Why do reading books for learners have pictures? (Part 4)

I think I’m getting somewhere with this.

The distinctions between different uses of pictures by learner readers, and the points in the process where pictures might be used, seem to me to be a more useful thing to look at than some imagined binary distinction of multi-cueing = use pictures/ SSP = use no pictures. Setting aside the DfE’s problematic documentation for the moment, I’d like to look at the ways in which SSP regards pictures as helpful, and the situations when it regards them as a hindrance.

Speaking to Susan Godsden on Twitter has helped me clarify my own understanding of the working distinctions that SSP uses.

Having been asked what uses SSP would have for pictures in reading books, her answer was (expanded slightly from Twitter abbreviation):

1. Pictures make a book attractive

2. [They] can illustrate taught GPCs

3. [They are useful] for comprehension/ language extension

This is a wide range of uses, in practical terms. The main use which SSP wishes to avoid is that of a child coming across an unfamiliar word, and by looking at the picture making a guess as to what the word might be. It is a guess with very limited parameters in terms of vocabulary, of course, but it is still a guess, according to SSP. I would agree with this view: it may be an informed guess or a complete stab in the dark, but either way, it is still a guess of a kind. The child is not using the text itself to work out the word.

When a child makes a guess from context, all sorts of things are potentially going on. In order to make an informed guess rather than a wild one, the child needs to be sensitive to the meaning of the preceding text, and other aspects of context such as grammar and illustrations. It seems to me that what is going on is a process of refinement, or narrowing down, whereby the child’s understanding of the text and pictures allows them to focus on particular known vocabulary sets.

My initial thought about this is that there is, in this approach, potentially an inherent bias towards children with larger vocabularies; if a child knows the words ‘carpet’ and ‘mat’ but doesn’t know the word ‘rug’, then looking at a picture will never help them find the right word, if ‘rug’ is the text in front of them. (Of course, there are also problems when a child finds it hard to hear a word from the letters – nothing’s perfect, and some find ‘r-u-g’ hard to blend into a word because they don’t know the word itself – but I’d like to focus on the issue of pictures just for the moment, because many people have discussed ‘sounding without meaning’ already, including me, and it seems important to ask the same sorts of questions of the different approaches. With SSP currently so dominant, I think some counterfactuals are worth exploring.)

When I made my diagrams (also here, and here), I was working on the assumption that there are important connections between the various facets – or incarnations – of a word. There are the sounds, but also the mental picture(s), plus aspects of meaning which are relational (other things in a related vocabulary set, such as hat, gloves, coat, but also more personal meaning, such as a connection with past events or particular people) and the grammatical role of the word in communicating a larger meaning via the wider text, plus for a literate person the visual symbols of the letters (which may or may not exist as a mental picture).

Contrary to what seems to be the general impression, some phonics materials actively encourage links between the look/sound of the word and a picture prompt, as in the Oxford Reading Tree example here here (disclaimer: I was an OUP employee for many years, and still do freelance work for them, but have no contact with or particular knowledge of the very different part of OUP which produces ORT. I was sent this example serendipitously, and I think it’s a useful one).

I find this approach, which is used a lot in various ways in ORT’s ‘Floppy’s Phonics’ series, very interesting since it seems to relate closely to the aspects of reading which I discussed above in relation to ‘guessing’ from picture cues. There is the same emphasis on vocabulary families, and the same importance given to visual prompts for the relevant words. The big difference seems to me to be the guiding of the order in which interpretation of the text is meant to occur. The child is asked to find the pictures which relate to the words, not think of words which might relate to the pictures.

In spite of the DfE’s apparent insistence that the only means to [decode->read] a word is through linear sounding and blending, this is not what the above example does at all. This approach, and the other games around vocabulary and orthographic word families used elsewhere in the series, seem to me to be a simple but clever way of ensuring that visual prompts are used, guiding the adult and child by making pictures an explicit part of the process of learning to read. Anyone coming across these books would be hard pressed to view SSP as an approach which does not allow the use of pictures for learner readers. SSP materials of this sort go some way to counterbalancing the DfE’s apparent insistence that pictures play no technical part in learning to read.

So, once again, I feel that the DfE documentation is at fault. In aiming to eradicate the previous Searchlights approach, it has ended up misrepresenting the new approach, potentially (and anecdotally) to its detriment. The change from using pictures as a primary cue (or a clue) to using them as secondary cue within a more limited set of options is an important one, but in practice might represent a pretty small tweak.

Surveys over the past few years have shown that many teachers say they are using SSP, yet believe a variety of strategies are necessary in learning to read. This seems to me to be an interesting finding. Debbie Hepplewhite has interpreted this as meaning that teachers have misunderstood SSP – that they are still continuing with the approaches they developed under the Searchlights model – and that this may well be undermining the effectiveness of SSP. I think this derives from her observations of schools she has visited as much as from the survey results. Yet the teachers’ responses – and attitudes to using pictures/context etc may represent a variety of scenarios. Some may well be treating SSP as an awkward bolt-on to prior practice, as Debbie Hepplewhite says, but I wonder if others may simply be saying that they do need to use context, grammar and pictures as well as sounding and blending. In order to discover which of these is going on, or if there are other things going on instead, I think it’s important to find out what teachers answering these kinds of surveys believe are the parameters of SSP.

Taking SSP as described by the DfE documents, which defines SSP parameters extremely narrowly, anything other than sounding and blending would have to be considered ‘extra’ to SSP practice. Yet taking the detail of the SSP schemes as a model, pictures, grammar and context appear as integral to the process. Perhaps Letters and Sounds, being relatively loose compared to commercial SSP schemes, might play a part in a certain lack of clarity here. Which is not to say that I think schools should all tie themselves in to commercial schemes; simply that these schemes seem to be more detailed and explicit about day-to-day practice – partly because the line between support, practitioner training and sales is somewhat blurry in relation to commercial schemes of any kind. It may be that for schools using commercial schemes the DfE’s description of SSP holds less sway. I don’t know – it’s just a guess 😉 (And I’d be interested in teachers’ own views and experiences, of course).

There is an advantage, it seems to me, in using pictures to help after sounding out, as part of the process of understanding how blending relates to/becomes a word-sound. Pictures can be a vital intermediary when adult and child have different accents, or different first languages. Pictures can be a means to build vocabulary while learning to read. Conversely, I wonder whether the use of a picture cue before sounding out might act sometimes to loosen the relationship between the mental image, sound, and orthography of a word. The DfE’s version of SSP, stripped of the use of pictures, context, and iterative thinking, equally might serve to loosen the relationship between the sounded phonemes and the other interrelated incarnations of a particular word. Surely the aim ought to be to find the method which most encourages the integration of all aspects of a word and its meaning? SSP which allows for context and iterative thinking seems to me to be one method which can achieve that for a lot of children as long as the macro structures don’t get in the way (for instance, if you won’t let a child read books beyond Phase 2 because that’s where the class is, you’re potentially failing that child whether you use the pictures when you’re reading with them or not).

That is, I see SSP as having two main aspects: the micro structures of reading practice, based on sounds, letters, and graphemes, supported by pictures, context, and grammar – and the macro structures of the DfE documentation, Letters and Sounds, and commercial schemes. Much of the distress caused by SSP seems to me to derive from a particular macro structure’s inflexibility in the face of the needs of an individual child, and macro documentation which leads to misdirection at the micro level. Concerns and confusion over the acceptability of pictures in SSP seem to me to be an example of a wider disjuncture which, as I’ve said before, I believe the DfE needs to take responsibility for, and address by rewriting and clarifying its guidance.

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