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)