Tag Archives: Education

Dear Michael Rosen

Michael Rosen doesn’t like synthetic phonics; http://www.nurseryworld.co.uk/news/bulletin/nurseryworldupdate/article/1168285/?DCMP=EMC-CONNurseryWorldUpdate

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.

The pen is mightier than the sword Part 1


Handwriting is not dead. Despite reports to the contrary, despite a plethora of technologies for creating text, nothing yet matches the speed and immediacy of a quick note jotted down with a mark-making implement on a scrap of paper.

It’s probably not a stretch to suggest that a handwritten letter or card remains one of the most intimate means of non-verbal communication of thoughts, ideas and feelings. It is certainly true that the majority of students hand write the bulk of their work, at least at primary level. This will likely remain the case for the foreseeable future.

With this in mind, it is frustrating to witness students struggle to master basic ‘stylus skills’ (a non-gendered alternative to ‘penmanship’). In the UK, we are also in the unfortunate situation where handwriting quality has historically counted for only a few percentage points in Y6 English tests.

As with many things that we could do better in schools, a focus on improving handwriting sits comfortably with the concept of marginal gains, beyond the opportunity to clinch a couple of extra test points.

1. The physical act of writing something down makes a stronger memory than typing it. It improves learning

2. Fluent/neat writers are better able to keep pace with their own thoughts. Laborious writers struggle with this, leading to a loss of coherence, or a tendency to use simple, workaday language.

3. The fluent/neat writer generally suffers lower levels of muscle fatigue; they can sustain their effort for longer and produce more writing for a given time increment. How can a student demonstrate their abilities if they are not able to produce an adequate body of work.

4. The fluent/neat writer can create documents that are visually pleasing in and of themselves. Laborious writers can obviously see the gulf between such documents and their own, yet lack the skills to produce them.

As with any physically expressed skill, we are all at different points on a continuum, and as with any physically expressed skill, there are almost non of us who could not make improvements. There is no ‘just can’t’ get out clause. It will be difficult. It will take work and a certain amount of dedication, but improvements can be made and should be sought.

This is really a plea for systematic, properly taught, properly supported and properly resourced handwriting teaching for every child. More than this, it’s a plea for non-acceptance of bad handwriting.

This is part one of a two-part post.

Why every teacher should be blogging…

I’m going to throw down a gauntlet. Are you a teacher with access to a computer, tablet or smartphone? Are you blogging? No? Why not? You should be!


At risk of breaking my question mark key, a couple more questions. How many times a week are you asking children to draft, edit, redraft, pieces of writing, to develop a topic from a few simple ideas into a coherent, well edited piece? How often do you make that demand of yourself? (For clarity, school paperwork doesn’t count!)

The first thing that I’ve found as a newly-enthusiastic blogger is that the more I write, the more ideas I have, and the more I want to write. That’s not in itself any kind of quality control; you should see my drafts folder. What it has achieved is to ensure that fresh ideas are not a prerequisite when the o’clock ticks round to ‘writing time’.

This next realisation took a little longer, but I think it’s key. It’s also at the heart of the (good natured) challenge that was set in the opening sentence. I can feel my writing skill improving, even after only a short time, which I attribute almost entirely to the fact that I am writing for an audience. It’s the simple difference between writing for private consumption and opening yourself up to others’ judgement. That potential makes me think much harder about each sentence:

1. Does it communicate what I intend?
2. Is it grammatically correct and properly spelled?
3. Is it reasonably elegantly and economically rendered?
4. Am I still satisfied when I read it 24 hours later?

Simply by addressing the four questions above, I am gaining emotional and analytical insights into the process of writing, and discovering that it takes a certain amount of persistence, a fair amount of effort, and a liberal splash of honest self-critcism. Is there any better platform from which to teach our students to do the same with their writing? The fact that you also get to be a writing role-model is a bonus.

Yes, it’ll make demands on your already over stretched daily schedule, but come on! Can you really not commit just a few minutes a day to making the first steps? If nothing else, when you do get round to writing that epic work in your chosen œvre, you’ll have done at least a little bit of the donkey work!

So there you go. My aspiration for 2013; every teacher, a writer.

Follow me on Twitter – @iorekbyrnisson

The road to hell

No, that’s not intended to betray any kind of supressed love for the music of Chris Rea.

