RRF Conference 2008: Katie Ivens 'The Third Way'

Transcripts and Reports of Talks given at past RRF Conferences.
Susan Godsland

RRF Conference 2008: Katie Ivens 'The Third Way'

Post by Susan Godsland »

Katie Ivens
Co-founder and Education Director of the Butterfly Saturday Reading School; 150 children aged between 5yrs and 12yrs are taught to read through phonics in classes held on Saturday mornings. Adult literacy is also taught.


I should like to tell you about a way in which we can radically improve the literacy of entire communities – bypassing the shortcomings and challenges of recalcitrant or struggling schools, relieving them of some of their pressures.

Where parents are themselves literate and confident they can, of course, teach their own children to read. But where the schools are failing, and parents either feel ill-equipped, or their children simply refuse to be taught by them – which happens! – what then? We know the answer. The children remain untaught. The result is not only wasted individual children, but whole wastelands of the unlettered and untaught.

I’d like to tell you how we can recover those wastelands, and recuperate those children. And it has nothing to do with the schools.

It all started in summer 1995: in the ultimate urban wasteland of the Mozart Estate, where children roamed in tightly disciplined gangs in an environment
described as ‘Crack City’ by the tabloid press. Since then the Mozart Estate
has improved, thanks to a lot of public spending on Estate Action and other regeneration programmes. The children have changed quite a lot too. And there is evidence to suggest that the work of our educational charity, Real Action, may have had something to do with it.

In summer 1995 a young man who lived on the estate was observing the children. They seemed to operate in an organized manner, but without any kind of adult supervision or guidance, breaking into flats and stealing things; joyriding on stolen mopeds and setting them alight. When the police came they blew alarm whistles, scattered, then returned to stand around laughing at the police. They also attacked people. I remember an occasion when I was showing a television news crew around the estate. The children bared their teeth and snarled and swore at the crew, who were on their territory. Then they made off, and marched back with heavy staves, with which they beat the crew. They were in fact LITTLE children. It was a horrible environment where taxis and minicabs wouldn’t go.
And terrified local residents lived in fear, not only of the adult criminals, but of intimidating little children. There is something peculiarly disturbing about a sharply led, perversely disciplined, gang of feral, violent, children.

If there was ever a suitable testing ground for a redemptive education programme, it was the Mozart Estate in 1995.

From my campaigning work with the Campaign for Real Education I knew the educationalist Irina Tyk, headmistress of Holland House School, and author of the Butterfly Book. I knew about the power of her Butterfly course of synthetic phonics to improve children’s reading levels, swiftly and dramatically, during two- or three- week summer courses, for which she had always charged fees. She asked me if I knew of a group of parents unable to afford such fees, who would like their children’s reading to improve. So I knew what to do when the young man, Roger Diamond, from the Mozart Estate told me that the children he was observing were illiterate.

The result was that with the help of the Mozart Estate Tenants Association we set up The Butterfly Summer Reading Course on the Mozart Estate in improvised classrooms in the Tenants’ Centre. The children’s reading was on average 19 months below the norm for their age. After three intensive hours’ teaching each morning for a fortnight by Irina and George Tyk, their reading improved, on average, by 14 months.

The project attracted a lot of media attention, including a Carlton Television crew
who filmed it throughout for a half-hour documentary, Ten Day Wonders. This was controversial. Our Butterfly programme presented a challenge to the orthodoxies of the educational establishment of the time. For them phonics was a no-no, a dirty word, not even admissible in a ‘mixture of methods’. Chris Woodhead (then the Chief Inspector) arranged a special viewing of the programme for the Prime Minister, John Major, at Number Ten Downing Street.

On that summer fortnight in 1995 another remarkable thing happened. Normally, and especially in the long hot days of summer, crimes were committed every day. But in that summer fortnight not a single crime took place. It was a fortnight of peace.

What next?

Parents who had not sent their children to our little summer school were asked by those who had – why they had failed to do so. They replied, tellingly, ‘Because we couldn’t believe anything good could happen here.’

And Roger Diamond set about creating a local educational charity so that we could establish a permanent Butterfly school at the parents’ request. Several parents came forward as Management Committee members. The estate regeneration scheme was called Estate Action. ‘What we want,’ said the parents,
‘is ‘real action’. Real Action was born in early 1997. We accepted an invitation, and funding, to run a literacy scheme for teenagers and adults later that year. And we became a charity in 1998.

