Sunday, 3 November 2019

Trick or treat? More nonsense words about phonics instruction and assessment.




Late last week (by curious coincidence, on Halloween in fact) University of Canberra Adjunct Associate Professor Misty Adoniou released an opinion piece making a number of unsubstantiated, often emotive claims that cannot go unchallenged. Apparently Misty thinks that her adjunct status as an academic liberates her from the need to provide evidence for the claims she makes about early reading instruction. This is, however, not the case, so I have done my best here to highlight gaps and flaws in her piece. 

Now I am neither superstitious nor religious, but perhaps it’s timely to remember that Halloween (Hallowed Evening) is followed on November 1 by All Saints Day – a day to move beyond the scare mongering and strange fictions that find their way into people’s minds on October 31. My favourite saint has to be St Skeptikus, and yes, I did just make her up, but if she was real, she would want us all to honour her name by questioning the trick-or-treat “facts” presented here without substantiation.

Misty’s assertion
My response
Anglophone countries have been struggling for years with declining achievement in reading and writing as students move through primary school and into high school.
Agreed. But the problem here is not so much the English writing system, as the approaches that have been cemented into practice in teacher pre-service education and early years’ classrooms. I have blogged about this previously here and also here.
In 2019 more than 25 per cent of Year 6 students in England failed to reached the minimum requirements in the annual national reading and writing assessments. This means around 1 in 4 students in England are leaving primary school ill-equipped to cope with the literacy demands of high school. Similar statistics are reported in Australia and the United States.
The important thing here is to look at the trend over time, not merely at one dot-point on a graph. In 2018, 32% of Year 6 children did not reach this benchmark, and in 2017, it was 43% - getting up uncomfortably close to half. 

The reading comprehension shift over the last three years is clearly a positive one.

The source for the figures is here. See also my graph below, which makes this trend even clearer.
England has decided the problem is that students do not have the skills to decode basic texts. So, in 2011 they instituted a mandatory Phonics Screening Check for Year 1 students. Students are prepared for the test through government-approved commercial, synthetic phonics programs. Those who fail the test receive more phonics instruction and re-take the test in Year 2. The rationale is, if we can get the basics right, the rest will follow. Eight years on, it is clear the rationale is flawed.
England decided that part of the problem is that children do not always have the skills to decode text, in line with the emphasis in its 2006 inquiry into teaching reading, authored by Sir Jim Rose, which had a strong theoretical foundation in the Simple View of Reading (SVR). The SVR has been around since 1986, so it’s about time everyone understood that it is concerned with more than simply decoding (identifying) words. It is equally concerned with a child’s ability to understand words once they have been identified.

Misty begins her blogpost with a list of words that are deemed to be somehow “broken” or “damaging” to young children because they are technically non-words.

Good luck to children then when they advance to reading Dr Seuss, Lewis Carroll, JK Rowling, and Roald Dahl (to name a few). No delights in quidditch for children in Misty’s class – they can presumably only read words that are already in a formal dictionary somewhere.
But why hasn’t this phonics ‘first, fast and furious’ approach worked? And are there lessons for those who teach English language learners?
But why is Misty overlooking the evidence that an increased emphasis on phonics instruction has resulted in improved decoding skills?

Children getting better at what Misty herself agrees is an essential skill is a good thing, that should be celebrated. Isn’t it?

It's not the whole story and we still have quite some work to do, but shouldn’t we be celebrating wins along the way rather than dismissing them as irrelevant?

The teachers who have worked hard to achieve these gains deserve better than this. 
The first flaw in the English phonics solution to declining literacy achievement is that English is not a phonetic language. Whilst learning English letters and their common corresponding sounds is necessary, it isn’t sufficient to read and write in English.
Agreed. English is not a “phonetic” language. However, it is also not an opaque mystery, in which there are no rule-governed patterns in how sounds and letters work together.

This is the “because Englishhoary old chestnut that Whole Language and Balanced Literacy advocates fall back on as a defence against systematic rather than incidental teaching of how the English writing system works.

Interestingly, Misty’s second sentence here is a perfect endorsement of the SVR: learning English sound-letter correspondences is necessary but not sufficient

Isn’t that an essential principle that the SVR gave us more than 30 years ago?
English is a morpho-phonemic language. We write ‘jumped’ not ‘jumt’ because we know ‘ed’ is a suffix (morpheme) that marks the past, regardless of the ‘t’ sound (phoneme) we hear on the end of the word. We write ‘action’ not ‘acshun’, because we know ‘ion’ is a suffix that makes nouns – regardless of the sounds we hear.
Correct, and I agree completely. However, our teaching workforce, is not, in the main, currently equipped to teach reading drawing on the benefit of this knowledge, because their pre-service education fails to prepare them to do this.


