Teaching writing and testing grammar

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Previous posts on this blog have dealt with the teaching of writing in primary and secondary education, and the value of formal grammar teaching in this process.   This debate has been going on for more than half a century, and, given the complexity and importance of the issues,  it is striking that ministers seem intent on imposing a teaching and testing regime of grammatical knowledge for what seem largely ideological reasons.  In this post from the IOE London blog, Dominic Wyse considers the issues.

‘What works’ in education does not always chime with what Ministers want to hear

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Looking before and after

Photo of John Dixon by John Hodgson

Borrowing Hamlet’s phrase, the autumn issue of English in Education looks both before and after current concerns in English teaching. We begin with an interview with John Dixon, author of Growth through English, one of the founding texts of modern English studies. John reflects on the seminal Dartmouth conference of 1966 and conveys his continuing encouragement to teachers to think through the “serious game” of education in ways that are both playful and exciting.

Chloe Marsh’s paper takes us back to the future. Her small-scale study reports on the responses of English teachers faced with teaching poetry for terminal ”closed book” examinations for the first time since the introduction of the UK national curriculum in 1988.

Yvonne and Duncan Williams similarly report on assessment procedures for A level English. Their wide-ranging account examines several aspects of the examining process in order to ask: how accurate can marking of A-level English Literature be?

The other contributions to this issue ask us to look towards the students in everyday classrooms. Jo Carrington’s poem “Who chooseth me shall have what he deserves” dramatises the reciprocal sense of failure of a teacher and student engaged in preparing for high-stakes testing. Rachel Gilmour’s “Reading/Writing Multilingualism” takes us into contemporary “multilingual” urban classrooms in which speakers often have highly diverse language repertoires. Audrey Wood’s paper on pre-twentieth century literature in the year 9 classroom also reports on a project to help her students make a live connection between their language and experience and their year 9 literary texts.

Next year, English in Education will have a new publisher. The redesigned journal will be launched at the conference of NATE (UK) and the International Federation for the Teaching of English, which will be held on 21-24 June at Aston University, Birmingham, UK. The first issue of the new volume will be a special edition on Reader Response and English Education, edited by Marcello Giovanelli and Jessica Mason. We conclude the current volume with a Call for Papers for the 2019 special edition on Writing, to be edited by Jeni Smith and Mari Cruice.

English in Education is available in print and on-line to members of NATE.  To join NATE, follow links on the right hand side of this page. 

English teachers: bound to necessity?

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English in Education, Summer 2017

Being a good teacher of English (or any other subject) requires not only skill – the craft or techne required to achieve a desired outcome – but also wider understanding, or episteme.  Plato associated episteme with a freedom of intelligence, while (according to Damon Young) techne in the Greek polis “was a kind of knowledge associated with people who are bound to necessity”.

English teachers often resent being bound to necessity. Bethan Marshall writes in her conclusion to Testing English: “Despite over 150 years of battle, English teachers are still trying to assess English in a way that makes sense to them.”   Given current circumstances, it’s not surprising that much of the research presented in the new (Summer 2017) issue of English in Education concerns episteme rather than techne.

  • Paul Tarpey reconsiders John Dixon’s “personal growth” model of English in relation to its current manifestations.
  • Nicholas Stock explores the rhetoric of England’s new GCSE English examinations.
  • Jonathan Glazzard examines the “phonics check” for England’s five year olds in relation to various theories of reading.
  • Paul Gardner compares the discourses of English in England and Australia.

In practice, of course, the two kinds of knowledge interrelate.  Margaret Merga’s large-scale survey of children’s reading motivations and interests has direct relevance to classroom practitioners.   Jonathan Monk draws on cultural history and theory and Zadie Smith’s novel NW when preparing his students to write personally about their experience of the city.

Another theme of this issue is the importance of the personal and authentic in the daily work of teaching and learning.   Trevor Millum’s poem “Class Accents” suggests the complex nature of student and teacher voice.

The book reviews offer a conjunction of episteme and techne.  Urszula Clark reviews  Giovanelli and Clayton’s Knowing About Language: Linguistics and the Secondary English Classroom, while  Victoria Elliott reviews Skidmore and Murakami’s Dialogic Pedagogy. 

Foucault used episteme to define what might be called the epistemological unconscious of a community of practice, and he insisted that the essential political problem is to try to change our “political, economic, institutional regime of the production of truth”.  This issue argues the importance of bringing together episteme and techne in the experience of English teachers: a consummation devoutly to be wished in present circumstances.

John Hodgson

Members of NATE will receive their printed copy of English in Education shortly.   To join NATE, see sidebar.

