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WARNING! There’s a Pattern Emerging…

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.

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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.

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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.

*Note:
‘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)

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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.

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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.

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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:

  1. read words accurately
  2. 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.

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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.