Saturday 2 March 2024

Poetry is 'memorable speech'.- [blog updated and extended]

The poet WH Auden coined or adopted the phrase 'memorable speech' to describe poetry (rather than define it). This is a rich vein to explore: 'memorable' implies both 'easy to remember' and 'worth remembering'.

There are many ways that we make poetry memorable in the sense of 'easy to remember' eg through rhythm, repetition, patterns of imagery, contrasts, ironies, figurative language that surprises us, humour, rhyme and so on.

Likewise, we have many ways to make it worth remembering: choosing subjects that matter to us, whether personal, cultural, political. Or perhaps to do with the world we go through: poetry can stop and look closely at something that might otherwise pass us by. 

In a school context, poetry offers some educational aspects that people are concerned about. Because poetry is memorable, we offer young people 'chunks' of language that becomes portable. They and we want to remember it. One of the ways in which we acquire the shape, sound and grammar of language is to remember chunks of it. Again, and related to this is the way poetry can often act as a bridge between the spoken and the written language. As Auden observed, it is a specialised form of speech. A lot of it sounds like the spoken word, and most of it can easily be spoken. And yet it isn't speech, as speech in conversation is full of hesitation, incomplete fragments, interruptions, and a method that often needs more context and human gesture to make sense. 

Another way to look at poetry is to see it as a specialised form of cohesion in language. Poetry sets up ways of making language cohesive using sound, repetition, exploration of lexical fields, contrasts, patterns of imagery and figurative language. 

This then becomes a platform for helping young people explore symbolic language. There are many ways poems use symbols or a whole poem can be taken to be symbolic or representative of something bigger than itself. A haiku about a leaf falling may be representative of something much more than a leaf falling. 

We've reached a point in education, where reading and writing poetry is something that has been quietly and silently shoved in a cupboard. Poetry in education isn't of itself or inevitably 'good'. It can be taught in a dull, tedious way especially if it's dominated by exams and the formulas needed for the exams. Poetry thrives when young people feel free to explore it and write it how they want to. This calls for poetry to be in poetry-friendly places, where poems are up on walls, where the kinds of questions we ask about poems are to do with how and what a poem might mean to you, how it reminds you of things about yourself, or other things you've read or heard, what questions you would like to ask of people in a poem or of the poet, and what the 'secret strings' in the poem that are the links between the sounds, images and lexical fields. 

It's easy to forget that poems are ways that writers start conversations. We hope that a poem will fire off conversations that readers and listeners will have in their heads and with other readers and listeners. An exam-driven curriculum is much more likely to regard poems as boxes full of a finite number of facts and the job for a student is get the right facts and a sufficient number of right facts out of the poem. It's as if the system asks of students to think of a poem as an egg-box, and the student's job is get all six eggs out. To carry on the analogy, yes, it's possible to take eggs out of a box, but eggs only really start to matter when we think of things to do with them - fry, boil, poach, use in making cakes and so on. In other words, poems only matter when we can use and adapt what we find in them. That means listening to how we use our experience of life, experience of 'texts' (in the widest sense ie including songs, films, TV programmes) to lift meaning from a poem. 'What does this poem (or line, or phrase or word) remind me of?' 'What thoughts are triggered by the poem, line, phrase or word? Why? What's the link between what's written in the poem and what I've started to think about?' 

This last is a matter of how we make links between two things - something in a poem, and something in our heads. If we can articulate what that link is, or what is in common between the two things, it may well be the first step towards abstract thoughts and ideas. The common point might be, let's say, 'disappointment' or 'regret'. One thing educators can do, is helpe students articulate and discuss such beginnings of abstract concepts that link poem (or part of poem) to student's experience.  

Books I have written which are entirely or partly about poetry: 'What is Poetry?' ( )
'Write to feel Right' (Collins Big Cat) 'What is a Bong Tree? (available through my website - see 'Books'
'Poetry for Primary and Lower Secondary Schools' (available through my website - see 'Books') 

Tuesday 12 December 2023

Letter sent to Guardian about Covid Inquiry and Herd Immunity


I've spent the last few days struggling with your headline and the testimony given by Mr Chris Whitty ('Herd immunity was never UK policy, Chris Whitty tells Covid inquiry' Guardian Nov 22 2023). Mr Whitty is quoted saying, “I don’t think I ever saw anybody on the record, or anybody sensible, aiming for it as a goal".

