Sunday, 27 January 2019

Why do Speech-Language Pathologists work in literacy?

First published 2019; updated August, 2020

Ever since I commenced my training as a Speech-Language Pathologist back in the late 1970s, I’ve been aware of the problematic nature of the profession’s chosen name. In fact, back at that time, in Australia, we used the title Speech Pathologist, and in the UK, it was Speech Therapist (a term that prevailed here for many years too). In recent decades, both Australia and the UK have followed the lead of the USA, by inserting the word “language” in our profession’s title, leaving us with Speech Language Pathologist in countries such as Australia, the USA, and Canada, and Speech-Language Therapist (or Speech and Language Therapist) in the UK and New Zealand.  I think this helps, but we still have some explaining to do, as “speech” tells such a limited part of the story regarding our scope of practice. I’m going to focus here on language and literacy, but bear in mind that Speech Language Pathologists (SLPs) also work in areas of voice, fluency, hearing, acquired neurological disorders such as aphasia (e.g. after stroke), cranio-facial disorders (such as cleft palate), and dysphagia (swallowing disorders), to name a few.

Let’s start by looking at the basic difference between speech and language. When SLPs describe speech, they are referring to the mechanical processes involved in breaking up an outgoing air-stream in order to produce recognisable sounds. We break up the air stream in some cases by momentarily stopping it altogether e.g. in the case of the sound/p/, where the lips coming together and then apart, produces a tiny “explosion” of air, meaning that /p/ is referred to by linguists as a “plosive”. Some speech sounds are produced with voice (vibration of the vocal cords), such as /d/, /g/, /b/, while others are produced in the same way in every respect except there is no voice used: /t/, /k/, and /p/. The branch of linguistics that is concerned with speech sounds is phonology. It’s important to note that phonology is part of the language system, so the convenient and everyday distinction that SLPs commonly make between speech and language is somewhat arbitrary and does not always play out well in clinical practice, where children have mixed disorders across different aspects of language. 

Mastering the phonology (speech sound system) of the language or languages to which one is exposed in the early years of life is no mean feat. Most of us are familiar with the experience of interacting with chatty toddlers who are hard to understand, so we find ourselves deferring to one of the parents to “interpret” for us. By three to four years of age, however, most children can make themselves understood most of the time, even if imperfectly, and with many persisting errors, e.g., reducing consonant clusters to one consonant, to say “dop” instead of “stop” (in this case, the effect of co-articulation means that voicing has also been introduced). By school entry, most children are not only talking in full sentences, but can make themselves understood without a parent “interpreter”, though they may still have difficulty with /s/, /r/, /l/ and ‘th’ sounds: Ɵ (voiceless) and ð (voiced).  Some children, however, display speech sound disorders (SSDs,) and their speech is difficult even for familiar communication partners to understand, relative to that of their age peers. 

The importance of SSDs in the school context goes beyond children's ability to make themselves understood. As Pennington and Bishop noted in 2009, “….individuals with SSD often show deficits on a range of phonological tasks, including speech perception, phoneme awareness, and phonological memory”. These skills are all deeply connected to the processes involved in decoding and making sense of print, so it is not surprising that having a SSD in the early school years creates a significant risk for difficulties learning how to read, write, and spell.  This might go some of the way towards explaining why, when children are referred by classroom teachers to SLPs for assessments, based on concerns about their speech, that the SLP may wish to discuss with the teacher, the implications of the child’s overall speech and language profile for being able to succeed in reading and writing

If you are interested in finding out more about speech sounds, their typical development and their disorders, you can’t go past this site, written by my friend and colleague, Dr Caroline Bowen, AM.
Language refers to a complex set of skills that in addition to phonology, includes vocabulary, syntax (rules by which we link words together to form phrases and sentences), morphology (base words and affixes that change their meaning), and pragmatics (the ability to make socially and contextually appropriate adjustments to communication style in a range of real-world contexts, and to “read the play” in the interactive space). Language development is closely related to the development of cognition (e.g., attention, planning, self-monitoring), memory (working, short and long-term), emotional self-regulation, and the development of empathy and social cognition

However, language skills in humans are something of a paradox. Language is our evolutionary advantage over our nearest primate relatives, setting us apart on planet earth from all other species. That’s not to say that other species don’t have communication abilities; they clearly do. But humans have been particularly blessed in this respect, with a capacity that unfolds from birth (some would say even earlier) and develops apace in the pre-school years and well beyond.  

