Phoniculi Phonicula

 

In April 2017 the government published a document which included ‘Content of the phonics screening check’ – see below. This is useful and helpful as it could inform teachers about what might be coming up in the check for 5 and 6 year olds, in June. It is right and fitting that teachers know what the children they teach will be tested on. I wonder how many teachers saw this information before the check, and tried to use it?

Children are expected to be accurate in their decoding of the words and non-words when they do the check. There is no possibility for their teacher to assume they know what a child meant or that they really do know something that they made a mistake with, and give them the point. I read the government information with this in mind, because they do make mistakes and expect us to give them benefits of doubts that are denied to 5 and 6 year olds. I have nit-picked most of the errors in the information (I left out a few dodgy commas and spaces that should have been picked up by a proof-reader), because 5 and 6 year olds are in no position to do this for themselves. If they were, there might be loud shouts of, “Hang on a minute! That’s not what you said. It’s not fair that you’re allowed to make mistakes. You get paid for this. You could walk away and get another job where you might make less mistakes, but we have no choice. We have to put up with it.” 

I also keep in mind that the phonics screening check and its ever-widening hinterland of commercially produced resources, training and practices have been sold to successive governments for more than a decade and foisted on our youngest school children as necessary simplifications because learning to read and write English is so complicated and difficult. But the practices and the check itself, as demonstrated in the information and word list below, have become so complicated in themselves, we might as well return to teaching children to read books. They have to start reading books at some point. I am not sure the PSC rigmarole does anything to support them in their endeavours.

I have highlighted in pink, the items that appear in section 1; those from section 2 in green. The check is meant to be cumulatively more difficult, page by page and so it makes sense for the section 1 items to be less complex than the section 2 items, perhaps.

I’m not sure why the section 2 item /ur/ is used in section 1? I’m not sure why some items are used several times and some not at all? An early directive to writers of the check listed all the different sorts of combinations of letters that were allowed and ones that were not (legal and illegal) so that words such as tzar will never appear. There is only enough room for a small fraction of the combinations, so the initiators expected them all to be covered gradually, over a course of years. I’m not sure how this is meant to be fair to 5 and 6 year olds who only do the check once, or twice if they fail the first time, nor their teachers.

The information about which combinations of vowels and consonants, CVC, VCC etc, is also useful. As a teacher who has taught many children who had struggled to learn to read I know there are many phonics-taught children who have not learned to blend 3 consonants at the starts of words like sprout or scribble, or 2 consonants at the starts of words like brick or tree. Consonant blends at starts of words are hard to say for little children – there are not so many, have a look next time you read,  but those there are are used a lot, children need them. They are anathema to commercial phonics scheme writers, so it is helpful, in my opinion and experience, to flag up various types in this information. I find it odd that teachers are warned against teaching consonant blends, but they are flagged up in this information about the check. Not all C and V combinations in the check are in the information, but it’s helpful to have some.

Some questions. See information and check wordlist below:

i Why is /i/ listed in upper case when all the other letters are lower case?
shape is one of the check words Which of the word structures is this? Should it be ccv-vC where cc is a consonant digraph and v-v is a split vowel digraph?
straw is one of the check words Which of the word structures is this? CCCvv where vv is a vowel digraph, but not split?
scribe is one of the check words Which of the word structures is this? CCCv-vC?
q(u) A new departure? Is someone wanting to sell their scheme in Qatar? There is a recently released video from SoundsWrite in which /q/ and /u/ are pronounced /k/ and /oo/ as the first sounds, called simple code?, to learn for those letters. It makes me wonder?

ur Listed as a possibility in section 2 but used in section 1 of the check. Why?
2 syllable words Are these not worthy of their structure being announced? Should we be informed of the structures that might come up in each syllable? For example ‘chapter’, one of the check words, could be given as ccVCCvc where /er/ is rendered as a vowel digraph made of one letter which is usually a vowel and one letter which is usually a consonant.
ph and wh Why are these flagged with their own bullet point as ‘additional consonant digraphs’ and then neither is used in the check? Why not give a list which includes them and some others which are used as is the case for the other flagged up lists of options? Some Government recommended phonics schemes list nk as a consonant digraph, for example. The fascinating ReadWriteInc ditty for nk is ‘I think I stink.’ nk appears in the check in the word ‘trunk’. The list below has /ng/ (thing on a string). Why not /nk/?
oo and or Listed as frequent and consistent? Is this true? oo is usually different in soon and took; or is different in more and porridge.

th Why does /th/ not appear in the check? It didn’t appear last year either. /th/ is one of the very first consonant digraphs children will need when they read a real book i.e. one that has not been contrived to use only the phonics that have been taught. /wh/ is similarly common and necessary, and hasn’t appeared this year or last.

Content of the phonics screening check
Section 1
The words in section 1 will have a variety of simple word structures (for example CVC, VCC, CCVC and CVCC) using:
• single letters (a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, I, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, q(u), r, s, t, u, v, w, x, y, z)
• some consonant digraphs (ch, ck, ff, ll, ng, sh, ss, th, zz)
• frequent and consistent vowel digraphs (ar, ee, oi, oo,or)

Section 2
The words in section 2 will have a variety of more complex word structures (for example CCVCC, CCCVC, CCCVCC and two syllable words) with some:
• additional consonant digraphs (ph, wh)
• less frequent and consistent vowel digraphs, including split digraphs (a-e, ai, au, aw, ay, ea, e-e, er, ew, i-e, ie, ir, oa, o-e, ou, ow, oy, ue, u-e, ur)
• trigraphs (air, igh).Screen Shot 2017-08-07 at 14.04.36

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Meaning v decoding, is it really v?

walschearts_valve_gear

This blog is about the relationship between decoding and meaning in reading. There will be no attempt to undermine or insult anyone who believes that children should be taught to focus more on one or the other. I have read a lot of research about reading, but I won’t quote it here. I might not quote any Greek philosophers either, sorry. There is research about reading and there is research about learning to read. I’ve read lots of both. I’ve acted on some of it. I write what I write here based on teaching my own children to read before I began teacher training; my training as a class teacher, and my special training as a specialist teacher of reading including the teaching of phonics, systematically. I write what I write also, mainly, because I have sat all day every day for the last 10 years next to struggling readers and beginner readers, listening to them (or their silence), watching them, working out how to help them, working with them to make sense of their books. Every child in those 10 years was different. My own children learned differently from each other too. Corny progressive quote alert: The children taught me everything I know about teaching.