I've searched March 12 and March 13 2020, in the Guardian archive and elsewhere and I find, for example:

"Sir Patrick Vallance, England’s chief scientific adviser, has defended the government’s approach to tackling the coronavirus, saying it could have the benefit of creating “herd immunity” across the population." (March 13 2020)  

Also from March 13 2020, ITV news website: "UK's chief scientific adviser [Sir Patrick Vallance] tells ITV News he hopes Government's approach to coronavirus will create 'herd immunity'."

Again, from March 13 2020, Graham Medley from SAGE was on BBC Newsnight saying,  ‘We’re going to have to generate herd immunity…the only way of developing that in the absence of a vaccine is for the majority of the population to become infected…’

These statements seem to have been by way of explanations for Mr Johnson's comments the day before (March 12) , as reported by you "As many as 10,000 people in the UK are probably already infected with coronavirus, and many people should expect to lose loved ones, the government has said as it announced measures less stringent than those taken by other countries." And the article continued: "Britain moved from the “contain” phase of the crisis to the “delay” phase on Thursday...(March 12). The article goes on to itemise the measures NOT being taken to contain the spread of infection, such as cancelling large public events, social distancing, test-trace-and-isolate. 

These non-measures seem to me to be enactments of a herd immunity policy. 

I had great hopes that the Covid Inquiry would identify and clarify policies and approaches taken by the Government in March 2020. Instead, on this crucial matter of whether on March 12 and March 13 2020, the Government was or was not pursuing this herd immunity policy , I am less clear now than I was when I was doing my own private research. 

Even less clear now and at the time in March 2020 is what definition of herd immunity was Sir Patrick Vallance and others using. Meanwhile,  still hidden from us are what ideas were swirling round in Number 10 and the advisory committees about acceptable levels of death.  The Prime Minister's WhatsApp messages might have helped illuminate this matter, but the available technological expertise seems unable to help us here. For the time being, all we have to go on are Sir Patrick Vallance's notes of what Johnson said from October 2020 about us oldies having had a 'good innings' and our having reached our time anyway. 

I don't see how we can find out whether policies were right or wrong at the time if we can't even demonstrate what those policies were. This matter affects tens of thousands of bereaved and injured people. 


Michael Rosen

Wednesday 22 November 2023

Some responses to this week's Covid inquiry


(1) Patrick Vallance (from Guardian Nov 20 2023)

Vallance diary:

“PM meeting – begins to argue for letting it all rip. Saying yes there will be more casualties but so be it – ‘they have had a good innings’,” before...saying: “DC says ‘Rishi thinks just let people die and that’s okay’.

Out of bedrooms and wards

long lines of the dead

walk towards  you

asking you,

'Who were you to decide that

our innings was over?

Who gave you the umpire's white coat

and upraised finger?

Did you think we would never speak

from the graves you gave us?


Patrick Vallance wrote in his diary that Johnson said of the Pandemic:

 “Most people who die have reached their time anyway.”

His worldview was ready to pounce on us

as if our 'time' is logged in on a universal spreadsheet

which gave him the right to send us off to the morgue.


 Vallance's diary from October 2020

 "PM meeting – begins to argue for letting it all rip. Saying yes there will be more casualties but so be it – ‘they have had a good innings’, ' before saying that “Most people who die have reached their time anyway.”

If true, these statements 

gives us a picture of a Prime Minister 

who thinks that our lives are governed 

by some kind of cricket score card 

with the twist that the scores are worked out 

before the players take to the field. 

When Johnson comes before the Inquiry, 

perhaps the KC can press him on the point, 

in particular by asking him 

who it is who writes this score card and why. 

When he gets an answer, 

there's a follow-up question along the lines of 

'So what's the point of doing anything to prevent 

disease, poverty or war, anyway?' 


Jolly old Boris

he always made us smile!

Seems like he was killing us

all the while!

Friday 17 November 2023

Some ideas about writing and recovery

This week, I gave a talk to Lewisham headteachers about writing and recovery. I read some poems and talked about why and how I wrote them. Here's a very brief summary of some of the things I said:

1. I learned from DH Lawrence's poems, like 'Snake' and 'Man and Bat' that there's a way in which  you can write where one moment you are 'in' the moment and the next you are reflecting on it. I say that this is a bit like the experience of swimming 'in' a swimming pool and the next you're walking along the edge looking at yourself swimming. This kind of writing can be very immediate and a line later be quite detached. When  you're detached, you can think of yourself as the questioner, asking yourself (in the pool) why you're doing it that way. 

