Marie Clay: Lessons in Literacy Part Two. 2005 (very long)

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Marie Clay: Lessons in Literacy Part Two. 2005 (very long)

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Reading Recovery UK is claiming that it conforms to the criteria for phonics instruction laid down in the new Primary Framework. This book is a core RR text, and is cited in a recent article on phonics teaching in the RR magazine 'Running Record'.

Before I start, I must confess that I found this book extremely difficult to read. I felt, as I have rarely done before, that I truly was engaged in a psycholinguistic guessing game. I read the book hoping to improve my understanding of the philosophy and processes of Reading Recovery, but Clay’s use of language seems to obfuscate rather than clarify. I feel that anyone who read it, without any knowledge, or experience, of the teaching of reading, would be left with the impression that the teaching of reading is an arcane and complex task, which demands extraordinary skills of the teacher and a great deal of struggle and effort of the child being taught. Coming, as I do, from a completely different standpoint on the teaching of reading, and having, myself, taught many struggling readers to achieve competence in reading, I found Clay’s understanding and interpretation of the reading process, and her teaching methodology, frankly baffling at times. I am sure, though, that anyone steeped in the same beliefs as Clay finds the simpler view of the reading process and its teaching, to which I, and many, many others subscribe, equally baffling.

Although I looked for enlightenment in Clay’s book, my particular reason for reading it, and for this review, was to try to establish whether Clay’s methodology (said to have been updated in the light of recent research) did in fact justify the claim of Reading Recovery UK that the intervention conforms to the criteria for the initial teaching of reading, and for any subsequent interventions for children who are slow to learn, which are laid out in the Rose Report and the new Primary Framework.

Rose states that :

Children will learn:
• Grapheme/phoneme correspondences in a clearly defined, incremental sequence
• To apply the highly important skill of blending phonemes, in order, all through the word to read it
• To apply the skills of segmenting words into their constituent phonemes to spell
• Blending and segmenting are reversible processes”


“The Primary National Strategy distinguishes three ‘waves’ of teaching and intervention which adequately cover the range of provision that best supports children with significant literacy difficulties. ............High quality phonic work, as defined by the review, should be a key feature of the provision in each of these ‘waves’.

I can see that these criteria pose a problem for Clay and her programme. She has been a promoter and teacher of Whole Language methodology throughout her long career. Furthermore, her philosophy of pedagogy is firmly grounded on constructivist principles, whereby the child is led to discover his learning for himself and to construct his own schema of the task. But to teach by the criteria laid down by the Rose Report requires a different pedagogy, that of Direct Instruction. This calls for systematic, explicit, instruction in the skills required to achieve the learning objective (in this case, competent reading and spelling) taught hierarchically, from simple to complex. Direct Instruction is not just different from constructivist pedagogy, it is diametrically opposed to it. My readers will not need reminding that the old National Literacy Strategy, which so conspicuously failed to teach at least 1 in 5 children to read, was based on constructivist, Whole Language teaching by way of a ‘Balanced’ approach to literacy learning (i.e., Whole Language with a bit of phonics thrown in for good measure).

Clay’s Reading Recovery programme was ineligible for Reading First funding in the USA because of its lack of systematic, explicit phonics instruction and now, despite RR UK’s high profile coup of obtaining generous funding from the charity, KPMG, the apparent whole hearted support of Gordon Brown, and positive promotion of the programme by the Dfes, its presence in UK schools is being strongly challenged by experts and practitioners of the approach to the teaching of reading set out in the Rose Report. Their principal arguments are these; that the methodology of Reading Recovery is identical to the failed methodology promoted in the old National Literacy Strategy and, this being so, it will be as ineffective and damaging as the old NLS proved to be. That it does not meet the criteria for initial reading instruction and intervention laid down by Rose and the new Primary framework. That independent, international, research has shown that it is not as effective as it claims to be, and, that that other interventions are as effective, or more so, while being far cheaper to implement. Furthermore, they deplore the failure of the Dfes to run a properly controlled trial of intervention programmes; the current recommendations of the Dfes being based solely on self reporting and data supplied by the promoters of the interventions.

Marie Clay’s book may tell us whether she has overcome her distaste for ‘phonics’ and has integrated sufficient systematic instruction to satisfy the Rose criteria, as claimed by Reading Recovery UK.

