Saturday, 23 November 2019

Running with the hare and hunting with the hound. My response to Lucy Calkins' "Science of Reading" essay.


Image source
This week, Lucy Calkins of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University, and highly published Heinemann author and creator of reading, writing, and spelling materials for teachers, published a piece entitled No-one gets to own the term “the science of reading"
Although Calkins’ work is not directly referenced in Australia as much as it appears to be in North America, the kinds of ideas she espouses, certainly do permeate, via the ubiquitous Balanced Literacy, which readers of this blog will know is really just Whole Language 2.0.
I’ve had a careful read of Calkin’s essay, and would like to share some reflections here.
Firstly, there’s the title, which does seem to have a slightly petulant, foot-stamping edge to it. Calkins is right, in the sense that no-one “owns” the science of anything. Science is its own master, and does not have one face for some, and another face for others, despite Kenneth Goodman’s extraordinary statement to Emily Hanford earlier this year, that “my science is different”.
Reference to “phonics-centric people” in the opening line is hardly a major piece of epistemological d├ętente (and nor is “the new hype about phonics”), and portends the inevitable straw man, that we knew was going to turn up somewhere in the essay, and there it is on page 4: Should schools increase the focus on phonics at the expense of everything else”? Of course, Calkins does not cite evidence that anyone on the science of reading side of the debate argues this, for the simple reason that they don’t.
Calkins’ other straw man argument early on is that phonics is not all that “kids” (her word) need in the early stages; they also need instructional support in vocabulary, comprehension, fluency, and writing. As has been resoundingly argued by science of reading advocates for decades.
Calkins does, however, make some statements that support longstanding arguments by advocates for the science of reading, such as (p.1):

  • “It is true that young children need explicit instruction in grapho-phonics"
  • “Children need to be taught the ways in which 26 letters combine to make words”.
  •  “Immersion in a sea of books is not enough”.
  •  “Speech is like walking, inborn and innate. Reading and writing are like driving a car. They don’t come naturally”.

Predictably, though, Calkins writes (p. 2) “I do not know any school system that doesn’t ascribe (sic) to the belief that explicit instruction in phonics is one of the foundations for learning to read and write”. This is classic Balanced Literacy-speak for “phonics is in the mix”, or “phonics is one of a range of approaches” used. Calkins refers to instruction needing to be planned and systematic but stops short of specifying what this should look like in the classroom – except to say it should be “based on research”. That is the kind of non-specific advice from influential people that helped to get us into this mess in the first place.  

