Sunday, 31 December 2017

New Year’s Resolutions and our attachment to bad habits

It’s that time of year again, when we all start kidding ourselves (and if we’re especially clever, each other) that we’re off to a fresh start when the calendar clicks over to January 1, and we dream of the better selves we’d like to take forward into the new year. These better selves are invariably slimmer, more rested, more physically fit, and better-read versions of our current selves, albeit elusive and ephemeral in nature. Behaviour change is the subject matter of volume-upon-volume of psychology text book and journal article, not to mention the business models of fly-by-night snake-oil merchants keen to cash in on our earnest wish to meet our better selves, in spite of our equally matched poor tenacity in achieving and sustaining change.

In some aspects of our lives, changing practices is built on changing beliefs and attitudes, though it can be difficult to disaggregate the cognitive and the behavioural components of change. Do we change our behaviour because of new information that has come to light, or do we change our beliefs and attitudes as a consequence of behaving differently? The answers to these questions are complex, but we can be fairly certain that information alone does not change behaviour. If it did, there would be very few people in wealthy, first world nations who

  • are over-weight,
  • do not get enough exercise,
  • smoke,
  • drink too much alcohol,
  • ingest illicit substances,
  • mis-use prescription medications,
  • drive too fast,
  • drive while over-tired,
  • leave small children in locked cars on hot days,
  • consume too much salt,
  • do not get enough sleep.....

……you get the picture. 

      Information alone, does not change behaviour. The same applies in education, where voluminous amounts of information about the skills novice readers need to acquire (and indeed need to be taught) do not translate into behaviour change for education academics, with respect to the knowledge and practices that are passed on to teachers-in-training.

If information alone changed teacher classroom practices, we would not see

  •  early years classrooms in which beginning readers are sent home in Week 1 with lists of sight-words on flashcards to learn by rote;
  • children being encouraged to take their eyes away from the text and scan around for some vague, often unhelpful clue in an accompanying picture when they encounter an unfamiliar word (why we would teach the known practices of poor readers to all novices is a complete mystery to me);
  • children being encouraged to “read ahead” in the hope that they can retrofit the meaning of an unfamiliar word (assuming of course that their fragile working memory has not caused them to lose the meaning thread altogether);
  • teachers so distracted by their own love of “beautiful children’s literature” that they conflate the process of learning to read, with the joy and benefits of being read to in the early years;
  • predictable readers that contain no scope or sequence with respect to the range and complexity of phoneme-grapheme correspondences to which beginning readers are exposed;
  • teachers employing incidental, analytic phonics in a mis-guided belief that they are “doing phonics” with early years readers. 

So it is pleasing (if slightly odd timing on New Year’s Eve) to see this announcement that the New South Wales government is de-funding Reading Recovery in that stateReading Recovery has long been contested in education circles, coming as it does, out of the (largely discredited) Whole Language stable of reading interventions, and failing to deliver longterm benefits in spite of its resource intensity. News that it has been de-funded will be contentious in some circles, not the least of which because of the special status that has been associated with being “Reading Recovery trained”. I often hear these words uttered in education circles in a way that suggests a certain awe and reverence, and membership of a special, elite “club”.

One of the things that makes giving up old practices and beliefs (whether at New Year or any other time) most difficult is of course our tendency as humans to behave and affiliate in tribal ways. So, if you are a Reading Recovery teacher, chances are you will have affiliated with other Reading Recovery teachers, attending similar professional development, reinforcing / confirming existing biases, and providing mutual comfort in the familiar and the “known”. You probably haven’t been exposed to critical commentary around the shortcomings of the approach and the poor long-term outcomes achieved on a population basis, particularity for the weaker of the weak readers. You see children in front of you apparently improve in the short-term, and so you “just know” it works. This is not much different from the fact that if you are obese, you will tend to have friends and family who are too, and if you smoke, one of the most difficult things about giving up, is sacrificing the contact with networks of peers who also smoke. In both cases, there’s a lot of mutual affirmation of ideas that some psychologists call “ego-syntonic” i.e. beliefs that harmonise with sense of self and do not cause personal unease or self-doubt.

Without unease or self-doubt however, we cannot question our beliefs and practices, let alone change them. Mark Twain famously said of giving up smoking, that it was the easiest thing in the world to do; so much so that he himself had done it hundreds of times. We've seen many false dawns too, in reform of early years reading instruction. For that reason, I am only guardedly pleased to learn that NSW will fund the creation of 50 "Literacy Expert" roles. Maybe I'm missing something, but shouldn't every teacher be a literacy expert?? This is where we need some New Years Resolutions from education academics. 

