Sunday, 7 March 2021

Are we there yet? The long, steep, and winding road towards improved reading instruction.

All parents will be familiar with the pleading question from the back seat on long (or sometimes not so long) car journeys, normally delivered in the most whinging (whining for US readers) tone of voice possible: Are we there yet? As the youngest of four children, growing up in the 1960s and sitting unrestrained in the back of the family station-wagon, mine may have been the loudest voice in this chorus. I hope the advent of car air-conditioning, screens and wireless headphones makes for easier car journeys these days for parents. However, I have been reminded of the Are we there yet? plea this week in the context of recent media interest in the ongoing problem of how we teach children how to read (or in many cases do not).

If you’ve missed the recent media offerings, you can find Rebecca Urban’s piece in The Australian here and Jordan Baker’s Good Weekend feature article here (apologies if you strike a paywall).

The journey towards improved reading instruction has been made unnecessarily long and complicated as a result of those in the front seat accepting directions from people who may be well-intentioned, but don’t actually know what the destination looks like, or how to get there. It’s also been muddied by advice from people who thought we would be better off heading down a side road because the town down that way is pretty and everyone seems happy there. Some people don’t necessarily think there’s a destination at all; rather that wherever we are right now is just fine and there’s no need to move on to greener pastures.

I thought it might be timely to check the map, because there’s been some dead-ends and unnecessary detours that have made this journey longer and more painful than it ever needed to be.

So let’s see how we’re travelling and do some misdirection fact-checking along the way. 

Misdirection No. 1: Tensions in how to teach reading are a battle between Whole Language and “phonics”.

This is overly simplistic. The key tension, as I see it in 2021, is between instruction that is delivered explicitly by teachers who are highly knowledgeable about all aspects of the English language (spoken and written) and instruction that is delivered by teachers who have been presented with an extremely restricted lens on reading and are overly reliant on a limited and superficial repertoire of classroom materials and routines. Such materials often include expensive classroom sets of leveled (predictable) readers that do not follow a scope and sequence with respect to the teaching of phoneme-grapheme correspondences and sets of “sight” words which children do not have the tools to analyse at a sub-lexical level, so must over-burden their fragile visual memory systems by learning them as pictographs. Then there is the all-too-familiar Whole Language throwback, Multi-Cueing (Three Cueing) and some frankly bizarre advice, like telling children to “get your mouth ready” to read an unfamiliar word. 

None of this would matter of course, if we were successfully teaching 95% of children to read, as the cognitive psychology research indicates we should be*. We're not even close.
* If you cannot access this paper by Dr Kerry Hempenstall, the key quote (pp. 108-109) is this:

According to research, we should not be content until the reading difficulty rate falls to around 5%..... Until then, we are not teaching reading well enough, and many students do not have an inbuilt resistance to learning how to read, but should be considered as instructional casualties.

The wrong-turn here that has delayed our journey is that universities, by a process of steady erosion of teacher knowledge in initial teacher education (ITE) over recent decades, have over-simplified the reading process, for both teachers and children. That means that rather than needing faculty who are knowledgeable about the linguistic basis of reading, universities have reassured themselves that it's OK for this part of the ITE curriculum to be delivered by academics with backgrounds in anything from drama, art, and secondary English literature. This has resulted in a collective form of interpretative dance around such fundamental questions as the meaning of the word “literacy” (insert just about any meaning you like and it will get up; the more postmodern it sounds, the better).  I am yet to meet a primary school teacher who sees an opening for critical literacy, in their struggle to teach six-year olds how to spell; nor have I met a primary teacher who has asked for assistance in supporting students with multiliteracies. If you want to test these propositions, it is easy to do so:

