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


  1. Dear Pamila, I agree with some of what you say in this post, but your statement in the following passage is fundamentally misguided:

    “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”.

    It is also frustrating given that proponents of phonics so often characterize spelling-meaning correspondences are arbitrary. To give another recent example, Taylor et al. (2017) compared phonics vs. meaning-based forms of instruction in an artificial learning study, and in their artificial language, the letter-sound correspondences were systematic, and spelling-meaning correspondences were arbitrary. And based on the finding that adults learned better in the phonics condition they write:

    “For alphabetic scripts, this means teaching the systematicities that exist in print-to-sound mappings for both consistent and inconsistent words, not teaching arbitrary print-to-meaning mappings, which will be difficult to learn for all words.”

    But this is a mischaracterization of the English spelling system, and a mischaracterization of how meaning-based forms of instruction can be designed. In fact, English is a morphophonemic system that prioritizes the consistent spelling of meaning (morphemes) over the consistent spellings phonemes, and this means that meaning-based forms of instruction do not have to consist of giving adults or children “…a list of wing-dings to learn as stand-alone units of meaning”. Bowers and Bowers (2017) describe the logic of the English spelling system in the following paper, and we detail how children can be taught the logic of their writing system (an approach as far as possible as memorizing wing-dings). You can find the paper here.


    And here is a response to the Taylor et al. paper (2017) that characterize meaning-based forms of instruction as equivalent to learning a “list of wing-dings to learn as stand-alone units of meaning”.


    For anyone interesting in hearing more, I briefly talk about the logic of the writing system in a short interview that you can find on my new blog page: https://jeffbowers.blogs.ilrt.org/educational-neuroscience/

    Would be interested to know what you and your readers think


    in a short conversation about this, go to the following page where you can listen to a

  2. Dear Pam, thanks for your response. My post was with regards to your response to the claim:

    "Learning to read is about making meaning. There are no easy, one size fits all recipes"

    Among the points you made you wrote:

    "….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."

    I took this to be your characterization of meaning-based forms of reading instruction. I agree, this would be a poor approach, and if 5-year olds are taught this way, it should stop (proponents of whole language would even agree!). As I noted in my previous post, Taylor et al. (2017) also characterized meaning-based instruction this way, as do so many other researchers who argue for the importance of systematic phonics instruction. On this view, reading words for meaning should come later, which I take to be your position.

    But what is so often ignored is that meaning-based instruction for words does not have involve giving children de-contextualised sight-words. The opposite approach can be given - children can learn about the meanings of morphologically related words when organized into morphologically families, and learn that the morphemes are spelt in a highly consistent manner. Orthographic-phonology can be learned in this context, given that morphemes constrain grapheme-phoneme correspondences.

    I appreciate that you may not have intended to claim that all forms of meaning-based instruction involve a "list of wing-dings to learn as stand-alone units of meaning", but I think your readers will come away with the view that meaning-based forms of instruction are silly. And this is the norm - meaning based forms of instruction are dismissed on a whole range of ways with no mention of one obvious approach: Children might be taught that spellings are organized around meaningful units (morphemes), and more generally, the English spelling system makes a lot of sense.

    I'm glad we agree that morphology and etymology should be the target of instruction. Can I ask why you think systematic phonics should be taught before these additional factors? What is the strongest form of evidence that supports the view that one set of regularities in English spellings (grapheme-phoneme correspondences) should be taught first?

    Great that we can have a discussion like this!


    p.s., thanks for pointing out that the end of my previous note was cut off. I was pointing your readers to my new blog where I have a post about this subject that includes a link to a short conversation between myself and Scott Mills about these and related matters. See:


