In any other branch of politics, an 11 per cent improvement in results would be headlines. In the economy, it would win an election. So, the 11 per cent improvement in one year in young children’s knowledge of the links between letters and the sounds they represent – phonics – deserves the highest praise. It represents above all a change of focus in the teaching of reading in the first year of formal education, so that children are getting much more instruction and practice in the skill without which the rest of education cannot function.
The potential knock on effect is tremendous. I was recently in a school in which 40 per cent of eleven year olds still needed help with this essential skill, which has resisted every attempt to get round it over the past hundred years, usually by varieties of guesswork dressed up in misunderstood psychology.
As we learn, we form networks in our brain which are reinforced by practice. The recurring connections between sounds and letters are the basis of one of the most important of these networks, and lay the foundation for many others. Once key connections are established, they are extended as we see that one word is like another, and can extend our own knowledge and understanding by making analogies. Phonics is entirely consistent with the current findings of brain research.
Thanks, then, to Dr Joyce Morris, Sir Jim Rose, Ruth Miskin OBE, St Clare’s School, Handsworth, Sue Lloyd, Mona McNee, Professor Rhona Johnston, Dr Joyce Watson, Marilyn Jager Adams, Jean Chall, and teachers across the world who had the courage to resist the superficial alternatives and pressure from ignorant inspectors – including, I am ashamed to say, some members of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate – to hold the line for literacy. Credit to Nick Gibb and Liz Truss for taking the flak and seeing it through, and to the designers of the check itself, which this year has passed almost without comment.
The Guardian, which has maintained a neutral stance while providing a home to the phonics check’s leftist critics, did not allow comments on its low-key report of the improvement.
Critics of phonics say that more is needed to make a fluent reader, which is a bit like saying that you need more than a pair of shoes in order to walk. The main things we need are understanding, which comes from our experience of the world, the spoken language of our parents and teachers, and reading itself, and how to deal with the awkward elements of English spelling that have grown up in its thousand year history.
These occur in the most frequently used words – Stephen Pinker believes that this is because they are so frequently used that they resist movement towards regular patterns – and have to be explained to children so that they do not try to sound out the one letter at a time. My maxim to children is “We use what the letters tell us, but we don’t believe the letters tell us everything.” This draws the sting when words can’t be sounded out, and we can then build separate series of networks to learn them.
The technical paper is a mine of useful information.
Before we move to the Party Conference…two beautiful children’s books, introduced in a talk to the Friends of Linton Library by Professor Martin Sullivan of the Cambridge School of Art, who taught the author/illustrators. The first tells of a rather badly behaved hound who hears the word so often he thinks it is his name. It reminds me of a child a colleague taught who announced that her name was “Shut up, Samantha”. The second is a cautionary tale of a good little wolf who meets a big bad one, whom he does his best to emulate. Without giving away the ending, it reminded me of a Labour government. Both for the Christmas list.
And so to Conference. David Willetts was scintillating on the science element of his brief, hammering home the way that Conservatives had reversed Labour’s cuts in investment and invested in brilliant new discoveries such as graphene, for which Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov won the Nobel Prize for physics in 2010.
Michael Gove continued to let people speak for themselves, with brilliant contributions from Lindsay John on the need to give young people in inner cities access to the full range of European literature – “We need more dead white men” – George Parker, the former president of the Washington DC Teachers Union, who backed the introduction of performance-related pay, and Mark Lehain, Jo Morey and her son, Cashel, from Bedford Free School, set up in the teeth of vicious local opposition. Jo Morey’s simple, emotional statement, “I have seen my son grow up into an adult that I am very proud of,” had the Conference on its feet in an instant. This, like last week’s brilliant news about the improvement in adoption and fostering figures, is what Conservative education policy is about, and it works.