Tuesday 14 August 2012

It's Jim Rose and the phonics-is-lovely show again.

Here is a letter from Jim Rose (he of the Rose Report) published in yesterday's Guardian:

While continuing to inveigh against so-called synthetic phonics, Michael Rosen now at least admits that "basic phonics" should be part of the "mixed methods" that he advocates for teaching reading (Education, 7 August). He fails to recognise, however, that synthetic phonics is "basic phonics".

Beginner readers of any age need to learn how the alphabet works for reading and writing. It is often forgotten that decoding words for reading is the reverse of encoding words for writing (spelling), both are "basic" to becoming literate. Most children learn to decode more easily than they learn to encode. Decoding and encoding embrace sets of interdependent sub-skills such as blending and segmenting sounds and need to be taught systematically until beginners can apply them automatically.

The great majority of children can be taught to do this quite well by the age of seven. Nor should it be assumed that all the fun is to be had only by immersing children in real books. There is plenty of evidence to show that children find high-quality phonic work rewarding and derive great satisfaction from taking part in the activities it presents to achieve the goal of reading – understanding what is read.

For young children success depends as much on well-timed, skilled and regular teaching of phonics as it does upon securing good attitudes to reading by making sure they receive a rich experience of high-quality fiction and non-fiction books, including well-told stories with opportunities to talk about and act them out from an early age. All of this is massively dependent on equipping children with a strong command of the spoken word; how that is best achieved deserves far greater attention than is often realised in practice.

The interminable debate about the teaching of early reading grinds on mired in arguing about fake opposites that set phonics at odds with the enjoyment of reading. At a time when we know more about the teaching of reading and writing than ever before, it would be no bad thing to move on from the sterile argy-bargy about phonics and focus on how best to train and support teachers to teach reading and writing to greatest effect.
Jim Rose
Haslemere, Surrey

My reply:

Let's take this step-by-step.

1. 'Michael Rosen now at least admits that 'basic phonics' should be part of 'mixed methods' etc.
No, Jim not just 'now'. I've been bringing up children for 36 years and in all that time, I've sat with them using 'basic phonics' as they learned to read. Go through all the literature of the people you despise, UKLA, the Goodmans, Stephen Krashen, and you will all find them talking about 'basic phonics' or something similar. So, just to be clear, the objection is to:

expensive, intensive, exclusive, 'systematic synthetic phonics' (SSP) .

Expensive? Yes, costing millions to schools and to the government (ie us) through the subsidy of up to £3000 per school to buy the approved scheme.
Intensive? Yes, because of the daily half hour 'alphabetic' work that is prescribed for reception, year 1 and for those who 'fail' the end of year phonics screening check.
Exclusive? Yes, because many who back this system talk of 'first, fast and only' and some school managements are interpreting this as giving children only the government approved phonics schemes for children to read.
SSP? Yes, because this is the latest commercial model, or latest form of this way of teaching initial reading.

Remember, Jim, the objection to all this is based on something very, very simple: that neither you nor anyone else has any evidence that teaching expensive, intensive, exclusive SSP will get more children to read for meaning than using 'mixed methods'. Neither I nor anyone else coming from our side of the argument knows why you and those on your side of the argument don't get honest about this. You have no evidence for such a huge outlay. What you have evidence for is that teaching phonics helps children to 'decode', ie to sound out the words phonically. That is not reading.

2. ' Beginner readers of any age need to learn how the alphabet works for reading and writing ' No, Jim, this is the distortion which says that learning a complicated procedure of any kind must always involve an A before a B and that learning is linear, step by step. In fact, beginner readers can and do learn to read in several ways at the same time. That's how you learned to read, that's how I learned to read. We had texts that were not simply or only based on teaching how the alphabet works. Every parent who sits with their child reading the same picture book over and over again knows that all sorts of kinds of reading go on: hearing the sound of the written 'code' in its sequences and 'strings'; making predictions of what is coming next based on the sound and grammar of those strings, recognizing letters, parts of words, phrases and sentences on the page as they are repeated or even, as many parents do, leaving a gap for the child to say what's there. This is not of itself sufficient, of course there are many times when we need to make these things  explicit, and yet, again and again, many of us can tell you of occasions when children have appeared to teach themselves the next step in the learning to read process as well as us teaching them.

