Monday 29 April 2024

Refocusing the biologically primary Vs biologically secondary distinction: Oral language can be vulnerable and reading can be resourceful.


In the context of early years reading instruction, one of the most helpful entry-points for understanding the difference between oral language and written language is the distinction between biologically primary and biologically secondary skills, as articulated in the work of US (University of Missouri) evolutionary psychologist, Professor David Geary.

Geary has collaborated with Dr Dan Berch on what is known as “an evolutionarily informed theory” which holds that ‘Folk domains represent universal forms of knowledge and competencies that emerge from a combination of inherent cognitive biases and evolutionarily expectant experiences’ (Geary & Berch, 2016, p. 219).

By folk domains, Geary and Berch mean those knowledge and skill sets that humans have an evolved, and hence biologically primary advantage for developing. These include social domains such as recognition of the meaning behind each other’s facial expressions (e.g., friendly or hostile), the development of oral language (expressive and receptive verbal skills), the emergence of theory of mind*, and ecological domains such as folk biology and folk physics, i.e., our “commonsense” understandings, acquired early in life, about how the world around us works. An example of folk biology is the inherent understanding that parents are older than their children. Folk physics on the other hand, takes in concepts such as gravity, and the inability of humans to fly unassisted.

Geary and Berch explained that biologically primary skills have assisted humans to hone capacities that support vital physical and social survival in groups – hence the nod to human evolution in the name of the theory.

So - this is a theory that asks us to think about what knowledge and skills we might expect children to absorb or “intuit” through everyday life experiences “in the village”, as opposed to the knowledge and skills that they can learn, if appropriate instructional experiences are provided. Here we might think of playing a musical instrument, learning how to play chess, and of course, the icing on the life-trajectory cake…..learning to read, and then to write.

In his commentary on Geary’s work and its applications to education, David Didau (2017) summed up its significance for educators this way:

If it’s a primary adaptation, then maybe we don’t need to teach it at all as children will have an innate ability to pick it up from their environments. That said, maybe we do need to make sure that children’s environments are conducive to acquiring the folk knowledge we all take for granted.

As can be seen, a close read of Didau’s words highlights that there may need to be some qualifications to this conceptual framework. While I think the biologically primary-biologically secondary distinction is profoundly important as a macro lens on education, I also think there are some notable caveats to bear in mind.

I have written previously that  “. . . although oral language development is biologically primary and ‘natural’, it is by no means ‘set and forget’”. This is because a range of biological, ecological and circumstantial factors come into play in children’s lives that result in them experiencing different home language and literacy environments in the preschool years, and different instructional environments in the school years. We have known for decades that there is a social gradient, for example, that impacts the quality and quantity of language exposure children experience in the preschool years (see here for references). Language development is not configured to succeed without adult input. Adults (parents and teachers in particular) invest considerable time into encouraging and supporting the development of connected discourse skills (especially conversation and narrative genres in the early years) through repeated serve-and-return interactions across the day, real-time modelling, and expansions and elaborations as part of everyday feedback and encouragement. Oral language is clever, but it doesn't get there on its own.

I often make the observation when I present professional learning, that oral language is a paradox. It is both biologically primary and highly fragile. Certain neurodevelopmental disorders (otherwise known as forms of neurodiversity - sometimes diagnosed, sometimes not) impact on children’s oral language development, notably developmental language disorder, autism spectrum disorder, and various forms of syndromal and non-syndromal intellectual disability, to name a few.

Epidemiological research carried out by Professor Courtenay Norbury and her team in the UK tells us that we should expect two children in every class of 30 to meet diagnostic criteria for Language Disorder/Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) on formal assessment at school entry. What we should not assume, however, is that the remaining 28 are flying, unencumbered with respect to their oral language skills. A significant, but unknown proportion of children will have weak language skills that may go undetected and/or may be mistaken for disinterest/poor motivation and/or lack of social skills. Some children’s language disorder is not identified until they struggle with reading comprehension, in spite of adequate decoding skills. This 2018 open-access paper by Adlof and Hogan is a recommended read on this and on DLD.

So, this capacity for which humans have evolved a special evolutionary advantage is not quite as self-sufficient as it is sometimes made out to be.

