Monday, 12 November 2018

The Reading League Conference: A Tour de Force and Force for Good.

In late October, I had the great honour of attending and participating in The Reading League Conference, in Syracuse, upstate New York. The Reading League was formed just a couple of years ago, with the aim of advancing the awareness, understanding, and use of evidence-based reading instruction, and has the byline When we know better, we do better. It is the brain-child of Dr Maria Murray, a former academic at State University of New York (Oswego), ably supported by a team including Drs Jorene Cook, Heidi Beverine-Curry, Michelle Storie, and Ms Stephanie Finn (and more - see here). The enthusiasm, sense of shared endeavour, and demonstrable capacity for hard work these people display is nothing short of inspirational.   It was therefore, additionally wonderful to learn at the conference that The Reading League has been the recipient of a large philanthropic donation ($US9million) from the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation. We can only dream of philanthropy on this scale in Australia, but I am confident it will be put to good use, both to expand national programs for teachers, and to commence an endowment fund. My congratulations to The Reading League team on this oustanding achievement, especially so soon after its creation. 

I am particularly pleased that The Reading League has chosen to have the word “Reading” in its name rather than “Literacy”. That’s not to say that I think literacy is unimportant; nothing could be further from the truth. However, literacy is an end-point, not a starting point, and without reading abilities, children cannot grow up to become literate citizens. This point often seems to be lost in discussions involving early years education academics, whose focus is on cultivating a love of beautiful literature at the outset, without necessarily explicitly equipping children with the tools with which to access the written word on the page and derive its meaning. This is a major point of divide between education academics (many of whom persist in overtly or covertly promoting Whole Language [aka Balanced Literacy] approaches to early years instruction), and those in related fields such as cognitive, and educational and developmental psychology, and speech-language pathology, whose focus is understanding and applying findings from rigorous studies on optimal instruction for all children, not just those whose biopsychosocial circumstances mean that they were going to cross the bridge to reading and literacy anyway (almost irrespective of the pedagogical focus in their classroom). 

Let me share some of the academic and applied highlights of the conference program in Syracuse. I’m going to weave my commentary in with the views and insights of the speakers and will do my best to avoid ambiguity as to “who is talking”. 

Dr Louisa Moats was the Keynote Speaker, and also the deserving recipient of the inaugural Benita Blachman Award for her services over many years to the promotion of highly developed teacher-knowledge and practice regarding early reading instruction. Dr Moats is an internationally acclaimed scholar and practitioner and is uncompromising in her respect for and promotion of the science of early reading instruction. She used her Keynote presentation to describe her own professional journey, which began in the 1960s and 70s with what she described as “some strange language and reading fictions”, including the fashion at the time, of diagnosing children with something called “minimal brain dysfunction” (MBD). This is a term I recall well from my own early days as a speech-language pathologist, and you can read about it in this 1976 publication. MBD allowed us to hide behind what was referred to as “soft neurological signs” (or in everyday shorthand, just “soft signs”), which in hindsight was a coded way of saying “we don’t have a clue, but we’ll grab onto this omnibus term that locates responsibility for apparent learning difficulty squarely in the child and not in our teaching or therapeutic support”. We have made at least some progress, in the last 30-40 years. 

Dr Moats provided a clear summary of matters that should be considered “settled” on the basis of reading research, as follows. Note I am quoting directly in many cases from photos of Dr Moats’ slides. My minor edits are in italics.

  • English orthography represents sound, (spelling) pattern, and meaning
  • Reading and spelling are language skills
  • Phoneme awareness is the essential underpinning.
  • Code-based instruction works best, especially for the lower end of the continuum.

 Dr Moats drew on the work of Professor Mark Seidenberg, to highlight four inter-connected processing systems: 
  1. Context/background information
  2. Vocabulary/meaning
  3. Phonology (speech input and output).
  4. Orthography (reading input and writing output)

She noted that we recognise words via a number of levels of analysis, and it is helpful for teachers and clinicians to understand, and be able to teach and provide instructional support at all of these. In her presentation, Dr Moats illustrated this concept using the word “unreachable”:

(Sub)lexical breakdown
Unit of analysis

Dr Moats emphasised here that letters don’t represent sounds, graphemes do – a point that she acknowledged took her younger self some time to grasp. This is why I argue that it is important that teachers fully understand language and literacy “under the bonnet” (or “under the hood” for our north American friends). Knowing that the letters “ch” together are a digraph, and that that digraph represents one sound (the phoneme /สง/), should protect teachers (and their students) from well-meaning, but misguided attempts to sound out the individual letters in a word such as “chop” (yes, such things do unfortunately sometimes happen). 

