3.5 Educational arguments which irritate me.

1. The phonic check, we’re told, ensures we spot the 20% of society who are functionally illiterate.

Yet one of the arguments against it says children who can already read make the nonsense words into real ones. Or, like Lucy Powell MP’s daughter, who can read really well, still failed the check. I’m told these children (despite any research I’ve read showing if children can read at 5 their literacy and academic achievement is likely to be excellent) have hidden phonic difficulties and will need to know the alphabetic code because there might be a really, really, really long word they can’t decode one day. Knowing the phonemes in the year 1 phonic check will stop this problem that isn’t actually a problem. If it is a problem, these students who can read but fail the phonics check are definitely not going to be in the 20% this check is designed to identify. Indeed they’ll be the students who can read and spell whatever method is used.

2. Those who criticise most vociferously OFSTED and its grading system because it criticises how teachers teach, seem to be the most critical of how teachers teach if it isn’t the way they want teachers to teach.

3. The ‘every second counts’ clan spend much energy telling us how students must be on task all the time and we can’t waste a second making puppets or posters; we will let the children down and they will be doomed for all eternity. Teachers who do group work are wasting children’s time which is precious, precious, precious. 

Mention private schools however and they’re all – marvellous, marvellous, marvellous. But private schools have longer holidays and sporting trips and drama activities which take time out of the curriculum. It’s not a problem to miss an afternoon’s school for a rugby match but I’m not allowed to make a puppet in a state school English lesson.

3.5 Similarly this ‘every second counts’ doesn’t seem to include the children who are excluded – they can be off as long as they like because they’re ruining the education for others. It’s also likely this cohort fall into the 20% functionally illiterate category but let’s not worry about that; someone else should be sorting that out.

Advice on botch jobs for DFE

I’m not a wise old owl but I am old and have some experiences. I’ve done lots of jobs and I’ve been a parent, I’ve moved around the UK and lived abroad a number of times. That does not make me an expert, I realise that. Over the years however, there are a few things I’ve learned, so I think I can offer some tips to the DFE which might help them refocus.

Tip 1 – Patience is a virtue
This is difficult for people who are naturally impulsive; they want to do everything and they want to do it straight away. They think of something during breakfast and announce it by lunch.
While occasionally making a quick decision is vital, particularly in a school, on a structural level taking time to think things through, ask for opinions, tweak things before finally launching an idea is good practice. The less you plan the more likely something which you hadn’t thought of but which seems glaringly obvious once it’s been pointed out to you will be pointed out to you, by the person you didn’t ask because you couldn’t wait. 
Fill in the DFE impatience initiative here…………………………………………………………………………………………
Tip 2 – Check details published online should be published
In a large institution, it should not be possible to publish anything online without it being agreed by various levels of authority. Red tape is annoying but it’s there for a reason.  
Fill in DFE error here………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..
Tip 3 – When lots of people are against an idea don’t become even more determined to implement it
OK, sometimes unpopular decisions have to be made. It may be due to money, due to a safeguarding issue, even a disciplinary one. But, when you force an idea on lots of people when it has obvious flaws and is even unpopular with your allies it might be best to back track a little or change. Stubbornly insisting an idea should go through backed up by dodgy reasoning does not make you look stronger, it makes you look like an idiot.
Fill in DFE unpopular and flawed idea here:……………………………………………………………………………………..
Tip 4 – Research is finite
Research can show varying results: it might show this, or it could mean this however other research says this. Weighing up all research is good. Using research to suit your own argument is bad. We all do it to a certain extent but when you have to make massive decisions, it is probably good to speak to people who disagree with you too and find a workable solution.
Fill in DFE research which has been cherry picked to suit ideology here………………………

Tip 5 – Take your staff with you. 
You can be a strategic genius but if you don’t bring your staff with you, you will fail. They have to carry out your brilliance; they have to make your innovative creations come to fruition. If you annoy them, don’t respect them and make constant changes they will eventually tell you to shove it and leave.  
Fill in DFE changes here:………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..
And their poor treatment of staff here:……………………………………………………………………………………………

This post was originally posted fir @LabourTeachers


‘The Challenges of learning to read and write in English’ – notes from Dr Powell’s keynote

Dr Daisy Powell of Reading University gave this talk at Imperial College last Saturday.