Nowhere is this lack of self-sufficiency more evident, in fact, than in the expansion of children’s vocabulary beyond everyday so-called “Tier 1” words, to the other side of what the late Dr David Corson described as the “lexical bar”, to the higher-order, more literate language that is needed for academic success. Corson observed that (my emphasis):

To look at the impact that students’ life histories have on their learning and use of academic English words, one starting point is the commonplace fact that the vocabulary of English falls into two very different categories. (There is a)….. striking incompatibility between Anglo-Saxon and Graeco-Latin elements in English: ‘the familiar homely-sounding and typically very short words’ that we learn very early in life and use for most everyday purposes and ‘the more learned, foreign sounding and characteristically rather long words’ (p. 138)” [that are used for academic purposes].

Corson was, of course, referring to the categories of words that we now commonly describe as Tier 2 (relatively common but less so than Tier 1) literate language used by educated citizens, and Tier 3 words, which are subject-specific and only infrequently arise in decontextualised ways, for example words such as enzyme, catalyse, rhomboid, and isthmus. Readers are referred to the work of Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown and Linda Kucan for a more detailed consideration of tiers of vocabulary and how to teach across them.

Corson’s reflection provides an important “yes, but” to the cut and dried idea of oral language being biologically primary. This maxim holds to the extent that under typical circumstances, children will acquire a generous store of Tier 1 words, with which they can navigate the business of everyday life, in the here and now with those around them. Without exposure to impactful classroom instruction, however, most children are not going to experience enough of the literate language that authors use, to get across Corson’s lexical bar, as users and consumers of more sophisticated language. This exposure needs to occur both through classroom-based vocabulary teaching and through children’s own reading. The latter of course forms a compelling argument for impactful early reading instruction, so this is not left to chance and a never-ending game of catch-up for all concerned.

Interestingly, there are also some yes but” scenarios in play on the biologically secondary side of the ledger, with respect to children learning to read. These are borne out in Nancy Young’s Ladder of Reading and Writing infographic (see below), which represents the fact that a small percentage of students (5-10% in the darker green shaded area) are successful with seemingly little to no formal reading instruction. They appear to skip across the metaphorical bridge from biologically primary (oral language) to biologically secondary (reading) skills on the strength of a positive alignment between genetic endowment and preschool language and literacy experiences, followed by a compounding Matthew Effect on school entry. A further 35-40% (those in the paler green zone) seem to succeed at school, regardless of where the reading pedagogy they experience sits on a continuum of explicitness (see here for an open access paper contrasting balanced literacy and structured literacy teaching). 

Reproduced with permission from

The existence of these “early adopters” of biologically secondary skills should not overly surprise us, given that reading skills, like intelligence and language skills are spread across a distribution. Reading is probably most accurately conceptualised as a bio-psycho-social skill – one that draws on genetic influences, individual temperament/motivation factors, and the nature of the child’s environment (including the instruction to which they have been exposed). Some children will be very high performers, some will be very low, and most will clump around the mid-point. This pattern is strongest where a so-called normal distribution occurs, but of course a core aim of education is to disrupt the normal distribution by pushing the entire curve to the right, in a more peaked (less spread out) pattern. They key thing when considering this bio-psycho-social framework, though, is the fact that schools cannot influence children’s genetic endowment. They can, however, influence the psycho-social domains by teaching reading sub-skills and promoting a strong sense of self-efficacy as a reader.

What is perhaps not discussed enough, is the potential value-add for these early adopters, of explicit teaching of spelling and the incorporation of morphological awareness and knowledge to (a) promote vocabulary development (especially on the high side of Corson’s lexical bar, as discussed above) and (b) provide explicit understandings of the ways in which morphology and spelling interact with each other. Consider for example, the convention that we double a final consonant in CVC words when we add the suffix “-ing” (e.g., cup becomes cupping) and we drop word-final “e” in the same situation (e.g., cable becomes cabling). We could hope that all strong readers notice and intuit these conventions, which of course some do, or we could explicitly teach them, as a way of fast-tracking improved writing. In the same way, we can hope that strong readers intuitively “notice” that the words construct, destruct, instruct, structure, and obstruct all have the same (Latin) base “struct”, and make the conceptual leap that it means “build”. Alternatively, we could invest classroom (instructional) time into teaching the meanings of the Latin and Greek bases that make up so much of the literate language over which successful students achieve mastery. In so doing, we can teach them the generalisable habit of being curious about word meanings, origins, and connections. In a language with the large and rich vocabulary we have to work with in English, this would seem like a solid investment.