Dr Moats also drew here on the work of Professor Charles Perfetti, regarding the relationship between knowledge of word form and knowledge of word meaning. You can learn more about this work here.
Some other key take-home points from Dr Moats’ presentation concerned the importance of scientific literacy at a community level, not just for education community, so that effective research can be distilled, critiqued, discussed, and translated into practice more efficiently than currently occurs. Dr Moats also noted that admission of errors by literacy leaders and policy makers does not happen often, but it is commendable when it does occur. 

Dr Moats ended her presentation by quoting the words of American Civil Rights Campaigner, Rosa Parks:
We are not where we want to be.
We are not where we are going to be.
But we are not where we were.

It’s sad to reflect on the fact that words spoken about the injustices stared down by the American Civil Rights movement are also apt to describe the injustices of uneven initial reading instruction in schools across the world. However there was no sense in the room filled with some 600 delegates that these words were anything other than spot on. 

Dr Steve Dykstra
I attended two presentations by Dr Dykstra (a clinical psychologist from Milwaukee), both dear to my heart content-wise, but for different reasons. You might be forgiven for wondering why a clinical psychologist would be presenting at a reading conference. The answer lies here, in Dr Dykstra’s description of his interest in reading skills:

As a psychologist with over 25 years of experience, working in an urban setting with the most challenging and difficult mental health cases involving children, I came to recognize the role of school failure, and particularly reading difficulties in the complex stories of the children and families I tried to serve.

I am not a researcher, but I am an informed consumer of research and I like to help others digest and understand the science of reading so that they can make better decisions.

These words go to the heart of Dr Dykstra’s first presentation, which was entitled Trauma-affected young people and the importance of effective reading instruction and skills.  

This presentation resonated with me because of my two decades of research on the oral language (and more recently literacy) skills of vulnerable young people. I recognise that many young people might be vulnerable, and in different ways, for different reasons, but in the case of my research, the term vulnerable has referred to children and adolescents in contact with the law (either as child victims of crime or as adolescent offenders), young people in the state care system, and young people in so-called “flexible” or alternative education settings. Sadly, in many cases, participants in my research can tick all of these boxes, and that is obviously also the experience of Dr Dystra in his clinical work with troubled young people. 

Dr Dykstra expressed frustration about school systems that further compromise the life chances of already at-risk young people by not equipping them with an almost-certain protective factor to buffer the effects of their existing adversity. Being able to read won’t necessarily mean your relationship skills are transformed after years of trauma-exposure, but it may mean you are employable and have a fighting chance of breaking unhealthy inter-generational cycles of dysfunction, addiction, and under-employment. 

We sweat the small stuff in reading instruction purely because of the enormous implications across the life-span of getting the little things right, at the right time, in early reading instruction. We don’t sweat the small stuff in order to win petty skirmishes between grown-ups.  Accordingly, the clinical psychology voice is extremely important in this discussion and we need to hear it more often. 

Dr Dykstra’s second presentation was entitled Using and understanding research – without having to grapple with “math”. Here, he set himself the task of explaining the principles of research methodology and critical appraisal of published research to practitioners for whom this is typically foreign (and uncomfortable) territory. 

I have blogged previously about the importance of teachers being research-literate and have provided a rubric to assist them to navigate this territory. It is important to remember two sometimes contradictory concepts when interpreting published findings: (i) the fact that peer-reviewed papers carry more weight in academic circles, and (ii) there is peer-review, and there is peer-review, as I have discussed previously. So readers need to also consider where the paper is published and the level of difficulty attached to publishing in that particular journal. This has been made even more complex in recent years through the entry onto the stage, of predatory journals whose only bar to publication is an invalid credit card number. 