A little arithmetic to begin:


That 13 is a number of hours, by the way. Think of it another way. That’s 13 literacy or numeracy lessons, or somewhere a little shy of 3 full school days. This is a little estimate of the annual time expenditure on writing out lesson objectives in exercise books, assuming it to be done twice a day.

Of course, writing down the learning objective, along with some little checkboxes to colour in/draw smiley face, takes many pupils more than the slightly conservative 2 minutes that I have allowed in my calculation. That 13 hours could so easily be 19.5 or even 26 with younger primary pupils. Imagine that. 26 hours spent on… not an awful lot.

I’m not opposed to sharing learning objectives per se, nor with sharing them with children: but laboriously recording them, along with AfL boxes, on each and every piece of work done in literacy and maths represents time that could be better spent. The teacher or teaching assistant spending time printing then sticking them into books on students’ behalves is no better a use of time.

A polar bear stood amongst the trees

It’s been snowing a lot recently. Thanks to this, I’ve had some real fun out in the garden with my four year old son. A particular joy has been throwing snowballs at the brickwork of our house to make it spotty. Another highlight was this gem of a conversation:

“I think I can see a polar bear!”
“A polar bear? Don’t be silly dad.”
“I’m not. I can definitely see one.”
“But you can’t. Snow is white and polar bears are white, so you can’t see polar bears in the snow, you know. Maybe you can see his nose, because his nose is black.”

There is a science lesson for lower key stage 2 children that has been doing the rounds; I’ve encountered it in schools and I’ve heard it promoted on CPD science courses. It involves children spending a period of time finding different coloured pipecleaners in amongst shrubbery. The kids have a super time, rapidly tracking down the reds, yellows, blues and whites whilst failing to find the greens, browns and blacks. It’s real hands-on stuff. In the discussions afterwards, children demonstrate a real understanding of how camouflage works.

Now for the last part of that conversation with my son.

“I bet you’d be able to see that polar bear if he was standing in a forest.”
“Not if he was a green polar bear, dad!”

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that this activity highlights a couple of problems with a lot of what we do in schools. First of all, there is the major issue of underestimating what children already know perfectly well. Clearly, my youngest son understands the concept of camouflage well enough that he probably doesn’t need to be retaught this in Year 4. Extrapolation can be hazardous, but I imagine that most children, by the time they encountered the activity I described already ‘get’ camouflage. Secondly is the issue of an activity taking centre stage at the expense of concrete learning. By the time the children had gotten themselves togged up to trot down to the school nature area, done the activity, entered the results in a tally chart, come back to class, detogged and discussed their ‘findings’, the big question should surely be ‘What did the children actually learn?’


Clearly this is not a polar bear. I happen to think that this image says more about camouflage than a whole packet of pipecleaners…

2013 – The Year of Thinking Differently

Over the past few months, I have thought about philosophies of education more deeply than I have in a long while. This might sound strange, from one who works in the field, but it’s true. I’d hit a point where I was genuinely beginning to wonder whether working in education was still something that I wanted to do. That said, I was feeling that way about many aspects of my life, and I have been fortunate that I have had the time and support to explore my philosophies of life, work, parenting, pet ownership…

Here is what has happened. Slowly, but surely, I’ve reconnected with the drive and enthusiasm that I felt back in the late 1990’s as an NQT. Social media has been a significant driver of this reflection and reappraisal; Twitter, for example, is crammed with people who feel passionately about education, many of them have blogs, and those blogs are a rich source of material for anyone wishing to get at the nitty-gritty of what is going on in schools all over the world. Getting fully immersed in what many of these bloggers have written has been a revelation, personally and professionally. The best part has been that I have managed to get to the heart of my own disenchantment, and with a more general sense of increasing disquiet over the state of education in the UK, other liberal democracies and in parts of the developing world. The worst part has been realising the extent of my own complicity. Time for a change, then.

The debate over education is seemingly gathering momentum; a good thing in and of itself if the errors of the past are to be rectified. And mistakes there have been. Facing up to and taking ownership of these mistakes is a pre-requisite if teachers are serious about improving educational outcomes for this and subsequent generations of British school-children. That’s fairly “high-stakes” as things go. It’s also going to be necessary if the teaching profession is serious about actually being professional, if it wishes to regain its morale (dwindling, apparently), and properly fulfil our remit as public servants.

So, hello world!

(Iorak Byrnisson is a pseudonym. He is a fictional talking bear from Phillip Pullman’s excellent books)