  3. Thanks Jeff and I have had a quick listen to the audio you linked too, though plan to listen to it again (it's already late at night here!). I think you and I are in agreement on a number of points. I agree for example, that "meaning-based instruction for words does not have involve giving children de-contextualised sight-words" yet in Australia at least, that (in my experience and by my observation) is exactly what "meaning-based instruction" generally translates into. I would be very happy to see children receive quality instruction on guided word study, by teachers who have a good grasp of the structure of language, but that has not, unfortunately, been a hallmark of teacher initial education in Australia in recent decades.
    I am however not in agreement with the proposition that "English is not an alphabetic language". I think everyone needs to be careful about over-generalisations in this space. It is not like Italian or Spanish, but neither is it random. I have referred in previous blogposts to the work of Louisa Moats (2010) who draws on the earlier work of Hanna et al (1969) to point out that some 50% of words in English are directly decodable from their written form and a further 36% violate only one sound–letter rule (usually via a vowel), 10% can be spelt correctly if morphology and etymology are taken into account and fewer than 4% are truly irregular. And of course, for beginning readers, it makes sense to start with examples that do show this 1:1 correspondence as a "way in". We have to start somewhere to help novices to understand the nature of reading and I'm curious to understand where you advocate starting. Whole-language based approaches of teaching de-contexualised sight words and providing predictable readers, do not, in my opinion, go the distance in teaching children the kinds of sub-lexical understandings that you are referring to - in fact they are actively eschewed by some WL advocates.

    Thanks again for the good chat - I'll keep reading and thinking!
    cheers, Pam

  4. Greetings Pam,

    I really appreciate the discussion you are having here with Jeff (full disclosure, he is my brother and I'm the co-author on the 2017 paper he linked to).

    A key issue that makes Jeff’s comments hard to make sense of is that few people ever get to see examples of what such instruction could possibly look like. Here are some examples to consider.

    I've done extensive work with the Nueva School in California. They have utterly transformed their literacy instruction from pre-school to Grade 6. If you go to their webpage on "structured word inquiry" (Bowers & Kirby, 2010) at their school you will see videos of examples of such lessons. This includes a pre-school lesson that teaches explicit grapheme-phoneme correspondences within a morphological context.


    I also highly recommend the free website "Beyond the Word" by your Australian compatriot and spectacular educator, Lyn Anderson. She is the world expert in teaching how the writing system works through structured word inquiry to the youngest students - and for teaching teachers to gain this understanding.


    In your post, you rightly highlight the problem of having kids remember sight words by rote. But this is a necessary result of instruction that restricts itself to associations of letters and sounds. What could phonics do to help kids with words like “does”?

    If you go to my YouTube page, you can see the top video is of me teaching the logic of the spelling of the word "does" by teaching it in relationship to its base "do" and its relatives "doing" and "done" and the parallel construction of the morphological family of the base "go" and its relatives "goes," "going," and "gone."


    I'm sorry to point in so many places. But in order to consider a possibility beyond the "phonics vs. whole language debate" people need to see not only the research evidence that is already out there, they need to see what such instruction could possibly look like. From your responses so far, it seems to me that you are the kind of person who is seriously curious about looking for alternatives, and open to considering evidence beyond what is commonly presented.

    I hope that you and your readers find all of this useful food for thought.

    1. Hi Peter
      Thanks for joining in the discussion. It's a helpful one from my perspective, because I think between us we are clarifying what we each mean when we use different terms. When I talk about "meaning-based" approaches to early reading instruction I am actually thinking of Whole-Language-derived approaches that (in a nutshell) assume that children will infer the reading process from immersion in text, so any use of sub-lexical analysis/phonics (of any type) is to be avoided as far as possible and is only used as a last resort. I've never seen any reference to teaching about morphology in WL teaching – but please correct me if I have missed something and direct me to sources. The closest some come is teaching onset-and rime, which of course is nothing like what you and Jeff are referring to when you talk about guided word study.

      Many in education (in Australia at least) will confidently assert that they don't use WL teaching techniques, but in reality they don't always know the theoretical basis of the approaches they use, as I have written about in a previous blogpost:


      So, to be clear, when I refer to "meaning based approaches" I am not referring to approaches such as guided word study. I doubt many in Australia would have this interpretation, but can't speak for other countries.