“The consequences of a lack of content knowledge in teaching literacy can be serious, with Shulman (1986) indicating that lack of content knowledge results in narrowed and regressionist pedagogies as teachers resort to replicating own past experiences with instruction in language. In particular, to be effective in teaching children who struggle with literacy, they need a strong content knowledge of the English language (Spear-Swerling & Cheesman, 2012). Numerous accounts of beginning teachers note a lack of content knowledge about how the language works – most particularly, the basic constructs of the English language (Alderson & Hudson, 2013; Hadjioannou & Hutchinson, 2010; Moats et al., 2010; Washburn, Joshi, & Cantrell, 2011; Wong, Chong, Choy, & Lim, 2012). Spear-Swerling and Cheesman (2012) suggest that without good content knowledge in the area of literacy "teachers may provide inadvertently confusing instruction to children” (Spear-Swerling & Cheesman, 2012, p. 1692). 


English language learners need the whole linguistic picture of how words work when learning to read and write – when the focus is purely on phonics, half the clues are missing. That’s an inefficient way to learn a language, and an unfair burden for English language learners.
This is the persistent straw man argument that phonics is taught in isolation of meaning. The SVR, as noted above (and endlessly for the last 30+ years) promotes the importance of background knowledge and language comprehension.

Misty (and other readers of this blog) might be interested to know that the SVR has recently been updated, as the cognitive foundations of learning to read.

So let’s hear it for not trotting out this tired meme any more. 

It’s also ironic, given the emphasis on “meaning-based instruction” promoted by Whole Language and Balanced Literacy advocates. Isn’t this what has been the mainstay of early years instruction for the last three decades? If reading instruction is not working, this might be one of the first rocks we’d want to turn over, to find out why.

The second flaw in the English solution is that it promotes ‘synthetic’ instructional practices for phonics. This means students learn individual sounds for each letter which they then ‘synthesise’ together. In this approach, word meaning is considered irrelevant – even a hinderance (sic)– to initial instruction as it may distract students from attending to the individual letters in words.
Where is the evidence please that word meaning is considered “irrelevant”, let alone a “hindrance” when teachers are using a synthetic phonics approach?
To mitigate the possibility that the students are using meaning, context or prior exposure to the word, synthetic phonics instruction involves teaching the children to read ‘nonsense’ words, like ‘flug’ or ‘pob’.
Where is the evidence please that teachers teach children to read “nonsense” words as part of systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) instruction? Children who have been taught to be effective decoders should be able to decode words, irrespective of their score on Misty’s Mysterious Meaning Metric.

If teachers are specifically teaching so-called "nonsense" words, then they don’t fully understand the basis of SSP instruction, and need to have this clarified for them.

Let’s not forget too, that children do not have a psycholinguistic filter that automatically tells them a word is “real” or “nonsense” (notwithstanding the non-binary nature of this distinction anyway). Every new, unfamiliar word a child encounters might just as well be a nonsense word, if s/he does not yet know its meaning.

And then there’s all the new words that enter our language every year, because English is a dynamic, living language, that continues to evolve; think Google, selfie, mansplain, as examples.
An approach to reading and writing instruction that eschews meaning seems particularly perverse for any learner, but for English language learners (ELLs) a synthetic phonics approach is particularly harmful.
This is an extraordinary, pernicious, and dangerous claim that will arouse unnecessary anxiety for parents and teachers alike. 

This statement also conveniently ignores published evidence that explicit phonics instruction can actually be helpful to children from non-English speaking backgrounds

Misty should cite her sources for her biased, non evidence-based  claim or retract it and apologise for the distress and confusion it will inevitably cause.
When learning a new language, all words are potentially nonsense words.
As noted above, this applies to children whose first language is English also. I do not know what Misty’s point is here, but she does appear to have changed corners in the debate.
English language learners need a focus on word meanings, and to be taught new – real – vocabulary. It is hard to imagine a more useless practice for ELLs than deliberately teaching them to read nonsense.
All children need a focus on the linguistic basis of written words – the sound structure they represent and their meanings. It should never be either-or, as Misty chronically attempts to assert.