 

 

Why Children Should Be Encouraged To Only Ever Use Phonics As A Helpful Friend

Literacy For Pleasure

A Teacher’s Philosophy

I should start out by stating quite clearly that this is not an article advocating for the removal of phonics from classrooms. A teacher’s approach to the task of reading, however, is guided by what they think reading actually is. If armed with a viable definition of reading and an understanding of some of the instructional implications of the definition, teachers can use almost any reading materials to help children develop productive reading strategies. The teacher is the key.

According to Weaver, (2009, p.15) the following is a good perspective of what reading could be:

Learning to read means learning to bring meaning to a text in order to get meaning from it.’

This has meaning at its heart. It involves the use of all three language cue systems which are discussed and referenced in detail later. Namely: syntactic, semantic and grapho/phonemic.

However, you only need to…

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Assessing Primary Literacy

 

There has been much concern about the new grammar, punctuation and spelling (GPS) tests for primary school pupils. Parents, teachers, academics and other commentators claim that the tests are inappropriate for primary pupils and that these high stakes assessments have a deleterious effect on teaching and learning.

Part of the problem lies in terminology. Children have to spot examples of grammatical constructions such as “fronted adverbials”. This term has become notorious as it has not previously been used in grammatical descriptions and seems sometimes to apply to phrases that are essentially “adjectival”. The deeper problem is that the label becomes more important than the underlying reality. It is obviously good to teach children the structures of language, particularly if such knowledge helps to express themselves more accurately. But testing a knowledge of labels is very different from testing an understanding of language structures.

Such understanding requires a connection between children’s everyday understanding of language and the grammar they have to grasp. Linguists such as Halliday have developed a functional approach to language that gives meaning to everyday interactions. However, GPS relies on ‘ideal’ forms of language that contradict everyday experience. The Oxford or ‘serial’ comma is outlawed when it is in fact common and correct usage. GPS requires that ‘exclamations’ must begin with ‘How’ or ‘What’ and include a finite verb – which is not the case in real language use. Terms like ‘command’ or ‘exclamation’, which have a social function, refer in GPS only to specific grammatical structures.

This context-free view of grammar implies that children’s language is either right or wrong. Lord Bew’s review (2011) of Key Stage 2 testing, assessment and accountability seized (p.60) upon “spelling, grammar, punctuation, vocabulary” as elements of writing “where there are clear ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers, which lend themselves to externally-marked testing”. GPS performance thus becomes a key indicator of a school’s success or failure – even though the view inscribed in the tests is so limited.

Trump’s impeachment may hang on a point of grammar

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James Comey speaking to the Senate Intelligence Committee on 8 June 2017

“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

Donald Trump spoke these words to James Comey, former Director of the FBI, at a private meeting in the Oval Office.  As Alex Ward of vox.com states, these are the most important words of Comey’s testimony today to the House Intelligence Committee.  Comey felt that these were a direction to him by the President of the United States.

Primary school children in England taking the new tests in grammar, punctuation and spelling will have been taught that a command always includes a verb in the imperative mood.  In everyday social life, however, the context of an utterance helps to determine its meaning. Any bedraggled six-year-old knows that a parent or teacher exclaiming “Look at the state of you!” is not merely giving a command.   And yet this exclamation (as it seems to me) is defined as a command in the current tests.

Questioning James Comey today, Senator James Risch sought to deflect Comey’s view that Trump had given him a direction:

Sen. James Risch

He did not direct you to let it go?

James Comey

Not in his words, no.

Sen. James Risch

He did not order you to let it go?

James Comey

Again, those words are not an order.

From a limited view of language separate from context, Trump’s words do not include an imperative and are not an order.  However, Comey felt that they had an imperative meaning if not an imperative form.  Pressed by Risch as to whether, as the former director of the FBI, he knew of any case where a person had been charged with a criminal offence for hoping for an outcome, Comey replied:

This is a president of the United States with me alone saying I hope this. I took it as, this is what he wants me to do. I didn’t obey that, but that’s the way I took it.

Comey is drawing attention to the context of Trump’s words, and in particular to the power relationship between himself and his interlocutor.  He is implicitly making a grammatical analysis of language as a social semiotic – as deriving much of its meaning from the context of use.

It remains to be seen whether the Senate Intelligence Committee will accept this more adequate socio-linguistic analysis of the President’s words.

 

Checking phonics

Phonics-shoot-089A guest post by Jonathan Glazzard

The teaching of systematic synthetic phonics in school has been a political focus since the publication of the Rose Review back in 2006 (Rose, 2006). It is a priority for both schools and providers of Initial Teacher Education, and over the last decade it has been given prominence in inspection frameworks. The Rose Review emphasised that the teaching of phonics is time-limited.  The National Curriculum requires children to be secure in the skill of word recognition by the end of Year 1 so that they can focus on developing fluency in reading in Year 2.  The aim is to ensure that children are secure in the skill of blending phonemes so that they can read words.

