Maths mastery and high attaining / high potential children – the beginning of a journey!

Update I’ve had a very disappointing interaction with the NCETM on twitter, who have now twice refused to answer publicly on the role of selection in China (or other Asian systems) and the implications for (apparently) taking a method that’s used for the broad middle of ability only, and imposing it on the full ability range.

The reason they gave (in a longish private message) is that they do not have time to answer these things on Twitter but would do so by email. This is not really logical – I have already suggested that they could write a response up and link to it. The important thing would be for it to be a public explanation of their views, since so far I can’t seem to find discussion of the curriculum of ‘supernormal’ schools (or similar selection in other systems) in the public explanations they give for their approach.

They pointed me to this blog post; but it does not answer any of the questions that I asked.

The NCETM sound very confident in their approach, so it should not be complicated to answer these questions:

  1. What contact has the NCETM had with Chinese teachers from ‘supernormal’ schools?
  2. Where in the NCETM materials do they explain their decision to ignore the selective aspect of Asian education systems (if they made this decision)?
  3. Why do they think it is beneficial to the most able children in England to do the standard curriculum when in the systems on which mastery is based, this does not seem to happen?

I’m out of my depth here! It needs maths specialists to look at the issues and ask more detailed questions about content, depth, selection, etc.

I know the NCETM has the best of motives. I just wish they would explain themselves rather than repeating the same material and not mentioning selection in the source countries.

NB I’m not suggesting we should be adopting similar selection here. Simply that in those countries the standard curriculum seems not to encompass all abilities as the NCETM says, so if that’s their intention here I think they should be able to justify it.


The maths mastery approach has spread quickly through English primary schools, in large part because of the support of the NCETM and the Maths Hubs.

The NCETM suggests that all children, even the most able, will benefit from an approach which contains ‘increased depth’ rather than acceleration of content. They say that they base their view on knowledge of the East Asian countries where mastery approaches have been successful.

I’m slightly confused, though, by what they actually mean. Many schools seem to have taken it to mean that children should be given no content outside that specified for the year they are in; but the NCETM is clear (as is the NC) that schools can take content from other NC years if they think this is appropriate. The NCETM materials quote the NC on this point, and then say:

Schools should identify when they will teach the programmes of study and set out their school curriculum for mathematics on a year-by-year basis. (Oxford Owl/OUP/NCETM/MAths Hubs ‘Teaching for Mastery – Questions, tasks and activities to support assessment’)

In principle this would mean that you could include Year 6 content in a Year 1 class if you thought it would be beneficial. You could, in fact, structure your year-by-year curriculum to include all levels of work in all years, to be accessed at need.

So there’s a contradiction somewhere – either in the logic of what the NCETM is saying, or in how schools are implementing it.

I’m unsure as to how greater ‘depth’ can be achieved without adding extra content, past a certain level, and would value comments below giving examples of depth without new content which would be more challenging than the NCETM’s greater depth examples.

A useful example might be: How do you give a very mathematically able Y3 child conceptual challenge at the level of the Y5 content (which is the level at which said child begins to need to think about the answer) while remaining within Y3 material? Is that what is meant (because remaining within eg Y3 material seems to be what many schools are doing)?

But the main thing that I think needs sorting out is that I have found no mention in NCETM materials of the selective aspects of the various Asian systems. In particular, though there is much talk of China and the really interesting and important project of bringing Chinese teachers here so we can learn from them, there is no discussion (that I have found) of the role of ‘supernormal’ as a category in Chinese education.

It’s a bit of a startling word, but it’s basically what we’d know as ‘giftedness’. So it seems you can have ‘supernormal’ children; but there are also ‘supernormal’ schools which cater for the most able/high attaining children. I think there are also additional evening schools, but I’m only just learning about it all, so I’m not sure.