      You state: "But this is a necessary result of instruction that restricts itself to associations of letters and sounds. What could phonics do to help kids with words like “does”?"
      I think there is a false dichotomy here and it's a shame that the debate has been over-simplified (by everyone) to WL Vs Phonics. I and my colleagues advocate strongly for the so-called "Big 5" (phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency) and I would be very happy to expand this to the "Super Seven" to take in oracy and morphology. I just don’t see morphology as the starting point in a language that has a strong alphabetic component, particularly for the kinds of words we want to start young children off on.

      Like Antonia Canaris (whom I don’t know, but I see she has also responded to this blogpost), I would be explaining to children that “does” is related to “do” but has a different vowel in it. Sight words are critical to beginning readers (and ultimately of course we want just about every word to be a sight word) but I don’t think it makes sense to send children home with lists of them to learn, devoid of any word study or context (particularly when WL claims context as its own special territory). Why not talk about their composition and structure? The answer to that question, of course, lies in the fact that few teachers have the knowledge of language needed to do so.

      Thanks again for engaging and for sharing those links.

    2. Hey Pam, why do you write this: I just don’t see morphology as the starting point in a language that has a strong alphabetic component, particularly for the kinds of words we want to start young children off on.

      You write as if you care about evidence. Your collaborators in this blog offer lots of interesting evidence.... then you say... " I just dont see morphology as a..." just not seeing is the opposite of evidence. Look at the evidence and contradict it if you can with more evidence... but so far I see ideology and bias and not a concern for evidence. Morphology seems pretty convincing. Id like to hear specific concerns you have with the data.


  5. Dear Pamela
    Your continuing efforts in bringing sense to the emotionally charged realm of reading instruction is valued by countless remedial literacy therapists throughout Australia.

    There is no argument that English spelling has been influenced by morphology and etymology. I agree with you that children must have a firm grounding in letter-sound correspondences before they are exposed to a multitude of less regularly spelt words. Bad habits of guessing take many years to erase. These harmful habits have been taught to young children as a 'short cut'. These children are instructional casualties of the Reading Wars.

    I am sure you would agree that a word such as 'does' should be learnt as a morphological cousin of the infinitive ' to do'. As you write morphology and etymology have a important influence on English spelling conventions.

    I feel Jeff is setting up a 'straw man argument'. The Orton-Gillingham systematic approach to the teaching of reading and writing encompasses begins with phonology and progresses to morphology and word roots as well as etymology. For example, etymology explains why words with a Greek origin are likely to have a 'ph' instead of an 'f'. The key is in better education for teachers and a higher standard of professionalism. Education is an exacting profession. Teachers need to be able to question what they have taken for granted and update their knowledge. What hope do we have when lecturers at Education University spout such harmful drivel? I do not like to use the term 'motherhood statements' because it denigrates the legions of mothers who seek answers to their children's illiteracy and research the approaches that will help their children. These approaches actually work. These brave mothers (and fathers) advocate for their children, frequently in the face of the harmful drivel spouted by their poorly-advised class teachers.

    I might be somewhat insensitive but I fail to see the link between the incredibly boring, repetitive and unimaginative PM reader series and the oft touted 'Quality Literature' of the whole-language, Reading Recovery and Balanced Literacy Brigade.

    1. Thanks for your helpful contribution Antonia and I am pleased that my posts are of use to folk such as yourself on the ground. I think we are on the same page - morphology and etymology are critical, but are not the entry point to early systematic reading instruction. And I couldn't agree more about the blindness of WL advocates to the huge anomaly of providing boring, repetitive texts with no narrative substance to them at all. Since when do they constitute "beautiful children's literature"???

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  7. Hi Pam, two brief responses, and then in second post I past a section of a (submitted) paper by Bowers and Bowers explaining why English is not an alphabet system (it does not fit in the word limit of the system)

    You (and Antonia) claim that children should first learn grapheme-phoneme correspondences, and only learn about morphology/etymology. Is there any evidence for this claim? I do take the point that very few teachers are prepared to teach structured word inquiry (Peter's approach), but this is a different matter than whether they should teach that way. It is often stated that morphology should be taught after phonics (going back at least to Adams, 1990), but I've never seen any data for this. The meta-analyses on morphological instruction have found that it is most effective with the youngest children.