Calkins' attempted sleight of hand in re-packaging multi-cueing (also known as three-cueing, or search-lights) as an assessment tool rather than a core instructional approach is almost laughable, and will fool no-one. Alongside its actual assessment partner, Running Records, it is a widely promoted and defended teaching method in Balanced Literacy circles in Australia and no doubt in other English-speaking countries smitten by Whole Language and its descendant pedagogies. 
There is a growing emphasis in the US on schools and school systems needing to identify children with dyslexia and provide appropriate instructional support. Dyslexia seems to be something of an Achilles' heel for Calkins, as she acknowledges that such children account for 5-15% of learners, and argues that these children need “structured multi-sensory phonics support” (p. 7). But hang on a minute, wasn’t she claiming earlier in her essay, that all children need structured, explicit phonics instruction?  Now she is arguing that the type of instruction children with dyslexia need is materially different from the type of instruction that typically developing children need. This does not align with current conceptualisations of dyslexia interventions, which call for increased dose, intensity and frequency of instruction, rather than approaches that are materially different from those used in Tier 1.
Equally worryingly, Calkins argues that it is unrealistic to expect classroom teachers to meet the needs of children in their class with dyslexia. This statement is alarming at a number of levels. It is common for children with reading problems (whether formally diagnosed as dyslexia or not) to go undetected for too long before any intervention is provided. Calkins’ world view will see these children languishing in classrooms, because the version of “explicit phonics instruction” they are receiving is in fact not sufficiently robust to avert or address their difficulties. Calkins makes no reference to how such children should be identified and supported (or by whom), nor to the opportunity cost for them of the time that elapses before they receive a diagnosis (if, in fact they ever do). Such children seem to be the acceptable collateral damage (in some cases, what Reid Lyon described as "instructional casualties") of a system in which Calkins claims it is not practical to properly equip pre-service teachers to explicitly teach phonics to novice readers. She goes so far as to acknowledge, however, that there is a school-to-prison pipeline filled with “children with untreated dyslexia” (p. 7) and that such children are at high risk of psychosocial dysfunction. Hey ho.
In spite of claiming to be “on board” with the science of reading, Calkins’ lack of authenticity on this is betrayed by the fact that she suggests an unethical state-auspiced experiment, in which one consortium of school districts adopts a "serious study of phonics", while another consortium adopts “other horizons as their focus” (p. 7).  If she was truly on board with the science of reading (as she claims), she would know that experimenting on children like this would be akin to withdrawing antenatal screening from one group of pregnant women, while continuing it for another. What is to be gained here at this point in history?
The essay is a little over seven pages long, but remarkably light on for references, relying instead on the writer’s presumed authority. Disappointingly, it includes a thinly veiled ad hominen attack on APM Reports journalist Emily Hanford, who has made it her business in recent years to turn over every rock she can find on the issue of reading instruction. Attacking people, rather than their arguments, is very low down in the food chain of intellectual debate.
Apart from the major logical inconsistencies I have identified above, I felt this essay was permeated by a slightly testy, defensive tone, reflecting perhaps a desire to be on the right side of history, but the irritation of knowing that this requires some reluctant major concessions to be made. It reminded me a bit of those semi-contrite apologies that politicians make, when they know they have transgressed in some way, but they are regretful rather than remorseful.
The concessions do not go far enough and on every page, Calkins’ true Whole Language/Balanced Literacy biases seep through, revealing that though she wants to be on the right side of history, she is running with the hare, and hunting with the hound.
That, however, is not how science works

(C) Pamela Snow (2019)



Sunday, 3 November 2019

Trick or treat? More nonsense words about phonics instruction and assessment.




Late last week (by curious coincidence, on Halloween in fact) University of Canberra Adjunct Associate Professor Misty Adoniou released an opinion piece making a number of unsubstantiated, often emotive claims that cannot go unchallenged. Apparently Misty thinks that her adjunct status as an academic liberates her from the need to provide evidence for the claims she makes about early reading instruction. This is, however, not the case, so I have done my best here to highlight gaps and flaws in her piece. 

Now I am neither superstitious nor religious, but perhaps it’s timely to remember that Halloween (Hallowed Evening) is followed on November 1 by All Saints Day – a day to move beyond the scare mongering and strange fictions that find their way into people’s minds on October 31. My favourite saint has to be St Skeptikus, and yes, I did just make her up, but if she was real, she would want us all to honour her name by questioning the trick-or-treat “facts” presented here without substantiation.

Misty’s assertion
My response
Anglophone countries have been struggling for years with declining achievement in reading and writing as students move through primary school and into high school.
Agreed. But the problem here is not so much the English writing system, as the approaches that have been cemented into practice in teacher pre-service education and early years’ classrooms. I have blogged about this previously here and also here.
In 2019 more than 25 per cent of Year 6 students in England failed to reached the minimum requirements in the annual national reading and writing assessments. This means around 1 in 4 students in England are leaving primary school ill-equipped to cope with the literacy demands of high school. Similar statistics are reported in Australia and the United States.
The important thing here is to look at the trend over time, not merely at one dot-point on a graph. In 2018, 32% of Year 6 children did not reach this benchmark, and in 2017, it was 43% - getting up uncomfortably close to half. 

The reading comprehension shift over the last three years is clearly a positive one.

