John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector. He has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is a Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Education Society.
There was good news for the government in the endorsement of phonics as the key element in the early stages of learning to read in an important paper from three professors: Anne Castle (Macquarie), Kathleen Rastle (Royal Holloway) and Kate Nation (Oxford). Their crucial evidence is a series of three studies by the Australian professor Brian Byrne, showing that clear instruction in the connections between letters and sounds – phonics – is the key to establishing the alphabetic principle in children, and leads to relatively straightforward process once this idea is established. I have not seen Byrne’s work previously discussed in the UK debate.
The professors endorse the Clackmannanshire research that was the basis of the government’s introduction of phonics as the key element in the national curriculum for five year olds, and will make it much more difficult for left-leaning academics to attack it. Whether their paper will achieve its goal of ending the reading wars is another matter. These are part of a schism that has grown up in this country over the key purposes of education, which was epitomised in Labour’s replacement of the DoE with the “Department for Children, Schools and Families.” It is worth recalling those dark days, and the satisfaction Conservatives felt in 2010, when our country once again had an education department.
The paper also makes it clear that phonics are not the whole story of learning to read, a point that has been ignored by some enthusiasts who have gold-plated the technique. The evolution of English from Anglo-Saxon to the present day, which can be traced with great accuracy since the computerisation of the Oxford English Dictionary, shows that spoken and written language do not always keep pace with each other. David Crystal’s Spell It Out tells the story in clear English.
An example is the pronunciation change of -ed in the seventeenth century, which infuriated Jonathan Swift. We retain the old form in a few cases, notably the learned friends, but accommodating the abbreviated pronunciation took a long time, and included ‘t and ‘d before we settled on -ed, whatever the pronunciation. It is not enough to give children lists of alternative “grapheme-phoneme correspondences” and leave them to work things out for themselves, because they can’t know which to apply in a word they don’t already know. A little explanation goes a long way, and it is folly to build an approach for the whole of education on a technique that has been shown to work in the first sixteen weeks. I’ve discussed this aspect of the paper in more detail here.
A similar battle is taking place over the government’s new check on multiplication tables, which it has taken Nick Gibb eight years of hard work to push past the blob and the allies it used to have at the DfE. I am currently teaching two pupils, aged 12 and 14, who attend schools that have been rated outstanding by Ofsted. Both have been assessed as dyslexic, and neither knew the 2x table when we started. The great thing about dyslexia, from the point of view of many schools, is that it absolves them from responsibility if the pupil does not learn at all. The teaching can be as bad as they like, or indeed non-existent, provided they are supportive and understanding. Having a child learn to spell is almost an act of cruelty, even if they have a large smile on their face when they get something right – the fourteen year old successfully wrote isosceles on Saturday morning, much to her satisfaction.
And it stands to reason, as Alf Garnett used to put it, that someone with a problem with reading must also have one with maths. Why bother with the 2x table when a fourteen year old can count up in multiples and keep track with her fingers? One answer is that her maths curriculum includes factors, and to identify these – as she now can – you have to know tables. So, with both pupils, I’ve taught the 2x table carefully, half at a time, explaining the problem of having one column go up in single steps and the other in twos. The problem at this stage is not one of mathematical understanding, but of coordination.
Once they can say the 2x table, we pick items out until they know it without conscious thought – just as we read “conscious thought” without working the words out, because we already know the words, and the information conveyed by the letters that make them up. We do not chant, and we do not go on to 3x until 2x is rock solid. The approach has been published in The School Run, and there is more detail here. I can find no research on the topic by progressive maths teachers, as they think it is beneath their notice. My pupils and their parents think differently.
So, checking that children know their tables is an act of kindness that will enable more of them to do their work in secondary schools. Removing Labour’s incessant coursework and pointless AS examination is also a relief, and this needs to be borne in mind when considering the current concern about mental stress and the new examinations. Ofqual certainly has a lot of work to do to ensure that examinations provide a fair test for the full range of candidates taking them. Many are overloaded, and there are too many difficult questions at the beginning of papers, rather than towards the end, where they allow the most able to show their excellence without leaving the weakest in despair. Ofqual needs to change its ways, and to stop stonewalling if we are to replace Labour’s cumbersome grind with something that is far better for all concerned.