Friday, 27 March 2015

Dr Louisa Moats in Australia - the agony and the ecstasy

Last Saturday I joined around 160 other language and literacy enthusiasts (predominantly teachers, both primary and secondary, and speech pathologists) to hear Dr Louisa Moats speak in Melbourne on the science of reading instruction. I was well primed for this event, having read rave reviews of her presentations in other states, and also having re-visited some of her published work in the week prior to the workshop, most notably this one from 2007: Whole Language High Jinks – highly recommended if you haven’t read it. 

Dr Moats was in Australia as a guest of LearningDifficulties Australia (LDA). LDA celebrates its 50th birthday this year, and in a generous and inspired piece of gift-giving, brought Dr Moats and her expertise to Australia so that we might benefit from her wisdom on matters pertaining to teacher training, literacy instruction, Response to Intervention, and management of children with dyslexia.

I’ll focus in this blog on Dr Moats’ comments on reading instruction in particular, though I will also mention some of her reflections on Whole Language and on teacher training.

Dr Moats impresses as an under-stated highly knowledgeable scientist, who also has the benefit of many years’ experience as both a teacher and an educational psychologist. She has personally assessed thousands of struggling readers of all ages, as well as conducting rigorous research on optimal teaching methods and teacher training regarding language constructs relevant to reading instruction. 

Much of the Saturday workshop was devoted to the science of teaching reading. Here, Dr Moats drew on Hollis Scarborough’s 2001 “reading rope” (see below) to drill down on the specifics of reading-related subskills such as 

  •       What is a phoneme?
    How do voiced and voiceless phonemes differ? How does place of articulation influence phoneme production?

  •       What is a grapheme?

  •       What does phoneme-grapheme correspondence mean?

  •       What is morphology and how does it inform the teaching of reading and spelling?

  •       How can children’s vocabulary be strengthened?

  •      What do syntactic knowledge and understanding contribute to reading proficiency and how can they be developed?

  •     The importance of comprehension and the role that oral language skills play in this.


For a self-described “Phonicator” Dr Moats’ approach to reading instruction richly reflects the cognitive psychology evidence on early reading and goes way beyond the necessary but not sufficient role of early phonemic awareness and phonics instruction. Dr Moats also stressed that while poor decoding skills play a large part in reading difficulties in the early years, by secondary school, the picture is more complex, and deficits in early decoding skills are now compounded by decrements in vocabulary, syntactic understanding, and reading comprehension. If the foundations of a house are not sound, then we can’t expect the walls and roof to be strong either. 

Some of the exercises Dr Moats asked the audience to do (like determining the number of phonemes in common words) proved a little challenging on a Saturday morning, even for this highly motivated and more-knowledgeable-than-average audience. This took me right back to first year linguistics when I was studying to be a speech pathologist, and it struck me that if I was teacher who had not been schooled in these concepts (a la most Australian teachers in recent decades), I would have been feeling out of my comfort zone. That’s a comment on teacher training and not on teachers, and it also reflects the truth behind the title of one of Dr Moats’ most well-known texts: Teaching Reading IS Rocket Science.

While there was much intellectual ecstasy in listening to Dr Moats (OK, yes, I’m a bit of a nerd) bringing the science of reading instruction to life and seeing its teaching illustrated with clear and theory-based examples, the metaphorical agony lay in the fact that Dr Moats was preaching to the choir, albeit in ways that gave the choir stronger, more in-tune voices. I doubt there were many Balanced Literacy advocates in the room, nor Reading Recovery teachers, nor, perhaps most critically, teacher educators who (in the main) persist in their promotion of non-evidence-based approaches to early literacy instruction. On this, Dr Moats observed that “…we need to be outraged and less tolerant”. Dr Moats also observed that there’s no point telling teachers that “phonemic awareness is important” if teachers don’t know what phonemes are (as indicated by the research evidence on teacher knowledge). 

As a first-time visitor to Australia, Dr Moats expressed humility at the reach and influence of her work here, but also some incredulity at our preponderance for following in the footsteps of our UK and US neigbours with respect to changing tack, and adopting approaches ahead of the science being adequately accounted for. It’s too late to put the Whole Language/Reading Recovery genie back in the bottle, but I wonder what cliff we’ll jump off next if we don’t abandon our lemming ways?

Dr Moats noted that reading is one of the most studied human skills, yet we persist in failing to apply the hard-earned science in early years’ classrooms, and instead accept high rates of suboptimal literacy levels in first-world nations such as the US and Australia. I’m not the first to observe that such willingness to look the other way would result in riots in the streets if interventions that treated a potentially chronic medical illness were being withheld from small children. Low literacy, however, is such a condition, yet we have allowed a confluence of social and political factors to force evidence to take a back seat, in favour of allowing ideology to drive the literacy instruction bus.  

As an important aside, at Dr Moats’ workshop, I also met Berys Dixon, whose work I became aware of when she contributed to the discussion forum following this piece on The Conversation that Alison Clarke and I recently co-authored. Berys is a primary school teacher who had her own phonics epiphany in 2008, having been using Whole-Language based approaches such as the Three Cueing System. You can hear Berys telling her story at this link on the Spelfabet website. There’s also more information about Berys’ work at this link and here's information about sourcing her fabulous little Pocket Rockets.  So this added a bit more ecstasy to the day.