Moving down into the red-shaded area of Nancy Young’s infographic, we see how the other half lives – the 50% of students for whom the bridge from biologically primary to biologically secondary skills is experienced as a flimsy rope assembly suspended over rapidly running waters a long way below. These are the students who truly embody Geary and Berch’s evolutionarily-informed theory with respect to reading skills. They are also the 50% who remind us that we cannot build entire education systems around the good fortunes of half of the population. Doing so is to wilfully sentence half of the populace to under-achievement and its associated social and economic baggage across the life-span. Nor, however, should we build entire education systems exclusively around those for whom the journey is especially challenging. We must build systems that effectively meet the needs of all, ensuring that every student makes continuous progress and is extended in their learning, wherever they are under the curve, and whatever their starting point.

While reading scientists are rightly at pains to emphasise that, in the words (and indeed book tile) of Harvard psychologist, Steven Pinker, we have a language instinct, (but not a reading instinct), there are certain adaptations that our brains seem to make once we begin to learn to read, and these should be understood and capitalised on in early reading instruction. Right across the proficiency spectrum, we want children to be cashing in on what Professor David Share described back in the 1990s as the self-teaching hypothesis.  This is especially important in an orthography such as the one we use in English, where there is not a reliable two-way 1:1 correspondence between grapheme-phoneme correspondences (GPCs), and some GPCs occur relatively infrequently. Those low-frequency, less regular GPCs occur more and more in texts children are reading beyond their mastery of basic GPCs and fluent reading of decodable (phonically controlled) texts in the early stages of reading success. Share cited evidence that the average fifth grader encounters around 10,000 new words per year, a phenomenon he aptly described as an “orthographic avalanche”. He argued that only efficient, transferable decoding skills afford children opportunities for high rates of incidental success in decoding novel GPCs in printed words. Such success of course contributes to reading fluency, which is a strong driver of reading comprehension.

You can learn more about Share’s self-teaching hypothesis at this Five from Five page. A closely related construct, statistical learning, is outlined by Joanne Arciuli in this 2018 open-access paper. She notes (p. 634) that:

Children are given explicit instruction regarding some of these regularities to assist them when they are beginning to “crack the code.” Such instruction is vital in the early years of decoding. However, in a language such as English, which has a deep orthography with many-to-many mappings between orthography and phonology rather than one-to-one mappings and complex mappings that depend upon positional and other contextual regularities, it is not possible to convey explicitly all of the regularities that children need to know in order to become skilled readers. Thus, it must be assumed that some regularities are acquired implicitly.

Self-teaching and statistical learning, in turn, are related to a third contemporary construct in reading science research and practice: set for variability, otherwise known as mispronunciation correction. I touched on this in my most recent blog-post and provided a range of links there to readings and podcasts for more information. Mispronunciation correction means that we are guiding students to form hypotheses about possible pronunciations of unfamiliar GPCs and then supporting them to use this information to test a spoken (pronounced) approximation against their oral language lexicon and assess its likely accuracy.

These lines of research and classroom/clinical practice remind us that reading, while a biologically secondary skill, does not have to flail around like an upturned tortoise every time an unfamiliar word is encountered. Under optimal circumstances, it can be resourceful and like a bank account, earn compounding-interest on its returns over time.

The bottom line then, is that oral language skills are biologically primary, yet can be vulnerable, and reading skills are biologically secondary, yet can be resourceful. The challenge (and opportunity) is to titrate instruction to ensure that a biologically primary skill like oral language is not taken for granted and is supported to develop beyond the proximal horizon of Tier 1 words and simple sentence structures. On the flip side, its biologically secondary cousin, reading skill, should be supported through high-quality initial instruction to become autonomous and a secret weapon for ongoing oral language development. This requires a nuanced understanding on both sides of the biologically primary Vs secondary ledger by teachers and curriculum leaders.

[*Theory of mind (ToM) is sometimes mistakenly treated as being synonymous empathy, but that is not correct. The two are related, but ToM is the understanding that another person my hold a false belief, by virtue of their application of the information they have available to them. You can watch a video demonstrating its features here]. 

(C) Pamela Snow (2024)


Friday 29 March 2024

Help! My Literacy Lead has said we have to send lists of sight-words home for parents to teach to their children.


