On Saturday 28th March, I was invited to speak at a conference organised by the Reading Reform Foundation (RRF). The purpose of the event was to highlight the vital importance of systematic synthetic phonics (SSP)*. A great variety of speakers with different areas of expertise were asked to talk on the subject and it seemed many fruitful conversations were had by those who attended. I was invited to talk about my decision to use SSP with secondary school students within SEN, which will be available online shortly.
Systematic Synthetic Phonics (or SSP) is a structured, repetitive approach to teaching reading with a total reliance on the smallest units of explicit sounds – in both spoken form (‘phonemes’) and written form (‘graphemes’) – to teach reading. This method usually starts with the most common sounds and moves through to more complicated ones e.g. knowing a ‘dge’ makes the same sound as a ‘j’, and a ‘tch’ makes the same sound as a ‘ch’.
This is in contrast to analytic phonics, where students are often asked to read beyond a difficult word to the end of the sentence, then attempt to guess it using contextual clues. This approach, while helpful in the opinion of some, does not develop the reading skills of a student nor help them learn explicit sounds, since they have simply guessed the word through their understanding of the rest of the passage. This also often has negative impact for those new to English, since their knowledge of vocabulary at entry point to the UK is minimal, so there are flaws in the reliance of a guessing technique.
While I have been aware of the benefits of using a structured approach to reading for a long time, it has made me more sure than ever that this is the most targetted, reliable, efficient and, without wishing to go overboard, moral way to teach reading.
Unfortunately, official governmental guidance does not stipulate that a single methodical approach to teaching reading is key though does advise this. For me, a directive which would acknowledge the necessity of teaching reading through SSP would be a great step towards ensuring that far more students might have the opportunity to learn to read before they leave primary school.
Not to add fuel to the fire in the debate around the phonics screening check at the end of Year 1, but I am a keen and outed supporter. Ensuring that any individual has a good grasp of the fundamental skills of reading and writing can surely only be a good thing.
With my SEN head on, however, there seems to be a flaw in the system. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding of it is as follows:
The DfE website states that:
… And after that? What happens then?
If, as educators, we acknowledge that children physically grow at different rates, mature emotionally at different times and adopt new knowledge at different speeds, is it okay that we let so many fall off the radar beyond Y2 simply because their learning of our complex alphabetic code has not fit into our man-made termly organisation?
There seems to be a black hole for those students who have not grasped reading by this point and, in my opinion, this could be one key factor contributing to the situation I’m faced with as Literacy Leader of a secondary school, welcoming in substantial numbers of students arriving in Y7 who are still unable to read. Pass at Y2 or branded SEN. Hereth begineth the dreaded ‘gap’.
I have no doubt that schools in the majority do their best to scaffold the learning of students who fail to pass the phonics check at Y2. It is our moral obligation to ensure that our learners are equipped as best as possible for the education journey they walk. However, there are questions we need to be asking here:
- What does the research suggest and how are we applying it to our own classrooms?
- If there are so many students failing to grasp reading across the UK, are we really using the most suitable approach that meets the needs of ALL our students?
- How else can we support students beyond this stage if they haven’t learnt it by the end of Y2?
- Have we done all we can to ensure this student is able to access the curriculum?
Disclaimer: I have been a primary school teacher. I have seen the amazing job that primary school teachers do, day in, day out. This post is by no means an attack on the teachers who deliver phonics to younger students. My intention is simply to verbalise my thoughts on the current situation I observe from a secondary perspective and explore ways we might overcome some of the flaws in the system.
If we are to see illiteracy in the UK reduce by any significant measure, we have a duty to ensure that:
- the most targetted, research-based, fail-proof, methodical approach to teaching reading is employed
- ALL students are supported to a point where they are able to read and write independently as early as possible (and beyond!)
By achieving these two points above, I am almost certain that we would see numbers of those arriving at secondary labelled as ‘SEN’ dramatically decrease, since there would have been no gap (or at least a much smaller learning gap) to close. I’m sure we would begin to witness less students arrive at secondary who are clearly able in many areas of the curriculum, extremely competent in verbal responses, but branded with a ‘Specific Learning Difficulty’ in reading. I do acknowledge that there will always be some level of need in this area, which is likely to extend to education in the older years. I do also recognise, however, that we are clearly doing something wrong at present and, until it is addressed and corrected, we are failing a great number of our students.
Saturday 28th March 2015 marks the date of the next Reading Reform Foundation Conference. It’s key focus will be on the use of phonics to teach reading and is entitled “From the Rose Review to the New Curriculum.”
I have no direct link with this organisation in any other capacity than keeping up with their movements on Twitter, but I do hold deep admiration for the work they do in promoting the use of synthetic phonics in the development of language and reading.
Having taught at both primary and secondary school level, and now in my role as Literacy Leader at the large secondary school where I teach, I have witnessed countless times the overwhelmingly positive impact that the systematic teaching of synthetic phonics can have on a weak reader. To be armed with the tool belt of phonics is, in my opinion, the key to unlocking the door of illiteracy for so many children, older students and adults.
Arriving at secondary school as a student unable to read is a sad affair. There is an element of injustice here in that, due to whatever reason – be it difficult behaviour, unstable home life, a physical impairment (e.g. poor vision or hearing), a slower processing speed, poor or inconsistent teaching – students are still failing to access mainstream education at this age. And the truth is that, for some, this obstacle to learning could have been overcome simply through a better delivery of phonics.
On their website, the RRF claim that:
“For too long now the teaching of reading has been affected by the idea that children should learn by discovery, leading to the rejection of systematic, explicit instruction. This idea is deeply ingrained in education and still has a powerful influence on how reading is taught, despite having no scientific validity.”
On the 28th March, my presentation on ‘Phonics in the Secondary Classroom’ will explore the potential drawbacks and advantages of using synthetic phonics with students of an older age. I also intend to give insight into the systematic approaches I have implemented as Literacy Leader at my own school, which have shown to produce real, deep progress for our struggling readers in Years 7-11.
I’m privileged to be speaking alongside some true experts in this educational field and look forward to attending the day myself; to soak up some great teaching from others. More information and the link to book tickets can be found here:
Hope to see you there!
