Category Archive • Literacy
January 20, 2005
Perry de Havilland says that old fashioned good grammar just might be making a comeback on the Internet

Earlier this evening I was socialising at Perry de Havilland's. It was essentially a meeting between these people and some of the starrier of these people, among them the people who actually first wrote the software that this blog uses to run itself. Had I truly understood who they all were exactly (one of them was definitely this lady and I sat next to this gentleman), I would probably have felt even more insignificant than I did.

I was only there at all in order to return a copy of a magazine in which an article about Adriana appeared, which I had been scanning in text and the photo from, and I had to leave early. But before I did, I picked up an interesting little observation from Perry de Havilland.

Perry spends quite a bit of time participating in on-line chat-rooms (please forgive my approximate spelling there) mostly on the subject of computer games, concerning which Perry is an enthusiast rather in the way that I enthuse about classical CDs. And Perry reckoned that he might (he's not sure but … might) have spotted an interesting trend, with clear educational vibes attached to it.

During the last year or so, Perry says, he thinks he has spotted, in the many chat-rooms he frequents, a somewhat new attitude towards English grammar. Whereas in former times, chatterers would chat away using very bad spelling, worse punctuation and with no apparent idea of the meaning of the word 'paragraph', such chatterers are now starting to be criticised by more orthodox and easily understood contributors. Several times lately, for instance, a chatterer has erupted with a list of queries presented as a slab of miss-spelt gobbledegeek, and the very first responder has responded along lines like these: "I probably could answer your questions, but first I would have to understand what the hell you are talking about, which I presently do not. Try spelling words correctly. Try using capitals at the beginnings of sentences. Punctuate. Arrange separate questions in separate paragraphs. In general, make an effort to be understood and to make sense. Until you do, I have nothing more to say to you." Harsh! But: interesting!

Will this kind of pro-grammar heckling have consequences? If it gets louder in volume and vehemence, then it is surely bound to.

Perry and I were interrupted about half way through making the following point, so this next bit may only be my opinion and not Perry's. But as I recall it we were both converging on the notion that what is happening here is that human beings, so to speak, are entering chat-rooms hitherto mostly inhabited by extreme geeks, and these humans are bringing with them their old fashioned ideas about how well-written English is easier to understand than semi-literate techno-babble, or just plain babble.

Personally, I am startled by the illiteracy and bad spelling of some (but not most) blog comments, not all of which is at all explicable as merely caused by haste and/or poor (or no) checking. But that is a value judgement, and is not the central point I am making here, i.e. that Perry was making. The point here is that old fashioned grammatical correctness, quite aside from how much people like me prefer it, may actually, as a matter of fact, be making a come-back, and what is more doing so in an arena hitherto assumed to be a force only for grammatical anarchy.

Personally I have had very little to do with chat-rooms, and a lot of that is because of my prejudice that they abound with – often deliberately – lousy grammar. Blogs, in general, certainly the ones I read regularly, tend to be far better written. They are written by humans, for humans.

Which is all part of why the people I met earlier this evening are all of them so splendid. I wish them all, both my friends in the Big Blog Company and the Six Apart/Movable Type possee, the very best of good fortune. They deserve it.

I checked this posting more carefully than usual for grammatical errors, for obvious reasons. Deep apologies for any grammatical errors that still remain.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:55 PM
Category: BloggingGrammarLiteracy
January 13, 2005
Educational crisis in Berkshire

I thought that this posting was going to be about this story, as told in paragraph one:

LATER this month Brakenhale School will be officially no longer be classed as failing. This is great news and a huge testament to the hard work which has gone on over the two years it has been in what the government calls 'special measures'.

But it turns out that my posting is actually about paragraph two, which reads as follows:

It is difficult to underestimate how serious a crisis was at the back end of 2002.

I see two howlers in this short paragraph. First, to be charitable, let us surmise that a "there", or equivalent word, was simply missed, between "crisis" and "was". Either that or the "a" should be "the". But second, more seriously, "underestimate" should be "overestimate". You see this a lot, and it makes the hackles of my inner stickler, to use Lynne Truss' phrase in this book, rise. Can a stickler have hackles? The one inside me does.

Government inspectors were appalled by what they found, concluding that the children were not provided with a proper education.

This Bracknell News opinion columnist seems to have suffered educationally also.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:02 PM
Category: GrammarLiteracy
September 16, 2004
The right and the wrong way to teach literacy – but what exactly is the right way?

Lew Rockwell writes about home schooling versus school schooling, and about phonics versus whole word literacy teaching.

Long-time readers may recall a column titled, "A Tale of 2 Children," wherein I compared two 3-year old children, one of whom was being taught to read by his parents and one who was destined for public school. The two children are now 5 years old, and I recently examined their progress.

The child in kindergarten is not yet reading, but he has learned his complete alphabet now. The homeschooled child, on the other hand, surprised me by reading at an error-free fifth-grade level on the San Diego Quick Assessment test. I verified his competence by asking him to read selections from C.S. Lewis' "Prince Caspian" to me, a book with which he was previously unfamiliar. While he occasionally stumbled on words such as versification and centaur, (he pronounced them "versication" and "kentaur"), his comprehension was reasonably good as well.

Suddenly, it was not so hard to understand how homeschooled children, on the average, test four years ahead of their public-schooled counterparts.

The problem with public schools and reading is not hard to grasp. Whole language, the favored method, is a disastrous approach to reading that is destined for failure. Children who learn to read while being taught this method learn to read in spite of it, not because of it. …

Yes, that's how it seems to me also. Read more about the phonics method here.

By the way, every time I visit a phonics site, such as the one linked to above, I look for a step-by-step description of how to teach reading in the best phonics way possible. After all, these people are adamant that there is a best way. So what exactly is it? I want to have a how-to guide to read. First do this. Test it like this. Then do this. Test this like this. Then do this. Then do that. Practise it like so. Reinforce it like so. Learn to spell this list of words. And so on.

The trouble is, when I think I may have found such a guide, I either find I have to pay for it, which seems odd given that these people are trying to spread literacy and not just to make money. Or else I find myself reading yet another argument about why the method they favour is the best one, or, even more tangentially, why other methods are bad. Which is absolutely not the same thing as the best method itself. These arguments are important, and it is important that the best team wins them. But an explanation of why a method works is a quite distinct matter from the thing itself.

Can any of you phonics-persons help me? Please note that I will fisk you/it mercilessly if you merely show me yet another argument about why your particular brand of phonics works, or indeed any method which ever digresses into this related distraction. I want the thing itself, and nothing else. This must be available, to read and to link to, somewhere on the Internet. If it isn't, then it damn well ought to be.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:15 AM
Category: Home educationLiteracy
September 02, 2004
Wolf book

This looks like being another spur to literacy. Learn to read so that you can read Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver.

Lesson: there's money in children's books.

WolfBrother.jpg

After my long break I had to think quite hard about how to put pictures up.

Another lesson: you forget knowledge you don't keep using.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:01 PM
Category: Literacy
June 02, 2004
The menace of visual entertainment

We all sort of knew this, didn't we?

Almost a third of young teenagers have so little passion for reading that they cannot name a favourite story book, according to a poll that suggests most youngsters' reading tastes are prompted by the big screen.

A survey of 300 seven- to 14-year-olds, heralding the launch in September of a national storytelling festival for children, indicates that a love of books withers as children get older. Across the age range, one in five has no best-loved read.

The poll, published by the Prince of Wales Arts and Kids Foundation on the eve of the national release of the latest Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, reveals that the schoolboy wizard is the most popular read of those children naming a favourite book, with just over half placing it in their top three.

JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, also acquiring new life and new audiences in cinemas, is popular with 25%, followed by Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

The findings were yesterday described by the children's laureate, Michael Morpurgo, a patron of the foundation, as confirmation that "a great welter of children simply don't read".

If you define education as reading, then clearly movies, TV, etc., are undermining education. But what if understanding pictures – how to make them, how to use them, how they work – is now more of what education does consist of, and should consist of, than in the pre-TV age, and in particular the pre-digital age? That makes sense to me.

Ask me which are the stories I now have a passion for, and most of the answers are movies, not books. So I am a traitor in the camp of the readers, like one of those teachers pointed to in the report above who lacks a passion for books, by which they mean story books.

I still read books, for history, technical understanding and social theorising. But less and less do I read them for diverting stories. When I do read a good old-fashioned sit-up-and-beg story, I am as likely as not reading it because of the social theories and history embodied in it, rather than for fun. (Example: I'm now scrutinising Dickens' Hard Times, which is a fascinating source of educational rumination, in this spirit of non-entertainment. If I want to be entertained by Hard Times, I get a video adaptation of it.) There are a few middlebrow contemporary exceptions, like Susan Isaacs and Nick Hornby, whose contemporary stories I read as and when I encounter them (preferably at knock-down prices a year after they've come out), but I almost never now read "literature" for fun. Would this make me a force for evil as an educator?

I still think the 3Rs are crucial, if only to read and type the captions on the pictures and to keep count of all the pixels and megabytes etc.

Devoted readers of everything that I write - and I know that such people exist because I met one in 1995 (although I pity the poor bastard now) – will be aware that this posting could just as easily have gone on my Culture Blog. I put it here because writing good stuff for here is harder. This is because by simply not being asleep I am immersed in my Culture, but the world of Education does not now (yet – keep reading) force itself upon my attention quite so completely or so often, and in order to write about it even half-adequately, I have either to think a little, or to steal – or as we bloggers call it: link.