Anyway, it’s clear that ‘supernormal’ is an important category, and it would seem to be the case that these children are not taught the same curriculum in the same way as the majority (why would you select them, if you were to do that?!). This is from an article comparing Chinese and Honk Kong teachers of gifted children:

Education for the Gifted in Beijing
There are several schools for the gifted in Beijing that are
known as supernormal schools. These schools identify highly
intellectual students at an early age and educate them in self-
contained classes or schools. In supernormal schools, four
components are deemed essential to bring forth the talent
and potential of gifted students: the integration of excep-
tional intelligence (which refers to the interconnectedness of
different abilities and behavior), the provision of accelerated
learning experiences, the application of appropriate learning

styles, and the encouragement of a positive attitude. (‘Competencies and Characteristics for Teaching Gifted Students: A Comparative Study of Beijing and Hong Kong Teachers’, Hoi Yan Cheung & Sammy King Fai Hui, Gifted Child Quarterly

55(2) pp 140-1)
It is clear from this that ‘gifted’ is a recognized category, and that children identified as belonging to this category are educated differently. Most importantly, this difference includes acceleration of content.
I have asked the NCETM, via Twitter, to give their view on the role of the ‘supernormal’ category in mastery teaching for the most able (in this country as well as in China). They have, I think, spent a long time researching the Chinese system prior to their work driving the mastery approach in England, so I hope that they will be able to give an overview of how it fits within the approach as they have structured it.
Update: Tim Dracup sent me a link to his writings about gifted ed in Asia and looking at those it seems even odder that this aspect of the Asian systems is not discussed in English mastery approaches. I hope the NCETM will be able to clarify!

The forest for the trees – or, what is the point of phonemes?

I have recently started re-reading Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen, and (as ever) a conversation on Twitter has prompted this little ramble. I’m going to quote a lot of Watts, I’m afraid. Early in Chapter 1, he says this:

The task of education is to make children fit to live in a society by persuading them to learn and accept its codes – the rules and conventions of communication whereby the society holds itself together. There is first the spoken language. The child is taught to accept ‘tree’ and not ‘boojum’ as the agreed sign for that (pointing to the object). We have no difficulty in understanding that the word ‘tree’ is a matter of convention. What is less obvious is that convention also governs the delineation of the thing to which the word is assigned. For the child has to be taught not only what words are to stand for what things, but also the way in which his culture has tacitly agreed to divide things from each other, to mark out the boundaries within our daily experience.

(NB as a Zen Buddhist, he doesn’t really think this is what education should be; he is commenting on how it appears to him to work in practice)

Rather than seeing ‘tree’ as your unit of definition, it’s possible (actually, maybe, more accurate) to imagine conceptualizing a whole forest as the complete organism, which then consists of parts: soil, roots, mycelium, understorey, canopy, fauna. In fact the view that a tree is a separate ‘thing’ is, ecologically speaking, rather problematic.

As with trees, so with words. This lovely study, by Amanda Seidl at Purdue University, looked at how babies learn to separate the sounds of words as discrete units of meaning:

“Parents may pause before saying an infant’s name, but they almost never do so for other words. This research explored whether touches could help infants to find where words begin and end in the continuous stream of speech. They need to find words before they can attach real meaning to their words,” Seidl said. “Because names of body parts are often the first words that babies learn and touching is often involved when caregivers talk about body parts, we speculated that touch could act as a cue to word edges.”

That is, babies may learn to distinguish words from the actual flow of sounds via the tickling of their toes.

Watts’ paragraph above continues:

Scientific convention decides whether an eel shall be a fish or a snake,and grammatical convention determines what experiences shall be called objects and what shall be called events or actions. How arbitrary such conventions may be can be seen from the questions, ‘What happens to my fist [noun-object] when I open my hand?’ The object miraculously vanishes because an action was disguised by a part of speech usually assigned to a thing! In English the differences between things and actions are clearly, if not always logically, distinguished, but a great number of Chinese words do duty for both nouns and verbs – so that one who thinks in Chinese has little difficulty in seeing that objects are also events, that our world is a collection of processes rather than entities.

So… my point is that yes, as many have said, the concept of the phoneme is an abstract one, an imposition upon the flow of sound which really makes up human speech. But then so too, in its way, is the concept of the word.

The separation of words in text is something that we take for granted – but many cultures in the past did not do this, and a few still do not do so today. To what extent are the unseparated words less conceptually separate, I wonder? (Or possibly more so, if no visual divider is needed?)

Just as babies need help separating words from the flow of speech, so new readers need help separating the chunks of sound that make up words. Current phonics practice is only one way of doing this, but in order to understand the mechanics of our language, it’s a pretty good starting point (as long as the words worked on are real ones, of course). The phoneme is an artificial distinction – but then, according to Alan Watts, so is everything else we think we can see.

ITT and synthetic phonics – collecting experiences

Questions relating to the efficacy of SSP in schools often return to the issue of how teachers were trained, and how they are trained now – as well as to the quality of CPD.

