Thursday, 1 November 2018

Who sank the (reading) boat? A sad tale of academic misrepresentation of the role of decodable texts for beginning readers.





I am writing this blogpost in Syracuse, New York, where I have just had the great pleasure of being part of the second annual Reading League Conference. The Reading League is a group of practitioners, academics and clinicians committed to understanding and applying the science of early reading instruction, so that all children receive optimal initial teaching and early support if needed. Their byline is When we know better, we do better.  I was hoping to be using this time to write a blogpost about this conference and its importance (which I will do), but the more pressing issue is responding to this piece, published yesterday in The Conversation: What are decodable readers and do they work? co-authored by Education Academics A/Prof Misty Adoniou (University of Canberra), Principal Fellow Dr Brian Cambourne (University of Wollongong),  and Prof Robyn Ewing (University of Sydney). 

That The Conversation has published such a poorly referenced, opinion-based piece on a platform that goes by the byline Academic Rigour, Journalistic Flair is nothing short of an astounding abandonment of at least one of those commitments. One without the other is not what I thought The Conversation stood for.


Adoniou et al. open by quoting the Australian Curriculum definition of decodable texts, as follows: 


Decodable texts are texts that can be read using decoding skills a student has acquired. Decodable text is usually associated with beginning readers. 


They notably fail, however, to provide a definition of the word “decode” from the same document:


Decode

A process of working out a meaning of words in a text. In decoding, readers draw on contextual, vocabulary, grammatical and phonic knowledge. Readers who decode effectively combine these forms of knowledge fluently and automatically, and self-correct using meaning to recognise when they make an error.


Note – “phonic knowledge” is bizarrely placed at the end of the list of skills that the previous definition tells us is usually associated with beginning readers. The word “decode” here may as well simply mean “read” – the definition pays no attention to the actual skill of linking sounds and letters at a sub-lexical level to determine the identity of an unfamiliar word. 


So - just because a definition is in a government document, doesn’t mean the rest of us should swallow it whole.




By contrast, the peer-reviewed, highly-regarded, and widely-accepted cognitive science-based Simple View of Reading holds that decoding is a far more specific skill that refers to the reader’s ability to use phonics knowledge to derive phonemes (sounds) from graphemes (letters and letter combinations that represent them). In the case of decodable readers, this skill refers to the early novice period, but decoding is a skill that continues to be important across the lifespan. When secondary science students learn about deoxyribonucleic acid, do they work out how to pronounce the word from “contextual, vocabulary, grammatical” information? No, they use their decoding skills (if they are fortunate enough to have them). 


It is Kafkaesque to take a word such as “decoding” and give it a meaning that conveniently better-aligns to a dominant ideology in education, but that is obviously what occurred in the writing of the Australian Curriculum. Now is a good time to call this out, and I thank Adoniou et al. for the opportunity to do so.   


Let’s have a look at some of their other claims (highlighted in grey):


Books like this have no storyline; they are equally nonsensical whether you start on the first page, or begin on the last page and read backwards.


This is a total fabrication (otherwise known as a lie). There are many different sets of decodable readers (a number of which can be accessed for free: see here) and they contain a narrative structure that is appropriate to the reading level and proficiency of the novice reader. 


Where, pray tell, is the storyline in the following (which is typical of the text in an early leveled reader)


I can see a dog         [picture of dog on opposite page]

I can see a mouse    [picture of mouse on opposite page]

I can see a lion         [picture of lion on opposite page]

I can see a chicken  [picture of a chicken on opposite page]

I can see a rabbit     [can you guess what might be pictured on the opposite page? Well done, you’re now officially a reader]


Beginning readers are not typically fluent, unless they are engaged in this type of pseudo-reading – the process of reciting repetitive stems that end in a different word on each page, accompanied by a conveniently helpful picture that also varies on each page. This can create a comforting, but short-lived illusion of reading that sometimes comes unravelled around Year 4 (the so-called Year 4 slump), when the pictures disappear, the text is longer and more complex, and reliance on a bank of sight-words and guessing results in a frustrating dead-end for the student (and his or her teacher). 


While they may teach the phonics skills “N” and “P”, they don’t teach children the other important decoding skills of grammar and vocabulary.


I have no idea what phonics skills “N” and “P” are. “N” and “P” are upper case letters of the English alphabet, and that’s all.  