As regulars here will know, the policy here, now, for reasons which this posting has been all about, is to have gratuitous pictures, often only marginally relevant to the matter in hand, to arouse the interest of readers and keep their attention, stop them staring out of the window or sending text messages to each other instead of paying attention to me, etc. So here is a gratuitous Harry Potter picture:

TimePotter.jpg

There is an obvious danger to putting up pictures here, which is that my readers won't bother to actually read what I've put, but will merely guess its meaning by looking at the pictures, and thereby acquire extremely bad "reading" (not proper reading at all of course) habits which will stand them in very bad stead in their future lives. But this is a risk I believe I must take. After all, if I can't persuade you to want to read this stuff, you'll never learn to read properly. The point to grasp is that (a) all these squiggles do actually mean something, and that (b) you must decypher all of them.

I found this picture here. You want to read? Read all that.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:28 PM
Category: Literacy
May 28, 2004
"A strategy is in place …"

More doom and gloom, to echo what those Cambridge professors (see previous posting) were saying:

The education system is "in danger of implosion" because of falling standards, North-East business leaders have warned.

And proposals to revamp schooling between the ages of 14 and 19 will do nothing to address the North's serious skills shortage, according to the CBI.

It discussed a plan to replace GCSEs and A-levels with a four-tier assessment at a regional council meeting this week.

The proposals, unveiled in February by a working group headed by former chief inspector of schools Mike Tomlinson, were designed to ensure everyone leaves school with basic skills.

But CBI North-East director Steve Rankin said: "Falling standards will not be addressed. There's a real need to concentrate on three things: basic numeracy, basic literacy and attitude."

This educrat reply does not inspire confidence.

A spokeswoman for Newcastle City Council said: "Pupils deserve to be congratulated on their success, which we are sure they will take with them into working life. Newcastle Local Education Authority already has a number of successful strategies in place to improve levels of literacy and numeracy."

"Successful strategies are in place." Not: "You are wrong, our kids can read and count." So, the problem is as it is said to be by the complainer, in this case the CBI man. And a "strategy" being "in place" means that so far no improvement in the situation has actually occurred. Right?

Plus, note that the spokeswoman doesn't even say that there is a "strategy in place" to deal with "attitude", so God knows what is happening to that.

Incidentally, Patrick Crozier has been looking over my shoulder and has been saying: "I can't believe it throws out numeracy". What did be mean? It turned out he meant my spellchecker. It puts a squiggly red line under "numeracy". Great. My spellchecker is illiterate about numeracy.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:58 PM
Category: LiteracyMaths
May 08, 2004
The science of phonetics

My thanks to Chris Cooper (he's the one holding the knife), who emailed me about this article.

A new brain-imaging study indicates that a specially designed program for second and third graders deficient in reading boosts their reading skills while prodding their brains to respond to written material in the same way that the brains of good readers do. The same investigation found that the remedial instruction typically offered to poor readers in the nation's schools doesn't improve their skills and fails to ignite activity in brain areas that have been linked to effective reading.

"Good teaching can change the brain in a way that has the potential to benefit struggling readers," says pediatrician Sally Shaywitz of Yale University School of Medicine.

At least one in five U.S. grade-schoolers with average or above-average intelligence encounters severe difficulties in learning to read, researchers estimate. In 2000, a panel of educators and scientists convened by Congress concluded that reading disability stems primarily from difficulties in recognizing the correspondence between speech sounds and letters.

And towards the end of the article the difference made and not made by different kinds of supposedly remedial teaching are spelled out:

At the end of the school year, only poor readers in the experimental program showed marked gains in reading accuracy, speed, and comprehension, the researchers report in the May 1 Biological Psychiatry. Good readers still exhibited the strongest literacy, but the poor readers who received phonetically based instruction had closed the gap considerably.

After poor readers completed the experimental program, their brains displayed pronounced activity in several of the same left-brain areas that are active when good readers do reading-related tasks. In an earlier study of poor readers, Sally Shaywitz and Bennett Shaywitz found that one of those neural regions remains inactive as these kids grow up. Preliminary evidence from other researchers indicates that this structure, located near the back of the brain, fosters immediate recognition of familiar written words and is thus crucial for fluent reading, Sally Shaywitz says.

Students who had completed the experimental tutoring program still displayed improved reading scores and associated left-brain activation when measured 1 year later.

Bruce D. McCandliss, a neuroscientist at Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York City, calls the new report a "landmark study." It builds upon similar findings by other research teams that tracked much smaller numbers of poor readers given phonological instruction, he notes.

Said Chris in his email: "More support for teaching reading by phonics?" It would certainly seem so.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:52 PM
Category: LiteracyScience
March 28, 2004
They can't write!

Today I attended the fortieth birthday party of my friend Alastair James, at his home in south London and I write in haste, to have something up here today even though it is Sunday.

I got to know Alastair via libertarianism, the Libertarian Alliance - to which, among much else, he contributed this LA publication. (Link to the LA website not now working, link to follow.) He now works for Deloittes, in the management consultancy bit, and he has recently been interviewing the Deloittes graduate intake.

He said that the quality was very high, and that they were all intensely focussed and ambitious, and that they had all been doing all manner of extra-curricular activities like white water rafting up the Zambezi etc., which would look good on their CVs, and because they would look good on their CVs. Their business acumen and general level of managerial savvy was remarkable, and far higher than that of Alastair's own generation, or of the generations before that. But ... they couldn't write.

Not couldn't write as in couldn't write as well as Charles Dickens or Edward Gibbon (I cross-examined Alastair on this exact point), but couldn't write as in couldn't communicate clearly in writing, to anyone, not even to each other. Their grasp of English grammar was tenuous to non-existent. Not having actually read anything these crown princes had written I can't quote you chapter and verse, but that was the guts of Alastair's complaint.

I asked Alastair if they could they speak clearly. A bit more clearly, but not very, was the answer. Alastair explained how he got them to say what they had been trying and utterly failing to say in writing, and he then said: go away and put that, and then come back and we'll see how you did. And they couldn't do that either. They couldn't write clearly, even when they were stressing and straining at it flat out, not as if their futures depended on it, but when their futures actually did depend on it.

These are not underclass rejects. Quite the opposite. This is the cream of the crop, the human fizz on the champagne of Western Civilisation. Graduates. Post-graduates. Super-graduates. The next generation of leaders. And they can't communicate properly.

Depressing. And in fact Alastair later told me that the state of education is indeed one of the things about the world which now most depresses him.

I get the feeling that I may end up as a teacher of English grammar. Maybe, when I've mastered the art of teaching English grammar, I'll apply to Deloittes for a job. The subject I will teach will be called "uncreative writing".

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:37 PM
Category: Literacy
March 17, 2004
France goes global

I am under intense time pressure, but do still have time to report some more of the conversation with a French person that I had yesterday about the teaching of reading. See below. Forgive me, no link to that or to anything else, I'm too rushed.

Apparently, in France, they have also been afflicted with "look and say" or with the "whole word" method for the non-teaching of reading. Only they call it the "global" method. And it has been around in France for several decades now, and is doing just the same damage there as it has in the Anglo-Saxon world, including rampant dyslexia. Google for the "Reading Reform Foundation" if you want to know more about the Anglo-Saxon version of this catastrophe. Or you can find it in my permanent links section.

I didn't realise that the educators of France were as stupid as ours, but apparently they are.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:47 PM
Category: Literacy
March 16, 2004
Yesterday I sent in the form ...

Yesterday morning I sent the form in saying I would like to contribute to this enterprise. One of the reasons I did this was that I was about to meet up again with a dear friend who knew that I had been meaning to do this for some time now, and who I knew would at some point ask me if I had done this. I wanted to be able to say yes, and today I was able to do that.

This friend also asked me: what is the absolute most important thing to teach a child? I said: reading. Not writing, nor arithmetic. If you can read, you have a chance of learning how to write, or how to arithmetise (?). Learning how to write is meaningless if you can't read, and learning how to add and subtract (probably a better way to turn arithmetic into a verb) won't help you learn to read. So: reading. Reading opens the door of civilisation. Not being able to read keeps that door firmly shut. A little bit of help to a child at an early age can make a lot of difference, I think, which is what I put on the form as my reason for volunteering.

Me becoming a reading helper is bound to make this a more interesting blog to read, once this process gets under way (assuming that these people can find a use for me). I will keep you informed of progress, as and when it materialises. Expect no names of people, places or institutions (other than the one I have just linked to). But I for one, expect to learn a great deal about the state of education by becoming the lowest form of teaching life now in existence, and about whether I may ever be able to make myself into some kind of seriously effective educator.

As a first step, I much prefer this to picking some sort of training course, with a pin.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:27 PM
Category: Brian's brilliant teaching careerLiteracy
March 08, 2004
Is Russia about to forget the lesson of Blaise Pascal?

Incoming email from Susan Godsland, who runs this. Did I see this? Not until you emailed me, Ms G. Thank you.

Quote from this Telegraph story:

Over seven decades of communism, education played an important part in preparing children for their place in society. Young people left school with a good grasp of the basics, drilled into them by traditional teaching methods. Since the Soviet flag was lowered over the Kremlin, Russia has taken part in international comparisons in which its secondary pupils have performed well above the international average for maths and science – and better than their peers in Britain. 