Many people who are in favour of the current approach to using SSP in schools seem to feel that it is not taught properly/enough/at all in ITT – or at least, their experiences suggest to them that this has been the case so far.

Yet apparently ITT programmes will fail Ofsted if they do not teach SSP, so presumably all are now doing so.

Is this discrepancy the result of a slight lag in the effect of all ITT programmes teaching how to use SSP? Or is it more complex (for instance, there could be different approaches to teaching the subject within different ITT courses, some of which prove more useful in the classroom than others). There are so many potential ways to teach SSP to ITT students, with potentially hugely varying results in how they might engage with it once they are teaching.

A deeply important question is – what about the TAs? Are they confident and knowledgeable in their support of children’s literacy?

NB I have no idea at all of the truth (if there is one – there could be many); this post is basically a call for information, from teachers, trainers, ITT students, and anyone else with an interest in/knowledge of past and current situations.

Please comment – this seems to me to be an area in which greater clarity might prove to be extremely helpful in removing some urban myths.

Edited to add: Andrew Davies sent me this, which does seem to allow for great variability:

ofsted SSPAnd to add: there ‘s a thread in the RRF forum on the issue here.

And: I spoke to Keith Turvey (of the University of Brighton) on Twitter, who pointed out that ‘most ITT time is in school now’ and also said: ‘Most [ITT courses] set out expectations for SSP like we do but the execution on the job is down to schools and trainee, and the quality of trainee experience and opportunity varies significantly IMO. Thus partnership key.’

These seem some of the most important practical points, to me.

Look, Cover, Write, Check

Imagine if maths were taught the same way that the Look, Cover, Write, Check method ‘teaches’ spelling.

Each week, children would be given a list of 5-10 calculations, perhaps 10×45=450, 5×60=300, 4×39=156, 76×89=6764, etc, depending on how far up the school they are.

They have not been taught times tables, nor have they been taught how to do those calculations. They simply learn them by rote, so that in the test at the end of the week they can write out the whole of each calculation from memory.

How many children would be able to deduce, over time, the underlying patterns and rules and simple maths facts which are common to these calculations?

A few would, of course, and would be able to apply this knowledge to other similar calculations. Some would work out a bit of it, and so might make a decent stab at calculations which are close enough to the learned ones for some inferences to be made.

Many would have no clue.

If the specific calculations did not happen to turn up in other class work, I think most children would forget the list within weeks.

Yet this is what we expect from children in the Look, Cover, Write, Check method.

Without work on phonics and morphemes, rote-learning the spelling of ‘whether’, or ‘stupidly’, or ‘procrastination’ is no more useful than rote-learning 35×16=560 but never looking at 3×1, 30×10, 5×6, etc..

Memorization is crucial for some things, but pretty useless for others. When ‘rote’ learning is discussed, whether positively or negatively, it’s absolutely essential for this aspect to be clear.

See Improving Literacy by Teaching Morphemes for more on better methods.

How is reading being taught in the wild?

Reblogging for interest…

Filling the pail

Around the turn of the century, a U.S. panel reported on the evidence about how best to teach children to read. They were crystal clear; a systematic phonics programme was best. This was seen by many as the definitive end of the ‘reading wars’ that pitted whole-language advocates against promoters of a phonics-based approach. Whole-language was a theory of learning to read that emphasised whole words, ‘real’ books and students ‘constructing’ their own meaning. As such, it aligned with ‘constructivist’ views of teaching that remain fashionable in schools of education.

However, like Fukuyama’s declaration of the ‘end of history,’ hopes for an end to the debate on reading represented a false dawn. Whole-language advocates rebadged their approach as ‘balanced literacy,’ implying that phonics was now a part of it, but only one component part. Many people have come to accept their rhetoric that spending 5 hours per day doing nothing…

View original post 1,440 more words

Phonics and literacy – separate strands, or warp and weft?

One passage stood out for me in the recent report on the usefulness of the Phonics Screening Check:

The most frequently reported change by survey respondents in 2014 was increasing the pace of phonics teaching, and this finding was supported by data drawn from the case studies. As in 2013, an increased focus on pseudo-words was also reported by participants in the survey and case studies, as well as increased assessment of phonics. Analysis did not determine what form this increased focus took.

‘Analysis did not determine what form this increased focus took.’

Wow.