2. One way two write about big, difficult, very emotional things is to avoid writing a lot. All you need to do is 'write small'. Think of each thing you write as a stone from a mosaic or one piece of glass from a stained glass window. This means that you build up a picture from the fragments. But there's no pressure. You can take your time, just writing about a single sensation, or something that someone said, something that you said, something you saw, a glimpse. Then turn over your page, and create the next fragment. In time, the fragments will start to talk to each other. 

3. When you're writing about big emotional things, don't swerve away from writing about 'things'. In fact, do that: focus on the things that were 'there' in that moment: the table, the chair, the window, the tree, the plate, the hat...whatever. It helps you grab that moment and what was particular and special about it. It's called the 'thingness of things'. 

4. When you write, remember you don't have to write in sentences. You don't have to write the way you do prose. You can write in phrases or single words. Instead of writing these in a line, as in prose (as I'm writing here in this blog), you can put each phrase or word under each other. Imagine you're 'unfolding' words and phrases under each other. It gives you a different sense of time, in relation to what you're writing about.

5. Think of yoursel as a collector or as an archaeologist. You're collecting stuff to do with what you've seen, heard and thought about. You dig around in your mind to find memories, thoughts images. When one appears, grab it, put it down. Don't worry about making it bigger to start off with. Let it grow slowly. 

6. Play the metaphor/simile game. Why or how is one thing like another. If you think that a given moment or feeling is like something else, try writing about that something else. If you think losing someone is like seeing a bus disappear over a hill, try writing in detail about the bus going over a hill and not about losing someone. 

7. Give yourself time to daydream. Give yourself time to grab the thing you're daydreaming about. Don't disregard or diminish daydreams. They are precious. Nurture them. Encourage them. 

8. Think of writing as a form of release, that relieves you for 'getting it out of yourself'. Release and relief. Which then restores  you. Release, relief, restore.

9. The school curriculum is about expected levels. This kind of writing is about unexpected levels. Always be free and open to the idea that what you write might surprise you, might be unexpected. Even aim at the unexpected. Write something that you don't expect yourself to write. 

10. Try banning emotion words. See if you can convey the emotion you want to convey without mentioning the emotion.

11. Try doing impossible writing. Create phrases or sentences that express the thing you want to express but do it so that physically or materially it would be impossible. The man is lying on the pavement is possible writing. The pavement is carrying the sleeping man is impossible writing. 

12. Try banning adjectives and adverbs and putting all your effort into finding unusual verbs. 

References: I've written about writing poems in 'Write to Feel Right' published by Collins Education, Big Cat series. 

And in 'What is Poetry?' published by Walker Books. 

And in 'Getting Better' published by Ebury Books, (forthcoming Penguin)

Examples of me doing this kind of writing are in 'Many Different Kinds of Love' (Penguin), 'Selected Poems' (Penguin), 'The Advantages of Nearly Dying' (Smokestack).

There are two 40 minute pieces of me performing these fragments on our YouTube Channel, 'Kids' Poems and Stories with Michael Rosen'. One is called 'Many Different Kinds of Love'. The other is called 'The Death of Eddie'. 

Thursday 25 May 2023

My thoughts on this year's Key Stage 2 Grammar, punctuation and spelling test (which used to be the SPaG test)

I am looking at the 2023, 'Key stage 2, English grammar, punctuation and spelling test.

Paper 1: questions'

My first thought, as ever, is to wonder about how many hours of work are required to put Year 6 students through this? And for what benefit? I ask this because I know that one of my offspring did this test, did very well at it, and when I ran though some of the terms with him a few years later, he had forgotten them all. 

Ok - brief thoughts on some of the questions:

Question 1 asks 'Which sentence is a command?'

I've talked about this before as an example of how what this kind of grammar calls 'grammar' is very slippery. The word 'command' is not a grammar word. It's a word to describe how we say things to each other. We can command each other to do things in several ways: eg 'You must do this now!'. 'No running in the playground'. 

So what's going on here? 

What they mean, but don't say, is that for the sake of this exam, a 'command' is a sentence that uses the 'imperative' form of the verb. We all know such words and usages eg 'Go out!' or even 'Please don't do that' which of course doesn't sound like a 'command' at all! 

So what you have is a typically fuzzy definition based on a non-grammatical word, when really they mean something else. 

What ends up being tested here is actually not 'grammar' but a fuzzy mix of semantics (meaning) and 'grammar'. 

