."From the press release to the report itself:

"Moreover, systematic synthetic phonics instruction was significantly more effective in improving the reading skills of children from low socioeconomic levels. Across all grade levels, systematic synthetic phonics instruction improved the ability of good readers to spell."
On the Clackmannanshire Study: "[the study used] the Oxford Reading Tree which relies very heavily on analytic phonics rather than synthetic phonics, so it was a very blurry study and a VERY VERY small one "The Oxford Reading Tree scheme is not tied to analytic phonics at all. Ergo, this blurry accusation is wide of the mark (if not a desperate cling to dogma).

300 children in a well designed study (i.e. including a control group) followed for SEVEN YEARS is small? Compared to the US Study which although bigger (5000 pupils), did not follow those pupils for long: the study ran for less than 2 years. [Study announced on March 28, 1998 here, and results announced April 13, 2000. Not much time for studying in between... ]

More importantly, said study does not support her refusal to accept synthetic phonics anyway, so its longevity isn't really an issue.
"Synthetic phonics only teaches you to sound the word out. It does not improve comprehension "HOW THE F*&!@*% DOES SHE THINK A CHILD CAN UNDERSTAND A WORD IF THE CHILD CANNOT ACTUALLY READ IT?


Besides, Clackmannanshire showed reading ages of 14 for pupils aged 11. You cannot have a reading age of 14 without comprehension.
"Synthetic phonics is taught mechanistically. There is no joy in reading "HOW THE F*&!@*% DOES SHE THINK A CHILD CAN ENJOY READING IF THE CHILD CANNOT READ?

We know what happens with "discovery learning" and that related fashionable nonsense: you get children who look at pictures.
"If you come across children that do not respond to this method and you [as a teacher] have no other strategies in order to encourage them to help them to read then you will disadvantage as many children as you advantage."You want the US Study? You can have the US Study:

"Moreover, systematic synthetic phonics instruction was significantly more effective in improving the reading skills of children from low socioeconomic levels. Across all grade levels, systematic synthetic phonics instruction improved the ability of good readers to spell. "

So your chosen study reveals that the most disadvantaged children show the greatest benefit from the use of system that you don't like.


And your balance of probabilities?

Condemn every single child in the state system (apart from those schools brave enough to ignore you) to appalling levels of failure


95% of children achieving the required levels of reading and comprehension, with the most disadvantaged children having the most to gain.

Sod off.

Proof that the state run education system is in the hands of unreconstructed wreckers who care more about their dreams of a socially-engineered utopia than for the children in their care is embodied in this woman.

I have VERY strong views on this topic. It is insane that teacher training and policy-making appears still to be in the hands of total morons. The knock-on affects are huge:
Poor teaching and poor teaching methods affect those at the bottom end of the scale the most;
Without the ability to read, children will fall behind very quickly;
A child that falls behind feels excluded, frustrated and bored at school;
Child that are excluded, frustrated and bored misbehave, disrupting others;
Misbehaving children who have fallen behind are ripe for exclusion from school, particularly if they are the bottom of the heap anyway and have little support or encouragement at home;
Children who get expelled are more likely to find other ways of occupying themselves;
Once beyond school age and without the necessary schooling (or attitude or commitment or self-esteem) will find it all but impossible to find (or sustain) decent paid employment;
Those with a bad attitude, who have been variously failed by then rejected by authority, and who have no jobs are not exactly going to stay on the straight and narrow.

We end up picking up the tab.

P-G Prescription: I think Dr Bethan Marshall needs to spend a bit more time in the classroom. In a sink estate. Where none of the children have been taught synthetic phonics. I'm sure her classmates will be only too happy to adminster a synthetic phonic flogging.

UPDATE: A very warm welcome to visitors from the RRF discussion board on this topic. You may wish to have a little look at my next post for a little follow up.