• Teachers and the Alphabet

    In my last posting here (The Knowledge Deficit) I commented on teacher reluctance to engage with up-to-date knowledge about the teaching of reading – preferring instead to stick to the mixed-methods approach of teaching children to word-guess from clues. This is essentially the same methodology that has characterised the teaching of reading in this country for a hundred years or more. And exactly the same approach that has consistently led to about one in five children being excluded from the state of fully-functional literacy.

    In that posting I was directly critical of those teachers who bury their heads in the sand and refuse to engage with the professional knowledge needed to teach systematic, synthetic phonics. In the hope that my article might prompt – directly or indirectly – some teachers to seek out that knowledge I provided some signposts to places where they could usefully begin to learn.

    In this posting I want to point to what I think is the essential first base for phonics teaching – the area of understanding that I believe is fundamental to effective phonics teaching. That area of knowledge is a proper understanding of the alphabetic code.

    There are several elements to that full understanding, but the first step is a firm grasp of the fact that in any word the alphabet is used to encode the sound of that word when spoken. The concept of representation is key – the letters don't 'make' sounds; they encode phonemes. As those pioneers, Hunter Diack and J C Daniels so colourfully put it more than sixty years ago: "An alphabet is a system of symbols for sounds and these symbols are written down in the order in which the sounds are made. A printed word is a time-chart of sound."

    When that concept has been properly internalised, the next step is to learn how this is realised in our own sound-spelling system (in practice studying how it is achieved will also help to embed the concept). The best resource for this is a chart that clearly shows the set of GPCs to be found in English spelling. Resources like this are widely available. Debbie Hepplewhite has prepared a range of them and has generously made them freely downloadable from http://alphabeticcodecharts.com/free_charts.html

    This grasp of the 'go of it' – the way the spelling to sound system works in English – is clearly fundamental to the successful teaching of phonics. It is at the core of the essential professional knowledge. But it has an additional value too – it helps to inoculate teachers against many of the myths, misrepresentations and misunderstandings that populate the arguments of the anti-phonics brigade.

    For example, I don't suppose many days pass without one teacher or another popping up on Twitter to pose a rhetorical question about how this or that word could 'work' in phonics. It is in the nature of these comments that they are not posted in search of enlightenment – their purpose is that of a self-satisfying 'put-down', a smug demonstration that 'phonics doesn't work'. No teacher who has really understood the alphabetic principle could be taken in for a moment. The success of those tweets depends on a ready audience amongst teachers who haven't got a firm grasp of our sound-spelling system.

    Often similar in intention are attempts to use the history of English spelling as an argument against phonics. This is usually done by taking the spelling of some particular words and showing that their spelling is somehow 'wrong' – for example because the spelling was fixed as a result of a misunderstanding of etymology. Now the history of spelling is interesting in its own right – and for children in Key Stage Two and onwards it can be rewarding and instructive. It can also help to illuminate GPC charts. But, all too frequently, bits of spelling history are used to muddy the waters around the teaching of reading – to suggest that spelling is often idiosyncratic, capricious and disconnected from the sound of the spoken word. Once again, teachers who have mastered the concept and details of the sound-spelling system can see at a glance when stories about the derivation of spelling are being used not to enlighten but to misdirect and mislead.

    A firm understanding of the alphabetic principle is, of course, not the only professional knowledge a teacher needs to teach phonics successfully. But without that understanding teachers will never become effective teachers of reading – firstly because they do not understand what it is that children need to learn and secondly because as teachers they are dangerously compromised by their susceptibility to anti-phonics propaganda that sets out to undermine confidence in phonics.

    Because the sound-spelling system is such an essential starting point, it would be sensible for all initial teacher education courses on the teaching of reading to begin by thoroughly establishing the alphabetic principle – and explicitly exposing the falsity of the many arguments put up against it. This seems to me essential – but so far I haven't heard of any ITE courses that approach things that way.