Question 2 continues with the GPS obsession with 'sentence types'. I can't figure out why they should be obsessed with this. Why is it important to give sentences a name, especially as some of the labels are 'fuzzy' anyway (as with 'command'). Question 2 asks 'Tick one box in each row to show whether the sentence is an exclamation or a question.'

What follows are four sentences (with no punctuation mark at the end of them!) all beginning with 'How'. 

One of these is 'How disappointing it was that it rained on sports day'.

You have to laugh. Who writes this stuff? This is straight out of 1950s middle class talk. Is there anyone left who ever says or writes such things? 

This is supposed to be an 'exclamation'. Again, this is not a 'grammar word'. We can 'exclaim' in many different ways using different grammatical structures eg 'Oh no, I've lost my wallet!' Anyone having to subject themselves to this test knows that the word 'exclamation' here is being squeezed into being a 'grammar word' by linking it to a sentence structure. 

Big irony here: in order to be able to ask this question, the sentences are not completed with a punctuation mark. Think about that. This test and the syllabus belabour children and teachers with the need (desperate need) to finish sentences with the 'correct' punctuation mark - question mark, full stop etc., and here is the test that is supposed to test such things, putting four sentences in front of children without the end mark. 

Of course, we know why they haven't. It's because they would have had to have put an exclamation mark after the exclamation! People will remember the hapless Nick Gibb coming on the radio trying to explain to millions of listeners how and why they were testing children on exclamation marks and clearly failing to do so. 

Again, you have to laugh: the harder they try to be 'correct' the more likely it is that they'll end up putting something incorrect in front of children.  

Question 3 asks the children to 'Draw a line to match each word to a suffix to make four different words. Use each suffix only once.' The four words are 'social', 'relation', 'child' and 'season'. The four suffixes are 'ish', 'al, 'ise', 'ship'. 

I sat up at this one because my 'school grammar' and 'university grammar' comes from the 1950s and 60s. Any of us taught these terms as if they were set in stone are always surprised to see that the terms can change. Anyone who cares about such things as suffixes, will notice that the four suffixes are not the same in kind. Three of them are additions turning them either into another noun (eg 'relationship') or into adjectives (eg 'childish'). One of them is an adjective that you have to turn into a verb (ie 'socialise'). 

I was taught to think of verbs and verb endings as being 'conjugations' rather than being a stem+suffix. But, hey, there you go. If they're suffixes now, let'em be suffixes. It's all part of the arbitrary terminology diarrhoea that afflicts this subject. Someone reading this will blow a gasket longing to 'correct' me to tell me that they 'ARE' really suffixes, as if labels are more important than language. 

Question 4 involves an Oxford comma twitch. People who write this stuff are obsessed with whether the 'Oxford comma' is right or wrong. (Imagine being such a person!). Some people nearly die if they see a comma before the word 'and'. If I was teaching Year 6s I would tell them that if they care about the health of others, they must remember that if any question asks you to insert a comma into a sentence, never, never, never put it in the front of the word 'and', or far off, someone may pass away. 

Question 6 asks 'Which pair of words are antonyms?

Antonyms are not grammar. They are semantics. They have no place on a grammar paper. Grammarians know this. The fact that they are in a grammar test is testament to the fact that grammarians were cowed by Michael Gove when it came to devising this absurd syllabus. In fact, 'antonyms' are a weird concept drawn from tests and syllabuses from the 19th century. Linguistics has taught us over the last 50 years or more that there is no such thing as a synonym or an antonym. That's not how language works. Words are so full of lovely variation and 'connotation' that we can't tie them to such concepts as 'antonym' and 'synonym' - except of the sake of tests and TV quizzes. 

The answer to this question is 'proper' and 'improper'. 

I'll state the obvious: 'proper' can be used in many different ways: eg 'he's a proper little devil', 'the proper way to learn a part is to cover the page', 'she was very polite and very proper'. The word 'improper' may or may not match the many ways we use the word 'proper'. Logically speaking then, they are only antonyms for the sake of this question! 

I quite often talk about how far from 'language-use', these grammar test go. This is a prime example. Language-use tells us that 'proper' is a word we can use flexibly, variously with nice, subtle differences. The word 'improper', less so. In order to answer this question, we invite children to dispense with the flexibility of language-in-use, and come up with a bit of absurd, non-grammatical labelling.

Question 9 - another non-grammar question. It asks 'Which sentence is the most formal?' 

