Thursday, 13 August 2015

Dyslexia Dystopia

Last weekend I was privileged to hear Professor Julian (Joe) Elliott speak in Melbourne on the topic most strongly associated with his name - the Dyslexia Debate. This was a keenly anticipated event for me, given my interest in the topic and the fact that I share his view that "dyslexia" is a term that has run its course in learning disability circles.  Joe's visit to Australia was sponsored by Learning Difficulties Australia and bravo to them for doing so.

Dyslexia has become something of a black sheep in the family of "Dys" terms that health professionals such as psychologists, speech pathologists and occupational therapists learn about in their pre-service education. Have you ever heard anyone talking about the Dyspraxia Debate? Or the Dysarthria Debate? No, of course not, because those are terms that have stayed on the nosological leash and in the main don't cause users much complaint. If you're a clinician working in a hospital and someone tells you that the elderly lady in Bed 17 has dysphasia, you'll know to expect someone who won't express herself very clearly and is likely to have at least some difficulties understanding you. All good. But if you're also told that the young apprentice in Bed 18 has dyslexia, what will you expect then? Someone with reading difficulties perhaps? Somehow, though, a quasi-medical term like dyslexia cuts more ice (for some people and in some situations) than the simple descriptor "reading difficulties" (or "problems", or "disorder").

Professor Joe Elliott is a lively, impassioned and engaging speaker. The central thesis in his argument is that dyslexia is not a scientifically robust term that differentiates a particular (special) group of poor readers from other "less special" poor readers, who, by virtue of circumstance (e.g., lack of family resources) have not been "anointed" by the diagnostic label dyslexia. Note though that Professor Elliott is not claiming that children with reading disorders don't exist or that their needs are not important. Nothing could be further from the truth.

He does argue as follows* though, that:

  1. It is not helpful to assign a quasi-medical label (dyslexia) to some children whose reading skills are significantly below those of their peers, and not to others. This assignment occurs on the basis of socio-economic and resourcing issues, as much as on prevailing culture in professional and educational circles about the use of the term. The flow-on effects of this inequity are considerable. Children diagnosed with "dyslexia" may be deemed eligible for additional support services and accommodations (e.g., additional time to complete exams), while those who are simply poor readers will not receive such services and also risk the double-jeopardy of being labelled lazy and/or dull.
  2. The evidence-based interventions that work for children with reading difficulties are the same, irrespective of the label applied.  There's a great deal of snake-oil out there, to be avoided by teachers and parents at all costs. The focus needs to be on what works, not on differentiating who "needs" one of the many pseudo-scientific interventions in the marketplace, Vs who needs assistance with the underlying psycholingusitic competencies that promote reading success (e.g., phonemic awareness, decoding skills, vocabulary development).  Related to the issue of pseudoscience, it's also important to note that Prof Elliott observed that "Neuroscience for education is massively overblown". This point has been well-made by Professor Dorothy Bishop of Oxford University and also on this humble blog.
  3. It is not helpful to use so-called "discrepancy" criteria to diagnose reading problems. Children with high and low IQs can have reading (decoding) difficulties, though IQ is important with respect to reading comprehension.
  4. Avoiding a label of "laziness" is not a sufficient reason to diagnose dyslexia. We should assume that all children can and will learn to read, and need to ensure that appropriate instructional environments are provided to promote success. On this, Prof Elliott also made the observation that "Whole Language ruined an entire generation of weak readers in the UK". He also observed that "We've only been reading since yesterday in evolutionary terms". This fact is often lost on Whole Language advocates, who erroneously claim that reading and writing are as natural as speaking and listening. Not so.
Discussants at this event were Associate Professor Tim Hannan of the School of Psychology at Charles Sturt University, Ms Mandy Nayton Executive officer of Dyslexia SPELD  Foundation WA and Professor Tom Nicholson of Massey University, NZ and Alison Clarke, Melbourne Speech Pathologist. As one would expect from such a range of stakeholders, views varied on the utility of the term dyslexia, with Mandy Nayton in particular arguing that the debate is potentially a distraction from the wider issue of improving instruction. There was strong, but not unanimous support for adopting the US Response to Intervention approach, which is highly data-driven and seeks to ensure optimal academic and behavioural outcomes for all children. We must remember though, that RTI is only as good as the assumptions that are made about the quality of the instruction that occurs at Tier 1 (universal, classroom based teaching). If we do better at that level, we should have only small percentages of children (certainly fewer than 10%) needing services at Tiers 2 and 3. At the current time, I don't believe we can be confident in Australia that we are getting it right at Tier 1, and this belief is borne out in national data on unsatisfactory reading progress by Australian students (see this previous blogpost for links).

