Tag Archives: reading

The Phonics Debate – Alive and Kicking on Mumsnet

phonicsI have been reading with interest the continuing phonics debate on Mumsnet this week in response to  Guest Posts from Michael Rosen and Nick Gibb.

This year the UK government introduced phonics screening tests at the end of Year 1 and there is a firm commitment to the teaching of synthetic phonics as the primary method of teaching reading.

For me there are 2 key questions in this discussion:-

1. How important is phonics instruction for producing fluent readers?

2. Is it appropriate to test young children’s phonic knowledge?

1. The Importance of Phonics

Clearly, phonic knowledge is important.  I learned to read using the phonetically regular Meg the Hen books and was always an advanced reader.

Phase 1 of Letters and Sounds (a resource for pre-school children published by DFES in 2008) gives an excellent grounding for later phonic skills. The materials introduce phonics through listening and playing with sounds before any focus is put on the written letters.  My own children could recognise rhyme and alliteration at the age of 3 through playing games, and joining in with songs and rhymes.  In my opinion it is this groundwork in early life that is  sometimes missing in failing readers therefore phonic instruction in later phases becomes meaningless and sterile rather than fun. Building the underpinning skills through play is therefore an important factor.

There are numerous studies that cite the size of a child’s vocabulary in the pre-school years as an accurate indication of how easily they will learn to read.  Further studies suggest the importance of children understanding story structures and the language involved in re-telling stories.  Children develop vocabulary through talking and listening but to an even greater extent through reading.  When a child is unable to read or in the early stages of reading, the importance of adults reading to them cannot be underestimated. Not only does it encourage an interest in books but it also enriches vocabulary considerably. As evidence to this point my 8 year old who is an advanced reader has a rich vocabulary and writes with mature language and expression. She enjoyed advanced books such as Winnie the Pooh and Pippi Longstocking in her pre-school years.  She now reads Harry Potter, Little Women and the Narnia books and regularly inquires as to the meaning of words developing her vocabulary even further.  As a writer myself I am very aware of the impact reading has on the quality of my writing.

There is little doubt that there is a percentage of children who are failing to learn to read, having a detrimental effect on future academic success.  I would be interested in analysing the statistics to see what proportion of these are boys.  Most girls enjoy reading, mark making, role play and other early literacy related play.  Many boys do not.  In my opinion more needs to be done to channel boys natural interests in physical play and technology into literacy activities.  This does not have to exclude phonics as one of my colleagues demonstrated when she encouraged her pre-school boys to explore rhyme and rhythm by dressing them up as rappers, using electronic beats and encouraging them to make up their own raps.

To some extent therefore it is not what is taught that is the issue but the way that it is taught.  If phonic instruction is to be the key method of reading instruction then it must be engaging or children will switch off from day 1.

2. Phonic Testing

I understand the reasons for introducing this test and would by no means undermine the fact that we need to highlight failing readers early to give them the extra support they need.  However, I do feel that most teachers know the children who are struggling to read without the test. Certainly as a parent who has helped with reading in class this was easy to spot and it was also clear which children were struggling to decode using phonics. I think that putting children under pressure at a young age and giving parents another thing to worry about or be competitive about is wrong. I don’t have children who have been through these tests and from feedback from other parents I think that schools are handling them sensitively, ensuring that children are unaware that they are being tested, however I still feel that they are wrong.

Some children will be exposed to all of the experiences mentioned above but will still struggle to learn to read.  Perhaps the tests will help to identify and address these children’s needs at an early stage but I am wary that catching children when they are failing is not the best starting point to addressing the problem.

A further point that was raised in the discussion is that all children do not learn in the same way and that the ability to decode words does not automatically produce fluent readers.  I used to work with children on the autistic spectrum.  One of these children had a fascination with letters and sounds, he could read phonetically regular words before he started school but his understanding was at the level of a 1 year old.  When we read books together they were of the ‘Where’s Spot?’ type and anything more complex was beyond his understanding.  I realise that this is an extreme case but I believe that it is a cautionary tale to those who may think a good phonics test result means that their child is reading fluently.

I will be watching with interest as my children move through the US education system (especially as they will start school a year later than in the UK) to see how literacy teaching differs and whether there are similar worries about levels of attainment.

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The Changing Face of Literacy

As an Early Years teacher I have always capitalised on opportunities for literacy in everyday life. Making children aware and involving them in these things is often key to children viewing reading and writing as fun. Traditionally these would have been things like writing shopping lists, reading road and shop signs, mark making in diaries and calendars or following recipes.