A couple of weeks ago, the focus of our school INSET day was on Feedback. Phil Stock (@joeybagstock), our Assistant Headteacher of Professional Development and Language challenged us as a staff body to consider what we perceive to be the most effective method(s) of feedback, both within and outside the classroom. Following a hearty breakfast, we were gifted a rare hour of our time dedicated solely to reading. Phil had recommended a number of blog posts by a range of different writers within the educational sphere and encouraged us to choose a selection from the menu provided.
I suppose it was a bit of a risk to kick off a day of training with an hour of silence and solitude, but I loved it. If you’re any kind of educationalist who has spent some time in a school environment, you’ll know how incredibly rare it is to find time in the school day to make room for this kind of personal study. And yet, it’s possibly one of the most important things we really should be doing to develop our knowledge on key principles of teaching and learning. We were invited to read up to 5-6 blog posts or articles within the hour and then reunite later to share findings and consider the potential positive impact these ideas could have within our own classrooms.
The purpose of this post is simply to share my notes on the posts I read (and found to be very worthwhile), as well as offering a simple ‘Top 10’ list I wrote as a result, to share with members of staff I lead who teach lower set Y7 groups. These points are in no way exclusive to SEN, but have been designed around the effective strategies I know to work within my own intervention classroom.
Let’s build it in, not add it on: Andy Tharby (@atharby) wp.me/p43kJZ-lq
- Most useful feedback happens while students are working, not after
- Should be indistinguishable from other elements of a lesson such as explanation and questioning
- Feedback from and to students informs every decision we make
- A balance is required between the challenge of a high level of “correctness” without creation of a dependency culture
improving the basics: Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher) http://wp.me/p2qGQb-15J
- Devote time to drafting and redrafting – Austin’s butterfly
- Maintain higher expectations, and praise for progress/achievement
- Students just need to know what the standards are and how to reach them
- Very much about shift of attitude
Making time for feedback: ASCD http://tinyurl.com/8jdyysv
- Work smarter, not harder
- Focus on errors, not mistakes
- We recognise simple mistakes by students when we know them – it shows as uncharacteristic
- Mistakes are ones we can correct using our knowledge
- Errors are ones we make because we do not possess the necessary knowledge to correct
- “Correcting errors typically results in new understanding and improved performance; moreover, once teachers implement this practice, students rarely make those errors again.”
- 4 main error categories:
- Factual errors
- Procedural errors
- Transformation errors – incorrect application to new situations
e.g. biology and bicycle – not knowing difference between bi and bio roots
- Misconception errors
- Should look for patterns in student errors to be able to target specific areas rather than reteach a whole concept or unit
- Distinguish between global and targeted errors
- Use prompts and cues to shift the learner’s attention
Have we got feedback backwards?: Alex Quigley (@HuntingEnglish) http://tinyurl.com/oos78r4
- Time spent on marking isn’t equal to the impact it has on learning – onus is on the teacher in this model, not student
- DIRT – Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time – onus moves to student to reflect and respond to feedback, making changes to their work
- More time spent responding to feedback that marking
- Feedback vs. feeding forward – should impact future learning
- Symbols, not comments
- Dot round to signal error but student must work it out
- Assess in colour – colour code
- Self assessment before teacher assessment
- One to one
- Active process – oral feedback just as effective
Improving peer feedback with gallery critique: David Didau (@LearningSpy) http://tinyurl.com/pttamzl
I didn’t make notes on this as I had already read it extensively for a workshop I had previously led on peer assessment, but I would highly recommend it.
As a result of these brilliant, really gritty, content-packed pieces of writing, I was able to draw ten key points from these to share with colleagues.
For me, the most successful methods of feedback I’ve seen to have the most positive impact in the classroom are those listed below. One beautiful thing about teaching intervention groups is the way in which it is possible for me to reach every student within one lesson. To have the opportunity to get round to each of them and offer targeted, one to one support with their work right there and then is invaluable in their learning journey. It is wholly possible to apply many of these below to the mainstream classroom, though as with most pedagogical approaches, it would take some thought around how to implement them.
EFFECTIVE FEEDBACK: My ‘Top 10’
- Effective feedback often happens most DURING lessons, not after
- LA sets will not benefit from long streams of marked written comments
- Symbols over work, work best – be careful not to give them the answer
- Concentrate on errors, not Remember:
A mistake = incorrect due to tiredness/one-off mistake that can be corrected with own knowledge
An error = a common pattern of errors made due to the learner not possessing the knowledge to correct themselves
- DIRT (Dedicated Improvement & Reflection Time) – Build time into lessons for valuable drafting & redrafting focus sessions
- Model high quality work – show outstanding examples and feedback as a group
- 1:1 conversations – be specific, giving high quality feedback
- Self-efficacy (praise of tasks/achievement) vs. self-confidence (praise of ego) – see Dylan Wiliam: http://www.journeytoexcellence.org.uk/videos/expertspeakers/selfefficacydylanwiliam.asp
- Make peer/self- assessment valuable … model what effective feedback looks like
- Maintain highest expectations and don’t accept less than their best
It’s that time of year again when thousands of exhausted teachers find themselves aimlessly pacing up and down the staffroom at 3.30pm, too tired to talk or sit or check their pigeon hole, managing to communicate with colleagues only through a series of synchronised puzzled looks, shoulder shrugs and a selection of appropriate nods and grunts. September welcomes the start of the new academic year; a second chance at a January 1st -esque renewal for both students and teachers.
Where I’m currently based, in the SEN department of a super local secondary school, it’s no different. The buzz in the air around the new baseline testing data and information from feeder schools offers a welcome sense of optimism, as we work as a team to number crunch and meet with students to identify those needing additional support. Aware of debates around data and levels and ways to effectively measure progress, I agree that there are huge drawbacks in the over-assessment of our students and the over-reliance on data. There are clearly flaws to be found here. However, for us it is crucial.
In order to best scaffold the learning for our students who need additional support on entry to this daunting brand new world of secondary school, at least until we know individuals within the new Y7 cohort better, we have to rely on our baseline data and historical information sent up from our feeder primary schools. It is through the initial testing and then further investigation into particular scores that we can identify students who have learning weaknesses in particular areas of the curriculum – be that in literacy (e.g. in reading or spelling), in speech and language, or in maths. I’m confident we have a strong assessment process in place that prevents students slipping through that all-important metaphorical ‘net’. It is from here that we then stream pupils into the most appropriate targeted support to meet their specific need(s), be that at Wave 1 (in class support), Wave 2 (group intervention support), or Wave 3 (1:1 support).
