Whole words and word learning

A response to this article.

It seems to me that there is something odd about the conclusions drawn from this study, in terms of the usefulness of whole words for learner readers. It states that the brain activity was *different* when subjects were shown (and learned) the words initially, and only *later*, on recognizing the nonsense words, was the brain activity the same as for the real words. The implication is that the real words were also *known* words – though this is not necessarily the same thing.

If the known ‘real’ words had the same effect on the brain as the known ‘nonsense’ words, it seems likely that *unknown* real words would have the same effect on the brain as unknown nonsense words. That is, in both cases readers would be doing something *different* when first encountering a word, compared with what they do when encountering a familiar word.

If the ‘familiar word’ response is some kind of all-at-once processing (which could cover a multitude of complex and parallel processes in practice) and the ‘unfamiliar word’ response is *different* from this, then logically the approach to unfamiliar words must include piecemeal recognition (the most likely being letter-by-letter, or perhaps as clumps of letters, eg syllables or graphemes).

This means that the usual approach to unfamiliar words, even for experienced adult readers, is a matter of breaking the word into constituent parts. Which, in turn, makes the recommendation that some people who find reading difficult might find it helpful to attempt to *bypass* this step rather bizarre. Surely it makes more sense to give them support in finding ways to make this step work for them?

It’s equally likely that the recognition of familiar words is, like the recognition of faces used as an analogy in the article, a matter of recognizing the relationship of the constituent parts *to each other* as well as individually, but at great speed. When we see faces, we register the constituent parts of the whole: if the Mona Lisa’s nose were painted out, we would notice. There’s a good summary here of the issues in terms of face recognition, which are very useful to think about in relation to word recognition: http://web.mit.edu/bcs/sinha/papers/20Results_2005.pdf especially in the evidence for ‘holistic’ recognition (which does not mean simplistic recognition of the whole face as a single object, but something much more complex and subtle).

It seems that people who suffer from prosopagnosia, or ‘face blindness’ have to use ‘piecemeal’ recognition strategies, and that the disorder may stem from a deeper inability to perceive the visual relationships between the parts and the whole (many sufferers have problems with landscapes and orientation landmarks, too). Learning each face ‘as a whole’ (and how, really, does one do that without elements of piecemeal and relational processing?) is apparently not an option for sufferers.

When thinking about how best to help young beginner readers, Result 17 from the linked survey is very suggestive – if children of 6 years old are still in partially in a ‘piecemeal processing’ phase with faces and are therefore far less accurate at recognizing faces than are 10-year-olds, this must have implications for the processing of words when they are learning to read, if the analogy posited in the article stands. That is, recognizing words as wholes is likely to be *harder* for them than piecemeal processing via sounding out letters, and so the best way to help them would be to engage with this developmental stage.


Complaints about SSP – content or system?


How much are the perceived/anecdotal failures actually a result of failures in the system, rather than a flaw in the basic approach and the content?

In my various posts and questions so far I have had a remarkably consistent experience. Somebody, somewhere, makes a claim about SSP which seems to suggest that it is a problematic approach. The most prevalent have been:

  1. Children being taught via SSP are sounding whole pages or whole books and having no clue as to the content;
  2. Children being taught via SSP are sounding out separate sounds but have no clue as to the words into which those sounds combine;
  3. Children being taught via SSP are being prevented from progressing in their school reading books because SSP demands that they not read any words containing sounds which they have not yet been taught in that particular standard scheme.
  4. Children are not allowed to use pictures, context or grammar when reading within the SSP regimen.

I have discussed various of these issues elsewhere in this blog, but in this post I’m interested purely in the possibility that if people are observing these problems, then thinking systemically we need to consider what aspects of SSP as a system, and what aspects of the circumstances in which SSP is implemented, might be allowing erroneous practices, or misunderstandings, to continue.