Word to meaning is a 2 way process – like Frank Smith et al were saying in the 70s. We can get to meaning via words, yes. But we can get to words via meaning. The interplay backwards and forwards between words and meaning is what reading is.

Many academics keep trying to find how ‘best’ to get from words to meaning, and to get to the words themselves, to write schemes for children to learn from, but they tend to ignore what the child does. Reading is not a thing at all until someone does it. The child brings everything they know about meaning – and they do know a lot, because looking for meaning, working out how the world works has been a child’s main preoccupation since before the day she was born – to bear on the words. Words do not enter the brain through the eyes and then have something done to them by the brain as if the child’s intentionality, agency, has nothing to do with it. If you don’t believe me that they can not just decode without the words having any meaning, try doing the opposite. Try reading this without picking up any of its meaning. It’s not possible, is it?

Beginner readers seem to do a bit of decoding and a bit of meaning-gathering, or a bit of meaning-gathering and a bit of decoding, each separately, one after the other. With practice, they seem to get quicker and quicker at both, so that the two no longer seem separate. Words and meaning in reading are never quite separate, even for absolute beginners. They don’t learn one thing and then replace it with another. That’s not how reading works. If we teach them one thing and then teach another, we have taught them two things. They learn decoding and meaning together, one thing, reading – no matter what we imagine we are teaching them. There is not a single thing in a child’s life that does not have meaning for them or that they will not desire to understand. Not one. We don’t need to be frightened that we will confuse children by offering them new things – like written letters and words – along with opportunities for them to also have meaning for the child. If we show a child a written letter, and tell them it’s a /s/ , the child will actively attach meaning to the experience. The meaning they attach might be ‘That’s a /s/‘ or ‘She’s showing me this and she seems to think it’s important’, or all sorts of other meanings. But show the child /s/ a few more times and introduce some other letters, and the child will start to put them into sets of meanings. I am trying to say that we don’t need to show children all the phenomena in the world and then try to explain what they mean. We don’t need to work out an order of when to show children every state of affairs. We don’t need to do this with aspects of reading either. We don’t need to worry that children can’t cope with complexity. We can’t control every aspect of a child’s world. Babies are born into the complex world they live in and they are adapted to learn to cope with its natural complexity. Babies are not born adapted simply, to live in non-complex environments. They can’t survive in non-complex environments  – think desert? antarctica? Children need complexity. We don’t need to break down all words into what we think are their constituent parts and feed all those parts to children one by one. We can do this if we like, if we and they enjoy it, but it is not absolutely necessary. Once they start to get the hang of what we want when we show them things, once they have started to make their little sets of things that go together because they share meanings, children will start to add to those sets independently, linking sets to other sets, often faster than we can do the showing. At school, children have to learn to slow themselves down, to stop filling up their meaning sets in their own ways, and focus on the sets their teachers want them to fill up.

New things and their meanings are meat and gravy to little kids, 24/7. It’s adults who get in a state about it all, because we have (usually) long forgotten a time when phenomena and their meanings seemed separate or needed some fundamental puzzling.

Adults getting in a bit of a state about what to do with concepts we think children need to understand but we’re not sure yet what they can cope with, could be a definition of ‘Teachers’. It’s no coincidence that we are intrigued by the feelings we get when we know we can pat our heads and rub our bellies at the same time. It’s counter-intuitive. We teach ourselves to do it. It makes us smile.

But some children don’t learn to read as quickly as others I hear you say. What shall we do about it? Shall we try and work out what has happened in their endeavours to make their internal sets? Have they not made any reading sets or not made enough yet, for some reason? Have they created some sets that are not at all useful for reading? Maybe they need to work on their letter sets? Maybe they need to be more proactive in their search for meaning for a while, or know more about where to look? There will not be a size that fits every child. There certainly will not be some as yet unthought of method that regular-pace learners have never used.

In her books about writing (Wired for Story; Story Genius) Lisa Cron tells us that readers are constantly looking for meaning; if we don’t give them meaning, they will make up their own. She also tells us that if readers are given too much, unnecessary elements, they will get annoyed, sensing that their intelligence has been insulted.

You know films of old steam trains where the long piston rod on the outside of the wheels starts off going really slowly up and down and round and round and then gets faster and faster so that you can’t see whether it’s going up and down or round and round, it’s just a blur of motion that’s making the train move? Learning to read is similar. You can’t separate the up and down from the round and round. We can’t separate meaning from decoding. Anything that looks like just making meaning (eg talking about the pictures) or just decoding (eg staccato sounding out one word at a time) isn’t reading, just like if the train piston moved only up and down or only round and round, the train would not go anywhere. If the train wasn’t going anywhere, would we try and push it to a slope and let it roll downhill for a bit? Or would we call in the engineers to get the piston rods working, up and down, round and round? I’d like to ask a selection of steam train engineers to list all the train-stopping problems they knew, and how they sorted them out. I’ll bet no two were exactly the same.

Choo choo!

What’s Wrong With Him?

laurel-hardy-toothache

Stan Laurel has toothache in this movie. But the photo can be used to illustrate a different disorder if it suits us. It could be earache. Or mumps.

Often you get asked to please see what you can do – it’s always something like that, isn’t it, “Is there anything you can do for so-and-so?” and you get to know that this is not a virtue signalling thing because you are the greatest teacher that ever lived, but you don’t have a class, you teach individuals, and you maybe have time to take on another one whose teacher is pulling her hair out.

