Gove doesn’t rhyme with Love

Leave a comment

I’ve been following  the furore in the press about the inclusion of nonsense words in tests to be given to 6 year olds in English schools. David Reedy of the UK Literacy Association called the suggestion ‘bonkers’, as ‘the whole purpose of reading is to understand words’.

Of course he is right: most six-year-olds expect to make sense of what they read and we certainly don’t want to confuse them or, worse, send out the message that all words can be decoded using phonics.

The debate is fierce because it seems that the emphasis upon teaching synthetic phonics in England is reducing teachers’ freedom to take an eclectic approach to teaching reading. Most of us intimately involved in supporting children to develop literacy would agree that instilling a love of reading is crucial and that children learn to read with many and various strategies (the context, the sentence itself and whether they have that word in their spoken lexicon, for example); decoding being only one. ’Although phonics is an important part of teaching reading, it should not be conflated with the teaching of reading itself’.

However, I wonder if the reaction against the perceived imposition of a solely phonics based approach has somewhat clouded people’s judgements. It is unlike me to defend phonics over meaning but I do believe there is a strong case for including the decoding of nonsense words in assessing reading skill. They appear in all good tests for identifying dyslexia, designed by peole much more au fait with the component skills required to read and spell than me.

This is because the ability to process phonics, while not sufficient, is important for fluent comprehension of text. Difficulty cracking the code, making sound-symbol relationships to recognise words, can’t be ignored. It is this skill that learners with dyslexia tend to find the most challenging. They are likely to recognise ‘cat’: they have seen it written next to a picture and so can pin a verbal label to the shape. However, the word ‘gat’ is not familiar though is no more difficult in terms of sound / symbol correspondence. Children may read it as ‘got’ or ‘’get’, or even ‘cat’: trying desperately to make meaning.

A child, such a the one whose profile is below, on the opposite end of the continuum, one who has ‘a precocious ability to recognize written words significantly above [her] language or cognitive skill level’, may be called hyperlexic.

Here is an example of good phonological processing ability and poor understanding generally: i.e. not a learner with dyslexia. This is the profile of a child I recently tested with the Cognitive Profiling System from Lucid Research (CoPS). As you see, all but one sub-test challenged her very severely. She had an excellent score when asked to connect rhyming words: she was able to break the words up into their component parts and recognise another word with the same sound at the end. This child happily linked ‘hen’ and ‘ten’ and ‘man’ with ‘van’. A learner with dyslexia when asked to take this rhyme test will tend to connect ‘parrot’ with ‘cage’, not ‘carrot’, ‘boat’ with ‘river’, not ‘coat’.

The ability to hear and generate rhyme is fundamental  for phonological processing. Without this ability a person will struggle  to read fluently and spell correctly. However, if someone does not make sense of the words and context then she cannot be said to be a reader even if she can decode effectively.

Reading non-words is a pure test of phonics and as such is a valuable addition to the battery of information we gather about individual children’s approaches to literacy. I agree with the government, not a phrase I say very often. It is important to find out how children tackle words out of context so that we are better able to make the best possible provision at the very earliest stages. My only proviso is that it is imperative that we explain what’s going on to the wee mites. ‘This is rubbish’ is better coming from us than from the child herself! ‘I know this seems daft but – to please me – just read these nonsense words. Crazy, I know but bear with me’. Then they don’t beat themselves up for failing and we accrue a huge amount of knowledge about how we can help that child make progress.



‘Reading by Six: How the Best Schools Do It’


The February edition of Research Roundup links to a document, Reading by Six: How the Best Schools Do It, Manchester: Ofsted.

This is a report which presents the findings of research into good practice in teaching children to read in England.

The study examined practice in 12 schools in England that were assessed as outstanding in their last inspection. The sample included four infant and nursery schools and eight full-range primary schools. Inspectors observed over 100 phonics and reading and writing sessions in order to assess how they were teaching children to read.

The research found that the best primary schools can teach virtually every child to read, regardless of socio-economic circumstances, ethnicity, the language spoken at home and most special educational needs.

The study indicated that primary schools, including infant schools, can achieve very high standards in reading if they focus on this objective. Success was found to be based on the determination that every child will learn to read, together with a sustained and sequential approach to developing speaking and listening skills.

