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.