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* (see postscript at the end of this page for an updated definition):
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 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.
*Postcript: I am pleased to note that the definition of decoding used in the Australian Curriculum was updated in early 2019, and now reads as follows:
A process of efficient word recognition in which readers use knowledge of the relationship between letters and sounds to work out how to say and read written words.
(C) Pamela Snow (2018)