This is particularly important because the problems and misapprehensions listed are, presumably, things which anyone in favour of SSP should want to eradicate from the system. In spite of the DfE’s statements to the contrary, for instance, SSP advocates are happy for pictures, grammar and context to play a part in children’s reading – it’s just that in their view sounding, blending and listening must come first, and take precedence. Pictures, grammar and context help towards meaning, but in a secondary role, especially as disambiguation. So for instance if some people believe that SSP excludes pictures, grammar and context completely, we need to look at why that might be (DfE, I’m looking at you…).

There is a huge variety of opinions among people who have expressed doubts about SSP as currently prescribed by the DfE, ranging from ‘I’m not sure the Phonics Screening Check is as useful as it might be’, to Michael Rosen. Labelling all of these people ‘phonics denialists’, as some have done, is not only unhelpful in taking any debate forward, but it also misunderstands the nature of the study of language and literacy itself, and of the arguments being made for and against SSP (those claiming the existence of ‘phonics denialists’ should understand that people with concerns about SSP are not, in the vast majority of cases, against the use of phonics in reading instruction generally).

People who are in favour of SSP will tend to counter the complaints about problems by saying that these things should not be happening, that SSP does not require these strictures, and that they would not occur if teachers and parents were properly trained in the ways of SSP – including the fact that SSP is supposed to be embedded in a rich, broad and deep literacy curriculum.

However, these things have been said for a while, and problems continue. So I feel it’s actually not much good just saying that the reported problems ‘should not’ happen – or even that it’s down to deficiencies in understanding or training. Many teachers are clearly doing SSP in an imaginative, engaging and effective way. Others are not, if parents’ complaints, especially, are to be believed. It is necessary to look in detail at why the problems are happening, and then decide what needs to be done.

If the system does not function appropriately under certain circumstances, it is important to be clear what those circumstances are, and to be equally clear about the feasibility of altering those circumstances in ways that might allow effective functioning of the system.

  • If training is lacking, what would need to be put in place so that correct and sufficient staff training can occur?
  • Is it simply that training is lacking? Or are there other influences on the effectiveness of SSP?
  • How much extra time, knowledge and funding is required in order that all relevant adults can know enough to create optimal functioning of SSP as a system?

It would seem clear that that SSP is not a simplistic silver bullet which ‘solves’ literacy regardless of circumstances, but that the knowledge which it represents is nevertheless a fundamental part of learning to read and write well and independently.

Therefore, thinking pragmatically, we need to ask not just what would need to be done to get the circumstances right in an ideal world, but:

How feasible is it to ensure that

  • Schools have the necessary culture, knowledge, ability and leadership;
  • Parents have the right level of engagement; and
  • Children have the necessary health, strength and attitude for everyone to get the most out of SSP’s perceived potential?

Although such changes might represent pretty small tweaks in practice, we need to be prepared to discover that it is not feasible, at least in all (or enough) cases, to get the circumstances right for SSP as currently envisaged – or, at least, for SSP as represented by the DfE.

SSP exists within a wider system, which contains not just the rest of the literacy curriculum in a school but the character of the national economy and society as well: if, for instance, gorgeous phonics readers are available for children to take home, but they stay unread because parents/other carers are under too much pressure of time, or lack the skills to help, and children do not get enough 1-2-1 reading at school because full-class sounds learning, including working towards the screening check, is taking up the time and effort which could otherwise be devoted to 1-2-1 reading, this would be a weakness in the current SSP system within the real-life context, quite separate from the (obviously great) value of the phonemic understanding which SSP promotes.

NB This is just a for instance, not an allegation, but I think there is an issue of balance, and of equity which needs serious thought: we know that children who get 1-2-1 reading at home (especially if carers understand what the phonics sounds are for) will get much more out of learning via SSP than children who do not, especially if they get no 1-2-1 reading at school either.

If the success of the system as implemented (even if only in some schools) is predicated on most one-to-one reading being supplied outside school, this is, at present, a very serious and socially inequitable weakness in SSP as a system.

Of course, this weakness would apply to any other approach to reading instruction, when looked at from a systemic point of view, unless that system prioritised one-to-one reading practice in school time. I only have anecdotes to go on, but it seems as if the burden of one-to-one reading is often expected to be carried by parents.

