Tuesday 17 July 2012

"Rhymes won't teach children to read" - what?!

Here is a conversation that took place on twitter:

Mumsnet Blog Network ‏@MumsnetBloggers
@Witchof_TheEast We'd ask MN education bloggers @MichaelRosenYes, @wonderfrancis and @SianGriffiths6: Does rhyming helps kids read?

Sian Griffiths ‏@SianGriffiths6
@MumsnetBloggers @Witchof_TheEast @MichaelRosenYes @wonderfrancis Rhyme helps kids enjoy reading - but won't teach them to read!

Michael Rosen ‏@MichaelRosenYes
@SianGriffiths6 @MumsnetBloggers @Witchof_TheEast @wonderfrancis luckily sian is wrong. but phonics wont help you understand what you read.

Sian Griffiths ‏@SianGriffiths6
@MichaelRosenYes @MumsnetBloggers @Witchof_TheEast @wonderfrancis Well at least we agree that rhymes v fun for kids when reading!

Michael Rosen ‏@MichaelRosenYes
@SianGriffiths6 @MumsnetBloggers @Witchof_TheEast @wonderfrancis Hlp chld 2read wth nurs.rhyms:repetition/sequencing/1stlttrs/phncs:patacake

I thought that this raised some absolutely crucial things.

1. Sian Griffiths reply to the first question is, in effect: Rhyme won't teach children to read.
2. I've said in reply that I think Sian is wrong and that phonics (which Sian champions) won't teach children to understand what they're reading. Just in case this isn't clear or obvious, try this:
a) find a child who is learning to read using an intensive government approved phonics scheme. As them to read these words: nib, fug, dun, rut, fen, kin, hod, fop, fad, ban, nub, sop,
b) assuming that the child can 'decode' these words, ask the child to give you any idea what any of them mean.
c) most children of 5 and 6, quite rightly and legitimately, will not be able to tell you more than one or two.
d) doing more phonics won't help a child to derive any meaning from these words, and I don't know of any phonics expert who would say that doing phonics would. The purpose of this exercise is merely to remind ourselves that 'decoding' isn't 'reading'.
3. Sian tells us that 'rhyme won't teach' children 'to read' and I make a bold assertion in my last tweet which I'll translate thus:
You can help children learn how to read (in the total sense of the word) with eg nursery rhymes. A good bout of hearing, performing, reading and looking at nursery rhymes will, I assert, most certainly help children learn to read. They will do this via the following processes:

a) repetition - for as long as there has been writing, parents and teaches have used repetition as one way (not the only way) of helping people to read. There is a very good reason for this: it is related to how we learn to move about: remembering visual clues and cues from previous movements. Words have shapes as well as individual letters. One way we learn to read is in part seeing shapes and remembering them - whether that be parts of words eg 'ing' or whole words or sequences of words 'the cat'  'has eaten' etc.If you lock the sight of words with the sound of words, you create sound-shape recognition. One of my children had a breakthrough with reading with Dr Seuss's 'Hop on Pop'. He used phonic clues linked to the fact that he had heard the book read to him, but didn't rely on that totally. He also looked at patterns, including rhyme. Millions of parents and teachers have seen this happening since the time writing was invented. It's not the only way to learn to read, it's one of them. Don't let anyone bully you out of this part of the process.

b)sequencing - when we speak we link words together in 'strings' or 'sequences'. For a good deal of the time, these sequences are repeated over and over again. We keep saying the same phrases over and over again. 'I'm going out'. 'You alright?'and so on. We know that this is part of how we learn our native language and when in 'immersion' in another language, it's a good part of how we learn that language too. The same can go for writing. Writing repeats its sequences and strings. Part of how we learn to read is 'getting' these sequences. An obvious example is the way we construct verbs in English where a verb like 'I like' can be followed by a noun eg 'cake' or what used to be called an 'infinitive' eg 'to sing' or a 'participle like 'singing'. So, we can say/write things like 'I like cake' , 'I like to sing', 'I like singing'. We don't say or write 'I like to singing' We don't say or write 'I like eat cake' . So when we hear and see these strings around the verb phrase 'I like' there are expectations fitted in, that derive from what we've heard.

Now transpose that to a child learning to read and being allowed to read non-decodable texts (ie real books) or indeed just sharing reading one, with eg parent and child turn-taking, saying and looking at sentences together). Our eyes scan along the line going to and fro and on seeing 'to' - which of course doesn't rhyme with 'go' - and sees 'sing' beyond the word 'to' and this will increase the likelihood of reading 'to' as 'to' and not 'toe' .

