Tag Archives: Teaching & learning

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.

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?

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!

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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

Some thoughts on mindfulness

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If you haven’t encountered the concept, mindfulness is essentially a set of thought-techniques and attitudes which can, through practise and application, help the practitioner develop a sense of calm focus.

In many ways, it sits at the opposite end of the thought spectrum to multi-tasking. It’s all about finding a way to shut out the chatter of competing demands and applying yourself fully and wholeheartedly to the task at hand, physically and mentally. It recognises that even when physical distractions, say kids, are absent, our minds can themselves be hugely distracting.

Many time management philosophies encourage prioritisation based on hierarchies of perceived importance and urgency. This is all well and good, but it often means that a huge backlog of low urgency stuff accumulates. This can be stressful. Alternatively, it can lead to a situation where conflicts arise between big important things (lesson-planning, marking) and mundane but necessary stuff (ironing shirts, washing up and feeding your kids).

Applying a mindfulness based approach to the same competing demands can be a revelation. Using the example above, the mindful individual will be focussed entirely on washing the dishes or on feeding the kids, and mentally being in that moment. They will not be feeding the kids whilst silently mulling over what to teach tomorrow. As they wash the dishes, they will be thinking of nothing deeper than the act of washing the dishes.

In doing so, the mundane can become less onerous, even enjoyable, your mind gets a break and when you shift your mindful attention to those big, important tasks, it will be without the baggage of having spent dinner time fretting about things that you were not in a position to do anything about. A clear mind can work wonders.

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:

2×2=4
4×5=20
20×39=780
780/60=13

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?’

800px-Great_male_Leopard_in_South_Afrika

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