    As I pointed out in my last posting, the Teachers Standards (that lay down the minimum requirements for teachers' practice and conduct) say that teachers must "if teaching early reading, demonstrate a clear understanding of systematic synthetic phonics". If teachers who need it don't have a clear understanding of the alphabetic principle and its application in English spelling, then it seems to me that they are not even at first base in terms of meeting that requirement.

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  • The knowledge deficit

    It is generally recognised that for decades the training of teachers in the matter of how reading should be taught was concentrated mainly in the hands of people firmly rooted in the pre-scientific age. This historical background of incompetent training has of course helped to create in schools a dead weight of pedagogical inertia – an inability to come to terms with contemporary evidence about the teaching and learning of reading. So, the average primary teacher will never encounter within their school any questioning of the utility of teaching word-guessing or hear any of their colleagues challenge the prevailing culture of mixed methods. As a result, teachers work in a kind of protective bubble that isolates them from up-to-date knowledge about the reading process. Indeed, this bubble is so isolating that some teachers have convinced themselves that engaging with knowledge of any kind is somehow distasteful and demeaning. This shows itself in the 'professional' reaction against the focus on knowledge within the National Curriculum. Just pause for a moment and reflect on that: Teachers who sneer at the transmission of knowledge…

    Because primary teachers are commonly isolated at work in communities which keep at arms-length the lessons of research into reading, it has been tempting for many of those who are sternly critical of word-guessing to absolve teachers from any blame for their current state of professional ignorance. The idea being that teachers shouldn't be blamed for their lack of knowledge when they have been trained and have worked in a culture in which this knowledge was never made available to them.

    I disagree. I accept that there was a time when teachers could reasonably be excused - because they did not have easy access to the relevant facts. This is no longer the case. Teachers can now without much effort locate accurate knowledge about the teaching of reading and they have only themselves to blame if they do not take the trouble to acquire that knowledge and put it to use. I believe that teachers should act as professionals and be held responsible for ensuring that their knowledge and understanding are up-to-date and securely rooted in evidence.

    When Nick Gibb became Minister of State in the Department for Education in 2010 he proceeded to push through a raft of measures intended to ensure that schools received clear and consistent messages about the place of phonics within national policy. One of those measures was a reworking of the Teachers' Standards that lay down the minimum requirements for teachers' practice and conduct. Those Standards came into force on September 1 2012 and include a requirement that teachers must "if teaching early reading, demonstrate a clear understanding of systematic synthetic phonics". Since early reading is a stage of development and not an age, this requirement applies to all primary teachers who may find, even as late as Year Six, that they are teaching a class that includes one or more children still at the stage of 'early reading'.

    Nearly five years after the introduction of this requirement it seems only right that teachers should have been expected by now to have taken steps to ensure that they do have a "clear understanding of systematic synthetic phonics". It is not self-evident that the responsibility for ensuring that teachers have this clear understanding rests solely with the school and it seems to me entirely reasonable to expect that teachers should have taken the trouble to undertake some private professional study to ensure that the state of their knowledge is sufficient to enable them to teach competently. A few hours spent reading Diane McGuinness's 'Why Our Children Can't Read and What We Can Do About It: A Scientific Revolution in Reading' would be a good start. For those who need a simple introduction, prior to moving on to more demanding texts, my book Phonics and the Resistance to Reading is deliberately pitched as an 'easy-read'.

    For those whose propaedeutic needs to be in small bites online, there are plenty of sources of sound knowledge on the internet. Here are some that are immensely helpful:

    Susan Godsland's website www.dyslexics.org.uk is almost an encyclopaedia of high-quality information about the teaching of reading and writing and includes plenty of pointers to other good sources for further study.

    John Walker's website www.theliteracyblog.com is masterly – a huge compendium of articles that draw on his deep knowledge and bring together theoretical insight and practical guidance.