Dr Dykstra’s presentation was engaging at a number of levels. He removed his beloved numbers from most of his slides, so the audience could relax and engage with key concepts such as control groups, blinding, and how differences are assessed using statistical methods. His particular case study was the i3 Reading Recovery study published by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, in 2016. You can find extensive critique of this study at this IFERI site.
Dr Dykstra’s two key messages in critiquing this particular study were the fact that Reading Recovery was “compared” with business as usual, not with another reading intervention. This does not make sense at any level. Something should always be better than nothing, even if it is under-powered and lacking specificity, and Reading Recovery is no exception. Secondly, Dr Dykstra explained that the teachers in this study refused to participate unless they knew which children were in the control arm and which were in the Reading Recovery arm. So - the control students were under the direct and knowing instruction of their unblinded teachers. This is a fatal flaw and is the point at which all of us should stop reading where this study is concerned. 

No clinical trials of new drugs or surgical interventions would be conducted in hospitals according to these fundamentally defective approaches. Education trials on children at school are no less important than clinical trials in hospitals and need to be afforded the same rigour. First-year health sciences students would fail a research methods subject for not being able to detect flaws such as these, yet they are somehow “waved through” in Education. 

Dr David Kilpatrick
Dr David Kilpatrick’s presentation was jammed-packed with detailed and interesting content on orthographic mapping, so-called sight words (which according to Dr Kilpatrick, are words which are instantly recognisable to the reader, regardless of their orthographic regularity; note that this is not necessarily how other researchers and practitioners refer to sight words, which are often taken to mean words which need to be learned as wholes, because of their phoneme-grapheme irregularities, e.g., “said” and “one”), observable differences between skilled and unskilled early readers, and a critique of the widely popular, yet not scientifically based (or validated) Three-Cueing approach to supporting beginning readers.

It will not be possible for me here to summarise all of the content of Dr Kilpatrick’s presentation, but I’d like to offer some key points, on which I am enjoying further reading in his text Essentials of Assessing, Preventing and Overcoming Reading Difficulties, and can recommend it to anyone wanting to gain a better grasp of the cognitive science underlying effective reading instruction and support for struggling readers. 

  • Our instruction focus is on reading words, not on learning words, and children typically need 1-4 exposures in order to learn a word and its meaning (many more exposures are needed in the case of children with learning difficulties). Given that children typically recognise around 3000 - 8000 words by mid-primary years (Kilpatrick, 2015), we have to accept that, in line with David Share’s self-teaching hypothesis, a considerable number of words are learned across the school years (and no doubt beyond) through children making “word-specific print-to-meaning connections”. This (confirmed) hypothesis is consistent with the notion of so-called “statistical learning”, as discussed here in this recent open-access tutorial written by Associate Professor Joanne Arciuli, and reinforces the importance of providing beginning readers with the tools to make sense of English as a morpho-phonemic language (I will come back to morphology below; this was not a focus of Dr Kilpatrick’s presentation). However self-teaching and statistical learning are important concepts and I hope readers of this blog find the links useful.
  • Phonics-knowledge is not a “nice optional extra” for beginning readers. It is essential, and remains so across the school years, not just in the initial stages of “cracking the code”.
  • Phoneme-segmentation helps children learn how to spell words. Poor phonemic awareness makes it difficult for children to read alphabetic languages (of which English is one, though its orthography is not 100% transparent, and the extent to which this is emphasised varies according to how much the argument depends on discrediting phonics as an instructional approach). We write sequences of characters (in line with the point made by Dr Louisa Moats, see above, that it is graphemes, not letters, that are the written representations of the sounds of speech), to denote sequences of phonemes in spoken words.
  • Skilled readers are not skilled guessers of words. This point lies at the heart of Dr Kilpatrick’s critique of the widely popular, yet not scientifically-supported Three-Cueing Approach to early reading instruction. Dr Kilpatrick referred to Three-Cueing as a theory (generous, in my estimation) about “getting meaning from print”, which is not the same as reading, given the inclusion of referring to picture cues, which divert children’s gaze away from the print. Importantly, syntactic/grammatical skills are virtually uncorrelated with word reading skills, so this immediately renders one third of the Three-Cueing model redundant
  • Linnea Ehri’s Theory of Orthographic Mapping (longterm memory of a words’ spelling, pronunciation and meaning) is helpful in guiding our understanding of how children “learn to read words by sight, to spell words from memory, and to acquire vocabulary words from print…..and is enabled by phonemic awareness and grapheme-phoneme knowledge”.