Sometimes nobody asks you to see what you can do, because a kid has already been spotted and earmarked for assessment. But you notice people when you go in and out of rooms. You notice a boy. He looks as if he might have a specific difficulty. He moves, speaks and behaves as if he does. He is odd, eccentric, fascinating. Except you shouldn’t find him fascinating, should you,  because that would be treating him like some exotic creature and that’s not right. He should be treated like everyone else. He’s the same as everyone else, but he maybe has a specific difficulty. He is fascinating. He is very beautiful, thin and immaculately turned out. He walks on his toes and stops from time to time to check the soles of his shoes. What’s that all about?

One day he turns up in your group. You go into a class to teach a special group while the teacher and TA teach the other, more teachable groups, and this boy is in the group. He’s not really supposed to be even in this hard to teach but not impossible group, he is impossible, except where else can he go while all the adults are busy teaching the teachable children?

OK. You establish the rules of engagement. You know from previous that 95% of the difficulties with a group like this involve them not knowing what they are supposed to do and not paying attention, because they don’t know what they arew supposed to attend to. In their nervousness they sweep their hands back and forth across the table. Lesson 1 involves teaching them where to put their hands and stop table-swimming. Then they learn a bit of something and they get a reward of some sort. Sometimes it’s a sticker, you are ashamed to say, but the sticker comes with a “This is for… I like the way you…. You are very good at…Thank you for not table-swimming today.” What you praise them for, you remind them of next day, and they do it again. The more able groups just do this without being told. But your SEN group like to be told, need to be told.

This boy who ‘can’t do anything’, who is only in your group because there is nowhere else for him to go, there is no group low enough for him, he can’t do anything, so just let him sit there with your group, starts to want one of them there stickers. He is not easy, but after 4 or 5 sessions he starts to earn his sticker and he knows he has to do the right thing first – learning and work in his book, not just hands in the right place  (sounds like a proper old-fashioned trad affair doesn’t it) and that you will tell him what the sticker is for and he will understand. He likes to table-swim and drop his pencil and take ages to get it back and mess around with the other kid in the group who is good at messing around so he can avoid his work. How does a kid who can’t learn and can’t do anything know who to mess around with? Doesn’t this involve some sort of clever intelligence? You start to think you might be on to something here.

Some of your other work involves 1:1 teaching, often with the same children who have been in your group for other things. You ask the class teacher why this boy has not been flagged up to come to you 1:1, and learn to read. She tells you it is because he has special needs and will have his own TA soon so won’t be entitled to you as well. You ask her what these special needs are. What is this child’s label or diagnosis? What do people think is his specific difficulty? You like to let them tell you first.

He is 5 / 6. Year 1.

She tells you that he has been assessed by the SEN department but they don’t know. He has been assessed for autism by the Borough specialist outside agencies, but they have said he isn’t autistic. You ask why people think he is autistic. You only see him for three half hour sessions a week but he doesn’t seem autistic to you. She tells you he has odd mannerisms, can’t do anything and isn’t learning. She tells you he will be getting his own TA for the afternoons and the SEN department will organise a more in-depth assessment very soon.

You ask if you can have a bit of a go with him until the next assessment comes through. She says yes. And you start taking him to teach 1:1 every day. You are selfish on his behalf. He is fascinating.

You notice his oddness as you collect him and take him to your room. He walks on tip toe. He makes noises. He twists his fingers around each other. But he comes along when you ask him to. He speaks strangely, pronouncing oddly and asking questions about his books instead of answering them.

“What do you think he’s doing?”

“Him? What’s he doing?”

“Yes him, what’s he doing?”

“Hmmm. I don’t know.”

Yes he does. And you get him talking and he shows you he knows stuff. He knows lots.

It’s the thing about knowing who to sit next to to mess about with and the speed with which he learns this other child’s avoidance tactics. This child can learn.

You start making a game of ‘walking on our feet instead of on our toes’, and most of the time he needs reminding, but you start to notice after a few weeks that he walks on his feet without being told. You gently let him know that he should say his words properly and you model for him and with him.

“Rrrrrrrrobot. Grrrrrrrrreen rrrrrrrrrrrrrobot.”

He enjoys doing it right and starts to do it by himself.

And……He starts to read the books!

You are not sure at first whether he will, but he does. You ask him to read yesterday’s book and he does. You introduce today’s new book and he reads it. As days go by he has favourites. He chooses what to start with. You chat together about what happened in the book. For a while it is the same every day, but he lets you lead him towards other things to say about his old books and what can be said about each new book. He is ace at getting you chatting, with his questions. He likes to get a sticker and you have some very nice ones that inspire lots of talk, even writing sometimes. He likes to count his stickers and gets excited to know he has more than a girl from his class.

Meanwhile, the SEN department are organising a ‘really in-depth assessment’ (what can be more in-depth than an assessment for autism?) because they gave him a TA for the afternoons, expecting a diagnosis and funding, and now they are running at a deficit because he has had a TA without the funding. When you tell them that he is learning to read and write and phonics they are horrified that they may not recover his TA money, already spent, but you just tell them and move on.

One day you introduce a book about a boy who gets mumps. You are a bit wary because you have learned that his Dad has debilitating OCD – you have started to think maybe the boy’s difficulties and odd habits originate there, and will mention of an infectious disease tip him over the edge? But you decide you must be brave and allow the boy to be brave. You will abandon Mumps after a few pages if necessary. You are not trying to do aversion therapy; you forgot about Dad’s OCD when you fished out the new book and now he’s seen it and there has been talk. Being able to be brave is always an aspect of any child with SEN’s learning  (any child at all really) and you know that the child might not  be able to be brave unless you are able to do it first, to be brave on his behalf until he takes over.

So you ask him to read Mumps. He asks you all about it afterwards. You tell him it’s a bit like chicken pox which he knows about. You end up talking (because he asks) all about how germs get inside us and what our bodies do to fight them. You try not to worry what his Dad might say and gird yourself to explain to him if necessary. You find some very beautiful pictures of bacterium cell division on Google and what is really a GCSE biology lesson ensues. He relates the cells that deal with germs to superheroes. Just for a few minutes.

It is thrilling. He loves it. You love it.