In addition to a dozen or so workshop and seminar presentations, Dr Moats also met with senior state and federal education bureaucrats and ministers during her visit. In the interests of preventing us from having to replicate other nations' expensive mistakes, I hope some of those people listened carefully to what this very measured scientist had to say. 

Thank you LDA, for bringing Dr Louisa Moats to our shores.

(C) Pamela Snow (2015) 


  1. Thank You Pamela..what a great summary and perspective. I am thrilled to read your enthusiasm for Dr Moats and her call for outrage. I am outraged! As a parent , Medical practitioner, and chair of dyslexia action group, Barossa and and Gawler surrounds.
    Im so glad I made the effort to attend, and am so cross that no South Australian Education bureaucrats were there. I have asked them to justify this.

    1. Thanks for your kind comment Sandra, and I'm particularly pleased you found the trip over from SA to be of use. Hopefully you will be able to share some of Louisa's comments with the SA Ed folk.

  2. Pam,
    As an attendee from Perth. I couldn't agree more. Now onto how to spread the message! Was involved in a few Facebook conversations this week post the media reports on Dr Moats' perspective on Reading Recovery and it appears the 3 Cuing System is prevalent in Aus :(
    Great blog as always,

    1. Thanks Juliet - yes the Three Cueing System is alive and well (and of course places decoding skills as the last resort). Lovely to meet you in Melbourne!


  3. reading is one of the most studied human skills, yet we persist in failing to apply the hard-earned science in early years’ classrooms

    I assume the "we" is "teachers." However, if the "hard-earned science" is captured in the "reading rope" graphic, the "application" never will and never should happen. Untangling the "rope:"

    Background Knowledge: With few exceptions, children bring "good enough" vocabulary and spoken language facility with them when they enter Reception.

    Vocabulary: Subset of background knowledge.

    Language Structures: Ditto

    Verbal Reasoning. Children have been "reasoning" since birth (if not before). A child who can participate in everyday conversation is a "good enough" reasoner for reliable reading instruction.

    Literacy Knowledge. These meta terms are "nice to know" but they aren't fundamental to either spoken or written communication.

    In short: Reading Comprehension has the scientific status of Phlogiston. "Background Knowledge" is important to any learning, but treating it as an asset rather than a liability or obstacle is standard scientific practice.

    Similarly with Word Recognition--
    Phonological Awareness. As evidenced by the squirmers in the audience, it's not requisite to written communication.

    Decoding (Alphabetic Principle) The English Alphabetic Code is indeed the link between written and spoken English, but it's comprised of 180ish letter-sound correspondence. The Code is not a "principle" any more than the Genetic Code or the Morse Code are principles.
    The Code is more often maligned than honored, but it permits wide variations of spoken language possible with common understanding in both spoken and written communication.

    Sight Recognition. Teaching children to memorize words as a default technique is mal-instruction.

    As with any complex skill, reading becomes more "strategic" and "automatic" with increased expertise, but fluency and understanding of a text can be obtained and maintained from the initial days of reading instruction.

    The choir is amused by a "self-described 'Phonicator'," but there is more agony than ecstasy to the description.

    A more direct route to reliable reading instruction is offered by application of the UK Alphabetic Code Screening Check. It's a psychometrically sound instrument for cutting through the metaphors and the competing ideology.

    1. Well Dick you've extended my vocabulary - I had to consult Dr Google on Phlogiston :-)

      I think the metaphorical "we" Dr Moats was referring to was predominantly teacher educators and state level policy makers. Once teachers have been essentially indoctrinated with WL ideology, it's very difficult to wind back their commitment to it, though a substantial number do seem to develop their own healthy skepticism over time - which is great and should be encouraged.

      You seem to be saying that the Scarborough reading rope is not a useful framework for conceptualising the learning-to-read process, which surprises me a little, as it seems (to me) to do a good job of encapsulating the linguistic sub-skills that (a) support the transition to literacy, (b) are often "deficient" (for wont of a better word) in children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and (c) that teachers need to understand in order to promote decoding as well as comprehension skills. You'll get no argument from me (nor, I suspect, from Dr Moats) re the folly of overloading visual memory with sight words, at the expense of teaching decoding skills.

      I agree with you re the merits of the UK Phonics Check, though it has its vigorous detractors. I suspect that a good part of the resistance, however, lies in the fact that it is a covert check on teacher behaviour as much as it is on student performance. You may be interested in this recent blog post from a UK teacher:

      cheers and thanks (as always) for your comments

  4. Why we fail to apply what is known has something to do with how powerful the movement is for what is applied instead. A little time spent on this website will provide some insight, perhaps, into what reading science is up against, or at least provide some impetus for how to craft a competitive message: I can particularly recommend "Changing the Public Conversation on Social Problems" for clarity of how the message is, or needs to be, crafted.

  5. Thanks Karin - I've only had a quick look at this link, but will spend some more time on it.

  6. Thank you for sharing this article. Very clear explanation.