I can’t hope to cover all Dr Powell’s keynote but will attempt to summarise the salient points (I have omitted the writing research which I’d like to cover at a later date – but let’s just say it’s linked to reading and there aren’t enough studies).

Opaque/transparent languages

Dr Powell first reminded us how difficult the opaque English language is compared with more transparent languages such as Italian. This means we have an inconsistent relationship between graphemes (letters, or groups of letters) and phonemes (sounds that make up spoken words).

English is still an alphabetic language however so teaching children how to map phonemes to graphemes will allow them to read and spell. There is strong evidence that fostering these decoding skills is effective for early literacy. (Bradley & Bryant 1983, Hatcher et al, 2006)

Causes of Reading Difficulties

Since The Rose Report (2009) reading difficulties have been predominantly linked to a phonological deficit and ‘visual processing has been broadly ignored in research’. Dr Powell however has been researching reading difficulties using a particular visual element called Rapid Automized Naming (RAN).

Denckla and Rudel (1974, 1976) first showed that the fluency with which children can name familiar items is strongly related to reading. This is called RAN and is now a common test used in reading difficulty assessments due to strong RAN-reading links (RAN is tested used a standardised test involving children naming objects, colours, digits or letters at speed).

There are three main profiles then for reading difficulties:

  • Phonological deficit
  • RAN deficit
  • Or RAN-phonology deficit (known as the Double Deficit theory) – this is the least common but causes the most severe reading difficulties        (Wolf, Bowers and Biddle, 2000)

A randomised control trial was set up using a norm group (no deficits), then three other groups using the phonological, RAN and double deficit profiles (Powell, Stainthorp and Stuart 2007).

Initial findings were consistent with the double deficit account of dyslexia; that those with both poor phonological awareness and RAN had the most severe reading difficulties and those with a single deficit had a more moderate reading problem. The low RAN group were however significantly worse at both reading and spelling than the control.

Children with a RAN deficit also performed more poorly than a control group on low level visual processing tasks (Stainthorp et al, 2011).

There are children then who do have reading and spelling difficulties which are not linked to a phonological deficit. This raises the question about the type of intervention given to children with poor RAN.

Policy on Phonics

To try and identify children with poor letter sound correspondence, the government has introduced a screener known as the Phonics Screening Check (PSC) in Year 1. The PSC comprises 40 real words (e.g.‘shut’) and non-real words (e.g.‘jound’) and the pass mark usually sits around 32.

An interim study looked at younger children with intensive phonics teaching (post phonics check) and found exception words (irregular) were significantly harder to read than regular words or non-words whereas older, pre-phonic check children could read irregular words, regular words and non-words equally successfully (Powell, Atkinson & Stainthorp 2014).

Those students who do not have a phonological difficulty but a RAN deficit are currently receiving a phonics rich environment but what they may require, are opportunities to memorise irregular words and receive lots of exposure to print. The possibility also arises that for those with RAN difficulties who have little print exposure in the home environment, could be doubly disadvantaged.

Interestingly children with poor RAN showed better performance on a visual memory task than the control group. This may also point to requiring alternative strategies other than phonics. There is still a chicken or egg question here: are strengths in visual memory and comprehension a cause or consequence of deficits in RAN? Early perceptual difficulties could lead children to adopt strategies other than alphabetic decoding (e.g. relying on visual memory/semantics).

Is phonics all you need?

Some questions which need answering:

  • What about words with inconsistent spellings (50% of early vocabulary).
  • What about children whose reading difficulties make alphabetic decoding very difficult?