    This is a minor point, but I'm a bit unclear of your characterization of whole language. I thought the idea was that children should be learning to read through reading interesting texts. I don't think a WL advocate would consider a list of de-contextulaized sight words a version of WL, nor should the texts be boring. I don't know much about WL, and certainly do not endorse the view that you should ignore all the sublexical structure of words. But I think your characterization of meaning-based instruction is ignoring morphological instruction, structured-word inquiry, and might be mischaracterizing WL.

  8. Here is the passage from our paper. The most critical is the final paragraph.


    The English writing system is morphophonemic not alphabetic

    The obvious problem with the claim that English spellings are alphabetic is that many words are inconsistent with this hypothesis. For example, approximately 16% of the monosyllabic words included in The Children's Printed Word Database (Masterson, Stuart, Dixon, & Lovejoy, 2010) are "irregular" in the sense that they have unexpected pronunciations according to the grapheme-phoneme correspondences taught in phonics, and additional sources of inconsistencies arise in multisyllabic and multimorphemic words (Mousikou, Sadat, Lucas, & Rastle, 2017). The mappings between phonemes and graphemes (used for spelling rather than reading) are even more irregular, with Crystal (2003) estimating that only 56% English spellings can be derived from phoneme-grapheme correspondences.

    One response to these exceptions would be to reject the hypothesis that English is alphabetic and consider other organizing principles that can better account for English spellings. However, a more a common response is to acknowledge that English is not perfectly alphabetic, but nevertheless claim that English closely approximates an alphabetic system. For example, Byrne (1998) writes:

    …. Inconsistencies and irregularities in English spelling abound… Nevertheless, English is fundamentally an alphabetic language (pp. 1-2).

    This perspective is commonplace and used to motivate phonics despite the many irregularities (e.g., Adams, 1990; Byrne, 1998; Duff, Mengoni, Bailey, & Snowling, 2015; Taylor, Davis, & Rastle, 2017; Wyse, & Goswami, 2008).

    But this is a mistake. English is a morphophonemic system that evolved to jointly represent units of meaning (morphemes) and phonology (phonemes). As Venezky (1967) put it:

    The simple fact is that the present orthography is not merely a letter-to-sound system riddled with imperfections, but instead, a more complex and more regular relationship wherein phoneme and morpheme share leading roles (p. 77).

    The key phrase here is that "phoneme and morpheme share leading roles".

    To illustrate, consider Figure 1a that depicts the morphological family associated with the base . In spoken English speakers are exposed to varied pronunciations of this base depending on the word in which it is found: /ækt/ (in and ), but /ækʃ/ in . The spelling , however, remains consistent. The fact that the grapheme in and maps onto different pronunciations is not evidence of a poor spelling system; rather it is evidence that English spelling encodes morphology in a consistent manner. Or consider Figure 1b that shows the consistent spelling of the <-ed> suffix in , , and despite the fact that <-ed> is associated with the pronunciations /t/, /d/ and /ɪd/, respectively. Again, morphology rather than phonology is spelt consistently.

    These are not cherry-picked examples: English prioritizes the consistent spelling of morphemes over the consistent spellings of phonemes. Indeed, in order, to spell morphemes in a consistent manner it is necessary to have inconsistent (or perhaps a better term is 'flexible') grapheme-phoneme correspondences. A language that prioritizes the consistent spelling of morphemes over phonemes is not "fundamentally alphabetic".

  9. Oh Pamela. You so misrepresent anyone who doesn't hold your view. Even your heading is seriously non-factual. You write, "Fact checking the anti-phonics movement." Really? Robyn Ewing is NOT anti-phonics. She is PRO-phonics. But she understands that English phonology is constrained by morphology and etymology. She understands that phonemes don't exist outside morphemes. Please stop misrepresenting those who don't agree with you. Thank you.