I think the genie's out of the bottle on the term dyslexia, and its usefulness for children who struggle to read (and their teachers and parents) has run its course. It has run its course in the same way that the term dysphasia ran its course twenty years ago as a descriptor for childhood language disorders. Although there has been some unhelpful terminological detouring in that domain as well, there is at least an appetite now for plain(er) labelling.

So - let's round up this errant black sheep of the "Dys" Family and put him in a secure enclosure where he can't cause further mischief with our already muddled thinking on this important issue.

*I have drawn here on the following publication: Elliott, J. (2014). The dyslexia debate: Some key myths. Learning Difficulties Australia 46(1&2).

See also Professor Elliott's book, co-authored with Elena Grigorenko: The Dyslexia Debate.

(C) Pamela Snow 2015

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Can we talk about NAPLAN?

I have avoided blogging about NAPLAN* until now, because I know it's a deeply divisive topic, and is one that can elicit some particularly impassioned responses from teachers, academics, and parents. I just did a quick search on the hashtag #NAPLAN on Twitter and as you can see, the result confirms that there's range of views on this important issue:

As with all divisive topics on which well-motivated people disagree, there's a number of issues that need to be fleshed out. To be clear, I am in favour of national testing, but that doesn't mean that I am blind to the need for some improvements.

I don't intend here to dissect individual stakeholder arguments one-by-one, but in general, here's some of what I've read and heard in recent days, and some thoughts in response:

  1. NAPLAN isn't assessing knowledge and skills that are relevant in modern education (or some variant of this, along the lines of the specific tasks not being appropriate).

    Much is written and discussed these days of the importance of modern education preparing students for an uncertain future in a complex world. The future has always been uncertain, but I see no indications that the importance of literacy and numeracy will diminish, particularly as these apply to gaining access to higher education and skilled employment. Many teachers and teacher educators are dismissive of data from PIRLS testing, and Australian Bureau of Statistics data on literacy levels in this country, but for me, the compelling cry comes from the Industry Skills Council of Australia 2011 report "No More Excuses" which points out that literally millions of Australians lack the literacy, numeracy and language skills to cope with the demands of the workplace. What was that again about preparing students for the demands of a complex world?
  2. Taking part in NAPLAN testing is stressful for students, especially for those who are struggling academically or facing particular psychosocial adversities in their lives. We should protect such children from this stress.

    I find this argument particularly fuzzy and just a bit disingenuous. Yes, there will be some children who experience anxiety about any kind of testing - including that which teachers do outside of the NAPLAN process. Anxiety is not necessarily harmful, in fact in the right "dose" it can be beneficial to performance, and can equip us to better confront future challenges. It is also a normal human emotion and one that we all need to learn to manage, so we can cope with a range of everyday uncertainties and stresses. How will children and adolescents learn to habituate to the stress of testing if they are sheltered from it? Controlled exposure, under the calm lead of a skilled teacher should significantly address such concerns. Removing everyday stress from children does not teach them how to deal with stress.  Life is testing and testing should not be a taboo word. Ramping up talk of "high-stakes" testing, however, is irresponsible and not child-friendly.
  3. Teachers already assess their students and know "who's who" with respect to achievement and needs.

    So the argument here seems to be that data is OK when teachers collect it, but data is on the nose when it is collected by government authorities. Of course we would expect teachers to know who is achieving, who is excelling, and who is struggling, based on their observations and interactions with students every day. However we could also expect that the notional "bar" shifts as a function of the community and school in which a teacher is working. Given the inescapable reality of socio-economic status (SES) and teacher practice variations between schools, isn't it helpful for teachers to know how students in similar and different settings are going? Aren't teachers just a bit curious about what is happening in other schools and pondering why?
  4. Other professions don't have to undergo this kind of "government scrutiny" of their work outputs.

    Every profession is different, and if what you do is important (and you're tax-payer funded), you should assume that someone will want to look over your shoulder at some point and see how well you're going. Maybe your performance could be used to assist others who are not achieving as well as you are. Maybe there's aspects of your performance that could be tweaked. Is that such a terrible thing? Some schools are obviously "punching above their weight" with respect to NAPLAN scores, e.g., as reported here. If I was a primary school teacher, I'd be very keen to hear about what they've been up to at Harrisfield PS in recent years.  
  5. The data arrives too late in the academic year for it to be of real use to teachers and schools in addressing individual student needs.

    I agree with this criticism. Let's speed up the cycle and get data back to teachers and schools much earlier in the year. In return though, teachers and schools should stop discouraging so-called "weaker" students from participating in NAPLAN testing.
  6. Variations in performance reflect inequities in how schools are funded.

    This seems to be much more an ideological position rather than one that can be argued from any kind of evidence-base, particularly as some schools buck the demographic trends, as a result of specific pedagogical approaches they adopt. Sure, we can do a lot more to improve equity and fairness with respect to school funding, but when NAPLAN results continue to be highly variable, what will the nay-sayers resort to as an argument then?
  7. The existence of NAPLAN narrows teachers' focus and distorts curriculum delivery.

