Friday, 19 April 2019

Whole Language Unicorns at home at the University of Melbourne

I was disappointed this week to see that the University of Melbourne, one of Australia’s (and indeed the world’s) most highly-esteemed universities, was promoting the ideas of David Hornsby on the important subject of how we teach children to read. If you haven’t already done so, you can listen to the interview I am referring to (it takes about 25 minutes) here

I have some familiarity with David’s work, having read publications such as this one and have no doubt about the depth of his commitment to supporting teachers and improving children’s progress in learning to read. It is unfortunate, however, that his key ideas about the role of phonics instruction remain uninformed by the last 20 years of cognitive science research on how best to get all children across the bridge to successful reading, writing, and spelling, in the first three years of school. Instead, David’s ideas are pretty Whole Language unicorns that persist in the imaginations of those who believe that “authentic children’s literature” is the key driver of successful reading. This does not align at all with the recommendations of three national inquiries into the teaching of reading, in the US, the UK, and Australia all of which recommended an explicit focus on systematic phonics instruction as the starting point for novice readers - alongside development of all of the other skills essential for successful reading. 

I did not find myself in complete disagreement with David, however, as I listened to this podcast. 

Here are the points on which David and I agree:

1.      Teachers are not nearly knowledgeable enough about the structure of language. In order to be able to teach the written code, teachers need to be able to understand that English is a morpho-phonemic language, and the full implications of what this means for how written and spoken language map to each other. I have blogged previously about concepts that teachers need to understand in order to be able to do their jobs properly, about the fact that they currently lack this knowledge, and the fact that responsibility for this sits with education academics who have shown a disgraceful disregard for the reading science, and the importance of ensuring this is transmitted to classroom teachers. 

I note that A/Prof Misty Adoniou has also written about low teacher knowledge stating that “All the participants in this study had patchy content knowledge of the English language, and very little knowledge of how to apply what content knowledge they had, although they were convinced this kind of knowledge was important”. So we seem to be in agreement, David, Misty, and me, that teachers are being sold short by their pre-service education. Where you choose to direct your rage about this is up to you, but I would start with the damage done to young children, particularly those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and need the turbo-charging impact of highly effective teaching by highly knowledgeable teachers in the first three years of school. You might also want to consider the indignation of teachers who are paying thousands of dollars for courses that do not deliver the goods they thought they were buying – competence to go into a classroom and teach children how to read. 

2.      Low teacher knowledge means that teachers jump around from one seemingly attractive quick-fix commercial product to another. There’s an awful lot that goes on in schools that either lacks an evidence base, or for which the published evidence indicates a lack of efficacy. My colleague Dr Caroline Bowen AO and I have written about this here. This damages the professionalism and accountability of teachers, and yes, sorry, teachers, do need to be accountable for their decisions and practices, though the extent to which this plays out in practice is questionable. When was the last time a teacher was held to account by a registration body for failing to apply evidence-based approaches in their practice? 

3.      Programs don’t teach children how to read, teachers do. This is a point that is often made by Dr Louisa Moats, and speaks to some of the points made above about the importance of strong teacher knowledge. I understand though, why many teachers seek the security of a program, because it instils some confidence, given the weak knowledge base conferred by their pre-service education. Can you see a vicious cycle here?

These are the points on which I disagree with David:

1.      He makes a blanket declaration that “Programs don’t work”. That’s about as silly as saying “antibiotics don’t work”. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. It depends on a range of factors. My experience in working with teachers in schools is that programs often create the platform on which teachers go on to extend their knowledge and develop their practice. Programs definitely work better in the context of high teacher knowledge (in which case, perversely, there is less need for them) and when they are administered with fidelity.  When teachers deliver their own version of Program X and see only mediocre results in return, it is highly problematic that they then report “Program X does not work”. If we’re going to deliver programs, let’s first:
a.      Check their alignment with the current evidence on how best to teach reading
b.      Ensure that teachers receive appropriate training and ongoing coaching support so the program is delivered as intended, i.e. with fidelity. 

2.      David appeals to the romantic notion that all that is needed to get children interested in reading, is exposure to “authentic texts” (this is, in itself a problematic term as it implies a non-existent binary distinction, but I won’t get distracted about that here). Again, I have blogged previously about the “authentic illusion” in teaching children how to read. The logical fallacy that is occurring here is the conflation of books we read to children, with books we use to teach children to read. We want to expose children to a wide range of rich texts, to
a.      Help them understand the power and “magic” of books
b.      Extend their receptive and expressive vocabularies
c.      Expose them to increasingly complex sentences (and the increasingly complex ideas they represent)
d.      Help them understand narrative structure (and later, the structure of other discourse genres).


My three and a half year old grandson can be seen here "reading" to his two-month old sister. Yes, it warms my heart, at so many levels to look at images such as this. But no-one in my family is under any illusion that any actual reading instruction is taking place here. My grandchildren are engaged in precursors to becoming successful readers, but my daughter and son-in-law should be able to rely on their children's teachers to do the actual business of teaching them how to read. Schools should not rely on parents to be the critical link here. Some are able in this respect and some are not. Let's meet the needs of all children who enter foundation-year classrooms, not just the more advantaged ones. 

