Saturday, 24 January 2015

Literacy License

If you ever needed any convincing that Whole Language is alive, well, and thriving in Australian pre-service teacher education, then you need look no further. This week, an Australian literacy academic, Mr Ryan Spencer  left no doubt at all in readers' minds that this failed and harmful ideology continues to hold a firm grip in university lecture theatres. Oh sure, education academics will, in the main, assure us that this is not the case, but opinion pieces such as this one, boldly informing parents that they should "ditch the home readers" that their child's teacher has provided tell otherwise.

Let me affirm some points of important common ground between Whole Language advocates and its detractors: learning to read is important; children need rich immersion in and exposure to spoken and written language in order to have the necessary linguistic "toolkit" to progress from the oral to the written form; and learning to read should be enjoyable. Note I used the word "enjoyable" here, not "fun". I don't know whether anyone has specifically researched this question, but is there any actual empirical evidence that children need to be having "fun" in order to learn to read? Or do they simply need to be engaged and achieving? I ask this because it's a claim that is often made quite uncritically in education circles and I am not aware of any research that operationalises "fun" over established cognitive constructs such as attention, concentration, learning, and memory. When did "fun" attain a higher educational standing than engagement and achievement?

To quote one commentator on The Conversation discussion forum about this article, "there is evidence and there is evidence". This pretty much sums up the problem, and resonates with frustrations expressed by Dr Jennifer Buckingham in a recent opinion piece in The Australian newspaper

There has been a bewildering reluctance in education faculties to acknowledge the scientific basis for effective teaching methods. Education academics often view the idea of explicitly teaching children how to read the written word (rather than reading children lots of books and hoping for the best) as between an anachronism and a “neoliberal”, anti-public education plot.

So I find Mr Spencer's advice, delivered with the imprimateur of the title "Clinical Teaching Specialist" at a university, worrying at many levels:
  1. It dismisses, in one sweep, the value of "levelled readers" that allow children to decode text at, or slightly below/above their current level of ability;
  2. It undermines attempts by beleaguered primary school teachers to actually apply evidence in the classroom about the importance of early decoding/phonics skills. Can we possibly make things any harder for teachers with respect to the conflicting information they receive?
  3. It assumes that children find these texts "boring", with no evidence presented to this effect. What about the child who doesn't find such a text boring and enjoys the sense of growing mastery over an alphabetic code that previously seemed opaque, but is now emerging, like a ghost out of the fog, to give the beginning reader an algorithm with which to tackle new, unfamiliar words? Guessing only takes you so far, and as any struggling Grade 4 reader will tell you, it's a poor substitute for decoding skills once the pictures have gone.
  4. Statements such as "...when children are provided with the opportunity to select their own reading material, they achieve greater levels of success"are so sweeping and so general that they do not belong in academic writing at all. The citation provided to support this generalisation is in fact an opinion-based narrative review, not an empirical study, nor even a systematic review.

Not all "levelled readers" are the same, and of course they can reflect different learning-to-read philosophies. As long as children are being exposed to evidence-based early reading instruction in the classroom, (and this is not a given), I doubt that it matters a great deal what kinds of books parents and children enjoy together for pleasure, if circumstances are such that this opportunity can be created.

As Melbourne Speech Pathologist Alison Clarke has commented, however, time spent actually practising reading on the part of the child is different:

(Mr Spencer) conflates books-to-read-to-your-child, which should be chosen on the basis of interest, and books-for-your-child-to-read, which can and should be carefully selected on the basis of the complexity of their text, because we have a very complicated and opaque spelling system in English, and it is too hard for little children to learn all at once. 

Parents are natural teachers, and those who are fortunate to be able to read (something that we should not assume is universal), will in many cases default to sounding out unfamiliar words in order to assist their young learner - much closer to reading science than encouraging guessing*. Parents are to be encouraged in this natural teaching, but not at the expense of shared book time affording relaxed and warm interactions.

So my advice to parents is not to ditch home readers, but to think about their place as a simple practice-aid, to discuss their selection with the child's teacher, and to make them just a part of the evening reading ritual, not the "whole story". 

*I wonder how many parents naturally default to a three-cueing system?

(C) Pamela Snow 2015


  1. Hello,
    A Facebook page ran a link to your update on phonics. All the facts are there but you're much too kind to these people. Perhaps politics are constraining. I'm all the way over here in the US. Please quote me if you need a bad guy..

    For one thing, I don't think Reading Recovery is well-intentioned. Perhaps the opposite. And saying that the teachers are not trained is not very satisfying. Why aren't they trained? Because Progressive Education means never having to say you're wrong or even a little bit sorry.

    This article was originally titled "Rudolf Flesch's Big Mistake." The editors at the site said that no one would know who Flesch is!?!? So the name was changed to "Whatever happened to phonics?" In any case, my intent was to use the 60th anniversary of his famous book to talk about phonics.

    Here's the Facebook page that mentioned your article:
    Please say I told you so.

    Bruce Deitrick Price

  2. Thanks for your comment and endorsement Bruce - we're delighted that our piece is being read and dsicussed by our friends on the other side of the Pacific.

    Have you seen this 2013 piece that picks up where yours left off?

    We haven't come very far it would seem.....

    Cheers and thanks for getting in touch