Giving up unhealthy ideas and practices in early years reading instruction is no less important as a public health issue than challenging unhealthy eating, or smoking. 

So, here’s to the NSW government on taking a step towards behaviour change and breaking bad teaching habits in early years classrooms. This is what leadership looks like and I wish them (and all education jurisdictions) a happy and successful year in 2018.

(C) Pamela Snow, 2017.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Can we talk about high-stakes failure?

Much has been written and debated this week about the latest Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) results, that have been just been released. As readers of this blog would be aware, PIRLS concerns the reading skills of Year 4 students, and in a nut-shell, the latest results offer some encouragement to us in Australia, given that we've moved up six places internationally. Improvement is always to be applauded, particularly in an area as resource-intensive and contested as early reading instruction.

For an accessible overview of how we did in Australia, readers are referred to Alison Clarke's excellent Spelfabet website, where she parses out the key messages for Australia out of this overall improvement. Notable among these messages is the fact that (a) we are lifting the performance of already advantaged children, but (b) leaving behind those who start from behind. This perpetuates the so-called Matthew Effect in learning to read and remains a wicked problem for us in Australia.

For those of you who have not encountered the Matthew Effect in early reading, it is a New Testament reference to the idea that the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. It is well known that children from lower socio-economic status (SES) families enter school having experienced less elaborate early language exposure, and are thus less well-prepared for the biologically unnatural process of learning to read. Oral language may well be "natural" but it is not a set-and-forget developmental domain. This means, therefore, that how we approach the learning needs of such children when they enter school (not always via any, let alone high-quality preschool) is critical. Early years teaching actually needs to accelerate the progress of such children, not simply see them developing at a similar rate to their more advantaged peers.

Not surprisingly, students who come from text-rich home environments seem to do better on measures such as PIRLS, affirming the role of early SES in later school achievement. SES is, however, a challenging problem to address, and in the absence of effective ways of doing so, we need to modify variables that influence school success, such as instructional quality.

Notably, England, which introduced a Phonics Screening Check (PSC) back in 2011, seems to be making gains in this very space, if the latest PIRLS results are anything to go by. England has not only improved its position in the international rankings (to now be 8th overall in fact), it has done so by taking with them, those children who start from behind, and narrowing the performance gap between boys and girls.

Interestingly, in the same week that the PIRLS results were released, the debate about introducing a PSC in Australia has intensified, with detractors trying to deflect focus away from the fact that England's first cohort of students to have experienced the PSC are the very ones at the centre of the up-lift described above. The PSC was a large natural experiment, with no other known mass interventions occurring at the same time. If England's PIRLS results had deteriorated in 2016, PSC-detractors would have pounced on this as evidence that "it doesn't work". But the thing about the evidence game is you can't have your cake and eat it too. 

However I want to draw attention to another report that was released yesterday, that very few would be aware of - the (NSW) 2015 Young People in Custody Health Survey

Why is this report significant and why would I raise it here?

It is significant, because for the first time, the health audit of young people in custody in NSW included standardised measures of language and literacy skills, and the results  are a damning indictment of what can only be described as a school-to-prison pipeline.

My own research on the language skills of young people in custody and on community-based orders has identified high rates (around 50%) of unidentified language disorders in such young people, notably among young males. However my research has only been able to include samples of such young people, and of course (as is right) young people can elect to take part or not in research, and it is entirely possible that adolescents who feel that their language skills are brittle will baulk at taking part in such a study. I have long suspected that we may be under-estimating the prevalence of language problems in the youth justice context for this reason.

In the recently released report, however, data are provided on a larger (n=227), more representative sample of young people in custody, with 90.4% agreeing to take part, representing 60% of young people in custody at the time. The findings are worse than even my seasoned research team imagined.

For example:

  • 80.3% scored below the average range on the Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals Core Language Score. 
  • Almost half (48.7%) of the young people scored in the “very low” range on this measure, indicating severe difficulties.
  • On the York Assessment of Reading Comprehension: 73.2% of the young people scored below the average range on single word reading. Over two thirds (68.7%) scored below the average range on reading accuracy, 74% below average on fluency, and 94% scored below average on reading comprehension.

I will update this post when I have processed the findings more fully, but in the meantime, let us be clear that these young people have much to tell us about the long shadow cast by early academic under-achievement (coupled with histories of suspension and expulsion). This is the very stuff of the school-to-prison pipeline, and changing this sits in the hands of schools and policy makers.

It is very difficult and expensive to "back-fill" the knowledge and skills that these young people lack with respect to language and literacy.  They are the living manifestation of high-stakes failure. They are also the later manifestation of the tail end of the achievement curve in the early years of school.