As Literacy Leader, it is naturally my priority to scrutinise the testing results of our students’ performance in reading, writing and spelling. Through the standardised tests we have invested in since I have been in post, we identify those performing at a level significantly below that of their peers and address needs on an individual case basis. Our tests provide a detailed breakdown into reading accuracy, comprehension, reading rate and processing speed. The method we have followed this year has remained much the same as previous years. However, something has changed. And it’s something I predicted might happen a couple of years ago.
While the reading accuracy scores at the point of intake of our new Year 7 cohort seem to be rising year on year, comprehension scores are dropping. I can only talk of my experience where I work so this may not be seen among other schools across the borough/region/country. However, it’s a consistent change and one that is worth exploring.
At this point, I’m keen to declare my support for the teaching of synthetic phonics* in primary schools. I have seen, both through classroom experience (at primary and secondary) and through data analysis that this strategy for teaching reading accuracy works. I am an advocate, as outlined in a previous post here, so please be clear that this post is in no way a concern around the teaching of synthetic phonics itself.
‘Analytic phonics’ = the teaching of a word within context (i.e. analysing what the word as a whole could be based on the words around it)
‘Synthetic phonics’ = the teaching of individual sounds, irrelevant of context (e.g. ai, ee, aw, igh)
I am confident that phonics works. I personally rely on it as a method of teaching many of our intervention groups or 1:1 sessions, working with students who reach us at KS3 and still cannot read. I am concerned, however, that as educationalists in both primary and secondary, we need to recognise the many demands that reading brings and should therefore not only explicitly teach reading accuracy, but comprehension strategies also. My fear is that in improving reading accuracy across the nation through the implementation of synthetic phonics, we may be masking an issue around reading comprehension.
Phonics was introduced to schools as statutory in September 2007 following the Jim Rose review in March 2006. His ‘Independent Review of the Early Teaching of Reading’ in the UK was revealing and its impact great in changing the national pedagogical approach to teaching reading. Rose insisted that the government’s rejection of phonics in 1997 as a valid method of teaching reading was a very bad mistake and, in light of his findings in this 2006 review, succeeded in influencing those in power to change their minds.
The diagram above shows the interdependence between two key features of reading:
a) word recognition processes
b) language comprehension processes
The act of reading is simply impossible without the ability to:
- read words accurately
- understand the meanings of words
If a student shows poor reading accuracy and poor comprehension processes, they will undoubtedly struggle to read a text. Similarly, if a student possesses a good reading accuracy ability but poor comprehension around the words they are able to read, they will still struggle to grasp the meaning of a text. Take the word ‘comprehension’ itself. Phonetically, it is a word that can be decoded relatively easily = com/pre/hen/sion. However, since there are not many semantic clues within the word itself, without the direct teaching of what this word actually means, students may be left confused.
In his review, Jim Rose explains,
“Comprehension occurs as the listener builds a mental representation of the information contained within the language that a speaker is using. The comprehension processes that enable the mental representation to be built up occur at the word, sentence and utterance (text) level. Individual word meanings are identified from phonological input. Parsing of the language occurs. This ensures that meaning is mediated through grammatical structure. A number of inferential processes are also used. These all happen simultaneously and the resulting information interacts with the listener’s general knowledge to enable as accurate a mental representation of the spoken message as the listener is capable of at any particular stage of development. It is important to bear in mind that the extent of the listener’s general knowledge and level of cognitive development will have a bearing on the comprehension of the message. To generate an accurate mental representation of this the listener has to process the language and the concepts.”
Rose reminds us that learners need to be able to assimilate new words that are suitable for their own personal level of cognitive development. He goes on to advise that,
“Teachers also need to be brought up to date with research into reading comprehension. As reading comprehension has now been shown to depend crucially on language comprehension, teachers also need to have good knowledge and understanding of oral language development, and of ways to foster language comprehension.”
Rose acknowledges that language comprehension (ie. the explicit teaching of words and their meanings) needs to be taught within the classroom. I see this as vital in both primary and secondary, since language acquisition takes place at any, and every, age. There is great enjoyment to be had in sharing this depth of knowledge with students, hopefully stirring an interest in language and word etymology in the process.
If students are able to access language at a more advanced level since their accuracy is improving, teachers of all key stages should bear in mind that even though a student may sound fluent and can read more challenging texts, their comprehension of what they are reading may not match up. It is therefore essential that teachers continuously check students’ understanding irrelevant of age, key stage or ability, through the use of targeted questioning and regular low-stake formative assessments.
This diagram from the Rose Review demonstrates, quite obviously, the importance of a learner’s general knowledge and language system in the acquisition process of any new vocabulary encountered. Rose states,
“It is widely agreed that phonic work is an essential part, but not the whole picture, of what it takes to become a fluent reader and skilled writer, well capable of comprehending and composing text. Although this review focuses upon phonic work, it is very important to understand what the rest of the picture looks like and requires. For example, nurturing positive attitudes to literacy and the skills associated with them, across the curriculum, is crucially important as is developing spoken language, building vocabulary, grammar, comprehension and facility with ICT.”
Students should be actively and constantly engaging in the process of reading. In my opinion synthetic phonics is, without a doubt, essential for students to develop an independence in reading accuracy but, of equal importance, there needs to be an explicit teaching of vocabulary to students within the classroom too. This is a responsibility of primary teachers and secondary teachers too, across the broad spectrum of curriculum subjects taught. As a result, students will not only be able to phonetically decode an unfamiliar word, but will know the deeper semantic significance behind the words they read too. Language development begins at an early age but has no limits to its growth. A love of vocabulary is something we need to nurture in the learning environment, and the explicit teaching of new words is one way this can be achieved.
Saturday 6th September 2014 saw the second national researchED conference take place; an event for those interested in teaching and research and the complicated relationship between the two. Tom Bennett (@tombennet71) and Helene O’Shea (@hgaldinoshea) captained the ship, welcoming onboard an array of speakers, all who possess a wealth of expertise in their own specialist area.
While I’ve been to a few education-based events before (both larger national gatherings and more local teachmeets etc.), being my first research conference I didn’t arrive with any predefined expectations of the day. On arrival, I was greeted with a customary lanyard and a less customary branded wicker bag, complete with free branded pen and educational paper. Impressive. After a warm welcome, delegates were invited to attend up to seven different sessions of their choice, all lasting roughly one hour. Session leaders had knowledge in their various different curriculum/research/government fields and the workshops reflected this.