Others may help me here. I've struggled to find in course materials a reasonable and rational explanation of the word 'formal', as used in these tests. It's quite clearly not only a matter of grammar because these questions often slip in a slightly slangy noun or verb which is being used in a 'standard English' way (ie 'correctly') but is presumably not 'formal'. So here we have the sentence 'Please pack up all your stuff before you leave.' I guess that the examiners think 'stuff' is informal. This is not a matter of grammar. It's a matter of 'register'. They've decided that 'stuff' is not 'formal'. (Go figure!) 

The formal sentence is, presumably: 'It is essential that you take all  your belongings with you.' For this to be 'formal' it's through its 'lexis' (ie choice of vocabulary) and not through grammar. 

This is how 'grammar' gets afflicted with mission creep. 'Grammar' creeps into 'style' and telling children how they 'should' write. 

Question 10 is a 'synonyms' question. More non-grammar in a 'grammar' test. 'Overjoyed' and 'delighted' are supposedly synonyms here. They are similar. Or they are in the same 'lexical field'. They each have different connotations. 

Question 13 throws me completely:

'Insert a colon in the correct place in the sentence below.

Dipti is keen to practise the drums she wants to play in the school band.'

Wot? I can't think of any circumstance where I'd put a colon in that sentence!  Call me uncouth, but I wouldn't put any punctuation in that sentence, let alone a colon. I use colons in one restricted way only. I use them following a general word and before a list of things that are part of that general word, or as a mark to indicate 'like this'. So I might write, 'There are a few supermarkets round here: Sainsbury's, Asda, Lidl, Waitrose etc.' Or I might write, 'The rule states clearly that you can not run in school: 'Do not run in the corridors or classrooms'.' 

Well, I didn't get my mark for that question. 

Question 14 is 'Which question is the most formal

What is this need to be 'formal'? Again the reason why one of the sentences is more formal than another is semantic not grammatical. 'I asked him to phone me when he got here' is presumably meant to be less formal than 'I requested that he telephone me on arrival.' 

Somewhere deep in the minds of the examiners is the notion that 'request' is more 'formal' than 'ask' and - here's the exciting bit [irony alert], the construction 'that he telephone me' contains what they say is....a 'subjunctive'. 

Note: not all grammarians are convinced that this IS a subjunctive. Some think that it's some strange bit of English usage that can be ring-fenced and labelled but best not to dignify it with the term 'subjunctive' because it doesn't 'conjugate'. This means that it can't really be compared with, say, the subjunctive in French, which is really an extraordinary, subtle, complex form that can be used to indicate a mix of doubt, caution, suggestion, tentative thought and so on. 

However, Michael Gove said that he wanted the subjunctive in the test. The grammarians said they weren't too sure about that. Michael Gove was sure. That's why the children learn it. That's why this sentence is included in the test. 

Question 18 asks the children to spot the use of the 'present progressive'. I include this one because once again it gives me a laugh. Back in the 1950s and 60s, we were taught that there is a tense called 'the present continuous'. That's what it IS, we were told. That verb form IS the present continuous. The present continuous IS that particular verb form - usually expressed by '-ing' endings on the end of the stem of the verb. 

One reason why it was interesting, they told us, is that French doesn't have that verb form. It's expressed with a phrase that looks like 'in train of..' ('Je suis en train de manger un croissant' 'I'm eating a croissant') 

Then at some point, some grammarians decided that it ISN'T the 'present continuous'. It IS the 'present progressive'. 

Why? Why did it change? Who decided? Why did that then become THE term? What bit of new knowledge about this verb form has necessitated this new term? I dunno. 

Question 29, sees a visitation of the dreaded 'fronted adverbial'. However, it's in its most diluted form. (I sense a retreat from this monster.) All that the students are asked to do here is punctuate it with a comma in the right place. As it happens, there is a trick in the question. Many of the children will have learnt it in a mechanical way - there's only time to learn it mechanically. One of the sentences is 'Luckily for us the ball rolled slowly past the goal.' 

The trick here is that many children would bung a comma in after 'luckily' because that's how they were taught the dreaded 'fronted adverbial. Trouble is, on this occasion, the f.a. is 'Luckily for us...' Boooo! Trick question. 

Question 31 is another bite at the exclamation cherry. Why so interested in exclamations and exclamation marks? Do they matter that much? When you think of all the amazing, exciting things to say about language, or all the exciting language activities you could be doing with children, and you end up with talking about exclamation marks! Doh!

Question 33 asks 'What are the underlined words in the sentence below?'

You have a choice of answer: a relative clause, a subordinate clause, a main clause, a noun phrase.