Image source

I am but one of many academics whose work brings them in contact with schools to support a transformation away from balanced literacy (BL) to structured, explicit literacy teaching (SELT) that is informed by the evolving body of knowledge known as the science of reading. It’s pleasing to see so many teachers, schools, and in many cases, entire systems, getting on board with the need to provide reading instruction that is delivered by teachers with a deep knowledge of their language and writing system and in ways that promote success for the largest number of students as a result of Tier 1 teaching.

All good so far.

In this role, though, I am often contacted by teachers with implementation questions, as per the title of this blog-post, which was the subject-line of a recent email I received from a teacher.  These questions are a valuable lens on the change processes teachers are undertaking and the sense that they are seeing a ghost emerging out of the fog, as they gain a clearer understanding of the enormity of the differences between BL and SELT. Their questions also shine a light on what needs to be made clearer for teachers with respect to (a) the coherence of their new instructional approaches and (b) what they need to stop doing, in order to be teaching in ways that entail high levels of internal consistency and don’t confuse our youngest school learners.

Nowhere is this more evident I think, than on the question of teaching so-called “sight words”.

When I recently received the email mentioned above, I hurriedly put together a number of links and resources for the teacher who had made contact with me. This teacher also attached a letter from their principal, addressed to parents informing them of the importance of them (the parents) teaching sight words to their beginning readers, at home, through “lots and lots of repetition”.

There’s a number of fundamental flaws in this position. Let’s look at them one-by-one.

1.      It is not the job of parents to teach children how to read. I have blogged about this previously. If we accept that this is the job of parents, we have to also accept that parents are responsible for teaching measurement concepts in maths. Why stop there? We could add in hand-writing, fractions, spelling, algebra, the life-cycle of insects, the nature of tides, and while we’re at it, Newton’s theory of gravity. Come to think of it…… what’s the job of school again?

When we kid ourselves that we can out-source to parents something as essential to the early school years as teaching reading, we are simultaneously (a) displaying a fundamental lack of understanding about the complex nature of reading, and (b) de-professionalising teachers, who have gained four-year university degrees that purport to equip them with specialised knowledge about the reading process and how to teach it. Perhaps the decision to send banks of sight words home for parents to teach is an admission (albeit not spoken) that in most cases, teachers are not well prepared for classroom reading instruction, so have to rely on hope-for-the-best approaches like devolving this responsibility to parents.

Once again - it is not the job of parents to teach their children how to read. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s see if we can untangle some further knots with respect to so-called “sight-word” teaching.

2.      There is a lot of confused and confusing terminology on this topic. Confused terminology almost always means confused understanding. Hence, we see terms such as “tricky”, “irregular”, “high-frequency” and “heart” used as synonyms for “sight” words. The bottom line, as I will attempt to clarify here, is that sight words are best thought of as instructional outputs or endpoints (things children learn) – they are not (with some minor exceptions*) instructional inputs (things teachers teach). I can’t recall who first quipped that “Every word wants to be a sight word when it grows up” but I first heard this said by Associate Professor Lorraine Hammond AM, of Edith Cowan University. It is also sometimes attributed to Dr Jan Wasowicz and is a helpful mantra to keep in mind.

*When teaching using decodable texts in the early stages, it’s wise to give a boost to fluency by ensuring that students are familiar with a small number of words that form the mortar in such texts, but are sometimes not at the most phonically regular end of the continuum, e.g., my, the, I. You can read more about this on the Five From Five website.

3.      Can words in English be classified as regular Vs irregular? It seems that many teachers have been told in their pre-service education, some version of “Lots of words in English have irregular/random spellings, so children just have to learn them by rote as wholes”. Let’s put this assertion to bed:

a.      The notion of regularity is most helpfully considered as a continuum, not a dichotomy. Some words are highly regular, even for our novice learners, e.g., the words “mat” and “pit”. Some words are highly irregular, e.g., “eye” and “yacht”, and other words sit somewhere in between, e.g., “said” and “young”. The villain of the piece, in the case of relative irregularity is often a vowel or vowel team, especially in the case of words that children encounter as beginning readers (consider for example break Vs bread).

b.     When knowledge of etymology and morphology are taken into account, the notion of “irregularity and randomness” gives way to consideration of known spelling patterns and conventions. Louisa Moats has written about this here.

c.      When children are learning how to read via systematic synthetic phonics instruction, it can be helpful to apply the word “yet” to the question of whether a pattern is regular or not. The “ph” spelling for the sound /f/ is perfectly regular if you have been taught it and have had experience applying it in your reading of phonically-controlled texts, have perhaps noticed it in environmental print, and had opportunities to practise writing it. It is not something you will regard as “regular” however, if you have not yet been taught it.