However literacy in the real world is changing. Children these days are just as likely to see you read or write on your phone or laptop as they are to see you write a list or note.

This really hit home with me when I watched my 3 year old playing on my iPad a few weeks ago.  She asked if she could download an app called Dad book, designed for dads to record stories for their children.

But mummy it’s not doing anything

she said once it was downloaded.

No, someone has to tell the story and record it.

I replied.

I asked her 7 year old sister to record the story for her, they sat together as my 7 year old narrated the story.  When she was finished my 3 year old listened and then repeated the words as she had seen done with another app Pat the Cat .


What a great opportunity for playing with literacy for both children.  This made me think about all the other literacy activities my children tap into on the iPad.

My 3 year old is learning about the alphabet and phonic sounds using the wonderful Elmo loves ABC’s app.  This has loads of different levels of games all based around learning letter names and sounds and includes lots of  memorable Sesame Street clips.

Another favourite is Me Books a children’s picture book reader for classic Ladybird books.  Both my children enjoy following the stories and adding in their own sound effects. This is simple for the children to do and another great way of getting different aged siblings to share reading.

The Ladybird Touch and Say books are also a great way for my 2 year old to learn to read simple words and even my one year old loves the Baby Touch app.

My 7 year old loves creating her own stories and animations using Toontastic or Puppetpals and these are also simple for pre-schoolers to use with adult guidance.

We have even discovered new songs and rhymes through English Songs and Chants. My 3 year old loves this one and can be heard walking around the house reciting the chants and singing the songs.  The chants are excellent for teaching rhythm and steady beat, a concept I usually teach using Ros Bayley’s Beat Baby.  I wonder whether Ros has considered creating a Beat Baby app?

There are a number of things that I really appreciate about the way my children use technology to play and learn about literacy.

  • The children freely choose the literacy apps and never feel like they are learning literacy skills.  Everything they choose to play is fun and interactive.
  • The apps are an added dimension to their experience of literacy. They still love books and choose to read traditional books more often than  e-books, still love to write, tell and listen to stories.

Current touch screen technology is still a little small to offer good mark making experiences for the youngest children but the drawing apps are good fun for when they get a bit older and are able to work on a smaller scale.  I look forward to a time when I can roll out a big screen onto the floor and let the youngest children explore markmaking on a large scale.

I also think Kinect holds great possibilities for literacy. My children talk to their dad via video Kinect when he is not at home. There would be great potential for speaking and listening activities if they connected with other children from around the world and shared experiences about their life and culture.

My girls are avid readers, I’m not afraid that new technology will distract them from traditional literacy, but that it adds a richness to their lives and new possibilities for exciting literacy experiences.

Review of ‘Your Baby Can Read’

Some time ago I was asked to review ‘Your Baby Can Read’, a system for teaching babies from 3 months old to read. The system aims to introduce the written word at the same time as a baby is developing a verbal vocabulary. As today is International Literacy Day I felt I should bite the bullet and go for it.

So why the procrastination?  My initial thoughts were that such a system goes against my beliefs.  I have seen many parents who focus far too early on reading and writing and become both stressed and competitive about it. A baby has so much to learn in the first years is it really necessary that we add reading to the list?  I also feel that a lot of the time a focus on learning to read and write means that many of the underpinning skills necessary to achieve this are overlooked.  However, I felt that it was important that such products are reviewed by someone with an early education background.  I was interested in seeing the products to help make an informed view.

The materials in the programme include 5 DVD’s, 5 lift the flap books, 5 sets of sliding word cards, music cd, 82 double-sided word cards, a sliding windows board book, word game cards, a parent’s guide and early learning workshop DVD.

To be honest, I liked the materials more than I thought I would.  My biggest reservation about the whole programme is that reading is taught through DVD’s.  There is a firm emphasis on how interactive the DVD’s are but there is no requirement to sit with your baby as you watch them.  I watched the DVD’s with my 10 month old and 2 year old, the 2 year old was mildly interested and the 10 month old paid no attention at all.  Personally I don’t see that there is anything that the children can learn from the DVD’s that they couldn’t learn from sharing the books with an adult. I may be wrong, but I feel that this is an easy way for parents to avoid feeling guilty for not  spending time with their children. The DVD’s themselves are watchable and encourage the children to interact.  It is unfortunate in my opinion that they are American, I think some of the pronunciation of words may be difficult for  young British children when listening to American accents and some words like colour use the American spelling.  I feel to transfer the programme to a UK market it would be beneficial if the DVD’s were remade with British accents and spelling.