You know that from then on he will learn. You know that he trusts that you will give him books to read that he will be interested in and he will be able to read with pleasure and you will trust him to know what to do but will be thrilled to explain whatever he needs explained. You will learn to bite your lip and not go on and on to show off everything else the books lead you towards, only what’s appropriate.

The six week summer holiday comes and then the new term. He is now in year two. He still needs some lessons because you only started in Summer term. When you go and collect him he walks on his feet, not his toes, with no reminders, and chats about his holiday, on the way to your room. Result. But for a few days he winds his fingers around each other and baulks and puts his head down on his arm when you give him a new book to read. You wonder for a short time whether that was it? Has he really got strong SEN and he’s not going to go any further? You talk to him about it. He is able to say what he thinks about what he can do. He says he can’t do anything. You both know he can do lots but this latest is his response to being in year 2. He’s playing with the same boys only now he think’s he’s playing with the big boys. You talk about it. He’s been playing up in class, avoiding work. A GOOD SIGN!! He knows he is in year 2 and expects the work to be hard, before he has allowed himself to look at it. You and his class teacher help him look at it, face it – to be brave. Three weeks in and his class teacher and TA can see he is capable of learning. With you, he stops putting his head down on his arm. He’s been doing it half-heartedly anyway, almost as if he thinks that’s what he’s supposed to do in year two. With a bit of cajoling he lifts his head, says “Alright then” and reads his new book. Three days later he’s on a roll, back to normal, stops putting his head down. He loves his old books. He is excited by his new books.

Yes he is a bit odd. Who isn’t? Nobody knows it more than he does. Now and again we get a bit of tiptoe and finger twist stimming. But he can learn. He will learn. And he does learn.

In that respect, there is nothing wrong with him. You wonder what the in-depth assessment will come up with? One thing is certain – they won’t ask you what you think.

Is the Phonics Screening Check fit for purpose?

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From the Gov.UK website, “The phonics screening check is a short, light-touch assessment to confirm whether individual children have learnt phonic decoding to an appropriate standard. It will identify the children who need extra help so they are given support by their school to improve their reading skills.”

Is it? Will it?

At the end of this month (August 2016) or thereabouts, national results for this year’s PSC will be published and Secretaries of State for Education or Education Ministers will make statements about how they compare to last year. Letters of congratulation will be sent from the House of Commons to schools that had a 100% pass rate. The rest of us, if we are not 100 per centers, will not be allowed to know which schools they are. I made a freedom of information request to the DfE about it. Here is the main part of the response, emailed to me on 23.3.2016. (I am not sure that what it says about high stakes testing was still true, even a few months later when KS1 SATs re-entered the arena?):

There are some arguments in favour of releasing the information. School-level information is currently released for pupils taking assessments/examinations at ages 11, 16 and at the end of advanced level education. This is beneficial as it allows providers of public services to be held to account locally, and can aid parents in making choices about schools for their children. Pupil assessments often stimulate public interest, in particular if they are new assessments such as the phonics check.

The arguments against releasing the information in relation to the phonics check are that publishing school-level data raises the stakes of a test or assessment for schools. In a public consultation about the phonics check, held in 2011, the vast majority of respondents agreed that it would be counter-productive to make school-level results available. The respondents argued that this approach could place pressure on children taking this assessment, and could narrow the curriculum. It is not appropriate for children of this age to be taking a high stakes test; in Year 1 children should not be aware that they are being formally assessed. The check is designed to provide reassurance that children have grasped a specific area of the National Curriculum, and does not provide a broader indicator of a school’s performance. Lord Bew’s Review of Testing, Assessment and Accountability endorsed the approach of having one set of high-stakes tests at the end of primary school which can satisfy the public interest for local accountability and school choice.  Monitoring arrangements for tests need to be more stringent for high-stakes tests, to provide confidence about the reliability of results. If results are made more widely available, monitoring should become more robust, which would be more expensive and burdensome.

It is possible, if one wishes to find some of the schools that got ‘the letter’ and analyse their demographics, look at their websites to see where they are, what sorts of schools they are, what they do etc, as some of them get mentions in local papers. More on that another day…

The Government will probably also use this year’s PSC results to make statements about the nation’s reading, literacy and all-round educational health. They may use the PSC to tell us how well our 11 and 16 year olds will do at SATs and GCSEs; even how many young people are on track for Russell Group Universities.

Let’s have a look at the actual check materials. Here is the booklet:

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/532604/2016_Phonics_screening_check_pupils__materials_-_standard__STA167501e_.pdf

What was in the check this year?

I have been looking at the frequency of phase phonics items in the booklet and doing a bit of counting of the actual phonics (items) occurring in the Phonics Screening Check administered to every Year 1 (aged between 5 years 10 months and 6 years 9 months) child in June 2016. Year 2 children who failed to pass last year will do the same check.

As you can see in the booklet, the following items occurred in 20 words and 20 non-words, in combinations with other items, some in a variety of combinations at starts, middles, ends of words. All items occur in lower case.

Children are taught phases 2, 3 and 5 by the time the Phonics Screener Check is timetabled as a national and statutory event near the end of year 1. Children and their parents and schools are not told in advance which specific items will be used in the check.

(Words in brackets give examples of how the items are meant to be pronounced in the check – they are not the actual check words)

Phase 2

These items are usually taught in this order, to be learned securely in reception year.

s – 14   a – 7   t – 12   p – 9   i – 6   n – 5   m – 5   d – 5   g – 3   o – 1   c – 2

k – 3   ck – 1  e – 8   u – 1   r – 12   h – 3   b – 5   f – 4   ff – 2   l – 7   ll – 0  ss – 1

Phase 3

These items are usually taught in this order to be learned securely during reception and year 1.

If schools are doing as they are told / advised, Phase 2, which may get started for some children in nursery class, when they are 3 or 4 years old, plus Phase 3 –  both phases continued into reception and year 1, and some get extra lessons if they are not drinking it in, may have been taught daily phonics for upwards of 200 lessons, 100 hours. Here are the items that came up in this year’s booklet, and their frequency:

j – 1   v – 1   w – 3   x – 2   y – 0   z – 0   zz – 0   qu – 1   ch – 2   sh – 2   th – 0

ng – 1   ai – 0   ee – 2   igh – 2   oa – 1   oo(moon) – 1   oo(book) – 0   ar – 2

or – 1   ur – 0  ow(cow) – 0   ow (snow) – 1   oi – 1   ear – 0   air – 1   ure – 0   er – 1

Phase 5

These items are usually taught in this order to be learned securely during year 1.