There is some early promising evidence that we can engage young people who are in custody in speech pathology interventions, but we cannot and should not rely on complex, expensive, downstream interventions to address problems for which more effective approaches upstream are being ignored. 

So when I hear and read protests to the introduction of a Phonics Screening Check because it might somehow be "high-stakes" for teacher / school / sector accountability, I reflect on a different meaning of "high-stakes" and wonder how the trajectories of some of these young people might have been altered through early reading instruction approaches that are more faithful to the evidence about what works. Early failure for them continues to be high-stakes into adulthood.

(C) Pamela Snow (2017)

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Straw men and obfuscation: My response to Misty Adoniou on the Phonics Screening Check

This week, A/Prof Misty Adoniou of the University of Canberra published a piece entitled How the national phonics test is failing England and why it will fail Australia too on the AARE Blog

In her blogpost, Misty relies on what she herself has reported in an academic publication, as teachers' poor knowledge of the structure of language, to construct a series of weak, straw man arguments about phonics teaching and its assessment. For the record here is what Misty said about teachers' knowledge of language and literacy in a 2014 paper (my emphasis):

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

So - how are teachers, with their "lack of content knowledge" to judge the veracity of the claims Misty makes in this recent blogpost? I hope my responses below are of some assistance to them in this endeavour. I will select Misty's key points (shown in red) and respond to them (in black).

(The) testing and practicing nonsense words that has accompanied the implementation of the test appears to be narrowing classroom practice and damaging literacy standards.

Assessing nonsense words (more correctly referred to as pseudo-words) is the only way of knowing that it is children’s actual decoding skills (otherwise known as phonics skills) that are at work when they read a word aloud. It is after all, a check of phonics, not a check on reading for meaning. There are other assessments for that. As anyone with any familiarity with the Simple View of Reading will know, both skill sets must be in place in order for children to become effective readers.

It is unfortunate if some teachers are misunderstanding the function of the check so fundamentally that they are “teaching” pseudo-words – perhaps in the hope of randomly hitting on a few that will actually turn up in the check and children will remember them? This is obviously misguided and misses the point that if a skill is in place, it can be applied across a range of conditions. That said, nonsense or pseudo-words should not be unfairly demonised. Many children’s books contain what adults might refer to as nonsense, or made-up words and the only way that these can be lifted off the page is through knowledge of phoneme-grapheme correspondences. Context will not help you decode “quidditch” for example. 

Is Spike Milligan’s Ning Nang Nong poem to be banned in schools because it contains nonsense words? 

Come on.

Should we wish to test the phonological awareness of our six year olds this test would be inadequate.

This is a particularly puzzling statement, as the PSC does not set out to assess phonological awareness (PA). PA and its derivative, phonemic awareness is an important predictor of reading success, but it is not what is being targetted in the PSC, in the same way that vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension are not targetted. The Phonics Screening Check has a focus on well…phonics.

Why, you may ask, would we need a screening check on this aspect of early reading instruction? The answer to that question lies in the contested, "ugly duckling" status of phonics in the instruction toolkit in recent years, as discussed here

The process that led to this test being recommended for all Australian six year olds was deeply flawed and is an unfortunate example of the growing influence of ultra-conservative think tanks on educational policy.

This is simply an attempt to alarm the reader early on by suggesting that the PSC is just a Machiavellian plot to bring down modern society. I was on the Year 1 Literacy and Numeracy Panel that recommended a trial of the PSC and can assure readers I have no political affiliations one way or the other. 

Politics is the smoke-screen people hide behind when science is not on their side.

Move on. Nothing to see here.

A review of that research finds little value in the Phonics Screening Check.

The “review of the research” that Misty refers to here is in fact one single study conducted by a UK body that was opposed to the introduction of the check in the UK. It reports the views of 494 respondents – hardly anything that could be said to approximate a representative sample of UK early years teachers. 

Again, nothing to see here.

In 2017 these ‘successful’ phonics-ready students sat their Year 2 Key Stage 1 reading comprehension testTo pass this reading comprehension test, children only had to score 25 from 40 questions. However, only 76% passed. And only 61% of low SES students passed the test.
It appears then that being poor has more to do with your reading comprehension achievement than knowing your sounds.
It also seems the phonics check hasn’t solved the gender puzzle in reading achievement, as girls consistently outperform boys on both the phonics check (by 7 percentage points in 2017) and the reading comprehension tests (by 9 percentage points in 2017).

Here, Misty conveniently glosses over the fact that in 2016, the nature of the Year 2 comprehension testing that was used in the UK was different from previous years and was more demanding. No comparisons can be made with previous years.