I really like the lift the flap books.  These have the word printed on the flap and when the flap is  lifted  there is a photograph to illustrate it and a number of interactive questions and instructions eg. How many dogs are there? Point to your elbow and What is your favourite thing to eat?  My 2 year old particularly liked these and enjoyed focusing on the words, pointing to them and ‘reading’ them with me.  I can imagine that with her interest in books and the written word, having read them a number of times she will begin to read the words in the books.  The same words are used in the sliding word and picture cards and word cards (flashcards).  The word game cards have 2 of each word so that you can play matching pairs games with the words. I can imagine my 2 year old enjoying this, although I haven’t tried it yet.

The programme suggests that you begin by reading the parents’ guide and watching the early learning workshop DVD. The parents’ guide explains how to use the books with your child and gives practical ideas for sharing other literacy related activities   with your child. I thought the DVD was excellent, with a lot of sound advice about early language acquisition and literacy.  My worry is that it is very long and I wonder how many parents would actually sit through it before embarking on the programme.

Dr Robert Titzer the creator of the programme begins by explaining how the programme originated.  He explains that he created the DVD’s to occupy his baby daughter in those times when she was ‘doing nothing’ while he was making dinner or reading the paper.  I found this a strange choice of phrase – I  don’t think I have ever seen a baby ‘doing nothing’.  He also talks about early brain development and the rapidity of brain development in the first few years of life.  This is a perfect reason for interacting with babies, but I’m not sure it is a justification for the need to read at this age.

Having said that there are a number of very positive points about babies and learning that Dr Titzer makes.

  • Parents should be active as the child’s first educator
  • Spend lots of time interacting with your baby
  • Children have receptive language (the ability to understand the meaning of words) before they can speak.
  • Talk to your baby, talking about what they are interested in.
  • Babies learn through movement
  • Play games with babies in the mirror and follow their lead building on the things they instinctively do.
  • Don’t let  children watch too much television, it is far better to read with them.
  • The concept of number needs to be taught in practical situations
  • Children are ready to write when they can master the physical skills – there is no particular age at which this will happen and it should not be introduced too soon.

The children in the case studies shown on the DVD have clearly learned to read both individual words and whole books.  They enjoy reading, are happy and engaged.  I have no doubt that the programme works but I question the appropriateness of teaching young babies to read.

The main argument for teaching babies to read is that the earlier a child learns to read, the more educational advantages they will have later. There is  a wealth of research that shows that the size of a child’s vocabulary at the age of 3 is the biggest predictor of how easily they will learn to read . The programme encourages the development of vocabulary through the introduction of 164 key words. It gives opportunities to introduce other words related to the children’s interests, by providing blank cards and a wipe clean marker pen.   However, surely it would be as beneficial to focus on spoken language and oral/aural skills (such as rhyme, identifying sounds, alliteration) in the first 3 years, accompanied with fostering a love of books, story, song and rhyme?

Dr Titzer explains that the earlier a child learns to read then the more likely they are to love it.  From personal experience with my own children I disagree with this.  My 2 year old has been obsessed with books since she was around 6 months old but cannot read yet.  At almost 3 she is beginning to show an interest in words and is keen to read some for herself.   My 7 year old went to school without being able to read but with a huge vocabulary, an interest in books, the  ability to recognise rhyme and alliteration, a love of singing and poetry, the ability to keep a steady beat and some knowledge of the alphabet.  Within weeks of being in school she learned to read, she is now a well above average reader, an avid bookworm and reads aloud with more expression than most adults (including myself). Based on my 2 year old’s extensive vocabulary, love of books and ability to recognise rhyme I expect her to go the same way. From this experience I question the necessity of programmes such as ‘Your Baby Can Read’.

I think if you have a pre-school child who has built a good vocabulary, oral and aural skills, loves books and is showing an interest in the written word then this could be a useful tool in the journey to learning to read. Personally I don’t like the idea of teaching reading using DVD’s because reading is as much about sharing a special time and ideas with your child as it is about the act of decoding words. I will use the rest of the materials with my 2 year old daughter if she shows an interest but I wouldn’t choose to use them with my baby. For those who would like their baby to read I have no doubt that the system works and that if the system is followed according to the comprehensive guidance the babies and toddlers will get great pleasure from it.  From the perspective of an early educator, I would let babies be babies and use it when the children are a little older.