While oral language skills are biologically natural, they are no set-and-forget function, as I have written about previously as they are sensitive to environmental exposure and the quality of the interpersonal spaces that children experience in the early years. Written language, on the other hand, is a social contrivance – something we humans have invented for social, economic, intellectual, and cultural benefits, but it is not natural and has to be learned. Some fortunate children acquire the nuances of the written code relatively seamlessly, while others do not, and will only succeed with explicit instruction, and possibly additional therapeutic support. These children do not necessarily have a diagnosable "disorder" and nor are they always easy for teachers to identify in the classroom context.

Speech Language Pathology expertise spans all forms of human communication: spoken, gestural, augmentative, and written. Reading and writing are forms of communication, so they are within our scope of practice. The other factor that places reading, writing, and spelling fairly and squarely in our scope of practice is that these are all fundamentally linguistic activities, and language is our thing, whether we are thinking about typical development, or development that is impacted by one or more neurodevelopmental disorders. The linguistic basis of learning how to read is strongly represented in the Simple View of Reading, which holds that reading comprehension is, in mathematical terms, the product (not the sum) of a child’s ability to decode an unfamiliar word and her ability to understand what the word means. So, decoding skills (mapping phonemes onto graphemes) are essential and non-negotiable, as are language comprehension skills. 

Practically all neurodevelopmental disorders (for example, autism spectrum disorders, intellectual disability, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder) have implications for speech and language development. This can also be the case for brain injury sustained in early life (e.g., due to infections such as meningitis or encephalitis; hypoxia, as in near-drownings; trauma due to falls or assaults). Other disorders present at birth or in early life that can impact speech and language development include hearing loss and cerebral palsy. And of course, there is a significant number of children who have a developmental language disorder without necessarily displaying any of these conditions. Finally, we know that early maltreatment(abuse and/or neglect) will impact on a child’s communication milestones, across speech, language, and social skills. 

We know that there is significant overlap between the existence of language and reading disorders, and that sometimes, children’s language skills are only called into question at the point at which they struggle with the transition to literacy.

“…poor comprehenders do not have a comprehension impairment that is specific to reading. Rather, their difficulties with reading comprehension need to be seen in the context of difficulties with language comprehension more generally.” She goes on to state that  “….dyslexic children perform poorly on oral language tasks that involve phonological processing, such as phonological awareness, nonword repetition, rapid naming, name retrieval and verbal short-term memory”.

None of this means, of course, that language and other aspects of communication are not shared turf with other professionals. It is in everybody’s interests for teachers, psychologists, and occupational therapists, among others, to have at least a good working knowledge of language and how it works. Naturally, this will be variable, in the same way that SLPs’ knowledge of psychometric testing, or their knowledge of curriculum will be variable. 

In order to be able to assess and treat children with reading and writing difficulties, SLPs must first understand the typical ways in which such skills are acquired, and major approaches to their instruction in the early years of school. For this reason, literacy forms an increasing component of SLP university degrees, and SLPs exit their training equipped with at least the basics of theoretical frameworks such as the Simple View of Reading, the importance of phonological and phonemic awareness, optimal ways of transitioning children from oral language foundations to print, via a range of media, and effective forms of early intervention for children who are identified as struggling. 

Strong receptive and expressive oral language skills are the secret weapon of some children when they arrive at school. In and of themselves, they are not enough to get children across the bridge to literacy, but they are a vital start. One way of thinking about this relationship is that oral language skills are the metaphorical car engine and excellent classroom instruction (and additional support if needed) is the fuel in the tank.  

Some children have engines (oral language skills) that need to be made more powerful in order to improve their readiness for the transition to literacy. If that's the case, then schools need to rise to this challenge, as it is the job of schools, not parents, to teach children how to read. All children benefit from the fuel of high-quality instruction provided by highly knowledgeable teachers. I have blogged previously about the fact that many university education programs have unfortunately discarded the vital knowledge about language and how it works, that teachers need to have at their disposal. It is pleasing, therefore, that in many schools, teachers and SLPs work collaboratively, pooling their knowledge of language and curriculum in order to ensure optimal mainstream reading instruction, as well as small-group, or even individual support to students who are struggling. Some practitioners hold dual qualifications in both Speech Language Pathology and Teaching and they are particular assets in the school setting.

Speech Pathology Australia has produced a guidelines document
for SLPs working in the area of literacy, which is available as a members-only download.

The American Speech and Hearing Association (ASHA) also has a Position Statement on Roles and Responsibilities of Speech-Language Pathologists with Respect to Reading and Writing in Children and Adolescents.

You might also find this free, open-access guide useful: Reading problems and what to do about them, produced by Australian SLP, David Kinnane.