There are also teacher concerns that such an emphasis on phonics, led by the statutory phonics check, may be leading to laborious and dis-fluent (or dysfluent?) reading in some children.

The home literacy environment

Dr Powell said there was a clear link between children’s reading experience in and out of school and their progress learning to read.

Cunningham and Stanovich (1991) developed a checklist which measures exposure to print using an Author/title recognition task – this was asking children to recognise familiar story books.

‘Exposure to print accounted for unique variance in reading over and above IQ and phonological processing skills’.

Similar results were found by Sénéchal and LeFavre’s (2002) home literacy model. This showed better oral language and early literacy for children with positive home reading habits.

What might be relevant for schools?

In conclusion then, there is little doubt that phonics is the best way to foster decoding skills, but in a very rich phonics environment, students may be finding irregular words more challenging to read and spell. There might be a need to memorise irregular words and have opportunities to be exposed to inconsistent spellings through exposure to print. Phonics rich teaching could come at a cost to those students with RAN difficulties who also lack print exposure in the home environment. (Dr Powell did say longitudinal data was necessary to confirm this).

Impact on Literacy

Predictors of reading are print exposure, vocabulary and home literacy environment. In addition, the precursor to reading is oral language (Snowling 2014). Writing skills come from good reading skills and habits.

I would also add that comprehension is an ongoing concern when teaching reading and a rich language environment in the classroom is vital for early literacy alongside phonics and print exposure.

 Thank you for Dr Daisy Powell who gave us such an insightful keynote at the Patoss Conference last week; I hope I haven’t misquoted her or plagiarised or stated speculation as fact or done anything else awful.

Thanks also to Patoss for a great day at Imperial College. 

Mother Courage of the Reading Wars

I am not against phonics – I say that despite being labelled a phonics denialist. 

I teach phonics.  I know my phoneme from my grapheme, I can split a digraph (or diagraff as my daughter calls it) at 40 paces, I can spot a medial vowel sound from an initial blend. 

So, why am I so against the phonic check?

Well the clue is in ‘check’. 

The idea is that while learning to read some children do not pick this up automatically. These students need more explicit teaching and this instruction, say the DFE, is by Systematic, Synthetic Phonics (SSP). Extra support for these children should be via a structured and cumulative approach, but sole use of SSP over analytic phonics, balanced reading, vocabulary/comprehension methods is not, in my opinion, so clear cut.  Let’s pretend it is though…

The check is supposed to be a screener to seek these children out.   It is not a diagnostic tool to find out why decoding is difficult.  Once, we work out who is not a ‘reader’ from the check, support can be put in place.  Early intervention is key the DFE say, so the check identifies indiscriminately, with no concerns for the why,  the children who need this help.   If the check highlights difficulties (by that I mean fail to sound out more than 32 ish out of 40) it is repeated in year 2 to see if they still have problems decoding words and as of next year, the proposal (of a pilot) is to repeat this check in year 3. 

The argument from SSP advocates is that there are 20% of adults who are functionally illiterate – the check, they say, will prevent any child being unable to read.  That reading changes lives – we would be mad not to agree, of course.  My experience however is that it is the few not the many who require support and these needs should be personalised; listening to a child reading diagnostically will capture this. Analytic phonics may be required alongside SSP for instance, or work on vocabulary might be important. Do they have memory difficulties? Poor phonological awareness? Slow processing speed?

So does the Phonics Check sound Tippitty Top still?

Well not really, for a number of reasons:

1. It is high stakes (RAISEonline, OFSTED, PRP) – therefore it is not a check but a test. There’s even a wall chart – I judge government initiatives by the complexity of their wall charts. This distorts the curriculum creating stress and pressure in schools and leads to confusion and a ‘teaching to test’ culture rather than embedding phonics into a literacy strategy.

