Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Taboo topics: Reading instruction and teacher education

Like many people of my generation, I was reared on the firm axiom that when in company, one didn't discuss religion or politics. Such was the risk of inadvertent offence to third parties, that it was considered poor taste and insensitive to venture into these conversational waters. As an adult with an interest in early reading instruction, I have had to get my head around the fact that this topic seems to have features of both of those no-go zones from my childhood. There is a definite political dimension to the question of where reading instruction fits in the wider pedagogical landscape and there is also something of a religious fervour when it comes to the passionately-held beliefs around this topic.

What's the big deal?

The big deal is that too many children never make it to the other side when it comes to learning to read, and their education, mental health, and overall life-chances suffer as a consequence. If you need evidence of this under-performance, have a look at how Australia performed on the Progress in Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) in 2011. This data shows that a staggering one quarter of Australian Year 4 students  had not attained expected standards in reading, and 7% of these performed extremely poorly. Australia is a first-world economy that should not be punching this far below its weight. The picture for adults is not very rosy either, with Australian Bureau of Statistics data showing 43.7% of people scoring at or below Level 2 reading, on a 5-point reading scale. This very poor performance is not lost on Australian employers, with the Industry Skills Council of Australia releasing a report (No More Excuses) in 2011 in which it stated that

"Literally millions of Australians have insufficient language, literacy and numeracy (LLN) skills to benefit fully from training or to participate effectively at work. The situation looks as if it could be getting worse, not better: the LLN performance of Australian students has, over the past decade, worsened in comparison to other OECD countries".

So when Melbourne speech pathologist Alison Clarke and I published this piece on The Conversation last week, we anticipated some strong reactions, but in the main, we were pleasantly surprised by the comments and level of engagement in the forum.  The essential argument behind the article is that the teaching solution to English's tricky orthography is not Whole Language (WL) based instruction, but rather the use of Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP).

As many readers of this blog will be aware, basing early reading instruction around SSP was a key recommendation of the (Australian) 2005 National Inquiry into the Teaching of Reading. Unfortunately, however none of the recommendations of this inquiry appear to have been adopted by any state or territory and many teacher education programs continue to operate within a predominantly WL framework. Given the hold of WL thinking on teacher education since the 1970s, this means that we now have a generation of primary school teachers who themselves were not given an explicit mastery of how language works - where words come from, what their component parts mean, what the rules of grammar and punctuation are, and so on.

So it's a big ask, expecting a teaching workforce that was not itself equipped with this knowledge, to take enthusiastically to approaches such as SSP - approaches which in many cases they did not experience themselves as children, and so they may seem alien to the process of learning to read.

Many children make a fairly seamless transition to literacy, as a result of fortunate biological and environmental circumstances. Many others, however don't, and these are the ones who have very often missed out on the critical toolkit of decoding skills that able readers use when they encounter unfamiliar words, particularly when the pictures have gone.

Decoding skills, like the foundations of a house, are necessary but not sufficient. If you don't build a house on solid foundations, its walls won't stand and even a mild storm could do lasting damage. With solid foundations in place, however, the walls and roof can be made secure so that even a Force 10 gale won't budge the structure. So too with SSP - this approach in and of itself won't produce proficient and engaged readers, but along with targetted work on vocabulary, comprehension skills, syntactic mastery and narrative skills, will in all but a small number of cases, ensure that a child is on the road to reading.

Doesn't this sound a lot like "Balanced Instruction"and wouldn't that be a good idea? 

Well it might be a good idea, if we actually knew what Balanced Instruction was, and could be confident that what it means in one classroom is similar to what it means in another. If Teacher A devotes 70% of her time to phonics and the remainder to Whole Language strategies, while Teacher B reverses these proportions, it makes no sense to put them together for research purposes and call them both "Balanced Instruction". If we did so, we would be comparing apples and oranges. In practice, Balanced Instruction probably has more features of WL and a more modest nod to phonics, though not of the systematic synthetic variety, more of the analytic phonics approach.

At the time of writing, our little piece on The Conversation has been read by nearly 70,000 people and has been shared on Facebook >2,700 times. We don't for a a moment imagine that all of those readers agree with our views. However, we are delighted that so many people do think that whether and how children learn to read, and how teachers are taught about this, are matters we need to debate, rather than being taboo topics.

That's a very good start.

(C) Pamela Snow 2015


  1. Your and Allison's exposition is spot on. And keeping the comments “on topic” for so long Is a rarity in the blogosphere. The thing is, though, the colloquy really didn't move beyond the substance of what you and Allison said in the blog. It's a start, but it seems to me that "more debate" is more likely to fall apart than it is to increase the reliability of reading instruction.

    As you say in the colloquy, [pre-collegiate] education/instruction is akin to Public Health. However, from a scientific/technical perspective, pre-collegiate education is a couple of hundred years behind Public Health. We're losing kids in the primary grades, but the failure is being attributed to the kids (or their parents, or "society.") rather than to their instruction.

