Sunday 28 May 2017

The authentic illusion in early literacy education

Teaching them how to read is probably one of the most important duties a civilised society owes to its children. Being able to “lift words off the page” and understand their meaning is transformational as a life skill. It transports one mind into the thought processes, experiences, and world view of another, even though the author of those thoughts and views is not physically present (and may even have been dead for several centuries). It enables mundane but essential everyday life tasks to be effortlessly completed – reading a timetable, following medication instructions, responding to an email, checking items off a shopping list…..the possibilities are endless. Much in all as we might like to believe all students will evolve into adults who read for pleasure, many literate adults do not count reading among their leisure activities. It is simply something that assists with business of everyday life, and that's OK. 

Of course we would not need to engage in endless hours of public and private debate about reading instruction, if a greater proportion of children were achieving (or even better, exceeding) curriculum benchmarks on time, and going on to engage with their ever more complex curriculum. This debate would be even more redundant if the children who start from behind (for a range of biopsychosocial reasons) were seen safely across the bridge to literacy in the first three years of school, courtesy of rigorous reading instruction delivered by teachers who are knowledgeable about the structure of language and how to explicitly and incrementally convey this knowledge to novices. 

Sadly, however, in Australia, we leave a significant proportion of children out in the cold when it comes to the transition to literacy, and their lot in life entails falling further and further behind their more able peers. This phenomenon has been referred to as The Matthew Effect in the reading literature. It casts a fixed shadow over the lives of children who don’t master the basics of reading and spelling in the first three years of school. Our workforce increasingly demands skilled workers, and has less and less on offer for those who exit school without marketable work skills (and make no mistake, literacy and numeracy are still, in 2017, highly valued by employers and likely to remain so well into the future). 
In spite of three international inquiries into the Teaching of Literacy (US, Australia, and the UK), it’s difficult to see what has materially changed in early years reading instruction in the last 15-20 years. Sure, there has been a strategically savvy re-badging of Whole Language-based instruction as “Balanced Literacy” – a move that enables a generally tokenistic (begrudging, some might say) and conditional acknowledgement of the importance of phonics instruction. However, as I have noted previously there’s phonics instruction and there's phonics instruction, and I am yet to see a Balanced Literacy article that advocates for explicit, systematic synthetic phonics instruction as the staring point (and am always happy to be pointed in the direction of anything I have missed). In fact, it could be argued that it would be a logical inconsistency for this to be proposed given that Balanced Literacy draws on such a strong Whole Language lineage.
There is a great deal of mis-information circulating in Australian educational circles at the moment, whipped up to new levels in the context of a proposed Year 1 Phonics Check. Some of this contains emotive references to "heavy phonics instruction" (whatever that is), and "a soley phonics approach" (I don't know what that is, either). 
Further, A/Prof Misty Adoniou (University of Canberra) asserts that  “We can be fairly certain that the 15 year old students who are underperforming on PISA or NAPLAN know their sounds. Phonic knowledge, or lack of it, is not the problem. They are performing poorly because they cannot comprehend what they are reading. They have poor vocabularies and cannot follow sentences that employ more complex language structures. They cannot read between the lines, they don't pick up nuance and inference.”
There are two problems with this statement:
  1. Where is the evidence that makes us “fairly certain” (whatever that means) that struggling 15 year olds have no difficulties with decoding, but are struggling because of poor comprehension skills? Confidently asserting something doesn’t make it so.
  2. Even if the statement above were true, it would be ironic, given the emphasis on meaning and inferencing that is placed in classrooms across Australia, courtesy of “Balanced Literacy” instruction, which is heavily promoted to pre-service and practising teachers by education academics in Australia (e.g., see here, here, and here). 

Much is also made in Australian education circles of the importance of "authentic literacy experiences" as a counterpoint to spending (aka "wasting") time on explicit phonics instruction. Contrast this  position with the views expressed by Harvard University reading expert Professor Catherine Snow (no relation) and her colleague at Stanford University,  Emeritus Professor Connie Juel  who observed in 2005 that

Explicit teaching of alphabetic decoding skills is helpful for all children, harmful for none, and crucial for some.