The source for the figures is here. See also my graph below, which makes this trend even clearer.
England has decided the problem is that students do not have the skills to decode basic texts. So, in 2011 they instituted a mandatory Phonics Screening Check for Year 1 students. Students are prepared for the test through government-approved commercial, synthetic phonics programs. Those who fail the test receive more phonics instruction and re-take the test in Year 2. The rationale is, if we can get the basics right, the rest will follow. Eight years on, it is clear the rationale is flawed.
England decided that part of the problem is that children do not always have the skills to decode text, in line with the emphasis in its 2006 inquiry into teaching reading, authored by Sir Jim Rose, which had a strong theoretical foundation in the Simple View of Reading (SVR). The SVR has been around since 1986, so it’s about time everyone understood that it is concerned with more than simply decoding (identifying) words. It is equally concerned with a child’s ability to understand words once they have been identified.

Misty begins her blogpost with a list of words that are deemed to be somehow “broken” or “damaging” to young children because they are technically non-words.

Good luck to children then when they advance to reading Dr Seuss, Lewis Carroll, JK Rowling, and Roald Dahl (to name a few). No delights in quidditch for children in Misty’s class – they can presumably only read words that are already in a formal dictionary somewhere.
But why hasn’t this phonics ‘first, fast and furious’ approach worked? And are there lessons for those who teach English language learners?
But why is Misty overlooking the evidence that an increased emphasis on phonics instruction has resulted in improved decoding skills?

Children getting better at what Misty herself agrees is an essential skill is a good thing, that should be celebrated. Isn’t it?

It's not the whole story and we still have quite some work to do, but shouldn’t we be celebrating wins along the way rather than dismissing them as irrelevant?

The teachers who have worked hard to achieve these gains deserve better than this. 
The first flaw in the English phonics solution to declining literacy achievement is that English is not a phonetic language. Whilst learning English letters and their common corresponding sounds is necessary, it isn’t sufficient to read and write in English.
Agreed. English is not a “phonetic” language. However, it is also not an opaque mystery, in which there are no rule-governed patterns in how sounds and letters work together.

This is the “because Englishhoary old chestnut that Whole Language and Balanced Literacy advocates fall back on as a defence against systematic rather than incidental teaching of how the English writing system works.

Interestingly, Misty’s second sentence here is a perfect endorsement of the SVR: learning English sound-letter correspondences is necessary but not sufficient

Isn’t that an essential principle that the SVR gave us more than 30 years ago?
English is a morpho-phonemic language. We write ‘jumped’ not ‘jumt’ because we know ‘ed’ is a suffix (morpheme) that marks the past, regardless of the ‘t’ sound (phoneme) we hear on the end of the word. We write ‘action’ not ‘acshun’, because we know ‘ion’ is a suffix that makes nouns – regardless of the sounds we hear.
Correct, and I agree completely. However, our teaching workforce, is not, in the main, currently equipped to teach reading drawing on the benefit of this knowledge, because their pre-service education fails to prepare them to do this.


“The consequences of a lack of content knowledge in teaching literacy can be serious, with Shulman (1986) indicating that lack of content knowledge results in narrowed and regressionist pedagogies as teachers resort to replicating own past experiences with instruction in language. In particular, to be effective in teaching children who struggle with literacy, they need a strong content knowledge of the English language (Spear-Swerling & Cheesman, 2012). Numerous accounts of beginning teachers note a lack of content knowledge about how the language works – most particularly, the basic constructs of the English language (Alderson & Hudson, 2013; Hadjioannou & Hutchinson, 2010; Moats et al., 2010; Washburn, Joshi, & Cantrell, 2011; Wong, Chong, Choy, & Lim, 2012). Spear-Swerling and Cheesman (2012) suggest that without good content knowledge in the area of literacy "teachers may provide inadvertently confusing instruction to children” (Spear-Swerling & Cheesman, 2012, p. 1692). 


English language learners need the whole linguistic picture of how words work when learning to read and write – when the focus is purely on phonics, half the clues are missing. That’s an inefficient way to learn a language, and an unfair burden for English language learners.
This is the persistent straw man argument that phonics is taught in isolation of meaning. The SVR, as noted above (and endlessly for the last 30+ years) promotes the importance of background knowledge and language comprehension.