The main instruction techniques are covered in 14 sections, with additional sections dealing with ‘Particular Problems’. These are not a ‘teaching sequence’ Clay tells us, as the teacher must consider the needs of the individual child and plan to use the relevant techniques to satisfy those needs at the appropriate point in the RR session. However, the RR session does follow a set sequence. Although this does make it more difficult to get a coherent picture of what is being taught, one must appreciate that the book is a manual, which will be consulted for guidance on a particular point, rather than read from cover to cover

I will look at the sections which cover the teaching of phonic knowledge, then consider how the advice/techniques covered in these sections are integrated into the other areas of instruction. And how/if their use satisfies the Rose criteria .
There are two sections which have ‘sounds’ in their titles: section 7 “Hearing and recording sounds in words” and section 11 “Linking sound sequences to letter sequences: massive practice in text reading”

In the introduction to section 7, Clay talks of phonemic awareness. She defines this as “becoming aware of the sounds within spoken words” She then goes on to explain that “We are referring to those sounds that make the smallest difference between two similar words, what linguists call the phonemes of a language. Can you hear the difference between two similar words, for example ‘pupil’ and ‘people’ in your own speech? Can you hear such differences in someone else’s speech? The brain is involved in recognising phonemes coming in through the ears

And that’s it. Phonemes explained.

Clay does say, at another point in the book, that there are some 38 - 44 phonemes in English, but this is the full extent of the information given to RR teachers about phonemes in the entire book. I would have thought that more detail about phonemes, such as, what exactly they are (the smallest units of sound from which the spoken word is constructed), what the phonemes of English are and, the most useful (for teaching purposes) letters/letter combinations which represent each phoneme, would be useful here. I wonder if this is taught to trainees, or whether it is assumed that they already have this knowledge?

She tells us that the activities in this section “are designed to help a child hear and think about the order of sounds in spoken words. This has to do with the ears hearing sounds and transmitting messages about those sounds to the brain. To write some new words in this writing segment of the lesson a child must analyse words into a sequence of sounds, must identify what sounds he can hear, and must deal with the order or sequence in which sounds occur

This sounds very promising. What next?

Training in phonemic awareness begins by teaching the child to clap “the parts he can hear on a few two or three syllable words” (Clay says that it is easier for the child to hear big chunks of sound) Then the teacher chooses two or three words “that are likely to strengthen the child’s phonemic awareness if he pays them more attention” from the child’s own story, to work on. She models, and the child practices, slow articulation of words while the child demonstrates what he hears by pushing counters into Elkonian boxes. The sounds can be identified in any order. Simple, two or three phoneme, words are being worked with here. Once the child is able to discriminate the sounds in order the teacher moves on to drawing a box for each phoneme, saying the word and getting the child to write the sounds he hears in the boxes. The teacher will write the necessary letter if the child does not yet know the one required, or, “if the child cannot recall the letter’s form...” Clay says “Accept what the child can hear in any order at first. Do not insist on a beginning- to –end approach. This will come later, as the child gains control of the task. She states, explicitly, that this is the only permissible exception to the left to right working emphasis. (I shall return to this). She suggests that the teacher prompts for the ‘sounds’ thus:
• “What do you hear at the beginning?
• What do you hear at the end?
• What do you hear in the middle?”

Once the child is able to hear sounds ‘consistently’ the beginning –to- end recording is enforced. The teacher is told to practice with simple (no more than 3 phoneme) words with common one to one correspondences, still selected from the child’s ‘messages.’

When the child can:
• “Hear and record consonants well
• Have control over writing letters
• select some vowels correctly

he moves to ‘advanced learning’

In this work the boxes used to record the sounds are now altered to record each letter. This seems to be to give the child the idea that how words sound and how they are spelled can be different. At the same time, the teacher gradually speeds up the articulation of the word to be spelled to a ‘normal’ rate.

Here too, the child is introduced to “exceptional ‘sounds’ and ‘silent’ letters” such as
• “’Ch ’uses two letters to represent one sound
• ‘Th’ behaves like a single letter and can be pronounced in two ways (as in ‘thin’ and ‘then)

• Often a consonant is doubled – ‘ll’, ‘dd’, ‘mm’)
• ‘e’ is often silent and final; ‘k’ and ‘g’ at the beginning of some words is not sounded
• In some combinations like ‘nt’, ‘nd’ and ‘ld’ the two sounds are very hard to hear, even if you say them slowly.........”