Year 1 children have daily 30 minute phonics lessons from September to June so will have been spending approx 150 lessons, 75 hours on this – some have extra lessons if they need catch up. How many Phase 5 came up in this year’s PSC:

ay – 0   ou(cloud) – 0   ie(pie) – 1   ea(eat) – 1   oy – 0   ir(sir) – 1   ue(glue) – 0

ue(sue) – 0   aw – 0   wh – 0   ph – 1   ew(pew) – 0   ew(flew) – 0   oe – 0

au(haunt) – 1   ey(monkey) – 0   a-e – 0   e-e – 0   i-e – 1   o-e – 3   u-e(flute) – 0

u-e(cube) – 0

There were 116 uses of the 23 items in Phase 2. ll (double L) was not used at all. 4 items were used only once. 3 items were used more than 10 times each.

The word ‘forest’ which occurs at 38/40 on the last page of words, and is presumably one of the cumulatively most difficult in the check, is written with only Phase 2 items. Many words and non-words that come earlier in the check and are presumably easier to blend, use items from later, presumably more difficult, phonics phases.

There were 25 uses of the 27 items in Phase 3. 10 of the 27 items were not used at all. 10 items were used once each, 6 were used twice and 1 item was used 3 times.

There were 9 uses of the 22 items in Phase 5. 15 items had zero uses. 6 items were used twice and 1 was used 3 times.

Some questions:

Who chose the words in this booklet? Who invented the non-words and how did they decide which items to include and in which parts of the words they should occur, in combinations with which other items? What was wrong with wh and th? What when where why this that and the other? Anyone who reads and writes with small children all the time will have plenty to say about the order these items appear in natural speech that children will turn into writing, and the real language books they will be enticed to read. What is necessary about any of this arbitrary order?

How does the comparatively over-frequent use of some items and the non-use of others help teachers to diagnose a child’s ability to use all the Phase phonics?

How many zany alien pictures with daft names can one child stand? Are these the aliens’ names? Why don’t they have capital letters? We spend the other non-phonics half of our lives trying to get little kids to use capital letters?

What of the non-used items? Does the child know them or not? Doesn’t the teacher know after all those hours of lessons and catch up? Why are there 2 double Fs and no double Ls?

Is the child able to use them in all combinations with other items in different parts of words?

Will the teacher need to do another check to diagnose children’s knowledge of things she needs to know that the check does not tell her? Or does she know already?

Why is the PSC only about blending certain items, pronouncing them quickly enough together to make them sound like words? Why are we not checking which individual items they know, as well?

Why are we testing small children mainly on items they learned nearly 2 years ago, and ignoring most of what they are likely to have learned recently? A level students do a lot of this, but they get to revise. Why are our six year olds being forced to act  like performing monkeys?

What if a child knows and can blend all the items that didn’t come up but they didn’t come up and he just failed by a few marks on the others and we told him he failed and we told his parent he failed and he has to do phonics for an extra year and do the PSC again in year 2?

What about the few children who fail the PSC again in year 2 and then…. they never have to do it again? What has the PSC done for them?

Some more questions:

If we look at the order that these items are likely to come up in children’s phonics lessons, and if we do as we are told and buy and give children only ‘cumulatively decodable’ books that use only the phonics they have been taught, how long will it be before those boys who will dive on any vehicle book, grab it and devour it can read about a car? Have a look where /ar/ comes in the phases? Do we really think our underachieving boys are going to be switched on by “Tan sat in a tin”?

If my name is Jack, when does my letter come up? I’m very fed up that Millie’s name letter came up before mine.

How long before anyone can read Once Upon a Time..? (No mention of soft c yet so heaven help us all.)

 

How long before all those boys who are famous for not learning to read and write as quickly as their girl classmates, and the girls themselves for that matter, can write about playing on a slide in the park, when they made a model or had a burger to eat? When can they write about their brother? A horse? A trip to see the sea? A dinosaur fight?

The gap between girls’ and boys’ reading and writing and passing of the PSC is still there. I wonder why? Is all this phonics not useful for boys? Are we not teaching phonics properly to boys?

Please think of a 5 year old you know. Think about their enthusiasms and interests. Then have a look at the phonics item order and think about which week in which term of which school year they might be allowed to read or write about these enthusiasms, based on how the appropriate vocabulary words are written.

What the PSC has been doing since it was introduced in 2012 is to make schools teach phonics. Phonics is a useful aspect of reading and especially writing and was probably being neglected in many schools pre 2012. It has now become a full blown primary school subject, just like English and Maths, Geography and RE. Now that it is a ‘normal’ part of every day and has almost equal weight with English and Maths – it is far more high profile than History, Geography, Music, Art, PE, Science, DT, IT, PHSCE, Story Time and even British Values, surprisingly enough –  isn’t it time to drop the screening check? Isn’t it time to drop the nonsensical non-word practice and free up all those hours for real reading – of BOOKS!! – and writing of stories and news about our dad’s new car?

We’ve got the message.

Thank you very much.

Oh the stories in our heads!

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I’ve just been discussing with some people on Twitter, as you do, the value and validity of ‘gut instincts’ and ‘the stories in our heads’ and ‘evidence’, and how reliably we can depend on any of these for making decisions. We got onto talking about jury service – I hope it is legal to write about mine, more than 15 years ago? I won’t write anything that will help identify anyone.

The photo is a still from a terrific film about jury service. I Googled 12 Good Men and dozens of pictures from the picture came up. The film is actually called 12 Angry Men – isn’t that interesting?! It stars Henry Fonda (and 11 other great American male actors from that era) as a juror who finds himself disagreeing with the others. It is a superb examination of the ways in which people ‘make up their minds’ and I recommend it to educators who are keen to base what they do on evidence. 