In 2012, the UK government introduced a phonics screening check to assess children’s skills in decoding. Four years later, Nicky Morgan, then Secretary of State for Education,  declared: ‘Since the introduction of the phonics reading check in 2012, 120,000 more children are now on track to become excellent readers’ (DfE, 2016, para 1.5, p.5). However, whilst most people would not dispute the need to assess children’s reading development, the phonics screening check is problematic on several levels.

Firstly, the ‘check’ introduces children to both real words and pseudo words. There is a  rationale for introducing children to pseudo words, because these are words which children have not seen before and therefore they can only be read through the blending the phonemes. However, as the process of reading is about eliciting meaning from text, the value of pseudo words can be questioned.

Secondly, advanced readers do not rely on blending phonemes (decoding) for the skill of word recognition. Word recognition becomes increasingly automatic and the emphasis shifts from word recognition to developing fluency and reading for meaning. Phonics is a time-limited skill. For advanced readers, an assessment of their phonic knowledge in Year 1 is not an accurate predictor of their skill in reading but we do need to know more about how to support their comprehension skills. Whilst the phonics screening check may be a useful assessment for less skilled readers, we need various forms of assessment to support pupils working at different stages of development in reading.

Thirdly, teachers will already know, through regular formative assessment, whether children are secure in the skill of blending. The screening check adds no further value because it does not inform teaching. For weaker readers, the skill of blending at the level of the phoneme is an advanced skill which comes after blending at the level of the whole word (tooth+ brush = toothbrush), blending at the level of the syllable and blending at the level of onset and rime (c-oat / r-ain). It is not sufficient to know whether children can decode or not: we need to know more about the stage of development at which they are operating. If children are struggling to blend phonemes, then it is important to know about their other phonemic skills such as phoneme addition, phoneme deletion and phoneme substitution. We need to know about the component skills of phonemic and phonological awareness and not just whether a child can blend sounds to read words.

Fourthly, the process of reading is not solely an auditory process but also a visual process. Children may well have mastered the skill of blending sounds, but their reading development can be hampered by poor visual skills.  For children to become good readers, the skills of visual attention, visual discrimination, visual memory and visual sequential memory need to be secure. For weaker readers, teachers need to know about children’s development in visual skills and phonological skills. It is insufficient to know that children cannot decode; we need to know about their development in other skills which contribute to reading development.

Finally, reading is not just a process of word recognition. It is a process which requires linguistic comprehension. If, as a result of limited exposure to spoken language, children do not have a good vocabulary, or if their vocabulary lacks depth, this will impede their reading development.  This is particularly the case for those who have advanced beyond the skill of blending phonemes.  For this reason, play-based learning is critical in the early years so that children develop their vocabulary through interaction with peers and adults. Within language development, there is a hierarchy of skills whose development which should be assessed, particularly in weaker readers.

The key issue is the way in which the phonics screening check is used to regulate schools and teachers. It has become part of the machinery of performativity which is used to assess school and teacher performance. It is ‘high-stakes’ and results in children’s being categorised into achievers or failures at a very early stage of their development. The fact that children are subjected to re-taking the test in Year 2 if they do not pass serves to further marginalise them through the process of segregation.

Reading development is complex, but the phonics screening check reduces the complex nature of reading development to a single skill. The check does not provide teachers with additional information that they have not already gleaned from their formative assessments. Neither does it inform teachers about what they need to do next to support children’s development in reading. It is a mechanism of surveillance which serves very little educational purpose.

The government’s stance is clear. Back in 2016, Nicky Morgan claimed that:

Despite decades of research showing its positive effects, systematic synthetic phonics had been disregarded by many schools, local authorities, and university education faculties. Growing support within the teaching profession led to a number of new synthetic phonics reading schemes. In 2012, we introduced the phonics reading check at the end of Year 1 and three years on, the proportion of 6-year-olds achieving the expected standard in the check has risen by 19 percentage points to 77%, equivalent to 120,000 more children on track to become excellent readers.

(DfE, 2016, para. 2.56, p.38)

It is interesting to note that the Coalition government in 2010 discarded all aspects of Labour’s education policies with one exception: synthetic phonics. This policy has been continued by the Conservatives when they re-gained power in 2015. While phonics is an important tool is the teacher’s toolkit, we need a range of methods to assess reading development. This should include the assessment of auditory and visual skills as well as children’s awareness of rhyme. The assessment battery should reflect the sequential development of skills which contribute to phonemic and phonological awareness and visual skills development. Unless we base assessment on a developmental approach to learning, teachers will not be able to diagnose children’s reading difficulties.

References

DfE (2016) Educational Excellence Everywhere: Assessment of Impact. London:  DfE.

Rose, J. (2006) Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading. Nottingham, DfES Publications.