And Clay prefers “not to insist that children discover the ‘hard to hear’ consonants like ‘-nk’, ‘-mp’” . The teacher should provide the letters as: “It seems easier to ’hear’ the letters after they have been identified for you and you have met up with them a few times

Clay summarises what the child is learning as:

• you know a word, you’ve written it before
• you can write a word you know and then you can make a new word with some of its letters
• you can analyse the sounds in new words you want to read
• you can analyse the sounds of words you want to write and find the letters to write down those sounds
• you need someone to tell you how to make the word ‘because that is the way we spell it in English

She clearly states “This is not a matter of merely learning letter sound relationships. We are not repeating the task to establish memory. There is much more to the daily exercise than merely practising hearing and recording sounds on simple words! The main purpose of the activity is to help the child to distinguish:
• easy-to-hear sounds
• hard-to-hear sounds
• and common spelling and sound patterns in English
• and the ‘quirky’ things about spelling in English

This section poses a number of problems for RR’s claim of conformity with the Rose criteria.

1) It is not teaching grapheme/phoneme correspondences in a clearly defined, incremental sequence. The teacher takes the words to be worked on from the child’s own ‘messages’, which almost certainly guarantees that the ‘sequence’ will be random and unplanned.

2) Children are expected to work with words for which they do not necessarily know all the grapheme/phoneme correspondences. This would never happen in high quality phonic work.
3) Despite Clay’s (correct) insistence on left to right working (she devotes a whole section to ways of securing this in early work with the child) she allows random segmentation of words in the early stages, for no convincing reason, and even encourages it through the teacher prompts. High quality phonic work always works through words from left to right for reading and for spelling, right from the start. Clay’s problem here is that she is starting at word level and using oral word analysis to teach segmenting. This throws the child ‘in at the deep end’ so to speak. He has no very clear idea of what a ‘sound’ is, but is then expected to ‘unglue’ the sounds in a spoken word. Teacher modelling, through slow and clear articulation, is helpful, and no doubt the child will get the idea in time, but it is more efficient, and less confusing, for the child to start with individual phonemes and learn to blend them into a word; his ear becomes more attuned to each phoneme and so it is easier for him to distinguish them individually when he asked to segment a word. I would add that a high quality phonics programme would be teaching a phoneme and grapheme that represents it simultaneously, with practice in both saying the sound in response to the written grapheme and writing the grapheme in response to the spoken phoneme. Add to this the fact that the child would not be asked to spell any words which contained graphemes not yet learned and the necessity for the teacher to supply ‘unknown letters’ is obviated.

4) The ‘advanced’ work shows Clay clinging to the ‘spelling rules’, notions of ‘difficulty’ and confused messages about the English spelling system which characterised the old NLS. She also destroys the essential link between a sound and its grapheme by use of one box for one letter in the spelling work.

But, does this really matter? When we look at the section in which I would expect all this work on ‘phonemic awareness’, segmenting and spelling the sounds; to come together; section 13 ‘More about attending to words in isolation’, there is absolutely no reference made to segmenting a word and spelling the sounds in the order in which they are heard.

Clay tells us that “The aim of this work with words in isolation is to have him know about how words work and be able to use this awareness while reading texts while reading texts and while writing.” The theme of this section is about learning to ‘construct’ words. There are ten pages of instructions for this task.

The rationale for this task is given as follows:

Reading Recovery helps a particular child to understand:
• there are ways to help a child break a pattern of words into parts
• there are ways to construct and reconstruct known words
• and how ‘breaking’ helps us to find out how new words are like words he already knows

The sequence goes like this:

Early learning:
First the child practices ‘constructing’ words he already knows to allow him “to recall his prior experiences with how letters make up words and how words that are taken apart letter by letter (my emphasis) can be constructed again.
Next, the child is required to look for similarities between two words (the examples give are ‘go and ‘no’)
Then the child is shown how to change a word from one to another by substituting the initial letter.
The next task is to ‘compare’ a set of words, such as ‘he’, ‘me’ and ‘we’. With ‘models’ of the words to refer to the child is then required to make one of the words, then change it for another, then a third. Over several sessions the words become slightly more complex and the child may also be invited to contribute his own words. He is given help if necessary. Thus: “think ahead prepare the child for things he might find hard. .....if he wants to make ‘glad’ help him with the ‘gl’> He might not know about using more than one letter.
He then moves to changing the onset and retaining the rime. And from there, to retaining the onset and changing the rime. Here the advice given is :”Note any clusters of letters that this child uses in his writing. When one child noticed the ‘sh’ letter combination the teacher worked on this:
sh she shop shout
say this sound ‘sh’
And read this word
And this one.

