Mrs Beasley's Blog

Learning from a tutor's perspective

Why doesn’t my child read books?

Book asking Read Me?I heard it, yet again, last night! “He’s got shelves full of books, and he never reads any of them!” accompanied by the accusing stare (at the child) and the expansive gesture!

When are parents going to learn that ten year olds, who have never read a book for pleasure in their lives, will not be transformed into readers by buying them nice new books?

Parents – PLEASE – you have to take charge! Reading habits begin in early childhood when you look at books together, talk about the pictures and enjoy the stories. If you don’t do this, how do you expect a ten year old to suddenly become an interested reader? It just doesn’t happen.

I hear this over and over again. “I’ve bought him all these lovely books and he never opens one of them!”

Well try this – sit down with him and READ TOGETHER. You read a bit, he reads a bit. You get to the end of a chapter – or even the end of a page – and you talk about it.

“Hey, I enjoyed that, did you?”
“Why do you think Mr Fox did that?”
“What do you think Farmer Boggis will do now?”
“Which bit did you enjoy the best?”
“Who’s your favourite character?”
“Why do you like him best?”
“What do you think happens in the next chapter?”

Also, read stories TO them, just as you would do when they were a four year old. Read stories that are just a little bit too hard for them to read for themselves. Put on voices for the characters. Put expression in when you are reading and generally make the world of literature SO exciting that they can’t wait for the next night when you read a bit more (always stop at the exciting bit!).

This is how you create readers, NOT by buying them loads of books, placing them neatly on a shelf and expecting the child to work his way through them!

The great Times Tables debate

The great Times Tables debate rumbles on! Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, has decreed that, from now on, children must know their tables up to and including the 12 times. Shock horror amongst all the trendy educationalists!

“Thank God” say the traditionalists. At long last, common sense is returning to the classroom.

I count myself fervently in the second group. I have seen too many examples of the ‘alternative methods’ of learning tables in my own tutoring. I have students, some as old as fifteen and doing GCSE maths, who don’t know their tables, and who are still counting on their fingers! (I kid you not!) These students are at a great disadvantage when it comes to exams, because not knowing your tables holds you back in so many ways. Long division and long multiplication becomes very difficult, as does simplifying fractions, recognising equivalent fractions and changing denominators, to name just a few, all become much more difficult if you don’t have instant recall of your tables.

Not only that, but not knowing your tables slows you down considerably in exams or tests. You lose so much time trying to work out the answer, which is not good when you only have so much time in which to complete the whole test or exam.

So many children have been let down in the past by these ‘new’ methods, which are always hailed as being so much better than the ‘old’ ones.

“It is important that children understand what they are doing,” thunders a reader’s letter in a national newspaper today (which is what inspired me to write this rant!) “Learning by rote is not the way to develop this understanding!”

Nobody is suggesting that all maths is taught by rote, but knowing one’s tables off by heart is so important, and can be taught from a very early age, so why is there so much angst about it? I sell a Times Tables CDs in my on-line shop, and all the times tables are set to music in such an engaging way that you can’t help singing along. Why can’t all Key Stage 1 children do something like that? They could sing their tables for just 10 minutes a day, and I guarantee that they would very quickly learn them. Just think how quickly they pick up the words of songs when they hear them on the TV or radio. It’s a simple and effective method – sing along, have fun and LEARN!! Then you won’t end up at the age of 16, struggling to cancel down fractions!

So, I don’t care what others may say. I repeat – ‘Thank goodness for Michael Gove’!

The Thorny Issue of Spelling

Why do I refer to spelling as a thorny issue? It is because I constantly hear comments about it from parents, and I see from my own pupils’ work, how bad they are at it! That tells me that something, somewhere, is going wrong. In my opinion, this is why.

Teachers and parents are wedded to the idea of the weekly spelling list. There are very few primary schools, as far as I know, where children  do not come home with the obligatory spelling list, which has to be committed to memory, and tested either in the next day or two after, or the next week, if they bring the list home on a Friday.

With mum or dad encouraging, urging and assisting, the spellings are usually learnt – somehow!  They are then duly tested by the teacher, and the results recorded. 90% of the class will get at least 90% of the spellings  right. However, were they to be tested three days later, on exactly the same words, 90% of the class would get 90% of the words wrong. How strange, you may think. As parents say so often to me, “But he learnt that word last week for his spelling test and he got it right!” Of course he did! However, what these parents and teachers fail to realise are some simple facts about the way our memories work, and how we remember things.

If I had my way, I would ban learning lists of spellings from every primary school in the country, and this is why.

