Wednesday 28 July 2021

Reading instruction in the early years: A school leader’s sliding doors moment


Sue Knight, BA (Hons), BEd (Deakin).

Principal CLPS

Industry Partner, SOLAR Lab, La Trobe University


                                                                                                                                  Image source

I started on my science of reading journey more than six years ago. There is often an "ah ha" moment that teachers and leaders can recall in terms of their discovery of the world of research that exists outside schools. I had been frustrated by the fact I couldn’t get all children to read.

No matter how hard we worked, how much reading aloud students did, how many reading volunteers we had at school, how many celebrations of nights of home reading there were, how we tried to demystify the code while reading big books, or how many reading comprehension strategies we taught, there were still at least 25% of students leaving my classroom or school unable to manage the reading demands of Year 7.

Like so many schools, our main approach was engagement, reading stamina and ‘loving students to literacy’. If you asked us ‘how do children learn to read?’ we would have said ‘by being read to, surrounded by books, and by loving reading’.

There are two pivotal moments that started my journey.

The first was the day I stopped and REALLY thought about what we were doing. I stood in my school and looked in one direction and there was a Reading Recovery lesson happening in one room and I looked in the other direction and there was a MultiLit Reading Tutor session happening in another classroom. I knew these approaches were completely different, but I was trying everything to improve our reading results. I also knew intervention wasn’t the answer, as we had to get our classroom instruction right.

The second was the day the mother of a struggling reader, who knew her child couldn’t decode, asked me for a list of the sounds and the letter combinations that her child needed to know so she could just teach her. The message that came out of my mouth was along the lines of “Well reading is about meaning so that is what we focus on, and we want our children to use what would make sense to work out what words are, not just letters”. At the same time my brain was saying “Why don’t we just do that?”

I knew I didn’t actually have enough knowledge to get reading right in my school. So, I decided to fix that. I went into my office and googled “reading research” and I couldn’t believe what was out there.

My search led me to the three major panel reports, from the US, UK and Australia. I read them. While they are now 20 years old, at that time they were a solid starting point for anyone interested in the research into reading. There were many mixed feelingsshock that this information was out there but not in my hands given I had an education degree, devastation at the number of children who had moved through my classroom or school and I could have been doing so much more for them, and frustration that we were wasting precious time, as we were easily swayed to try different programs or approaches without the knowledge needed to understand their efficacy.

Fairly soon after this I moved schools. I knew I had to be at a school for a while to undertake this change and to build something. I wasn’t even sure at that stage what it was I wanted to build, I just knew it was going to be based on the research and experts I was discovering. I was incredibly lucky at my next school, the graduate in the F[1]/1 classroom had only been teaching for six months. When I said that I wanted to try some things that were different to how most schools I knew had been teaching reading she jumped at the opportunity.

Our situation at that school was different to what often happens. Usually Tier 1 instruction is “Balanced Literacy” and students who don’t learn to read go out for Tier 2 intervention that is often more aligned with the science of reading. I see this often. But we still had Reading Recovery in place. So, when we changed the classroom practice in the F/1 room we had Tier 1 aligned with the science of reading, but the intervention was not. The school community was very attached to Reading Recovery and this juxtaposition, which is common in the first stage of moving from Balanced Literacy to a more structured approach, taught me a lot about change management.

Change doesn’t happen across a school in one sweeping motion. But starting at F/1 is key. Get that right and the momentum flows through the school. There are many grating moments during fundamental change, as new approaches conflict with the old, as well as occasional heightened emotions. Listening, keeping calm and positive, and maintaining a laser focus on what is best for students got me through those challenging times. The same approaches still do.

We implemented a systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) program (budgets were tight, so it had to be free), moved from levelled readers to decodables, ditched the sight words, read all we could about reading research, learnt what phonemic awareness was, skilled up our parents, wound up Reading Recovery, moved to the MultiLit suite of interventions for our Tier 2 support…and the results happened.

It was extraordinary.

I talked about this out of school, asked questions and joined online groups, but it did often feel lonely professionally. Not many others seemed to feel the burning moral outrage I felt, that in a country as privileged as Australia and in a state that was booming like Victoria, how could it be acceptable for children to leave primary school not able to read well? Isn’t this our core business as a primary school?

I travelled to Bendigo to the Community of Practice that Professor Pam Snow started and sat with others interested in reading research and evidence informed practices. Ironically, the educators in the room where significantly outnumbered by speech-language pathologists (SLPs). That’s when I learnt how much value a SLP can be to a school and how much they know about reading development. Given reading is a sound to print process, of course that makes sense. Sounds are their area of expertise, as are vocabulary, sentence structure and other aspects of language.

Finding others in Ballarat as passionate as I was resulted in the formation of Read Ballarat. Our group now provides a professional learning or sharing session each term free of charge. We operate on goodwill at the moment, with experts happy to share their knowledge. Presenters have included Professor Pam Snow, Alison Clarke, Sarah Asome, Emina McLean and Joycelyn Seamer as well as local teachers sharing their implementation of evidence-informed practices in their classrooms.