Though I’m sure you’re fascinated to know which public transport route I took and what I had for my lunch, I’ll spare you the details and simply note the ‘takeaways’ I left with from the day. Ideally, this penultimate sentence of my intro would see me writing about how much better equipped I now feel to a) source accurate research around my own subject and pedagogy of Literacy and SEN, and b) know how to carry out my own effective research studies into the best methods of teaching and learning. However, I left the conference feeling a little more perplexed by educational research and yet, at the same time, very much refreshed.
Nick Rose (@turnfordblog), a teacher/ researcher/ psychologist
presented his audience with a healthy challenge to approach pedagogical theories and highly regarded, well-known teaching programmes with caution. He was unapologetic in his quest to inform those that were present of the lack of authentic evidence behind some of the most widely used teaching methods we know of in the world of education. His ‘hit list’ included the likes of preferred learning styles (including VAK), right/left brain theory, NLP and even… wait for it… brain gym.
Rose proposed that educationalists need to develop a real ‘professional skepticism’ around research in education. He commented that schools tend to have a very low immune system, allowing a whole variety of costly approaches and strategies to pass through the door without thoroughly vetting their validity first. This is an interesting concept and one we need to be aware of. Nick’s own personal account of the conference can be found here.
David Didau (@learningspy), a teacher/ consultant / author
offered a number of interesting points to consider when looking into edu-research. He quoted Henri Bergson who famously said:
This supported his claim that brains are not rational but rather illogical and, as humans, we therefore fall into some of the well-known traps below:
Anchoring Effect: a tendency to use anchors or reference points to make decisions and evaluations, sometimes leading us astray.
Sunk Cost Fallacy: following through with a project because of our investment (time/money/effort), irrespective of whether evidence would suggest that is the best thing to do.
He outlined that progress is not a linear journey but a complex messy one. Didau posed questions such as “How should we measure true progress?” and “With what educational ‘unit’ of measurement should we assess?”
He stated that evidence is not the same as proof, offering a comment on those strategies that ARE well researched and understood to be effective within the classroom environment. These include the ‘Spacing effect’ and the ‘Testing effect’ both of which are explained in his full presentation, available here.
David left the audience with a quote from Carl Sagan:
John Thomsett (@johntomsett), a Headteacher from Huntingdon School in York and
driver of a new research project along with his Lead Researcher, Alex Quigley
outlined a number of essentials to consider around educational research. He quoted Tom Bentley, who said:
What is the point of research if it doesn’t alter the way you work/plan/teach?
While depth of teachers’ subject knowledge and choice of pedagogical approach is undeniably critical in the development of strong teaching and learning, if neither are realigned to best meet the needs of students as a result of research findings, there’s very little point in getting engaged in it at all. If the research suggests what you are doing currently is right, great! That’s welcome affirmation to keep on doing what you’re doing.
Interestingly, Tomsett commented on his blog this week,
“Perpetual self-doubt is a relatively healthy condition in which to exist. At an event like yesterday’s [researchED] I look to take away some learning and what I took away yesterday made me doubt myself and our developmental priorities just a little bit.”
Research is a grey area and one that so many professions have wrestled with, both in the past and still today. But if we fail to recognise its obvious benefits, we are doing a disservice to our students.
Dylan Wiliam (@dylanwiliam), a teacher ‘guru’, researcher, writer,
Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at the IoE
gave a great talk entitled, “Why teaching will never be a research-based profession (and why that’s a GOOD thing)”.
You can find a link to his full presentation here.
One of the key points Wiliam made saw him challenge the audience to consider what part ethics plays in educational enquiry. He claimed that researchers have a moral obligation to pursue fair studies that are valuable to school teachers and students, rather than ones carried out simply in an effort to validate one’s own already-held opinion. He raised the interesting point that many published research studies already available in the public arena are selective in the results they share, omitting details of findings that do not support the cause behind their study.
While Wiliam sees a lot of value in Randomised Control Trials (RCTs) as a method of research, he recognises four main drawbacks.
- Clustering: in comparing two students within the same school, despite potentially being in different groups (ie. one in an active group and the other in a control group), there will inevitably be some similarities through their shared experiences in school etc.
- Power: the various teachers/leaders/students involved in an RCT may not follow direct instructions, thus reducing the fairness of th test.
- Implementation: there are nearly always logistical barriers to carrying out RCTs, which includes aspects such as timetabling, time allowed for interventions outside of curriculum subjects, relevant staff to support etc.
- Context: Perhaps the best way to sum up this point is to quote a blog I came across recently. Dave Algoso, Director of Programmes at Reboot (a social impact firm dedicated to inclusive development and accountable governance) states,
“I think the danger here comes from a false level of precision. We talk about RCTs as having a scientific rigor that distinguishes them from pseudo-experimental approaches. There is some truth to this. However, if the calculated average effect of a program is stripped of all the caveats and nuance about the things we were unable to measure and calculate, then we risk being overconfident in our knowledge. Science brings a potentially inflated sense of our own expertise. RCTs, and the development industry as a whole, would benefit from less certainty and greater humility.”
Food for thought.
Wiliam also made reference to the Educational Endowment Foundation (EEF) toolkit, highlighting how research studies have led educationalists to rate various aspects of teaching and learning based on their supposed level of positive impact on students. According to this list, interventions such as peer tutoring and phonics score very highly (of which I am in full agreement), in comparison to others such as teaching assistants and ability grouping, the latter actually being the only one listed that shows a negative impact score. While there may be some validity in some of these results, Wiliam leads us to question the authenticity behind the scores.
For example, when considering ability grouping, Wiliam makes the point that in a large majority of cases the best and most experienced teachers are usually assigned to the top sets in any given cohort where groups are set by ability. Similarly, lower sets often do not get the access to the differentiated teaching they require to make solid progress. He argued that the gap widens in these cases, often as a result of the top set moving so fast that no students within the middle range of ability can progress to join those at the ‘top’ and, in contrast, the lower sets move far too slowly, thus preventing weaker students to make sufficient progress. This is a great challenge to schools and school leaders and one that, in my opinion, must be addressed in order for all students to make the most positive progress possible. Dylan Wiliam advised that those within the teaching profession should continue to improve their practice through the process of disciplined enquiry.