    1. Hi David
      Thanks for joining in the discussion. The issue is not whether people agree with me, it’s whether they can back broad, sweeping claims with evidence, and Professor Ewing does not do that. Of course English is a morpho-phonemic language and of course children should be taught by teachers who have a solid grasp of this fact, but you and I both know that this is not the case in any widespread way in the Australian teaching workforce. The range of teaching approaches is enormous, and logic dictates that they cannot all be “best practice”. As Misty Adoniou (2014) has noted:

      “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).

      I think pretty much all of us agree on the importance of phonemic awareness, phonics, morphology, vocabulary, comprehension, fluency, and oracy, but the sticking point seems to be whether the starting point is introducing children to a small subset of phoneme-grapheme correspondences to get them off the blocks, and teaching with scope and sequence as a framework.

      Bear in mind too, that if we were doing a better job, via current practices, of getting children across the bridge to literacy in the first three years of school (regardless of their starting point), then we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.

      Cheers, Pam

  10. Thank you for another great blog post Pam. I always get a chuckle out of your witty comments that obliterate straw man arguments with evidence-based statements.

    I find it particularly timely that I come across your blog post today after having to endure hearing ‘Reading Recovery’ being mentioned today by someone high up the tree in the Department of Education as an example of current literacy intervention.

    Being a psychologist working in education, it never ceases to amaze me the amount of practices I come across that are not evidence based. Thank goodness for people like yourself and Alison Clarke who help restore my faith that there is hope that one-day education will be held to account.

    1. Thanks for your contribution Cara and I am pleased that my posts are of some use to you at the coalface. You are right, unfortunately, that a lot of time, money, and other resources are expended in education on practices that have a weak evidence-base. Keep up your advocacy work - I know it is not easy.

      Cheers, Pam

  11. Hello all,

    There are a number of important issues raised in Pamela’s post and the conversation that follows in the comments. But I would like to critically analyze one particular assertion that is reflected in the post and some of the comments.

    Literacy instruction should begin with phonics; therefore, instruction about morphology and etymology instruction should be introduced later.

    Both Jeff and I have asked for evidence to support this claim, but I have not seen a response to that request so far.

    This assertion is a wide-spread assumption in the literature, so it is not a surprising view for researchers to have about literacy instruction. Nonetheless, a community of scientific researchers has a duty to present this view in one of two ways:

    1) A hypothesis to be tested


    2) A research-based conclusion with evidence to support it

    A research community should not treat an assertion about something as important as literacy instruction as though it is a research-based conclusion unless we are presented with research evidence to consider critically.

    For instructional recommendations to benefit from scientific inquiry, the scientific community must be able to critically analyze the research upon which the recommendations are made.

    Here are two assertions from the comments in this discussion which reflect this widely-held view:

    In her response to my comment, Pamela argued,

    "I just don’t see morphology as the starting point in a language that has a strong alphabetic component, particularly for the kinds of words we want to start young children off on."

    Antonia supports that claim with her comment,

    "I agree with you that children must have a firm grounding in letter-sound correspondences before they are exposed to a multitude of less regularly spelt words."
    It turns out that there is some early data that speaks to these claims. Our 2017 paper Jeff pointed to describes the meta-analysis research (Bowers, Kirby & Deacon, 2010; Goodwin & Ahn, 2010, 2013) that counters this assumption. These studies found less able and younger students gained the most when morphological instruction was included in instruction.

    I’ve found no evidence anywhere showing that including morphological and/or etymological instruction from the start cause any harm whatsoever.

    In a direct test of this hypothesis, an intervention with 5-7 year olds by Devonshire, Morris and Fluck (2013) found instruction about the interrelation of morphology, etymology and phonology had significant benefits over a phonics condition in standardized measures of reading and spelling. (see that article here: https://tinyurl.com/jjpgtxv )

    My previous comment linked to many examples of early morphological instruction, including in a pre-school class (Find here: https://tinyurl.com/y7gozzw4)

    Here is a link to a short video taken from a first morphological lesson in a Kindergarten class: https://tinyurl.com/ybf2mqay

    Each lesson used the meaningful context of morphological structure to teach grapheme-phoneme correspondences.

