My week in the round

What a week! My visit to Blackthorns Primary School in West Sussex turned out to be hugely enjoyable. I was shown round the school and into all the classes by Marianne Brand, the school’s new head teacher. Years ago, Marianne was a teacher at my daughter’s former primary school, St Thomas Aquinas, and so it was great to see her again and in the role of head teacher.

Since arriving at Blackthorns, Marianne has trained her staff in Sounds-Write and on Tuesday I dropped in to give a talk to her parents and one or two members of staff from a couple of local schools. The talk was attended by sixty-five parents and was designed to give them a clear idea about where writing comes from and how it is linked to the sounds of the English language in particular. I also talked a bit about why other European alphabetic languages are so simple and straightforward to learn and about what it is that makes English more complex. However, as I made plain, in the hands of competent teachers, reading and writing in English is not difficult to teach. It does though take time and effort and the teaching needs to be systematic and explicit.

Some members of the Blackthorns Primary School staff

After the parents’ talk, I had a very enjoyable discussion with the staff on some of the finer points of teaching the Sounds-Write programme. From the quality of some of the questions they asked and from their enthusiasm, I think their parents are going to be very pleased with their children’s reading and writing. The thing that the staff have noticed in particular is that the children’s writing has improved, something all teachers new to Sounds-Write notice immediately. 

On the following morning, thanks to an invitation from Katherine Lucor, I gave a two-hour talk to the West Sussex educational psychology team on the principles underlying the Sounds-Write approach. This included what specifically it is that anyone learning an alphabetic language must learn, why some alphabetic languages are easier to teach and learn than others, and something about how children learn most effectively. From the informal feedback I’ve been given, the talk generated quite a bit of discussion, interestingly enough, some of it on the question of how thorough a training should be. Their feeling seems to be that it should be thorough!

On the latter point, we have always stuck out for a comprehensive four-day training. In our view, this is the least amount of time needed to teach trainees how the writing system relates to the sounds of the language and all the things teachers need to do to teach it effectively.

Finally, yesterday, it was with real happiness I was able to return to the school where Sounds-Write was first piloted twelve years ago and where Marianne Brand once taught – at St Thomas Aquinas Catholic Primary School. I have long loved this school, so much we sent our youngest daughter there, yet all these years on, the moment one steps into the school, the atmosphere is as vibrant and exciting as ever. Teachers have come and gone but the energy and commitment to the education of the children remains exactly the same. What pleasure!