I agree with Misty that being poor is a significant challenge – for students, teachers, and educational systems more widely. Much of my research in the last twenty years has focussed on students from disadvantaged backgrounds, so there’s no surprises in the fact that a social gradient exists with respect to the knowledge and skills children bring to school with them. Eminent researchers such as Sir Michael Marmot have devoted their professional careers to trying to influence social determinants of health. Asking a 10-minute PSC to achieve this after seven years is a bit fanciful. 

It’s all about baby steps.

That said, however, it is entirely possible, given the particular advantage that children from low-SES backgrounds derive from explicit teaching (see Snow, 2016), that low SES students may be deriving a particular benefit from exposure to the PSC and the teaching that sits around this. This kind of subgroup analysis is the kind of nuanced inquiry that is needed in this space and we will have an opportunity to ask this question if the check is employed in Australia.

And similarly, no, a 10-minute check and the teaching behind it will not counter the biopsychosocial influences that come packaged as gender. Again, it’s all about baby steps.

Again in 2017, Year 6 children sat the Key Stage 2 Reading comprehension test. These are children who sat the Phonics Screening Check in 2011. Those who didn’t pass were placed in synthetic phonics programs mandated by the English Department of Education, until they passed the Check. Yet, this year, only 71% reached the minimum benchmark in their Year 6 reading comprehension test.

What Misty fails to mention here is that this represents an increase on the previous result of 66% - I think we would call that a move in the right direction and a result that warrants staying the course to see where the trends go over the next few years. 

None of us arrived at our current rather parlous position overnight, and we won’t trade out of it overnight either. A shift from 66% to 71% represents tens of thousands of students being on stronger educational trajectories, something we all strive for every day.

As a short assessment, it assesses a limited range of phoneme/grapheme relationships, which limits its use as a phonics check.

The very nature of screening is that a full range of possibilities is not explored. To do so is to enter into diagnostic testing, which is a completely different ball-park. 

I agree with Misty that a PSC should not be construed as a fail-safe early detection system for children who may go on to display reading difficulties (sometimes referred to as dyslexia), however the fact that the results are immediately available to teachers means that red-flags will be raised in some cases, and appropriate referrals will be made. Let’s not ask any more of this measure than what it can reasonably deliver.

It is a straw man, however, to say that the PSC fails at something it was not designed to do. My coffee machine doesn’t wash the dishes. It wasn’t designed to.

Misty also provides a number of examples of what she presents as flawed test items in the PSC. All measures have potential flaws, and this is where good test design, development, piloting, and refinement comes in. None of the examples Misty describes constitutes a “deal-breaker” – they reflect examples where Misty’s knowledge of language could be employed to strengthen item development and assuage some anxieties about the content of the screen.

Australia can avoid falling into the same trap. Like England, we clearly have literacy challenges in the upper years of primary and secondary school. Our NAPLAN results for Year 7 and 9 make this very evident. But these are not challenges with the basic skills of phonological decoding of simple words and nonsense stories of Pip and Nip. These are challenges with depth of vocabulary and the capacity to deal with the complex syntactic structures of written texts across the disciplines.

Yes, we do have major literacy challenges but there is no data on which to base the claim that all is well with the decoding skills of struggling older students. Again, the Simple View of Reading invites a nuanced appreciation of student strengths and difficulties across the range of linguistic domains that support reading success.

It is not a question of phonics Vs non-phonics – that is an artificial distinction that is not empirically supported. It is also insulting and derogatory to refer to “Nonsense Stories” of (by implication) decodable readers. Often these stories are far more plausible and narrative-based than the repetitive predictable scripts found in levelled readers widely used in Australian classrooms.

The UK Literacy Association claims it has failed a generation of able readers in the UK.

Well yes, they would "claim" this, wouldn’t they, because they are opposed to the check. But Misty – repeating a broad, baseless, exaggeration does not transform a broad, baseless, generalisation into a statement of fact. It is still a broad, baseless, generalisation.

I know that Misty has an extensive knowledge of language and how it works and I know she spends considerable amounts of time delivering professional development to teachers to try to back-fill some of the gaps left by pre-service education that neglects to provide teachers with this foundation (see references at this link). 

Given this knowledge, and the fact that Misty claims to be "pro-phonics" instruction, it is perplexing and disappointing that she uses her position of influence to obfuscate rather than inform. 

The problem with straw men, you see, is that they can be scary and they can be used to start bush fires. 