    I have shared a good deal of research evidence that, as far as I see only points in the direction supporting the hypothesis that beginning literacy instruction should include attention to at morphology from thee start.

    I realize that the videos of instruction only provide anecdotal evidence of what this instruction can look like. But this is an important part of helping researchers and teachers have a sense of what such instruction can look like. Without a sense of what it looks like it is hard for people to even imagine what is being suggested about teaching morphology in the early grades.

    I look forward to any critical response. If there is any evidence showing that teaching about morphology and etymology from the beginning is problematic in any way, I am totally keen to analyze that evidence myself.

  12. Hi Peter
    Let’s be careful not to be mischievous in how we represent each other’s views. I have not suggested that it is “harmful” to start with morphology/etymology, I have merely stated that from my read of the evidence (which includes of course, recommendations of three national inquiries into how reading should be taught), a focus on phoneme-grapheme correspondences is the logical starting point, to get children off the blocks. I am on the record stating my support for the importance of morphology and etymology as critical elements, and I think it is most unfortunate that they have been so overlooked in recent years. If you have evidence that starting with morphology and guided word study is “better”, then of course I am eager to be directed to that and will read it with great interest. How such evidence would be translated into everyday practice in early years classrooms (particularly in Australia), however, is a leap into the darkness.

    Cheers, Pam

    1. Hi Pam, I think it is important to highlight that the three national inquiries into how reading should be taught did not compare phonics to SWI (or morphological instruction more generally). There is only one study that has (Devonshire et al. 2013) and it shows an advantage of SWI over phonics in 5-7 year olds.

      The lack of research on this topic relates to the mischaracterization of the English spelling system. Here is another passage from our (submitted) paper criticizing the alphabetic principle that makes this point:

      The mischaracterization of the English spelling system has constrained research:

      The widespread claim that English spellings are alphabetic has led to many studies that have assessed the efficacy of phonics, but relatively few studies that have assessed the efficacy of morphological instruction, and even fewer studies that have assessed the efficacy of teaching the interrelation between morphology, etymology, and phonology (Bowers, & Bowers, in press). To illustrate, consider the influential National Reading Panel (2000) that concluded that systematic phonics is better than alternative reading methods. In 449 pages, the word "phoneme" occurs 294 times, "alphabetic" 80 times, "alphabetic principle" 4 times, whereas "morpheme" occurs once (derivations of "morpheme" a total of 4 times). In more recent meta-analyses taken to support phonics (Galuschka et al., 2014; McArthur et al., 2012; Rose, 2006, 2009), and a recent meta-analysis that fails to find any long-term benefits of phonics (Suggate, 2016), there are no occurrences of the word "morpheme". As long as most researchers characterize English as alphabetic, little research will investigate the hypothesis that reading instruction should be informed by the fact that English spellings are logical and make sense.

  13. I'll look forward to following the research in this space Jeff, and in the meantime, will continue to advocate for improved knowledge of morphology and etmymology (among other things!) in the teaching workforce, and inclusion of such content in early reading instruction. I have downloaded Deonshire et al. and will read it with interest.
    cheers, Pam

  14. Hey Pam,

    I’m sorry if you see my comments as misrepresenting your view. I don’t think I have. Let’s see if I can explain myself better.

    My apologies that I have to post this comment in two sections to articulate my thinking clearly.

    You write:

    “I have not suggested that it is “harmful” to start with morphology/etymology...”

    I don’t mean that you have made this specific claim. But I do argue that it is inherent to the view you express that literacy instruction should start with phonologically based instruction, and morphological and etymological factors should be taught later.

    You wrote:

    “...a focus on phoneme-grapheme correspondences is the logical starting point, to get children off the blocks”

    and in an earlier comment:

    “I just don’t see morphology as the starting point in a language that has a strong alphabetic component, particularly for the kinds of words we want to start young children off on.”

    It is only possible to teach grapheme-phoneme correspondences before introducing morphological and/or etymological instruction if you avoid this linguistic content at the start. And the only reason I can see for suggesting that teachers avoid morphology and etymology from the start is if it would be harmful to do so.

