John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice President of the Conservative Education Society.
Three long-standing educational issues over the past week – marking, copying, and phonics. As an inspector, I liked marking and saw its frequent absence as evidence of neglect. In some cases, books would not even be looked at for months at a time, resulting in incomplete work, full of errors, and showing no progress. Pointing this out could provoke a furious response, backed by reference to academics who, said the schools, didn’t believe in marking either, and on one occasion leading to an official complaint. I took more notice of comments from my pupils.
“They don’t look at the books much,” said one rather depressed 13-year-old, whose maths book and attempts to write in French showed that he had not understood anything about either. His “outstanding” school had ignored an action point from Ofsted to do something about it and complained to the local paper about Ofsted wasting everyone’s time. During Labour’s coursework era, we had the opposite, with teachers pressured into “deep” marking that amounted to rewriting work for the pupils to copy out and obtain a fake grade.
But Michaela, whose results are stratospheric, does not mark books, a fact that I had overlooked when praising its pupils’ astonishing progress in writing during my visit. Geoffrey Main drew my attention to this in discussion of his application to found a free school, and their approach is set out in Jo Facer’s chapter in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teacher. It is anything but neglect. Rather than correcting individual errors, teachers analyse them and use them as a basis for teaching, so that pupils learn to adjust their thinking and avoid them.
The school’s use of setting according to abilities and learning needs makes this possible, as the teacher is not obliged to try to teach too many things at once. I used a similar approach with FE students, some of whose writing was so weak that there would be three or more errors in every sentence. I would type the original into a word processor, discuss and review it with them, and we would agree on a final version, which we would print off. Michaela shares pupils’ work using a visualiser, a device that will project any text onto a screen. I still take issue with the title of the chapter – “Marking is Futile” – as marking is the quickest and most effective way to provide feedback on some types of work, but this chapter is well worth acting on, as well as reading.
Copying is an easier target. Jerking back and forth from the original to one’s own version breaks the process of writing down to the number of letters a person can hold in their head. Over 40 years ago, HMI described the illusion of copying for weak pupils in secondary school, whose copied work, letter by letter, masked a lack of knowledge and understanding that became clear once they tried to write without prompts. Copying has been prevalent in education since the ancient world – it was the main method of teaching Babylonian cuneiform – and, despite denials, is still used today in secondary schools, particularly in languages. Now that we know that learning is based on the formation and consolidation of neural networks, which cannot benefit from these constant switches in attention, the time is right for a concerted effort to get rid of it.
And so to phonics. Since the 1970s, I’ve argued that phonics, the relationships between letters and sounds, are the basis of reading in an alphabetic language. I supported pioneering schools and teachers, including Jerwood Award winner St Clare’s Birmingham, and helped restore them to the national curriculum before they were replaced by the Searchlights approach in Labour’s disastrous strategies. Most recently, a phonic approach has been endorsed by the French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene, despite the fact that phonics in French are complicated by its extensive use of silent letters at the ends of words for grammatical purposes. The alternatives to phonics, variations on the theme of whole word reading, or “whole language”, are unreliable, as they involve guesswork and are not consistent with the way we process the information from print as we read, tracking every word and every letter closely. The conflict between these approaches, from around 1970 onwards, became known as the reading wars.
The phonics revival, which began in the 1990s, has driven the guessing game theorists back into their heartlands in teacher education, but phonics has itself developed a purist variation that attempts to present the whole of the language in terms of sound-symbol correspondence, dressed up with Greek terminology such as “phoneme” (sound) “grapheme” (letter or group of letters representing a sound), backed by charts listing every possible way of representing a sound, sometimes expecting children to learn every variation before they start to read. The trouble with this is that letters do not always represent the sound we expect, or indeed the small variations in sounds that characterise English. Some children pick these variations up for themselves, as indeed some learn almost the whole system for themselves, whatever instruction they receive. Others become confused in the face of any ambiguity, for example finding it very difficult to adjust from the idea of t as in top or cat, to representing a different sound when followed by h, as in this, or think. Presenting the language as a chart of sound correspondences does not explain why things are as they are – th is a Norman invention, to replace the Anglo-Saxon letter thorn, þ, as Norman scribes did not like anything Anglo-Saxon.
Telling the story unlocks this and many other stumbling blocks, and prepares children for other letter patterns that don’t do as we might expect. Presenting all of the variations to them in a chart, an approach that I call “whole phonics”, does not, and causes confusion to a significant minority of children.. To carry the phonics revolution through, and tackle the more advanced reading issues identified by the recent GL Assessment report, we need to teach English as it is, explain how things have come to be as they are, and then develop and reinforce this knowledge in everything a school does.