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Last week’s column needs a follow-up. The subject was a boy of eight who arrived eight months ago (not six, I checked) with severely limited language and no knowledge of reading, despite extensive and expensive private tuition. We had moved from establishing a clear idea of the links between letters and sounds, to blending these to read words – phonics -and then to reading a children’s book, Burglar Bill. I did not use any terminology other than normal English – there is no advantage whatever in dressing these simple ideas in words derived from Greek (phoneme, grapheme), and no research evidence to suggest otherwise. Fortunately, the National Curriculum offers plain English as an alternative.
Phonics are the basis of learning to read in any language that uses an alphabet. The research evidence from Clackmannanshire supports a phonic approach in the earliest stages of reading, so that children can gain a solid base in using the links between letters and sounds and learning to blend. Ruth Miskin’s Ditties do this too. There is no irregularity in them, so the new learner can practise with no distractions. What the teacher says, works.
Move to a book that uses the full range of English spelling, and we need to build on this basic understanding by explaining how 26 letters can be used to convey the 600,000 or more words that are used in English. This means adding to the child’s knowledge – Hirsch again – by showing how groups of letters such as th (the Norman substitute for the Anglo-Saxon thorn, þ), le(table), and even ough, have been incorporated into the phonic base.
The child can then use them as part of his arsenal to read new words. The explanation is not difficult, and this brilliant animation of the Bayeux Tapestry shows clearly the brute force behind the imposition of French words on English. They now amount to almost a third of the total. My pupil and his parents were fascinated by it. If you’re interested, there is more on thorn here.
The cover of Burglar Bill has the names of its authors, Janet and Allan Ahlberg. Using my explanation of the variation in the way letters interact makes it easy to explain why Janet is not pronounced in the same way as Jane – it is a contraction of the French Jeanette.
It is difficult if not impossible to explain this if you start by using the Greek terminology of “split grapheme” to explain Jane. Allan is more difficult. The ll usually alters the sound of a, as in all, wall, tall etc, so the pupil had to learn that the variation he had worked hard to understand applied usually, but not always. Finally, Ahlberg, German for “Eel mountain” is a further import. It’s phonics, but German phonics, just as fruit and biscuit are perfectly regular as French words, but not English.
We learned all of these things by explanation, practice and quick flashbacks to establish them in the pupil’s memory. Memory has been abused in education for millennia, and still is. This is not a reason not to learn to use it properly, and it is a key element in Hirsch’s approach – we only know things if we can remember them (or, occasionally, remember where to find them). As it happened, the pupil had not had a book to practise with over the week, and so I was delighted that he had remembered the variations (eg say, says) that we had worked on, as well as working out new words with increasing confidence.
The key lies in using the teacher’s knowledge of the full range of elements in English spelling to make them clear to the pupil in terms that are easy to understand. This applies in all areas of grammar, where current terminology is an unhappy combination of words developed during the Renaissance ( eg adjective, which is short for the original term “noun adjective”, ie unable to stand on its own) and inventions of twentieth century linguistics, such as “determiner”, which frequently does not determine anything at all. Any grammatical terminology is better than none, but the best is both accurate and easily understood by the pupil. This is work in progress.
Nick Gibb’s endorsement of the Shanghai approach to maths was followed up by a piece in the Guardian setting out its principles and distinguishing it from the simplistic view of Chinese education set out in last summer’s BBC documentary. The Guardian is bandit country for Conservatives, and its allowing Nick Gibb to put our case in this way is a clear indication that we are winning the argument, despite the efforts of progressives such as Professor Jo Boaler to hold their ground.
The key to the Shanghai approach lies in ensuring that the children fully understand their work, and this is, once again, consistent with the evidence on the formation and strengthening of networks in the brain. The eleven year old who achieved the expected standard in maths after I taught him multiplication tables in his final year of junior school, told his mother last week that he’d like to be a maths teacher.