4.      Learning to read is not a visual memory process. Children need to understand the code with which their writing system represents language meaning. For historical reasons, English has a complex (relatively orthographically dense) code, which takes longer for children to learn than in countries that have more transparent orthographies. Teaching children sight words (or more precisely, expecting that they somehow learn them by osmosis on their parents’ watch) is treating reading as a right-hemisphere, visual memory task. It is not allowing the language areas of the left hemisphere to do the necessary but not automatically generated heavy-lifting, to map speech and print to each other. The work of French neuroscientist Professor Stanislas Dehaene is useful for understanding this process and its importance.  

5.      Teaching sight words does not equip children with a transferable set of decoding skills that they can take to any unfamiliar word. Instead, it sends the unhelpful message that the writing system is opaque and random, and words need to be learned one-by-one, as hieroglyphic “wholes”. This is an extremely inefficient way to become a proficient reader in a language that is (a) morpho-phonemic in structure and (b) contains a larger number of words than most other languages, because of rich borrowings over a two-thousand year period. The rich borrowings have obviously also entailed a range of spelling patterns, and rather than teaching these effectively as “wingdings”, instruction can be informed by teachers’ knowledge of word families (and their spellings) from different languages. This brings order into what would otherwise be chaos.

6.      Many words on so-called “sight word” lists are easily decoded by children who have been given some basic code knowledge. So – why aren’t we just teaching the skill of decoding? Teaching banks of sight words is pretending that we have a language made up of logo-graphs (like Chinese), which we do not. As noted above, English is morpho-phonemic in structure. We encode sound through phonemes, and meaning through words (free morphemes) and affixes (bound morphemes). Author of Beneath the Surface of Words, Sue Scibetta Hegland uses the term "linguistic Lego" to describe the way English adds and removes word elements to change meaning.

 7.      Ironically, learning words by sight flies in the face of the BL argument that “context and meaning reign supreme in early reading instruction”. Nothing could be more de-contextualised in fact, than an isolated word on a flash-card. That irony seems to have been lost in BL classrooms and lecture theatres. If we want to promote students’ early fluency and reading comprehension, we need to provide them with a transferable toolkit for decoding unfamiliar words, alongside teaching them the small bank of words mentioned above, that are both more irregular and more frequently occurring, so we are removing (or at least lowering) the hurdles facing novice readers on their journey to fluency and comprehension.

8.      What we want is for initial reading instruction to result in orthographic mappingthe formation in longterm memory of permanent links between phonemes and graphemes in a word (for reading and spelling), and for these to be tied to the word’s meaning. The term orthographic mapping was introduced to the reading science field by Dr Linnea Ehri and is regarded as a theoretically robust and empirically borne-out construct with major implications for early reading instruction. You can read a detailed and thorough essay outlining her work and reasoning, and its significance for classroom teachers, in this 2022 blog-post by Stephen Parker.

Anna Geiger (The Measured Mom on social media)
explains orthographic mapping in this brief video

      The more words we have orthographically mapped, the less mental effort we need to put into getting words off the page, and the bulk of our cognitive and linguistic resources can instead be channelled into comprehending text.

The bottom line with orthographic mapping, as noted earlier in this post, is that words become sight-words for individuals. “Sightwordedness” (my neologism for our purposes here) is not a feature of a word. It is a feature of what Charles Perfetti described as the “lexical quality” of a word – for an individual learner. High quality mental representations of a word in a child’s longterm memory (its spelling, pronunciation and meaning) promote reading comprehension, and the inverse is also true – weak representations slow down and compromise reading comprehension.

9.      Set for variability and mispronunciation correction are encouraging lines of research and practice with respect to promoting orthographic mapping (i.e. strong lexical representations of words). The term  “set for variability” seems to have been introduced by Richard Venezky in 1999, but I am happy to be corrected on that. It is related, to my mind, to David Share’s self-teaching hypothesis. The argument behind this construct is the idea that most children do not need to be taught every single grapheme-phoneme correspondence in English. Nothing succeeds like success, and once the decoding train pulls out of the station, it gathers speed, as children use (implicit) statistical reasoning to form and test hypotheses about what an unfamiliar written word might sound like when spoken aloud. The emergent reader who encounters the word “lodge” in a text and pronounces it as “lod – ge” can be praised for their effort, asked if they know such a word, and then either arrive at, or be assisted to find, alternative ways of decoding the word that lead to its correct pronunciation and meaning. 

