Category Archives: Education

12 out of 13 people aren’t on Facebook

With thanks and apologies to Polly Short…

Here’s the tweet:

1 in every 13 people are on Facebook worldwide. Wow. #eict202

That led me to reply:

12 in every 13 people aren’t on Facebook worldwide. Wow. #eict202

Which probably sounded snarky, though it wasn’t intended to, because what Polly had done was provide a beautiful example of how we could be teaching children to look for the story that you’re not being told, the story that lies beneath the headline. I, for one, want to know how 12 out 13 people on this planet can get through the day without updating anyone at all on their FarmVille progress.

So you could have your class dissect the papers, the adverts, the claims of pollsters, and expose the harsh truths. Reveal that two out of ten cats really do not care for cat food named after their own highly specialised facial hairs. It’s also an opportunity to go a bit cross-curricular and get some maths into your English lessons.

Plus, I get to keep the reassuringly warm glow that I have now that I know that a shade over 92% of the world aren’t on Facebook. It makes me a little happier.

No more child-speak

Recently, I saw something very interesting modelled in an article by E.D. Hirsch, whereby the reader was ‘taught’ a new word. The teaching was entirely through accurate, contextual use of that unfamiliar word. It was sublimely done; to fully grasp the meaning from the first use, the reader would have needed a certain level of familiarity with the knowledge domain of the engineer or scientist. Progressively, the reader was re-exposed to the new word in contexts that required less and less specialist background knowledge. The final use grounded the word in an everyday and familiar context. There was a distinct aggregation of understanding.

The first thing that struck me was that in a truly naturalistic model, exposure to unfamiliar words rarely happens in such a structured way. So I tried to forget what I had just learned, and set about reading the sentences in reverse order. My sense was that even in the most familiar of the contexts, my understanding would have been incomplete. In other words, complete understanding was enhanced by exposure to the word in the less familiar contexts.

This strikes me as being rather similar to the way that we construct jigsaws in the real world. Rather than patiently building it up row by row, jigsaws build slowly, coalescing around multiple nuclei, with edges developing gradually to frame and define positions for these nuclei. Some pieces are harder to place than others, often pieces are found as much by chance as deliberate action. Assuming all the pieces are in the box, it should be possible to complete the jigsaw.

No metaphor is perfect, but I quite liked the overall fit of this one, because it presupposes that the component pieces are made available. More simply, if some unkind person were to remove and hide some of the pieces, completing the jigsaw becomes impossible.

Which is why I haver never approved of child-speak. If children understand the specifics of every word we say to them and every word they encounter in text, we are hiding some of the jigsaw pieces from them. We are actively holding them back. At this point, I’d like to focus on talk and put aside text; reading has its own set of preconditions and challenges.

Most people, most of the time, use a relatively narrow core vocabulary. This serves us fairly well in most circumstances. It also makes it likely that most of what you say, if expressed clearly, will be understood by others who speak the same language. Anyone with children or dogs will perhaps agree that failures of understanding, as often as not, have their roots in failed listening!

The promotion of child-speak, viewed in this context, has unfortunate shades of Orwell’s Newspeak, however well-intentioned the conception or implementation. The negative impact must be felt most keenly by those lacking ‘contextual compensation’ – shorthand for the kids who don’t live in a domain of literacy immersion, and they’re probably quite easy to identify.

Proponents of child-speak also ignore something very important. When we match our words to their spoken vocabulary, we fail to provide additional context for those unfamiliar words they have previously heard. Child speak militates against potential.

This isn’t a call for tautology, nor is it a call for the unnecessary over ornamentation of spoken language. It is a call for us to act with a little more ambition, a little less condescension, and embed challenge in the very words we use. The child who doesn’t understand all of the words they’ve heard always has the option to ask for clarication, but even if they don’t, exposure gives them a fighting chance of understanding it the next time.

Dear Michael Rosen

Michael Rosen doesn’t like synthetic phonics;

As it happens, I do. It has structure, it provides the tools. The big issue that I see leaping out of this article seems to be a complete muddle about what goes on in actual schools with actual children. I’m writing this, because I’m a parent. A parent who might be a little alarmed at the nasty sounding ‘synthetic phonics’ sucking all the joy out of reading.

Let’s first clarify one issue. Many vocal opponents of the recommendation that reading should be taught exclusively by synthetic phonics, seem to be labouring under a misapprehension (I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt, and assuming that they aren’t being mischievous). They would have you believe that the ‘phonics lesson’ is the only thing going on as far as reading is concerned. They misunderstand or misrepresent the maxim ‘first, fast & only’.