We were a small, volunteer-run organization with no money beyond the limited project funding for the publicly funded literacy scheme for teenagers and adults..
It wasn’t until summer 1999 that we were offered money to buy a set of Butterfly books, which was all we needed to launch the school. We had been offered classrooms virtually free at a local college. And we had a superb band of volunteers whom Irina Tyk helped to train as teachers.

The Butterfly Saturday Reading School was launched for local children aged 5 – 12 in autumn 1999.

At this stage I think I should tell you a little about the Butterfly Book, and how it works, and a Butterfly classroom, and how that helps children to achieve.

It is perhaps most easily explained by inviting you to imagine a typical course book that might be used in a typical primary school – and then to imagine the exact opposite. And then, picture a typical primary school classroom – and conjure up the opposite.

A typical primary course book – if it is a book at all and not a set of ‘learning materials’ in primary colours – has lots of brightly coloured pictures. It has very little information on any one page. And it invites a child to partake in activities – colouring something in, joining pictures with lines, whatever…

The Butterfly Book could hardly be more different. It is almost – not quite -austere. It has gravitas, but it is also a source of great joy for a child. It has no pictures, because pictures encourage guessing. The main problem of children
who have difficulty reading is that they have been taught to guess. There is no chance of this with the Butterfly book. Instead the crucial information is presented
with the utmost order, clarity and logic. It is organized to enable one to teach a child in exactly the way that a child requires. It mirrors the child’s intelligence.
In a disordered, confusing and sometimes chaotic world it satisfies the child’s craving for order and simplicity and directness. In a world that expects a high proportion of children to fail – particularly if they come from underprivileged,
or certain ethnic or cultural backgrounds, it respects the intellect of each and every child, and ensures that they succeed. It enables a child – any child –
to read simple two- and three-letter words, straight away, without preliminaries,
from Lesson One, Page One. Designed to be suitable for infants, it does not infantilise. For children who live, so often, in relatively chaotic circumstances,
The Butterfly Book is the perfect antidote,

As Irina Tyk explains, succinctly, in this wonderfully concise reading and writing course:
‘There are only 44 sounds in the English language. Once these sounds have been learned and blended to form words then the task of learning to read is complete.’ She adds ‘… it is essential that children blend sounds from the very beginning of the course.’

This point is of central importance. Sounds are not presented in sequences,
with each sound dangling on its own. The job of each sound is to get hitched
with others, to form part of a word, or a whole word. It’s the focus on the blending
which gives the Butterfly course its special power and speed.
Blending sounds to make words - just like that! - is the dynamic of the book,
and the very essence of reading. It happens immediately in Lesson One.
Subsequent, scripted, lessons which are easy to teach and easy to learn, are cumulative. In the first nine lessons the children are taught to blend 12 consonants with the vowel sound a. The vowel sound i is introduced in Lesson 10. More consonants follow, and so on. It is that simple. And the process can be promptly understood by the child, the parent, the novice teacher. It works. Quickly. And that is the source of the joy.

But, people argue, this approach fails when you teach the odder words in our rich and complex English language – words like would and ought. Or what about love and gone when you are teaching the silent ‘e’ principle? In Lesson 41 where the long O sound is taught you have, as exceptions, love, gone etc. You find words like would, could and should in Lesson 46, along with words with the oo sound; and words like caught and ought come in a package in Lesson 51 with words that have the or sound. These include walk and talk as well as law and paw; and indeed four and door and broad. You get the idea…

As Irina Tyk says in her introduction:
‘This reading course is consistent with the belief that it is the proper concern of education to discover and reveal integrating principles rather than present information arbitrarily. This course teaches children to read by reference to fixed rules and guidelines which can be applied to most of the language. Those well-documented and familiar English words which defy normal sound patterns are treated as exceptions which do not lie at the core of learning to read proficiently and independently.’