    I can imagine one potential source of confusion. Some mistake the suggestion that morphology and etymology should be included in instruction from the start of formal schooling as if it is a suggestion that this should be taught before phonological factors. This is definitely NOT A view I have ever claimed.

    When I pointed to the videos of classroom instruction, I specifically noted how they show teaching grapheme-phoneme correspondences in the context of morphological instruction. For example, in the video from the pre-school class investigating words built on the base "rain," the teacher highlights the /z/ phoneme written by the "s" grapheme in the "-s" when they discuss the word "rains." Teaching grapheme-phoneme correspondences in the context of morphologically related words young children know, places abstract grapheme-phoneme correspondences in a concrete, meaningful and familiar context. In this particular case, it helps avoids common misleading instructional phrases like “the z sound”. I say that is misleading, as the /z/ phoneme is far more commonly written with the "s" grapheme than the "z". These children are having the seeds of understanding planted that if you are marking a plural or third person of a verb by adding a /z/ at the end of a word (which young children do implicitly in spoken English), that pronunciation will be written with an "s" not a "z".

    In the article we pointed to we explicitly make the case that a critical reason to teach the interrelation of morphology and phonology in orthography is that it is the only way we can teach grapheme-phoneme correspondences accurately.

    Continued next comment...

  15. Continued...

    You stated that your view that a focus on phoneme-grapheme correspondences is the logical starting point was based on your “...read of the evidence (which includes of course, recommendations of three national inquiries into how reading should be taught)”.

    You also write, “If you have evidence that starting with morphology and guided word study is “better”, then of course I am eager to be directed to that and will read it with great interest.”

    This wording made me wonder if you took me to be advocating for morphological instruction before phonological instruction. As I explain above, that was never my position. So perhaps our positions are not so different.

    Regardless, in both Jeff’s comments and my own, we have pointed repeatedly to meta-analytic evidence that shows that younger and less able students gained the most from the inclusion of morphological instruction. We also pointed to the Devonshire Morris & Fluck (2013) intervention with 5-7 year olds about the interrelation of morphology, etymology and phonology compared to a phonics treatment, and that they found significant effects on standardized measures of reading and spelling.

    You view that the the research has found that instruction about “grapheme-phoneme correspondences is the logical starting point” is a common view. And while I agree whole-heartedly that grapheme-phoneme correspondences need to be addressed explicitly from the beginning of instruction, I have yet to see any evidence whatsoever that this phonologically based literacy instruction should occur before morphological or etymological content. In fact, with regard to morphology, the best evidence from meta-analyses directly contradicts that morphology should be taught after students get a start with phonics.

    It is my guess that a key confusion on all of this in the research literature in general has to do with the limited frame of the whole language vs. phonics debates. The finding that it is more effective to teach phonics from the start compared to whole language does not provide any evidence about the effect of including morphology from the start.

    Again, I am very interested to see any research evidence supporting the idea that morphology should not be included in instruction from the beginning.

    Finally, you argue, “How such evidence [about including morphological instruction from the start] would be translated into everyday practice in early years classrooms (particularly in Australia), however, is a leap into the darkness.” The reason I pointed to so many videos and resources for teaching about the interrelation of morphology and phonology was to shed light on exactly this topic. In fact, I have been working with teachers and students in Melbourne for about 5 years brining structured word inquiry to private and public schools. The interest and expertise grows every year. I would argue that Australian, Lyn Anderson, is the world expert on working with primary school students and teachers with structured word inquiry. I pointed to her website explaining that it was filled with free illustrations of this instruction. She and a growing number of local experts (Ann Whiting and Julie Shepherd) are providing professional development in this work in that region regularly. And I am returning for my next annual visit in April. I invite you or any of your readers to attend the workshops (see info here https://tinyurl.com/y8jtw76z). This is part of our continuing work to shed light on how teachers can make sense of how our orthography system works over time and thus bring ever-better understanding to their students from the beginning of schooling.

  16. I have another doubt. I've learned that DLD has no definite cause and no.assossiation with medical conditions or authism.
    Is that not true then?