Intermediate learning:

Using analogy to go from a ‘known’ word to a new word. This is flagged up as being ‘tricky’ Clay illustrates how tricky this could be:.
“Suppose the teacher said “Do you know another word like ‘clever’” and she constructed the word ‘clever’ in magnetic letters. The child could do several things.
• In his head he could analyse the sounds heard into a sequence of phonemes (like c-l-e-v-er)
• In his head he could analyse the visual pattern of print into a sequence of letters (like c-l-e-v=e=r)
• In his head he could break off a cluster of sounds (-ever)
• in his head he could break off letters (cl-)
• In his head he could also pair sounds with letters and make a judgement that ‘cl’ is what his teacher wants, so he suggests ‘clap
• Or he could make a quick search of his own oral language and triumphantly link it to ‘togever.

......................he might start anywhere on this list of things, depending on his recent memories

Well, so he might, but if the programme were conforming to the Rose criteria the only ‘memory’ he would have, and the only strategy he would consider, would be the first in that list, the strategy which Clay outlines in section 7. The strategy which the Primary Framework says children should use for spelling. Yet Clay clearly expects that the child could be thinking of several different approaches to this, presumably as a result of his RR learning.

She later says:

Reading or writing a new word from one you already know is complex

Which is precisely why this way of teaching has failed many children in the past and has now been replaced by teaching the simpler skill of segmenting a word into its phonemes and writing a grapheme for each phoneme!

Advanced learning:
Clay says:
These activities are about confident construction of words, and learning the trick of substituting and initial, middle or final sound or sound pattern.......there are two aspects to the substitution. It has something to do with sounding different and something to do with looking different.
• It is not designed for memorising new words
• it is not building a bank of vocabulary words
• it is not the place to correct recurrent errors
it is not the place to teach letter-sound relationships
” (my emphasis)

So where is the place to teach letter-sound relationships? Perhaps it is in the section on ‘letter identification. But no, I search this section in vain for any mention of explicit teaching of letter-sound relationships. It is all about teaching the child to identify the letters of the alphabet, both upper and lower case. Clay says that the child must learn ..”fast identification of all the letter shapes and features” he must learn to “attend to familiar letter features until each letter can be rapidly distinguished from all similar letters” What is more, the teacher must ““allow the child to label letters in any appropriate way – by name, by sound or because it is in a word he knows. Beginning readers making good progress use any of these ways of identifying letters. It seems to be useful to have more than one way of labelling a letter. Don’t insist on only one type of label being used


I have been asked, ‘Should teachers be saying the sound value of the letters children are manipulating?’ Not as a matter of habit, no. Value whatever knowledge this child shows you he has. Many letter names contain a sound that letter makes. Ask yourself ’Where is this child in his learning? Is he ready for using just the sounds? If not, let him work with what he knows and find opportunities to feed into his learning things he does not know yet............When the child is very confident the teacher nay want to call for either sounds or names for letters, encouraging flexibility.

Section 11 is called ‘Linking sound sequences to letter sequences: massive practice in text reading. Perhaps it is here that the explicit instruction in phoneme/grapheme correspondences is to be found?

This lesson is designed to:

• " with what the eyes recognise in visual forms (letters) and in visual patterns of letters (clusters and words
• with what the ears can isolate in speech patterns (hearing words within utterances and phonemes within words and clusters of phonemes in words)

Clay postulates that:
“It does not take young readers of English long to ‘know’ in some way that :
• two letters can make one sound –‘ch’,’sh’,’ll’, ‘dd’;
• that one letter (for example ‘a’) can carry a heavy load of alternative sound associations (‘a’ represents a different sound when it stands alone, is reading ‘hat’ and ‘hate’, or ‘saw and ‘was’, or ‘bath’).

To ‘know’ in some way! This is an extraordinary statement. Is Clay not confident that, after this instruction, children will know these things? What if children never do, through this osmotic process, ‘know in some way’? Systematic, explicit phonics instruction does not leave this learning to chance. That Clay leaves it to chance can be seen in the next extract:

Some children are puzzled by the relationships of letters to words........that relationship becomes more obvious to the child as he constructs words in writing and breaks up words at the magnetic board. Teacher talk during writing might help the child to understand the letter-sound relationship, but teacher talk can also confuse children........By constructing words in writing and problem solving words while reading the child comes to expect words to fall into patterns of letters. The learner’s brain takes aboard regularity if it experiences it day after day. Yet the reader of English will have to be ready for lots of irregularity"

I have quoted from these sections at some length in order to demonstrate that the principle Clay’ states, that:: “a child must analyse words into a sequence of sounds, must identify what sounds he can hear, and must deal with the order or sequence in which sounds occur” is not adhered to in her instructions for working with words. She reverts to a mish-mash of strategies, which do not clearly explain the grapho/phonemic principle, and a vague hope that the child will somehow pick up the idea of it among the welter of confusing instructions.