      You can listen to a brief (five and a half minutes) overview of "set for variability" by Dr Stephanie Stollar at this Facebook link.

Importantly, as Dr Danielle Colenbrander emphasises in this recent Melissa and Lori Love Literacy podcast interview (in which she is in conversation with Dr Katie Pace-Miles), mispronunciation correction is completely different from the three-cuing approach that is popular in BL classrooms. Mispronunciation starts with the child’s focus on sound-letter correspondences and lifting these off the page, using the information contained in the text. It encourages narrow experimentation with different pronunciation options, not superficial attention to the word, followed by a focus on pictures and/or other so-called meaning “cues”.

Mispronunciation correction can also be harnessed alongside what Australian linguist Lyn Stone refers to as our “spelling voice” – the strategy we apply when we are spelling words that might for us, as an individual, be “tricky”. The word Wednesday is often used as an example here. If we pronounce it in our heads as “Wed – nes – day” we have more than a fighting chance of writing it correctly. Having it orthographically mapped also means that we will not persist in pronouncing it that way when we read it aloud, as we know that this is one of many words in English whose spelling and pronunciation have wandered off in different directions.

Lyn has produced a helpful brief video on orthographic mapping and how to turn words into sight-words. It also covers the folly of three-cueing as a teaching approach to support this. It is well worth 8 minutes of your time.

Turning words into sight words is a process of untangling one of the knottier aspects of contemporary reading science and is a major source of confusion for teachers and literacy leaders. Doing this with maximal efficiency (by systematically teaching code knowledge) is the most reliable path to reading proficiency and enjoyment, and ultimately to academic success, for our novice readers. 

An understanding of orthographic mapping means that the phonological, orthographic, and semantic features of words can be knitted together into longterm memory to support reading and writing, as well as strengthening spoken language. 

The role of parents in this equation is to listen to and delight in, their child's blossoming reading skills, rather than providing an after-hours rote-learning service that is poor use of everyone's time.

(C) Pamela Snow (2024)

Thursday 4 January 2024

Pouring old wine into new bottles? Constrained Vs unconstrained skills in reading success


About three years ago, during the COVID-19 pandemic, I was asked to review an academic paper that was concerned with children’s acquisition of so-called unconstrained skills with respect to reading success in early years classrooms.

The idea of constrained Vs unconstrained skills in early reading instruction was not one I had encountered before, so I found myself tracking down citations in the reference list, which is a sure way to make the process of reviewing someone else’s work a much longer, though ultimately more satisfying, task. Because this was during the unpredictable days of COVID-19 and its associated lock-downs, and I was distracted with other matters, I did not come back to this construct straight away but have been giving it more thought in the last 12 months.

The manuscript I was reviewing made reference to this 2016 paper by Catherine Snow (no relation) and Timothy Matthews. Subsequently, during an exchange on “X” (formerly Twitter), I was introduced by Matthew Writer to this earlier (2004) paper by Scott Paris that was not referenced by Snow and Matthews. Some further digging also revealed, among others, this 2011 paper by Katherine A. Dougherty Stahl. There are other papers on this construct as well, but I will draw on these three publications to pull together some thoughts here on the notion of constrained Vs unconstrained skills and why this idea could be useful for teachers and teacher educators. I also want to draw attention to what I see as some potential pitfalls with this construct.

Snow and Matthews (2016) conceptualised the relationship between constrained and unconstrained skills as being categorical:

Snow, C. E., & Matthews, T. J. (2018). The role of background knowledge in reading comprehension: A critical review. The Future of Children, 42(3), 214–240. (p. 59)

Dougherty Stahl (2011) presented the relationship between the skill-sets as a continuum

Dougherty Stahl, K. A. (2011). Applying new visions of reading development in today's classrooms. The Reading Teacher, 65(1), 52-56. (p. 53).

What does it mean to say a reading-related skill is “constrained”?