‘Love of books’ is term I hate, but I’m going to go with it. You don’t need to be able to read in order to enjoy books. Books are often appealing objects that generate their own play value. Long before they learn to read, long before they speak, children will engage with books. Alongside this play, many children will also be read to. Children benefit from all of these ‘proto reading’ activities. They form part of the complex set of linguistic activities through which children ‘acquire’ language. Your child will be doing all of these things at school. Phonics-loving teachers still chat about the lovely pictures of chicks; encourage kids to share a book with a friend; read and talk about great stories and poems. Almost certainly including those by Michael Rosen. This forms the background for what was termed ‘reading readiness’ when I trained in the mid 1990’s, but the activities described above are not then supplanted by synthetic phonics in some terrifying ‘first, fast and only’ dystopia.

At this point, I’d like to sidestep and briefly tackle the issue of comprehension. I think comprehension is a red herring in the debate. In language acquisition, every aspect of development directly and indirectly affects every other. This is a key difficulty in reading research; isolating key variables, and seperating cause and effect are huge challenges. This is one reason why I’m fond of E. D. Hirsch’s proposition that we should focus on more upon children’s acquisition of vocabulary. A child’s development of what we term ‘comprehension’ begins long before any kind of schooling, but develops as we become more adept at language. To all intents and purposes vocabulary building is a pretty decent proxy for improved comprehension…

Then comes learning to read. At this point, a debate on synthetic phonics usually goes ‘THWUUUMMP!’ and all of a sudden it becomes a debate about ‘reading’ being ‘much more than just decoding’. At this point, seasoned hacks know that someone will pop up and inform the world that they can ‘decode German, but that is not the same as reading for meaning’. Having thus claimed comprehension for the side of righteousness, what could have been a sensible discussion descends into the sort of unproductive squabble that can make for a great read, but ultimately does no one any favours. (Responsibility for the squabble lies with all; this isn’t intended to be plucky rebel alliance vs. evil galactic empire…)

Personal anecdote time. The thing about the German passage. I was there. It happened to me as well, during my introductory sessions on the teaching of reading, in my first year as a trainee primary teacher. I probably wasn’t the only German speaker in the room, but no-one asked, no-one told. As we nodded along to the assertion that we have to teach meaning as much as word recognition, I wonder if my suppositional fellow German speaker had the same thought that I did? ‘I can speak German at least as well as a four year old.’

The point of this is not that I had enough presence of mind to not show-off, but that I was able to ‘read for meaning’. German kids don’t begin reading their beautiful language with empty heads. Neither do those learning to read English.

Proponents of synthetic phonics are not making false claims for it as a means to understand what is read. Nor should we worry unduly about whether there are other methods by which some children can be shown to learn to read. I could here cite a couple of instances where I have seen evidence that whole word recognition exists, or of children who learned to read without formal phonics instruction. It doesn’t matter that there are other methods. It’s about working with what mounting evidence suggests is the best method for the largest number of children. Rather, we need to be focussed upon ensuring that we properly teach SSP (systematic, synthetic phonics) and resist the temptation to dilute an efficient method with less efficient. That can only dilute the impact of the more efficient method. We have the rest of the school day to work on the activities which enhance understanding. The burden of proof really now lies with the opponents of SSP approaches.

Michael. I love your writing. Your Sad Book is one of the most touching things that I have ever read. I don’t believe you to be anything other than a person with honest concerns about education in this country, which is to be applauded. I don’t think the teaching of language in school should be sterile. I do everything in my power to encourage the children I teach to read and to love reading. I am evangelical. Synthetic phonics is just a small part of what I do.

Teachers who tweet #bringateachertotwitter

Picture courtesy of @sparkyteaching

A great blog here where Phil Parker shares some findings and thoughts on UK teachers’ use of Twitter. It’s not pretty reading, either!

Those of us who are part of the education community on Twitter get to experience the vibrancy and dynamic exchange of thoughts, and clearly many of us are hooked. The fact that significant groups such as The Heads’ Roundtable seem to have exploited the momentum that Twitter can lend to an idea should give us all pause for thought. Yet, we are, apparently, the tiny minority. It’s easy to forget this massive disengaged ‘other’.

