Fact or fiction? My response to John Bald

I read with interest this article and can do other than respond to John’s sweeping and mistaken assertions. I comment with confidence and I hope knowledge and expertise on the MFL component of this article. Maybe others more knowledgeable than me would like to comment on the phonics component? I am genuinely interested.

My comments and questions to John are in bold – just in case there is any confusion about who is saying what!

Shortly after I started teaching, in the early seventies, a deputy head told me, “You become a teacher in order to change society.”  I had in fact become a teacher, in a serious way, in order to teach people to read, after finding that a pupil who had bunked off my lesson couldn’t read, and that nobody was doing anything about it. The deputy’s comment, though, sums up the main difference between Conservative teachers and our opponents. We are interested in teaching people and maximising potential, while they want to mould society in an image they have created.

Nonsense. This is unfounded; it is a sweeping generalisation that is hugely insulting to thousands of teachers who are not Conservatives

Most are to the left of what might still be called mainstream Labour, and, like Michael Rosen, support Corbyn.

Once again nonsense! How can you know this? Where is the evidence? I do not support Corbyn and know few teachers who do.

His Momentum organisation, in effect a rebrand of Militant, is reminiscent of many such networks in education, including a particularly sinister one called “The Campaign to Change Education Through Teacher Training,” of which more in a later piece. Anyone wishing to follow this up in the meantime should read Professor Geoff Whitty’s presidential address to the British Educational Research Association from 2005, downloadable here.

Totally mischievous  misinterpretation  of Geoff Whitty’s work.

Please explain what you mean by “sinister” and provide us with evidence not hearsay.

The problem is endemic across the English-speaking world.  Professor Whitty has been influential in Australia and was this year awarded a fellowship of the American Educational Research Association. From our viewpoint, his effect on education, like that of the Institute over which he presided, is negative. Dr Colin Christie is currently its head of PGCE in languages. This link to his approach to teaching foreign languages shows what I see as basic misconceptions of the process of language learning. The piece contains a link to his thesis.

Dr Christie is a highly respected academic who has an excellent record in teaching languages in challenging schools, achieving excellent academic results from children and in raising standards. He is widely regarded as an inspirational and highly practical teacher trainer who understands schools, teachers and children and as a profound and clear thinker. His track record is second to none at all levels. Your link is another wilful misinterpretation of his work. Maybe you would like to compare Colin’s achievements with your own track record of getting excellent results in whole class teaching and in successful senior leadership and management experience in schools and HE?

I recently gave on Conservative Home an account of my alternative, which involves clearing the fog, presenting things in a way that children understand from the beginning, and then practising. I had helped a teacher with a reading problem in her class, and she asked me if I could help her daughter, who was struggling with GCSE French. Here is a brief note of what happened:

A bright pupil was being “taught” French by the current method of exposing her and her classmates to language they didn’t understand, having them copy things out, and making them try to learn everything parrot fashion. These practices could be calculated to prevent the formation of neural connections, and hence understanding. They were very effective – this bright young person was in distress and could seen no way forward.

I’d helped her mother, a primary teacher, with a reading problem in her class, and she asked me for help with French. In just three lessons over the internet, I showed her daughter how French spoken and written language work, how and why they use grammatical markers that we no longer use in English, and how to use the shared features of both languages. I introduced some features of French usage that went beyond the obvious, but always with full explanation. Languages are human constructs, with human weaknesses as well as strengths. We say we have other fish to fry, whether or not we fry fish, and the French that they have other cats to whip, though I’ve never seen a Frenchman whip a cat. The goal was to bring her fragments of knowledge together to build understanding, and so to give her a degree of control. I’d forgotten all about it until she sent me an email on Thursday night, thanking me for helping her get an A.

Laudable but with one child? Would you be prepared to try out your methods with whole classes across the secondary age-range in any comprehensive school in the country for at least a term, on a full timetable 5 days a week?

Back to where I started, with reading. I offer free help with reading problems, over the internet if necessary. My approach involves explaining, in terms a child can understand, how spelling works in English, and how it has developed. Its basis is in the representation of sounds by letters – phonics – but this is complicated, first by the Norman invasion, which flooded English with French, and then by historic shifts in pronunciation, including shortcuts,  that have removed spelling from spoken forms. One current pupil is an eight-year-old who had been completely unable to read six months ago, and whose problems with speech made me wonder if we were going to succeed or not.

After working hard on Ruth Miskin’s Ditties from Read Write Inc, we moved to Burglar Bill, which, yesterday, he had forgotten. The best I had to hand was Mrs Christmas, in which the letters in the words of the title do not tell us all we need to know in order to read them.  I explained the origins of Mr and Mrs and the contraction of Christ – Mass  to Christmas. The first page included several variations on basic phonic patterns, each of which I unpacked and explained, using my normal technique of working on a word similar to that which the child has misread, and then returning to it after the pattern has been understood. The pupil returned to the text and read it correctly. I always make a note of all the words we work on, and I gave this to his father so that he could practise them with his son over the week.

His parting comment was “It’s given us hope.” Not “You’ve”, but “It’s” – the teaching and not some personal attribute of the teacher. Anyone can do this, and I’m happy to show them how, pro bono.  If you’d like a nice starting point for a class, try this lovely animation of the Bayeux Tapestry. For a fuller account of the development of English spelling, try David Crystal’s Spell It Out.

John – I will forever defend your right to say what you think, but please check your facts. And a little humility never goes amiss






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