It is the experience of many teachers, parents and children, following the phonics screening check that many children who are already good readers have shown themselves to be 'bad' or 'not very good at phonics'. How can that be? Very simple: we learn to read in different ways, some of us with specific letter-sound correspondence (where it's regular), others not so, or not so much. And why not? Why assume that we should all be people for whom a purely phonic system is what must happen or, in your words above: 'need to learn'.

3. Fun, ah yes, fun. You'll remember I'm sure, Jim, how  you invited me in to see you when I was children's laureate. We sat in a bare bureaucratic room at the Department for Education (then called something else of course) and in front of you on the table was a copy of 'We're Going on a Bear Hunt'. The conversation that took place next went something like this, as I remember it:

'We've put the alphabetic principle in place, Michael, but now we need to make books come alive. How do you make books come alive?'

I then told you how I perform 'Bear Hunt' and my poems in schools and then, somewhat incredulously, began to tell you how teachers, librarians, authors and actors have for some fifty years been trying to make books 'come alive' in classrooms, schools and libraries.

Then, you said enthusiastically something along the lines of 'this is the sort of thing we need to be going on everywhere' - and then I left.

Not long after, you lost your job or the government lost its job, or both, and we've not seen each other since. However, since then, millions of pounds have been spent on putting that 'alphabetic principle in place' - as I've said, based on zero evidence that it helps children to read for meaning any better than what was there before.

And how much as been done to 'make books come alive' in classrooms, schools and libraries?  Have schools been able to spend money on books, classroom libraries, libraries, librarians, the school library service, authors' visits, theatre visits? Everything that I've heard from the NGOs and library services is that the provision of real books and the expertise to help teachers 'bring them alive' has been decimated. It has in fact been replaced - at least partially - by the expenditure on the evidence-less drive to SSP. You talk of the uselessness of 'fake opposites'. Well, can I suggest it's not 'fake' at all. It's one load of dosh being spent on one thing rather than other.

But, just as importantly, has the government followed up on Ofsted's recommendation that every school should develop policies on reading for enjoyment? Not a bit of it. I sat with the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb when he quite explicitly said that that wasn't the job of government any more. They weren't doing that thing (implication: 'Labour thing') of demanding that schools 'do policies'. How liberal, how libertarian, and a few months later in came the Draft Primary Curricula, micromanaging speaking, listening, reading and writing down to which sounds should be learned before which sounds, which words in which word-lists should be learned and when (another piece of evidence-less nonsense) and which bits of 'grammar' should be learned and when.

So, as you weigh in against what we are arguing, perhaps you can lift your head up one time and see that almost everything that comes from your side of the argument about 'making books come alive', 'reading for enjoyment' is not much more than pieties and well-wishing.

4. There is a huge body of expertise in how to 'make books come alive' - from researchers in organisations like UKLA, professional associations like NATE and LATE, classroom teachers in no professional organisations who are expected to wait meekly for the next government literacy initiative whilst belying their day-to-day knowledge and experience, the professional NGOs like Booktrust, National Literacy Trust, the Reading Association, the writers for children - whether as individuals - or in associations like the Society of Authors, the Campaign for the Book, the National Association of Writers in Education, the School Library Association, the School Library Service,  in many theatre groups working in schools, arts centres and theatres, and in the education departments of the museum service.   This huge body of expertise is unco-ordinated, it has no 'policy' to back it up, there is no real will to ensure that all schools get equal slices of what's on offer, it's piecemeal and patchy. That's not a criticism of single person who works in any single one of these organisations. It's a criticism of why and how it is that the 'reading for enjoyment' and 'making books come alive' is seen as something that doesn't need a government drive, doesn't need to be policy, doesn't need a big nudge and backing and prioritising for schools to develop policies but the evidence-less SSP programme does.

Or put another, way, there is the very evidence that you cited in your Rose Report, Jim, or the evidence that I've cited from Mariah Evans et al at the University of Nevada, or the evidence gathered by Professor Stephen Krashen of the University of Southern California that this 'reading for enjoyment' stuff isn't some kind of wishy-washy thing. It is the one key way in which children and  young people 'get' the written language (for reading and writing), the one key way in which they become comfortable with moving between concrete and abstract, the one key way in which they learn to scan texts, compare and contrast them, and indeed to formulate their own categories (or 'sets') of written texts. It's the 'rigour' as you folks like to call it, that comes from prolonged exposure to reading for fun, choosing your own books, and having a chance to talk about them without fear of failure.

The day you and your masters really do provide schools with time, money, space and legitimacy to this, we'll be cooking on all 4 burners.