Vladimir Putin's government, however, is not happy with the system and is looking to countries such as Britain to provide models for teaching methods that they believe will improve young people's creativity and entrepreneurial instincts.

Presumably Susan fears that something like this is about to happen in Russia, this being an essay about how the phonetics-based teaching of reading and writing got replaced by new and inferior methods.

The English language contains approximately half a million words. Of these words, about 300 compose about three-quarters of the words we use regularly. In schools where the "whole language" is taught, children are constantly memorizing "sight" words during the first three or four grades of school, but are never taught how to unlock the meaning of the other 499,700 or more words. Reading failure usually shows up after the fourth grade, when the volume of words needed for reading more difficult material, in science, literature, history, or math cannot be memorized quickly enough. The damage to children who have not been taught phonics usually lies hidden until they leave the controlled vocabulary of the basal readers, for more difficult books where guessing, or memorizing new words just does not work. The result is that textbooks in the middle and upper grades are "dumbed" down to a fourth or fifth grade reading level.

This is the real reason why the SAT scores have dropped to such low levels during the last three decades.

It is a little bit off at a tangent, but I include also this next bit, which I knew nothing about until now.

From the time the alphabet was invented until the time of French scientist and mathematician Blaise Pascal, reading was taught by memorizing the sounds of syllables, and then stringing them together to make words. But Pascal found that by separating the syllables into their letter parts, one could learn to read more effectively and efficiently. His method was intended only to assist in the very beginning stages of reading, when a child is learning the printed syllables of his own language.

pascal.jpg

Former teacher and researcher Geraldine Rodgers puts it this way: "It was only for this purpose that Pascal invented it [phonics], to make the previously almost unending memorization of regularly formed syllables ... unnecessary. But phonics works, and has since 1655. So it is not surprising that it was invented by one of the most towering mathematical and scientific geniuses in history, Blaise Pascal ..."

With luck those Russians will stick to Pascal's methods when it comes to teaching reading and writing, and only introduce that "creativity" stuff later on. But thoughts of babies and bathwater inevitably present themselves to the mind of the anxious Telegraph reader.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:18 AM
Category: HistoryLiteracy
February 03, 2004
Making literacy good enough to eat

Last week I was reminded that I possess a book called A History of Reading, by Alberto Manguel. I possess it but have not yet read it. Like many of the books I buy, this one was remaindered and thus obtained very cheaply, rather than something I deliberately went out to find, and when I got it home I put it on the pile of other such acquisitions and forgot about it. It was only some hazardous looking shelving that made me move it from A to B and while doing that to realise again that I own it. I flicked through it again, much as I must have done in the remainder shop, and it looks very promising.

Looking for something interesting to pass on to you people, and for myself to learn about, I naturally went to the chapter entitled "Learning to Read". In it, on page 71, I found the following delightfully tasty morsel of historical knowledge:

In every literate society, learning to read is something of an initiation, a ritualized passage out of a state of dependency and rudimentary communication. The child learning to read is admitted into the communal memory by way of books, and thereby becomes acquainted with a common past which he or she renews, to a greater or lesser degree, in every reading. In medieval Jewish society, for instance, the ritual of learning to read was explicitly celebrated. On the Feast of Shavuot, when Moses received the Torah from the hands of God, the boy about to be initiated was wrapped in a prayer shawl and taken by his father to the teacher. The teacher sat the boy on his lap and showed him a slate on which were written the Hebrew alphabet, a passage from the Scriptures and the words "May the Torah be your occupation." The teacher read out every word and the child repeated it. Then the slate was covered with honey and the child licked it, thereby bodily assimilating the holy words. Also, biblical verses were written on peeled hard-boiled eggs and on honey cakes, which the child would eat after reading the verses out loud to the teacher.

I used to be scornful of such primitive rituals. But being by nature a lazy person, I have learned a profound respect for the tricks we can all play on each others' – and on our own minds – to get us to remember things, and concentrate on things, and generally to apply ourselves to things. The mind thinks symbolically and metaphorically. So, devise a metaphor to get your point across to it. Leaders of armies know this. Priests most definitely know it. And so do good teachers, I suggest.

Some therapists also know it. Apparently, although I can't recall where I read this, if you are having a recurring nightmare, a way to diminish your chances of suffering from it in the future is to describe it as best you can on a bit of paper, perhaps with a verbal description, perhaps with a picture. Then, set fire to the picture and destroy it. Apparently the brain is, sometimes, satisfied with such subterfuges. Matter attended to, it says. Message received. Fine. On with other things. (And no more nightmares.)

If on the other hand, the image thrown at it is pleasurable and memorable, it makes that connection to, and keeps reminding you of it.

The message here is: reading tastes really nice.

Could this little scenario be part of the reason why Jews have tended, over the centuries, to be so well educated? I should definitely guess so.

Also, I think the above description might throw a little light on the question, which I found myself asking yesterday, of why the children in the picture I posted here yesterday (see immediately below) are all so beautifully dressed.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:44 PM
Category: HistoryLiteracy
January 30, 2004
Spellbound Reynolds

I seem to be focussing on movies about education a lot just now. I'm not the only one. Professor Glenn Reynolds has been watching Spellbound, the documentary movie about a spelling competition in America:

And that's another thing that struck me: It is a cliché to say that all the contestants in a national competition like the Spelling Bee are winners, but it's true. Watching these kids, I knew that they would all do fine in life. The qualities of focus, discipline, perseverance, and coolness under pressure that such contests require aren't the stuff of many movies about adolescents. But they serve people well later in life, as I'm sure these kids will discover. It's nice to see a film that makes that point, too.

And in his next and latest MSN column he explicitly links this to the quality of US education.With characteristic generosity, Reynolds includes links to other education bloggers (by the way that is not a snide way of complaining that I got excluded – this blog would not have been appropriate for the Prof's purposes):

There are a lot of educational bloggers who cover these kinds of topics in a lot more depth than I can. Joanne Jacobs (from whose blog these examples come) and Kimberly Swygert are two good examples, and their blogs have links to many more. You should also look at Erin O'Connor blog, Critical Mass, which does the same thing for higher education.

This stuff matters. America is richer than the rest of the world because we have smart people who work hard, under a system that encourages them to do so by letting them keep (most of) the fruits of their labor. But America's wealth isn't a birthright. Like our freedom, it has to be earned by each successive generation. It can't be protected by legislation, it can only be protected by hard work.

Part of that hard work lies in educating the next generation. It's pretty clear that we're dropping the ball in that department. Instead of worrying about outsourcing, maybe we should be worrying about that.

The examples from Joanne Jacobs were quotes from other people.

Anyway, is America dropping the ball? It doesn't look that way to me, but maybe they are. Certainly these Indian computer programmers have got them scared. Anyway, the answer is for the American home-schooling movement to rise up and conquer the entire country.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:36 PM
Category: Literacy
January 14, 2004
Early Literacy Support that isn't – comments at RRF by Debbie Hepplewhite

Incoming email from Debbie Hepplewhite of the Reading Reform Foundation:

Hello again Brian! A Happy New Year to you!

Likewise. And to everyone here, now I come to think of it.

I have posted some comments about one of the government National Literacy Strategy programmes designed as an 'intervention' programme for Year 1 children who are not making the greatest progress in their reading.

This programme is called the 'Early Literacy Support' (ELS) programme and parents should be very concerned.

When you look at the reality of the detailed instructions intended for Year 1 teachers and designated literacy teaching assistants, it is clear to see that the programme bears no resemblance to a phonics programme. …

… I posted the details about the ELS programme on the messageboard of the Reading Reform Foundation website.

Now messageboards are the Brazilian jungle to me. The Internet only came alive for me when a great light shone down from heaven upon me, a chorus of heavenly nerds sang, and I found blogging. However, the messageboard Debbie refers to is, I presume, this. And the comments she posted that she refers to in the email are, I'm guessing again, these.

Excerpt:

The RRF has called for the withdrawal of this entire National Literacy Strategy early intervention programme. It is designed to be delivered by teaching assistants to identified children in the second term of their first year.

The programme is absolutely appalling. To anyone who knows about synthetic phonics teaching it is absolutely flawed from beginning to end.

I am feeling compelled to write about it again and to press harder for its withdrawal. Whoever wrote this programme arguably knows nothing about the early teaching of reading and writing and it is certainly and absolutely not commensurate with the research on reading. We cannot tell who is the author as we are given no information about the authorship.

It is worthy of a full enquiry and it typifies the methods of learning to read which the 'searchlights reading model' promotes directly and indirectly.

To date, the RRF has had no direct response, nor indeed any response, to it's call for the withdrawal of this programme.

Grammarians would quibble about that "it's" there, but I'm sure I've perpetrated far worse here many times.

To be more serious, this sounds like extremely bad news. I just hope that when the havoc caused is duly noted, it will not be blamed on phonics by unscrupulous look-and-sayers But, I fear that it will be.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:37 AM
Category: Literacy
December 24, 2003
The boy who wrote Eragon was homeschooled!

Not heard of "Eragon"? You are about to, it would seem. And because of Eragon, it looks like homeschooling is about to get another big boost.