This issue is not about the value of using the body of knowledge which SSP represents, but about the systems through which it is implemented and whether those systems help those who cannot help themselves.

So, how to define the perceived weaknesses? It’s not easy, since it seems difficult to get clarity about what is actually going on in different schools: the impression I have is that schools may well think they are doing very similar things, but in fact there may be substantial, and hidden, differences on which the use of SSP or not might succeed or fail.

This is my attempt to list potential weaknesses in the system, as opposed to the content:

1. Balance of class/group time v. 1-2-1 reading time. It is often said that ‘more phonics’ is the answer where children are not learning to read at the required pace. But if the phonics that is being done is not having the desired effect, then more of that is not necessarily what’s needed. One does not have to reject SSP as the focus in order to ask:  What if ‘different phonics’ or ‘more 1-2-1 support in applying phonic knowledge’ is what’s needed? 1-2-1 is my own particular focus, and I have noticed that the DfE fails to emphasise the crucial importance of 1-2-1 reading support as a technical activity – all the rhetoric is about parental engagement and reading at home, which of course is very important, but still not the same thing at all. This leads to the next weakness, which is…

2. Reliance on carers to provide 1-2-1 reading (to put it another way: use of off-site, unsupervised, untrained/barely-trained non-specialists to provide core teaching work).

3. DfE guidelines which (by appearing to ban picture, context & grammar prompts) undermine effective integration of sounds teaching with deep literacy, future grammar work, and children’s cognitive development.

4. DfE guidelines which, though lack of explicit policies for advanced/fast-learning young readers, hamper the development of their literacy by implying that they should not be allowed to progress faster than the rate of class sounds teaching. The new DfE document about promoting reading once children are basically competent completely fails to address this issue; it seems to assume that children reading at this level will only be in KS2 onwards, for a start. Where is the policy for dealing with situations where the vast majority of a class are free readers by the end of Year 1? Why is funding for book clubs directed at specific year groups, rather than allowing the school flexibility to create clubs at the most appropriate points for their own cohorts – or across cohorts? Assumptions are being made which constrain the future effectiveness of the system.

6. Fear (especially of Ofsted, and failure in the screening check) is a great system weakness because it can create a counterproductively inflexible and risk-averse approach which leaves children either bored or lost, and turned off in both cases. Since the system seems basically designed for the middle attainers, I’ve been told (and have observed in an inexpert way myself) that without flexibility and intelligence on the part of staff it has the potential to go far too slowly for some and far too quickly for others. Approximately two thirds of a cohort are underserved by an approach which caters for the middle third. Personally, I’ve seen this mostly avoided through careful differentiation and imagination on the part of staff – but I get the impression from online forums [yes, I know, ‘fora’…] that it takes great confidence and good leadership to create flexibility in the face of Ofsted and high-stakes testing.

7. Any system needs to take careful account of variations in its input and if SSP does not do this explicitly then this is a serious weakness. There have been assertions from a number of people that SSP does not allow for children who start ‘already able to read’. Now, this description can cover all sorts of levels of attainment and ability, but it is presumably the case that the number of children starting school with a reading age of, say, 8 or 9 is likely to be really very small, even in economically privileged areas. Of course, those children’s needs must be taken account of within a classroom context, and special approaches are needed. Of the others, there is presumably in general a range of reading level from a few words to perhaps a blue or green band level; all of these levels (and in fact the kids reading at age 8 level) can benefit from good understanding of the building blocks of words, in sound and on the page – but they need a different approach which takes what they know and expands it, rather than refusing to acknowledge that they have learned anything to do with reading at all, simply because they do not possess explicit phonemic knowledge as laid out in SSP (by that definition, most adults would not be considered ‘able to read’ either!). The DfE materials do not address this issue at all.

NB It should be obvious that none of the above potential weaknesses relates very much at all to the content of SSP approaches. Yet all of them are fundamental to the success of SSP in helping children to learn to read. I think they need further discussion, separately from the content.