As a final reflection on researchED 2014, while my impression of educational research is perhaps a little more hazy than it was prior to the event, I’ve returned confident that authentic enquiry into “what works” in this profession is crucial. I’m quite sure that it is a responsibility of ours as educators to ensure we are providing students with the best foundation possible for their future. This includes a willingness to invest time and energy into exploring what “best practice” really is within education.
Videos from the event can be found here.
You can also follow researchED on twitter @researchED1.
“Phoney Phonetics” by Vivian Buchan, NEA Journal 1966/67, USA
|One reason why I cannot spell,
Although I learned the rules quite well
Is that some words like coup and through
Sound just like threw and flue and Who;
When oo is never spelled the same,
The duice becomes a guessing game;
And then I ponder over though,
Is it spelled so, or throw, or beau,
And bough is never bow, it’s bow,
I mean the bow that sounds like plow,
And not the bow that sounds like row –
The row that is pronounced like roe.
I wonder, too, why rough and tough,
That sound the same as gruff and muff,
Are spelled like bough and though, for they
Are both pronounced a different way.
And why can’t I spell trough and cough
The same as I do scoff and golf?
|Why isn’t drought spelled just like route,
or doubt or pout or sauerkraut?
When words all sound so much the same
To change the spelling seems a shame.
There is no sense – see sound like cents –
in making such a difference
Between the sight and sound of words;
Each spelling rule that undergirds
The way a word should look will fail
And often prove to no avail
Because exceptions will negate
The truth of what the rule may state;
So though I try, I still despair
And moan and mutter “It’s not fair
That I’m held up to ridicule
And made to look like such a fool
When it’s the spelling that’s at fault.
Let’s call this nonsense to a halt.”
A RHYMING INDEX
1 MASTER YOUR POKER FACE
2 ASSIGN A PRE-PLANNED PLACE
3 CONTENT COUNTS
4 NOT KNOWLEDGE FOUNTS
5 COME CARER, COME BEDOUIN
6 BE TOTALLY GENUINE
7 THE BOUNDARY GIVER
8 WARN CONSEQUENCE… THEN DELIVER
9 ACCEPT RE-DIRECTION
10 VALUE REFLECTION
1. MASTER YOUR POKER FACE: “Don’t smile until Christmas.”
To be fair, someone did tell me this … though not until Easter, by which point it was much too late. It’s a ridiculous comment out of context but a helpful reminder when you’re starting out that you’re not being paid to be anyone’s best friend. Err on the side of caution initially – it is far better to go in tough and ease up with a class than go in easy and then have to toughen up.
2. ASSIGN A PRE-PLANNED PLACE: Do not underestimate seating plans
On paper, seating plans look like nothing. They are, essentially, the list of class names taken from your register and slotted into the desk positions that match your room(s!). In reality, they are so much more than that. This is one of those tips that will become more helpful as you get to know the students more but there is plenty of data and inside knowledge of colleagues you can draw upon to use this as a helpful behaviour management/ SEN support tool.
Consider: a) student needs, b) ability levels, c) possibility of progress, d) group dynamics
In my opinion, these are working documents – have one ready to go but be prepared to amend as necessary!
3. CONTENT COUNTS: Know your stuff
I’m stating the obvious here, but it needs to be mentioned. You’re there as an educator – it makes sense that you’d be expected to turn up with some level of expertise in your subject. From experience, behaviour of a class is far more within your control when you’re confident with the topic you’re teaching. I started my career teaching Primary and there was a clear correlation between my uncertainty around teaching a particular area of knowledge and poor pupil behaviour. Expected to deliver a Year 6 series of gym lessons on ‘The Haka’ or imparting my wisdom on refining football skills in Games, I was very much out of my depth. At least three of the boys in my class had rightfully earned places on county teams and there I was, teaching them how to dribble.
It’s okay to be more uncertain about an area of learning than others. We are humans. However, if there’s an area I have to teach that I can’t get my head around as easily, I’ll work hard to fill the gaps of knowledge. I would meet for a quick catch-up with my parallel Year 6 colleague each Wednesday afternoon before my physics lesson on a Thursday morning for a whole term, just to be at the ready.
4. NOT KNOWLEDGE FOUNTS: Model a ‘forever-learner’ attitude
In partnership with the point above, while a solid understanding of what you are teaching is important, you are not expected to know EVERYTHING. In my opinion, it is an incredibly valuable lesson for students to witness that we are not supernatural magical beings, brimming with limitless knowledge that seeps from every pore, created only to impart our incredible wisdom to the world.
As IF they think that anyway.
My point is, simply, there are times where you will need to say ‘Do you know what? I’m not sure…’ and then model to students the process of how to go about finding out, in order to fill the gaps of knowledge in question. This is a Growth Mindset all over, right?
5. COME CARER, COME BEDOUIN: Background context is important
Students are humans. We tend to forget this when we turn around from the board to find a troublesome student utterly disengaged with the work and giggling uncontrollably with her partner, having just successfully aimed a paper aeroplane at the nape of your neck*. Don’t panic – this is a worst-case scenario(ish). *Wait for point 10
Consider this. Sophie is one of three children at home. Her older sister has been kicked out over the weekend after a string of late nights out; her mum not knowing where she’s been. Her younger brother has significant special needs and she has to care for him every evening until 7.30pm when her mum arrives home from work. Sophie misses out on the dance club she really wants to go to but can’t because she is looking after her brother. She comes into school tired, miserable and behind with her homework as a result of her home-life, impacting her friendships too.
I don’t condone teacher-targeted paper aeroplanes OR laziness at all, but there is a difference between an idle student and the scenario given above. I think it is helpful to remember that context matters.
6. BE TOTALLY GENUINE: Transparency wins
Students know when you’re being ‘real’. They have a 6th sense for it. Much like a working relationship with a colleague, the best professional relationship you can have with a class is one that is based on trust. This doesn’t mean you need to spend the first three timetabled sessions you have telling them your life story. It just means that, once you are comfortable in your own skin standing in front of a class, you can explore ways to introduce elements of your own personality a bit more, finding a balance that would hopefully make the learning environment a more ‘cushioned’ place rather than ‘cold’.
