Tuesday 27 February 2018

Here we go again: Fact checking the anti-phonics movement in Education

This week, on the Australian Association for Education in Research (AARE) Blog, Professor Robyn Ewing of the University of Sydney asserts that there are "seven things teachers agree on" about the teaching of reading. As far as evidence-based claims go, this is one of education's more journalistic flourishes. There is no substantiation at all provided for this grandiose claim, but that it is the least of the article's evidence-based problems.

Let's look at these seven "points of consensus", one by one:

Learning to be literate is crucial for children’s life chances.

Well this is good. We're off to a great start on a point of furious agreement.  The problem here, is that our performance in teaching all children to read in Australia is not up to the same standard as our ability to state the obvious. Let's move on. 

Socioeconomic status has a big impact on how well children read 
Socio-economic status (SES) is a powerful driver of children's early oral language exposure, which in turn, exerts a significant influence on children's ability to understand what they are reading. There is a strong body of literature (see this earlier blog-post) indicating that children's early oral language skills are influenced by where they (and their parents) sit on the social gradient.

But where is the scientific evidence that this "impacts on how well children read", assuming they are exposed to quality instruction?

This is a veiled way of blaming parents for their children's poor reading skills, rather than looking at the role of sometimes ill-informed early reading instruction. It is a great injustice to children to deprive them of scientifically validated (yes, sometimes by cognitive psychologists!!) teaching approaches, in favour of dogma that protects education academics and teachers from having to come to grips with some hard-stuff about the structure of language and how this impacts on the knowledge and skills that need to be conveyed to beginning readers.

Unfortunately education has given away the family china when it comes to the precious knowledge its graduates should posses as the sine qua non of a primary education degree, in favour of feel-good, starry-eyed rhetoric about beautiful children's literature. Before anyone has conniptions, I love beautiful children's literature, but as I will outline below, writers such as Professor Ewing conflate the books we should be reading to children, with the books that they should be asked to tackle as novice readers. This shows a fundamental misunderstanding about how learning works.

By this logic, children who are born into homes where Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven are played constantly in the background, should seamlessly blossom into talented musicians. Oh that it were so!

Learning to be literate is a highly complex contextualised social practice – not a series of hierarchical skills
This is another sound-bite that is designed to be cosy and reassuring, particularly for teachers who have not been taught how to teach with scope and sequence in mind. In reality, it dumbs-down the fact that, as Dr Louisa Moats has observed, teaching reading IS rocket science and it is something that should be done by highly skilled, knowledgeable practitioners. There is a science to the teaching of reading, but education academics seem to have conspired to keep their own students in the dark on this science, perhaps because much of it has been generated by those tricky cognitive psychologists.

Learning to read is about making meaning. There are no easy, one size fits all recipes.
There's actually two assertions here.  Let's deal with them separately.

Yes, of course, the ultimate aim of reading is to derive meaning, in the same way that the ultimate aim of learning the piano is to be able to play some beautiful music, and the ultimate aim of learning how to drive is to be able to do so in a range of complex conditions, including at 110kph on a freeway in the rain. But these end points are not starting points in other complex skills that humans have to learn, so why is reading a stand-alone exception to the ways in which humans transition from novice to expert?

I have never heard anyone (let alone advocates of cognitive science on reading instruction) argue that "one size fits all" for beginning readers.  This is a flimsy, straw-man argument. However, the inverse ("all children are different") does not bear up under scrutiny either. There are more similarities than differences between children. If there were not, then teachers would never benefit from the pattern recognition that comes with years in the classroom.

I would also like advocates such as Professor Ewing to explain why, if reading is all about meaning from the start, five year olds are sent home with lists of de-contextualised sight-words to somehow magically learn by rote. The equivalent task would be giving adults a list of wing-dings to learn as stand-alone units of meaning. 

Rich literature, real texts should play an important role in any literacy program
As noted above, yes, of course children need to be exposed to "rich" literature* - to inspire them about the magic of reading, to expand their vocabularies, and to widen their horizons about the world.  This implies, however, that early reading materials that haven't won a literary prize are unwelcome in the early years classroom. Nothing could be further from the truth. Decodable texts are an important beginning point for novice readers and in many cases have a more "authentic" narrative flow than those repetitive look-at-the-picture-to-find-which-word-is-different-on-this-page levelled readers that are used so commonly in Australian classrooms. 
*I'm not 100% sure what this term actually means, particularly given the logical inconsistency of using predictable texts, as noted above.

Phonics and other code-based literacy practices are widespread in early years learning contexts in Australia. Where is the evidence that teachers aren’t using these strategies?

The first part of this point is another non-evidence-based statement.  Where is the evidence that supports this claim? By contrast, have a look here, for a list of references that show that teachers (including those in Australia) are inadequately prepared with respect to their knowledge of the structure of language to be able to teach reading effectively to all children (not just those from nice middle-class homes, who were read to since birth). 

While you're at it, have a look at this study published by Australia education academics, showing how poorly-prepared practising teachers think education graduates are for teaching reading. This quote (from p. 41) will give you a taste for the findings:

Just over half (54 per cent) of the respondents also agreed that ‘generally, graduate teachers have an in-depth knowledge of a range of instructional strategies that can be used to meet student literacy needs’. Nearly half (48 per cent) of the respondents agreed that ‘generally, graduate teachers know how to interpret the results of standardised assessment tools that measure student achievement in English’.

Another test is highly problematic and will disadvantage our EALD (English as an additional language or dialect) learners as well as many in vulnerable situations
Again, this is non evidence-based dogma, though I do tend to agree that a trial of the Phonics Screening Check might be "highly problematic" - particularly for education academics, who are anxious that their ideological fervour in opposing anything other than incidental/analytic phonics will be exposed. This will be particularly unfortunate for teachers (as well as children), if they are unjustly "held to account" by politicians and the media. If medical educators were failing to teach trainee doctors evidence-based approaches to preventing and treating disease, that would be front-page news, but we would be asking for answers from the medical academics, not their graduates. It should be front-page news when education academics similarly withhold critical, scientifically established knowledge, for whatever reason, and they are the ones who should be asked to account for this.

As for children from non-English speaking backgrounds - where is the evidence to support this claim? There's actually good reasons to predict that such children would benefit from explicit phonics instruction, but let's do some research before we make bold proclamations one way or the other.  

In fact, basing our claims on rigorous research rather than rhetoric is probably a reasonable expectation across the board. How about it, Education?

(C) Pamela Snow, 2018