2. This confusion has led to a multitude of consultants, all claiming that their programme is superior to others, and that teachers are ‘doing it wrong’.  (many strategies are designed for 1:1 or small group not whole class).

3. It is too rigid; some children who need language support before phonics (language is the precursor to reading – Snowling 2014).

4. It takes up precious time which teachers would otherwise spend on literacy in a language rich environment.

5. The children who it identifies are withdrawn from this language rich environment to be taught separately (sometimes by an untrained TA rather than the classroom teacher).

6. It confuses reading with decoding (Even Nick Gibb mixed these two concepts up at a recent conference).

7. There becomes a disconnect between reading for meaning and decoding; currently, comprehension is becoming the ‘problem de jour’. Take away balance and what you gain in one area you lose in another.

8. The children who are ‘at risk’ of becoming functionally illiterate adults need sustained support, probably up to secondary school – the check, in my opinion, should begin in year 3  (if at all) – teachers know in year 1 which children can and can’t decode – it becomes more complicated later up the school chain. 

9. It is expensive and time consuming (in the DFE report 2013 larger schools cited 3 to 4 days of supply teaching was required).

10. It is not evidenced based – it has become a crude tool to measure teachers and schools rather than a diagnostic tool to pinpoint where children need help with their reading skills.

This system has been forced upon teachers with claims from the DFE and SSP advocates that it is the magic bullet to curing adult illiteracy. It’s a heavy handed approach which is unnecessary – phonics was being introduced in primary schools across the UK as evidence emerged but it is still not clear cut; many teachers are sceptical of the SSP claims and frustrated that they are blamed for phonic check scores being below the national average – another stick to beat them with.

We do have students who cannot read, and they must be identified and helped but this blanket approach does not help them nor does it help the majority who can read. 

The illiteracy model is being peddled by those who will benefit.  It is their wares which are claimed to be the cure.  

The Mother Courage of the reading wars.


Day 12 – Clicker6 – Assistive Technology – #28daysofwriting

Crick has a very big stand at Betts. They are a very big company in the SEN world. This can make you suspicious – is it all flashy bang wallop?

I don’t think so, in fact I think Clicker is one of the best Assistive Technologies for young, struggling readers and writers. I’m not on commission – I do have a free copy but in my job I get free copies from all companies so this is not unusual – no, completely without personal gain and, I hope, not being lured in by the mega company status (although they did give away lovely cup cakes this year at Betts) I think Clicker6 is marvellous.

Crick give excellent support once you’ve bought the product with a huge online library of learning grids already prepared. These cover most of the curriculum and are being constantly updated.

Two downsides:

1. Cost – so if you invest make sure proper training is given to staff and students to maximise impact.

2. To use all its features it can be complicated for the staff (not for the student) it’s the preparation of learning grids etc – Clicker offer whole day training events – I should go on one really – so again, if you’re going to invest, I would send someone on the training.

There’s nothing worse than seeing great tech bought in a school and then no-one using it. I bore myself going on about this – especially when I see students struggling who would benefit from something in the cupboard which no one knows how to use.

So, what is it?

Clicker6 is a child-friendly, word processor with an advanced text predictor, excellent text-to-speech and with word banks and learning grids. For me, this is what makes Clicker6 so special – you can create a word bank for any subject then the student can toggle between a normal key pad and the pressing of whole words linked to the subject they are studying. It speeds up the writing process because the student doesn’t need to type every letter. The software reads it back easily, so the student is constantly writing and reading what they have written.

Clicker6 has many other features – making books, phonics lessons and a built in camera and library of pictures.

Who is it for?

Clicker6 is generally aimed at the younger student; I would use up to approx year 6/7 depending on the maturity and ability of the student.

After this, other software might be a better option (toolbar and speech recognition – see days 3, 4, 9 & 11).

Crick do offer four apps however, one of which, WriteOnline is very useful for secondary aged students – I will blog about these separately in my #28daysofwriting – Assistive Technology blog series.