Let’s back up a little first. Many readers of this blog will be familiar with frameworks such as the Simple View of Reading (SVR) and also Scarborough’s Reading Rope. Both of these frameworks provide ways of organising our thinking about the skills that children, as reading novices, need to both further develop, and in some cases, acquire from scratch, in order to become skilled readers. Both frameworks have strong empirical support and are useful conversation starters with teachers, school leaders, and policy-makers interested in transforming reading instruction. While there does not seem to be major disagreement on the merit and relevance of these frameworks, debate continues to rage as to the how of supporting skill development on both sides of their ledgers. These sides can be broadly thought of as word identification and its subskills and language comprehension and its subskills. Many workers have noted that weaknesses on one side of these models cannot be “propped up” by strengths on the other side. Strong oral language skills do not compensate for poor word identification skills and strong word identification skills do not do the work for weak oral language skills. Students need high levels of proficiency on both sides.

When workers such as Paris (2004), Dougherty Stahl (2011), and Snow and Matthews (2016) talk about constrained skills, they are referring to skills related to word-identification that are finite with respect to their scope. In the case of teaching reading in English-speaking countries, these include:

  • Basic print concepts (directionality of text; book orientation; spaces between written words as word boundaries).
  • Knowing the names of the 26 letters in the English alphabet.
  • Knowing that speech sounds (phonemes) map to written letters and letter combinations (graphemes) in rule-governed ways, albeit with varying levels of orthographic transparency.
  • Being able to blend sounds to decode unfamiliar words.

All of the authors referred to above describe these constrained skills as “easy to teach” and “easy to assess”. There is also a hint, in all of them, however, that because of these characteristics, constrained skills have been over-emphasised in policy and practice. I agree with the assertions regarding the relative ease with which they can be taught and assessed, but would caution that this does not necessarily mean they are taught and assessed well, to the level of mastery and automaticity that supports the all-important process of orthographic mapping, as described by Linnea Ehri. Their emphasis by science of reading researchers and reading policy reformers reflects the fact that balanced literacy prevails in many English-speaking jurisdictions and so by definition, constrained skills have not received rigorous and systematic focus in enough classrooms (see here for further on problems with balanced literacy).

Everyone seems to agree, to at least some extent, that mastery of the so-called “basics” (constrained skills) in early reading is critical, though many don’t even draw breath before then diminishing their importance with a “but” statement. This but statement normally contains one or more of the following elements:

  • There’s more to reading than phonics;
  • An over-emphasis on phonics will be harmful;
  • Decoding skills are only important in the early stages of reading;
  • Phonics should be taught in context.
  • Decoding is not reading.

It's easy to see how easily these can morph into another version of “everything is in the eclectic mix in a balanced literacy classroom”. To take the final point in particular, no, decoding is not reading, but it is not possible to understand text that cannot be decoded. Efficient decoding is a necessary but not sufficient pre-condition for reading comprehension to occur.

What are the skills that are “unconstrained”?

Here we move our focus to the language comprehension side of the SVR and the upper stands of the Reading Rope. This means we are now thinking about “skills without borders", such as:

  • vocabulary knowledge – understanding of both denotative and connotative meanings of words and the ability to deal with the polysemous* nature of many Tier 1 words in English. Acquisition of “higher-order” literate language (Tier 2 words) is also important. See this link for more on tiers of vocabulary.
  • the ability to draw inferences from idiomatic, non-literal language, such as metaphor, irony, and sarcasm and to understand the use of language for humorous purposes, e.g., in puns and other jokes.
  • the ability to deal with a range of syntactic structures and the meaning they support (e.g., active Vs passive voice; subordinate clauses; fronted adverbial clauses; apposition). Knowing how punctuation supports meaning in written text is also important.
  • background knowledge – the ability to bring prior knowledge to both fiction and non-fiction genres, and to apply and modify this, based on the reading of new texts. Reading comprehension both supports and is supported by, ongoing acquisition of background knowledge, across a wide range of subject areas.
    *Polysemous words have multiple meanings, while their spelling and pronunciation do not change. Consider for example, the multiple meanings attached to the Tier 1 word "bank".

The authors mentioned above have all noted that these skills are harder to teach and also harder to assess than constrained skills. If you are not familiar with Nancy Lewis Hennessy’s 2021 text The Reading Comprehension Blueprint, I recommend it as a great source on the complex integrated processes involved in reading comprehension and the need for high-quality curriculum materials and monitoring processes to support the work of teachers. Importantly, though, Hennessy includes constrained skills that support word identification, as being key to the comprehension process.