This is a perfect example of the dull cul-de-sac that grammar takes you into. You have a phrase 'The girl with curly red hair' and all that grammar is interested in is what you can label it with. The question asks 'What are the underlined words..' as if the label IS that use of language and that use of language IS that label. 

Again, there are all sorts of things we could say about that use of language, the least significant and least useful for 10, and 11 years olds is what label you can stick on it in order to test teachers whether they can teach 10 and 11 year old children that this label is important. Older school students perhaps, but 10 and 11 year olds? Really?

Question 39 asks the children to 'Complete the sentence below with an appropriate subordinating conjunction.' 

In an ideal world, how vital is it for 10 and 11 year olds to know the difference between coordinating and subordinating conjunctions? Let's say that the great god grammar decides that they should all know that there are such things as 'conjunctions' (I think we called them 'joining words' when I was at primary school in the 1950s). How vital is it that they need to know that there are two kinds of conjunction and that there'll be a test which will try to see if you can get it right? 

As an aside, and nothing to do with this question,  I have never bought the idea that 'but' is a coordinating conjunction - 'and' and 'or', fair enough, but why 'but'? A clause following 'but' is often dependent in meaning on the clause that comes before it. Maybe it should be called a thing of its own - 'a depending conjunction'. See! You can play the grammar game too!

Question 40 is a nasty, trick question. The examiners know that hard-pressed teachers say that adverbs are often '-ly' words. So of course here's a question where the adverb is not a '-ly' word. 

'The boy had seven brothers, each one quite different from the others.' 

This reminds us that the term 'adverb' is stupendously useless. 'Adverb' sounds like it does something to verbs. Sometimes it does. Hooray. But it also 'does' something to adjectives, as with the word 'quite' here. And it can also do something to whole sentences, as with 'However, he couldn't find his keys.' That used to be called a 'sentence adverb' but now we have to call it a 'fronted adverbial' and we're all so much more intelligent and able to deal with the problems of the world, as a result.

Question 41 is a beast. 

 'Complete each sentence with a word from the same word family as proud.'

The graphic shows two sentences with a blank and the word 'proud' under the blank. You have to change the word 'proud' so that it can fit in the blank. The two sentences are:

'We [BLANK] represented our school in the competition'


'We took [BLANK] in representing our school in the competition.

The first is, presumably 'proudly' and the second, presumably, is 'pride'.

Why do I say it's a beast? 

I don't know this term 'word family'. People will have to tell me if that's taught these days as a concept. It's a new one on me. I must keep up. I've staggered through at least 11 years of grammar education without knowing this term, so I'd better add on a bit more work in order to keep up. 

It makes sense to grammarians to think of a word like 'proud' in such a way that they can turn it into 'proudly' and 'pride'. If you look at language-in-use, we can ask ourselves, how often do we 'turn' a word like 'proud' into 'pride'. That isn't how we construct sentences. 

We create language-in-use according to who's speaking and writing, who's listening and reading (ie the participants); according to the subject-matter of what we are saying and writing (sometimes called the 'field'); and according to the type of talk and the type of writing that we are performing (often called 'genre'). We hardly ever do what this test question asks us to do, which is shunt between grammatical forms to slot them into blanks. 

Sunday 21 May 2023

Three Twitter threads on reading, language and a response to an article in the Sunday Times today by Nick Gibb