(C) Pamela Snow (2017)

Monday, 23 October 2017

"Please take": The precious knowledge education has gifted away

As one would expect in a career spanning 35 years, I have seen many changes regarding our understanding of children who struggle to make the transition to literacy in the first three years of school. When I was an undergraduate student, the prevailing wisdom was that children who we now describe as having a developmental language disorder, should be defined under the label of "childhood aphasia". In between, we had a longish dalliance with "specific language impairment", a term that bugged me from the outset, because of my sense that very few children have "only" an isolated (specific) difficulty with language, expressively and/or receptively. My clinical experience and my own research showed that comorbidities with other developmental challenges, such as neurodevelopmental disorders, emotional/behavioural difficulties, and learning difficulties, are common. 

Happily, in 2017, we do have a more nuanced understanding of the complex needs of children with developmental language disorders, and we know (e.g., from the large-scale, pioneering work of Professor Courtenay Norbury in the UK) that such children turn up in mainstream classrooms with far greater frequency than previously thought.  These children often go on to have reading difficulties, but do not on their own, account for all of the struggling readers in an early years classroom. 

We know that learning to read is fundamentally a linguistic task. This means that in the early years of school, children need to "draw down" on the expressive and receptive linguistic capital they have acquired prior to school entry - across such domains as phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, knowledge of the alphabetic principle, vocabulary, syntactic and morphological complexity, world knowledge, and narrative language abilities - to name a few. 

Learning how to read has also been described as a "biologically unnatural act", or as "biologically secondary", meaning that it is a human contrivance, for which the human brain has had to adapt existing neural pathways, as outlined in the work of Stanislas Dehaene. It is not, as claimed by pervasively influential advocates of Whole Language instruction (e.g. Kenneth Goodman), as natural as learning how to use and understand oral language. This point is critical in two respects: firstly, such misinformation led a generation of teacher educators to dismiss decades of cognitive science research on how children acquire the critical, but unnatural skill of reading. Secondly, it overlooks the fact that there is wide variability with respect to the amount and type of language exposure that children have experienced in the pre-school years. Oral language may be "natural" but it is also experience-dependent

As most readers of this blog will be aware, the recommendations of the Australian  2005 National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy (NITL) emphasised the importance of explicit instruction in early years classrooms.  Recommendation 2 is reproduced in full below

The Committee recommends that teachers provide systematic, direct and explicit phonics instruction so that children master the essential alphabetic code-breaking skills required for foundational reading profiency. Equally, that teachers provide an integrated approach to reading that supports the development of oral language, vocabulary, grammar, reading fluency, comprehension and the literacies of new technologies.

I emphasise here that I am reproducing this recommendation in full, because I and other speech pathologists (and educational and developmental psychologists, and indeed many teachers) position early decoding ability (the skill encompassed by “systematic, direct and explicit phonics instruction”), within the broader framework of early oral language competence. I note, however, that this report does not refer to so-called "Balanced Literacy", in spite of the fact that selective quote mining is sometimes used to invent such a position. The NITL (and its cognate reports in the USA and UK) also did not refer to multi-cueing (sometimes referred to as three-cueing), which remains a cornerstone of early reading instruction in Australian classrooms.

No state or territory in Australia has formally adopted the recommendations of the NITL, and in many respects, we have seen some version of business-as-usual in the ensuing 12 years. This is unfortunate at many levels. It not only serves to deprive a large proportion of children (notably those who start from behind) of the opportunity to succeed in the transition to literacy (and subsequent academic engagement), but it has also done nothing to turn around the gaps in teacher knowledge regarding those aspects of linguistics that are essentials in the teacher tool-kit.

Evidence from overseas and Australia (see references here) consistently shows that teachers have inadequate explicit knowledge of the structural aspects of language, e.g., how to identify and count morphemes in words, knowing what a schwa vowel is and why this matters to beginning readers, understanding the difference between a cluster and a digraph, and knowing how the etymology of English underpins the semi-transparent nature of English orthography. 

It is easy to trivialise such knowledge, but to do so betrays a superficial understanding of why so many children struggle to learn to read. We do not trivialise doctors’ knowledge of anatomy and physiology, with its seemingly isolated units of information that can be simplistically divorced from the everyday context of a medical condition. Instead, we are all grateful beneficiaries when medical practitioners draw on that knowledge to diagnose and manage our ailments.

At the same time that this linguistic knowledge-base on the foundations of reading has been eroded in the teaching profession, however, it has been steadily built up in the speech pathology profession, keeping pace with the growing evidence on the language-to-literacy nexus. 

It is entirely appropriate and necessary that speech pathologists have a sound theoretical and practical grasp of this link, however there are some unintended consequences of the fact that they do not always find themselves in an inter-disciplinary space in which such knowledge is shared by teaching colleagues. 