When I taught my now adult children to drive, I did not do so by offering them “authentic motoring experiences” from the outset. Instead, we started in safe, uncomplicated places (in our case, because we live in a rural area, the local cattle sale-yards on a Sunday afternoon). As they became familiar with the role of the three pedals (yes, dear reader, my children learnt to drive manual cars), the response of the steering wheel to being turned, the pressure needed on the brakes to come to a gradual, as opposed to a sudden stop, and the intricacies of operating windscreen wipers and indicators, they developed a degree of automaticity with the driving process. Only then, with the cognitive load associated with handling the car under control, did we venture into “authentic” driving experiences on the road – and even then, this was graduated. We did not progress from the sale-yards to peak-hour traffic in Melbourne, or Victoria's beautiful but challenging-to-drive Great Ocean Road in one step. Along the way, of course, they accrued hours and hours of practice, in different driving conditions, and we all became more confident in their emergent skills.

Similar 101 learning principles can be seen at work across a range of skill areas. Do children become proficient pianists by being asked to read (and play) Mozart sonatas at the outset? No. Do children learn to ride bikes by being placed on a two-wheeler and given a push from behind? No. Do we expect surgeons to learn how to perform coronary artery bypass procedures by being thrown a scalpel and told to “just have a guess” at which artery of their anaesthetised charge to snip? No. 

Strangely, however, these 101 learning principles do not seem to apply to the teaching of reading, where instead, there is an emphasis on the “authenticity” of the literature experience at the outset.
I am as much a fan of beautiful children’s literature as the next person. I am a speech pathologist and I love language – in all its guises and levels. I am a mother and grandmother and have a home full of beautiful children’s literature. Nothing gives me more delight than sitting down with my nearly two-year old grandson and sharing a beautiful children’s book with him – typically one of his choosing, sometimes a picture book, sometimes a story book. It’s too early to say of course, but by virtue of a happy planetary alignment, he is likely to be one of those children who skips seamlessly across the bridge to literacy in his early school years (if not before). What of his peers who are not so blessed?  Will immersion in beautiful children’s literature in the early years of school allow them to catch-up and make the life-changing transition to reading? The evidence suggests the answer  to this question is no.
I “get” why early years teachers and their umbrella organisations are enthralled by beautiful children’s literature. I am too. What I don’t get, is why it is OK for this fascination to take precedence over the actual learning needs of actual children who don’t cross the bridge to reading and writing via these “authentic” experiences.

All children need to learn to decode.  Some do so easily, while others require explicit and prolonged instruction on this aspect of reading. Who will teach the children who do not learn to decode via standard-issue incidental, embedded approaches attached to “authentic” texts? Such approaches fail to address the need many children have for incremental and explicit mastery of the knowledge and skills needed to get off the decoding blocks and into the world of beautiful literature. Is this the job of speech pathologists, with their limited time and availability to work across three tiers in Response to Intervention models in schools? Do parents need to pay for remedial teaching? Do tax-payers need to keep putting their hands in their pockets to fund Whole-Language-based fixes for Whole Language based instructional casualties?

If we’re going to use the word “authentic” then let's also stare down the inauthenticity of putting educator preferences (ideological and aesthetic) above the educational needs of children – in particular those who start from behind, and are doomed to stay behind.  

(C) Pamela Snow, 2017.

Saturday 13 May 2017

Balanced Literacy: An instructional bricolage that is neither fish nor fowl

It is sometimes tempting, in the field of early literacy instruction, to think that progress has completely stalled, and any real hope of lifting literacy levels in Australia (and similar western nations) has slipped through our fingers. So, to start with the good news: it is pleasing that we seem to have some level of agreement that there are many pillars of early literacy that require focus in the first three years of school. Researchers and practitioners at pretty much any point on the “Whole-Language – Phonics” continuum (and I do believe it is a continuum rather than a dichotomy) affirm the importance of the so-called “Big Five” (phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, comprehensions, and fluency). That  said, an Australian education professor last year appeared to challenge this consensus, going so far, in fact, as to argue that a focus “solely” on the Big Five elements could be “damaging” to some children. In the absence, however, of any evidence to support the astonishing contention that a focus on these elements does actual harm to children’s reading progress, I think we can assume that they constitute a good and widely agreed-upon basis for classroom reading instruction.

However, it is not enough to just put all the elements into a metaphorical blender and hope for the best. In this sense, so-called “Balanced Literacy” (BL) might be better termed “Blended Literacy” – all of the elements outlined above are in there somewhere, but the literature describing them in the context of BL does not advocate that they are treated in a systematic, sequential way.

