Monday, 15 October 2018

It’s time for a Reading Renaissance

This article is my invited commentary on the July 2018 Phonics Debate, and has been reproduced here with permission from The Professional Educator, October 2018, special edition: The Great Literacy Debate (pp. 37-40)

The recent Phonics Debate (Sydney, July 31) has acted as a crucible in which long-held and deeply committed views and antipathies have been exposed and stirred, possibly heralding a new chapter in a long-running, corrosive debate about early reading instruction.
Against a background of a widening gulf in Australia between the reading “haves” and “have nots”, there is cold comfort in knowing that people on both sides of this debate place a premium on the importance of early literacy attainment as a life-long asset. If this widening gulf did not exist, there would be no “Reading Wars”. The Reading Wars draw their oxygen, not from ongoing dissent, but from ongoing under-performance of Australian children, particularly those who start from behind and are doomed by a fatal mix of edu-nihilism and suboptimal instruction, to stay that way.  There is also an increasingly widening gulf between the cognitive scientists, speech pathologists, and educational psychologists on the one hand, who make it their business to understand all aspects of human learning, including the acquisition of reading, and education academics on the other, whose self-selected remit in recent years, has largely been to promote in pre-service teachers, a simplistic (at best) view of the process of learning to read. This sits alongside a misplaced belief that so-called authentic children’s literature and immersion in text and spoken language, a smattering of sight (irregular/high-frequency) words, with some incidental, light-touch phonics sprinkled on top will suffice to transform all young children into proficient readers. This belief is patently incorrect. 
Teachers should be the most expert professionals in schools about the teaching of reading, the early identification of children who are falling behind, and optimal ways to support such students to steer them back on track. Evidence, however, indicates that this is not the case, because their core knowledge of how language works is under-done, and teachers do not feel well-prepared by their initial teacher education (ITE) for these tasks (Meeks et al., 2018). Education academics have wilfully ignored the body of scientific knowledge (derived mainly from cognitive psychology research) about how children learn to read, and in so-doing, have robbed their graduates of their rightful status as well-informed, evidence-based practitioners. True professionals uphold high ethical standards by having the tools to question assumptions and maintain up-to-date practice in line with the best available evidence about what works in the majority of cases. Instead of commitment to scientific rigour and accountability, however, we see a “choose your own adventure” approach to early reading instruction, such that it is possible to visit two adjacent Foundation (“Reception” in some states) year classrooms in the one school, and observe vastly different approaches to reading instruction, both technically aligned to the accommodatingly elastic curriculum. Imagine the corollary in a hospital, where staff in two adjacent wards did their own thing with respect to hand-washing, or in the airline industry where pilots where given free-rein to try out a few ideas of their own when landing Boeing 747s. 
There is a science to effective reading instruction, in the same way that there is a science to infection control, or to airline safety. All interface with human judgement and the vagaries of human behaviour, but these take their place behind scientific rigour and logic. Education, however, has been allowed to thumb its nose at science and go its own way, engaging with jingoistic time and resource-wasting fads in the process (learning styles, Brain Gym, multiple intelligences, coloured overlays, growth mindset, brain-based learning, to name a few), instead of bearing down and doing the necessary, though sometimes difficult job of understanding and applying cognitive and linguistic science evidence as this pertains to early reading instruction. Children and their parents engage with school on the implicit assumption that the best available evidence is going to underpin everyday instruction. Instead, parents unwittingly buy a ticket in a lottery when their children start school. That the rest of us look the other way when this basic contract of trust is violated, is no longer excusable.
It is not acceptable to engage in parent-blame regarding early oral language exposure, to “explain” the poor reading achievement of some children. That is, however, the tactic employed by speakers for the negative in the recent Phonics Debate. This begs the question, then, as to exactly what the role of early years teachers is. According to the negative team’s argument, this role is to witness (and perhaps take credit for) the benefits of socio-economic status and the work done by parents in the pre-school years. This not only displays a fundamental lack of understanding of the nuanced relationship between oral language and early literacy, but it also displaces responsibility for poor reading outcomes to children and their parents. It is not the job of parents to teach children how to read. That is the job of teachers. I wonder how teachers who are themselves parents of struggling readers interpret this message?
Ironically, if there is any message at all in the fact that some children start from behind with respect to their oral language skills, it is not that their poor reading outcomes can be dismissed and explained away on the basis of the sub-standard genetic and/or environmental endowment parents have bestowed on their children. Rather, it is that teachers need to engage in instructional practices that accelerate the progress of such children relative to their more advantaged peers.  However, teachers who are ill-equipped to understand the science of learning, working memory, linguistics, orthographic mapping, and explicit teaching, have insufficient tools in their teaching toolkits to meet the needs of the full-range of learners in their classrooms. This must be experienced as a demoralising, self-perpetuating cycle for early years teachers who approach reading instruction in line with the beliefs of the negative team.
Oral language skills (e.g., phonological and phonemic awareness, vocabulary, syntactic complexity, conversational and narrative language skills, in receptive and expressive domains) are undoubtedly the essential underpinning to the transition to literacy in the early years. However, while oral language may be natural in an evolutionary sense, it is no “set and forget” function in a developmental sense. It has long been known that children’s early oral language exposure sits on a social gradient, such that children of higher socio-economic status (SES) parents are typically significantly advantaged over their lower-SES peers with respect to the nature and amount of language spoken to them in the pre-school years (Hart & Risley, 1995; Hoff, 2003; Locke et al., 2002; Roy & Chiat, 2013; Spencer et al., 2012; Weisleder & Fernald, 2013).  Put simply, oral language skills are the engine, and effective instruction is the fuel in the tank. The two are inter-dependent and the quality of one interacts with, and influences the quality of the other. The engine can be made more powerful, but not without the fuel of high quality instruction, as evidenced by the fact that once children become readers, their own reading is a significant source of new vocabulary (Nippold, 2007).
