This post is for those of you who, like me, have children in primary school or children who are about to enter primary school. It’s worth knowing some questions to ask that will give you a better idea of the provision on offer. However, you must tread gently. If you asked your mechanic how she intended to fix your car then she would probably be delighted to explain at some length, but children are not cars, they don’t need fixing and teachers are not mechanics. It’s a messy, human affair. And decades of perceiving that politicians and the media are against them makes many teachers defensive. So use these questions but address them sensitively.
1. What’s your behaviour policy?
This is probably worth talking about before you send your child to a school. There is no right answer other than that the school should have a policy, it should be clear and it should not rest on the misguided notion that children are inherently good and will behave well if taught in the right way. Most teachers are pragmatists and will have systems in place, although it is important that you ascertain that these are supported by the school leadership and that you will be comfortable with them applying to your child.
You might want to pose a scenario, “What would happen if a child kept pulling my daughter’s hair?” This will move the conversation from the abstract to the concrete.
It is worth being aware that behaviour has quite a lot of ideological baggage. Some people are morally against poor behaviour attracting negative consequences – look out for the word ‘punitive’ here. There is a school of thought on this which is best articulated by Alfie Kohn who brooks neither rewards or punishments – they are ‘coercive’. If this aligns with your values then great but, if not, you want to uncover these ideas pretty quickly.
And be aware that such discussions can quickly become emotive. For instance, evidence is clear that for many tasks, seating children in rows is more effective than the ubiquitous groups we find in primary schools, especially for the most vulnerable and easily distracted students. But you should never mention this within one kilometre of a primary school because you’ll be looked at as if you just proposed placing all the kids in cages.
2. How do you teach reading?
There are two points to understand about reading instruction: Some methods are more effective than others but many children will learn to read even with poor teaching. It becomes a more pressing issue for struggling readers but it also likely that good instruction will lead to improved spelling and pronunciation of novel words by the students who would learn regardless. So reading instruction is important – I would go so far as to suggest that it is the most important thing that primary schools do.
It is likely that you will be told that the school uses a balanced approach that includes phonics. But frankly, this could mean almost anything and so you’ll need to dig a little deeper.
A key part of learning to read is being able to translate graphemes – combinations of letters on the page such as ‘ou’ – into phonemes which are the sounds that these graphemes represent. English is complicated in this regard because a number of graphemes map to more than one phoneme (the ‘oo’ in ‘boot’ versus the ‘oo’ in ‘look’ and so on) and a number of phonemes are represented by more than one grapheme (e.g. ‘ai’ and ‘ay’). This leads some people to conclude that it is all a nonsense and that children should just learn whole words instead. Yet this is quite illogical. No matter how many grapheme-phoneme relationships there are, they are limited and are far fewer in number than the total amount of English words.
If your child’s teacher doesn’t know what graphemes and phonemes are then this should ring alarm bells. Moreover, the evidence is quite clear (see national reports here, here and here) that the best way to teach these relationships is in a planned, systematic way that brings in a small number of new relationships at a time; a method often called “systematic synthetic phonics” or SSP. However, some approaches to phonics take ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ books as their starting point and only deal with letter-sound relationships when they arise in the context of these books. These two broad methods were specifically evaluated against each other by Snow et. al. for the U.S. department of education in 1998 and, as we might expect, the former was found to be more effective.
If your school is giving out lists of ‘sight’ words for students to learn then this is a whole-word approach which is quite at odds with the use of phonics. I wouldn’t be too concerned if it is a small number of ‘non-decodable’ words such as ‘the’ (‘the’ is quite decodable but this is the sort of thing that people say). However, when these word lists start to stretch into the 100s, I would worry.
When asked about reading, some schools might stress the importance of comprehension. A child might be able to decode a word using phonics but then not know what this means or understand the context in which it is being used. A lot of time is then devoted to reading comprehension strategies which provide some initial benefit but this benefit does not continue with further training. Ultimately, the key to comprehension is gaining increased knowledge of the world.
In part II of this post, I will outline three more questions that it may be worth asking.
You can find Part II here.