I also attended a session delivered by Dr Nancy Cushen-White on morphology, a construct that I think has been severely underdone in early reading circles in recent years, and I am pleased to see it is coming in from the cold. English is a morpho-phonemic language, and teachers who understand this are well-equipped to understand and respond to spelling errors made by young (and sometimes not so young) students, such as writing the word “shopped” as “shopt”. From a phonemic awareness perspective, this error is understandable. The child hears the /t/ sound at the end of the word, but may not have grasped the grammatical principle that in English, we often represent the past tense of a verb with the morpheme -ed. Because of the impact of surrounding sounds, this is sometimes pronounced as the voiceless /t/ rather than the voiced /d/. As noted recently by Castles, Rastle, and Nation(2018), “Once morphological regularities between spelling and meaning are discovered, orthographic learning does not need to proceed one item at a time” (p.25) – in line with the notions of self-teaching and statistical learning outlined above. 

While I don’t support the notion espoused by some (e.g. Bowers & Bowers, 2017) that morphology is a starting point for reading instruction, I do agree that (a) teachers need to be highly knowledgeable about this aspect of language and (b) this knowledge should inform early instruction and become more explicit in the middle years, once basic code-breaking skills are mastered and children are ready to learn more about etymology and the structure of the English language, to inform both reading and spelling success. This area is one of increasing debate and I will state here as a matter of public record that my views may change over time as more evidence emerges on this important aspect of reading (and spelling) instruction.

Dr Cushen-White’s presentation was dense with rich information about linguistics but was unfortunately hampered by technical issues. Some of the key take-away concepts were:

  •  Etymology = the history of a word.
  • Morphology = current structure of a word.
  • A root is the etymological source of the base element but may or may not resemble the base element.
  • Eponym = a word derived from the name of a person, e.g., sandwich, atlas
  • Toponym – word derived from a place, e.g., fez.
  • Denotation = literal, primary meaning.
  • Connotation = other characteristics, suggested, or implied.
  • Words with spelling connections also have meaning connections (very relevant to the concept of self-teaching)
  • Lexical words must have at least three letters, to differentiate them from function words, e.g., inn-in; fore-for; bye-by; too-to; ore-or; butt-but; bee-be; wee-we.

At The Reading League Conference, I also encountered The 95% Group initiated by Dr Susan Hall, with whom I enjoy interacting on Twitter. The premise of this organisation is that we should (of course!) be teaching 95% of children to be skilled readers, rather than the 60-70% success rate typically achieved in western, industrialised nations. I’d recommended that you investigate this organisation further, and consider following Dr Hall on Twitter - @Susanhall_EdD

Listening to fellow academics whose work I have followed and admired for some time is one thing, but listening to and meeting John Corcoran was something else altogether. Some readers of this blog will already be familiar with John’s story but if not, I recommend you read about him and his extraordinary journey through illiteracy, being a school teacher for seventeen years, while unable to read beyond  grade 2 level, and finally “outing” himself, acknowledge a life of pain, deception, and shame. John is now in his early 80s and is a tireless campaigner for effective reading instruction, and a close friend of The Reading League. Having someone like John at this conference was a powerful reminder that children who can’t read, grow into adults who still can’t read (whether because of intrinsic difficulties, sometimes referred to as dyslexia, or because of poor instruction). Those of us who strive for better outcomes from the early years of school need look no further than the John Corcorans of the world for a reminder of the profound importance of getting the foundations right. 

It is well-known that reading is one of the most researched topics in developmental psychology. Unfortunately, however, this body of research encounters an almost inexplicable resistance to translation into classroom practice, for a range of reasons: teachers are not typically well-equipped by their pre-service education to be critical consumers of new research, and even if they were, they would need to deal with the obstacle of most peer-reviewed journals being behind expensive fire-walls. We also need to acknowledge the impediment posed by the “middle men” between peer-reviewed research (education academics) and pre-service teachers. In many (but importantly, not all) cases, these academics have adopted a “talk to the hand” approach to evidence arising from paradigms other than their own. 

