Wednesday 18 July 2012

Letter from an Early Years Consultant

Dear Michael,
I’m just about to complete my 33rd year in the world of education. I’ve had all manner of roles – Reception Class teacher, Deputy Headteacher, Primary Advisory Teacher at the wonderful CLPE, teacher trainer at Homerton College, Cambridge and a variety of other stuff. I’ve met you a couple of times, although I don’t expect you to remember – I gave you a lift to Cambridge station last year and we had a chat about Arsenal’s back four. Longer ago you presented certificates to my thrilled and excited group of Teaching Assistants in the London Borough of Newham and chatted to each one of them as photos were taken by proud relatives. Anyway, enough of memory lane.

I now work for myself, most especially so that I can speak my own mind, as an independent Education Consultant across the UK and occasionally, beyond. In all my years in education, I can’t remember a time when I have thought government policy on literacy to be so terribly wrong or where such dreadful things are being done in the name of teaching reading . You seem to be a voice of sanity in a world that otherwise seems to have gone mad, so I felt it appropriate to share my thoughts.

I’ve taught children to read with a wide array of methods; from Janet and John (back in 1979, when quite honestly I didn’t know any better, and the first word all the kids read was aeroplane) via The Gay Way (now called The New Way for obvious reasons) through to my last school where we taught (yes, taught) using high quality picture books. Biff and Chip were packed off to The Gambia in black bin bags. (I often wonder what they made of them there). I won’t ever forget that time – Reception Class children talked confidently about their favourite authors and illustrators, Anthony Browne was pretty much king of the book corner and parents came in asking for ‘the book with the poem about the nappy in’ – a direct result of multiple readings of Eddie and the nappy (their particular favourite was the bit where cream got slapped on his bum!!!).

In my work I meet a vast array of folk – pretty much all of them want the best for the children in their care, I think. But, what seems to be lacking is the courage and the confidence to fight for what’s best for those children, particularly when it comes to reading. Let me give you an example. Last week, during a course that I was running, a Reception Class Teacher bemoaned the fact that ‘there never seemed to be any time for storytime...’ In response to this I asked the group to list what story was good for, and why storytime is an absolute necessity. Their reason for NOT doing story....?. The fact that they ‘had to’ do 20 minutes phonics per day.

I find this unbelievable. We live in a golden age of children’s picture book writing, with names like Mini Grey, Emily Gravett and Oliver Jeffers adding their names to the list of long established favourites, Browne, Burningham, Kitamura, Ross and the like.  When I visit schools in a support role, it is rare to see a book corner that promotes or inspires a love of reading. Books are jammed into wooden trolleys like prisoners in cells – in some schools children aren’t allowed to have books with words until they know all their sounds. Many book corners are barren wastelands, particularly in places where the Schools Library Service no longer exists.  [my bolding Ed. Please note folks, that whenever I state this sort of thing from my own experience, it is denied by someone from the 'intensive systematic synthetic phonics' school. 'Children not allowed to have books with words in that the children can't decode? Nonsense,' they cry. However, look at the Draft (daft) Primary Curriculum Proposals and it is quite clear that the reading in Year 1 is supposed to be phased in such a way that it moves through a progression of decodable texts. That is precisely how some headteachers and senior management teams will interpret that instruction and/or be directed to do so by the absurd Phonics Screening Check. Ed. ] It seems that in the rush to ‘raise standards’ the very professionals that we need to educate, inform and inspire teachers, are slipping off the educational lansdscape.  I can recall heady days when whole days’ training was given over to the book corner, or the use of picture books and teachers were enriched and enlivened by interacting with quality texts. I incorporate children’s literature into every course that I run, and people always say what a pleasure it is to get to know more good books.

To return to the children – the most important people in schools, without a doubt. The inappropriate pressure on them is immense. Four year olds are ‘ability grouped’ according to how many phonemes they know because teachers cannot argue a case against this. Nursery Teachers are being asked to ‘teach them all their sounds before they get to Reception’. There are surely better things for Nursery Children to be doing. Nowhere in all my work on Child Development was the word phoneme even mentioned – how did we ever get by without it, I wonder...?  [my bolding Ed.]

I should point out at this juncture that I did teach all the children I ever worked with letter/sound correspondences. However, this was done with pleasure and working with children’s inherent fascination for personally significant words – their names, family names and the names of their friends. A collection of high quality alphabet books was read and re-read – NOT because we HAD to, but because children couldn’t get enough of Animalia by Graeme Base or Ruth Brown’s Four Tongued Alphabet. We made alphabet books too – because bookmaking meaningfully combines all areas of literacy in a way that makes sense to children.  Segmenting was something you did with an orange and blending part of the process by which you made soup – they certainly weren’t cornerstones of reading behaviour.

And as if all this wasn’t enough – we have the Year 1 Screening Check. Like you, I am at a loss to see what it tests, actually. Last year I was observing in a Reception Class and the teacher was ‘doing phonics’. Gold coins spun in front of the children’s eyes on the interactive whiteboard to form three letter words; some ‘real’ some ‘not real’, although how children are supposed to distinguish between real and not real is beyond me. The theme of pirates is supposed to make it ‘fun’.  Children had to give thumbs up if the word was real, thumbs down if it wasn’t. (To be honest, the thought of Christians and Lions was uppermost in my mind at this juncture, but I digress). A little boy called Archie gave ‘thumbs up’ to a word that adults would know didn’t exist. The teacher asked him (very kindly) why he’d given the word the thumbs up. ‘Well, I thought it might be a word that I didn’t know yet,’ he replied. Where is the room in the test for answers like that?
And as for the impact on spelling. I looked at some writing done by children at the end of Reception Year recently. ‘I’ was spelled ai, ay ie, iy – oh and yes, occasionally ‘I’. [ my bolding. Ed.] I find this example of children trying to apply knowledge which they have learned is high stakes, in such an inappropriate way a real cause for concern.  When did we stop working with children’s fascinations for language? (probably round about the same time the Literacy Hour came in, I suspect.)

As other correspondents to you have noted, I know Year 1 teachers whose ‘Level 3’ Readers have ‘failed’ the phonics check, reading 'storm' for 'strom', and 'the end' for 'Thend'. In some ways I am reassured by these children who have proved that you can’t legislate against children’s natural desire to make sense of what they read and who truly understand what reading is good for. On the other hand, the fact that their parents will have received a letter informing them of such ‘failure’ is weep making.  [ my bolding. Ed ]

Most folk understand that children who have an over-dependence on phonics as a tool for reading lack the capacity to read for meaning. The cynic inside me thinks that this would suit most politicians down to the ground. Let’s reduce the ability of the populace to be critically literate – then no policies will be questioned or debated, because folk will have given up bothering to read the stuff.

The teaching profession is disempowered because initial training courses have been reduced to the bare minimum – no time to reflect on giants of the education world, such as Bruner, Vygotsky and the like. All over the country Advisory Teams are being disbanded, their places being taken by a motley crew of ‘Pied Pipers’ – ever so willing to play a tune (for the right price) and lead teachers and therefore the children to goodness knows where. One can only hope that some folk hang back – unwilling to follow the rest.
Thank you for reading this Michael, I love your blog, if there is any way I can add my voice to yours let me know. Meanwhile, I’ll keep recommending your blog on every course that I run. Keep saying what you do – you write with an intelligence and a confidence that I genuinely admire.

Kind Regards,
Helen Bromley
Early Years Consultant.