I will try to tackle the untruths (in this article below by Nick Gibb) in my tweets that follow
How we won the phonics war and got England reading
The modern debate about how to teach children to read was triggered in 1955 by the publication in America of Why Jonny Can’t Read. Rudolph Flesch’s book told...
NICK GIBB'S ARTICLE HERE (from Sunday Times today)
My tweets begin here:
1. Gross oversimplification of 1950s methods and what replaced them eg the 'Beacon Readers' focused explicitly on phonics+meaning simultaneously (as described in the teachers' accompanying guide).
2. Analysis of the Clackmannanshire schools shows that there were factors at work in those schools other than those to do with how reading was being taught.
3. Phonics wasn't 'dismissed'. The argument was over whether phonics should be integrated with other methods or not. Gibb advocated 'first, fast and only'.
4. Gibb cites improvements in the phonic screening check scores. Reading lists of words out loud is not reading. It's decoding. Pure phonics (first, fast and only) teaches children how to decode.
5. Gibb makes the leap from pure phonics (his favoured method) to 'reading for pleasure'. If the govt were serious about 'RfP' it would put as much resources into RfP as it does into phonics.
6. You'll notice that Gibb has shifted from 'first, fast and only' (which is what he was saying in 2011) to 'first and foremost'. Why? What caused him to shift?
7. He attacks the Institute of Education's research on reading but simply labels them as the enemy. No argument. No discussion.
8. Missing from the article is the retreat from the excessive, politicised claims that Gibb made in 2011 ie that systematic synthetic phonics teaching would 'eradicate illiteracy'. It hasn't. And anyway, he's adapted the 'purism' of 'first, fast and only'.
9. Missing from the article is the problem of the mismatch between the phonics screening check scores (ie decoding) and the scores for the key stage 2 English tests (ie 'reading') . Why do these latter tests flatline? Where's the magic improvement supposedly won by pure phonics?
10. The Pirls results simply show an improvement in ranking. According to Pirls the Literacy standards in England stayed the same. According to Gibb, and the magic wand of systematic synthetic phonics, they should have massively improved.
11. Why is Gibb being enthusiastic about 'reading for pleasure' and what is he really doing about it? He knows that the evidence that putting books into children's hands to browse, choose and read (and to discard!) improves literacy is overwhelming.
12. He is being enthusiastic here because he knows the evidence. (I personally handed him the evidence at a meeting at the DfE) but it needs resourcing, supporting, training and given space in the curriculum. Simply saying 'Reading for pleasure' doesn't do the job.
13. Even so, if in the last 10 years, Nick Gibb has done some amount of fostering and encouraging reading for pleasure, if then he claims success for literacy levels, how will he (and others) distinguish between success due to phonics and success due to Reading for Pleasure?
14. At the heart of the matter is whether 'meaning' matters as and when you learn to read. The 'pure' phonics argument was (still is?) that you should teach the abstract 'alphabetical principle of the writing system of English') BEFORE you deal with meaning.
15. Though I (and others) are typified as being people who were 'against' phonics, that is untrue. I (and others) said that we were in favour of 'blended' methods which involve phonics but include reading for meaning eg through reading picture books - as many parents do anyway!
16. Fave Gibb moment: sitting with him on a panel in front of parents. He tells them that if they gave their young children books that included words that were NOT phonically regular, it would 'confuse' them. I went home and threw away our picture books immediately. Not.
17. And beware value of Pirls rankings:
Pirls themselves say: "Research findings suggest that many test-items do not necessarily perform in a comparable manner across countries and languages, which undermines the comparability of the pupils’ average performance estimates." (2016)
18. In case people think I'm lying about govt adherence to 'first, fast and only' while Gibb is now saying 'first and foremost' (note the retreat), here is what Ofsted is saying right now: ie 'first, fast and only'. (You're out of sync Nick!)

19. In fact what Ofsted are demanding here is absurd both in the field of reading and writing. It demands for example that we all stop sharing picture books with our 4,5,6 year olds! It demands stopping children experimenting writing eg their names, mostly not phonically regular!
20. Before Nick rushes to the newspapers to talk about this stuff, he should check what it is that his inspection system are trying to enforce on to early years, and then write about that.