Good spellers are born, not made. Children who are good at spelling  tend to be good at English, have an excellent vocabulary, and  read a lot. They subconsciously absorb spelling patterns, punctuation and new words. They work out the meanings of words from contextual clues, and they use the new words which they have learnt in either their own writing,  conversation, or both. They love language, and have favourite words, which they constantly use,  just for the pleasure of hearing them. I was one such lucky person, and I can remember, as a child, being fascinated by the word “kedgeree”, which I kept using as often as I could, whether appropriately or not! Good spellers can look at a word which they have written and know straight away whether it looks right or not. They have an instinctive knowledge of English letter sounds and phonemes, without really needing to be taught them.

Sadly for the others, however, spelling is a chore, an impenetrable mist, whose rules constantly evade them, and whose patterns they never quite see. For these children, and there are a great number of them, learning lists of spellings will never, ever, ever, turn them into good spellers. So what do we do? How do we help these students to grasp the basics of this tricky subject? It’s actually quite simple, although I doubt if schools will do it. You simply teach them spelling rules, from a very early age.

 I will digress here slightly, but this next bit is very relevant. You see, some teachers are not very good at what they do, and some are poor spellers themselves. I have a Year 6 pupil who happens to be a natural speller. Her class teacher, who has taught Year 2 up till this year, is a poor speller, and, on Friday nights, when I see Alice (name deliberately changed), she tells me how Mrs Jones (ditto) has spelt this word, or that word. I cannot believe that no-one has said anything to this lady. In another case, a national newspaper published a letter from a private tutor who works with children with literacy and dyslexia difficulties. She frequently comes into contact, through her work, with schools and teachers. She writes that she recently sat in for a Year 4 teacher in a school, where the class were learning about similes. It took her a while to figure out what the lesson was about, as the spelling on the whiteboard was “simaly.” She also tells of another occasion when she had a letter from a primary school teacher who used the word “accept” when she meant “except”. She was asking what hope there was for the children if the teachers themselves cannot spell. The reply to the letter came from Chris Woodhead, the former Chief Inspector for OFSTED. He says that the letter writer’s experience is all too common, as he found out for himself on inspections. He states that, for years, entrants to the teaching profession have had to have passed GCSE English, or a similar qualification. As he says, “The problem is that GCSE English is no longer a real test of linguistic competence.” He goes on to state that  ”the linguistic rot is so deep, it is hard to know what to do. Teachers who cannot spell produce generations of children who cannot spell, some of whom will become teachers themselves.”  He concludes by asking, “How is the inexorable decline to be reversed?” I couldn’t agree more. I, too, despair of the poor practice that I see in my pupils’ books, the dreadful handwriting, the sloppy way that the children sit and the way they hold their pens or pencils.

However, back to spelling. If you want to help your child, there are two books you absolutely must get. One is called’ The Hornet Literacy Primer’, and the other, which follows on after it, is called ‘The Word Wasp’.They are both written by Harry Cowling, who is the son of Keda Cowling, the author of ‘Toe by Toe’, which is the most brilliant book ever written, and which I write about elsewhere on the website.In the introduction to  ‘The Word Wasp’, Harry has written the most hard-hitting and thoughtful pieces of writing on the subject of spelling that I have ever read. In it, he states that good spelling skills cannot be acquired by memorising lists of  unrelated words.When you think that a small dictionary contains over 70,000 entries, how on earth are we going  to get children to remember just 5% of them? These two books break the mould. They have been trialled with students at a school in Yorkshire, as an experiment, in just one hour a week. The results, according to the headteacher, were amazing!  Everything – including articulation, spelling and reading – improved. So, too, did the confidence of the students.  

The books can easily be used by parents, all that is needed is the committment to carry out a short session five days a week.If your child has been through whole word systems, memory training, mnenomics, multi-sensory and kinaesthetic techniques, and still can’t spell or read vey well, then give’ The Hornet’ a try. You can order the books from either the ‘Toe by Toe’ website, or from Amazon. After all, you have nothing to lose, and a very great deal to gain!

Toe by Toe

What is ‘Toe by Toe’? It is rather concerning to me that many teachers have never heard of it, and some of those who have label it ‘laborious’ or ‘time-consuming.’ Strangely, all the parents and children who have used it through my recommendation love it, and cannot praise it too highly.

It is a very carefully constructed method of learning to read, and believe me, it works! Let me give you a little background information about the author and the book. Keda Cowling, who wrote the book, grew up desperately wanting to be a teacher. Sadly, in those days, there was no money available to support her, and so she had to go and find work in the mills (she lived in Yorkshire). She was amazed one day, many years later, when confiding her youthful ambition to a friend to be told, “You still can be a teacher. You can be a mature student.” She lost no time in applying to go on a training course, and after qualifying as a teacher, began to work in a village school near her home.

She stayed in the same school for the rest of her teaching career, and she stayed with the same Year Group – Year 2, or Top Infants, as it used to be called. During this time, Keda worked tirelessly, trying to help all the children in her class to learn to read, but there were always about four who never really “got it”. 