  • Ask some recent graduates what theories of reading they learned about at university.
  • Ask them what they learned about the three national inquiries into the teaching of literacy that were held between 2000 and 2006.
  • Ask them whether reading is a biologically primary or secondary skill, and why this matters.
  • Ask them about the relationship between oral language abilities and learning to read.
  • Ask them to define phonemic awareness and morphological awareness.
  • Ask them about the difference between synthetic and analytic phonics. 
  • Ask them what they know about orthographic mapping
  • Ask them how they teach spelling.
  • Ask them whether they are confident identifying and supporting struggling readers.
  • Ask them whether they need professional learning on critical literacies, multiliteracies, and/or neoliberal praxis in the early years’ classroom. 
Why are students in related disciplines such as speech-language pathology and educational and developmental psychology learning about these fundamental concepts and yet teachers, in most cases, are not? Why have Education faculties given away the family china? If you give away the family china, you can't then complain that others find it useful in their work. I wrote about the issue of education discarding precious knowledge from its teacher education programs back in 2017. You can read that blog-post here.

Misdirection No. 2: Calling for improved reading instruction means advocating for a “phonics only” approach.

This straw man would be laughable if it were not so disappointing and exhausting; this is reading instruction's flat tyre that results in a collective moan from the back seat, as everyone piles out to stand by the side of the road while even more time is wasted.

As per Misdirection No. 1, the debate needs to be much more nuanced than this. Advocates of improved reading instruction spend just as much time talking about the role of vocabulary, comprehension, fluency, syntax, and discourse, and so on, as they do about how speech and print map to each other in English. Related to this, it is inaccurate to suggest that systematic and explicit phonics instruction (whether synthetic or not) by definition, by-passes vocabulary development. It does not. Its prime function is to automatise children’s mastery of the code, but if teachers are teaching decoding without incidentally talking about meanings of words, putting them in sentences and drawing children’s attention to morphological markers (e.g., plural -s, present progressive -ing) then there’s some low-hanging fruit they can access to enrich their teaching as of Monday morning.

You can decode something you can’t understand particularly well (like me reading in my rusty school-girl French), but you can’t understand something at all that you can’t decode (like me being presented with a page of text written in Arabic). If you don’t a) know that there is a code and b) know how to decipher the code, then you cannot "read for meaning" and reading will remain an opaque mystery and your academic success will be jeopardised accordingly.

If we can’t get past this road-block in the reading debate, we cannot get on to the pressing and important matters of strengthening vocabulary, getting students over David Corson’s “lexical bar”, and improving their writing skills (to name a few imperatives).

Misdirection No. 3 The real culprits here are parents. They are either too poor, too non-English speaking, or too busy to teach their children to read themselves.

This is a pernicious but transparent attempt to shift responsibility for reading instruction from schools (whose job it is) to parents (whose job it is not).

Does anyone remember this bumper sticker from the 1980s?


I wonder why we don’t see it anymore? Could it be that the inverse is also true – if you can’t read it, did something go wrong in your early reading instruction? 

The myth that parents reading to their children will rid the world of illiteracy has been promulgated by children's author Mem Fox and resoundingly rebuffed by Distinguished Professor Anne Castles, of Macquarie University. This particular misdirection is related to the notion of reading being "natural", as discussed further below (see Misdirection No. 5).

Misdirection No. 4. Teachers are professionals and the rest of the community should just trust them to know what’s best for children in their class.

I have written about the issue of professionalism previously – see here. This idea is so out of step with community standards and expectations, it’s hard to know where to start. Doctors, nurses, psychologists, physiotherapists, engineers, speech pathologists, lawyers etc are not afforded the freedom to do their own thing. Professionalism is a highly constrained form of accountability. Members of other disciplines are held to account by professional bodies when (not if, when) they do not do their jobs properly, through errors of either omission or commission. 

When was the last time a teacher was held to account by a professional body for not teaching reading well enough? I don’t know either. But this scary reality is what true professionalism entails and perhaps if education academics had to factor that possibility into their pre-service curricula there would be some better attention to detail in what is taught. Academics in medicine, nursing, psychology and a raft of allied health disciplines know that this is the kind of community accountability they are preparing their graduates for.  

Misdirection No. 5 Reading is a natural thing for children to do. Explicit instruction in phonics kills their enjoyment of text. We should foster the ability to read through immersion in high-quality children’s literature.