As I work through the sections of this book, the search for high quality phonic work becomes like a surreal adult version of the popular children’s books ‘Where’s Spot?’. In these books a puppy is hunted for in a variety of situations with the words ‘Where’s Spot. Is he in the wardrobe, under the bed etc.’

Where’s the explicit instruction in phoneme/grapheme correspondences in a clearly defined, incremental sequence?

Is it in section 1? NO
Is it in section 2? NO
Is it in section 3? NO
And so on......

This makes for less compelling reading than the child’s book, which has lift up flaps to reveal what actually is ‘in the wardrobe’, ‘under the bed’ etc;. so, the reader must take my word for it that nowhere in the entire book is there any direct, explicit teaching of: “Grapheme/phoneme correspondences in a clearly defined, incremental sequence”

When we lift the metaphorical flaps in each section we sometimes find references to ‘letter-sound relationships, but we also find instructions not to use letter sounds, discouragement of sounding out and blending during reading, ‘incidental’ phonics teaching, multi-cuing strategies for words attack (looking for words within words, looking for analogies with ‘known’ words, looking for ‘parts’ of words, looking for ‘what makes sense’ and ‘predicting’ from initial letters).

There are continual ‘digs’ at the inadequacy of ‘phonics’, some of which demonstrate that Clay is as confused about phonics as ,I suspect, an RR child will be at the end of his 20 sessions. What are we to make of this?: “Teachers tell children that two things sound the same when they do not, and then these teachers have also to explain that some symbols can make two quite different sounds. Children accumulate experience with printed language and their brains come to ‘know’ some of the regularities they have encountered at an unconscious level. If the teacher tells them that X sounds like Y when they cannot hear the similarity the children become very confused

Having spent so much time searching for the high quality phonics teaching, that should be a key part of this intervention, I am loth to spend much more time on this book, but there are two further points which I feel should be highlighted.

Firstly, while objective of high quality phonic work is to give children the skills needed to read any written word that they may encounter (and to allow them to make a good attempt at spelling unfamiliar words) the emphasis in Clay’s book is on learning discrete words. This places her firmly in the Whole Language methodology which, having marginalised, or completely dismissed, phonetics as an effective way of working out what the letter strings in a word actually represented, had to fall back on teaching children to memorise the ‘look’ of a word, by its shape and by the ‘pattern’ the letters within it made. Children had to ‘learn’ a bank of words which seemed to be most useful to them in reading. This generated the emphasis on ‘high frequency words’ (HFWs) which has bedevilled the teaching of reading for so long (and still does bedevil it in the UK, post Rose, despite the fact that when phonic knowledge is systematically taught there is no need for children to ‘learn’ HFWs). This severely limited children’s word reading ability as there is a limit to the number of words which can be learned as ‘pictograms’ in this way. Academic’s estimates of the limit vary between 2,000 – 4,000 words, but even at the higher limit this is only a fraction of the some 250,000 words to be found in a standard English dictionary. Clay places a great deal of emphasis on the need for children to ‘learn’ individual words. She appears to be unable to understand that thorough knowledge of the 160ish common phoneme/grapheme correspondences does away with the need to ‘learn’ individual words. Not only are the ‘word learning’ strategies, which she goes into in great detail, completely unnecessary, and would form no part of a good, high quality phonics programme, but those strategies only serve to confuse the child and to detract from the significance of learning phoneme/grapheme correspondences.

Secondly, in view of the fact that the children with whom Reading Recovery is working are still beginning readers, it is very worrying that the primary emphasis in Clay’s book, reading for meaning, directly contravenes the ‘Simple View of Reading’ set out in the Rose report and in the new Primary Framework. The Simple View of Reading makes it very clear that beginning readers should be taught the ‘basic skills’ of reading; phoneme/grapheme correspondences, and how to use these in decoding and blending words, before proceeding to the more advanced skills of comprehension, inference etc. By presenting children with texts containing words which are beyond their decoding and blending skills and by placing emphasis on reading for meaning from the very start, Clay’s methods can only further confuse and daunt a child who is struggling to learn to read. She continually portrays reading as a complex and difficult skill which the child has to continually struggle to learn, and indeed it is, if her methods are used to teach it.