Imagine how we would recoil in horror if medical practitioners rejected peer-reviewed scientific evidence on the grounds that it was not produced by people who are, or have been, practising medical practitioners. In clinical medicine and public health, it is widely accepted that the evidence that informs everyday decision-making draws from a rich well of research, conducted by scientists in microbiology, pharmacology, anatomy, immunology, biochemistry, neuroscience, and physiology, to name a few. Medical practitioners typically welcome the contributions made by colleagues in related fields, and critically appraise the suitability of new findings for transfer into practice. There may be tensions from time-to-time, but these are generally substantive in nature – i.e., they relate to matters of substance and science, not to matters of paradigm and disciplinary affiliation. 

It could be reassuring, in the context of the so-called “Reading Wars” for us to draw some comfort from the fact that players on both sides of the battle-lines are wanting similar outcomes: students who are skilled readers. The reality, though, is we are not all in this together, as the Whole Language/Balanced Literacy camp does not shift its position (for example, reliance on Three Cueing, teaching banks of de-contextualised “sight” words to beginners, and relying on predictable, levelled readers as early instructional texts) in response to four decades of reading research. This fossilisation of ideas and practices would be something the rest of us could ignore, but for the fact that it leaves behind the bottom 30-40% of students. Imploring parents to read to their babies and pre-school children, and lauding the importance of “authentic” children’s literature (where and however that line might be drawn) is simply no substitute for effective classroom instruction in the critical window that is the first three years of school. It is these kinds of persisting ideas and practices that have given rise to the establishment of the Reading League.
All of us need to do everything we can to progress the science of reading and ensure that it is translated into practice in the classroom. To do this, we need to put knowledge and skills in the hands of pre-service teachers. The only people who can do this in an efficient and cost-effective manner, however, are education academics. But many education academics are waging a different campaign. Their campaign is less about the needs of children, and more about the need to shore up support for an out-dated and discredited view of how children learn to read (with virtual silence on how to support those who struggle). A key message from some of these academics is that everyone else should respect the professional autonomy of teachers, and basically butt-out of the debate. However, as I have noted previously, professionalism means highly constrained accountability, it does not mean “leave me alone to do my own thing (and trust me in the process)”. 

If we cannot immediately change pre-service education, we can change the knowledge available to practising teachers, as evidenced in a short time by the efforts of Dr Maria Murray and her colleagues. My warm congratulations to The Reading League on an excellent conference, and also on its positive can-do energy and scientific  commitment to support teachers everywhere to know better and do better

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Who sank the (reading) boat? A sad tale of academic misrepresentation of the role of decodable texts for beginning readers.

I am writing this blogpost in Syracuse, New York, where I have just had the great pleasure of being part of the second annual Reading League Conference. The Reading League is a group of practitioners, academics and clinicians committed to understanding and applying the science of early reading instruction, so that all children receive optimal initial teaching and early support if needed. Their byline is When we know better, we do better.  I was hoping to be using this time to write a blogpost about this conference and its importance (which I will do), but the more pressing issue is responding to this piece, published yesterday in The Conversation: What are decodable readers and do they work? co-authored by Education Academics A/Prof Misty Adoniou (University of Canberra), Principal Fellow Dr Brian Cambourne (University of Wollongong),  and Prof Robyn Ewing (University of Sydney). 

That The Conversation has published such a poorly referenced, opinion-based piece on a platform that goes by the byline Academic Rigour, Journalistic Flair is nothing short of an astounding abandonment of at least one of those commitments. One without the other is not what I thought The Conversation stood for.

Adoniou et al. open by quoting the Australian Curriculum definition of decodable texts, as follows: 

Decodable texts are texts that can be read using decoding skills a student has acquired. Decodable text is usually associated with beginning readers. 

They notably fail, however, to provide a definition of the word “decode” from the same document:


A process of working out a meaning of words in a text. In decoding, readers draw on contextual, vocabulary, grammatical and phonic knowledge. Readers who decode effectively combine these forms of knowledge fluently and automatically, and self-correct using meaning to recognise when they make an error.

Note – “phonic knowledge” is bizarrely placed at the end of the list of skills that the previous definition tells us is usually associated with beginning readers. The word “decode” here may as well simply mean “read” – the definition pays no attention to the actual skill of linking sounds and letters at a sub-lexical level to determine the identity of an unfamiliar word. 

So - just because a definition is in a government document, doesn’t mean the rest of us should swallow it whole.

