The talks were mainly about the joy of reading books.
I felt Michael Rosen twisted things. He began by criticising and praising different ways of teaching in a way that almost everyone would agree with. Then he used that to condemn the teaching of phonics and grammar. As usual, he made derogatory comments about the National Curriculum in England, getting laughs out of mocking the politicians, Michael Gove and Nick Gibb, for their parts in the NC and national assessment. He went to great lengths to criticise the way comprehension is promoted in the NC, making it appear terrible to say children should be:
- checking that the text makes sense to them, discussing their understanding and explaining the meaning of words in context
- asking questions to improve their understanding of a text
- drawing inferences such as inferring characters’ feelings, thoughts and motives from their actions, and justifying inferences with evidence
- predicting what might happen from details stated and implied
- identifying main ideas drawn from more than one paragraph and summarising these
- identifying how language, structure, and presentation contribute to meaning
- ask questions to improve understanding
After that he went into detail about the importance of concepts he had worked out, many of which seemed pretty meaningless to me, but apparently sounded convincing to his fans: intertextual, intratextual, interrogative, semantic, structural, selective analogy, reflective, narratology, evaluative, eureka moments, effects.
Then he criticised the national testing regime. I asked if he would like to improve assessment or get rid of it altogether. I was genuinely curious about that. He repeated his criticism of how it is now in England, before saying that formative assessment is okay and there should be no summative assessment until the age of 18.
When we had a choice of talks, I went to one with Francis Gilbert about mindfulness. Much of it was not directly related to literacy, although we read some poems in the end and he said that students who practise mindfulness start to read in a different way. I enjoyed it and felt wonderfully relaxed afterwards.
The first afternoon talk was by Teresa Cremin from the Open University. It was about reading for pleasure and the importance of teachers being knowledgeable about children’s literature. It was fine until she threw in a comment saying that children were insulted by being asked to read rubbish by the Phonics Screening Check. It was really irrelevant to the rest of her talk, but showed the antagonism felt by many. She also made the odd and illogical statement: “We’re not teachers and pupils. We’re all people.”
The next speaker was the children’s author, SF Said. Again, most of what he said was fine – lots of enthusiastic talk about introducing children to literature and the power of literature for imagination about how the world might look to someone else. But he said twice that as a child he had learned to read “as if by osmosis” (his words), without mentioning that some children can’t do that. He said, “choice is the most crucial” and “just communicate your enthusiasm”, as though teaching is unnecessary.
Next there was an opportunity for questions. There were a couple of other questions and then I was chosen. As Michael R pointed out on Twitter, I had been preparing what to say (since Teresa’s comment about the Phonics Check).
This is approximately what I said:
Then I got genuinely emotional and said, without much preparation:I agree that we want a relaxed environment where children are not asked to predict, summarise, and so on, and we want time for independent reading and reading aloud to children, and recommending books and letting children choose and the importance of libraries.
I understand that Teresa thinks the Phonics Check is insulting children by asking them to read nonsense words and that it should be stopped, but it’s just a simple check to make sure children can read words easily. The idea that they are insulted by it is putting adult ideas onto children and the nonsense words are just for assessment. In my experience children who struggle to read words – familiar and unfamiliar – don’t like reading. So the Phonics Check is about making sure children can read words easily so that they are free to enjoy reading without struggling.
SF Said said he learned to read by osmosis. The Phonics Check is helping to make sure all children can read his books, whether or not they are able to learn to read words by osmosis.
Teresa answered briefly and politely. Although she didn’t put it like this, most of her concerns seemed to be about the responses of teachers and parents who do not understand the purpose of the Phonics Check and publishers who produce resources with nonsense words. Then, as SF Said stepped forward to speak, Michael Rosen came running down from the back of the conference hall, with his hand in the air, stepped in front of Said and began a speech that seemed about ten minutes long about how bad the Phonics Check is, twice repeating statistics comparing the Phonics Check and SATs. I am going to write something about his statistics in a following message.My question is, why are so many people who passionately want children to enjoy reading, against the Phonics Check?
After that the programme was behind time, so Francis Gilbert moved it straight on to the last talk, which involved Michael Rosen interviewing a young and enthusiastic teacher who had done some qualitative research about getting Year 1 children to read for pleasure, instead of concentrating on just phonics.
Afterwards, one of the delegates came up to me to tell me that I was right, because her daughter struggled with reading until someone taught her with Sounds-Write, and that transformed her.