    Debbie Hepplewhite not only runs two extremely helpful websites www.phonicsinternational.com and www.phonicsintervention.org, but also seems to be constantly on-hand to offer information and friendly advice to teachers looking for help in online discussion forums.

    Gordon Askew, a former colleague of mine and one-time Phonics Adviser to the DfE, has a website www.ssphonix.blogspot.co.uk, that is commendably down-to-earth and ably sets out to clear up a great deal of the confusions that typically cloud the minds of teachers who promote word-guessing.

    The International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction (IFERI) is an organisation whose aim is "to contribute to raising standards of literacy in the English language based on robust research and high-quality instruction in the teaching of reading, spelling and writing". Its very useful website www.iferi.org includes a helpful set of 'factsheets' and a forum that handles discussion of relevant issues.

    These websites – and there are plenty of other good ones too – point to the fact that teachers have ready and easy access to good, reliable sources of knowledge about the teaching of reading. There are no longer any excuses for professional ignorance.

    But, of course, we cannot ignore the fact that one of the major roadblocks in the way of improving teacher knowledge about reading is nothing to do with access to improved understanding - it is about the institutional persistence of low expectations. The 'Teacher Development Trust', an independent charity focused on the role of professional development in improving pupil outcomes, states that "professional learning should be driven by the aspiration teachers have for the children they teach and the passion they bring to their work". This is well-intentioned as a principle, but has the probably unintended effect of highlighting one of the major obstacles to improvement. There is no spur to improving professional understanding of the teaching of reading in most schools, precisely because there is a lack of what the Teacher Development Trust describes as an "aspiration" to raise standards. Teachers are generally content with outcomes as they are and accordingly content with their own practice.

    So, the consequence is that teachers carry on teaching in the way they always have - the only way they know. The 'way they know' systematically and routinely excludes about 20% of children from fully-functional literacy. Teachers' professional self-belief is completely undented by these damaging outcomes and they take no steps to inform themselves of where they are going wrong and what they should be doing instead.

    The fundamental weakness in the teaching of reading in so many primary schools is the entirely misplaced professional confidence in the mixed-methods approach to the teaching of reading – the arrogant insistence that the teachers of word-guessing know best and shouldn't stir themselves to know better.

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  • Clinging to the wreckage

    In 1992 the National Foundation for Educational Research reported on the results of its investigation into What Teachers in Training Are Taught about Reading. The report particularly drew attention to the anti-phonics bias it had detected in its survey. For example, as part of their research the team analysed booklists provided to students by their institutions. Analysis of these lists showed that amongst the most commonly recommended texts there were no books dealing in any detail with the complex relationships between the writing system (the orthography) and the sound system (the phonology) of English”.

    Amongst other findings the report revealed that in 15% of the institutions, courses on early reading included no mention of phonics at all. In the remainder phonics was taught only as part of a repertoire of mixed methods including look and say and ‘language experience’. “The general impression,” the report noted, was that eclecticism rules”.

    Shortly after the publication of the Rose Review in 2006, I joined several meetings which brought together large numbers of tutors and lecturers responsible for training teachers in the teaching of reading. Given the background of ITT resistance to phonics I wasn't surprised that I found many of those tutors and lecturers bewildered, resentful and fiercely resistant to change. In conversation with individuals it appeared to me that many might be incapable of changing their views because they did not have the constitutional resources to make the intellectual journey. Embracing the mixed cueing ideology had required from them no habit of (or aptitude for) rigorous mental effort. An approach to the teaching of reading that was largely content-free meant that there had been little need to absorb the implications let alone the detail of the vast body of research and no time required to understand our sound-spelling system. The ascent to the position of ‘reading expert’ had been, for some of them, virtually effortless. Nothing much to remember, little to understand – just a talent for vapid generalities and an ability to extemporise around the ideology of word-guessing. The same ideology that the late Professor Ken Rowe neatly characterised as “postmodernist claptrap about how children learn to read”.

