Friday, 23 January 2015

Literacy License

If you ever needed any convincing that Whole Language is alive, well, and thriving in Australian pre-service teacher education, then you need look no further. This week, an Australian literacy academic, Mr Ryan Spencer  left no doubt at all in readers' minds that this failed and harmful ideology continues to hold a firm grip in university lecture theatres. Oh sure, education academics will, in the main, assure us that this is not the case, but opinion pieces such as this one, boldly informing parents that they should "ditch the home readers" that their child's teacher has provided tell otherwise.

Let me affirm some points of important common ground between Whole Language advocates and its detractors: learning to read is important; children need rich immersion in and exposure to spoken and written language in order to have the necessary linguistic "toolkit" to progress from the oral to the written form; and learning to read should be enjoyable. Note I used the word "enjoyable" here, not "fun". I don't know whether anyone has specifically researched this question, but is there any actual empirical evidence that children need to be having "fun" in order to learn to read? Or do they simply need to be engaged and achieving? I ask this because it's a claim that is often made quite uncritically in education circles and I am not aware of any research that operationalises "fun" over established cognitive constructs such as attention, concentration, learning, and memory. When did "fun" attain a higher educational standing than engagement and achievement?

To quote one commentator on The Conversation discussion forum about this article, "there is evidence and there is evidence". This pretty much sums up the problem, and resonates with frustrations expressed by Dr Jennifer Buckingham in a recent opinion piece in The Australian newspaper

There has been a bewildering reluctance in education faculties to acknowledge the scientific basis for effective teaching methods. Education academics often view the idea of explicitly teaching children how to read the written word (rather than reading children lots of books and hoping for the best) as between an anachronism and a “neoliberal”, anti-public education plot.

So I find Mr Spencer's advice, delivered with the imprimateur of the title "Clinical Teaching Specialist" at a university, worrying at many levels:
  1. It dismisses, in one sweep, the value of "levelled readers" that allow children to decode text at, or slightly below/above their current level of ability;
  2. It undermines attempts by beleaguered primary school teachers to actually apply evidence in the classroom about the importance of early decoding/phonics skills. Can we possibly make things any harder for teachers with respect to the conflicting information they receive?
  3. It assumes that children find these texts "boring", with no evidence presented to this effect. What about the child who doesn't find such a text boring and enjoys the sense of growing mastery over an alphabetic code that previously seemed opaque, but is now emerging, like a ghost out of the fog, to give the beginning reader an algorithm with which to tackle new, unfamiliar words? Guessing only takes you so far, and as any struggling Grade 4 reader will tell you, it's a poor substitute for decoding skills once the pictures have gone.
  4. Statements such as "...when children are provided with the opportunity to select their own reading material, they achieve greater levels of success"are so sweeping and so general that they do not belong in academic writing at all. The citation provided to support this generalisation is in fact an opinion-based narrative review, not an empirical study, nor even a systematic review.

Not all "levelled readers" are the same, and of course they can reflect different learning-to-read philosophies. As long as children are being exposed to evidence-based early reading instruction in the classroom, (and this is not a given), I doubt that it matters a great deal what kinds of books parents and children enjoy together for pleasure, if circumstances are such that this opportunity can be created.

As Melbourne Speech Pathologist Alison Clarke has commented, however, time spent actually practising reading on the part of the child is different:

(Mr Spencer) conflates books-to-read-to-your-child, which should be chosen on the basis of interest, and books-for-your-child-to-read, which can and should be carefully selected on the basis of the complexity of their text, because we have a very complicated and opaque spelling system in English, and it is too hard for little children to learn all at once. 

Parents are natural teachers, and those who are fortunate to be able to read (something that we should not assume is universal), will in many cases default to sounding out unfamiliar words in order to assist their young learner - much closer to reading science than encouraging guessing*. Parents are to be encouraged in this natural teaching, but not at the expense of shared book time affording relaxed and warm interactions.

So my advice to parents is not to ditch home readers, but to think about their place as a simple practice-aid, to discuss their selection with the child's teacher, and to make them just a part of the evening reading ritual, not the "whole story". 

*I wonder how many parents naturally default to a three-cueing system?