    The tests commonly used as reading achievement metrics support the belief the problem is with the kids. That is, the results reference student deficits without any illumination of instructional deficits. And because the inadvertent mal-instruction slops over into "literacy" and post-primary instruction, we're addressing an instructional epidemic rather than its source or its etiology.

    With all their faults, the kids entering school aren't the obstacle. Parents give the schools the best kids they have, and with few exceptions all of the kids they send have minimal assets for making reliable reading instruction feasible: The kids can speak in full sentences and participate in everyday conversation-- demonstrating a sufficient vocabulary and "mastery" of English syntax to make reading instruction feasible.

    Teachers, as you recognize, have indeed been mis-instructed for decades, but that's not the sticking point either. Teaching a kid to read doesn't take much instructor "knowledge." Although the more knowledge the better, home schoolers with much less education than teachers are teaching their kids to read.

    We could debate all of the foregoing forever, and the reading wars would go on forever. The proof is in the pudding. And proofing is cheap and easy.

    The Alphabetic Code (Phonics) Screening Check being used in England with all children at the end of Year 1 and with all Yr 2 children who didn't pass the Check in Yr 1 is a "good enough" psychometrically sound indicator to identify children who need no further formal instruction in reading per se. Yes, they need a lot more instruction to become "fully literate," but they "can read" anything they could comprehend in spoken communication.

    The UK results to date indicate that the modal score on the Check is the highest score possible on the Check. This is nearly unprecedented in large scale achievement testing, but it's not surprising. Children learn what you teach them, and Reception-Year 1 is sufficient time to get the job done in reading. However, that result is at the national level. At the LEA level, there is wide variability in the results. With the reading war still in play, this is not surprising. The action, though, is not at either the national or LEA level. It's at the school and classroom level. As yet, no one has looked at those results, but all indications are that it's not in the kids or the water; it's in what the kids are being taught. All schools and teachers, by law, in England are teaching "Phonics," but whatever some say or think they are teaching, it's not how to handle the Alphabetic Code.

    Methodologically, what's going on in England is a Natural Experiment, with the different reading instruction treatments the Independent Variable and the Alphabetic Code Test the dependent variable. The same methodology is applicable at any scale in any other English-speaking country

    It seem to me that this is the best bet for ending the reading wars, and without any casualties, except to the war profiteers, and not much to them. There may be a better way, taking less time and at less cost. If so, let’s hear it.

  2. Thanks for that very interesting and thoughtful comment Dick. You manage to hit several nails on the proverbial head here:
    - parents send to school the best children they have;
    - most children are using and understadning full sentences by the time they reach school; so they have the basic linguistic building blocks needed to benefit from "good" phonics-based instruction;
    - our modest efforts at measurement focus disproportionately on children's "deficits" rather than instructional deficits; and of course
    - children learn what they are taught.

    Somehow, most children do seem to gain mastery over the process of decoding and encoding grapho-phonemic links, so they can both read and spell. However, the fact that in Australia, nearly 1 in 4 does not (as per 2011 PIRLS data) seems to be mind-boggling evidence of the fact that something is amiss in the instructional process for those children. No-one seems to be saying (yet) that 25% of Australian students have dyslexia (whatever that is!), so the only place to go looking for answers is surely in what it means to "teach phonics", which of course most teachers have been taught to claim that they do, within a so-called "Balanced Approach" to literacy.
    The sands are shifting slowly in Australia, but I worry that the "Reading Wars" will be replaced by the equally entrenched and protracted "Evidence Wars".

    Talk about fiddling while Rome burns!

    Thanks again - great comments :)

  3. In EdLand we do seem to fight last years war--over, and over, and over. It does appear that the Reading War is very rapidly morphing into the Evidence War. The Ed research lit is such that using Google "research" can readily be found to "refute" any proposition, sound or unsound. And analogous to Gresham's law about money, "bad Ed research drives out good research." We should be able to see this coming, and not be ambushed. No good can come out of the fight.

    We have to remember that "evidence" once supported slavery, eugenics, and other indefensible inequities. And test results supported the actions. We have an analogous situation today with PIRLS and other commonly used "standardized achievement tests." The tests don't measure " mastery over the process of decoding and encoding grapho-phonemic links." They measure, "comprehension" which is the kitchen sink of general ability that relates to anything academic. To prove that, allyagotta do is look at the correlation of the tests held to measure "reading" and "math" and "science." The substance of the three is obviously different, but the test result in each of the three is largely the same. The tests are used for political purposes both within EdLand and generally, but they have no "value added" use instructionally.

    The mind-boggling thing to me is the gap between every day information about reading status and "professional" information. Kids know who can read and who can't. Primary teachers in the UK say the Alphabetic Code Screening Check isn't needed because they "already know." Reading is such a transparent act that since its invention, identifying anyone who can't read hasn't been problematic.

    What is problematic is what to do during the sensitive developmental period of age +/- 4 to 6 to teach all native English children to read. This problem originated in the Post-World War II period, when the goal of getting all kids in school had been accomplished, and the focus shifted from quantity to quality. The rest is the history of the Instructional Wars and Educational Equity Wars.