That aside, we would not expect knowledge of letters of the alphabet in and of themselves to teach other important linguistic skills because grammar and vocabulary are not “decoding skills” – they are grammar and vocabulary, and they assist with the comprehension part of the Simple View of Reading

No wonder teachers find thinking about different parts of words (consonants, vowels, digraphs, trigraphs, phonemes, morphemes, syllables, etc) so complex, if three Education Academics responsible for pre-service education are confusing so-called phonics skills with grammar and vocabulary. 


And as many a parent will testify, they don’t teach the joy of reading.


Can we have some evidence for this broad, sweeping claim please, Education Academics?


Meaning and vocabulary development are not the focus of decodable readers. Yet, research shows the importance of vocabulary for successful reading.


Correct - the focus of decodable readers is ….well, decoding….. that is, independently lifting the word off the page, in order to be able to access meaning and vocabulary in infinite combinations. 


Limited vocabulary in books translates to lack of vocabulary growth.


As noted above, the purpose of decodable readers is to support novices in mastering the code and accessing an infinite number of words as independent readers. This process is increasingly understood to draw on statistical learning (as recently described here by Arciuli) a kind of self-teaching that has to take over in order for children to be able to orthographically map the large number of words they need to automatically read and understand across their school years (see also Share's Self-Teaching Hypothesis). Any teacher relying on decodable readers alone, however, to promote vocabulary growth has been seriously misguided by their pre-service education. Effective pre-service education, however, supports teachers in a multitude of pedagogical practices that support early vocabulary development, such as reading children’s literature to the class, encouraging complex narrative production, and explicit teaching of new vocabulary. As I have stated previously, oral language is like the engine, and effective instruction is the fuel in the tank. They strengthen each other. The nexus between the two is also discussed here.  


It is unclear to me why the authors cite, as evidence for their claim that “focusing on sounds alone is not sufficient to support a struggling reader” a paper that is a meta-analysis of morphological interventions for struggling readers?  


Perhaps they want readers to know they are aware of the importance of morphology in teaching a morpho-phonemic language such as English, which is all well and good, but the paper cited concerns struggling readers, where The Conversation article is about a proposed government initiative concerning initial instruction. This is muddled thinking, and no phonics proponents refer to phonics instruction to the exclusion of the other linguistic components that make up effective reading. 

If they do, I am yet to see an example. 

If the authors are genuinely interested in what works when supporting struggling readers, why do they not cite this 2014 meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials (the highest level of research evidence), showing that "...phonics instruction is not only the most frequently investigated treatment approach, but also the only approach whose efficacy on reading and spelling performance in children and adolescents with reading disabilities is statistically confirmed"?
 

The reality is all children learning to read need to listen to, and read books that are written with rich vocabulary, varied sentence structures and interesting content knowledge that encourages them to use their imagination.


Well of course they do. But here the authors are (once again) conflating books that should be read to children, with books that are used as early instructional materials. This is Pedagogy 101 and it is alarming to say the least, that three Education Academics either do not understand this, or are mischievously conflating the two for the purposes of obfuscation. 


When teaching children to read, we hope they will learn reading is pleasurable and can help them to make sense of their lives and those around them.


Hoping is not enough. As stated a number of times by primary teacher Troy Verey in the recent Australian College of Education Phonics Debate – let’s teach the code explicitly, so we don’t leave reading to chance (or hope).  



The strategies children are taught to use when first learning to read greatly influence what strategies they use in later years*. When children are taught to focus solely on letter-sound matching to read the words of decodable readers, they often continue in later years to over-rely on this strategy, even with other kinds of texts**. This causes inaccurate, slow, laborious reading, which leads to frustration and a lack of motivation for reading**.


*The reference provided by the authors to support this point is an unpublished dissertation from six years ago, that did not actually follow children up into "the later years". Not good enough from undergraduate students and definitely not acceptable from senior academics. And not good enough as a primary source on The Conversation.


**References please (as we remind undergraduate students).


And yet it’s children from disadvantaged backgrounds who are less likely to have access to these books in their homes. It’s crucial schools fill the gap.