It is common that when you get called for jury service, you wait for several days before being assigned to a case. You have to turn up each day at nine, on time, otherwise you could be prosecuted or fined for contempt. On days with no case, you go home at maybe two or three o’clock, but there is no timetable – you have to wait until the jury clerk tells you to go home. By the time you get something to do, you are likely to be catatonic with boredom and itching to go home, or maybe will have joined the hanger and flogger brigade, itching to make sure someone gets their just deserts. If you’ve watched too many movies, 12 Angry Men included, you are likely to be perky and bushy tailed and desperate to make sure someone receives justice, even after several days in the smokey room – it wasn’t yet banned in public places when I went –  staring at or trying to ignore a yellow (from the smoke, not Japanese hi-tech design) TV screen set at an angle nobody could watch without developing passive whiplash. It was early days for mobile phones – no  FB, Twitter or wi-fi to keep us entertained.

I served for three cases. I’ll tell you about two of them. One thing about the third case was that the judge told the defendant off for making Freemason signals at him. I was staring at him intently but saw no jiggery pokery – I still wish I knew what he’d done? For future reference?

Anyway:

The first case involved a young man, about 17, being prosecuted by the police for being in possession of a piece cannabis resin, the size of a bar of soap. This bar was passed around us jurors for all to look at (I presumed not sniff!) and weigh up. I tried to pass it on without hardly looking at it. It had an air of radioactivity to me – I’ve never been around drugs, thank heavens. Touching it worried me greatly – I envisaged being sniffed out by some passing undercover dog on my journey home later, and being banged up before I’d had chance to explain. You can see here that I was the juror I mentioned earlier, who’d seen too many movies.

The police said the young man had been spotted walking on a canal bridge with the bar of cannabis in his hand; he’d seen the police coming, jumped down onto the tow path, hidden the drugs behind some bushes, and run away.

The young man’s defence wore her barrister’s gown over dungarees, Doc Marten’s and a plaid shirt, her wig on at a jaunty angle. I leaned forward in my seat. She had been to the scene of the alleged crime and taken photos which she showed us. It took her  very little time to demonstrate that the police would not have been able to see the drug-hiding bushes from where they testified they were standing, on the canal bridge; the young man was wearing a duffel coat with large pockets – why would he keep the bar in his hand in full view?; his mother’s home where he lived, and his clothes had been ransacked, twice, by police and sniffer dogs who’d found nothing untoward; he’d jumped off the bridge and run away because some friends had been in a fight, he was there, he didn’t know whether the police thought he’d been involved, and he was scared…

(That police station was investigated later, and found wanting, for fitting people up.)

The jury is told to retire to the jury room, elect a Juror Number 1 who will be the one to report back to the court, and let the clerk of the court know when they have reached a verdict.

It is terrific, I think, that you are just trusted to get on with it and decide on a verdict with no guidance at all about how to proceed. You are expected to combine the evidence with your gut instincts as peers of the defendant, and come to a verdict. We all need to be courageous in this task, I  think.

You are not told anything at all about how to come to a consensus with these strangers. And they are strangers. You don’t know them, even after sharing the smoky waiting room for three days, because that room is full of people who will be assigned to different cases, but in the jury room you have to reveal to them the contents of your mind, revealing  what you think about this very serious matter. You will need courage, wisdom and compassion.

In my jury room  we sat down and helped ourselves to water, coffee or tea and a biscuit. I had pages and pages of notes – note-taking helps me concentrate – and they made me juror number one. Having seen the movie, I asked for a show of hands of who thought the boy was guilty. A few put up their hands. I invited people to say why they thought he was guilty. A man said that although the evidence didn’t prove guilt in this case, ‘..the boy must have done something, or why would the police be after him? Might as well do him for this as anything else.’ Stories in our heads?

I said, ‘Hang on a minute! If we find this boy guilty, that verdict will be attached to his name for the rest of his life. If he has done something wrong,  the police should prove it properly. There can’t be that many 17 year old boys who can bamboozle a whole police force?’ We discussed a little more. Some said they didn’t care – they wanted to go home.

We found him not guilty.

The second case involved a woman who worked in a Bond Street fashion house as a model. Now this really was like the movies! A 50s movie. This woman’s job was to wear and model the clothes so that potential customers could see them and maybe buy. She was also the shop manageress. But she was getting beyond her prime. The owner of the shop wanted a younger model, brought one in,  and agreed to let her go. They negotiated  severance pay and all was well. She’d worked for this man for years and years. Except the negotiated severance never materialised. The model asked repeatedly for completion, but it didn’t come. In the end, she took matters into her own hands and, being in charge of and trusted with the company cheque book, wrote herself a cheque for the long-agreed amount, said bye bye, and paid it into her account, where it stayed, untouched, for months.

Later, the shop owner was being done for VAT fraud. Apparently, when UK/EU businesses sell to non-EU customers, the shop fills in and the customers can fill in a form at customs, and claim back VAT they have paid for the goods. (Who knew?) It was mentioned, almost in passing, very subtle, this shop owner was going to be prosecuted for something by the VAT people..? He was now bringing a case against his former model and shop manageress who everyone stated had been doing a sterling job for years. I wondered why? I though about it… If she was found guilty of this ‘fraud’, he could blame his VAT fraud on her too. Very clever.

The defendant / model/ manageress was black and so was her barrister. Every time her barrister was on his feet, the prosecution barrister was mugging at us, pulling faces as if to say, ‘Look at this idiot’,  when the judge wasn’t looking. He was appealing to the stories in our heads. During a break I asked the clerk of the court if the prosecution barrister was allowed to pull faces at the jury like this. It never happened again.

We retired to the jurors’ deliberation room and helped ourselves to tea or coffee and a biscuit. I had pages and pages of notes. Our friend who was at the bar of soap drugs trial was there again – 12 jurors will include some from a previous case and others you’ve never seen before. He was the first to speak and he said, “Well. She’s obviously a tart!”

