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 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)


  1. Supercool collection of intelligent musings :). I'll share it with my colleagues.

  2. Thank you, Pam, for more beautifully written insight. I started a sticky note to copy and paste some of the best quotes from here, but i ended up copying and pasting whole paragraphs, so I'll just share it far and wide instead!

  3. A wonderful and very informative read Pam - thank you.

  4. Pamela, I have a few comments on your article above. Feel free to grill me.
    “ 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.”

    Many of these problematic kids are kids who misbehave to avoid shame of being unable to read. Once they are taught to learn to read their misbehavior ends. I know this from firsthand experience of teaching many such kids.

  5. “Learning how to read is fundamentally a linguistic task. Children draw on their knowledge of words …,”
    More importantly they draw on their knowledge of what sounds of alphabets they were taught initially. When what they have learned initially does not reconcile with what they subsequently learn, they disengage from learning to read and we classify them as dyslexic.

    The above is true with children predisposed to shutting down.

  6. “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.”

    I have told you before and I tell you again that the main reason for the low literacy rate in Australia is the wrong initial input- teaching sounds of alphabets wrong.

    I am sure of my point above as sure as day follows night.

  7. “Ninety-five percent of the kids hitting the wall in learning to read are what we call NBT: Never Been Taught. “ (Dr.Reid Lyon in Children of the Code – I have emails sent to him in my blog posts)
    I have written a book on this, ‘Shut down kids’ which includes the above quote. I recommend you to get a copy available on Amazon.
    Wish you well.

  8. Thank you Pamela for an insightful, thorough summary of the progress we have made, with your amazing input, in the assessment and treatment of children with developmental language disorders. Phonological awareness skill development isn't the be all and end all of treatment for literacy difficulties as you so rightly point out. The Matthew Effect continues ...

  9. Pam, your reflections have made fascinating and inspiring reading - thank you for writing this. And thanks for your two decades of tireless, well-reasoned and eloquent advocacy for students in need of support, and for working so hard to inspire and supervise professionals in need of useful information. Please do keep it up!