Meet the Paolinis of Montana:

For years, Kenneth and Talita – former members of a survivalist cult led by a woman called Ma Prophet – seem to have lived on a shoestring, with only occasional employment. Kenneth, the son of an Italian immigrant, used to be a photographer, but doesn't appear to have had much work lately.

He and his wife have devoted their lives to their children, schooling them at home and, until recently, rarely venturing outside their small community of Paradise Valley, Montana.

And one of those children, Christopher, has written a book. And it's not just any book:

The British edition appears early next month, but already it is a huge bestseller in America, where it has surged past the Harry Potter books. Almost half a million copies were sold in only two months, a screenplay is in the works and at least a dozen foreign-language editions are on the way.

The book, Eragon of course, began life self-published. But then:

Their big break came when the popular crime novelist Carl Hiaasen visited the area on a fishing trip with his young son, and the boy became immersed in a copy of Eragon. On the way home, Hiaasen asked his son why he couldn't put the book down. "It's great, Dad," came the reply, "better than Harry Potter."

To a novelist who has had his fair share of bestsellers, those words were magic. Hiaasen alerted his editors in New York, and the next thing the Paolinis knew, the prestigious publisher Knopf (a part of Random House) was offering them a contract.

This is one of the more educationally startling bits of the Telegraph story:

"I was only 15 when I started Eragon. I didn't know how to write. I just told everything in one gigantic burst, then spent another year revising it. …"

Talk about learning by doing.

If Christopher Paolini turns out to be the perfectly nice, well adjusted, civilised person which I fully expect him to turn out to be, then that will ram the homeschooling point with particular force, because the popular fear is that whereas when maths professors do it, that's okay, maybe, when people called things like "Ma Prophet" get mixed up in it, only bad things can result. But now, it seems, the result is … Eragon.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:55 PM
Category: BooksHome educationLearning by doingLiteracy
November 05, 2003
Bloomberg's blunder

There's a really interesting article in the Autumn issue of City Journal about the education battles being fought by New York's Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

Together with Klein, a tough New York lawyer and formerly head of the Clinton Justice Department’s antitrust division, Bloomberg created a revamped command-and-control center, placing the several hundred administrators who survived the 110 Livingston Street purge in the Tweed Courthouse, 200 feet from City Hall, where the mayor could keep an eye on them. Bloomberg instructed the troops to focus like a "laser beam" on a single goal—improving teaching and learning in the classroom. To further that goal, Chancellor Klein began a highly publicized search for the "best practices" in classroom teaching and curriculum, an initiative he named "Children First."

The trouble is, says Sol Stern, all this commanding and controlling is being used to command and control some bad things, especially in the matter of basic literacy teaching. On that front, says Stern, what is now going on in New York is exactly what has been going on in Britain.

Which is: that although phonics has done pretty well in public debate, the anti-phonics crowd still occupy so many of the bureaucratic offices that it is often they who are charged with the task of re-introducing phonics to the curriculum, of expunging their own past influence, that is to say. This they are understandably reluctant to do. Instead, they produce curriculum and teacher guidance documents with the word "phonics" on the front, but inside it's the same old look-and-say "whole word" rubbish.

They, in the case of New York, is a lady called Diana Lam.

Notwithstanding Lam’s lackluster record, Klein gave her control over most personnel and pedagogical decisions during the planning stages of Children First, while he himself focused on the structural reforms, and during early planning meetings with superintendents, says former district superintendent Betty Rosa, Klein chaired the sessions about organizational and administrative issues, while Lam presided over those focusing on the coming changes in curricula and teaching. It was clear that Lam took the progressive, constructivist approach to most pedagogical issues. She favored superintendents who were already using "whole language" reading curricula (the anti-phonics approach), as well as outside staff developers like Teachers College professor Lucy Calkins, a leading champion of the doctrine that all children are natural readers and writers, and that therefore it is criminal for them to be drilled in "boring" phonics lessons.

When the Department of Education announced its choice of a citywide K-3 reading program called "Month by Month Phonics" in February 2003, it was clear that this was Diana Lam’s baby. It was also a perfect illustration of how truly you can’t tell a book by its cover. Though the word "phonics" appears in the title, the slim workbook contains none of the systematic instruction in how to break words into letter/sound correspondence required by the new federal standards. Instead, it offers some unconnected shreds of phonics activities in an otherwise whole-language reading program – which is why it met with enthusiastic support from New York’s phonics-hating progressive educators. The progressives were even happier that Lam had ditched a true scripted phonics program, "Success for All," that was in use (with promising results) in some of the city’s lowest-performing schools, and that would easily have qualified for federal reading funds.

By giving the appearance of using some traditional phonics instruction, Lam's chosen program disarms parents and elected officials, who increasingly have been pressuring the schools for more traditional and reliable methods of reading instruction. That seems to be the effect it had on Mayor Bloomberg, who said in his stirring Martin Luther King Day speech introducing the new citywide reforms that the K-3 reading curriculum would "include a daily focus on phonics." Since it is hard to imagine that our Republican mayor was looking for a confrontation with the Bush administration, it’s likely that Bloomberg was told by Lam or Klein, or both, that the program contained enough phonics to pass muster with the feds. Either that or no one at the Tweed Courthouse bothered to think that $240 million in federal reading funds was at stake.

Since then, Klein and Bloomberg have doubtless spent many hours, and perhaps some sleepless nights, thinking about the problem they face from Month by Month Phonics and Lam's failure to brief them properly. When the city announced its choice, alarm bells went off among the scientific consultants who had helped frame the new federal reading requirements. The experts realized that if the nation’s largest school district could pick a reading program so far from meeting the standard of "scientifically based research" – while abandoning Success for All, which did meet the standard – then the message about the new reading standards was not getting through.

The other huge problem is that all this is being imposed by a highly centralised and dictatorial new system, which makes it more difficult for dissenters – teachers or parents – to opt into different schools and do things better, and then to spread by their example the "best practice" which Mayor Bloomberg says he's so keen on, but has actually made it harder to spread.

... the authoritarian curriculum stands in contradiction to one of the city’s proudest education reforms. In a gala ceremony in September, Bill Gates announced that he was giving the city another $51 million to create 200 new small high schools and middle schools, whose fundamental premise will be that each will have a unique theme or educational approach, and each will have some degree of autonomy from the central system. Yet even as the mayor was taking Gates’s check, his education department was pressuring dozens of the city’s existing small schools (some of them already Gates-supported) to align their curricula and teaching methods with the new standardized citywide approach.

I already hate the word "initiative". I'm starting also to hate the phrase "best practice".

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:38 PM
Category: LiteracyPolitics
September 16, 2003
Un-phonics

Jnanoe Jobcas lnkis to tihs, but I want the link to the "elgnsih unviesitry sutdy", or at least to know more about its oingirs.

Something tells me that this might not work with "Micklethwait".

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:54 PM
Category: Literacy
September 02, 2003
Separating teaching from tyranny

The article by Jennifer Chew about phonics which I scanned in here last Wednesday is now up at the Telegraph website.

A homeschooling commenter denounced it thus:

More dogma and propaganda from those who have been indoctrinated to think they know who to raise my child better than I do.

I have a recent post on a topic related to this on my blog.

"Infant-school"?

I'm not quite sure which particular "this" the posting on her blog refers to. Is it the phonics, the presumption of teaching superiority, or the "infant school" thing? Not sure.

I don't know if what follows works as any sort of answer to Joanne Davidson's objections, but maybe it does.

It seems to me that two things constantly get lumped together, both by those who favour both, and by those who oppose both, namely very structured and disciplined teaching, and the claim that children should be forced to submit to such teaching against their will.

I'm pretty sure that Jennifer Chew is a more or less unquestioning believer in the necessity of compulsory education, particularly for small children. In this I disagree with her, as does commenter Joanne. But when it comes to the teaching of literacy, I believe that I have a lot to learn from such persons as Jennifer Chew.

Put it this way. Supposing someone asked me which was better for a child: Being "taught" to read and write by those disastrously confusing "look and say" (i.e. look and guess) methods, in purely consenting circumstances, year after year? Or: Being forced to pay attention to someone like Jennifer Chew for a few early months of life? Well, I just hope no one asks. All I can say is I'd try like hell to persuade the "voluntary" teacher to change his or her ways, and if I failed … I'd not be a happy person. At present, most of the damage done by "look and say" is compulsorily inflicted by idiot state teachers, so that question, put to me, has never arisen.

Most of us have good memories of teachers who were (a) tyrants and (b) great teachers. Conflating their justified confidence that they knew how to teach something with a belief that this entitled them to force it down their pupils' throats (the key Bad Idea here) they duly did so. But, we have happy memories of this because to us what counted most was the good teaching, rather than the tyranny, which was irksome but (given the alternatives which probably involved just as much tyranny but less in the way of good teaching) bearable.

Yet good teaching and learning on the one hand, and compulsory teaching and learning on the other hand, are two absolutely different and distinct things. Good teaching may involve orders and obedience and abuse and prodding and poking and generally bossing the pupil around, but it absolutely doesn't have to involve the pupil having no right to switch this process off.

