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)