Perhaps this stems from a lack of an agreed definition of BL.  In my search of the literature, I found (e.g. see Rasinski & Padak, 2004) various and varied references to a “compromise position” between Whole Language and phonics, the importance of “multiple literacies”, BL as a “radical middle”, the adoption of “principled pluralism”, a “new consensus in literacy education”, and statements such as

“…. balanced literacy becomes a recognition that language and literacy theories and practices need to be ‘answerable to concrete others’" (Heydon et al., 2005, p. 313).

Now, I do not know exactly what “concrete others” means, but if it is another way of talking about accountability, then I am on board with it.

Wren (2001) observed that “A balanced approach could be generically described as ‘mixing some Phonics with Whole Language,’ but how this is accomplished in any particular classroom is unclear” (p. 4). Another BL researcher (Mermelstein, 2006) further highlighted this lack of definitional clarity thus:

Often when I visit schools and ask teachers to describe their curriculum to me, they’ll say that they do “balanced literacy.” I often ask them what they mean by “balanced.” The answers I get are varied. Their varied answers don’t surprise me because as I worked on this article I discovered a variety of views as to what the word balanced in “balanced literacy” actually means”.

So - one basic problem with BL is its lack of a robust, agreed-upon definition.

I wonder then, how many beginning teachers would find this take on BL of practical value when they enter an early years’ classroom:

“The version of balanced literacy that we espouse …. cautions educators about the slipperiness of subjectivities, power relations, and the inability of an abstract theory or practice to adequately control, predict, or define the needs of a classroom of students and as such insists that all theory and practice be situated within the relationship between teacher, student, time, and place” (Heydony, Hibbert & Iannacci, 2004, p. 313). If anyone can tell me what this actually means in relation to the task of teaching children to read, I am all ears. 

Another notable absence in the BL literature (this 2006 piece by Starrett comes close though and please update me if I have missed something), is discussion of the fact that there are different approaches to phonics instruction, and they are neither synonymous nor inter-changeable. Analytic, incidental, and embedded phonics align more with Whole Language (whole-to-part analysis) than to approaches such as systematic synthetic phonics that emphasise part-to-whole analysis for beginning readers (see this link for more information).

In fact, the frequent use of the word “eclectic” in the BL literature is the big clue as to what is really going on in many early years’ classrooms. Eclectic has a meaning that is diametrically opposed to systematic. This eclecticism, when coupled with Kenneth Goodman-esque “teachers should be left alone to decide what’s best for children in their classroom” means that BL is really an Alice-in-Wonderland term that can mean pretty much exactly whatever the user wants it to mean. As has been noted elsewhere (Bingham & Hall-Kenyon 2013; Bowen & Snow, 2017) this creates one of the challenging (some might even say clever) aspects of BL from a research perspective – how do we evaluate something that is likely to look very different from one early years’ classroom to the next? Normally, fidelity of delivery is a cornerstone of intervention evaluation, but we can’t establish fidelity if the intervention itself is, by design, open to interpretation by those who implement it.

All of this would, of course, be a moot point if we were doing a better job of getting more children across the bridge to literacy in the first three years of school. But we’re not.

My read of the BL literature also highlights a confusing and disproportionate emphasis in many BL publications on “higher-order” processes (synthesis, analysis, metacognition), while simultaneously overlooking the lower-order skills that need to be in place (i.e. need to be taught) to free up cognitive resources in order to support such processes. Take for example, this 2008 paper, accessible via the Australian Literacy Educators’ Association (ALEA) website. Its author (Cozmescu) refers to the use of a “bricolage" of classroom practices, but makes no reference to phonics instruction as a teaching approach, despite referring to decoding as a strategy that children might use when participating in activities that respond to the question “How will I ensure that this week’s literacy program will include all of my students”? How indeed. And how do children call on a strategy such as decoding, if they have not been taught it?

It is also interesting to read the views of proponents of BL on its historical roots. For example, Manset-Williamson, and Nelson (2005, p. 59) observed that “Influential within the debate over explicitness of strategy instruction are Fountas and Pinnell (1996), who have argued that strategies cannot be directly taught. Instead, they propose that teachers provide rich literature experiences for students so that reading strategies can be naturally constructed with teacher support, but not explicit instruction”.