I said, ‘Hang on a minute!’ And asked for a show of hands…etc.

When it was announced that she was not guilty, she broke into floods of tears and almost collapsed. Her barrister’s jaw fell open and stayed that way.

I recommend anyone who gets called for jury service to watch 12 Angry Men first.

I recommend everyone who works in education to watch 12 Angry Men and ponder, when they think they are basing their actions on ‘evidence’, which ‘evidence’? Whose ‘evidence’? Who benefits from this ‘evidence’?

I apologise if I make myself sound like the caped crusader. But if nobody is willing to be a caped-crusader, who wins?

Please stand up for justice any time you think justice is on her knees. She will be extremely grateful. I promise you won’t ever regret it.

Looking for Puffins

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And… How I probably got fat.

In August 2002 I married Mr Right. Meeting and marrying Mr or Mrs Right can be a head-turning affair at any age, but we were both 47 and our heads were indeed well and truly turned. The world was our prawn and we were delighted. We were invincible. We had good company at last and could go anywhere together and do all sorts of things that single people just don’t usually do. Together. Here is the tale of one of our trips:

I had always wanted to see real live puffins. Mr Right professed he would go anywhere with me. Puffins it was. I read that they live and breed on Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel, so we set off to look for some.

You get told that if you go to Ilfracombe there will be a boat to Lundy where puffins breed and show their colours in spring. We drove from South London to Ilfracombe. When we got there, late Thursday, early season, we made a beeline for the dockside, hoping  to book a boat trip to Lundy. A notice board said boats were only going to Lundy on Thursdays- we were already too late. We asked at the tourist information office and they gave us a number to call. The people on the phone said to  maybe go to Clovelly, because fishing boats will often go from Clovelly to Lundy, and may take passengers.

OK. We set off to Clovelly, a beautiful tiny one street fishing village at the base of some North Devon cliffs, accessed only by a series of chicane paths through woods to the side, or on foot  down a near vertical high street. The place is famous for its donkeys who still drag plastic bread trays of goods on ropes, up the hill. We decided to park at the top and teeter down the cobbles. At the bottom we were told that the main fishing boat man – forgive me for not remembering his name – would not be able to say whether he was sailing over to Lundy tomorrow, until he knew the weather in the morning. He was not of a mind to trust the forecast, but would like to see the clouds, stick his finger out, and suss things for himself. Fair enough. I’d do the same.

We then had to decide whether to go away again and come back early tomorrow, or stay. We stayed.

There are two hotels in Clovelly, one at the quayside and one half way up / down the precipice that is the high street. We enquired at the quayside Red Lion and yes they had a room available.  The rate for the room was very expensive indeed, but included a four course gourmet dinner.

Our room was above the kitchens and smelled overwhelmingly of roasting meats and burnt – a bad sign I’ve since found out, but didn’t realise then. We had a bit of a wash and went down for our dinner. Usually I eat my fill and then stop, but on this occasion, the shocking price made me think I should try and eat everything. I forced down each course.

During the night I had the most excruciating stomach pains. I knew it was from over-eating. I felt that I had stretched my stomach in a way it had never been stretched before. I felt like Charles Laughton in a film about Henry the 8th at his top table. Awake half the night, I prayed to be able to vomit. But no puke came. I am convinced that this racking must have stretched my stomach once and for all. I have eaten like a glutton ever since, and have gained two stones that don’t seem to want to leave me. I blame Clovelly for my fat.

Next morning I thanked Buddha I was still alive, it was touch and go for a while, and we called the boat man to see if we were on our way to Lundy. No answer. We asked the Red Lion manager to call for us. Ages later he came and told us that Mr Bloater would not be sailing over to Lundy today – the weather was too unpredictable.

Mr Red Lion manager informed us that the only other option for getting to Lundy would be to contact the helicopter rescue people, whose main pilot lived in Westward Ho! He gave us the pilot’s address. And off we set. We were by now at a point where we would have been willing to re-mortgage our house to pay for said helicopter.

At Westward Ho! we found the address of the helicopter pilot. It was one of a bleak row of wind blasted, low-roofed ticky tacky beach shacks that offer tea and sandwiches or chips and salad. Of course, Mr Copter was not there, and not likely to be. At last, we moved on.

We went to see the Westward Ho! beach which is huge and wide and dramatic and magnificent, with rolling surfs, and makes you wonder what the novel is all about? It is backed by dunes. Sitting in these dunes, sucking sweets from our pockets, just about to nod off, we had the absolute living daylights scared out of us by two black Delta fighter planes which are the loudest and the fastest objects I have ever seen, flying overhead. I couldn’t help imagining how people, mothers, parents, in real war zones must feel when one of these monstrosities comes over, and I cried.

Next year we went to Ireland for a holiday and saw real puffins flying about the rocks off the coast. They are quite small chubby little creatures that flap low over the water making squeaky noises. I would still like to see one standing above its burrow on short cropped rabbit grass, with its beak in the air. One day.

Me and Mr Right continue to laugh and argue from time time about what constitutes the Bristol Channel  – he used to live in Bristol, so thinks he knows – and what is actually the Atlantic Ocean.

Nobody really knows anything really, do they, until they have found out for themselves.

No Excuses!

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How ardent progressives don’t leave children flopping about in troughs of desperate failure, and if they do, I will have something to say.

In teaching there are various written and unwritten rules about what we should and shouldn’t do and say. We should never use ridicule or sarcasm against the children. We should never say, “Are you deaf?” when they don’t seem to hear or understand us – they might well be. We should never say, “Don’t be stupid” when they make mistakes, not because they might be, but because it is just not nice, and anyway, they are not allowed to tell us how stupid we are, are they? And we might be. We don’t put great red marks from corner to corner of their work, etc etc.

Those are systemic rules and we unfollow them at our peril. We also have self-regulating rules for our own teaching and behaviour, some that come from training in our subject and some we invent for ourselves based on experience and pragmatism. These rules are underpinned by  or are held in some tension in relation to our fundamental belief system – our ideology.