By contrast, the peer-reviewed, highly-regarded, and widely-accepted cognitive science-based Simple View of Reading holds that decoding is a far more specific skill that refers to the reader’s ability to use phonics knowledge to derive phonemes (sounds) from graphemes (letters and letter combinations that represent them). In the case of decodable readers, this skill refers to the early novice period, but decoding is a skill that continues to be important across the lifespan. When secondary science students learn about deoxyribonucleic acid, do they work out how to pronounce the word from “contextual, vocabulary, grammatical” information? No, they use their decoding skills (if they are fortunate enough to have them). 

It is Kafkaesque to take a word such as “decoding” and give it a meaning that conveniently better-aligns to a dominant ideology in education, but that is obviously what occurred in the writing of the Australian Curriculum. Now is a good time to call this out, and I thank Adoniou et al. for the opportunity to do so.   

Let’s have a look at some of their other claims (highlighted in grey):

Books like this have no storyline; they are equally nonsensical whether you start on the first page, or begin on the last page and read backwards.

This is a total fabrication (otherwise known as a lie). There are many different sets of decodable readers (a number of which can be accessed for free: see here) and they contain a narrative structure that is appropriate to the reading level and proficiency of the novice reader. 

Where, pray tell, is the storyline in the following (which is typical of the text in an early leveled reader)

I can see a dog         [picture of dog on opposite page]

I can see a mouse    [picture of mouse on opposite page]

I can see a lion         [picture of lion on opposite page]

I can see a chicken  [picture of a chicken on opposite page]

I can see a rabbit     [can you guess what might be pictured on the opposite page? Well done, you’re now officially a reader]

Beginning readers are not typically fluent, unless they are engaged in this type of pseudo-reading – the process of reciting repetitive stems that end in a different word on each page, accompanied by a conveniently helpful picture that also varies on each page. This can create a comforting, but short-lived illusion of reading that sometimes comes unravelled around Year 4 (the so-called Year 4 slump), when the pictures disappear, the text is longer and more complex, and reliance on a bank of sight-words and guessing results in a frustrating dead-end for the student (and his or her teacher). 

While they may teach the phonics skills “N” and “P”, they don’t teach children the other important decoding skills of grammar and vocabulary.

I have no idea what phonics skills “N” and “P” are. “N” and “P” are upper case letters of the English alphabet, and that’s all.  

That aside, we would not expect knowledge of letters of the alphabet in and of themselves to teach other important linguistic skills because grammar and vocabulary are not “decoding skills” – they are grammar and vocabulary, and they assist with the comprehension part of the Simple View of Reading

No wonder teachers find thinking about different parts of words (consonants, vowels, digraphs, trigraphs, phonemes, morphemes, syllables, etc) so complex, if three Education Academics responsible for pre-service education are confusing so-called phonics skills with grammar and vocabulary. 

And as many a parent will testify, they don’t teach the joy of reading.

Can we have some evidence for this broad, sweeping claim please, Education Academics?

Meaning and vocabulary development are not the focus of decodable readers. Yet, research shows the importance of vocabulary for successful reading.

Correct - the focus of decodable readers is ….well, decoding….. that is, independently lifting the word off the page, in order to be able to access meaning and vocabulary in infinite combinations. 

Limited vocabulary in books translates to lack of vocabulary growth.

As noted above, the purpose of decodable readers is to support novices in mastering the code and accessing an infinite number of words as independent readers. This process is increasingly understood to draw on statistical learning (as recently described here by Arciuli) a kind of self-teaching that has to take over in order for children to be able to orthographically map the large number of words they need to automatically read and understand across their school years (see also Share's Self-Teaching Hypothesis). Any teacher relying on decodable readers alone, however, to promote vocabulary growth has been seriously misguided by their pre-service education. Effective pre-service education, however, supports teachers in a multitude of pedagogical practices that support early vocabulary development, such as reading children’s literature to the class, encouraging complex narrative production, and explicit teaching of new vocabulary. As I have stated previously, oral language is like the engine, and effective instruction is the fuel in the tank. They strengthen each other. The nexus between the two is also discussed here.  

It is unclear to me why the authors cite, as evidence for their claim that “focusing on sounds alone is not sufficient to support a struggling reader” a paper that is a meta-analysis of morphological interventions for struggling readers?  