Immersing children in text does not teach them how to read, any more than playing hours and hours of Mozart concertos turns them into pianists or violinists who can play Mozart. Instead, the hours and hours need to be invested into learning and practising sub-skills.  Listening to music may be motivating and enjoyable, but it won't in and of itself teach the complex skill of playing music. Why do we "get" this in relation to music, but not in relation to reading?

Further, the incidental embedding of phonics instruction into the process of reading beautiful literature to children is inefficient (see Stephen Parker's free books on phonics instruction for further expansion on this) and fails to systematically address the knowledge of phoneme-grapheme correspondences that children need to learn in an efficient manner in the early stages of reading, in order to use their knowledge of the code to access more and more complex texts and their meanings. Sure, some children will be fine with the incidental approach, but we should not be focussing our teaching methods on those more advantaged children who will get across the bridge almost irrespective of the reading instruction they experience. 

A strong Tier 1 is the best insurance against the creation of instructional casualties, but is often not in place.

Ironically, in order to teach in accordance with the recommendations of the three international inquires referenced above, teachers need to be more knowledgeable about language, in exactly the way that David Hornsby and Misty Adoniou are advocating. 

3.      David relies on the (almost comically) flawed definition of decoding in the Australian Curriculum*:

A process of working out a meaning of words in a text. In decoding, readers draw on contextual, vocabulary, grammatical and phonic knowledge. Readers who decode effectively combine these forms of knowledge fluently and automatically, and self-correct using meaning to recognise when they make an error.

This may as well just be a definition of reading, as it fails to focus on the specific and essential sub-skill of mapping phonemes onto graphemes in order to first make sense of the black lines that we call letters on the page.

So – just because a definition has found its way into the Australian Curriculum, does not mean that it aligns with the science of reading. Anyone who is familiar with the Simple View of Reading, or with the Hollis Scarborough Reading Rope, will know how far short this definition falls of the skills beginning readers need to be taught in order to achieve decoding mastery. For my money, a child who can read aloud an isolated written word has decoded that word. Meaning comes next – the word is either in the child’s lexicon or needs to be added as a new word as a consequence of the oral language value-add of being able to read.

4.      David dials up the hoary old wind/wind chestnut to argue that “phonics alone isn’t enough”. Well, first of all, I am yet to meet anyone who claims that “phonics alone is enough”. 

       The debate as I see it, as around the role and type of initial instruction to get novices off the blocks as successful readers. Anyone familiar with the terrific Five from Five Project will know that no-one on the systematic phonics instruction side of the debate overlooks the importance of vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension – as well as inferencing and using contextual cues. The latter, however, should augment word identification rather than being the primary strategy relied upon by a novice who encounters an unfamiliar word.

My question for David, then is how does a child even get to the dilemma of wind Vs wind without first using phonics-based decoding skills?

5.      Finally, David makes the bizarre claim that systematic phonics instruction involves the teaching of nonsense words. Sigh. We don’t seem to be able to put this silly idea to bed. Firstly, the distinction between real words and non-words is dimensional rather than categorical. Just have a look at J.R. Tolkein, Lewis Carroll, J. K. Rowling, Dr Seuss, to name a few, if you don’t believe me. I am not aware of any evidence that says that novice readers approach unfamiliar words with a real-word – non-word filter.
Consider too, the ever-evolving nature of spoken and written language and the constant addition of what were once non-words, to the real-words lexicon. You can find examples of recent additions to English here. How can anyone (child or adult) read these new words if they are unable to decode in the truly get-the-word-off-the-page sense of decoding?

Think about this for a moment – every word is potentially a non-word to a novice, because their orthographic lexicon is still under construction. I have seen teachers “play” with non-words in Phonological Awareness activities and am completely comfortable with that – the children were experiencing rhyme and enjoyed talking about the meaning of the words. Consider this example: the teacher is using the words “wig, pig, and big” in a rhyming exercise and then introduces “rig” asking the class if it is a real word or a non-word. Chances are a lot of five-year olds will say it’s a non-word. What a great opportunity to wrap some vocabulary work into the Phonological Awareness activity. 

So can we be very clear about this please – non-words are extremely useful as a light-touch screening tool to determine the extent to which children are mastering essential phoneme-grapheme correspondences, so that they can decode in line with the scientific definition of decoding, not the politically sanitised version that is pleasing to Whole Language unicorns. 

I hope going forward that our esteemed educational institutions will apply careful quality and evidence-alignment filters over ideas they promote to teachers, who, more than anyone else, must be thoroughly tired of the contentious nature of something that they need to be able to do everyday - and across all year levels. 

In the last fifty years, we have put men on the moon, eradicated a number of terrifying childhood illnesses, and made major advances in engineering, aviation, construction, and manufacturing.  

But thanks to a massive knowledge-translation failure,  we cannot be relied upon to teach children how to read.  

*Postscript: I am pleased to advise that Australian Curriculum website definition of decoding has been updated since this blogpost was published, and now reads as follows:

A process of efficient word recognition in which readers use knowledge of the relationship between letters and sounds to work out how to say and read written words.

(C) Pamela Snow (2019)