7. THE BOUNDARY GIVER: Tough love
The naughtiest student in my very first class (Year 4) wrote something on a survey that, shamefully, reduced me to tears. I knew Tom’s home life was incredibly difficult – his Dad was in and out of prison and was banned from the school premises, and he lived with his Mum and his grandparents. Like with many students that we perceive to be difficult, on a 1:1 basis Tom was gentle, engaged and keen to learn. Within a classroom setting, however, he was disruptive, a crafty bully and completely inconsiderate of his peers’ education.
Around Easter time when I was nearly two terms down of my NQT year, students had to complete an annual questionnaire, designed by the school leadership team. It asked a range of questions related to learning and enjoyment of school. The class I had were incredibly difficult as a group of 31. It was the kind of class I was warned about in advance, from a number of different colleagues. They were well-known for not getting on with each other and were always at war in the playground. By Christmas I had almost managed to ban the phrase ‘Miss, at playtime…’ and encouraged them to approach whichever staff member was out on duty to resolve the issue there and then.
Back to Tom and his survey. Here’s what set me off:
Q: What do you think your teacher could do better?
A: Have stronger boundaries.
Here was the naughtiest student in my class telling me, as clear as day, that he wanted greater restrictions. I was caught up in a mixture of surprise, realisation and disappointment that I hadn’t provided what he needed. I suppose when we think to David Beckham, one of the world’s greatest footballers, he doesn’t despise his sport just because of the rules. In fact, the game wouldn’t exist without them. We need to know where we stand as humans, so if a teacher is always promising to carry out sanctions but not sticking rigidly to them, where is our safety?
8. WARN CONSEQUENCE… THEN DELIVER: Just do it!
Plan ahead. Setting clear boundaries at the start of the year with any new class is essential. Know what you’re prepared to accept and not accept (often dictated by whole-school behaviour policies already in place) and share these with every class of students at the start of the academic year. In Secondary, these can sometimes be department-specific but it is important you know the process for behaviours and their consequences. Never assume that students have remembered these from the year before and, if nothing else, by outlining these each time you encounter a new group of students, you have a reference point to refer back to, should any issues arise.
Connected to Point 7, this is simple. If you prescribe it, give it. I’d be very disappointed if I’d gone to my GP for a medical prescription that I needed and they gave me the signed, green slip but not the actual medicine. Likewise, if I’d won a competition and was promised a prize but it never appeared, I’d have something to say about it. I’d assert that young people feel safest when adults follow through with what they say they will do, so just do it. It’s worth sacrificing a chunk of your lunchtime every day for the first three weeks to prove you’re serious about this behaviour stuff than dishing it out and losing their respect for not going ahead with the sanctions promised.
9. ACCEPT RE-DIRECTION: Diversions are okay
“Never work with animals or children.” (W.C. Fields)
Be prepared, be clear and be strong – but know that plans will need to change. One of the greatest skills a teacher can have is the willingness to adapt. Keep your goals firmly in mind – be that related to behaviour or another area of teaching – but redirect your route as necessary.
10. VALUE REFLECTION: It’s your oxygen
“A teacher that does not value reflection is one that will not grow.” (J. Mingay)
I remember being at uni and yawning as soon as I heard those two vomit-inducing words: ‘Reflective Practice’. It was a perfect case of Classical Conditioning. Just as the dogs in Pavlov’s experiment (late 1800s) would salivate every time someone entered the room, I would automatically yawn on hearing even a whisper of these words. They were the two biggest buzz words around at the time and we were undeniably overfed on the phrase. However, in this profession you quickly realise that reflective practice is far less a cumbersome burden and more a lifeline.
To teach but not care to reflect on your practice is almost impossible and, wholly undesirable. I can’t think of any genius, friend or family member, colleague or famous authority at the top of their game who hasn’t taken the time to look back and consider their own strengths and weaknesses. To be able to objectively review your practice is critical to surviving in the world of education and, at times, this will sometimes require you to ask for other people’s opinions. Be open to constructive critique.
At the end of the first day / week / month / half term / term / year, stop everything, reflect and make necessary changes. Do this and then repeat. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. (etc…)
Follow me on Twitter… @JAMingay
In my role as Literacy Leader, I find myself constantly reflecting on what we are doing well as a school and what we could be doing better with regard to supporting student literacy. Embedded within this review process is a persistent thought that works its way into my conscience time and time again, leading me to question what reading or writing support students are getting at home.
Working in a great secondary school based in Greater London, rightly proud of its own active engagement with the local community, it welcomes students from quite a diverse catchment area. This results in the intake of a wide range of students who have vastly different backgrounds. This includes those who come from homes where literacy is rated as fundamental, being the foundation on which all other learning can take place, to those families who consider literacy as almost irrelevant, so long as their child is happy to step into the family business. In these cases (which thankfully are few but nevertheless real) being able to read and write is considered merely a ‘bonus’. Not an easy partnership to nurture when your aim is to equip every student with the same essential ‘toolkit’ to get through life beyond their compulsory education years.
Standing with most other educationalists in the teaching profession, I presume, I’m of the strong opinion that a positive home-school relationship with regular and valuable communication is the best approach to scaffolding student learning. For this reason, when I see articles like the two listed below, I question whether we are going far enough with sharing our expertise with students and their parents/carers. Take a look…
With my reading-instruction-radar firmly switched to ‘ON’, it seems to me that we are missing a step in the learning process, particularly for those students from homes where reading might not come naturally to their parents, either.
Geoff Barton, in his great book ‘Don’t Call it Literacy!’ (Routledge: 2013) outlines some of the key points taken from a survey carried out by the National Literacy Trust in 2010, named Literacy: State of the Nation, A picture of literacy in the UK today. Barton writes:
- ‘Parents are the most important reading role models for their children and young people’
- ‘One in five parents easily find the opportunity to read to their children’
That’s 80% of parents who don’t, then…
- ‘Recent research has shown that the likelihood of fathers reading to their children is linked to their socio-economic background.’
21% of dads in £40-50k income homes read with their children compared to 11% in £10-15k income homes.
Various different research studies have looked into the positive and negative effects of adult support within education and, in all those that I have come across, results seem to suggest that TAs who have had the necessary, thorough training around how to deliver particular programmes to students are ones where impact is most effective. Just one of these examples can be found here: http://eppi.ioe.ac.uk/cms/Default.aspx?tabid=2438
With this in mind (i.e. the knowledge that training is essential in order for adults to have a positive impact on student learning), is it time for schools who have, for example, established reading programmes and interventions in place, to now take a step further and look to supporting parents as well? If research suggests that academic success is determined partially through the level of parental involvement in their own child’s studies, do we need to start thinking creatively about how to support the parents as well as the students? Perhaps that initially means just targetting families where illiteracy or, at least, a very low level of literacy is present, or delivering a series of workshops within different departments across the school to create greater discussion opportunities that focus on how parents can support their child’s learning best?