(C) Pamela Snow 2015

Monday, 12 January 2015

The tricky dilemma facing Education Deans and getting rockets off the launching-pad

Media reports last week of the findings of the New South Wales Board of Studies Teaching and Educational Standards (BOSTES) audit of university teacher education curricula pertaining to the teaching of reading have again stirred the possum on the thorny issue of what Australian teachers do and don't learn in their pre-service education about optimal ways of teaching children to read. 

To say that this is an exasperating “debate” is to seriously understate the frustration of academics, policy-makers, clinicians, teachers, parents, and the media. Imagine a scenario in which the medical profession in the 1940s had been unable to agree on the role of penicillin in treating infection. Instead of decades of improved health care and subsequent cumulative scientific advances, we would be stuck in circular arguments about the merits of poultices and other folkloric treatments, the outcome of which was too frequently death, even in young, otherwise healthy patients. Medicine, of course, has to deal with the inconvenient obviousness of its failures. As I have stated before on this blog a significant difference between education and medicine is the fact that education policy-makers and practitioners are rather “quarantined” from the impact of their failures, and can even re-ascribe these to characteristics of the learner (e.g. with respect to capacity, motivation, effort, family background etc). An exception to this is the publication of PIRLS data, which then needs some explaining.

My question to Education Deans is this – if the findings of the NSW BOSTES audit are incorrect and/or are based on a flawed methodology, then how do we explain (a) teachers’ poor knowledge of the English language code (see for example Fielding-Barnsley, 2010 and Moats, 2014, and (b) the marked under-achievement of Australian children on international measures of reading progress such as PIRLS? There’s a disconnect somewhere.

This question, it seems to me, creates the kind of bind for which no amount of media training can adequately assist with the formulation of an obfuscating response. Or so I thought, until I read this piece by Stewart Riddle (University of Southern Queensland), in which we are now assured that teachers’ inability to spell does not interfere with their ability to teach reading and spelling. That’s akin to saying that the inability to use a protractor shouldn’t interfere with an architect’s ability to design a house. Knowing that Dr Riddle used a dictionary on the occasions as a teacher when he didn’t know how to spell a word is no reassurance either – what about all those times he thought he knew how to spell a word, and neither he, nor his students were any the wiser in the face of his errors? That’s like a doctor saying that there’s no need to be concerned about incorrect drug doses, because when s/he thinks the dose might be wrong, s/he checks it. On the other occasions of course, the outcome might be fatal for the poor unsuspecting patient. 

Until a couple of years ago, I was course co-ordinator on a postgraduate diploma for practising teachers. The teachers who enrolled in this program were highly motivated and committed to improving the everyday lives of at-risk and troubled students. I had a great deal of respect for some of the challenging scenarios their work threw up to them. However when it was time to assess their written work, I had to suck air in through my teeth and brace myself for constant frustration and disappointment. On average, I would say about 15% of these teachers had written skills (spelling and grammar) of a standard the community would expect of tertiary-qualified professionals. Their work stood out and was a joy to read, as I could engage with their ideas, without being distracted by sometimes less than junior secondary standard writing. About 60% had mid-range skills, characterised by homophone-based spelling errors (e.g. their/there; bear/bare; compliment/complement, etc) and basic grammatical errors such as poor subject-verb agreement, poor use of commas, and next to no understanding of when to use/not use apostrophes. This work was below the standard expected of university graduates and interfered with the transmission of ideas. The remaining one quarter or so had very poor written skills, such that the reader was pre-occupied with anticipating the next error or omission and their ideas were lost. I remember writing on one such assignment “Please make sure you proof-read and spell-check your work carefully before you submit it”, to which I received an email reply, as follows: “Sorry about the sloppy writing. My husband was away on the weekend and he usually does my proof-reading and editing”. I wonder how that same teacher would have dealt with such an excuse from one of her students?

A number of commentators (Dr Riddle included) have referred in recent times to Louisa Moats’ oft-quoted line that “Teaching reading* IS rocket science” (*in fact Dr Riddle refers in his recent piece on The Conversation to “literacy”, which of course is not the same as reading – a misapprehension that might be part of the problem). I agree fully that there is a complex science to the application of evidence in early year’s classrooms; however it is a science to which student teachers are receiving only patchy and partial exposure, and it is children who bear the life-long cost of this.

Remember too, that when launching a rocket, being inches out on the launching pad means you’ll be miles out in space.

 (C) Pamela Snow 2015