This open-access paper was published in August 2020: The Science of Language and Reading.

So, in keeping with the title of an open-access paper of mine from 2015, SLPs work in the area of literacy because Language is Literacy is Language

(C)Pamela Snow, 2019 

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Bendigo Early Language and Literacy Community of Practice (BELLCoP) Resource page

Welcome to BELLCoP!      
Note - I have created a BELLCoP Homepage here, so it is easy to find going forward.
The homepage will be the version that is regularly updated.

In 2018, I established the Bendigo Early Language and Literacy Community of Practice (BELLCoP) as a means of bringing together teachers, speech-language pathologists, school psychologists, and others with an interest in early reading instruction practices, optimal ways of identifying and supporting struggling students, and how to bring about school-wide (if not system-wide) change.

The response to this has been amazing. We've had a couple of meetings so far and participants use the time to discuss their experiences and share resources and ideas. It's a case of Chatham House Rules when we meet, so people free comfortable describing their experiences and tapping into the collective wisdom of the room.

This group is designed for people who live and work in Central Victoria, but of course others are welcome to attend as well. Meetings are held at the Bendigo Campus of La Trobe University (Flora Hill site), generally in HHS2.

The dates for 2019 are as follows (all 4:30 - 6:30pm):
  • Wednesday March 13
  • Thursday June 6
  • Wednesday August 21
  • Thursday November 11
If you would like to be added to the mailing list, please send an email to my EA, Dr Wayne Murdoch:

As per our discussion at the November meeting, here's some resources you might find useful, in no particular order (note this is just a start - I will add further resources and more notes as I go, and you are most welcome to make suggestions as to what should be on the list):