Again, I have written before about links between socio-economic status and early vocabulary. But here’s the rub: schools don’t get to choose which children walk through their gates. Teachers have to be able to teach the students in their class, not the ones they might prefer to have from a neighbouring suburb, with a better socio-economic profile. It’s the job of teachers to teach reading to all children, irrespective of their starting point. Their pre-service education must prepare them to do this and must provide strategies by which the progress of children who start from behind, is actually accelerated in order to "fill the gap" referred to by the authors. If reading to children was the magic bullet here, children from language and text-rich homes would not struggle with reading; yet some of them unfortunately do.

It is not the job of parents to teach children how to read. It is the job of teachers. There is abundant evidence that teachers’ knowledge of the structure of language and how to explicitly teach reading to novices is under-done, in Australia and overseas. The only people who can change this are Education Academics, such as Adoniou et al. 


Let’s consider for a moment how we teach children other skills:


When children learn to ride a bike, we typically provide training wheels, to give them extra support while they develop their balancing and gross motor control skills. We don’t expect them to need training wheels indefinitely, but we also don’t think it’s a reasonable thing to sit them on a two-wheeler and give them a push from behind, expecting success. 


When children learn a musical instrument, the association between musical notation and finger position (e.g., on a guitar or piano) is broken down to its simplest, most pared back form, so that the novice can learn the underlying principle of how they correspond, can practise a small set of associations, and then progress to more complex ones, once the simpler ones have been consolidated. 

We do not sit children down at the piano and put a Mozart sonata in front of them, telling them to "bang around for a bit and it'll start to sound like Mozart". Nor do we expect that playing recordings of Mozart sonatas to children will turn them into proficient pianists. We know that they need to learn and practise isolated sub-skills, to the point of automaticity,  in order to do this.
 

In constructivist education circles, these processes might very reasonably be referred to as occurring via scaffolding, a term derived from the  work of twentieth-century developmental psychologist, Lev Vygotsky


What a shame that the Education Academics who authored the above piece on The Conversation do not seem to understand the role of systematic (not random) scaffolding via decodable readers, in supporting the (genuine, not Kafkaesque) decoding skills of novice readers. 

Until this changes, nothing much will change in early years classrooms in Australia. 

(C) Pamela Snow (2018)


13 comments:

  1. Thank you Pam for a great response to the 'meaning first' brigade! I'm working with teachers who are increasingly frustrated by the curriculum requirement to use both decodable and predictable texts and articles such as this only add to the confusion surrounding the selection of texts.

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  2. Thank you Pam - great response as always. I was one of those teachers who left Uni after 4 years not knowing how to teach kids how best to read and spell. The drivel that continues to come from these so called academics is depressing. Thanks for continuing to fight the good fight.

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  3. This debate is ongoing here in the U.S. as well. I live in Wisconsin and currently we are trying to pass legislation for dyslexia. However, the need for dyslexia legislation would not really be an issue if we could get teachers to identify the needs of all early readers i.e. reading by sounds. We could reduce the number of students needing special education. So hard to believe this debate still exists.

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  4. BOOM 💥. Love your work Pam.

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  5. Hi Pam, you make some good points, but I disagree with some others. Let me briefly mention 2.

    1) You note that proponents of phonics never claim that ONLY phonics is required. For instance, when discussing the possible role of morphology in instruction you write:

    “Perhaps they want readers to know they are aware of the importance of morphology in teaching a morpho-phonemic language such as English, which is all well and good, but the paper cited concerns struggling readers, where The Conversation article is about initial instruction. This is muddled thinking, and no phonics proponents refer to phonics instruction to the exclusion of the other linguistic components that make up effective reading.

    If they do, I am yet to see an example.”

    In fact, proponents of systematic phonics DO argue that phonics instruction should precede meaning-based instruction with written words, including morphological instruction. For instance Rastle and Taylor (2018) write:

    “We believe that a focus on these morphological regularities is likely to be more appropriate in the later years of primary schooling.”

    And Castles et al. (2018) write:

    “Analyses of the Children’s Printed Word Frequency Database (Masterson et al., 2010) suggest that children’s text experience in the first year of reading instruction consists overwhelmingly of words with a single morpheme (Rastle, 2018). Thus, morphological instruction can play only a limited role and may detract from vital time spent learning spelling-sound relationships. Instead, we would predict that the benefits of explicit morphological instruction are more likely to be observed somewhat later in reading development…”

    I challenge these claims in the following recent paper:
    https://jeffbowers.blogs.bristol.ac.uk/blog/rastle-colleagues/

    2) You cite empirical evidence in support of systematic phonics, writing:

    “If the authors are genuinely interested in what works when supporting struggling readers, why do they not cite this 2014 meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials (the highest level of research evidence), showing that "...phonics instruction is not only the most frequently investigated treatment approach, but also the only approach whose efficacy on reading and spelling performance in children and adolescents with reading disabilities is statistically confirmed"?”