What does “deliberately teaching children to read nonsense” actually look like? Might it look like supporting them to read a Dr Seuss book for example?
A third flaw in the English phonics first approach is that it is exclusionary, and possibly racist. Native speaker accents are privileged. Some allowances are made for regional native English accents.
This claim is simply alarmist and lacks substantiation. Again - evidence please.
Of course, the ultimate flaw in the English plan to improve reading and writing skills is that it isn’t working. The students are not getting better at reading and writing. The phonics ‘jab’ they receive in the first two years of school simply hasn’t been able to ward off the dreaded middle years decline in literacy achievement. They are failing their Year 6 reading tests – despite knowing their sounds. The US may have made the right call on this problem – the middle years literacy decline is not because basic decoding skills are lacking, it is because complex comprehension skills are missing.
Let’s put the pejorative language to one side here (though vaccinations are generally a good thing in public health sense and prevent a great deal of downstream harm).

Instead, we can do some simple fact checking. UK children are NOT "failing Year 6 tests" at all.

To make this easy, I have produced a graph of the last three years, showing steady improvement on this dimension:



(C) Pamela Snow (2019)

Saturday, 3 August 2019

Dear Parents: Welcome to the Confusing World of Reading Instruction


Dear parents
I am reaching out about a subject that I know will be extremely important to you – the question of whether or not your child learns to read in the early years of school. Some of you might be alarmed at the thought that this would even be open to question. I can hear you now: “Surely, if my child is attending a local school, irrespective of education sector, they are going to learn to read?! Why would I even need to worry about this?”  I know that many of you are concerned about this, though, because I regularly hear from parents via email. So I thought I would compile some information here about common concerns and frequently asked questions.
Unfortunately, all is not as it should be when it comes to how we teach our children to read, and parents need to be well-informed about this. Part of the problem in this space lies in how our universities prepare undergraduate teachers to teach reading. A recently released report shows enormous gaps with respect to how Australian universities go about preparing student teachers for the vital task of teaching reading, and there is no reason to believe that other first-world, English-speaking nations are doing any better.  
We’ve known for a long time that teachers lack the critical knowledge of language and literacy that is needed to take a novice 5-year old on the amazing and life-changing journey towards becoming a reader. This is not the fault of teachers. Responsibility for this lies with their university lecturers, who, for decades, have ignored or shunned robust cognitive psychology research about what the reading process is and how best to approach reading instruction to ensure success for all. Government and other education jurisdictions have been complicit in this rejection of scientific knowledge, preferring in the main, to try to appease all sides by saying, in effect: “Schools can choose from a range of methods; we don’t mind how they go about this, as long as they can say they are addressing the curriculum”.
Imagine how you would feel if student doctors were not taught up-to-date science about human physiology, disease processes, and appropriate treatments. Imagine if state health departments said to hospitals “You do your own thing with infection control. We’re sure you’re on top of this”.
Let’s unpack some important issues that parents need to understand about reading and how it is (or isn’t) taught, and then have a look at a few parental FAQs.
Reading is not a biologically natural thing to do
This might sound like a strange statement, but let me explain. In the first five years, children’s lives have a big focus on learning to talk. Talking and understanding are what we humans have evolved to do as a matter of course. Consequently, this period sees the largest language explosion of your child’s entire life. By school entry, children know (i.e., use and understand) around 10,000 words and their vocabulary will continue to grow steadily through the school years – both through conversations with adults and peers, and importantly, through their own reading.
Spoken language is critical in its own right, because it is the way we humans connect with each other and so it gives us tools to form and maintain relationships. In turn, these are critical for our mental health and well-being.
Oral language skills are also the foundation that children build on when they start school in order to learn how to read. Printed text was invented only about 6,000 years ago to represent speech. It’s a social and cultural contrivance and it’s a code, and as such, it needs to be learnt over time by children. Some children acquire the code relatively seamlessly, but the vast majority require support in the form of explicit teaching in order to do so. Unfortunately, though, explicit teaching of the code has been unfashionable in education circles in recent decades, and some educators have been less than upfront about their views on this. Read on.
There are historically-rooted tensions about how reading should be taught
There’s two broad schools of thought about how children are “best” taught how to read. Whole Language, and its descendant Balanced Literacy sit on one side of the debate, and proponents argue that reading is a meaning-based activity that is best acquired through immersion, and teaching approaches that incidental. Phonics proponents, on the other hand, argue that the code-based nature of reading needs to be explicitly unpacked for the reading novice, so that we are not leaving reading to chance.
Importantly, however, no phonics advocates argue that phonics alone is enough, and nor do they overlook the importance of all of the Big Five elements identified by the US National Reading Panel back in 2005: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency. Some, such as Australian education academic, Dr Deslea Konza, have argued for a focus on the Big Six, with oral language receiving equal focus. Some argue too that writing, spelling, and morphology are equally important, and I agree.
“Balanced Literacy” sounds reassuring to teachers and to parents because it suggests the right mix of teaching ingredients are in play, in the right order. Unfortunately Balanced Literacy is a buffed-up version of Whole Language, designed to appear like a teaching approach that ticks all the boxes, while keeping students and teachers back in a 1970s time-warp. You can read more about this history hereThe reading science has moved on since the 1970s and universities and classrooms need to catch up.
