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

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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.

 

What is ‘reading’? Why do we read? How do we read?

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I’ve always been fascinated by the process of reading and interpetation.   Why do we choose certain ‘texts’, be these printed, on screen, verbal, visual or in some other mode?     How do we make sense of the words on the page, the pixels on the screen, the signifiers of the environment?   After teaching in a large rural school for a number of years, I embarked on a study of the reading and media practices of the students in my tutor group (home class) as they moved from early secondary to later secondary years and took their GCSE (age 16) examinations.   I was interested in their everyday practices rarher than merely in what they read in and for school.   The work, Grounded Literacy, took me nine years and I learned a lot from doing it: not only about the youngsters I had taught, but also, of course, about reader response theory, object relations theory and reception theory within cultural and media studies, a combination of approaches which formed the epistemological basis of my work.

 

I’m thinking about these issues again, partly because Reader Response and English Education is the theme of the 2018 special issue of English in Education, to be edited by Marcello Giovanelli and Jessica Mason.  I was also struck by a recent blog post by kirstwrites, Three books which got me thinking.   She writes:

I don’t read as much as I should (unless scrolling through Twitter counts?) so it has been a real pleasure to spend the last week staying in a house with a well stocked bookcase and a wood burning stove. After days spent on family walks kicking through autumn leaves, settling down for an evening’s reading in front of the fire has been pure bliss.

I’ve managed to polish off three books in the space of a week (what? I’m an English graduate, reading fast is my only skill) and I want to try and write some kind of review of them. On the surface, they are all totally disconnected. But by the time I’d read all three I was sensing a thread of connection between them all, and it’s this connection that I want to tease out.

She goes on to explain how she found connected meaning in three apparently unrelated books: David Temple’s Above and Below the Limestone: the pits and people of Easington District, an account of how the coal mining industry developed and declined over two centuries in County Durham; Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451; and Bruce Springsteen’s newly released autobiography Born to Run.  As I commented, I’m sure that Bradbury would have approved the way her post demonstrates the power of “ordinary” books to help us think.