One of the features of teaching the Butterfly course is that you place children in classes according to their reading level, not their calendar age. The intelligence of children with the reading ages of infants, but who are aged ten or eleven, and fast approaching secondary school has already been insulted – wasted – by the time they come to us. As you can imagine, they can feel uncomfortable being placed in a class with very young children. They look big and awkward and uneasy – at first. I have already explained to them that they can barely read
because they have been barely taught to read, that it is not their fault. I tell them they will go in a class with children at their reading level – five, for example or six.
And then I say ‘Do you speak Russian?’ Startled, they reply ‘No’. Then I say ‘Nor do I. If we both wanted to learn Russian, we’d go in the same class, wouldn’t we?’ Then I tell them they’ll learn very fast, because they are very intelligent (I get a startled look again). And they will whizz up the classes at high speed.
I alert their teachers to the fact that they are on a very fast track. And they are soon class-hopping every couple of weeks or so, until they reach a reading age of 9, where some tend to plateau for a few weeks or so, before breaking through
to an age-appropriate reading level.

How does it happen so quickly? It is as though they have been waiting all their lives for this. In their response it is as though they’re saying, ‘Oh, is THAT how it’s done! It’s so easy. Why did no-one tell me?’ Such children arrive anxiously,
or they mask their anxiety with attitude. Their closeness to educational disaster,
and all the consequences, is palpable. It is with these children that we get our most dramatic results, often putting on three or four years of reading age in ten or fifteen weeks of two-hour Saturday sessions. It is as though you place a ball
firmly in their hands, and they run away with it.

It means that they now have a chance of deriving some benefit from secondary schooling – although they’ve still got lots of catching up to do. And of course their primary education has been wasted. But they’re less likely to become disaffected in secondary school.

What we can offer at a Butterfly school is REAL reading recovery. And, as a consequence, REAL self esteem.

Before we take a look at some evidence of our results I’d like to tell you a little about how we organize our classrooms. In the normal primary school children are grouped, facing each other, around tables. The seating plan is designed
to require children to interact with other children – not the teacher. When the ‘Literacy Hour’ requires them to have ‘whole class’ teaching they have to get out of their seats and sit on a carpet at the teacher’s feet. It’s called ‘carpet time’
and many children hate it. But then it is uncomfortable.

In a Butterfly classroom the children get whole class teaching the whole of the time. Seated at separate desks,– ideally – or at shared tables, and all facing the teacher they interact with the teacher, rather than with each other. They get 100 per cent of teaching for 100 per cent of the time. Old classroom rules of engagement apply. Everybody pays attention. Children put up their hands if they want to speak, and so on. And they get tests, which they love: normally a spelling test and a dictation each week. They get marks out of ten, and are rewarded with stickers for good performance. There is no performance gap between boys and girls, or between children of different ethnic or cultural groups. In fact the negative expectations of the education establishment are confounded all round.
Our highest achievers include black Caribbean boys. As more indigenous children, very gradually, join us we anticipate we may see a similar effect among ‘white working class’ boys. Actually I hate these labels. I only use them to refute the expectations attached to them.

We find our children highly intelligent and educable. They ask only to be educated. Our children come from every conceivable cultural background, from every corner of the globe. They come by word of mouth. To ensure that we are not overwhelmed by the children of parents who could afford to address their concerns by engaging tutors, we do not advertise. Not only do parents recommend our school to other parents. Children bring along other children. And children sometimes stop me in the street asking if they can come. Or they walk in independently either at The Learning Store – our hq in Mozart Street, close to the Mozart Estate. Or we find that they have walked into our classrooms at the college on Saturday mornings.

Conditions on the Mozart Estate have radically improved since our pilot summer programme in 1995, but it still has the highest child poverty levels in the country. Many of the families do not speak English as a first language. While our core community of parents has tended to be Caribbean and West African in origin,
we have increasing numbers of north Africans, Somalis, Sudanese, Ethiopians and Eritreans, Iraqis, Iranians, you name it.. From Europe we get Poles, Bulgarians etc. And lately we’ve been getting more indigenous families, including a little girl in a wheel chair, totally paralysed below her shoulders, who adores being taught to read.

Another interesting thing happens to children who join the Butterfly school. Many of the children have ‘special needs’ – usually with behavioural manifestations.
It is common not only for behaviour to improve as reading improves. Parents often tell us, after a few weeks, that their child is no longer classified as having ‘special needs’. These needs, which are commonly unspecified, seem to evaporate after some sound Butterfly teaching. I have come to believe that schools that fail to teach children to read effectively create ‘special needs’.
I have a cartoon above my desk. It shows a teacher standing outside a Special Needs School, and a mother, holding her child’s hand. ‘What’s his special need?’ the teacher asks. ‘An education,’ the mother replies.