How often might I be willing to accept that sometimes my ideology doesn’t suit a child’s needs? What are the consequences for the children of my sticking rigidly to what I know ‘works’, if it is not actually working?  There must be something wrong with the child, right, if what works for everyone doesn’t work for him? Or there must be something wrong with what has gone before, mustn’t there, in school or at home, if this child is not yet ready to take on what I have given to dozens of children before? Am I justified in being frustrated with a system that has allowed this child to get into this state? Shall I just go through the motions and talk up a good story about what is going on at home or what last year’s teacher didn’t get right?

No.

Working 1:1 there is no hiding place, either for me or the child. Even for a loony lefty bleeding heart liberal such as me, 1:1 teaching is the ultimate No Excuses! scenario. With knobs on. To misquote Princess Diana, there are always three of us in this relationship: the child, me, and my field of endeavour. In that little dusty, windowless room, if any one of those three goes wrong or doesn’t work or doesn’t succeed, well then that’s all down to me. I have to make it all up to me. My job is a luxury: for the school, for me, for the child and for my methodologies. I should never take that last sentence lightly.

So what does all this have to do with the rules of the game? Another aspect, probably the biggest slice of my ideological working pi chart is that I teach the child, not the subject. I teach the child what she needs at this moment, on this day, at this stage in her series of lessons. And I have to work out what that is. Every day. There is no, “This is week 7 day 2, ah, we’re doing speech marks.” It doesn’t work like that. No Excuses!

And now I have to get anecdotal. Look away now if you must.

Child A is just 6. He has parents who speak different languages and a grandmother who lives upstairs and speaks a third. The adults communicate with each other, and him, and the outside world, and me, in a type of pidgin English. A speaks all three of the adults’ languages. One day this multilingualism will be a huge asset to A, but he doesn’t know that yet. Neither does school nor the system – he is struggling. A speaks this pidgin to the extent that he doesn’t fully understand standard English. He has had three terms at school in reception and is now in year 1. I soon realise that A also has some difficulties with his speech. I wonder whether the aspects of speech he has difficulties with are not present in his various home languages and if this matters and how much? The school has no speech therapist I can ask, so I have to rely on experience and instinct.

When teachers and people in school think a child might have a special educational need, even when they have ideas about what can be done, we are loathe to do it unless it has been sanctioned by an expert. We would be worried that we were giving the wrong medicine and might harm the patient. ‘First, do no harm!’ In class, many teachers would rightly and understandably not try to cure an educational patient without a diagnosis, prognosis and course of treatment. 1:1 it is not so easy to ignore and move on to the next bed. I can’t move on to the next bed until A is cured.

A general recommendation  – a rule – about children with speech difficulties is ‘Don’t make them repeat things.’  A can’t say consonant blends with /l/ as the second letter. I make sure I speak really clearly when his early books have such blends in them and hope for the best. He doesn’t ‘pick up’ correct pronunciation. We are still getting crowns instead of clowns and prants instead of plants. He has other difficulties to do with being new to English, although he is not new to English, including making two or three spoken words into one because he doesn’t ‘hear’ breaks between words, and also some classic unresolved baby language bits of words to represent wholes and garbled grammar.

I worry he will fail the phonics screener check and pull down his class teacher’s statistics – may the Lord have mercy on my soul!

I remember my reading teacher leader saying learning to read (real books) is a great addition to a child’s early learning of English, what better way to learn? Is there nothing that reading can’t cure? Is there nothing that reading is not good for?

After several weeks of A not ‘picking it up’ I have to act. My teacher leader would say if a child is not speaking properly, shall we leave it until he’s 14 and full of self-conscious embarrassment before we tackle it? Many times and often, it is us that is scared of tackling a child’s difficulties in case we do it wrong. No Excuses! We have to make ourselves do it right.We have to take the cringe when we do it wrong. We’ve had our education.This is the kid’s chance. Sod our career aspirations, the kid comes first. No point blogging about how rubbish this kid’s previous teacher and home life was. Nor trying to look for academic papers to prove he is ‘not ready’ and use them to help me sleep at night. Nope.

No Excuses!

I deliberately find books with consonant blends with /l/ as the second letter – I don’t avoid what I think he can’t cope with, or what might ‘upset’ him. We practise saying words whilst watching our mouths in a mirror. We say bits of words with /l/ in a non-problematic (to him) position. If he makes a mistake I judge very carefully whether to tell him to say that again. And how many times. When we write, I help him to compose sentences in standard English, to say them several times and to read them back. Several times. I tell him I know he is worried about all this but that my job is to help. His job is to have a go.

Children respond really well to being told, “Your job today is…” Try it.

Rules broken with Child A:

  1. Repeat saying things correctly. We make a game of it. I tell him what to repeat – I make him do it right, he tells me what to say. We look in a mirror and laugh.
  2. Joining in as he reads. Theory tells me to always expect him to read independently. As he reads I join in with every word he may mispronounce. I continue even when I think he may be OK. We both end up laughing.
  3. Not acknowledging a child’s own speech  / correcting a child’s speech – it might upset his self-esteem. I tell him overtly that we have to speak properly to help us learn to read and write – reading and writing usually use proper English. I tell him that we can speak differently at home or in the playground as much as we like, but we have to speak properly for reading and writing.

Child A, after 7 or 8 lessons (he’s had about 25 other lessons already) in this vein, he clicks on. He stops baulking at new books and starts just picking  them up and reading them. He starts composing standard english sentences to write . He starts showing off to his friend in class that he can do it. His class teacher notices he can do it. A few weeks later he is on a total roll, and I plan to let him go very soon…

And in another universe, far far away:

Child A is in my SEN phonics group. Guess who is now so confident he is first to respond to every question and say every digraph or nonsense word or blend a word together before all the others, to the extent that I have to restrain myself from telling him to be quiet?

And he can read. His class teacher knows he can read. At the end of last half term I collected him and  two of his friends in the dusty little room, to read to each other. A played a blinder. He chose a not very easy book from his box, and read it to the others, and then he grinned. He grinned more when he saw what the others read.

No Excuses!

Bite your lip.

I will let A go soon, and move on to the next bed.