Misty (and other readers of this blog) might be interested to know that the SVR has recently been updated, as the cognitive foundations of learning to read.

So let’s hear it for not trotting out this tired meme any more. 

It’s also ironic, given the emphasis on “meaning-based instruction” promoted by Whole Language and Balanced Literacy advocates. Isn’t this what has been the mainstay of early years instruction for the last three decades? If reading instruction is not working, this might be one of the first rocks we’d want to turn over, to find out why.

The second flaw in the English solution is that it promotes ‘synthetic’ instructional practices for phonics. This means students learn individual sounds for each letter which they then ‘synthesise’ together. In this approach, word meaning is considered irrelevant – even a hinderance (sic)– to initial instruction as it may distract students from attending to the individual letters in words.
Where is the evidence please that word meaning is considered “irrelevant”, let alone a “hindrance” when teachers are using a synthetic phonics approach?
To mitigate the possibility that the students are using meaning, context or prior exposure to the word, synthetic phonics instruction involves teaching the children to read ‘nonsense’ words, like ‘flug’ or ‘pob’.
Where is the evidence please that teachers teach children to read “nonsense” words as part of systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) instruction? Children who have been taught to be effective decoders should be able to decode words, irrespective of their score on Misty’s Mysterious Meaning Metric.

If teachers are specifically teaching so-called "nonsense" words, then they don’t fully understand the basis of SSP instruction, and need to have this clarified for them.

Let’s not forget too, that children do not have a psycholinguistic filter that automatically tells them a word is “real” or “nonsense” (notwithstanding the non-binary nature of this distinction anyway). Every new, unfamiliar word a child encounters might just as well be a nonsense word, if s/he does not yet know its meaning.

And then there’s all the new words that enter our language every year, because English is a dynamic, living language, that continues to evolve; think Google, selfie, mansplain, as examples.
An approach to reading and writing instruction that eschews meaning seems particularly perverse for any learner, but for English language learners (ELLs) a synthetic phonics approach is particularly harmful.
This is an extraordinary, pernicious, and dangerous claim that will arouse unnecessary anxiety for parents and teachers alike. 

This statement also conveniently ignores published evidence that explicit phonics instruction can actually be helpful to children from non-English speaking backgrounds

Misty should cite her sources for her biased, non evidence-based  claim or retract it and apologise for the distress and confusion it will inevitably cause.
When learning a new language, all words are potentially nonsense words.
As noted above, this applies to children whose first language is English also. I do not know what Misty’s point is here, but she does appear to have changed corners in the debate.
English language learners need a focus on word meanings, and to be taught new – real – vocabulary. It is hard to imagine a more useless practice for ELLs than deliberately teaching them to read nonsense.
All children need a focus on the linguistic basis of written words – the sound structure they represent and their meanings. It should never be either-or, as Misty chronically attempts to assert.

What does “deliberately teaching children to read nonsense” actually look like? Might it look like supporting them to read a Dr Seuss book for example?
A third flaw in the English phonics first approach is that it is exclusionary, and possibly racist. Native speaker accents are privileged. Some allowances are made for regional native English accents.
This claim is simply alarmist and lacks substantiation. Again - evidence please.
Of course, the ultimate flaw in the English plan to improve reading and writing skills is that it isn’t working. The students are not getting better at reading and writing. The phonics ‘jab’ they receive in the first two years of school simply hasn’t been able to ward off the dreaded middle years decline in literacy achievement. They are failing their Year 6 reading tests – despite knowing their sounds. The US may have made the right call on this problem – the middle years literacy decline is not because basic decoding skills are lacking, it is because complex comprehension skills are missing.
Let’s put the pejorative language to one side here (though vaccinations are generally a good thing in public health sense and prevent a great deal of downstream harm).

Instead, we can do some simple fact checking. UK children are NOT "failing Year 6 tests" at all.

To make this easy, I have produced a graph of the last three years, showing steady improvement on this dimension:



(C) Pamela Snow (2019)