Did you catch that? “Strategies cannot be directly taught”. Many readers will be aware of course, that Fountas and Pinnell are the authors of the hugely popular and widely used (in Australia at least) levelled readers based around predictable text that encourage guessing rather than decoding as a first-line approach for beginning readers. Their advice flies in the face not only of decades of cognitive psychology research, and the findings of three national inquiries into the teaching of literacy (USA, Australia, and UK), but ironically is also at odds with published statements by some other proponents of BL. For example, Rivalland (2000, p. 2), referred to “Explicit instruction in code-breaking techniques, which include phonological awareness, letter recognition, letter-sound correspondences and sight word recognition” - in spite of the fact that Fountas and Pinnell said that reading strategies cannot be directly taught. Notably, Rivalland still stops short of reference to initial systematic, synthetic phonics as the preferred approach to teaching decoding skills, but I think readers can see just how confusing and contradictory the BL landscape is.

Offering eclectic, only partially targeted instructional approaches as a means of meeting the diverse needs of early learners seems an odd vehicle for a pedagogical approach that has the word “balance” in its name. It’s somewhat akin to using a butter knife to slice a piece of rump steak: it superficially looks like an implement that might be fit for purpose, but in practice offers only a blunt interface with the task at hand.

Thankfully the Five from Five  project offers a means of redressing some of the gaps and inconsistencies outlined above. It is based on the agreed evidence that children need teachers who can draw together processes in phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary development, comprehension, and reading fluency, but value-adds these by positioning systematic synthetic phonics instruction as a first-line approach, and provides resources to teachers and parents to support this. This is an important refinement that is sorely lacking in current conceptualisations of BL. It also neatly gets past the problem of phonics being the only one of the Big Five that needs to “justify” its existence as a pedagogical pillar.

There is perhaps a perverse reward for lack of systematic early reading teaching in the fact that many children will cross the bridge to literacy almost irrespective of the pedagogical focus in their classroom. Such children enter school with a range of bio-psycho-social advantages that set them up for success. This position was well-summarised by Konza, who observed (2014, p. 160)

"It is true that some children readily acquire the skills of independent reading without highly explicit teaching, but if balanced is interpreted as offering all children only an embedded rather than an explicit approach to phonics instruction, those most in need will be further disadvantaged". 

So we cannot expect to see improvements in the performance of children in the tail of the achievement curve unless and until teachers are equipped to teach children who start from behind and require explicit, systematic teaching if they are to have any chance of catching up, let alone engaging with the higher-order language-based literacy activities that await them across the curriculum.

Compromise is a wonderful thing, in its place. But we should not be compromising on translating scientific evidence into classroom practice. It is not enough to offer children (especially those starting from behind) an eclectic, bricolaged, blended literacy program that fails for want of a simple early emphasis on explicit and systematic synthetic phonics instruction, and then to classify such children as “special needs” when they inevitably and completely predictably display low literacy skills by mid primary school years. This is simply amounts to another way of describing Dr. Reid Lyon’s “instructional casualties”.

That’s not fair to teachers or students, and it’s most certainly not what I call "balanced".

POSTSCRIPT, October 2019: I recommend the explanation at this link (courtesy of Education Week) as to how BL and effective phonics instruction differ from each other.

Bingham, G.E. & Hall-Kenyon, K.M. (2013). Examining teachers’ beliefs about and implementation of a balanced literacy framework. Journal of Research in Reading, 36(1), 14-28.

Bowen, C. & Snow, P. (2017). Making Sense of Interventions for Children with Developmental Disorders. A Guide for Parents and Professionals. Croydon, UK: J&R Press

Cozmescu, H. (2008). Thinking Balanced Literacy Planning

Heydon, R., Hibbert, K. & Iannacci. L. (2005). Strategies to support balanced literacy approaches in pre- and inservice teacher education.  Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 48(4), 312-319.

Konza, D. (2014). Teaching reading: Why the "Fab Five" should be "the Big Six". Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 39(12), 153-169.

Manset-Williamson, G. & Nelson, J.M. (2005). Balanced, strategic reading instruction for upper-elementary and middle school students with reading disabilities: A comparative study of two approaches. Learning Disability Quarterly, 28(1),59-74.

Mermelstein, L. (2006). The components of Balanced Literacy. What does Balanced Literacy actually mean?

Rasinski, T. & Padak, N. (2004). Beyond consensus—beyond balance: Toward a comprehensive literacy curriculum. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 20(1), 91-102

Rivalland, J. (2000). Finding a balance for the year 2000 and beyond. Newsletter of the Australian Literacy Educators' Association, February.

Wren, S. (2001). What does a “Balanced Literacy Approach” mean?

(C) Pamela Snow, 2017