Perhaps they want readers to know they are aware of the importance of morphology in teaching a morpho-phonemic language such as English, which is all well and good, but the paper cited concerns struggling readers, where The Conversation article is about a proposed government initiative concerning initial instruction. This is muddled thinking, and no phonics proponents refer to phonics instruction to the exclusion of the other linguistic components that make up effective reading. 

If they do, I am yet to see an example. 

If the authors are genuinely interested in what works when supporting struggling readers, why do they not cite this 2014 meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials (the highest level of research evidence), showing that "...phonics instruction is not only the most frequently investigated treatment approach, but also the only approach whose efficacy on reading and spelling performance in children and adolescents with reading disabilities is statistically confirmed"?

The reality is all children learning to read need to listen to, and read books that are written with rich vocabulary, varied sentence structures and interesting content knowledge that encourages them to use their imagination.

Well of course they do. But here the authors are (once again) conflating books that should be read to children, with books that are used as early instructional materials. This is Pedagogy 101 and it is alarming to say the least, that three Education Academics either do not understand this, or are mischievously conflating the two for the purposes of obfuscation. 

When teaching children to read, we hope they will learn reading is pleasurable and can help them to make sense of their lives and those around them.

Hoping is not enough. As stated a number of times by primary teacher Troy Verey in the recent Australian College of Education Phonics Debate – let’s teach the code explicitly, so we don’t leave reading to chance (or hope).  

The strategies children are taught to use when first learning to read greatly influence what strategies they use in later years*. When children are taught to focus solely on letter-sound matching to read the words of decodable readers, they often continue in later years to over-rely on this strategy, even with other kinds of texts**. This causes inaccurate, slow, laborious reading, which leads to frustration and a lack of motivation for reading**.

*The reference provided by the authors to support this point is an unpublished dissertation from six years ago, that did not actually follow children up into "the later years". Not good enough from undergraduate students and definitely not acceptable from senior academics. And not good enough as a primary source on The Conversation.

**References please (as we remind undergraduate students).

And yet it’s children from disadvantaged backgrounds who are less likely to have access to these books in their homes. It’s crucial schools fill the gap.

Again, I have written before about links between socio-economic status and early vocabulary. But here’s the rub: schools don’t get to choose which children walk through their gates. Teachers have to be able to teach the students in their class, not the ones they might prefer to have from a neighbouring suburb, with a better socio-economic profile. It’s the job of teachers to teach reading to all children, irrespective of their starting point. Their pre-service education must prepare them to do this and must provide strategies by which the progress of children who start from behind, is actually accelerated in order to "fill the gap" referred to by the authors. If reading to children was the magic bullet here, children from language and text-rich homes would not struggle with reading; yet some of them unfortunately do.

It is not the job of parents to teach children how to read. It is the job of teachers. There is abundant evidence that teachers’ knowledge of the structure of language and how to explicitly teach reading to novices is under-done, in Australia and overseas. The only people who can change this are Education Academics, such as Adoniou et al. 

Let’s consider for a moment how we teach children other skills:

When children learn to ride a bike, we typically provide training wheels, to give them extra support while they develop their balancing and gross motor control skills. We don’t expect them to need training wheels indefinitely, but we also don’t think it’s a reasonable thing to sit them on a two-wheeler and give them a push from behind, expecting success. 

When children learn a musical instrument, the association between musical notation and finger position (e.g., on a guitar or piano) is broken down to its simplest, most pared back form, so that the novice can learn the underlying principle of how they correspond, can practise a small set of associations, and then progress to more complex ones, once the simpler ones have been consolidated. 

We do not sit children down at the piano and put a Mozart sonata in front of them, telling them to "bang around for a bit and it'll start to sound like Mozart". Nor do we expect that playing recordings of Mozart sonatas to children will turn them into proficient pianists. We know that they need to learn and practise isolated sub-skills, to the point of automaticity,  in order to do this.

In constructivist education circles, these processes might very reasonably be referred to as occurring via scaffolding, a term derived from the  work of twentieth-century developmental psychologist, Lev Vygotsky

What a shame that the Education Academics who authored the above piece on The Conversation do not seem to understand the role of systematic (not random) scaffolding via decodable readers, in supporting the (genuine, not Kafkaesque) decoding skills of novice readers. 

Until this changes, nothing much will change in early years classrooms in Australia. 

(C) Pamela Snow (2018)