    Hardly surprising that when in 2010 Tom Burkhart used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the lists of recommended reading provided to teacher trainees by 46 initial teacher training institutions he found the same bias towards mixed methods. For example, only four of the institutions which provided booklists recommended Marilyn Jager Adams’ Beginning to Read.

    In at least one case institutional resistance to phonics was so ingrained that it threatened to become self-destructive. A little over five years ago, a high-placed source within the Teacher Development Agency revealed to me that one institution had had to be threatened with the loss of its accreditation to train teachers unless it dropped its resistance to providing a proper training in phonics.

    Given this background it is little wonder that surveys by the National Foundation for Educational Research have in the last few years repeatedly shown that primary schools are packed with teachers who, in the face of all research, cling to the same mixed methods – the approach that Professor Michael Pressley described as a “disastrous strategy”. With the consequence that even when initial teaching training does properly prepare students to teach reading, all that is undone when the students are on school placement and working alongside teachers who are still defiantly rooted in the dark ages.

    It may seem unsurprising therefore that the culture of mixed methods – the reliance on the strategy of word-guessing – is so deeply embedded and perpetuates itself ad infinitum. But actually, its stubborn persistence is down to more than just a matter of professional tradition or entrenched habit.

    One of the biggest obstacles to change is that teachers feel unmotivated to consider alternative approaches because they see no reason to make any significant change. In particular, they see no need for change because they work in a school culture in which standards are seen as being ‘good enough’. There is no professional incentive to reform the teaching of reading when teachers take for granted that around one child in five will never achieve reading success.

    In my book, Phonics and the Resistance to Reading, I described the range of ways in which schools explain away reading failure using a typology of so-called ‘barriers to learning’ – characteristically blaming the children rather than looking for the weaknesses in the school’s teaching. Ironically these same teachers frequently complain that they themselves are victims in a ‘culture of blame’.

    Teachers are only able to persist in this self-deluding deception by closing their eyes to the real victims of the incompetent teaching of reading. Low levels of literacy have lifelong consequences. As I pointed out in my book, “Poor reading at school is a strong predictor of social exclusion as an adult.” The consequences of bad teaching in schools today will persist throughout the lifetimes of so many of those unlucky enough to have been taught by the teachers who, in the face of all the evidence, still cling to word-guessing as their professional stock-in-trade.

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  • Phonics and the Art of Bonsai

    The trend today is towards the tiny. Smaller, leaner, thinner, lighter. Modern innovation and design is a restless drive to miniaturisation. But sometimes less is just….well, less.

    In too many primary schools – perhaps it is the majority of those schools – the phonics teaching provided is a cut-down version of what children should be entitled to. The children are short-changed by a version of phonics which is fragmentary, partial and disjointed– and for so many the inevitable price of this cut-down teaching is stunted reading development.

    A number of devices are typically used to pare down the phonics curriculum. One of them is to allocate insufficient time; phonics sessions of fifteen to twenty minutes are quite simply too brief to give children sufficient time to learn. To make matters worse, the time that is allocated is often cluttered with extraneous games and activities that divert the focus of the session away from what should be learned.

    Another technique of the reductionists is to give too little emphasis in the phonics sessions to reiteration, practice, consolidation and application, so children never have the opportunity to take their learning beyond the superficial. Further dilution is achieved by creating a disconnection – a sort of cordon-sanitaire – between what is taught in phonics and work on reading and writing during the rest of the day. This is often compounded by the use of non-decodable books as home readers.

    The teaching of phonics is further diluted by a lack of attention to what children are learning – mistakes and misconceptions are not rapidly picked up and corrected. When children are noticed to be making poor progress, schools are often slow to take action – and when action is taken, it is commonly in the form of poor-quality support. In some schools, setting is used not to narrow gaps in progress, but to legitimise and widen them.

    But the most destructive trick of all is to water-down the phonics curriculum by teaching it alongside word-guessing, with phonics positioned as just as one strategy among many. This is fatal to the building of children’s confidence and success.

