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:
- Context/background information
- Phonology (speech input and output).
- 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”:
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 /ʧ/), 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.