Second twitter thread today on reading and language:
1/There's an educational theory like this: clever people have broken down a particular bit of knowledge into its constituent parts. In education we'll start with the smallest bits, we'll call them 'building blocks' (metaphor borrowed from mechanics) and 'work up' from there.
2/ There are several problems with this: a) what are being called 'constituent parts' may be disputed b) there may be 'parts' or 'processes' which are crucial but which may not have been included in 'constituent parts' and the pedagogic one c) (see next tweet)
3/ c) that simply because a chunk of knowledge CAN be broken into certain supposed constituent parts, it may not follow that this is the best way to teach that chunk of knowledge.
4/This is particularly so in the case of 'reading'. Reading is a kind of knowledge which involves many processes that's because language is complex and reading it is likewise.
5/ It's possible to break down 'reading language' into various constituent parts and it's tempting to start with the smallest parts and 'work up' calling the smallest parts 'building blocks'. But we can ask, does this correspond to 'reading language'?
6/ The case in point is saying eg 'reading at its 'smallest' level is 'letters and sounds' so we should leave the bigger stuff - like 'meaning' (ie what language means) till later.' What's the problem with this?
7/ At heart, the problem is that it imports a 'mechanical model' (ie from the building trade - 'building blocks') into a mental and intellectual activity - reading language. We have developed language in order to make meanings for ourselves and between ourselves.
8/ The theory behind first, fast and only systematic synthetic phonics is that it's desirable to start with the mechanically devised smallest units of language and leave the other stuff till later.
9/ This asks of children to suspend their responsive, reflective, intellectual, interpretive selves while they decode and are tested for their decoding abilities. We see that some children can do this. Some can't or won't.
10/ It's not the magic wand that the proponents have always claimed that it is. Essentially phonics teaching teaches phonics pretty well. It doesn't teach irregularities (because that needs other methods) and it doesn't teach meaning (ie interpretation, reflection).
11) Another answer might be to say, 'don't keep trying to find a magic wand in technique and think more about resources (ie books, libraries) and staffing (ie librarians, teachers, teaching assistants)'.
12/ Another answer might be to look at the theory underpinning this. Instead of being 'mechanical', why not try being 'dynamic'? This involves thinking of all the processes of language and reading and moving between them as we teach and as children learn.
13/ In case this sounds fiendishly difficult, just think of sitting with a four year old reading 'The Gruffalo' or 'Where the Wild Things Are' together for the 10th or 30th time (!) because the child has asked you to do that.
14/ What happens? You read, the child joins in, asks questions, you answer, you ask questions, you talk about the pictures, the child points at words, you point at words, you point at letters, the child points at letters. When you're away from the book, you refer to it...
15/ Maybe you play with some of the sounds or ideas in the books. When you're out for a walk, you hunt for a Griffalo or a Ruffalo or a Tuffalo. Maybe your child draws their version of one of these. Maybe you scribe a story the child tells about it, maybe they try to write it.
16/ Maybe you have some magnet letters (or some such) and you make words to do with The Gruffalo (or anything else (mum, dad, family names, local places, foods we like, or made-up words) using the letters.
17/ None of this is as complex as the theory behind it ie 'dynamic' instead of 'mechanical'. The child is engaged with many elements and processes at the same time using their reflective, intellectual, interpretative minds putting the whole 'chunk of knowledge' together.
18/ Of course at any time of choosing, we can 'notice'/talk about/look at patterns in English but neither extreme is true ie English is neither completely regular nor is it totally irregular. It's fun making up words using the regularities. Thus 'Jabberwocky' by Lewis Carroll and
19, eg Ning nang nong (Spike Milligan), plenty of Edward Lear's stuff and nursery rhymes. They use the regularity of English to create new words, names and sounds. Thus 'Humpty Dumpty' (which only occurs in that form in that rhyme but is readable because of the regularity of it.
20/ But the power of these rhymes is that they are funny, they are playful, they are memorable, they are adaptable (make up your own), they are full of meaning and puzzlingly possible interpretations (was Humpty pushed?) and they are stories (narratives).
21/ So if you read these kinds of 'texts' with young children and play games with them, and integrate those into writing (in different forms pen-paper, fridge-magnets, writing in sand, pastry, mist on windows etc) you are teaching the whole language process in one.
22/ But this whole language process method needs supporting all the way through and the best way to do that is through staffing, resourcing, training in what even Gibb concedes is necessary: Reading for Pleasure! (I'm glad he uses the research I gave him as evidence: Evans et al)


1/ Then there is the issue of 'talk' (or 'oracy'). We have to remember that talk is the primary act of language for small children. It's how they express what they know and need, their desires, fears, hates, anger, love etc.
2/ Writing is not separate from talk. It was invented as a way of preserving what we say (or count) and then developed into certain specialised forms of expression not often or usually expressed exactly that way in speech and conversation.
3/ For children, (as with us) most saying/speaking/conversing is to make meaning - to express these things. We are showing them that writing can 'catch' some of this stuff and put it in front of them as writing on paper, screens, signs, anywhere.
4/ Why not keep this connection going as we teach them to read? Put what's said and sayable on to paper (screen etc),put what they actually say on to paper etc, so they can see the value of doing it. Make sure that the texts we give them are very sayable and memorable and...
5/ ......and so they are 'bridges' between the oral world they live in and the written world we are inducting them into. They can be full of the phrases and sequences that they do say, or could say or might want to say, that they can repeat, want to repeat.
6/ That way we show that writing is this brilliant invention that can seemingly magically 'catch' the stuff that we/they just walk about saying/doing. And vice versa, if the stuff they read is worth saying (fun saying) then you read it, know it, learn it, repeat it! Magic!
7/ Again, there is a theory behind this. It is saying that the reading language is not mechanical, it's dynamic and total. It's about reading, listening, speaking, writing...all in one. And it's so so simple. It's Humpty Dumpty and the Gruffalo and having a laugh.