Teachers need to be experts on theories of how children learn to read, the underlying linguistic processes at work, and optimal ways of promoting success for a wide range of children. Where teachers do not have this expert knowledge, there is a risk that children who struggle to learn to read because of instructional approaches that are insufficiently explicit and systematic (children Reid Lyon has referred to as "instructional casualties"), will be mis-identified as having language-learning difficulties, and referred off for specialist assessment (e.g., by a speech pathologist). This stands to distance educational policies and practices from accountability for outcomes, and bolsters the sometimes noisy, but flawed argument that all that schools need is more funding for students with disabilities. It is also not clever use of limited clinical resources.

Teachers and speech pathologists need to have a vast and closely intersecting knowledge of the language-to-literacy transition. That is not to say they need identical knowledge. Teachers will be more knowledgeable than speech pathologists on curriculum, and speech pathologists will be more knowledgeable than teachers on typical and disordered communication skills. However, they should each expect that they share a detailed knowledge of how the language-literacy nexus works, and how beginning readers are best supported.

This requires us to move past the trite accusations of “phonics only” or “one size fits all” that are sometimes levelled against practitioners (be they teachers or speech pathologists) who argue that there is a preferred scope and sequence to be followed in early reading instruction.

In the long-run, we need to ensure too that speech pathologists' special expertise is maximised in Tiers 2 and 3 (within a Response to Intervention framework). While I know many speech pathologists and teachers enjoy productive and collaborative relationships at Tier 1, this may not be the optimal place to make use of sparse clinical resources. Both professions (and their educators) need to reflect on how we arrived at this juncture and consider the best way forward.

When we put our prized knowledge and intellectual capital out on the proverbial footpath, with a "please take" sign attached, we should not be surprised when someone comes past and says "Wow. Are you sure you don't want that? Because we can really use it in our work". 

I’d like to see education academics rescuing and recycling some of this discarded treasure and making it readily accessible and available to teachers. This needs to occur in pre-service education, not just as bolted-on professional learning in the lives of busy teachers.

Maybe it’s time for everything old to be new again. 

(C) Pamela Snow (2017)

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Who’s in your reading instruction family tree?

Many people spend vast tracts of time trawling through family photos, birth, death, and marriage certificates and online repositories of church records and the like to compile an understanding of where they came from, culturally and geographically.  From time-to-time family-tree research even turns up some bragging rights – paradoxically in Australia, that often comes in the form of finding a convict in the higher branches of the family tree.

However, I wonder how many in education (whether as classroom teachers or as university academics) give thought to the ancestry of their beliefs and practices concerning early reading instruction? I often hear (or read, e.g. on Twitter) “I am not a Whole Language advocate”, or "I don’t use Whole Language approaches”, yet the practices these same people go on to advocate do in fact, have their origins in Whole Language.

So let’s have a look at some common philosophical positions, beliefs, and practices, and shake the family tree to see where they come from. In some cases, we can trace lineage to a particular epistemological camp, and in others, we find there is mixed lineage – as in our own family trees.

I may have missed some ideas, and am happy to add them in. You may also think I have muddled the lineage of some ideas or approaches, in which case I am happy to hear from you and be directed to sources that re-calibrate my understanding.

I will contrast “Whole Language”- derived approaches here with approaches derived from cognitive science, as no phonics advocates argue for a single focus on one aspect of the language system over and above the others. 

Lineage and comment
Learning to read is natural – just like learning to speak and understand oral language.
Whole Language
This is such a lovely, but incorrect idea. Reading and writing are derived from spoken language, but they are not a simple representation of spoken language in a different modality. Written language tends to be more formal, has conversational dysfluencies and pauses edited out, and historically, has not occurred in “real time” between two parties. (That has changed in recent times, with the advent of email, texting, etc). 
Spoken language is a faculty humans have developed over millions of years of evolution, such that the human brain devotes significant amounts of its real estate to producing and understanding language.
Reading and writing, on the other hand, have only existed for 5-6000 years – a mere blink in evolutionary terms. This means that the human brain has had to “re-purpose” language pathways for reading, and it requires skilled instruction for optimal development. Interested readers are referred to the work of Professor Stanislaus Dehaene on this subject. 
It should also be remembered that much in all as speaking and understanding may be “biologically natural” children do receive an enormous amount of specific 1:1 input from adults to develop oral language skills in the pre-school years. Oral language doesn’t magically pop up out of nowhere; it develops within the interpersonal space between children and their carers. 
Unfortunately, however, children have quite variable experiences of oral language in the pre-school years, such that some arrive at school with richly developed phonological/phonemic awareness, vocabularies, narrative language skills, and so on, and others are more impoverished. This means that early teaching needs to accelerate the progress of those who start from behind. It's not enough for these children to be making progress at the same rate as their linguistically more able peers. 
It is these same children who start from behind, who often remain behind, and then make up the “long tail of under-achievement” in reading outcomes.   
Oral language skills are fundamentally important to the acquisition of reading.
Here we find some mixed lineage in our family tree, and a good thing that is too, but it creates that awkward moment at family gatherings of look-alike cousins who may not be as similar as they initially appear.
It would be odd if Whole Language advocates such as Goodman, Smith, Cambourne et al. did not emphasise the importance of oral language for learning to read, as it is axiomatic to their views on where reading skills are derived from.
Strangely, however, advocates of cognitive science in early reading instruction are sometimes falsely accused of promoting “phonics only” approaches (I have never actually heard such calls but it is claimed by some Whole Language advocates, without any evidence).