  1. TwitterIf you are not already a "Tweep" I'd encourage you to overcome whatever anxieties, uncertainties, or preconceptions are holding you back and establish yourself a profile. Edu-Twitter is a lively place and there's a wealth of ideas and resources shared, by folk all around the world. If you're not on Twitter, you are missing out on important new information and exchanges of ideas. The good news is that you don't ever have to actually tweet - you can simply use the platform is an incoming information source. In all but rare cases, you don't need to ask people if you can follow them, and if you decide you want to unfollow someone, they don't get a notification to that effect. Like any platform, it takes a bit of practice to get your head around how it works, but your efforts will be rewarded. Once you follow a few language and literacy related Twitter handles, Twitter will twig quite quickly as to what topics you're interested in and suggest similar ones - sometimes connected to individual people and sometimes to organisations. I'll flag a few key Twitter handles here, but will add more as I go.
  2. The various writings of Dr. Louisa Moats, including her book Speech to Print are valuable resources. There's more information and a Youtube link here. Speech to Print is not a light read, but it's an invaluable one for teachers and allied health professionals interested in early reading success.
  3. Learning Difficulties Australia is a wonderful resource for classroom teachers. It produces very user-friendly, interesting Bulletins, as well as convening high-quality PD for teachers and other language and literacy experts. Don't be put off by the word "difficulties" in its name - it offers a wealth of resources for Tier 1, mainstream instruction, as well as for supporting students who are struggling. It's also worth following on Twitter  - @LD_Australia 
  4. Alison Clarke's wonderful Spelfabet website offers incredible resources for those who work in schools - around initial instruction, assessment, supporting students who are lagging behind, and so on. Alison is extremely generous in producing efficacious, low or no-cost resources that can be downloaded from her website. Follow Alison on Twitter - @Spelfabet
  5. The International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction (IFERI) is another treasure trove of information, academic papers, and resources for teachers wanting to improve the rigour around their early literacy instruction. Follow its UK-based developer Debbie Hepplewhite on Twitter - @DebbieHepp. I'd also recommend following @SusanGodsland and Geraldine Carter @ged10) from the UK on Twitter.
  6. Stephen Parker's books on phonics instruction, which are available for free download on his website. In addition to providing step-by-step systematic synthetic phonics guidance, Stephen (who is a retired teacher) provides an interesting history of reading instruction, in particular, explaining how we landed  on the neither-fish-nor-fowl Balanced Literacy space. Follow Stephen on Twitter - @ParkerPhonics
  7. Five-from-Five Project: A treasure trove of free resources for teachers and parents focusing on the Big 5 (phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension) from the age of 5. Follow this project on Twitter: @FIVEfromFIVE
  8. The Reading League: This organisation was established by a team of enthusiastic and hard-working academics and classroom teachers in Syracuse, upstate New York, just a couple of years ago. It is going from strength to strength under the leadership of Dr Maria Murray. Membership is free and is open to people around the world. Follow The Reading League on Twitter - @reading_league, and also its movers and shakers, Dr Maria Murray: @DrMariaMurray1 and Dr Heidi Beverine-Curry: @drheidibc
  9. Free Victorian Department of Education & Training webinars: Dr Tanya Serry (La Trobe University) produced a series of four free webinars arising out of some PD workshops she and I ran with A/Prof Lorraine Hammond (Edith Cowan University), A/Prof Jane McCormack (Charles Sturt University), and Ms Emina Mclean (La TRobe University) in 2018. You can find links to them all here. Topics include: delving into systematic synthetic phonics; analysing spelling errors; decodable Vs predictable texts for beginning readers; and links between oral language and early literacy. Follow Tanya on Twitter too - @tserry2504; Lorraine is @DrLSHammond, and Emina is @EminaMcLean
  10. Multilit (Making Up for Lost Time in Literacy) - this is a suite of early reading instruction and support approaches that align with the recommendations of the three international inquiries into the ways in which reading should be taught in schools. It was developed out of research led by Emeritus Professor Kevin Wheldall at Macquarie University. Follow Kevin on Twitter - @KevinWheldall and also Dr Robyn Wheldall - @RWheldall. Kevin and Robyn also produce an interesting and informative free literacy-related publication called Nomanis
  11. Cognitive Load Theory is a highly informative and helpful framework for teachers, to guide the understanding of information processing, working memory, short-term memory, and how to optimally consolidate new information into long-term memory.  The New South Wales Centre for Statistics and Evaluation in Research has produced a very accessible summary of CLT for teachers and it can be found here. Follow CESE on Twitter - @nswcese. I'd also recommend following Greg Ashman a Victorian teacher who is doing his PhD on CLT - @greg_ashman
  12. If you missed the 2018 Phonics Debate, you can find a link to it here (you can skip the first 20 minutes of intros). It is well worth watching, and reflecting on the underlying arguments of each team. 
  13. If you'd like information on the value of decodable texts for initial reading instruction, check out this piece written by Simone Pogorzelski and Dr Robyn Wheldall on The Conversation in 2018. Follow Simone on Twitter - @SPogorzelski. 
  14. US journalist Emily Hanford has written a great piece (2018) called Hard Words: Why Aren't Kids Being Taught to Read? This is highly recommended read and I think will resonate with many of your initial teacher education and classroom experiences.  Follow Emily on Twitter - @ehanford.
  15. A brand new resource on the block is Lyn Stone's book Reading for Life. This is going to attract a wide readership of teachers, clinicians, policy makers, and parents. Follow Lyn on Twitter: @lifelonglit.
  16. If you're after information on what intervention approaches are backed by scientific research and which ones are not much more than snake-oil (and everything in between), you might like to check out this book that I co-authored with Dr Caroline Bowen in 2017: Making Sense of Interventions for Children with Developmental Disorders. Follow Caroline on Twitter - @speechwoman

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Twenty years of working both ends off against the middle.

 Happy 2019!

It’s 20 years this year since I published my first paper (with a Psychology Honours student, Eugenie Humber) on the oral language skills of adolescent males in the youth justice system. That experience was associated with all kinds of academic naiveté on my part, and on reflection, is a good example of how discovery-based approaches to initial learning can be just as inefficient for adult novices as they are with children and adolescents.

For those of you too young to remember, 1999 was also notable for the Y2K Bug. Oh the time, money, and mental resources that we wasted on that!

With my newly-minted PhD and a newly-created academic appointment in a different university from where I had undertaken my PhD, I found myself cut adrift from easy access to mentors and was thrust into that most awful and disempowering (some might even say dangerous) state of ignorance: not knowing what I didn’t know. It’s easy, in hindsight, to make a light-hearted virtue of my sink-or-swim circumstances and to take some satisfaction from the fact that I did eventually swim (albeit swallowing and spluttering a lot of water at the same time). But looking back, I can see how the lack of explicit instruction (or guidelines, if you prefer) to a new academic about the process of Honours supervision could have brought me, and three Honours students undone (yes, that’s right, they let me supervise three Honours students in my very first year as a Level B academic. That’s another story altogether). Without realising it at the time, I was already learning something important about learning.