In and of themselves, however, oral language skills will not see children across the bridge from talking and listening in the pre-school years, to reading, writing, and spelling in the early years of school. As reading, writing, and spelling are biologically unnatural skills (Gough & Hillinger, 1980), children require specific instruction it order to master their intricacies and inconsistencies. As noted recently by Treiman (2018) the uncritical perpetuation by education academics, of the idea that reading to children turns them into good readers has blindsided many in education to the merits of explicit teaching. Explicit teaching, in turn, seems to be held back in reserve for students requiring Tier 2 (remedial) support, rather than being a front-line Tier 1 (universal) strategy designed to promote success for all children. This is a folly.
Literacy builds on oral language, but differs from it in a number of key ways. Oral language occurs in real time and typically (though not invariably) in the context of interactions with others. It contains pauses, hesitations, and false starts, and is generally less complex syntactically than written language, where the reader is able to run their eyes back over sections of text as many times as are needed in order to confirm understanding. In written language, punctuation is used to augment meaning and clues about emotion. A question mark implies a rising intonation, a full-stop signifies falling intonation, and an exclamation mark alerts the reader to surprise or alarm. In oral language, all of these phenomena are conveyed by speakers through intonation and prosodic contour. Written text is not simply oral language written down, and so familiarity with the spoken modality will only go so far in assisting children to succeed in a skill set that does not come naturally.
In spite of some education academics’ protestations to the contrary, 1970s Whole Language thinking is not buried deep in the ITE archive in Australia. It is alive and well and sees the light of day, every day in classrooms around Australia (and elsewhere). While it may have a re-badged name, such as Balanced Literacy, scratch the surface, and you will find the ancestral instructional practices that were promulgated fifty years ago by the likes of Goodman (1967) and more recently by Smith (2004), through their promotion of the proposition that reading is a psycholinguistic guessing game. Three-cueing (also called multi-cueing, or “Searchlights”), levelled, predictable readers, and a blatant disregard for the instructional role of decodable texts for beginning readers are all hallmarks of this in-perpetuity legacy.
Rather than an education knowledge-gap being the biggest hindrance to progress in early reading instruction, we must grapple with a wasteful knowledge-translation crisis. Such waste of knowledge is unforgivable and would not be tolerated in other fields, where reliably-established changes in knowledge transform into changes in practice as a matter of course.  There is abundant evidence to show that teachers (and in many cases their educators) in western nations such as Australia, the US, Canada, and the UK typically have limited and superficial knowledge of the linguistic basis of learning to read, and of the specific linguistic constructs that underpin this (Binks-Cantrell et al., 2012; Fielding-Barnsley, 2010; Fielding-Barnsley & Purdie, 2005; Hammond, 2015; Joshi et al., 2009; Louden & Rohl, 2006; Mahar & Richdale, 2008; Moats, 2009; Piasta et al., 2009; Podhajski , 2009; Reid Lyon & Weiser, 2009; Stark et al., 2015; Tetley & Jones, 2014; Washburn et al., 2011; Washburn & Mulcahy, 2014). Even more worryingly, there is evidence of an inverse relationship between teacher language knowledge and self-confidence with respect to this knowledge (Stark et al., 2015). This severely undermines the extent to which the community can be confident in teachers as experts and professionals. The persisting strong-hold of Whole Language-based ideologies and practices in ITE and classrooms, means that early years teachers are stuck in a 1970s time-warp, while practitioners in fields such as speech pathology and educational and developmental psychology have moved on, using twenty-first century knowledge in their everyday work. Many teachers eventually have their own epiphany about gaps in their understanding and practices, entering into long, expensive journeys of discovery to claim their rightful body of knowledge. It should not need to be so.
Is it time that we faced the sobering reality that in the main in Australia, neither classroom teachers nor education academics are sufficiently knowledgeable about the cognitive science underpinning effective reading instruction? That neither classroom teachers nor education academics have an in-depth understanding of how language works “under the bonnet”, in the same way that a mechanic needs to understand the inner workings of a car’s engine in order to be able to tune, maintain, and repair it? In so doing, do we also need to accept that the conflation of oral language with the acquisition of its biologically unnatural cousin, reading, betrays a serious lack of knowledge about the cognitive processes underpinning both oral language and early reading?
Falling ATARs for entry into teaching courses in recent years mean that pre-service and recently graduated teachers are less likely than ever before to have an explicit grasp of how language works, and they will find it harder to learn this information while at university (particularly if it is only alluded to in the most general, if not dismissive manner). Through a steady but insidious process of mutual attraction and dependence, attenuated ITE curricula and less-prepared students have been drawn to each other, ever more compellingly. Like the proverbial boiling frog, this has not been obvious to those within, but is painfully evident to observers.
Unfortunately, but inevitably, calls for effective reading instruction are political – in the sense that under-done reading skills are one of the surest paths to social marginalisation and economic disadvantage across the lifespan. Youth justice centres, adult prisons, public housing waiting lists, and mental health and substance abuse services all include an over-representation of citizens who did not learn to read in the early years of school (Snow, 2016). This is a social justice issue and if that makes it political, then so be it. Decades of presenting evidence and advocating for its translation into ITE and classroom practice have not resulted in change in education faculties or classrooms. Hence, like climate change and marriage equality, equitable access to evidence-based reading instruction needs to be debated and resolved in the political and public arena.
Flat earth thinking about reading instruction is not excusable in 2018. Sustained failure to adopt scientific knowledge and transmit it to its rightful custodians and beneficiaries is simply cosying up with pseudoscience. 
It’s time to move from the Reading Dark Ages to a Reading Renaissance.

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(C) Pamela Snow (2018)