Some of the best teaching I've ever done has started with me saying: "Look, you can stop this at any moment, without explanation. Literally, whenever you want out, you can get out. No problem. But while you stay, you have to at least try to do what I say, or I'll get frustrated and I'll want to stop. Okay? Deal? Yes? Off we go then." And then followed a burst of high pressure teaching that to the naked eye would have been indistinguishable from tyranny. But it was not tyranny. Consent ruled throughout. The right to leave makes all the difference to the pupil's experience, to the pupil's attitude, to pupil morale. It means that despite all appearances to the contrary, the pupil stays in control. (A similar principle is embodied in the idea of an assembly line worker having next to him at all times a button which he can personally push to stop dead the entire assembly line.)

Boys in particular often love this sort of bare knuckle learning ordeal, which at the time is scary, but which afterwards they can feel genuinely proud of having lived through and learned from.

And one of the absolute worst ways to separate teaching from tyranny is to remove all orders, criticism, holding to a standard, attention demanding, prodding or poking, mental or physical, EXCEPT the tyranny of forbidding the victims of this vacuous anarchy from getting the hell out of there. Boys, in particular, will despise such "teaching", and if you attempt it on a gang of them, they will give you the exact punishment you deserve. They will make your life a living hell. That is a one-paragraph summary of all that is wrong with state education in Britain today, and I'll bet also in a hell of a lot of other countries.

I know what you're thinking. How do you persuade children to learn something like reading and writing if they don't want to. The answer is right there in the question. You persuade them. (I call it "selling the culture".) You tell them why you really, really think they ought to learn to read and write, why you are so, so pleased you learned to read and write as early as you did, and then hope that they agree with you. And then you, or someone, teaches them. If they don't agree with you, increase your advertising budget. Spend more time on the persuading. (And before anyone says the opposite, advertising and compulsion are also absolutely different things.)

If you can't think of any good reason why kids should bother with reading and writing and are just taking it on trust from your social superiors, and "selling" reading and writing to your kids on a because-I-say-so basis, then there's your problem right there. You don't actually see the point of it yourself. So why be surprised if your kids don't either? That's the message you've sold them, very persuasively.

So anyway, my question to Joanne is: were you objecting to the compulsion? – in which case I'm with you. Or to the phonics? – in which case I think you are turning your back on some very good stuff, the best stuff on the teaching of literacy that I personally know about.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:15 PM
Category: Boys will be boysBrian's brilliant teaching careerHow to teachLiteracy
August 27, 2003
Jennifer Chew on the need for true Phonics

The following article (headline: "Children of few words") appeared in today's Daily Telegraph, but only in paper form. Its author, Jennifer Chew, is a leading contributor to the work of the Reading Reform Foundation and a vigorous promoter of the Synthetic Phonics method for teaching literacy. I have simply scanned in this article, which is quite short, in its entirety. I hope no one objects.

The results of this year's reading test for seven-year-olds should be of interest to anyone concerned, about education.

Reading is the foundation for all later educational attainment, and a good start in infant school is vital. Reading attainment at seven has been shown to be one of the best predictors of GCSE performance.

Unfortunately, the results are not published in a form that makes their significance easy to grasp. The "expected level" is Level 2, subdivided into 2A, 2B and 2C.

This year, 84 per cent of seven-year-olds reached Level 2C or above – not bad, one might think. What is often not realised, however, is that only Level 2B and above represents an adequate standard. Those who reach only Level 2C have little chance of reaching Level 4 – the expected level – at 11 years old, or of performing adequately at GCSE.

This year, only 69 per cent reached Level 2B or above, which means that nearly a third of seven-year-olds – almost 200,000 children – will probably not read well enough at 11 to cope with the secondary- school curriculum.

The reading test is a comprehension test based on fiction and non-fiction. passages. Children must read each piece of text and answer questions about it.

About half of the 30 questions are multiple choice and the rest require an answer in the form of a word, phrase or sentence. Comprehension involves reading the words accurately and making sense of them. So we need to know whether the problem is with word-reading or making sense of them or both.

However, the test does not make this distinction and so does not tell us what teachers should focus on to get more children to Level 2B. Other tests, though, show that it is often word-reading that is weak in Level 2C children. Their comprehension is poor because they cannot read enough of the words accurately.

If these children were genuinely incapable of better word-reading, we would be stuck with the current stagnant standards. But there is a type of teaching – true Phonics – that can greatly improve word-reading and so remove this barrier to comprehension.

With this method, some infant schools are already getting 88 per cent or more of their children to Level 2B. The children are not super-intelligent, but are taught letter-sound correspondences at a much faster pace than is prescribed by the national literacy strategy.

They are taught to use this knowledge to read all words, apart from a few less regular ones that are explicitly taught.

In spite of claims to the contrary, the national literacy strategy does not present letter-sound knowledge as the first strategy children should be taught to use in word-reading. Rather, letter-sound knowledge comes into play after words have been identified: the teacher identifies words and the children then break them down and build them up again, or the children attempt to identify words by sight or from contextual and pictorial clues and then check a letter or two (usually not all letters) to see if they are right. Research and common sense suggest that this is less effective than true phonics.

In one school, the first children to be started off with true phonics, six years ago, have just taken the tests for 11-year-olds. Eighty-nine per cent of them reached the expected Level 4 in English as against the national figure of 74 per cent.

Most worrying of all is the 18 per cent of seven-year-olds who fail to reach even Level 2C. After nearly three years in school, these children are virtually unable to read, making up the "long tail of underachievement" that is a. recurring feature of British performance in international comparisons.

In schools that teach true phonics, the proportion failing to reach 2C is seldom more than three per cent. If all infant schools used this approach, the "long tail" would all but disappear. So, too, would the underachievement of boys, which currently causes concern: boys perform at least as well as girls when using true phonics.

Better infant-school teaching could largely solve literacy problems – and many wider education problems – throughout the school system. The evidence has been repeatedly presented to the policy-makers, but little changes.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:41 PM
Category: Literacy
July 17, 2003
Freedom and whisky and schooling

There's excellent linkage and comment at Freedom and Whisky about Scottish education. There's a strong home schooling angle to the education debate up there, because unlike the British politicians, the pols in Scotland are prepared to be vocal in their opposition to home schooling. Naturally, David Farrer disagrees.

Sadly, the days of the Scottish Enlightenment are long gone. What they're now back to arguing about in Scotland is the low level of literacy among the poorest school leavers.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:46 AM
Category: Literacy
[0]
July 10, 2003
Dyslexia and Phil Teare

Phil Teare has added a comment on this, which you would never have known about if I hadn't told you, because Blogs don't work like that. Or maybe they do, or can be made to, and this is another opportunity for a Brian Learning experience.

Anyway, Phil says this:

I actually have little to say right now, as I concur with Brian - It's too damn hot here in London, to even think. But as I just found you I would like to point you all to my blog (click on my name, below). It's all about dyslexia, and written by a dyslexic (me) who makes dyslexia focussed software. So fairly relevant I guess.

Phil

Very relevant indeed. Thanks Phil. It helps that he's a Londoner rather than an American, because Americans are already all over the blogosphere (including the education related blogosphere) but Londoners, by and large, and for the time being, aren't.

Phil supplies more dyslexia links here. Click on "Sites to See" at the top, after the swirling brain and computer have done their stuff.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:51 PM
Category: Literacy
[0]
July 07, 2003
Linda Schrock Taylor

My thanks to David Farrer of Freedom and Whisky for sending me the link to this LewRockwell.com article by Linda Schrock Taylor. Nothing like a blogger bash to stimulate the exchange of useful information:

When I introduce a new group of students to my reading class, I explain that there are two main ways to teach reading – with sight words or with phonics. I tell them that I will present them with some information, and let them decide which method they wish me to use.

I explain that with the sight word approach (Dick & Jane, whole language, balanced instruction, balanced reading, re-packaged whole language, re-named whole language,…) the student only needs to memorize about 250,000 words, for instant sight recognition, in order to be a very good reader.

I explain that it is difficult for the human brain to achieve this feat …

I'll say. What is especially satisfying about this piece is that this is not just a teacher saying that her phonetics based methods work better; it is also a teacher saying how they actually work. I won't copy and past the entire thing, much as I'm tempted. But if such methods are of interest to you, I strongly, on the basis of what I've learned about this stuff so far, recommend the whole thing. I've never got around to reading LewRockwell.com properly. Maybe this needs to change.

Any explanations of why I'm wrong to admire this piece, if I am, would be particularly welcome.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:57 PM
Category: How to teachLiteracy
[0]
June 22, 2003
"Pupils who had previously resisted literacy …"

More on the Harry Potter phenomenon, this time in the form of some entertaining rhapsodising about the educational benefits of Pottermania from the always provocative Normal Lebrecht in the Evening Standard last Friday:

Think back to June 1997 when 1,000 Bloomsbury copies of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone sneaked near-unnoticed into British bookshops, after being rejected by some 20 publishers for being variously too long, archaic and politically incorrect.

The pronounced wisdom was that children were uninterested in reading. Teachers and their unions set up a demand for more "visual aids". Pre-teens returned home from seven hours of unstrenuous schooling to slump, semi-vegetative, in front of flickering images of vaguely sexual connotation.

The publishing dictum, impressed on me when I proposed a story about kids with a chronic illness, was that "we no longer take on children's books without a television tie-in". Rowling changed all that, surreptitiously and within months.

Harry Potter spread by word of playground mouth and reprinted time after time.