The journey that this first study heralded for me concerns the vulnerability of a significant proportion of children before they even enter a school-yard, and the role of education as a means of off-setting that vulnerability, as far as is humanly possible. It also caused me to dig deep into the literature on early reading instruction, so that I could gain a better understanding of the early years of school. I knew, as a speech-language pathologist (and at that stage, provisionally-registered psychologist), and from my experiences as a parent of primary-school aged children in the early ‘90s that reading instruction was a contested space. I really didn’t know just how contested, nor what lay below the surface of the debate. Those realisations grew as my immersion in the research deepened, and as my engagement in discussions via platforms such as Twitter developed (not even thought of in 1999 of course). 

My research in the two decades that have followed that first Honours project, has been (amongst other things) on the language and literacy skills of young people in custody, those in out-of-home (foster) care, and those in flexible/alternative education settings. Obviously, there’s a significant group of students whose life circumstances mean that they can tick all three boxes, as cross-over between these service silos is sadly common. I’ve also conducted research on optimal ways to support early years teachers in promoting early oral language skills and the transition to literacy. You will find a list of publications here, many of which are open-access (though not as many as I would like).

As one would expect (or at least hope), I’ve learnt a great deal in the last two decades, some of it a deepening of subject knowledge on my part, not to mention a more nuanced understanding of the logistics and other challenges associated with conceptualising, funding, conducting, and publishing research. I’ve also learnt a great deal about the sometimes inexplicable forces at work when it comes to translating research evidence into everyday practice, particularly in education. Coming from a health and social sciences background, this has involved me running up against some real, but invisible barriers. I’ll discuss both sets of learnings below. 

But first, a point of definitional clarification: when I refer to “language competence” I am not just referring to a young person’s expressive language abilities. Sure, they are important – the size of their spoken vocabulary, their ability to put words together in syntactically complex sentences, to represent conceptually complex ideas; their ability to share their experiences via the medium of narrative discourse; their ability to display socially and culturally appropriate conversational behaviours, and so on. It is also critically important to consider receptive language abilities – the young person’s ability to “take in” and understand the language of others. This is particularly important in the classroom context, where sometimes quite complex verbal instructions are issued by teachers. Some of this language is idiomatic and figurative, meaning that the student needs to make a mental leap from a literal (stated) meaning to a non-literal (implied) meaning. This is particularly necessary in the case of sarcasm, humour, and implicature. 

Sometimes this kind of non-literal language is used quite unconsciously by teachers, because it is so much a part of everyday discourse. For example, the teacher who casually comments “Well you’re making a big effort today Madison”, but actually means “Madison I think you are capable of much better work. What’s up?” What fourteen-year old Madison makes of this comment can be anyone’s guess, because the literal interpretation of the teacher’s comment may or may not align with how Madison views her effort, or her output, and she may have no idea that there is a literal, and a non-literal way of interpreting the teacher’s comment. Sarcasm, even when mild, as in this case, can create a slippery-slope of misunderstanding and confusion between students and teachers.

Similarly, the teacher who tells seven-year old Harrison “I’d really rather you didn’t do that”, assuming that Harrison will infer an instruction to stop kicking his legs against his chair/sharpening his pencil onto the floor/bumping the person next to him, or whatever it is he is doing at the time. When Harrison makes no such inference and continues said activity, it’s easy to see how his behaviour will be called into question, ahead of questions being raised about his language comprehension. When he continues, the teacher may then tell a confused Harrison “I told you not to do that”, but that was not his experience at all. Harrison heard a preference, not an instruction. Now he looks like a smart-a**e.

What have I gleaned about vulnerable students and the role of language and literacy success along the way?