    Two factors seem to me to be particularly at work in encouraging teachers to persevere with this pale imitation, which passes for phonics only in the eyes of those who lack the understanding and experience to know what children should be entitled to receive.

    Firstly, teachers lack an understanding of the way in which the sound to spelling system works in English and their lack of knowledge prevents them from understanding the utility of phonics. They simply don’t see how it ‘works’ and they discount the value of phonics teaching because they don’t understand it. You don’t teach well something you don’t value and (equally relevant here) you don’t value something you don’t teach well.

    Secondly, teachers seem remarkably unconcerned about the long-term impact of poor teaching of reading. They apparently take it for granted that many will make only poor progress and regard as fanciful the notion that something approaching 100% success should be taken for granted. Teachers often seem unaware of or indifferent to the life-long handicaps imposed by poor literacy skills. As a result too many teachers are not motivated to question the success of their traditional method of teaching reading and see no reason to believe that any changes would make much difference.

    The consequence of all this is that, despite the clear requirements of the new National Curriculum, phonics is rarely taught as it should be – thoroughly and professionally. Children instead are palmed off with a watered-down and adulterated substitute for the good teaching to which children should be entitled.

    The tricks of the bonsai gardener include such techniques as root reduction and defoliation. In too many primary classrooms the art of phonics teaching is the art of bonsai.

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  • Brief Encounters With Phonics

    Successive reports prepared by the National Foundation for Educational Research have shown that phonics is commonly taught alongside word-guessing – from context, pictures and so. In my book, Phonics and the Resistance to Reading, I described this as ‘partial phonics’ – in which bits and pieces of phonics are taught as simply one of a range of cues or searchlights.

    A common feature of partial phonics is that the daily phonics teaching sessions are very short. And many schools justify this on the grounds that the Notes of Guidance that accompanied the freely-distributed Letters and Sounds phonics scheme recommended “around 20 minutes” of daily discrete teaching of phonics.

    It would have seemed reasonable to teachers studying those Notes of Guidance to assume that the timing suggested was chosen on the basis that this was the amount of time needed to teach phonics effectively. But actually the 20 minutes was arrived at by way of a calculation of what was the maximum amount of time that the early years lobby would 'stand for'.

    And just how little the early years lobby might be prepared to stand for was brought home to me very vividly during a high-level meeting I attended just a few years before Letters and Sounds appeared. During that meeting I was astonished to hear a prominent member of the early years movement likening the early teaching of reading to teaching children to lie down in the middle of the road!

    So the 20 minute recommendation in Letters and Sounds appeared as a diplomatic gesture designed to placate the early years sector. The consequence is that years later many schools are still sticking to a time restriction that makes it virtually impossible to teach phonics thoroughly and effectively.

    How long is actually needed? It will, of course, depend on the teacher and the class, but somewhere between 30 minutes and an hour should be a basic starting point when planning-in the daily sessions. Sticking to sessions so brief that they are inevitably ineffective is not the only factor needed to explain why so many schools routinely short-change children in the teaching of phonics – but it makes a significant contribution to why so many children never become capable readers.

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The Phonics Blog

Welcome to The Phonics Blog which comments on issues and topics relating to the teaching of literacy and - especially - phonics, reading and spelling.

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mike

Mike Lloyd-Jones is the co-author of the Sounds Together Systematic, Synthetic Phonics Programme, one of only a handful of phonics programmes to have been fully-approved for government match-funding for primary schools in England.

The level of anti-phonics hysteria has intensified in the last few years. Myths, misunderstandings and downright falsehoods not only persist but proliferate. Phonics and the Resistance to Reading is a robust demolition of the arguments put up against phonics and an exposure of the damage and harm resulting from the longstanding muddle of teaching reading using ‘mixed methods’. The book exposes the dark side of phonics denial, its social costs and human consequences. It's available in paperback or as an e-book from Amazon.

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