However, a proper look at the arguments from cognitive science shows that they are embedded in a wider emphasis on the so-called “Big Five” of phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, comprehension, and fluency. This is nowhere better represented than in the Five from Five Project which provides abundant resources for teachers and parents. Readers should also check out this paper by Australian education academic, A/Prof Deslea Konza, in which she advocates for a widening of this notion to The Big Six, explicitly including oracy in the framework. 
As I have outlined previously, what separates phonics out from these other language elements is that it is contentious and in many cases, poorly understood.

The bottom line is that what occurs within words is part of the language system – phoneme-grapheme links and morphological affixes are part of the meaning system that we call language. Whole Language cannot be whole unless it takes account of what occurs within words, not just what happens between them. 
Every child learns differently
Whole Language
This is one of those simplistic truisms that got into the education water and is now difficult to remove. If there’s 7 billion people on this planet, there are not 7 billion different learning needs. Teaching would be impossible if that was the case. Yes, all children are individuals and need to be cherished and respected as such, but human brains, like hearts, livers, kidneys, gall bladders, skeletons etc have more in common with each other between individuals, than they do differences.

Of course, some differences do occur,   and of course these differences do sometimes matter – especially in the context of developmental disabilities. But in the main, we should assume similarities in needs not differences. For teachers, this translates into pattern-recognition, without which teaching would not become easier over time and experience would count for little at all.
Literacy develops from whole to part
Whole Language
This view reflects the “top down” approach to early reading instruction espoused by Whole Language advocates such as Kenneth Goodman, who also asserted (2014, p. 85) that “There is no hierarchy of sub-skills, and no necessary universal sequence”.  
This is the kind of thinking that sees a Blunderbuss approach taken to early reading instruction – children are “sprayed” with instructional bullets such as sight-words lists to rote-learn, predictable texts, and encouragement to guess. They are left to infer the alphabetic principle (if they are lucky), and are not afforded the developmental scaffolding of simplified sentence structure, vocabulary, or word structures.
Beginning readers should be encouraged to rote learn lists of sight-words
Whole Language
Because English has only a semi-transparent orthography (i.e. links between sounds and letters are sometimes clear and sometimes not), Whole Language advocates deal with the issue of high-frequency “irregular” words by presenting them to children early in the learning-to-read process as a massive visual memory task. Such words might be written on flash-cards and children simply have to memorise them as wholes. Never mind that most, if not all have some regular features, and never mind that some children have had very little text-exposure in the pre-school years, so just the abstract notion that these black squiggles on the page represent spoken words can be a mystery in itself.
Over time of course, we want nearly every word to become a sight word – a word that readers cannot not read, even if they choose not to – because the level of automaticity for the brain is so high, that reading is not a matter of conscious choice.
Children should be encouraged to invent spellings, and to experiment with punctuation
Whole Language
Delightful in all as some of the products of this process may be, it is an inefficient means of learning, as it provides too many opportunities to learn error patterns. Teaching children correct spelling and punctuation, and giving them opportunities to practice these results in improved automaticity and frees up cognitive capacity for the next level of complexity. Practising errors is confusing to young children and is an inefficient way to learn.
It’s better for children to discover/intuit the alphabetic principle for themselves, through learning to read and write. Phonics (if it must be taught) is best dealt with in the context of authentic, meaningful texts
Whole Language
These are central tenets of Whole Language-based reading instruction and if they dominate your beliefs and practices then you can see where the ancestry of your ideas lies. Check out Kenneth Goodman’s ideas here.
Three language systems interact in reading: the grapho-phonic, the syntactic, and the semantic, so children should use the Three Cueing System to deal with unfamiliar words during reading.
Whole Language
This is a popular and widely promoted approach  (sometimes referred to as “Searchlights” in the UK), though it is atheoretical and had a mysterious entrance into the educational arena, as outlined by Alison Clarke. 