  1. High rates of undiagnosed language disorder are common in young people in the youth justice system, the overwhelming majority (~90%) of whom have experienced school suspensions and exclusions. If we accept the notion of a School-to-Prison pipeline (see below), it is reasonable to assume that a significant proportion of young people whose behaviour is problematic at school also have undiagnosed language difficulties, if not disorders. This has been borne out in a number of published studies, for example by Clegg et al., 2009,  Ripley and Yuill (2005), and Cohen et al., (1993).
  2. In the academic version of scissors-paper-rock (academic achievement; language skills; behavioural self-regulation), language fares poorly against both academic achievement and behavioural self-regulation as a focus for the key adults around a child (parents and teachers). We tend to notice the noticeable, and poor behaviour and low academic achievement are more noticeable than poor language skills. The problem is that poor language skills may be the invisible driver of both of the more noticeable factors.  Where language disorder co-exists with behaviour difficulties and/or academic under-achievement, the chances of a formal assessment and diagnosis by a speech-language pathologist (SLP) are disappointingly slim. 
  3. Suspensions and exclusions are sometimes necessary, in order to provide safe workplaces for teachers and other school staff, and safe learning spaces for students. They are sometimes the circuit-breaker that is needed to give everyone time-out and the chance to re-set. However, suspensions and exclusions don’t have a good track-record as tools to improve the educational trajectory of a young person who is seriously disengaged and/or acting out . A more “clinical” lens is often needed, to provide an understanding of the problematic behaviour, and how it can be minimised or managed over time.      
  4. The idea that “behaviour is a form of communication” is simply a lens through which behaviour can be (re)conceptualised. It is a particularly important lens for young people with developmental language disorders, many of whom will not have a diagnosis as such, but will, like Madison and Harrison in the examples above, simply appear to be “tuned out”, uncooperative, disinterested, and/or too easily-distracted by what’s going on around them. Young people with developmental language disorders will also be poor at “reading the play” in social situations, with their difficulty following social banter sometimes resulting in misunderstandings and social exclusion. Social exclusion, in turn, is painful for humans, and we sometimes behave in dysfunctional ways to overcome it. 
  5. The other group for whom the notion of behaviour as a form of communication is helpful is children who have experienced trauma in their early lives. Maltreatment (abuse and/or neglect of various forms) provides children with an over-representation of dysfunctional interpersonal behaviour experiences and an under-representation of experiences in which adults are caring, trustworthy, helpful, and supportive. This can create conditions of hyper-vigilance to threat and expectations that adults are unreliable and unsafe to be around. Sadly, young people in the child protection system (meaning that a notification has been substantiated and their home environment lacks the basics with respect to safety and care) are 12 times more likely than others in the community to be engaged with the youth justice system. This is not the fault of affected children, but it will play out very vividly in their everyday classroom behaviour. It’s worth remembering too, that young people in the child protection and youth justice systems sit at the extreme end of a dimension of risk and vulnerability. There are many more whose language, behaviour and emotional self-regulation profiles are compromised, but not sufficiently to reach threshold for notifications and/or apprehension by police. 
  6. There is, unfortunately a phenomenon that has been described in the developmental psychology literature as the School-to-Prison Pipeline. This research resonates with the fact that risk and protective factors sit across four levels for all children and adolescents: the individual, the family, the school, and the community. Research on the School-to-Prison Pipeline identifies characteristics of both high and low-performing schools with respect to preventing and responding to disruptive behaviour (which is invariably accompanied by low academic achievement).

    Not everyone in education is fond of the fact that there is a literature on the School-to-Prison Pipeline, but it is disingenuous of any of us to pretend that these students are masters of their own destinies. They are not. The vast majority have experienced all forms of maltreatment and are living examples of the poor job the state does when it steps in as “parent”, either through its child protection or youth justice arms (or both).

    This does not mean that I am saying that all students who act up at school have been victims of maltreatment. However, it does mean that we should consider developmental influences on the child when we are selecting ways of responding to their behaviour – because we do have a range of choices from which to select. Some of these will worsen the behaviour, some will improve it, and some will not make much difference either way. It’s not always easy to know which is which, and schools need much better resourcing than is typically currently on offer, in their endeavours to support such students. Ideally, this means an interdisciplinary team around the child and strong mentoring and support for teachers. I know from my experience in working with teachers at postgraduate level about dealing with mental health problems in the classroom, that teachers are hungry for knowledge and skills in this space. 
  7. While children don’t literally die from poor reading instruction in the early years, faring so poorly in early life that you end up in the youth justice system drastically increases your probability of dying before the age of 21. Being a youth offender is a serious health issue and one that the whole community needs to take seriously (we all end up paying, one way or the other). 
  8. Our research on the language skills of young people in the youth justice system also has implications for restorative justice conferencing, an approach of which I am cautiously supportive, provided it is implemented with great care with respect to its verbal demands. Restorative justice conferencing can be high-stakes in some jurisdictions, so we need to ask whether placing linguistically-compromised young people in a highly verbal exchange that will be taken into account at sentencing is always a fair thing. We have written about this here (open access). That said, we need to be cognisant too, of the often low success rates of punitive responses to young people’s offending, as opposed to promising evidence in support of diversion away from the clutches of the criminal justice system. Tabloid responses to an issue as complex as youth offending are not helpful, and research about which young people (and which victims) are likely to benefit from this approach, is ongoing. As a relatively recent entrant to the youth justice space, the degree of rigour in many studies about restorative justice conferencing is pleasing, and makes this a space to watch.
  9. We should not rely on the youth justice system to back-fill the years of knowledge and skills that vulnerable young people have missed out on along the way. Once incarcerated, youth offenders need to deal with complex mental health and/or substance abuse problems, and may be mandated by the court to engage in certain therapeutic interventions, such as sex-offender treatment or anger management programs. This in itself is problematic, because of the verbally-mediated basis of these interventions. But a few hours a week over three-six months with a remedial reading specialist will not magically convert a 15 year-old with a reading age of 7 to a 15 year old with a reading age of 15. Schools, not prisons are where young people need to learn to read.
  10. Finally, our work (and that of overseas colleagues) has been well-received by members of the judiciary, who have been nothing but gracious and humble in acknowledging that the language used in children’s and magistrates’ courts is typically dense and inaccessible, even to the most skilled speaker, and can further marginalise young people who may be on the verge of giving up completely on being part of the social and economic mainstream. I have spent many hours delivering professional development to members of the judiciary and would struggle to find a more receptive, self-reflective, willing-to-change group of stakeholders. This is in spite of the centuries of tradition in which their practice is steeped. They are a breath of fresh air and make every minute of our research feel worthwhile. 