Let’s just do a thought-experiment. Imagine that what’s going on in [some] schools in the name of phonics is actually not very helpful to wider literacy. Perhaps there are lots of nonsense-word games and very little 1-2-1 reading support. Then imagine that teachers have increased this extra phonics activity as a result of the PSC. Perhaps they are playing an extra hour of nonsense-word games per week. What else might they not be doing as a result? If this were the case, it would be unsurprising if a reported increase in ‘phonics’ would not result in an increase in literacy levels.

I’m sure this sounds like blaming teachers: I’m not, I’m just asking questions. I’m a firm believer that teachers’ motives are good in the vast majority of cases, but an equally firm believer that the contents of a test will skew what is taught. You’d be crazy not to consider the test, really, wouldn’t you?

In the past, I’ve seen many claims of problems for good readers within phonics schemes, where very regimented work apparently prevents children from progressing, or treats children who can read as if they can’t, but until now nobody has been willing to answer my questions about what actually happened.

Around the time of the PSC check this year, though, one parent, on condition of anonymity, agreed to share her daughter’s story. It follows a number of patterns that have been claimed elsewhere as well, so I think it’s very much worth looking at to help unpick what’s actually going wrong in these kinds of case.

Since the report into the check didn’t look at what was actually going on in schools, anecdotes like this one represent the only comparison evidence available.

NB This post is not meant as a criticism of any particular scheme but a question about implementation and effects, and about how schools use and understand the synthetic phonics material that they are teaching.

Here’s the account of her experience:

Hi, my daughter who is now 7 and in y2 didn’t read before school. She was tested at the end of reception by an ed psych (at 5.5) and given an IQ on the 99.4th percentile and a reading age of just under 8. In reception she had a great teacher who skipped her through the [commercial phonics scheme stages] as her reading required. They had separate reading groups and N___ was always in the top group for that (the top group had 3 gifted children including N___ and were way above the rest).

In year one they stuck rigidly to the [commercial phonics scheme], the teacher was inflexible but in the reading group N___ remained in the top group. However in [commercial phonics scheme work] she was overtaken by others who she could read better than. I thought at first it was because of her writing – but no it was explained to me that in order to progress they had to know certain sounds.

They were given in isolated sounds for example what sounds does ou make, however give her an ou word such as group, soup, troupe, she had no difficulty reading it. She also had no difficulty sounding out new words – so wasn’t learning whole words rather than phonics.

She had to repeat [commercial phonics scheme stages], switched off and started to hate [commercial phonics scheme] lessons. In the end I got a copy of the sounds off the Internet and took her through them. We learned them by rote each half term to get to the next stage.

When she started y2 she had 3 stages left. She got her reception teacher again, she was still in the top reading group but one of the middle [commercial phonics scheme] groups, the top reading group was reading novels in class she was then going into [her commercial phonics scheme group] and doing easy books. Her teacher took her off the scheme within a few weeks.

Four things stand out for me here.

1. The mismatch between the child’s assessed reading age and progress, and her assessed progress with phonics sounds;

2. The fact that with a few videos from the internet (provided by the same scheme, I think) her mother was able to teach her daughter sounds which the school had apparently been unable to teach her for close to two years.

3. The different ways in which the various teachers approached the mismatch in progress.

4. The actual lived experience of this child. Imagine how baffling this must have been for her.

1. The mismatch with the reading age might be explained because a test of reading age based on common vocabulary would be testing something different from the ability to use phonics sounds to work out words, BUT I think it’s very interesting that the child could sound out and read words containing sounds which, in isolation, she did not know.

There might be various reasons for this: she may actually have known all the words by sight (though her mother notes that she could also sound out unfamiliar words, so this does not appear to be the reason); or (more likely) she might not have felt able to assign a specific sound to ‘ou’ if she knew that there was more than one possibility. Or there might be some other reason – unfortunately, we can’t know.

2. The mismatch between the child’s apparent inability to learn isolated sounds in class, and her learning of them at home with her mother, suggests that there was no deep learning issue attached to the child herself with regard to this. But it does suggest that something in the way these sounds were being taught at school did not click with her (and this is an intellectually very able child).

3.The problems for the child appear to have arisen as a result of inflexibility on a particular teacher’s part: a flexible approach to the system was much less problematic.

4. It seems to me pretty awful that this child was put into such mismatched groups for sounds and for reading actual books, when she was apparently able to learn the sounds perfectly easily and quickly.