Yesterday, I came across the hashtag #bringateachertotwitter, courtesy of @batttuk . What a good idea. If we could all just get one other colleague to engage… we’ll still be a tiny minority, albeit twice as big. Time to put on our digital leader hats and offer your colleagues a little bit of social media CPD training? Remember, you only need to net one enthusiast!

Go forth & multiply…

Let’s get one thing straight before we start. Notwithstanding the education secretary’s push for a knowledge based curriculum, I’m taking it as a given that children are being taught their multiplication tables in all schools. I say this, because I’ve not yet encountered any schools who don’t already do this. My own love of the multiplication tables is simply a recognition of what a brilliant tool they are for allowing the human mind to make some very complex calculations.


Multiplication is one of the four basic arithmetic functions; we sometimes liken it to ‘repeated addition’, and it is a skill which learners need to master quite early on, in order to become competent at mathematics. The comparison to addition is revealing, because if children do not learn the basic multiplication facts from 0 x 0 to 9 x 9, then repeated addition (or counting on in increments of n) becomes, for most children, the default strategy for resolving a multiplication problem.

In a nutshell, here’s the rationale for learning the multiplication tables. It doesn’t require any particular skill; it gives the learner the ‘knowledge store’ to multiply together any pair of single-digit integers; it provides a secure foundation for all subsequent work on multiplication and division problems. My own approach to teaching these has always been a case of little and often, alongside the occasional dedicated lesson. I suspect that this kind of rote-learning is best approached using simple, well-practised reading, writing and chanting drills that don’t require many resources. It doesn’t necessarily make for a massively exciting lesson to observe, but it’s time well-spent, easily differentiated and easily assessed. Bat off any criticisms that this approach is “drill & kill” – the evidence says it works, and its critics have yet to propose a better method: (

Clearly, secure knowledge of multiplication tables is far from the whole story – this knowledge is not in itself a cure all, but what I’d like to see is very simple. A much earlier and more rigorous approach to learners securing these facts early on, rather than it being a long, drawn out process which, leaves some pupils entering secondary education yet to gain mastery.

The follow-up to this post will examine the introduction of formal methods of performing/recording calculations and (hopefully) a case for the earlier introduction of algebra. I’m excited, even if you’re not!

Post script:
I’m generally cautious of anecdotes and the extension of personal experience to reach broad, general conclusions, but, frankly, this made me smile when I remembered it. At my primary school in the late 70’s, the writing out of multiplication tables was the standard punishment. Our class tables league was dominated by girls & boys, myself included, of a ‘naughtier’ persuasion! It may all just have been a coincidence…

Toward digital citizenship – data footprints in the silicon sand


“If you want to be really worried, think about how little the average person actually knows, then remember that half of all people know less than that.”

I really have no idea about the origin of that “quote”, merely that, over the past couple of years, I have heard it expressed several times, in slightly different ways and contexts. Reading this: Ceop warns over ‘alarming new trend’ in online sex abuse prompted me to think about it in a slightly different light.

Since Marc Prensky coined the term digital natives back at the start of the millenium, considerable think-time has been devoted to trying to pin down, or justify, various definitions of the term. Often these are different in nuance, sometimes they vary widely. For this reason, I’ve preferred to think more in terms of digital citizenship. I feel that this neatly sidesteps issues of individual birth-era, and focusses instead upon the extent to which the individual engages with the digital landscape; is knowledgeable about their own position, role & responsibilities within the digital landscape, and the degree of control they exert over that engagement and position. Still with me?

We all have a digital identity, each & every one of us. Possibly, you may be exempt if you are born into a tribe somewhere isolated in, say, the Nicobar Islands, but broadly-speaking, this is the case. Fragments of your data are accumulating in cyber-space every time you engage with a computer, phone, camera, ATM, local government, the health service, education, shop-checkout and so on. From a civil-liberties & privacy perspective, this will remain a hot-topic, and rightly so, but this is how things stand.

As parents and educators, we have to fully understand the digital culture in which we live, but also recognise that the landscape seen and experienced by us will be very different to the terrain seen and experienced by others, particularly youngsters. Even where the technological trappings are the same, the interactions can be very different; my partner and I have identical phones, for example, but use them, and the apps on them, very differently. One thing we share is an awareness of the potential dangers of our hardware and information falling into the wrong hands.

Ultimately, there is a plea here. Adults, particularly parents and educators need to become smarter about our digital identities; only by doing that are we in a position to guide younger people correctly in learning to make informed decisions about all of their digital interactions/transactions.