As you can see, there’s a few inter-connected pieces of mis-information here. If you are unconvinced about the notion that humans have evolved for spontaneous development of spoken language but not for written language, I refer you to the work of Diane McGuinness, Stanislas Dehaene and David Geary. Unfortunately, the late Kenneth Goodman gave education the fanciful but empirically unsupported notion that reading is “natural”, like oral language. This became something of a meme in early years education and has been hard to budge. 

What teachers who have adopted a structured literacy approach to early reading instruction consistently report is the joy that children display when they can crack the code and lift words off the page. All of which does not mean of course that children should not be exposed to beautiful children’s books on a daily basis: books that expand their vocabularies, their comprehension of complex sentences, their imaginations, and their knowledge of the world. That’s a no-brainer.

We need to remember though, that listening to adults read beautiful books does no more to teach children how to read than listening to adults play Mozart sonatas teaches them how to play the piano. There’s several concepts and skills that children need to master in order to do both and instruction delivered by knowledgeable teachers is what makes the difference. Would parents knowingly pay for piano lessons taught by someone who does not understand musical notation and the logic behind it? No, and they should not have to buy into a lottery of hoping that classroom teachers have received adequate preparation for the specialised knowledge and skills required to support children’s early reading success.

If reading was as natural as acquiring oral language, why is it taught in schools at all? And if it’s so easy for everyone to acquire, why are there so many illiterate people in the world (who have completed primary school)?


Perhaps it’s time for education faculties to claim reading, and all aspects of how children are best taught how to do it, as their own. This would entail fully embracing the fact that reading is a complex skill that requires teachers to be knowledgeable experts, not guides on the side. 

It would entail acknowledging that the English writing system is an imperfect representation of spoken language and teachers need to understand these imperfections so they are not glossed over with an awkward “because English” wave of the hand. 

It would entail some humility in the face of the fact that knowledgeable language scholars have been tinkering with the English writing system for hundreds of years, yet we ask children at the tender age of five to start mastering it and give then approximately 36 months to do so. 

These are only some of the unfortunate misdirections that reading policy makers and university academics have provided to schools in recent decades. They have made the journey unnecessarily long (never-ending some might say), treacherous, and time-wasting for teachers, parents, and students of all backgrounds and education sectors.

As with real-life journeys, adults can generally cope better with distance, detours, and delays, but children will be the ones who experience the pain of an unnecessarily long drive and the seemingly non-existent destination.

So dear reader, no, we are not there yet, but we are not abandoning the journey either.

(C) Pamela Snow (2021) 

Thursday, 14 January 2021

The Science of Reading and Chesterton's Fence

 Image source

It’s January 2021 and as I’m sure you've noticed, the world’s best and brightest microbiologists, virologists and immunologists are working around the clock to throw everything that science has at a microbe that at the time of writing has caused 1.98 million deaths, wreaked havoc in people’s lives and damaged global economies. This is not a blogpost about COVID (collect sigh of relief) but it is a blogpost about science, and how we humans have a peculiar tendency to work against our own best interests in some aspects of improving life on earth. 

One of the ways in which we make life hard for ourselves is by destroying things because we don’t understand their value or original purpose. In 1929, English writer, philosopher and polymath Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) wrote a book called The Thing, in which he stated (emphasis mine):  

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it. 

Now I know many readers of this blog will be familiar with the history of reading instruction and will see parallels here in how reading “reform” occurred during the twentieth century. Whole Language advocates (later followed by Balanced Literacy descendants) wandered into the field (literally and metaphorically) and saw some fences and gates, such as explicit teaching of how speech and print map to each other, could not see their point, and so ordered their removal. And removed they were. This is a classic example of what Chesterton described as “first order thinking”, as noted by the team at Farnam Street. Resonance with the history of reading instruction will become even stronger as you read on (emphasis is mine):  

When we seek to intervene in any system created by someone, it’s not enough to view their decisions and choices simply as the consequences of first-order thinking because we can inadvertently create serious problems. Before changing anything, we should wonder whether they were using second-order thinking. Their reasons for making certain choices might be more complex than they seem at first. It’s best to assume they knew things we don’t or had experience we can’t fathom, so we don’t go for quick fixes and end up making things worse. Second-order thinking is the practice of not just considering the consequences of our decisions but also the consequences of those consequences. 