What is the role of early reading instruction in the lives vulnerable children and adolescents?

My research on young people in contact with youth justice and child protection has inevitably led me to wander back “upstream” to the education system and to want to better understand how education can off-set some of the enormous risks and vulnerabilities some children face. This is particularly important when we consider the appallingly low rates of literacy among youth offenders  and also of their adult counterparts

In public health parlance, I've wondered many times, how we might build better fences at the top of the cliff, rather than parking more ambulances at the bottom of the cliff. For me, the answer to this always comes back to better reading instruction for all. And no, that does not necessarily mean more money.

Some of my key learnings from researching in and delivering many hours of professional development in the education sector are as follows:

1.     Learning how to read is fundamentally a linguistic task. Children draw on their knowledge of words (their morpho-phonemic structure and meaning), sentences, cohesion, different discourse genres, direct and indirect meaning, etc) and their knowledge of the world, in making the transition from the biologically natural process of talking and listening, to the biologically unnatural process of reading and writing.
2.     The translation of research evidence into the hands of classroom teachers is a perplexingly perilous, fraught journey. Much of it never makes it. It's pleasing that many in education recognise the need for the field to take a more robust approach to generating and critiquing evidence, but there is still a way to go on this. 

Alongside difficulty translating robust science into classroom practice, there is a paradoxical express-lane for neuroflapdoodle to make its way from the thought-bubble factories that abound around the world, into a classroom near you. The proliferation of whacky, pseudo-science in schools (learning styles, coloured lenses, brain gym, left-brain, right-brain learners and so on) is nothing if not incredible, as discussed by Dr Caroline Bowen and me in our 2017 publication, Making Sense of Interventions for Children with Developmental Disorders.
3.     Socio-economic status is important in influencing both early language exposure and risk of engagement in anti-social activity, but it should not be used to explain away academic under-achievement by children from disadvantaged families and communities. Teachers can’t cure poverty (if they could, I am sure they would have done so by now), however they can select instructional approaches that afford the greatest likelihood of accelerating the progress of children who start from behind, rather than cementing their place at the back of life’s queue.
4.     Most research on the cognitive psychology of how children learn to read is carried out by researchers in disciplines other than education, and little of it sees the light of day in education faculties. This may be because education academics lack the content knowledge and research-appraisal expertise needed in order to be critical consumers of such research, but this is unlikely to be publicly admitted. Instead, this body of research is shunned as being “irrelevant”, because reading is a process of “making meaning” and all that this requires is language-rich classrooms, exposure to beautiful children’s literature, a bank of sight-words, a collection of predictable, levelled readers, and perhaps most curiously of all, reliance on a rubric that encourages the novice to guess, rather than learn the written code. Imagine teaching children to learn a musical instrument in this back-to-front, inefficient way.