Another superb book highlighting the importance of literacy within schools has been written by David Didau called ‘The Secret of Literacy: Making the implicit explicit’ (Independent Thinking Press:2014). In a section of the book on ‘Building a Reading Culture’, Didau lists the recommendations given by the Department for Education on reading. The very first point in the list advises,
- ‘Engage parents by inviting them to become members of the school library, or by inviting them to workshops on how to support their child’s reading.’
This is useful advice and, while I’m confident we do this as a school to a point by engaging and training up some of our invaluable volunteer parents in how to teach reading to our weaker readers across the school, I don’t know if we are going far enough. For our weakest readers, in particular those ones who come from homes where parents are unable to support due to a lack of reading ability themselves, do we need to target the root of the problem here first?
Unquestionably, our biggest priority is to put our students first. This is our call of duty, our responsibility as facilitators of learning. I just wonder if we now need to start thinking outside the box with these home-school related issues a little more in order to best support our students and, as a result, advancing ever closer towards our goal for a more holistic approach to learning.
This is the first of a two-part post.
‘Part 1: ROOT PLANNER’ outlines the ideology behind the new vocabulary stream I’ve designed in connection with the launch of our new English Curriculum.
‘Part 2: ROOT MAP’ will offer a more detailed sketch of the vocabulary map we will be working from, exploring ways to engage students with the importance of language and the art of how to use it.
1. FIND THE KEY
It took me four attempts to pass my driving test. I’d like to say it was the fault of the innocent-looking woman waiting at the zebra crossing, for showing no obvious signs she was about to step into the road as I zoomed past (at quite an impressive speed). Or I could blame that thoughtless trio of examiners I had for endeavouring to engage me in polite conversation during the journey, despite it being glaringly apparent I had a lot going on. But really, I knew.
It was only after the third walk of shame up the garden path back to my parents’ house where I was living at the time that I consciously took a moment to gather my thoughts and reflect. I realised where I’d been going wrong. It was not, in fact, those dreaded manoeuvres that were my downfall after all, but more my hazard perception in built up areas. If I’d had the sense to identify my specific weaknesses, noticing a pattern earlier on rather than seeing each test as just another ghastly event independent from the others, I’m sure I’d have cracked the code sooner.
How is this relevant?
Well, apart from offering you a rare opportunity to indulge in a moment of healthy schadenfreude, for me, the development of literacy is a bit like learning to drive. The challenges embedded within complex processes such as being able to recognise written letter combinations (graphemes) and being able to decode them, spell spoken sounds (phonemes) accurately – within both familiar and unfamilar vocabulary – and grasp the full meaning of a rich text at its various different layers can sometimes be a little overwhelming.
Gear in neutral, check. Start the engine, check. L foot on the clutch, check.
Gear into 1st, check. Position mirrors, check. Control the wheel, check.
R foot gently on the gas, check. Remove handbrake, check.
Final blindspot check. Turn the wheel, check.
L foot off the clutch, check.
Having felt quite secure in my knowledge of the English alphabetic code growing up, I never considered the possibility that I’d only been exposed to a minute proportion of the key principles underpinning our language. I could read, write and spell with ease but it was really not until I began teaching reading and vocabulary acquisition myself (primarily to younger students, then older ones with reading difficulties) that I became fully aware of our diverse and creative language.
In Art, we take time to appreciate intricate patterns. As Mathematicians, we make it our business to hunt for them. In Science, we continually look for patterns in results, consequently making crucial predictions based on these. So why on earth do we not naturally think to do this with our language – the single most important communication tool we rely on day in, day out?
A very real but healthy challenge secondary schools must acknowledge is the sheer scale of subject content covered across the different departments. Unlike primary education where a closer environment lends itself to more regular teacher collaboration, working in isolated departments is possibly one of our biggest obstacles in guaranteeing a holistic approach to learning. And yet, on the flipside, this very hurdle could be our greatest friend. Language spans across all curriculum subjects and, without wishing to be melodramatic, across every other aspect of life yet we fail to use it in its magnificent entirety. This ‘tool’ contains hundreds of patterns just waiting to be identified in order to help make our acquisition of language easier, be that in reading it, spelling it or understanding it.
2. KNOW YOUR ROOT
The oxford dictionaries website claims,
“…there are, at the very least, a quarter of a million distinct English words, excluding inflections, and words from technical and regional vocabulary not covered by the OED, or words not yet added to the published dictionary, of which perhaps 20 per cent are no longer in current use. If distinct senses were counted, the total would probably approach three quarters of a million.”
Excellent. As a proud and ‘outed’ logophile, I rejoice in the knowledge of this. If the above estimate is true, that’s somewhere between 250,000-750,000 words floating around for us to explore. Wonderful. So how do we propose to teach them all?
Simply put, we don’t. That would be ridiculous.
I am confident, however, that we’re missing a trick (where ‘a trick’ means ‘a simply great way to teach vocabulary’). What we are in a position to do is employ strategies that offer the most time-effective, cognitively engaging methods to ensure words are taught and embedded in the long-term memory, drawing on research-based assessment methods to consolidate learning.
I am without doubt that language needs to be taught explicitly. While it is obviously pleasing to see students reading texts for their own enjoyment and, usually as a result they broaden their knowledge of vocabulary, this is not the only way to encourage language aquisition. It’s not the only way and it’s not the best way, either.
In his excellent book, ‘The Secret of Literacy’ (2014), David Didau suggests that, while ‘wide reading’ is fine, we are mistaken to believe that this is the best way to develop vocabulary. He explains,
“Written language is a far less effective medium for building vocabulary than spoken language.
Typically, pupils only learn between five and fifteen of every 100 new words encountered in
written texts.” (p173)
While engaging and helpful in the process, this kind of exposure to new words is never going to move mountains. Didau goes on to cite the great English teacher and education blogger, Joe Kirby, who suggests that we should be teaching root words as our default rather than isolated words divorced from others possessing the same root. “In that way, instead of just teaching one word, we’re potentially teaching hundreds of words.” (p174)
I suppose, in likening this aspect of literacy to maths, it would be comparable to teaching every single number independent from all the others, rather than teaching the decimal principle which relies on the use of hundreds, tens and units etc.