As parents, you buy a lottery ticket when your child starts school.
Schools get to choose their own adventure with respect to how they teach reading. Some will align strongly with the scientific evidence indicating that all children need to learn to decode, and the most efficient instructional approaches to ensure success in the early years. Lucky you, if that’s the kind of school your child is attending. Others, however, use a mixed-bag of approaches, most commonly referred to as Balanced Literacy, as noted above. 
*****
Let me now address some questions that are frequently asked by parents:
Don’t some children learn to read without explicit phonics instruction?
Yes, they do. The problem is, there is no way for a teacher of five-year olds to know at the start of their first year of school, who’s who in terms of the level of ease with which children will learn to read. For this reason, effective explicit phonics instruction is like fluoride in the teaching water; it protects every child against the decay of low reading achievement. It won’t prevent every academic difficulty that children might encounter in the future, but it will ensure that at a population level, every child is better off. Professor Catherine Snow (no relation) of Harvard University and her colleague Professor Connie Juel of Stanford University observed in 2005 that
Explicit teaching of alphabetic decoding skills is helpful for all children, harmful for none, and crucial for some
Can’t struggling readers just catch up later on?
Not easily, no. The best time for struggling readers to catch up is in the first year of school. After that, it’s a law of diminishing returns and it takes more and more resources to try to bring these children up to speed. All the while, of course, they are missing out on academic content, and often developing mental health problems such as anxiety as a result of their reading problems and the embarrassment attached to these. Effective early intervention is like building better fences at the top of the cliff, rather than parking ambulances at the bottom. The best early intervention is effective instruction.
Isn’t English too irregular for phonics instruction to be the focus of early years instruction?
English certainly has its quirks and idiosyncrasies, but overall this is a furphy. English is a rule-governed language, but there just happen to be rather a lot of rules. As with teaching your child anything complex (getting dressed, tying their shoe-laces, riding a bike, playing the piano), the logical learning principle is to start simple, practise and consolidate, and build up to more complexity.
Children don’t begin their piano playing by banging out a Beethoven sonata. We all accept the importance of starting with very simple pieces, such as Baa Baa Black Sheep, and explicitly teaching the connections between musical notation and the keys on the piano. Later on, they will learn about complexities such as sharps and flats, different keys and time signatures, and notes of different beat lengths. In the same way, in early reading instruction, it makes sense to start with some clear 1:1 correspondences between sounds (phonemes) and letters/letter combinations (graphemes), and build up from there.
Does it matter what kind of phonics instruction children receive?
Yes, it does. This is a game of playing the odds, and for my money, the odds favour approaches that are systematic, rather than incidental, and have a focus on synthesising (blending and segmenting sounds), rather than just focusing on initial letters or sounds in words.
Initial letters can be tricky for novice readers, because English requires us to produce and represent 44 speech sounds, but we only have 26 letters to do so. So if the child is trying to read the word “shoe”, asking her to focus on the initial letter will not be helpful. She needs to develop an understanding that the letter combination s + h is a grapheme that represents the phoneme /ʃ/ (“sh”).
If you would like to learn more about different approaches to phonics instruction, there’s a brief explainer here.
Are predictable readers a good idea in the early years?
Many schools have invested thousands of dollars in sets of levelled, predictable readers. A predictable reader is one in which there is an easily identifiable pattern in the content and structure of the text, to promote (apparent) early success through recitation rather than actual reading. If a child knows that only one word changes on each page, and that word corresponds to the different picture on the page, it’s not hard to see what habit is going to be established in the novice reader’s mind – one of guessing from pictures and predictability.
Unfortunately, this approach produces what is sometimes referred to as the year four slump – what seems like a sudden drop in a child’s performance in the middle primary years, when the scaffold of predictability is removed and they have to use their own decoding skills to lift new words off the page. If children have not been taught the skill of decoding, they have nowhere to go, except to become instructional casualties who now appear to have a “reading disorder”. 
The alternative to predictable texts for beginning readers is decodable texts. These are books whose simple narratives are made up mainly of words that contain phoneme-grapheme (letter-sound) combinations that children have already been taught, so that they experience the meaning-making associated with decoding text. These books are instructional scaffolds for use in the early stages of reading. In the beginning stages of reading instruction, adults should not confuse books that children read, with books that are read by others to children. The latter should contain words and sentences of all kinds of richness and complexity, so that oral language skills are being promoted at every turn.
You can learn more about the rationale behind using decodable texts here.
Unfortunately, some schools see the wisdom of teaching decoding skills systematically, but are loath to let go of the apparent security of predictable, levelled readers. This can be confusing for children, as it gives them a mixed message about what the reading process is all about. On the one hand, it’s about decoding through the word, and on the other, it’s about guessing and using picture cues; however, the latter approaches divert the child’s attention away from the text on the page - which contains all of the information they need in order to read.
Remember: written text was devised as a code for spoken language, so in order to derive meaning from it, children need to be able to decipher the code.