Mention the Simple View of Reading to a group of primary school teachers, and you will most likely be met with expressions of curious "tell me more", but I am yet to encounter teachers who report that they learnt about this model (introduced in the 1980s) in their initial teacher education. If The Simple View of Reading is not the intellectual property of teachers, for heaven's sake, whose intellectual property is it?
5.     There does not appear to be the same appreciation in education circles, as there is in health, of the notion of levels of evidence. Just because you can find one study, somewhere in the last twenty years, that seems to vaguely support a position that you want to cling on to, does not mean that you are ticking the evidence-based practice box.
6.     Pre-service teachers don’t even seem to be informed that there is an ongoing debate about how best to teach children how to read. They are simply presented with the world view agreed-upon by the academics in their particular faculty. Imagine a corollary, in which we don’t tell medical students about ongoing deliberations about how and when to prescribe antibiotics to children with middle ear infections; or about the fierce debates concerning the pros and cons of population-level screening for prostate cancer. It is simply unthinkable that we would withhold from future doctors, the notion that the state of knowledge about a particular area of practice is contested and likely to undergo change. However, that is what happens in education faculties. I have yet to meet a practising teacher who has graduated since the publication of the National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy(2005) and is aware of its existence by any means other than social media. They typically respond in wide-eyed wonder when I explain it is a publicly accessible document that calls into question much of what they were taught as gospel in their initial teacher education. I wonder if that has anything to do with why it's not shared with pre-service teachers?
7.     In addition to the need to strengthen and focus phonics instruction, we have not been placing enough emphasis on morphology in the teaching of reading and in extending children’s knowledge of etymology and relationships between words. This is an important and missed opportunity, but like all other areas in which reading  instruction needs to be strengthened, will require significant up-skilling in the knowledge and practices of the teaching workforce.
8.     Some in education, attribute the high rates of low literacy that persist in nations such as Australia to children’s home environments, rather than to their classroom instruction. This is a particularly pernicious claim, but ironically, we typically don’t see its inverse being asserted by education academics: that children who succeed academically do so on the strength of their home environments, not because of good teaching. Classroom instruction does matter and early career teachers should be encouraged to maximise their impact by understanding that some approaches work well-enough for around 60% of children, but we can’t afford to be a society in which only 60% of citizens are literate. Apart from the intellectual canyon that creates in our social and human capital, those citizens will not find employment in economies that are increasingly reliant on technology and in which jobs for unskilled workers are disappearing

Further, Whole Language-based instruction and its various descendants, including Balanced Literacy unwittingly create thriving industries in educational assessment and support and remedial education, in many cases for students who are instructional casualties, rather than having intrinsic barriers to learning such as a developmental language disorder. This is a shocking waste of human potential and diverts scarce clinical resources away from the most needy students, who will not catch up without intensive specialist support.
9.     Cognitive Load Theory is probably one of the most important theoretical frameworks for teachers, for guiding their design and delivery of initial instruction and instructional support to students who are struggling. I strongly recommend a read of the article at the link above – produced by the NSW Centre Education Statistics and Evaluation. When teachers understand the basics of information processing, working memory, short and long-term memory, and cognitive load, they have valuable tools to refine their instruction, and to cater for the needs of students at different ability levels within the one classroom.
10.  Another oddity I have had to get my head around, in shifting from health and social sciences to education, is the resistance displayed by some, to the notion that non-teachers might have something to contribute to consideration of what goes on in the classroom. In health, we are accustomed to working in interdisciplinary teams, and recognise that no one professional has all the answers. I have (only occasionally) met with push-back when discussing the implications of our research for either behaviour management or early instruction, though happily this seems to be less common as time goes by. An analogous situation in medicine would be a general practitioner rejecting the findings of a pharmacologist on the side-effects of a medication, on the grounds that the pharmacologist does not work in a clinical setting (never mind that her research was conducted in a clinical setting). Everyone in this game needs to be humble about the challenges and complexities we collectively face in trying to improve the life chances of all students. That, after all, is the shared endeavour in which we are engaged.
11.  To be very clear, my criticisms here are not of teachers. I work formally and informally with both primary and secondary teachers and am invariably struck by their dedication, intellectual curiosity, and professionalism. I think it’s unreasonable, however, that teachers have to experience their own painful epiphany about the low-impact of many of their initial reading instructional practices, and then undergo years of often expensive re-training and new learning, in order to learn what they could have been taught the first time round. We’ve known for decades that Whole Language-based instruction is too hit-and-miss for children who start from behind  but the ideological fervour that has gone into resisting the translation of cognitive science evidence into classroom practice would rival that seen in some fundamentalist religions.

So – these are my musings, reflections, and learnings, twenty years on. They continue to evolve, as I read new research and a range of blogs, engage with teachers, parents, and other researchers via social media and conferences, conduct new research, and interact with government policy makers, in both youth justice and education. 

I am frustrated by what seems sometimes like glacial progress, but uplifted by the energy and commitment of those with whom I share this journey. 

Whether we are on the same or different sides of the debate, I have no doubt that better outcomes for children is the unifying force that drives us all. 

I hope that 2019 will be the year in which the ground shifts under us all, and we honour the by-line of The Reading League, that when we know better, we do better

(C) Pamela Snow (2019)