Everyone can manage first-order thinking, which is just considering the immediate anticipated result of an action. It’s simple and quick, usually requiring little effort. By comparison, second-order thinking is more complex and time-consuming. The fact that it is difficult and unusual is what makes the ability to do it such a powerful advantage. Second-order thinking will get you extraordinary results, and so will learning to recognize when other people are using second-order thinking

First order thinking in reading instruction yielded the apparent simplicity of a field without what seemed like an unnecessary fence in the middle of it. Decades later, we can see the forethought of those who put the fence there, as well as the downstream havoc created by its impulsive and reactive removal. Examples of this havoc are a current teaching workforce who were themselves subjects of the Whole Language experiment and were not taught to spell, were not taught the rules of grammar and lack an explicit understanding of how spoken and written language work. Sure, some have picked these things up along the way, but hit-and-miss is hardly a strategy for teaching children, let alone preparing a workforce and guarding against the loss of cultural capital that is encoded in spoken and written language.

Since the 1980s, many teachers, academics, clinicians and policy makers have struggled valiantly to explain to decision-makers why this first-order thinking was so gravely flawed. There’s been three national inquiries (the USA in 2000, Australia in 2005 and the UK in 2006) all one way or another stating that the fence should not have been removed and recommending its reinstatement. 

There’s been the ongoing march of reading science, affirming the need for this fence if all children, not merely a fortunate subgroup are to learn to read. There’s been ground-up action by parents, despairing of the distress and shame experienced by their struggling offspring. 

And still in 2021, we see first-order thinking manifesting itself in statements such as “there is no science of reading*”. Back to Farnam Street (emphasis mine):  

Chesterton went on to explain why this principle holds true, writing that fences don’t grow out of the ground, nor do people build them in their sleep or during a fit of madness. He explained that fences are built by people who carefully planned them out and “had some reason for thinking [the fence] would be a good thing for somebody.” Until we establish that reason, we have no business taking an ax to it. The reason might not be a good or relevant one; we just need to be aware of what the reason is. Otherwise, we may end up with unintended consequences: second- and third-order effects we don’t want, spreading like ripples on a pond and causing damage for years. 

So – why do we continue to be plagued by first-order thinking in reading instruction? It’s not uncommon to hear claims such as “there is no science of reading”, “every child learns differently”, and “teachers should be trusted to use a range of approaches”. Reading instruction has been the subject of close human inquiry for decades (at least), and over time, brick-by-brick, we’ve amassed a body of knowledge about what reading is, how best to teach it so that all children, not just a lucky subset succeed, and how to identify and support those who struggle. 

Is this knowledge base complete, perfect and settled? No, of course not. 

Do we know enough to be able to recommend system-wide practices that should be adopted or ceased? Yes. 

Do we systematically work from the same songbook on this? No. 

Like Chesterton’s Fence, this knowledge was not created by accident or on a whim. No one built it in their sleep. Rather this particular fence was built slowly and carefully, and like all scientific endeavours, with imperfections and the need for repair and revision along the way.  

If, however, in 2021, you claim “there is no science of reading” you are saying you don’t understand the need for the fence that was built by our predecessors and you will be prone to do wilful damage to it, or at best, to neglect its maintenance. 

 If you assert that “there is no science of reading”, then these are the kinds of first-order Chesterton’s Fence thinking errors you are making: 

1. Decades of generally rigorous research conducted by knowledgeable, well-motivated and disciplined cognitive scientists, educational psychologists, neuroscientists and so on tells us nothing about what reading is as a human skill. 

2. Because you don’t understand the science, it can be neglected or torn down. 

3. Because you don’t understand the reading fence, you can also dismiss related bodies of knowledge in human cognition, perception, learning, language and memory. 

4. We’ve learnt nothing in the last 50-plus years that can be usefully applied by teachers and so should be consistently taught to pre-service teachers when they are at university. 