Young people, no matter how technologically adept, are only nascent digital citizens. There may be exceptions to this, but they are few. Several young people have recently learned to their cost that provocative comments, even made without any serious intention, can lead to hard prison time. The eponymous main character of Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet The Spy, learns the difficult way about how the things you do (in Harriet’s case, keeping a dossier on her schoolmates) may come back to bite you. The hazards and pitfalls are not themselves new, but the digital context of now means that the consequences are potentially more far-reaching and durable than ever before.

I’m trying to educate myself and my own children to stop, and think simply & proportionately about any potential risks of every digital interaction. Without being hysterical, a seemingly innoccuous outburst on social media or an ill-judged photograph are exactly the kind of things that could cause ongoing problems throughout life. This is without even delving into the darker territories of cyber-bullying, cyber-stalking and sexual exploitation

Our tech-savvy kids need us to step up and be effective digital leaders. This isn’t some one-off that can be dealt with through a couple of dedicated ICT or PHSE lessons. It can’t just be an Internet Safety Day, or an assembly. It can’t be left until KS3; it needs to start in the home before kids even start school. In short, we need to embed the core tenets of digital citizenship into every digital transaction we undertake, and teach kids to do the same.

In future posts I will try and tease out some of the individual strands of digital citizenship, focussing more on the specifics of the role of mentor/parent/educator. As always, I’d love to hear the views of others.

Punctuation for meaning

Could we improve children’s understanding of punctuation by making a more explicit link between punctuation and meaning right from the start of the learning to read process?

NC English wordle

I’m going to share a poem that I encountered many years ago (top infants, as it happens; I’m in my early 40’s now).

One day when I was feeling sick,
I paid a call on Dr. Nick,
Now Doctor Nicholas said to me:
“You must use hair oil in your tea,
Put plenty of sugar in your ears,
Use cotton wool when the weather clears,
Take country walks when you go to bed,
Use feather pillows on your bread,
Use butter for your daily dip,
Good soap and water you should sip,
This tonic for you I will prescribe,
And if you do as I describe,
Rarely, if ever, will you feel sick.”
“Oh thank you! Thank you, Dr. Nick!”
I took my coat I went my ways
And I’ve been healthy all my days
I’ve followed the doctor’s words to the letter
To tell the truth I’ve never felt better.

I’ve tried to find the author of the poem, but to no avail. All I know is that appeared in an British reading scheme book. It was paired with an article about the loss of an American space rocket on launch, because of an erroneous hyphen in the launch programme code.

I do have a good memory, I suppose, because the poem has stuck with me. What I love about it, as the sharp-eyed reader has already spotted, is the way that shuffling some of that punctuation actually renders Dr. Nick’s advice fairly sensible, if of questionable medical benefit.

Paired with the space article, they made concrete the idea that punctuation itself is often the final arbiter of meaning. You put that comma there, your sentence now means something a little, or a lot different. This is a point which is often overlooked during the process of teaching pupils to punctuate. I think that there may be a sound reason for this. As they learn to read, children encounter punctuation in the texts they are learning from. Generally this will happen substantially before children are dealing with punctuation in their own writing. In this context, it makes sense to teach punctuation from a reading-focussed perspective. In reality, I suspect common practice reinforces the idea that punctuation’s purpose is as an aid to the reader, rather than an aid to allow the writer to convey meaning more effectively. Yes, I’m thinking of the dreaded “small breaths at commas, bigger breaths at fullstops” habit. Worse still I’m-thinking-of-the-teacher-reading-a-text-without-expression-pause-or-modulation-and-certainly-without-any-nod-to-any-kind-of-punctuation-to-try-to-show-what-writing-without-punctuation-sounds-like. I’m sure we’ve all done it at some point!

The corollary of this is that by the time children encounter punctuation as writers, many of them still have a preconceived idea of the main purpose of punctuation, which is not often enough debunked. By the time they start using “more ambitious” punctuation, many children will take an approach that treats punctuation as little more than cake decoration, chucking in exclamation marks as though they are going out of fashion, not daring to use anything as mundane as a full-stop.

The wordle at the top of these page is made from the full text of the UK National Curriculum document for English Trying to find the word punctuation in there is a little like “Where’s Wally?” That’s “Where’s Waldo? for my American readers.

I’m not going to say much more than to repose that opening question:

Could we improve children’s understanding of punctuation by making a more explicit link between punctuation and meaning right from the start of the learning to read process?