Why might a distinction between constrained and unconstrained skills be important?

I think the idea of constrained Vs unconstrained skills is a valuable one in conceptualising the reading process and understanding the challenges faced both by students and teachers in the journey from novice to proficient. It reminds us that there is a finite nature to the skills involved in “getting words off the page” aspect of reading and ensuring that literally thousands of words are efficiently orthographically mapped – stored in long-term memory with a meaning, a pronunciation, and correct spelling glued together for ease of access. Ease of access promotes reading fluency (accuracy, appropriate rate, and expression), and as noted by Jan Hasbrouck, fluency is a strong contributor to reading comprehension. It has been described by Tim Rasinksi as the bridge between decoding and comprehension. This suggests that the relationship between constrained and unconstrained skills is more a continuum than a dichotomy. Importantly, it is not a hierarchy, in which some skills, by virtue of their greater range and complexity, assume higher importance over other “lower order” skills.

Consider, for example, the plight of the Year 10 science student who needs to read text like the example below, concerning balancing oxidation-reduction equations, but brings only partially developed constrained skills to the table in the sense that she is unable to decode through unfamiliar polysyllabic/multi-morphemic words – the types of Greco-Latin (Tier 3) words that turn up with great frequency in subject-specific texts in the secondary years:

Neutral Conditions

The first step to balance any redox reaction is to separate the reaction into half-reactions. The substance being reduced will have electrons as reactants, and the oxidized substance will have electrons as products. (Usually all reactions are written as reduction reactions in half-reaction tables. To switch to oxidation, the whole equation is reversed and the voltage is multiplied by -1.) Sometimes it is necessary to determine which half-reaction will be oxidized and which will be reduced. In this case, whichever half-reaction has a higher reduction potential will by reduced and the other oxidized (source).

It is obvious that skilled reading for comprehension here will require the student to draw on well developed constrained and unconstrained skills, and has been noted previously, lack of skills on one side of the ledger cannot be compensated for by the presence of skills on the other.

We need to check our assumptions when we buy into the argument that things that are "easy" to teach are ipso facto taught well. As I have noted previously on this blog in relation to South Australia:

“……following the 2016 trial of the Phonics Screening Check in SA, it was reported that "For many teachers and leaders, the PSC was an eye-opener with some expressing surprise and disappointment about the results - particularly for students they identified as strong readers" (p.18)”.

I also think most teachers would contest the claim that teaching constrained skills efficiently, systematically, and well is "easy". Many were not adequately prepared to do so by their pre-service teacher education programs (see references on this page) and have had to invest considerable time and financial resources into upskilling in this domain.

So – it is important to remember that while the constrained Vs unconstrained framework can certainly be useful in early reading instruction, it can also potentially be weaponised to diminish the importance of constrained skills and to overlook the interconnectedness between the two sets of skills. This was a key take-away for me from the paper by Paris (2005, p.192) who observed that:

"Researchers have analyzed reading skills as if they are independent when many are required as precursors or enabling skills for others". Paris observed that different skills are closely connected at some stages and not at others, describing what he saw as  "...developmentally co-dependent constraints on the skills". 

Paris also argued that where constrained skills are taught to mastery, low variability will exist between readers, but even competent readers will vary widely with respect to the extent of their unconstrained skill development.

We should not assume that just because constrained skills can be taught with a scope and sequence and assessed using rigorous curriculum-based materials, that all children are being exposed to instruction that ensures that this occurs. Where it does, there is a better chance that constrained skills form a strong foundation for students’ lifelong acquisition and refinement of unconstrained skills. We should also not assume that older struggling readers need attention only to unconstrained skills.

If, after three years of schooling, students cannot efficiently and automatically lift words off the page, they will not be in a position to maximise working memory and other executive function systems, activate background knowledge, or employ comprehension monitoring processes and inferencing skills to understand what they are reading. That then imposes serious constraints of another kind, on academic success and psychological wellbeing.

Perhaps rather than a constrained Vs unconstrained dichotomy or even a continuum, what we are actually looking at here is a kind of conceptual double-helix, with the strength of the connecting bonds being an under-recognised point of difference between stronger and weaker readers. Students do not stop using constrained skills over time; these skills simply become an invisible force for good in ensuring that most of a reader's cognitive and linguistic effort can be channelled to demands placed on unconstrained skills when they are reading increasingly challenging texts.

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(C) Pamela Snow (2024)