Children blew their pocket money on the first book and clamoured for more. Infant teachers who read it aloud in class were begged to continue when the bell rang for break. Pupils who had previously resisted literacy mastered their ps and qs on platform nine and three-quarters.

Yes, this is what I've been hearing, and reading elsewhere. And seeing on the TV news of course, in the form of all those super-excited children queueing up at one o'clock in the morning. But is it really like this? Does any teacher or parent have first hand experience of this kind of thing?

Does anyone, in particular, have any tales to tell of Harry Potter resistance from any section of the youth market?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:54 PM
Category: BooksLiteracy
[0]
June 16, 2003
Could this be my big chance?

It's only a short posting today, but about something that looks interesting, namely Volunteer Reading Help. I found out about it by reading this.

It is, as is fairly obvious, a volunteers-to-teach-reading scheme. I've been trying to wangle my way into active education without committing myself to anything too huge or time consuming, and this might be worth me looking into a bit further. An hour a week for each child, apparently.

I know, I know, it's got government all over it. But if it's good then good, and if it's bad, then I can blog about that, can't I?

Anyone know anything about this scheme?

In the same bit that mentions VRH, John Clare also supplies a link to these people, who put themselves about rather more than I first realised.
Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:42 PM
Category: Brian's brilliant teaching careerLiteracy
[0]
June 05, 2003
But can she spell "Gnat"?

Gnat is learning. I have no children, but I guess that when it works, this is how it works.

Gnat has been drawing big heads with dots for features, squiggles for hair, lumps for ears. The usual toddler conceptions of humanity: formless mutants.

“Look, Daddee. I draw an eye.”

I’m sure you did, honey. Can you draw a nose?

“No, I draw an eye.”

I looked: she had drawn an upper-case I. Her first letter. She copied it from a book. She pointed to the word BIG and said “BIG. B - I - G.”

Yes, she’s reading. Two years, ten months, and she’s reading. Mom, Dad, Cat, Dog, Bed, Pig, and several others - she understands them in different contexts. She reads the titles of old Disney cartoons; today she said “Fwee Liddle Pigs” when the title card came on. I’m sure she associated the music with the cartoon, which she’s seen a hundred times, but even so that’s pretty good. She knows that this music means this cartoon, and that those three words say “Three Little Pigs.” When we’re driving along she’ll point at a store’s sign and say “Open.” She knows the world is full of words and she interrogates each one to see if she knows it. She also understands ad campaigns - the Arby’s oven mitt amuses her, for some reason.

“Look!” she says, pointing up at the billboard. “Mr. Glove.” Later that day a commercial comes on, and she says “Mr. Glove, Daddee. He’s everywhere. He’s on the teevee an’ he’s on signs.”

Yes, that’s a direct quote. But it’s not the remark that bothered me the most today. We were in the car, driving along a suburban highway; she looked out at the foliage. “The trees are alll green,” she said. She paused. “These trees are greenish.”

Two years. Ten months. Greenish. God help me.

This is the kind of reason why the Lileks Bleat has a permanent place on the right hand side of this blog, but this bit makes me think he maybe should be in the "education friendly" category, because that bit could hardly be more education friendly, I would say.

Never mind. Good writing - I especially like the eye/I confusion at the beginning - is routinely impossible to classify.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:16 PM
Category: Literacy
[0]
May 22, 2003
Grammatical argument

Professor Instapundit links to this piece about the teaching of grammar. (If that link doesn't work, try this and then scroll down.)

It's not about how to teach grammar, merely about whether to teach it. Dennis Baron apparently believes we shouldn't bother, because other things about writing are, he says, more important. Ralph A. Raimi of the University of Rochester, NY, vehemently dissents. Raimi's concluding paragraphs:

Yet Baron's argument is more pernicious than the mere observation that good grammar does not guarantee good writing. This unarguable beginning progresses, and becomes an attack on learning grammar at all. This he is not entitled to do. It is as if a music student were advised against learning anything about scales, arpeggios and modulations, on the grounds that expression and nuance, really, are at the heart of music. And more recently, in the schools, the doctrine that arithmetic is no longer important (now that we have calculators) since mathematics is a science of patterns, big ideas, higher order thinking skills.

Then, having demonstrated that learning grammar is a no-no, Baron ends with an attack on testing grammatical competence, with an argument implying that those who would test this competence believe "grammar tests [alone] measure writing ability."

In this last quotation it was I, not Baron, who inserted the "[alone]." I plead guilty, and merely exhibit my take on the general tenor of his article. Read it for yourself, and consider how many such you have read in your time. Arithmetic skill [alone] doesn't lead to better mathematics; music theory [alone] doesn't lead to artistry in composition; Teaching Grammar [alone?] Doesn't Lead to Better Writing. You can cover your flanks by omitting the "alone", sure, but the message is clear: Clean up the curriculum; stick to what's important. No more arithmetic; no more arpeggios; no more grammar. Bah!

So there.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:54 PM
Category: Literacy
[0]
April 15, 2003
A second literacy guess

In an earlier posting here I made the guess that the reason why English children now seem to be doing quite well at reading is that they are making headway because of their parents, but despite their schooling.

Natalie Solent took exception:

Brian's Education Blog comments in detail on the surprising success of British children in international reading tests, reported in the story a few posts down. He thinks credit is due the parents. This is undoubtedly true, but it's not just them. I think Brian does not realise the extent to which "Look and Say" is very much on the retreat even in schools. At the moment I think that the State orthodox system of how to teach reading is a fairly good system; it has been pretty good for the last five years or so.

Well, I did say I was only guessing.. Neverthelss, it is no fun to have one's speculations, however speculative, so publicly corrected.

I acquired many of my prejudices about literacy matters from reading such things as the output of the Reading Reform Foundation. The people associated with that organisation have a very different view of the efficacy of British state literacy teaching to that expressed by Natalie. What I needed was for them to join in the argument, so that I could try to confront them with one another. Is Natalie right that literacy teaching has got quite a bit better? Or are the RRF corner right to feel frustrated that things are still not being done right?

At which point two commenters on my original posting materialised through the magic of the Internet, Vicki Lynch and Debbie Hepplewhite, Debbie being the editor of the RRF newsletter, no less. I would have been delighted by such commenters at any time. That they should have come forward at the exact time when I was most hoping for exactly such people to do so was, I felt, little short of providential, and cheered my up greatly.

So, another guess to keep the discussion going, which is my attempt to reconcile the two points of view which on the face of it we can only choose between or inflict a crude compromise upon. Here's my revised guess as to what is happening in the teaching of literacy in Britain.

It hinges upon whether literacy teaching is a matter of degree or an absolute right-or-wrong matter. Are there literacy teachers who are hopelessly bad, pretty bad, okay, quite good, very good and excellent? Or is it simply a matter of doing it either rightly, or wrongly, with no half measures?

The RRF give off the vibe that you either do it right, or forget it, you are part of the problem.

I surmise that for the vulnerable minority of children, the ones who, if not taught really well are doomed to permanent confusion, not as bad as it was is not good enough. But for the lucky majority who, maybe with parental help, or maybe just because they are smart, make sense of the now improved clues that swirl around them, and, to use a frequently used metaphor from the world of literacy teaching, they crack it. They put enough of the pieces of the puzzle together to do better than children who are taught in a wholly confusing way. For the majority, I surmise, the government's half-baked and half-hearted embrace of phonetics as "part of the mix" and "one of the many approaches that can work" has been an improvement. Which explains Natalie Solent's attitude.

And this same half-hearted embrace exasperates the RRF people, because, dammit, why not do things completely right, in a way that almost all children can benefit from? In that sense the RRF people are right. Is the literacy teaching glass half full, or simply not nearly full, like a fraudulent pint in a pub? Take your pick.

That's my best second guess. I hope there are further reactions, and thanks to all those who have reacted so far.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:04 PM
Category: Literacy
[0]
April 11, 2003
Literacy – what are we doing right?

Like Natalie Solent (blogger archiving buggered blah blah scroll down to April 10 2.51pm) I am intrigued by this in the electric Indy the day before yesterday, which says that English children are doing really quite well at literacy, compared to children from other countries.

Children in English primary schools are among the world's best readers, although they spend more time watching television or playing computer games than their peers in most other countries.

A survey of reading standards of pupils aged nine and ten in 35 countries put the English in third place, beaten only by those in Sweden and the Netherlands.

Two immediate responses: Wow! and: Why? Aren't English schools supposed to be all over the place literacy-wise? That's certainly what I've been saying here.

What follows is only guesswork, but for what it is worth, here is my guess, at least concerning where to look for an answer about what is going on here.

The more I study literacy, the more I am convinced of the vital, pivotal, crucial role of parents. When it comes to teaching nuclear physics or brain surgery or medieval French, no good schools means no good students, but the lower down the education tree you go, the more parents can and do contribute. Although even at the very top they make a big difference, by pushing their kids to learn things that they themselves may not understand.

Suppose your kids are being "taught" at a "look and say" dominated school. Suppose, that is to say, they are being mis-taught, in a way that, uncorrected, would slow them down horribly and might well make them dyslexic. What do you do? Complain? That would almost certainly do nothing except make enemies of your child's teachers. Send them to another school? Home school them, perhaps? Maybe, but these are horribly big and disruptive procedures. The sensible thing to do, and if I ever have kids it is quite possible that this is what I and/or mumwill do, is teach them literacy yourself, for about a quarter of an hour per day, probably making use of the reading material that the school is supplying.