Just so as I'm not misunderstood here: I'm not saying that this is the only way to learn to read. I'm not saying that this will deliver everything.However, this process is valuable, necessary and important and combines phonology with context and meaning and it derives from our sense of sequences and strings - which is what language is all about. Language is not words. It's words with grammar, which means words strung together in particular patterns in order to deliver meaning(s). Right from the youngest children playing with sequences of sounds as they go to sleep, very nearly all of us do this.

c) first letters - this in conjunction with many other cues and methods is a useful and powerful tool in learning to read. Please note that I'm saying 'in conjunction with'. Anyone sitting reading with young children knows that a good deal of 'first letters/first sounds' reading goes on. My children, the first of whom didn't have intensive systematic synthetic phonics teaching and my last who did, have all done something very similar with  'auxiliaries' and 'modals'. These are the words that are part of the verb group in many phrases eg 'have' 'has' 'had' 'would' 'will' 'may' 'might' 'could' ''should', 'must' 'going to' and so on . These give us a mixture of 'tense' in English and 'modality' - ie a degree of certainty-uncertainty. So here are some examples:

'I have had a really nice time.'
'I must do the shopping'
'I am going to sit down and watch telly.'

If children hear a lot of poems and stories, if children sit with adult or older readers part-hearing, part-reading, they learn to recognise these auxiliaries and modals partly from their initial letters. So, my children who have had precisely that kind of experience over and over again, have all mastered these auxiliaries and modals partly through hearing the 'strings' and 'sequences', partly through seeing these on the page, and partly by context, partly by meaning and sometimes partly by initial letters.

d) Some nursery rhymes even play with phonically regular words, the most famous, I think, is 'Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake baker's man' which is also flexible enough to incorporate the child in question by using the initial of their name as the one to 'mark' on the cake.

4. Put all this together and you can see how the non-decodable text (!) of a collection of nursery rhymes is not only fun, funny and interesting but also a fantastic tool in helping children learn to read. I would add in one other element: it is very easy to make many of the rhymes 'kinetic' - that's to say,  you can tie words and sounds to specific body or parts of the body movements, the most famous being eg 'this little piggy' and 'round and round the garden'. But  you can also make up actions to go with eg Little Jack Horner' 'Tom, Tom the Piper's son' and so on. This too is a powerful way for children to get hold of spoken AND written language so long as we don't allow ourselves to be bullied by eg the Draft (daft) Primary English Curriculum which makes it quite clear that the way children should (!) learn to read is according to a very rigid step-by-step model using only 'decodable' texts.

5. Nursery rhymes are also a fantastic engine for early writing. Take 'It's raining, its pouring, the old man's snoring, he went to bed and bumped his head, and couldn't get up in the morning.' Nice question to ask early reader-writers: 'who is this old man?' Where does he live? Does he live on his own? Or is he living with someone else? Who? What's his job? What happened when he couldn't get up? Did someone come in and tell him to get up? What did he say then?

This way you can build up a set of comments and speech bubbles which the children can say, write, partly write, have scribed for them and then these texts can be used as texts to read too: reading, writing, reading, writing, reading etc.

6. All this is obvious to most teachers who are reading this and I really don't want to sound patronising in any way at all. However, the bullying going on from the government, laying down the exact methods and exact order of methods is going to hinder or prevent this kind of work.

7. I repeat: there is no evidence that suggests that children who are taught to read using intensive and/r pure systematic synthetic phonics will be able to read 'non-decodable texts' (ie real books) any better than children learning to read by using basic phonics (much less time, much less money) in conjunction with methods like the ones I've described above, along with other methods I haven't described. 

8. I repeat: there is no evidence that suggests that children who are taught to read using intensive and/or pure systematic synthetic phonics will be able to understand what they're reading when they read real books, any better than children learning to read by using basic phonics (much less time, much less money) in conjunction with methods like the ones I've described above, along with other methods I haven't described. 

9. Read books with your children. Give your children a huge variety of printed material to browse through and play with. Encourage your children to choose printed material of their own. This will teach them to scan text for significant words, phrases and sequences. It will lead them to want to do it, as it is a form of 'hunting' ie they will be motivated by a need (fun, interest etc) and so use the method which leads them to the most fun ie reading key words on the covers or by flicking through pages just as the hunter looks out for footprints in order to get near to his prey in order to satisfy his hunger. Encourage your children to sit amongst a pile of books,comics and magazines to sort their books, to play with their books. Encourage them to use magazines and the like, cutting up the words and playing with them and sticking them into scrap books.