5. Teaching is really just a craft, not guided by a body of scientific knowledge (metaphorical fences), but in spite of this, teachers should be afforded high professional standing in the community.

 6. We know nothing about how to identify and support struggling readers. 

7. Some children can’t be taught / were not read to enough as infants / don’t have enough books at home / don’t want to learn / will get there when they are ready. 

8. All children learn differently. 

9. Becoming a reader is no different from developing oral language and we will poison children against reading if we use formal instruction. 

10. The orthography of English is too complex for formal instruction so children should be encouraged to memorise “sight words” and guess unfamiliar words using picture and context cues. 

11. Systematic synthetic phonics instruction excludes vocabulary and other aspects of language development 

12. Phonics can only be taught properly using a commercial program, or alternatively, advocacy for phonics instruction is purely motivated by commercial forces. (Have you looked at the business models behind levelled texts lately?

13. As long as phonics is “in the mix”, children will learn to decode. 

History will be the judge of how we cooperate on the re-construction of a fence whose purpose was poorly understood by some of our predecessors, but there is no excuse, in 2021, for continuing to neglect or damage the science of reading fence, no matter how imperfect it may be. Children’s lives literally depend on being given every opportunity to become readers without the hindrance of depression and anxiety, low self-worth, behavioural comorbidities, suspensions and expulsions, and trying to access sparse, generally inadequate intervention services.  

The fence was put there to protect children but was impulsively demolished by adults who were not using second-order thinking. The grown-ups need to re-instate it and care for it properly.


*At La Trobe University, we prefer to use the term Science of Language and Reading. You can read more about our recently established SOLAR Lab here and about its theoretical basis here.

(C) Pamela Snow (2021)

Sunday, 16 August 2020

GUEST BLOG: But what if there was a screening test for COVID-19?

This Guest Blog was written by Associate Professor Tanya Serry*, Co-Director of the newly-established Science of Language and Reading (SOLAR) Lab in the School of Education at La Trobe University, Australia.


 Image source: CSG Limited

While COVID-19 plays havoc with our minds, our health care workers and our economy, let’s just imagine that a COVID-19 Screening Check was available from tomorrow. We’ll call it CSC for short. In the spirit of any screening check (think breast screening, hearing screening, antenatal ultrasound screening), the CSC acts as a population-based preventative measure for early detection of the virus. While your imagination is running wild about the CSC, let’s also assume that those identified as positive on the CSC, will be eligible for early, evidence-based medical care. Let’s also assume that for most people, (say about 80%), the treatment is short, sharp and effective; well before the virus causes fever, fatigue and fear. What a huge relief and wonderful safety net that would be. What a cause for celebration.

But what if we substituted CSC for PSC: the Phonics Screening Check? Would there be as much fanfare? Unfortunately, the answer is no, even though the PSC performs a similar function as our imagined CSC, but in relation to identifying students who are not tracking as expected in learning how to decode. It’s just that reading difficulties are a slow-burn virus that can take a lot longer to declare themselves, unlike COVID-19, which has a short incubation period. More about that later.

Background to the Phonics Screening Check

The Phonics Screening Check commenced in the UK in 2012. According to the South Australian Department for Education, which had the foresight in 2018 to trial the check statewide across publicly funded schools, the check is ‘… a short, simple assessment that helps teachers to measure how well students are learning to decode and blend letters into sounds - one of the building blocks for reading.

The Check (note the word check and not test) is conducted towards the latter half of Year 1 to monitor students’ progress in learning to decode words and in particular, to achieve the early identification of children struggling with decoding. The PSC takes between four and seven minutes to administer and consists of 40 items: 20 real words and 20 pseudowords. Herein lies the rub: pseudowords; loved by some, despised by others, misunderstood by many.