Concentrated and systematic teaching of phonics was crucial. The best phonics teaching was characterised by planned structure, fast pace, praise and reinforcement, perceptive responses, active participation by all children and evidence of progress. Effective assessment of children’s progress and identification of difficulty in reading was also a key success factor.

Who’s in the Literacy Club? Which One?

Leave a comment

When I was a little girl, acceptance and membership of The Literacy Club was defined by the thickness of the book, the speed of the tongue, and the amount one’s brain could hold (at least until test time rolled around.) Comprehension was something that happened when the work with words was done.

BUT – Knowledge is both a cause and a consequence of comprehension.

Traditionally, membership of the ‘literacy club’ was seen as dependent on our ability to move through a set of hierarchical skills that can be conquered.

• 1st., learn the sounds,

• then the letters,

• next move onto words and phrases,

• and finally, once that’s all straight, THINK!

And of course, in this model learners with dyslexia are excluded.

If we base teaching on a conceptualization of reading as a single line of development from simple to more complex tasks, it will perpetuate the myth that reading is over and done with by age 7 or 8; unless you’re stupid.

Reading is a life long endeavour, that develops in competence and confidence the more it is practised across increasingly more difficult and diverse text. In an era of new literacies we are in a simultaneous state of learning to read and reading to learn.


We need to ask who’s in the various literacy clubs? All members, regardless of age or attainment, are expected to be: active, strategic, flexible, mindful, reflective, purposeful, courageous, engaged, responsible and responsive. Aren’t we all emergent readers when we encounter new texts and media that push the boundaries of genre, form, format, and mode: on and offline? (with thanks to Angela Maiers)

Nevertheless, acquiring phonic skills is essential for fluent reading. Just because I bang on about the centrality of making meaning for fluent, independent reading does not mean that I don’t believe phonics to be vitally important. Essential but not sufficient.

The debate about the various models of teaching reading centres upon the readiness or otherwise of learners to become thoughtful readers. Do the challenges of difficult tasks and problems lead to improved comprehension, or does understanding only emerge when a child is so familiar with the individual components of words that processing skills are automated and leave spare capacity for conscious thought?

The better you are at something, the less of your brain is actively involved … The neurons of the brain re-organise through facilitating new connections into efficient neural networks. .. If you want a child to be a good reader, a good speller and a creative writer, then your first goal is to create efficient and automatic subroutines in the necessary sensorimotor skills that should not require overt attention, such as encoding and decoding. An efficient reader looks at text and does not see letters, nor does he see words; he experiences meaning directly … you can’t get to meaning unless everything else is efficient and automatic. (McGuinness 1998)

Reading is an interactive and reciprocal process requiring sophisticated integration of many skills and factors. The ability to handle the complex logic of the alphabetic code is crucial but we must not ignore higher order language skills such as semantic understanding, rich vocabulary, inference, prediction, concept and schema building and application of prior on and experience.

The data driven model of reading instruction (Bottom Up) does not need to be characterised as a stark contrast to the concept driven model, (Top Down). Both are vital.

The emphasis on symbolic learning when sounds are isolated and then blended together can cause the first casualties to falter. Poor phonological awareness – discriminating between rhymes and syllables – is a major factor in reading failure. Young learners, and many of those with dyslexia, experience a flow of speech – shifting sets of overlapping sounds in chunks, not like individual beads strung on a necklace.

This difficulty distinguishing between sounds, words and whole sentences can lead to classic mis-understandings such as the drawing of green slime and a bit of string to illustrate a section of the Lord’s Prayer: The explanation? ‘Lead us not into temptation’. (You may need to read this aloud).

Sometimes the assumption is made that word meaning follows.

Sometimes this assumption is erroneous.

So when working with learners with dyslexia – at least in the primary years – we must assist them to read and write by exposing them to multi-sensory, cumulative programmes of phonological awareness and phonics while simultaneously enabling understanding by teaching them to circumvent the barriers of print. Over time the balance of these 2 approaches will change.

Phonic resources

Leave a comment

New synthetic phonic resources as suggested by TES.

Worth a look – they’re free. I’d love to  know if any are useful.

There are vowels and there are consequences


An article, ‘Text-talk teens lack the right words for work’, claims that youngsters’ abbreviated forms of communication are hurting their chances of securing a job.

The government’s first adviser on childhood language development, Jean Gross, says a generation of teenagers risk making themselves unemployable because they are using a vocabulary of about 800 words a day.