    I have carried out a detailed review of all meta-analyses (including this one) and show that none of them support systematic phonics. See:

    Bowers, J.S. (2018). Reconsidering the evidence that systematic phonics is more effective than alternative methods of reading instruction. PsyArXiv.https://psyarxiv.com/xz4yn/

    I past my review of this meta-analysis from the larger paper in the next post. The summary is short, and it straightforwardly shows why you should not use this study to support systematic phonics. What is so striking is that ALL meta-analyses in support of systematic phonics are flawed to a similar extent. I think proponents of systematic phonics need to grapple with the problems that I have pointed out, as well as the problems identified by Camilli et al. (2003) so long ago that undermine the main conclusions of the NRP. You can read a short blog summarizing all this (without reading the long paper) here: https://jeffbowers.blogs.bristol.ac.uk/blog/phonics/
    Here is my summary of the paper you cite:

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  6. Passage from my detailed paper that desscribes the Galuschka et al. (2014) meta-analysis

    Galuschka et al. carried out a meta-analysis of randomized controlled studies that focused on children and adolescents with reading difficulties. The authors identified twenty-two trials with a total of 49 comparisons of experimental and control groups that tested a wide range of interventions, including five trials evaluating reading fluency trainings, three phonemic awareness instructions, three reading comprehension trainings, 29 phonics instructions, three auditory trainings, two medical treatments, and four interventions with colored overlays or lenses. Outcomes were divided into reading and spelling measures.

    The authors noted that only phonics produced a significant effect, with an overall effect size of g’ =. 32, and concluded:

    “This finding is consistent with those reported in previous meta-analyses... At the current state of knowledge, it is adequate to conclude that the systematic instruction of letter-sound-correspondences and decoding strategies, and the application of these skills in reading and writing activities, is the most effective method for improving literacy skills of children and adolescents with reading disabilities”

    However, there are serious problems with this conclusion. Most notably, the overall effect sizes observed for phonics (g’ =.32) was similar to the outcomes with phonemic awareness instruction (g’ = .28), reading fluency training (g’ = .30), auditory training (g’ = .39), and colour overlays (g’= .32), with only reading comprehension training (g’ = .18) and medical treatment (g’ = .12) producing numerically reduced effects. The only reason significant results were only obtained for phonics is that there were many more phonics interventions. In order to support their conclusion, the authors need to show an interaction between the phonics results and the alternative methods. They did not report such an analysis, and given the similar size effects across conditions (with small sample sizes), this analysis would almost certainly not be significant.

    Furthermore, the authors reported evidence that the results in the published phonics studies were biased using a funnel plot analysis. Using a method called Duval and Tweedie’s trim and fill they measured the extent of publication bias and estimated an unbiased effect size for systematic phonics of g’= 0.198. Although this small effect was still reported to be significant, the authors (once again) did not assess whether systematic phonics was more effective than non-systematic phonics, let alone show that systematic phonics is more effective than the alternative methods they investigated




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  7. Just a quick point. Let's put in the number of studies used to calculate those effect sizes (denoted using k):

    "... effect sizes observed for phonics (g’ =.32, k = 29) was similar to the outcomes with phonemic awareness instruction (g’ = .28, k = 3), reading fluency training (g’ = .30, k = 5), auditory training (g’ = .39, k = 3), and colour overlays (g’= .32, k = 4), with only reading comprehension training (g’ = .18, k = 3) and medical treatment (g’ = .12, k = 2) producing numerically reduced effects."

    You state that "The only reason significant results were only obtained for phonics is that there were many more phonics interventions". This sounds like you are arguing against large-scale studies. Are we meant to only perform small, lower-powered studies? The reason statistical significance is (in part) determined by sample size is because larger samples provide a more accurate estimate of the sampling distribution.
    So is it fair to compare the results of 29 studies to 3 given what we know about small-study bias (small studies are more likely to produce extreme results, especially when combined with publication bias)? Wouldn't that be like comparing a study with 100 participants to one with 10?