The Anglo-Saxon world has been fraught with rows about literacy teaching, and this is because the state of official literacy teaching in the Anglo-Saxon world has been uniquely chaotic, uniquely deranged by look-and-say methods. It's another big, big question why that is, but my theory is that because English spelling is so all over the place compared to most other spellings, just giving up on phonetic spelling is, although horribly damaging, a more tempting error IN Angl-Saxonia than elsewhere.

But if that's true, what is England doing right? How come we came third in that survey, rather than twenty-third or thirty-third?

Well, something else that has happened in the Anglo-Saxon world is that there has been a ferocious counter-revolution in response to look-and-say. Organisations like the Reading Reform Foundation, already referred to here on several occasions, most recently in this posting, have lambasted the educational establishment, screaming at them and begging at them to mend their ways.

Most of this screaming and begging has failed, if by success you mean beating sense into teachers, and into the Men from the Ministry. The new "national literacy strategy" is and remains a shambles. Things are improving slowly, but nothing like fast enough to explain England getting a literacy bronz medal.

But what if, although the RRFers have mostly failed to spread enlightenment to teachers, they have succeeded in spreading enlightenment, if not to all parents, at least to a great many of them?

Plus, maybe you do have to give the government some credit here. They haven't improved literacy teaching very much, but they have at least made a great fuss of the matter - "national literacy hour" and so forth, to the point where parents are noticing, and, unlike most of the teaching profession, they are now applying their commonsense to the matter of teaching their own children.

And that's not even to mention the explosion in private tutoring that is now occurring. This too is, of course, parent driven.

Because of their failure to straighten out most of the teachers, I have tended to regard the RRF and their ilk as, although right about reading and writing, inept about politics, and I think that's true. But what I think this survey may be picking up is that when it comes to simply spreading their ideas among regular people, the RRFers may have started to win a huge victory. Thanks to them, and allies of them like, if I may say so, me, parents all over the English speaking world are now giving a few minutes a day to teaching their kids letters and sounds, and maybe buying "synthetic phonics" videos, and then later helping their kids with their homework in a way that actually helps. And this may now be adding up to a huge educational success story. And if the teachers take the credit for all this, well, so what? The important thing, from the parental point of view, is to get the job done.

There is much talk from people like me about the "educational private sector", by which I mean alternative schools. But by far the biggest educational private sector is the home.

The newspaper story I've been quoting from makes much of exactly how much time children spend watching TV. If they spend all night, they don't learn literacy skills well. If they watch quite a lot, but not all night, they do much better. The implication is that this may throw some light on the educational value or lack of it of TV.

I think what it throws light on is the differences between some parents and otehrs. It doesn't take long to teach literacy, provided you do it approximately right. The big difference is between doing a bit per day (or so), and not doing any. The TV findings, I think, point to that difference. TV all the time kids are being raised as near barbarians, by near barbarian parents. TV some of the time means a much happier story.

If the story that I'm telling, about parental educational input, is right, it would also make sense of another finding that literacy surveys like this one always find:

The report, by the National Foundation for Educational Research, also confirmed the findings of a recent study that the gap between the highest and lowest performers was greater in England than in most countries.

… my take on that being that parental input is more important in England, where official literacy teaching is so bad and where the rows about this have been so loud, than elsewhere.

As I often say at the end of my more speculative blog-postings: I don't know, but it makes sense to me.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:03 PM
Category: Literacy
[0]
April 03, 2003
Learning how to teach reading

There are some things that you can only learn how to do by doing them, and for me, teaching people to read is one of them. Try as I will, I just can't get the exact detail of what exactly is involved merely by reading things. The last time I witnessed reading and writing being well taught was when I learned to read and write myself. (For I was taught very well. My mother had picked up on this look-and-say nonsense almost as soon as it began, and she carefully chose good teachers for me and my siblings.)

I did a posting on Samizdata yesterday, based on the nonsense words in Ruth Miskin's Nonsense Word Test which is to be found in the latest issue, Number 50, of the Reading Reform Foundation's newsletter.

I played it for laughs, listing all the nonsense words themselves. My idea was to bring "synthetic phonics" to the attention of readers who otherwise might not bother with such stuff. And it happened. Many of the comments were about silly words in science fiction, rather than just comments about phonics, so that was definitely mission accomplished. I mean, that's why I put the posting on Samizdata rather than putting it here, where only education enthusiasts assemble.

Nevertheless, in the course of all the joking around, I attempted a description of what "synthetic phonics" actually is. This was me:

This means – warning: I may get this somewhat wrong – first learning what sounds are made by which letters and letter combinations, and then spelling out the entire word by spelling out each letter or letter combination. Something like that.

According to commenter Kevin Marks I did get it wrong. Answering another commenter who, like me, doesn't find it easy to learn from the RRF website itself what exactly "synthetic phonics" is, and who is wisely dubious of my sketch of the matter, Kevin said this:

There's a clear summary of the idea on the Phono-Graphix website.

Brian has it wrong. Words consist of sounds, and letters (or letter groups) are pictures of these sounds.

The first thing to learn is to break the words you speak into sounds, and then learn what symbols represent these sounds. English is hard because not only do we have multiple symbols for the same sound, but we also have overlap, where the same symbol can represent several different sounds.

Careful ordering of the teaching of these symbols can help children cope with the ambiguity, but you have to understand that the sounds are primary and the symbols secondary, not vice versa.

Yeah, okay, I did say "first", but all I meant was that you spell out words letter by letter before you do what I now do, which is recognise most of them straight away without having to spell them out. First of those two things. I was assuming you'd already done your phonic analysis of the spoken language. My understanding of the very first, first thing you do is simply get the kids in groups and make them chant the noises "eeeee!" "aye!" "oh!" "duh!", "chuh!", and so on. And no doubt that is somewhat wrong also, and if it is, then with luck someone (maybe Kevin again) will correct me, and Brian's Education will be pushed along some more.

But as I say, I want to learn how you actually do all this, and I don't think it will be something you can learn in forty five brisk minutes listening to a Powerpoint Presentation, although here is one matter where I suspect that a Powerpoint Presentation might be of some real help, what with the order in which you do things being so important.

At the very least I'd like to watch it being done by someone who I believe is doing it properly. Because of course the only reason this is such a fraught topic is that all over the world, "teachers" who regard themselves as experts at the teaching of reading and writing, ain't.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:52 PM
Category: Literacy
[0]
March 20, 2003
Literacy and trouble

Well, it's just before midnight as I write, and I'm nowhere near done with my travel preparations, so here I am, still wide awake.

And I'm watching a fascinating last-minute change to the TV schedule in the form of a documentary about William Tyndale, the first man to translate the Bible into English. Dynamite. No time for a prolonged discussion of this, but one little phrase caught my attention, even as I sat typing something else, about the war that people say is about to happen.

People learned to read, just so that they could read Tyndale's Bible.

The "powers that be" (William Tyndale's phrase as well as ours) knew at once what a dangerous man Tyndale was and what a dangerous book his Bible was. Because of it, people were learning to read. And people who know how to read are an order of magnitude more powerful – and therefore more dangerous and troublesome – to those powers that be than are illiterates.

Indeed, you can plot the course of modern history by studying literacy rates in different countries. As soon as large numbers of people get literate, trouble. This never fails. Never. German Reformation. English Civil War. French Revolution. Russian Revolution. Islamofascism. And there's more to come after that.

I don't have time to elaborate, but I'll try to do so when I get back from my trip to Poland.

Well, that was Thursday. I wonder if I will be able to manage Friday as well.

UPDATE 12.30 am. Apparently the 1611 Bible, the so-called King James Bible, is largely the work of Tyndale. about "80 per cent", so they said. I didn't know that. I thought the Authorised Version was the work of a committee of Shakespeare's contemporaries.

TV. You learn something new every day.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:08 AM
Category: Literacy
[0]
December 12, 2002
Literacy Links – and a potential row

John Ray has emailed me with a couple of literacy links. These are this link, and this link.

Comments on my cryptic link question were two-to-one against, if I remember it right, so let me expand a little.

Both these links are attempts to sum up - how accurately I am incapable of judging, but presumably John Ray reckons they're okay - the findings of "expert research" on the subject of how children can best learn to be literate.

What struck me about them was that both abound with trigger phrases which, in my brief experience of the opinions of the "synthetic phonics" crowd, would have them cursing and ranting and biting the wallpaper with rage, that is to say criticising very severely. I have in mind phrases like (in Link One) "mechanically decoding words", "interaction among the reader, the text, and the context" (my italics), and (in Link Two) "authentic situation", "variety of reading strategies", "use of graphic aids". There's the making of a great row here, if I can stir it up.

Incidentally, since starting this edu-blog, I have become acutely aware that, when one pontificates about education and especially when one pontificates about literacy, spelling mistakes count twice. So let it be duly noted that Link One accuses "traditional education" of upholding the idea that a child is a vessel who receives knowledge from "extertnal" sources. Traditional education also upholds the idea of not making crass spelling mistakes like that on web-pages about literacy.

Here's what I think about this potential row.