Alison observes that:

“Strong readers and spellers internalise and automatise the links between words’ sounds and their spellings, and eventually can convert speech to print and print to speech at lightning speed without conscious effort. It’s only weak readers who have to guess from pictures, context, syntax or anything else. Context, syntax etc. come into play after a word is identified, in comprehending the text.”

Multi-cueing (or Three Cueing) is also strongly linked to the Whole-Language based idea that beginning readers should be encouraged to look at pictures to “derive meaning from text”.

The logical inconsistency of course, is that if children are looking at pictures in order to work out what the words are, then they are looking at and naming pictures, which is a different skill from reading.
Comprehension of meaning is always the goal of readers.
Whole Language
This is a bit of a motherhood statement that is intended to sweep away more nuanced consideration of the task at hand for the beginning reader. As summarised by Hoover and Gough’s (1990) Simple View of Reading, the beginning reader’s success is a product (not a sum) of their decoding ability and their language comprehension skills. 
So yes, the end-game is comprehension but we need to get to comprehension via decoding. This becomes only too apparent in the middle primary years, when picture cues and predictability diminish, and some previously apparently “good” readers are devoid of decoding skills. 
An early emphasis on systematic synthetic phonics equates to
·        Drill and Kill
·        Barking at Print
·        A neoliberal conspiracy to destroy children’s love of reading and literature. 
Whole Language (obviously!)
It is better to systematically teach children how to de-code at the outset, while carefully introducing sight words, constantly developing vocabulary skills, and strengthening comprehension skills.
Cognitive science (obviously!)
A “Balanced Approach” to early literacy is what works: making sure that phonics is “in the mix”, but starting with predictable texts, sight words, and encouraging children to guess from context.

Whole Language
I’ve blogged about the problems associated with this “instructional bricolage” before. Balanced Literacy, as the diagram below illustrates, is a “bit of this, and a bit of that”. It is atheoretical and open to an infinite number of ways of being interpreted by different teachers. It does not position explicit phonics teaching as the starting point in early years classrooms, and is basically a re-badging of Whole Language instruction.

Letter of the Week
Someone will need to help me out here as I am not 100% sure of the lineage of LOTW. It does not intrinsically look like it belongs in either camp. Maybe it’s reading instruction’s cuckoo’s egg?
Either way, there is a good critique of this approach here
Identification of word families – onset and rime
Cognitive science
According to Hempenstall (2015, p. 16) “The onset of a syllable is its initial consonant(s), and the rime is its vowel and any subsequent consonants in the syllable". 
Hence in the words “tap” and “trap”, the onsets are “t” and “tr” respectively, and they share the rime “ap”. The aim of this approach is to strengthen syllable and phonemic awareness and to teach decoding by analogy (e.g., knowing that “mug” and hug” belong in a “word family” should help a child to decode “jug” by analogy. This approach seems to have had some popularity in recent years, however its usefulness over an emphasis on phoneme-grapheme relationships for beginning readers is questioned by eminent reading researchers, such as Professors Maggie Snowling, Charles Hulme, and Kate Nation of Oxford University (see Hempenstall, 2015).
Children should read authentic texts from the outset
Whole Language
This is a central tenet of Whole Language instruction and is one of those nice ideas that has inherent face appeal, while lacking empirical substance. It goes something like this:  

There are so many beautiful children’s story books out there, so surely if we use those to teach children to read, we will instil a love of reading and hey presto, will produce a generation of passionate readers.

If only it were so.
Given the influence of Whole Language instruction in our schools over the last three-four decades, I think we can be fairly certain that this logic does not apply. I have blogged before about the authentic illusion in early literacy instruction.
We should not conflate the books that adults read to children (which should be rich and varied in their content: vocabulary, syntactic structures, and narrative complexity) and books that we provide to beginning readers to get them off the blocks. These should be simple and decodable, to allow graduated consolidation of sound-letter correspondences, while also introducing high-frequency sight words that are not readily decodable (e.g. “could”). There are many options for decodable texts and some are listed here
All that’s really needed to improve literacy skills is to better engage parents in the process of reading to their children and instilling a love of reading.
Whole Language
This is a view promulgated by some children’s authors (e.g. Mem Fox). Reading to children is important at so many levels – as a soothing, engaging, entertaining, horizon-expanding activity that parents and children can enjoy together. It is not enough, in itself, however, to get children across the bridge to literacy.
Teachers should provide a rich language and literacy environment for students and should emphasise speaking, listening, reading, and writing.
Mixed lineage.
This is a point of furious agreement between the Whole Language and cognitive science camps, as reflected in the Five from Five Project mentioned above.

It's good to know that when the extended family gets together from time to time, there are some safe topics on which we can all agree. 

(C) Pamela Snow (2017)