    It appears you care about bias "the authors reported evidence that the results in the published phonics studies were biased using a funnel plot analysis". Remember that a funnel plot asses small study bias, so how come you have not mentioned this in your argument when comparing phonics to other interventions? Further, you should interpret the 'adjusted' statistic with caution. The trim-and-fill method does not provide and unbiased estimate (is it ever possible to have an unbiased estimate?). Keep in mind that trim-and-fill imputes made-up studies that were not actually run, and there has been some criticism about using this method. For example https://psyarxiv.com/9h3nu/ found that trim-and-fill overestimates null effects.

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  8. Dear Anonymous, thanks for responding, but I do not agree with your points. Pam cites this meta-analysis as providing evidence that systematic phonics is better than alternative approaches. But this analysis does not show this at all. It shows that the effect size across various methods is approximately the same, and no interaction between methods, meaning there is no evidence that systematic phonics is better than alternative methods. I’m certainly not arguing against large-scale studies, and indeed, I’ve been arguing that the fixation on phonics has reduced research into other methods – we need more studies assessing alternative methods, including SWI. I am saying that this meta-analysis (and indeed all meta-analysis) do not support the claim that systematic phonics is better than whole language and other common methods.

    And yes, I am anti-bias. I simply report what the authors themselves note of their work. According to them, the best estimate of the effect of systematic phonics is d = .0198. If you don’t like their method and want to ignore the apparent role of publication bias, and assume that the effect size of .32 is the best estimate, there is still no evidence from this analysis that it is better than anything else. Nevertheless, Pam cites this study as evidence for systematic phonics. I think this is wrong, although pretty much everyone in the field cites these meta-analyses in support of systematic phonics and ignores straightforward critiques that undermines them.

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  9. "Pam cites this meta-analysis as providing evidence that systematic phonics is better than alternative approaches. But this analysis does not show this at all. It shows that the effect size across various methods is approximately the same"

    You have not addressed why comparing the summary effect of 3 studies and 27 studies is valid. I feel as though your argument rests on looking only at the cohen's d.

    "there is no evidence that systematic phonics is better than alternative methods."

    I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on Graham and Santangelo (2014) https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-014-9517-0

    "According to them, the best estimate of the effect of systematic phonics is d = .0198. If you don’t like their method and want to ignore the apparent role of publication bias, and assume that the effect size of .32 is the best estimate, there is still no evidence from this analysis that it is better than anything else"

    I'm not arguing that we ignore publication bias. I am arguing that trim-and-fill can provide evidence that publication bias exists, but imputing 'missing' studies as if they had actually been conducted is a questionable way to come to a realistic effect size.

    I do agree that there is not enough studies comparing formal spelling programs (especially the popular ones here in Australia! e.g. multilit and Fountas and Pinnell), and we really need these studies to be pre-registered - which a much better method of addressing publication bias.

    I have a feeling that the focus on phonics is because it is such an important part of being able to read and because of the amount of push-back against it. The remaining 3 'keys' to literacy are pretty uncontroversial. Is there anyone arguing that having a large vocab, reading fluently or comprehending the meaning of text is not important?

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  10. Dear Anonymous, I did not make this comparison, the authors of the Meta-analysis and Pam claimed that the findings support systematic phonics over alternative methods. They do not -- for that, you need to observe an interaction. In this case, there is not even a descriptive tendency for systematic phonics to be better than alternative methods. If you go through my paper you will see that there are many additional flaws in the meta-analyses that people cite in support of the claim that systematic phonics is better than whole language.

    You assert that phonics is such an important part of being to read. But phonics is a form of instruction, and there is no evidence that systematic phonics instruction is more effective than alternative methods. SWI teaches GPCs, and I agree GPCs are important. But that is not phonics.

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  11. Wonderful blog post Pamela. Unfortunately Robyn Ewing seems intent on becoming the new Mem Fox.

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  12. Welcome to Alberta! (Assuming based on twitter). Please help make the argument for effective reading teaching while you are here. We are deep in the thrall of Fountas and Pinell. Great blog, and I hope you have a nice (if chilly) stay in our province.

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  13. Thanks! Unfortunately an all-to-brief stay in this lovely Province, but hopefully there will be a next time, with opportunities for such discussions.

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