 

Who touched your life when you were a child? – Michael Morpurgo’s Richard Dimbleby Lecture

I have finally managed to watch Michael Morpurgo’s Richard Dimbleby Lecture.  How refreshing to hear someone from outside of the world of Education recognising how undervalued the Early Years profession is.  The lack of financial reward and status means that many of the UK’s brightest individuals are discouraged from entering the Early Years profession.  Working with our youngest children is one of the most important occupations of all, as Morpurgo put it

‘a pound spent in the early years can save ten pounds later’

Thank goodness some of us care enough not to desert the profession.

The lecture also decried the target driven education system we have in this country.  When everything relies upon targets and league tables it is easy to forget about the individuality of each child and how their needs can be met.  Morpurgo explained how  in New Zealand children enter school on their 5th birthday, thus allowing teachers time to get to know each child individually , rather than having a class of 30 all arriving at once. Also in Finland, which comes 2nd in the OECD World Education rankings, children do not start school until they are 7 years old.   With an education system built on targets and children starting school at such a young age we are setting our children up for failure.  No wonder we  keep seeing headlines about how boys are failing to read.

Morpurgo argues that the most important part of a child’s education is building trusting relationships, focusing on the unique qualities of each child. When teachers and adults are passionate about a subject, be it reading, music, sport or science they enthuse children to enjoy those things too.  This reminded me of Sir Ken Robinson’s book ‘The Element’.  In this he talks about how each of us have something that we excel at , that we enjoy and is at the core of our very being.  Many of these things are discovered by perceptive and enthusiastic adults when we are children, others of us do not find our ‘element ‘ till much later in life, if at all.

There are a number of people who helped me to find a passion.  My mother read me books, took me to the library and showed me that books were special, instilling in me a love for reading.  The primary school teachers who first put me on the stage in school shows and sowed the seeds for a love of performing and my secondary school English teacher who recognised my talent for writing and called me her ‘shining star’ helped me to believe that I could.

It also made me think of another thought I had earlier in the day as I taught my eldest daughter to play clock patience.  I thought about all the things my grandfather taught me to do when I was young.  Not only clock patience, but how to make a paper hat and paper aeroplane, how to play pick up sticks and two little dickie birds with pieces of paper on your fingers – things that I hope I remember well enough to pass down.

Working in Early Years Education I am sure that we touch children’s lives in many ways, with the experiences we give them, through listening to them and sharing their worlds and understanding their needs.  In some ways it’s a bit sad that few of the children we teach will remember the influence we had on their lives, they wont cite us as someone who touched their life, but I’m pretty certain we did.

For a full transcript of the Dimbleby Lecture    http://www.michaelmorpurgo.com/news/read-michaels-dimbleby-lectur/

 

Hooray for Kindle!

kindle My most useful recent purchase has to be my Amazon Kindle.  As part of a de-clutter my husband suggested selling/giving away our room full of books and replacing the ones that we really like on a Kindle.  I wasn’t really sure at first but it has been just fabulous.

I often find myself downloading pdf documents that I think might be interesting or useful for work and then they sit around on my laptop without being read.  Occasionally I will read a few pages before my eyes get tired from reading on screen.

Now that I have my Kindle all I need to do is email them to my Kindle email address with the subject ‘convert’ and they are instantly transferred to my Kindle in an easy to read format.  Now I can sit and read them like a book without having to print them and they are always to hand.  I can organise them into folders so that I can find them easily and there is even a function for defining words that you do not understand (very useful when reading journal articles).

When I’m bleary eyed I can change the size of the text and the unlit screen isn’t harsh, but slightly brighter than a standard book. I could happily read by the light of the fish tank when researching a few nights ago.

I’m hoping that as more books become readily available I won’t have to carry piles of books or study with a stack of books next to me.  They will all be contained in my little slimline friend.

We are even considering buying one for my daughter’s 7 th birthday – she is such a bookworm .  I could make some much needed space in her bookcase and as an able reader who usually reads alone, she would be able to look up anything she didn’t understand. I think  this would bring her reading to another level.  Though stopping her from ordering endless books on my credit card may be an issue.

And as an added bonus you will be able to subscribe to this blog on your Kindle in the next few days.