If parents read to them in the pre-school years, won’t children automatically become good readers?
Reading to children in the pre-school years (and well beyond) is important for a number of reasons. It exposes children to rich, complex vocabulary and sentence structure, and assists with their understanding of the structure of narrative - a text genre they will learn more about at school. Time spent by parents and children reading together is usually enjoyable too for the physical proximity and cuddles, and can be a soothing, down-regulating activity at the end of the day, ahead of sleep-time.
All of these are important reasons to maximise parent-child reading time, but don’t be fooled. In and of itself, reading to your child will not guarantee that he will be come a reader. Reading needs to be taught by classroom teachers on school entry. The corollary of this is that if your child has difficulties with reading at school, it cannot be attributed to a lack of home reading time in the pre-school years. This is called parent-blame and is not OK.
Is it OK to check children’s phonic decoding skills in the early years?
It is not only OK, it is essential, in the same way that we check children’s hearing and vision in the early years of life. In fact, population screening begins at the moment of birth, when your baby has a heel-prick test (you were probably barely aware of this at the time, amidst the myriad of emotions and distractions present in the birth suite).
There has been a lot of noisy debate in recent times about whether Australia should introduce a Year 1 Phonics Screening Check, along the lines of what has been used in England since 2012. Sadly, much of the opposition to this in Australia comes from teacher unions – bodies whose remit is industrial conditions, not the science of instruction. Teacher unions need to stay in their lane on this one. Otherwise, it will be clear to others that they are more concerned with misguided attempts to protect the reputation of teaching as a profession than they are with the welfare of students. If they are genuinely interested in teacher well-being, however, they will lobby universities for better pre-service education about the teaching of reading, and education sectors for clearer policy positions on this.
Many in education claim that “we already check decoding skills” and no doubt some, possibly many, do. The problem is that this is not done in a consistent manner. Some schools use high-quality screening tools to monitor children’s progress, while others use a bit of this and a bit of that, including some tools that are less well-suited to screening than others. This means risking inaccurate assessment along the way.
You might be interested to know that the South Australian Department for Education ran a trial of the Phonics Screening Check in 2018, and they were quite open about sharing their dismay and disappointment about how few children were able to demonstrate the necessary skills it measures.
If you start reading about the Phonics Screening Check, you’ll almost certainly come across tensions about its inclusion of so-called pseudo-words (also called nonsense words and non-words). These are simply there to assess whether your child has the essential code-breaking skills needed to map the relationships between sounds and letters. Nonsense words are not the enemy of meaning-making in reading. Think about how many wonderful and delightful children’s books contain them – e.g. books by Lewis Carroll, Dr Seuss, JK Rowling, and Roald Dahl, to name a few.

Why is all of this important?
It is important for the simple reason that either every child matters, or no child matters. 
No child should be deprived of the life-changing opportunity to learn to read. We know too much to be able to make excuses for failures to translate knowledge into action in universities and schools. Parents may be the most powerful voice of all in effecting change on this.

Where can you go for reliable information about reading and reading instruction?

There’s list of what I consider to be trustworthy resources at this link

I hope this information has been of some value to you in your journey to understanding what is an unnecessarily complex and contested space for parents and teachers alike. 
Do please feel free to make comments and share your experiences.  


(C) Pamela Snow (2019)