While a few children come to us because they love reading, and are naturally good at it, more come because they and their parents are profoundly worried about them. They’re getting into trouble, doing badly, and the gangs on the streets are ever present. Their parents fear for them, and wonder if the children
can avoid the fate of their fathers. Indeed we have had children brought to us by such fathers, leading gang members, often of the yardie persuasion, who are as anxious as any parent that their child should do well. They pay particular attention to their children’s manners – ‘Say please to Katie. Say thank you ..’

We get children who have been excluded from primary school, including one ten year old boy who could barely read and had been excluded from two primary schools for violence. He was now in a third, where he was not allowed into a normal classroom, but taught in isolation.

At first his behaviour with us was rumbustious, somewhat Prescottian. But not ill-natured. He was a massive bear of a boy with a tendency to hit out when provoked, often mischievously, by smaller children. A small child would give him a surreptitious slap. He’d land a thump – and instantly get into trouble for hitting a smaller child. We told him how to break the pattern – by ignoring provocation. In our ordered classrooms, and as he experienced the gratification of learning to read, his behaviour improved. Within a few weeks he had attained Reading Age 9. He acquired gravitas, self-control. In no time we heard him chiding other children for their disruptive overtures. They were interrupting his work, he’d tell them, they should be quiet. He has had a troubled background, but he’s a sweet boy. Unfortunately we couldn’t prevent his referral to a Special School for his secondary education.

All this anecdotal evidence of how well our children do is all very interesting. It is all very well, you could say. But what are our results?

Our school has grown from its earliest days, when we sorted 30 children into a couple of classes, each with 15 children to a school – or rather schools, as we set up another – with 250 children. When we brought the 250 children all together on one site, that was really too much for a couple of hours on a Saturday morning. At present we have about 100 children, which may rise to 160 or 180 by mid-term in the spring. They are taught in six classes. Children who have got beyond Reading Age 8, or who have completed the Butterfly course,
are taught spelling, grammar, punctuation, comprehension etc. We shall shortly be using Irina Tyk’s Butterfly Grammar, which has just been published, for that.

We have many years of experience teaching the Butterfly course now. Our results have consistently shown that in an average 30 hours’ attendance
children will improve, on average, by 13 months.

The results I show for September/October 2005 to February/March 2006 are typical: 13 months’ improvement. The results for the following year are even better, with a 16 month average improvement. You might like to have a look at these now…….

We use the Holborn reading scale, which I’m told is old-fashioned, but has certain virtues. It’s quick, it’s a sequence of sentences, and it gives a very good picture of how a child reads, as well as a useful result. You can easily see
with a child with a reading age of 8, for example, that they’ve got the basics on the whole, but they might be a bit shaky with their soft cs and soft gs. The test therefore has an added, simultaneous, diagnostic value. As it measures children’s reading ages from 5.09 (5 years 9 months) to 13.09 (13 years 9 months) it covers our children’s age range nicely.

You will see that I’ve also given you an additional set of test results to look at.
These were for a particular cohort of children who were awarded a one-term bursary last Autumn term by the Octavia Trust. All children were tenants of the Octavia Housing Association. What is interesting is that the children were all new to the school last autumn – we have a snapshot of where children are with their reading now. The table also shows that children can make remarkable progress in just a term – or an average 20 hours’ attendance. The average improvement was 14 months.

The children love to be tested, and often astonish visitors who have been reading in the newspapers that testing is stressful and unpleasant for children - by clamouring to be tested.

Our results suggest that there’s a Third Way for literacy. (The first way, of course,
involves the schools coming up to the mark. The second involves parents teaching children themselves, preferably using the Butterfly book.) The third way is to teach whole classes of children by the Butterfly method at a Saturday morning school. We have inspired some imitations, and have been invited by Michael Gove to help set up a Butterfly school in Birmingham.

It is possible to make an impact on a whole community with a Butterfly school:

Real Action’s Butterfly Saturday Reading School has been going for over 9 years. Our ward of Queen’s Park in Westminster is afflicted with the highest child poverty levels in the country along with other exceptionally high indicators of ‘multiple deprivation’. There is, however, a spark of promise in the wasteland.

There are some DCSF statistics which show that in Queen’s Park the improvement in literacy levels over the last 10 years was twice that of Westminster as a whole. The independent, very well informed observer who drew my attention to this attributed it to our work. ‘I can think of no other explanation’ he said.

I don’t know…. Maybe….

Katie Ivens
Education Director
Real Action
6th November 2008