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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.

Part 1: ROOT PLANNER

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

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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.

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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.”

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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?

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Simply put, we don’t. That would be ridiculous.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Take the root word ‘chron’. ‘Chron’ means ‘time’.

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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.) 

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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.

EXAMPLE 1:

phoneme = e.g. the sound you hear when you say ‘f
graphemes = the written representations of the sound ‘f’ = fun, phone, cough, puff

EXAMPLE 2:

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.

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(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.)

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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:

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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.

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Other anticipated confusions include…

a) there can be more than one meaning for a root 

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b) there can be more than one root for a meaning

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c) there can be words without any helpful clues

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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.

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 4. BROADEN YOUR HORIZONS 

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(Click on the image above to appreciate its comedic value.)
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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.

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5. TEST YOUR THEORY

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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.

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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.

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Part 2: ROOT MAP to follow soon…