‘They are avoiding using a broad vocabulary and complex words in favour of the abbreviated “teenspeak” of text messages, social networking sites and internet chat rooms. Gross is planning a national campaign to prevent children failing in the classroom and the workplace because of their ‘inability to express themselves’.

It seems strange to use this phrase. From where I’m sitting, youngsters have no problems with expressing themselves – it’s only the adults and those not in the group who find it hard to work out what’s going on.

Another article describes investigations into the advantages of using texting when writing. It finds that texting ‘helps pupils to spell’. Children who regularly use the abbreviated language of text messages are actually improving their ability to spell correctly, the new research suggests. A study of eight- to 12-year-olds found that rather than damaging reading and writing, “text speak” is associated with strong literacy skills. Researchers say text language uses word play and requires an awareness of how sounds relate to written English.

This link between texting and literacy has proved a surprise, say researchers.

These latest findings of an ongoing study at the University of Coventry contradict any expectation that prolonged exposure to texting will erode a child’s ability to spell. The research suggests that texting requires the same “phonological awareness” needed to learn correct spellings. The use of text language “was actually driving the development of phonological awareness and reading skill in children”, said Dr Clare Wood, Reader in Developmental Psychology at Coventry University.

Instead it suggests that pupils who regularly use text language – with all its mutations of phonetic spelling and abbreviations – also appear to be developing skills in the more formal use of English.

So when pupils replace or remove sounds, letters or syllables – such as “l8r” for “later” or “hmwrk” for “homework” – it requires an understanding of what the original word should be. Instead of texting being a destructive influence on learners, the academics argue that it offers them a chance to “practise reading and spelling on a daily basis”. Using initials and abbreviations and understanding phonetics and rhymes are part of texting – but they are also part of successful reading and spelling development.

Children who are heavy users of mobile phone text abbreviations such as LOL (laughing out loud), plz (please) and l8ter (later) are unlikely to be problem spellers and readers, the study has found.

The research, carried out on a sample of 8-12 year olds over an academic year, revealed that levels of “textism” use could even be used to predict reading ability and phonological awareness in each pupil by the end of the year.

Moreover, the proportion of textisms used was observed to increase with age, from just 21% of Year 4 pupils to 47% in Year 6, revealing that more sophisticated literacy skills are needed for textism use.

The study conclusions will come as a surprise to many who believe that textisms are vandalising the English language.

The theory behind the research, carried out by Dr Clare Wood, relates to one of the early developing skills associated with (and believed to underpin) successful reading and spelling development. ‘Phonological awareness’ refers to a child’s ability to detect, isolate and manipulate patterns of sound in speech.  For example, children who can tell which words rhyme, or what word is left if you remove a letter, have particularly high levels of phonological awareness.

We began studying in this area initially to see if there was any evidence of association between text abbreviation use and literacy skills at all, after such a negative portrayal of the activity in the media.  We were surprised to learn that not only was the association strong, but that textism use was actually driving the development of phonological awareness and reading skill in children.  Texting also appears to be a valuable form of contact with written English for many children, which enables them to practice reading and spelling on a daily basis.

So what can we do with this evidence? With further research, we hope to instil a change in attitude in teachers and parents – recognising the potential to use text-based exercises to engage children in phonological awareness activities.  In short, we suggest that children’s use of textisms is far from problematic. If we are seeing a decline in literacy standards among young children, it is in spite of text messaging, not because of it.

I don’t think these 2 studies are necessarily incongruent. Few could disagree that some young people lack experience of a rich linguistic background which consequently disables them from full participation in the symbolic representations and concepts they are expected to grasp in school.

However, the majority of adolescents using texting to network seem to grasp quite easily the distinction between formal and informal language. (Check out Bill Boyd’s perspective on handwriting (and spelling) on ‘If it matters, it matters’ ).

The very real problem of children entering school with limited vocabulary and language experience is one that will not be solved by ignoring 21st century developments that enhance learning.

Until told otherwise I shall continue to encourage students to make notes in ‘txt spk’ .  See another related post here.

Are phonics as important in languages other than English?

Leave a comment

I have been thinking about the apparent dissonance between the ‘iceberg theory’ of language – that language learning is innate – and the differences in the brains of people with different native languages.