This is not the only example I have heard of first-hand of unhelpful placing of children for phonics work. That’s not the fault of the alphabetic code.

If, as Debbie Hepplewhite has said (I think), there are potentially as many different ways of teaching phonics as there are schools, but many of them think they are doing the same thing, examples like this become essential, in order to allow comparison. In this instance, within the same school and one overarching system, there were clearly substantial differences in implementation (and the learning and well-being of the child).

The report into the PSC was necessarily inconclusive because the writers had no decent evidence – this is what they mean when they say they had no comparison (i.e. control) group, no ability to separate effects of PSC from effects of other phonics practices, and no knowledge of what actual methods ‘increased’ in schools. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, of course. Policy makers should be very careful about how they respond to this report.

What’s needed in order to resolve this debate, it seems to me (looking at it from a research perspective) is a much more finely-grained investigation, looking at correlations between different methods and outcomes. Do schools which are heavy on explicit and standardized phonics techniques do better (on a value-added score, not just the PSC) than schools which teach the sounds quite simply but then just do lots of their own kinds of literacy work to embed them? Which changes lead to improved PSC results? Which changes seem to lead to improved literacy results? Are these the same changes? Is it about methods in the abstract, or the quality of teaching regardless of method? Or (as seems most likely) something in between? This investigation would need to be at the level of classes within schools, since as the example shows, a school’s results may mask great variation of approach, even within an outwardly very standardized system.

If this report leads to greater division between phonics and ‘anti-‘phonics people that would be really unhelpful – most ‘anti-‘phonics people are worried more about methods and effects than about the content itself, when it comes down to it. And those methods and effects are not dealt with in this report.

The report does emphasize the clear and obvious benefits of teaching a SSP-style alphabetic code in some form. But what form? In the above example, the method seems actually to have undermined the child’s confidence when rigidly applied, and not even to have taught her the basics very effectively. Is this because of the method, the teacher, or a change in the child? The latter seems unlikely since she picked up actual reading so quickly and so early. So something wasn’t right in the classroom, for her at least.

I have expressed my concerns with the quality of the PSC previously here – though my understanding has moved on since then – and also here. But I find it worrying that a number of people seem to be cheering the inconclusiveness of the report – some even seem to have interpreted it as the PSC itself having no effect, rather than the authors of the report not having access to data which would have demonstrated what sort of effect it has had.

It has clearly had one effect, which the report itself acknowledges: schools are ‘doing more phonics’. But I don’t think anyone’s any closer to knowing what that means in practice.

One more thought experiment:

If your phonics is badly integrated with your broader literacy curriculum, isn’t it most likely that doing more (but dislocated) phonics work is going to improve your PSC results but not your overall literacy ones?

Since this is exactly what the report has found, shouldn’t we really be asking about the issue of how (or even if) phonics knowledge is embedded in good, complex, deep literacy work? And how the DfE can create drivers for this to happen more?

While the PSC has been shown to be a decent proxy for literacy despite its weaknesses, it’s not going to answer questions about how improvement happens. It’s not going to tell you why literacy has not improved in certain schools. It’s not even a perfect test of phonics: an improvement in PSC score could conceivably be accounted for by an increase in the real words score, which could be the result of other aspects of literacy work, not explicit phonics at all (an extreme and unlikely case, but a logical possibility).

Have any schools had their literacy results go down following the introduction of the PSC? Now those schools would be really worth looking at, if there are any.

Phonics knowledge seems to me to be the warp on which the whole of literacy can be woven. It’s integral to reading, writing, and understanding language, and like the warp in a piece of cloth it needs to be strong, simple, carefully laid but ultimately invisible. And if you don’t weave in the weft, or you expect it to just happen by itself, or you try and put the warp and weft onto separate looms, you’ve got nothing useful at all.

Weaving it in means never forgetting what phonics is for. It means never being so proud of your warp that you forget its real purpose is for weaving something far more complex and beautiful. Is this beyond the DfE to comprehend, I wonder?

NB I’m sorry this is so opinionated this time! But really. How on earth do people maintain their patience for years when the real questions needing an answer are so obvious….? If phonics is so embedded in schools, if it is properly integrated into literacy work, why are all the parents I speak to (from various different schools, all at the just-missed-‘outstanding’ end of ‘good’) still in a fog about it?

Bah.