If you do truly contrive what these two Links say you should, then all will probably be well. However, there is a distinct air of self-fulfilling prophecy about it all. What these "new researchers" are saying is that, in the present context (and they do love a good context), this is what the successful readers and writers of now - and thus the movers and shakers of the future - are now doing. Well, yes. But that doesn't mean that trying to get every child to behave like this is now the best way to teach literacy to everybody. Telling some overloaded state-employed hack-teacher to create a "meaningful social environment" in which every child in sight is vigorously pursuing his own learning strategy is, in the current context (i.e. compulsory state-run school attendance), a recipe for anomic chaos, for twelve-year-old ignoramuses sitting in the corner banging their heads against the wall while their happier contemporaries are out in the streets buying and selling drugs by similarly illiterate means. If you want to make old-school schools work properly, you have to run them like Model T assembly lines. You have to isolate the single most important process involved in learning to read and write (but especially to read), which is surely something extremely like "mechanically decoding words", and get that right. You have to make children receive knowledge from an external source, namely your hardworking, repetitious, din-it-into-them self. The rest (i.e. Nobel Prizes, jobs with the UN or with Microsoft) may or may not follow, but that at least gives it a fighting chance.

Here, in short, is one of those many, many situations where the best could be the deadly enemy of the adequate. And adequate is absolutely what literacy teaching, in the Anglo-Saxon world, now, for a growing minority, is not.

Discuss.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:27 AM
Category: Literacy
[0]
November 29, 2002
Learning to be Japanese (it's very hard)

Patrick Crozier has just finished giving a talk about Japan, based on his recent visit there, and out of the conversation afterwards emerged a point about Japanese society that will seem very obvious to all those who have been aware of it for many years, but which only got to me tonight, for the first time.

The Japanese alphabet is diabolically complicated. In fact, if I heard an exchange between Patrick and David Carr correctly, there are three Japanese alphabets, for three different purposes which I didn't quite catch. And each alphabet contains characters beyond numbering. Something like eight thousand.

The upshot of which is that it takes about two decades of unremitting toil to become, in a basic sense, Japanese. What our cleverer or luckier or smarter pupils have done by the age of about nine, takes them twice as long and more. You think it's hard for Westerners to "penetrate" Japanese society? Well yes, it is. But so too, and for the same sort of reasons, is it hard for the Japanese themselves to get to the centre of it.

Suddenly the "conformity" and "collectivism" and "authoritarianism" of Japan makes more sense. Becoming Japanese is, in a basic sense, climbing an endless ladder of cultural complexity. Becoming British or French or Spanish or American, by comparison, is about as hard as passing your driving test. And once you're in, you're in, and everyone's equal.

I'm sure the internet is pulsating with places where all this is much more thoroughly gone into. But I only really got this notion tonight, and I have no links to offer whatsoever, except to Patrick's own Transport Blog, where, if you dig in the archives you'll find pictures of Japanese trains, and such like.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:55 PM
Category: Literacy
[0]
November 11, 2002
The aesthetics of literacy teaching

I've just finished putting a comment about the Reading Reform Foundation at the end of a piece by Friedrich of the Two Blowhards. Two Blowhards is a blog which I and several other Britbloggers have a particular affection for. This latest piece is about the fact that the people whom Friedrich had hired to teach his child to read didn't know - and worse, didn't care - whether the methods they were proposing to use were the ones that would work the best.

Friedrich identifies an aesthetic response to their preferred teaching method on the part of the teachers he was up against, an angle on this debate I haven't encountered before. Not surprising that he might spot such a thing, though. The Blowhards are nothing if not aestheticians.

I'm still recovering from The Conference (see the previous post but one) so a proper first push from this blog for these guys is beyond me at present. Let it suffice for now for me to say that regularly reading their blog is an education in itself.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:12 PM
Category: Literacy
[0]
Teachers versus TV

"If you can read this, you must be old" says Joanne Jacobs (to whom many thanks for the link to here last week), ruminating on the declining state of literacy learning in the USA. I say literacy learning, because it is not entirely clear to me that the cause of the problem, if problem it be, is that American children are being taught badly. I suspect it may also be that they are being entertained well. I further suspect that these two influences may be intertwined.

I have heard a number of reports and recollections over the years about the surprising excellence of education behind the old Iron Curtain. One explanation for that is that the old USSR and its various colonies made good educational decisions. But when you consider the crassness of so many of the other decisions these people made, this doesn't strike me as a wholly satisfactory explanation.

How about the utter non-excellence of Soviet television? (This was once memorably described by Oz-in-Britain Clive James as "Grandstand without the sport", Grandstand being the BBC weekend afternoon sports show, and there are now people here who regard Grandstand as being Grandstand without the sport, but that's another argument.) In the absence of an enticing televised popular culture, Soviet-empire children often had nowhere else to look besides school for excitement. And when they got there, their teachers were not cursed by unfavourable comparisons between their mundane selves and magical popular entertainers, because there were no magical popular entertainers, only stuffed shirt puppet propagandists for a government that had turned boredom into an art form. In the West, by contrast, ever since the nineteen sixties, teachers have been fighting a constant battle for the hearts and minds of their pupils against the likes of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the Simpsons and Friends and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I'm not saying that popular entertainment shouldn't exist. I love popular entertainment. What I do say is that running a compulsory, class-room-based me-talk-you-listen me-command-you-obey school system has got a whole lot harder now that the stuff outside the classrooms has got so much more diverting.

In short, most of what is now called "teaching" has got a lot harder, and if teaching has also got worse, that may well be a big part of why it has got worse.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:43 PM
Category: Literacy
[0]
November 08, 2002
A comment on dyslexia

Another comment! This time from Susan Godsland of dyslexics.org.uk, responding to this. Susan says: "OK - have a look at my site then - lots of links to free educational stuff." I did and there is.

My prejudice about dyslexia is, very briefly and for what little it may be worth, that it is a real condition, but one that varies hugely in its impact according to whether the dyslexic is well or badly taught. I further believe that many are diagnosed as dyslexic who are merely people who have been severely mis-taught. But I have much to learn about this matter, and this site will surely help me a lot. Thank you very much Susan.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:18 PM
Category: Literacy
[0]
November 04, 2002
Links and literacy

I make no secret of it: I have a lot to learn. And one of the things I most want to learn is: Which stuff will remain up on the www for ever, and which stuff will vanish, or be shut away in a complicated registration or payment prison? For example: Will this link to an article published on October 10th by independent.co.uk about a particular brand of "Synthetic Phonics" still be working two years from now? Or should I quote a few paragraphs from it, to ensure that this posting will make sense even if this link eventually peters out? Paragraphs like these:

It's just after break at Trinity Road primary school in Chelmsford, and the eager five-year-olds in Miss Tait's class are sitting on the carpet waiting for their lesson to start. Suddenly it begins at a cracking pace. Miss Tait warms the children up by getting them to build up some simple three-letter words from their constituent sounds. "My turn M-e-n, men. Your turn..." she says. "M-e-n men," they chant in response.

They are part of a successful scheme pioneered by Dr Jonathan Solity and Essex County Council with around 10,000 children across more than 170 of the authority's schools. The scheme challenges the Government's National Literacy Strategy on the grounds that it is not succeeding in teaching children to read. Since its introduction in 1995, Dr Solity's project has seen standards rise. The proportion of children who struggle to read and are labelled as having learning difficulties has been cut from around 25 per cent to between two and eight per cent.

Around 20 per cent more seven-year-olds now reach the required standard for their age using Dr Solity's methods. If his scheme were adopted nationally, it would save the Government more than £200m a year and rescue thousands of children from the educational scrap heap, he says.

The debate about how children should be taught to read has been a long and bitter one. And it was reignited last month by the Government's admission that it missed its target for enabling primary-school children to read and write. That target, set in 1997, pledged to have 80 per cent of pupils reaching the required standard in English tests by this summer. However, the initial strong improvements tailed off and the figures failed to show any improvement for the second year running, so that only 75 per cent of 11-year-olds were successful this summer.

The article goes on to refer favourably to two people whom I've learned to respect, who are among the people associated with the Reading Research Foundation, Sue Lloyd of Jolly Phonics, and Dr Bonnie Macmillan, who wrote a monograph for the Institute of Economic Affairs which I reviewed favourably for the Libertarian Alliance.

I would love to hear from anyone who believes that my prejudices about literacy teaching are all wrong, and that the government, with its "balance of different methods", is on the right track in literacy teaching after all.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:21 PM
Category: Literacy
[0]
September 24, 2002
Brian's Education

Well here it is, the first entry in Brian's Education Blog. The ambiguity is deliberate. Does this mean a blog about Brian's education, or Brian's blog about education? Both, of course, and I'm starting, inevitably, with my education in the art of blogging. Alex Singleton of Liberty Log, who has got me this far, put up three randomly selected postings he'd prepared earlier, and I've tried to get rid of these, but seem not to be able to. Oh well. I'll learn.

Here are two contrasting ways of doing things. One: you have everything ready beforehand and you launch it fully formed on an astonished world. Two, the way I do things. I start slowly and carefully, one thing at a time. I don't have a launch date at which the fireworks immediately start to happen. I just pick up the balloon and start puffing into it, very, very slowly, and hope that it eventually ends up looking good and doesn't explode in my face.

Since I can't remember how to change the categories Alex did for me, I've chosen "literacy", as in computer literacy.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:24 AM
Category: Literacy