Perhaps the two are not incompatible. After all the brain is amazingly plastic. Baby babble is indistinguishable until around a year old when distinctive sounds emerge. Apparently Japanese babies stop being able to articulate ‘l’ sounds when they reach 12 months. 

When children are learning to read English, there is a greater demand on decoding (because of the variety of etymological roots  which results in frequency of irregular spellings) than in other more consistent languages.

The specific phonological skills used in reading depend on the reader’s expertise, the word to be read, and the writing system, involved. A highly regular, highly frequent word like ‘carpet’ will take far less phonological processing than, say, ‘thought’. Readers of German or Italian, for example, quickly learn the far more consistent letter-sound rules and bypass almost a year of laborious decoding that English requires.

English readers (and French for example) appear to employ more of the regions of the brain devoted to identifying words in the area in which visualisation of words is thought to occur. Presumably the greater emphasis on morphemes and irregular words (such as ‘yacht’) requires more visual and orthographic representational knowledge during processing. The shorter time needed for decoding in regular languages allows more time for comprehension than in English.

When phonological skills play a more significant role in reading acquisition, as they do in less regular languages like English and French, phoneme awareness and decoding accuracy are often very undeveloped – and are good indicators of dyslexia. When these skills play a less dominant role (in transparent languages like German, and the more logographic writing systems), processing speed becomes the stronger diagnostic predictor of reading performance, and reading fluency and comprehension issues dominate the profile of dyslexia.

In these more transparent languages – Spanish, German, Finnish, Dutch, Greek and Italian – the child with dyslexia exhibits fewer problems with decoding words and more problems reading connected text fluently and with good comprehension.

So much for those international comparisons of reading levels: useful perhaps as a snapshot of where children are in the acquisition of literacy but certainly no help in determining whether the population as a whole is more or less literate or whether teachers are failing in their efforts.

I have connected posts here and here and here  and here.

Phonics: Avoid unquestioning orthodoxy


The political debate about the bottom-up/top-down differences in approaches to policy on teaching literacy between Scotland and England centring on synthetic phonics rumbles on.

England introduced synthetic phonics lessons for primary schools in 2007 following a review by Sir Jim Rose  which was prompted by the spectacular successes in Clackmannanshire. More than a decade on, the Clackmannanshire programme is still in use. West Dunbartonshire claims it has fulfilled the aim of eradicating pupil illiteracy within a decade.  Many other authorities in Scotland have introduced synthetic phonics as part of their literacy strategy.

In England the concept has been put at the heart of primary education. It was a controversial move, not least because it was required rather than optional. But critics say this has been done in such a way in England that many of the benefits have been lost.

Scotland, meanwhile, has taken a more hands-off approach. Guidance from Learning and Teaching Scotland simply says it is “now accepted that phonics is one of the essential components of a balanced approach to the teaching of reading”

When synthetic phonics is only one strand in a programme that includes extra time in the curriculum for reading, home support for parents, and the fostering of a “literacy environment” in the community, it seems to be most effective. ‘Synthetic phonics is not an end in itself, rather a key building block in a more comprehensive literacy strategy. You adapt it to the children you are working with and the area where you are. ’ (Spokesperson from West Dumbartonshire).

I have no desire to fuel nationalistic flames. The point is we’re still not managing – north or south of the border – to teach all our youngsters to read as well as we would like. Just last month, a study by the Literacy Commission found that 18.5% of children in Scotland left primary school functionally illiterate.

Phonics alone cannot enable all children to read with current English spelling conventions. Learning to sound out single or combined letters, is undoubtedly an essential part of learning to read English, but only a minor one.  (See here lists of irregular words ). The number of common words with tricky spellings (leave, sleeve, even, believe, police) is at least 3700.

In an interesting article, ‘Our changing understanding of what learning to read is about’, Professor Henrietta Dombey concludes:

  • Reading is not a ‘bottom-up’ process.
  • Reading builds on children’s experience of spoken language.  
  • Children’s home experiences contribute significantly to the effectiveness of literacy teaching.
  • Reading aloud to children plays an important part in helping them learn to read.
  • Skilled reading operates as a “simultaneous, multilevel, interactive” process.
  • Learning to read and write can also be a social activity.
  • Close familiarity with rich literary texts empowers children as readers, writers and thinkers

Dombey concludes that we ‘need to avoid unquestioning orthodoxy and to take proper account of work in this vast and varied field if we are to improve the learning of children in school’.

I couldn’t agree more.