Language has a clear structure and as educators it is our responsibility to scaffold students’ learning by ensuring we provide the necessary foundation blocks for them to be able to continue building on this independently.
An understanding of what root words, prefixes and suffixes are is the first step to solid language development, in my opinion. Following that, a consistent, direct teaching which targets the most common roots in our language will undoubtedly give students greater freedom to explore vocabulary.
Take the root word ‘chron’. ‘Chron’ means ‘time’.
During one of my regular Sound Training sessions (a literacy programme we use and rate highly – designed to support both reading accuracy and knowledge of root words to aid learning), I was asked:
“Miss, so if ‘chron’ means time, why does my Dad say he gets ‘chronic’ back pain?”
I couldn’t answer this with any conviction as, until this moment of realisation, had always misunderstood the term to mean ‘severe’. On researching it’s etymology with the group of Year 9 students we learnt it actually means ‘continuing for a long time’.
I’ve also welcomed conversations with questions like this…
“Miss, so if ‘photosynthesis’ means […] does that mean ‘sis’ means
‘the process of’ like ‘tion’ does?”
To be able to explore such an intricately-woven tapestry like the English language, investigating roots and their meanings with students who clearly show an interest is the kind of precious learning time I relish.
I really do believe there are huge merits to teaching vocabulary in this way and, working in partnership with a great colleague of mine, Phil Stock, plan to pilot this approach from September with the launch of the new English Curriculum. (See his post on the broader new KS3 English curriculum here.)
Not only do root words have invaluable benefits on students’ comprehension of unfamiliar vocabulary, they also significantly aid spelling. Once the meaning and spelling of a single root has been learnt, by utilising the other essential ‘tools’ taught alongside roots (such as: counting the number of syllables in a word, learning both common and akward graphemes, having an awareness of confusing homophones & homographs etc.), it is anticipated that students will be able to spell with far greater confidence.
WREWTS MEEN VARY LITUL UNLESC YEW CANNES WREED AN RITE
I have no desire on the final leg of this marathon blog post to steer us in another direction but it would be ludicrous not to briefly mention another equally important aspect of literacy – the ability to decode isolated sounds (phonemes) and spell them accurately (graphemes). Within the vocabulary stream of our new English curriculum model, we intend to build in tried and tested methodologies to teach spelling and decoding in the mainstream classroom, alongside the comprehension aspect of roots.
phoneme = e.g. the sound you hear when you say ‘f’
graphemes = the written representations of the sound ‘f’ = fun, phone, cough, puff
grapheme = e.g. the written representation of the sound ‘ch’
phonemes = the different sounds you hear in the words: chips, chef, chorus
As a result of including this element in the model*, it is expected that students will benefit from having a greater handle on vocabulary and an increased confidence to use words more freely.
*Part 2 of this post will outline the model in greater detail.
(As an aside: I should say here that, while we are very eager to launch this model in September, we have no intention to reduce our intervention support for students who face barriers to reading. There will inevitably always be a need for support at Wave 1 (in class), Wave 2 (group support) and Wave 3 (1:1 tuition) for students who require further alternative support to help close the gap between them and their peers. For these students, we will continue to use the synthetic phonics-based programmes we currently use, such as: Read, Write Inc. Fresh start and Toe by Toe etc. We also intend to deliver Sound Training – a phonics and roots-based literacy programme – with each student in our new Year 7 cohort.)
3. PREPARE FOR OBSTACLES
One reason why this approach to teaching vocabulary may not have been so ardently pursued before could be due to the cocktail of possible misconceptions that lie within the model.
Take these words, for example:
Here, we have two very different words, though their beginnings are identical. It is quite common for students to mix up the roots ‘bi’ and ‘bio’, since it is not always clear to see where one morpheme (root) ends in a word and the next begins. The best way to tackle this is to ensure students are made fully aware, right from the onset, that there are likely to be confusions like this within some words. It is at the point of uncertainty as in the example shown above, that we would then use the learners’ knowledge of roots in combination with their understanding of the word in context to make an educated guess around its meaning. Once the context has been established, it is then possible to dissect the constructed word into what would simply revert back to its original collection of root meanings.
Other anticipated confusions include…
a) there can be more than one meaning for a root
b) there can be more than one root for a meaning
c) there can be words without any helpful clues
However, by disclosing these potential misconceptions with students at the beginning of the year, we hope to significantly reduce the potential margin of error surrounding what is, largely, a reliable and precious resource.
4. BROADEN YOUR HORIZONS
(Click on the image above to appreciate its comedic value.)
It is a small but worthwhile point to make that, when expecting students to use lexical jewels in their writing, we need to be mindful that some will have had greater opportunities and life experiences than others, giving some an inevitable advantage over their peers. Similarly, if students are not choosing to read challenging texts for pleasure at school or at home, they are inhibiting their chances of language development, thus reducing the likelihood that they will ever recreate the extravagant use of vocabulary we see in challenging texts within in their own writing. While this point may be partly out of our hands – unable to influence some home life factors contributing to this – we may be able to support students both within and around the classroom environment by helping them select ability-appropriate books (with a welcome level of demand) that they will enjoy.
5. TEST YOUR THEORY
As previously mentioned, Part 2 of this post will outline in greater detail the systematic approach we will adopt to teaching vocabulary from September 2014. Included in this post, there will be an outline of our proposed method of assessment, discussing the frequency of these and suggesting why formative assessments throughout the year are just as important as the direct teaching. Each term, students will have the opportunity to demonstrate their level of understanding through the use of short, regular, purposeful tests that will be used not only to assess understanding but to embed knowledge too.
6. GET YOUR LICENCE… and GO!
While I love words and am excited to drive this stream forward, I’m not naïve enough to think that through this approach, all teachers and students will magically become fellow logophiles too. What I do hope, however, is that through employing the best evidence-based teaching methods that support memory retention in the long-term, students will be able to look at language in a refreshed way, seizing opportunities to explore language deeply.
The vision is not only for students to benefit from what will hopefully be an improved confidence in reading, spelling and selecting vocabulary for their writing, but for them to develop a genuine enthusiasm for words too, recognising the incredible impact language can have across all areas of learning and life.
Part 2: ROOT MAP to follow soon…