One evening, quite unexpectedly, there was a knock on her door, and when she opened it, there stood one of her old pupils, now grown up and married. He had come with a request.

“My wife sits with a book, laughing out loud. I don’t know what she is laughing at, but I want to be able to do that. Mrs Cowling, will you teach me to read?”

This spurred Keda to try and invent a method that would help children and adults of all ages to grasp the concept of reading. In the course of time, and with the constant encouragement and support of her family, and also the head of the school where she taught, she came up with the idea of  ’Toe by Toe.’

“You see,” said a friend, “it isn’t quite step by step – it’s smaller than that. It’s more like toe by toe!” And so the name was born. It has now become a global success. It is used in countries across the world, as well as the UK. It is used in prisons, where one in three inmates cannot read, and it is used in some – but not all – schools, where there are enlightened teachers, carrying on Keda’s aim of helping everybody to become literate. 

So, how does ‘Toe by Toe’ work? It uses phonics, that wonderfully sucessful method of teaching children to read, which got thrown out by the trendy educationalists somewhere in the eighties, and replaced by ‘reading with picture books’,  or  ‘choosing a book you like’  (regardless whether it matched your reading age). Suddenly, colour-coding for different reading levels was ‘out’ – (old-fashioned) – hearing children read on a regular basis was out – (not necessary), graded reading schemes were ‘out’  (old-fashioned as well)and all the careful work done by experienced, caring teachers was abandoned. (I know, this happened at a friend of mine’s school. She is now one of my tutors.)

Then, suddenly, someone realised that the new, trendy methods were not working, and standards of reading were going steadily downwards. So what did we get then? Why, phonics, of course. Only this time, rebranded as ‘synthetic phonics’ and the Department for Education, in its wisdom, brought out yet another of their helpful books, called “Letters and Sounds” to guide us on our way!

Some of us oldies never actually stopped using phonics, because we know this method works, and if you look at ‘Toe by Toe’, you’ll see exactly why it works. The book is most carefully graded, and every exercise must be completed before moving on to the next one. The book uses sound names for everything including capital letters, and words are broken down into chunks, so that they can be decoded.

The book is actually written to help dyslexics, but it can be used by anyone of any age, who struggles to learn to read. Read this  from a 10 year- old boy, and hear how he felt.

“Before “Toe by Toe”, I was living in a deep dark hole. Everyone else understood things, and I didn’t. When I was given the book, I felt a rope ladder had been thrown down to me. It didn’t have any rungs…I had to build them myself and that has taken time. Now I feel I’m near the top and I can see daylight. I feel sorry for anyone stuck at the bottom.”

Edward C  (Aged 10  )  Nantwich, Cheshire.

‘Toe by Toe’ also helps with spelling. Most people learn to spell by constantly seeing and subconsciously remembering the written word. Reading and spelling become a mutual activity. If you can’t read, however, you  are disadvantaged, because you can’t pick up a book and read either for pleasure or  for information. Your spelling, therefore, never improves. As a tutor, I often use some of the ‘Toe by Toe’ sentences as dictation with weak spellers, as they can easily spell them phonetically, and this builds up their confidence.

Finally – some of my success stories:

Robert, who was still working at Level 2 when he came to me in Year 6, barely able to read and write. After setting him off on ‘Toe by Toe’, and with the constant support of his mum, who worked with him every day, (including  holidays at their caravan),  he achieved Level 5  in his English SATs (above average for his age.

The 6 year-old twins, whose reading ages increased by 6 months during the 6 week’s summer holidays of 2011, (we tested them before the holidays and at the end of them) and who both went up three reading levels at school, thanks to their mum, who also worked with them on a daily basis.

Olivia, 6 years old, in the same class as the twins, struggling to make sense of reading, and getting switched-off in the process. I tested her reading age two days ago, and she is now reading 5 months above her chronological age. She, too, has gone up three levels on her school reading scheme. (Again, thanks to mum.)

Then there was Alex, in Stockport, who was dyslexic, and who got no help from his school, because dyslexia was not accepted. He was ‘just slow.’ He worked with me for three years, and, at the end of it, was awarded the headteacher’s prize for the child who had made the greatest progress in English in the whole school.

I could go on and on. If you want to read some amazing and heartwarming stories, go to the ‘Toe by Toe’ website, and find out more about it. If you want to try it with your child, you can order it from the ‘Toe by Toe’ website, or you can get it ( a little bit cheaper!) from my shop. It is an easy book to use, and I will be glad to help anyone get started. There are coaching pages right through the book, and parents are just as good as teachers when it comes to using it.

One word of caution – the book demands commitment! I have started many children off on it, only for the parent to give up after a few weeks. You need to understand that it will probably take a year to work through the book, and the work should be daily  (Monday to Friday)  for 20 minutes a session. Unless you are prepared to put this level of effort in, then it is not for you. If you are, then the sky’s the limit. Trust me, I know!