    I think the best answer to this came from a young Grade 3 teacher I spoke with recently. She said her principal asked her earlier in the year what she was doing to prepare her students for NAPLAN testing. Her reply? "Teaching them well".

We do need to keep talking about NAPLAN, but in ways that authentically put the educational interests of children ahead of professional vested interests. We would expect nothing less from colleagues in medicine, engineering and aviation, whose work also involves enormous trust on the part of the community. As I've said many times on this blog, the work of teachers is no less important than that of any of those other professions, and as such, we expect engagement with data from a range of sources. NAPLAN is but one of those.

(C) Pamela Snow 2015

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Santa Claus, Homeopathy, and Phonics: Where's the link?

Most of us can remember when we found out that Father Christmas, the Easter Bunny, and/or the Tooth Fairy were not real entities. For me, the disappointment of discovering that my parents were Santa was off-set by the relief that my attempts to deal with the illogical premise of his work-schedule were now reconciled. I must have been a budding empiricist even as a seven year old. Letting go of illogical but cherished belief-systems is an important rite of passage in childhood. It hurts a little, but it leads to greater maturity and depth of understanding about oneself and the complex world in which we live. Sometimes we have to let go of cherished beliefs as adults too.

I often think that for primary teachers whose pre-service education has been dominated by Whole Language-based ideology and pedagogy, exposure to the scientific evidence on what works (and who gets left behind) with respect to reading instruction must feel somewhat akin to losing a belief-system like the idea that a fat jolly bloke in a red suit flies around the world bringing presents to all of the children of the world (well, to those of a particular belief-system, and even then, not in an equitable fashion....let's not try to untangle those loose ends today).

There's a number of challenges in having discussions about evidence-based practice with teachers, and none of these reflect on teachers, per se. They do, however, reflect on teacher training.

  1. While systematic synthetic phonics instruction is strongly favoured by the cognitive psychology literature as a basis for early reading instruction, some children, notably those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, derive particular benefit from such approaches. Teachers who work in communities characterised by high levels of economic, social and human capital will likely find that many (but by no means all) children will make the transition to literacy almost irrespective of the instructional focus, because their classrooms have more "high readiness" than "low readiness" children with respect to learning to read. This is somewhat akin to the fact that doctors who work in such areas may see lower rates of illnesses in children that are due to air-borne pathogens, because such illnesses are more common where living conditions are over-crowded. Our everyday experiences are a powerful driver of what we see as "normal" and "abnormal".
  2. If teachers accept, in spite of their pre-service education, that Whole Language based approaches such as expecting children to memorise lists of commonly occurring words, and the use of three-cueing strategies are not optimal, what do they do then? Become overnight experts on delivering systematic synthetic phonics instruction? Not easy.
  3. Teachers are typically not taught the skills of reading and critically appraising scientific research. The power of anecdote and personal experience prevails when such a skill vacuum exists.
  4. Teachers have been sold a crock in so-called "Balanced Literacy". This is a slick attempt by some teacher educators to pay lip-service (no pun intended) to phonics-based early instruction, through pitches such as "Oh it's OK. We've moved on from the reading wars now. Now we teach Balanced Literacy, so phonics is in the mix". 
In the mix?

Let's consider the so-called "Five Big Ideas" in literacy education (phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, comprehension, and reading fluency). How much emphasis on the first two is enough? And when should phonemic awareness and phonics be introduced and called upon in the learning process? You might think you'd find some answers in the Australian document entitled "The Place of Phonics in Learning to Read and Write" by Emmitt et al. (2013). Instead, this document takes a perversely undermining position with respect to the importance of phonics instruction. The purpose of this blogpost is not to deconstruct the work of Emmitt et al., but rather to use it as an example of a modern guide for teachers that promotes what I've come to think of as homeopathic doses of phonemic awareness and phonics instruction. Sure, they're in the mix, but in doses that prevent systematic skill acquisition by early learners. Effective phonics instruction requires specialist knowledge of the structure of the English language, and this unfortunately has been shown to be significantly lacking in the teacher workforce - again, no fault of teachers, and something I will come back to in a future blogpost. 

In the meantime though, we need to think long and hard about what it means for children to be receiving patchy and often weak instruction in phonics. Phonics is not a stand alone. It's necessary but not sufficient in order to get beginning readers off the blocks and into the transformational world of deriving meaning from written text. But it needs to be taught well if early inequities in reading readiness are to be removed in the critical first three years of school.

I do wonder though, how we can move from our current impasse. Four decades of Whole Language dominated teacher education and classroom practice stands between today's children and exposure to evidence-based reading instruction. Maybe I need to believe in one of these:


(C) Pamela Snow 2015