Real words could be for example: ITS, SUM or THIRD while pseudowords could be OSK, PAB or DARP. You’ll see that the pseudowords are all phonologically legal and phonotactically identical (respectively). I can’t show you a picture of test items as they are not labeled for reuse. However, the reality is that every word that children encounter, real or pseudo, is new for a novice reader at least once. All the PSC is doing is determining whether Year 1 students can decode phonologically legal combinations. Perhaps in an ideal world, where there was overarching support for the concept of a PSC, the entire check could be pseudowords. That would really be the purest way of tracking students’ decoding abilities; but for now, a bridge too far. It would mean however that we would not see ill-informed comments reported in newspapers such as Apparently, puzzling over the sounds of "flisp" is going to help children learn to read and write.

So how does the Phonics Screening Check stack up against the CSC?

If we reflect on the likely support for the imagined CSC and the real-life PSC, it would go something like this:

Properties of the check

 (Imagined) CSC

(Real) PSC

Provides early detection of risk?

Yes: for COVID—19.

Yes: for ongoing difficulties learning how to decode words.

May identify some false positives?

Yes: but better safe than sorry.

Yes: but better safe than sorry.

May identify some false negatives?

Yes; it’s a possibility but managed by close progress monitoring of COVID-19 ‘symptoms’.

Yes; it’s a possibility, but managed by close progress monitoring of ‘signs’ of reading struggles.

Offers intervention options?

Yes: evidence-based treatment to significantly reduce the virus taking hold.

Yes: evidence-based treatment to boost the word decoding abilities of children .

Effective for everyone?

About 80% will benefit from the treatment. The remaining 20% are likely to need more intensive treatment.

About 90-95% will benefit from a brief but intensive Tier-2 reading intervention. The remaining 5-10% of students will need more intensive, more enduring Tier-3 treatment.

Reasons not to use it?

None identified.

None identified although there is much misinformation about its use.

 The good news

On August 2nd, a media release was circulated by the Hon Dan Tehan MP (Federal Minister for Education) headed 2020, Free phonics check for all Year 1 students. In this release, the Minister was quoted as saying “Importantly, Phonics Check results provide teachers with a useful picture of where individual students are at in their reading, so they can implement the right support for those who are struggling…”

How good is that?

Well yes, it’s good if you support the Phonics Check (like I do). And if you do support the Phonics Check, implicitly that means that you understand:

  • That the ultimate aim of reading is to gain meaning;
  • That Gough and Tunmer's (1986) Simple View of Reading (which states that reading is a product of being able to decode words and understand spoken language), is theoretically sound;
  • That novice readers (5-6 year old students) need to be taught how to “crack the code” of English.
  • That learning to decode accurately and efficiently is the first, crucial step to becoming a competent reader;
  • That not all children will learn to “crack the code” without explicit teaching, but these children do not necessarily have a learning difficulty;
  • That structured literacy using a synthetic phonics approach is the safest way to ensure that children learn to decode words;
  • That a systematic scope and sequence is superior (safer and more trustworthy) to a non-systematic approach (see here and here; and
  • That humans were not born “wired to read (and spell) and therefore need to be taught, ideally in a systematic and explicit way.

Why the backlash?

Those who challenge the value of the PSC use the straw-man argument that says “decoding alone does not a good reader make”. But that’s just not correct as shown by the evidence (see for example here and here). Take the Simple View of Reading which states, in the most elegant way, that being a competent reader comes about by being able to (i) decode well and (ii) have a solid grasp of oral language comprehension. Then there is the very important work of Professor David Kilpatrick who has demystified for us all, that critical step of moving from decoding in a rather mechanistic; sound-it-out way to developing orthographic mapping skills for fluent effortless word reading (the 70min investment in the hyperlinked YouTube video above is well worth it).   

The sound-it-out decoding part, which is all the PSC is used for, opens the door to becoming a competent reader. That’s all. In the same way that we would be fist-punching for that imagined CSC, universal acceptance of the PSC, which is at our fingertips and on our iPads, should elicit the same joy. The joy of reading, in fact


*Associate Professor Tanya Serry is an Advisory Panel Member for the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment in relation to the development of the 2020 online Phonics Screening Check. All views expressed in this blog are opinions of the author alone.


© Tanya Serry (2020)