Once the basics were in place in our school in terms of alignment with the science of reading, we then started to look at best practice. We should all aspire to the very best professional learning, so two teachers were booked in for Multi-Sensory Structured Language (MSL) training at Bentleigh West PS. Following the trailblazers and learning from those who have gone before you, is again something that works. Teachers gave up a week of their school holidays for five days of PD. That was mid-2019. Just before they left to do the training, I moved schools again.

This time I had the knowledge. I knew how to improve reading results. I understood the reading research, although never as an expert, always as a learner myself. I knew about the Big Six and that they needed to be explicitly implemented. I knew about the Simple View of Reading and the Simple View of Writing and The Reading Rope. This time, it was about change management on a larger scale. My challenge was how to bring a team of teachers with me.

While MSL is regarded as gold standard, it is expensive (the cost of the program and CRT coverage) and five days of PD for a teacher is a huge time commitment. I also knew to get widespread buy-in, teachers needed to train together and get the same message at the same time. Free SSP programs need a committed teacher already on board to implement them with fidelity.

A group of schools in southern Victoria was getting really strong results with a commercial phonics program. I spoke to one of the principals involved and with a small group of other educators met the trainer. The two Foundation teachers trained first. They had no idea what they were going to, just that their principal had offered them some PD. Their reactions when they returned are another pivotal moment for me. One walked up the corridor with her hands on her hips, angry that she didn’t know all about this before now. The other was teary. Those responses are really common as teachers find the knowledge empowering once they learn it.

We can skim over the top of this but when you stop and think about it, what we do in our literacy block in primary school impacts a child for the rest of their life. Being literate or not impacts children for the rest of their life. Our literacy blocks are the key to literacy and life outcomes for our children. We need to ask ourselves the question “What do we need to do in our classrooms to give these children the very best chance of getting across the bridge to literacy?” It’s about them. Not us.

In terms of change management, it is a go-slow approach to get buy in. But it’s a relentless moving forward. Dropping nuggets when staff are ready and pointing them in a direction when they ask questions.

The literacy leader and I went to hear Dr. David Kilpatrick on his speaking tour. I had a phonological awareness program ready in my office, but staff weren’t quite ready yet. Although separate sound-only programs are now a hot topic of discussion, we are using one. There is a saying I heard somewhere – “strong beliefs, loosely held”. We have to believe in something strongly so it drives us to action but not hold it so tightly that we can’t let new research or knowledge in and therefore change our actions. So, we will let that program go when and if needed. At the moment I am reading and listening to the arguments on both sides. Within the science of reading community there are differing opinions. Research doesn’t yet have all the answers. But it provides us with a pathway.

Our Literacy Leader and I did systematic synthetic phonics training in the 2019/2020 summer school holidays. Then we hosted training at our school so that all F-6 teachers learnt to teach children about how the code of their language works. We purchased decodable texts, moved away from lists of sight words, learnt about explicit teaching of vocabulary, what impacts fluency, how to develop and monitor it, and the importance of background knowledge in reading comprehension. We completely changed our assessment schedule.

This is hard for teachers. It is hard to let go of things that you believed with all your heart would teach children to read. Many students become literate with a Balanced Literacy approach. Those who are from highly literate homes, with background knowledge and who are read to, will often learn to read no matter what. My own four children did. We also know children who arrive at school already reading. If something doesn’t work at all it is simple to let it go. But when it works for some children, it is harder. This is about not accepting as teachers that some children will fall by the wayside in primary school. It is about not accepting that some children are just “not good readers”. What children need is for us to teach them. This is our moral responsibility.

Last year we completed some amazing PD online, for example The La Trobe University SOLAR Lab Introduction to the Science of Reading online short course and The Writing Revolution online PD from the US, the latter at 7 o’clock in the morning over several weeks. The explosion of podcasts and webinars was extraordinary.  One Saturday morning I had the joy of seeing one of my teacher’s names pop up as she typed a question in during a presentation by Nancy Young on the Ladder of Reading, who was presenting on a Friday afternoon from the east coast of the US.

Teachers text me photos of books on the science of reading and ask if I have them. They call into my office to borrow them. Sometimes they order their own. Being a leader is about being a co-learner as I certainly don’t have all the answers. But my job is to think ahead and have a course mapped out and a relentless focus on evidence and research. When you start to see how explicit teaching of reading works, you become interested in this approach across the curriculum.

We had a short presentation from Dr. Lorraine Hammond on direct instruction. Again, we are looking towards the experts. Some staff are ready to move that way, others not yet. It might be 2022. We are currently completing Lyn Stone’s Language Arts online course together which is 18 hours of professional learning with allocated meeting time for reflection and discussion. Our literacy leader and I are part-way through LETRS training (Language Essentials of Reading and Spelling), the course developed by Dr. Louisa Moats and Dr. Carole Tolman via SPELD WA. Our tutoring program is fully aligned with the science of reading.

Our children are being explicitly taught how their spoken and written language works. What a great thing to give them. They are learning to hear and manipulate sounds and what graphemes represent each phoneme. When they write, they are representing every sound in words. We also did PD in explicitly teaching handwriting as we want children to have this as an automatic skill, so their cognition is freed up for ideas.

We are explicitly teaching Tier 2 vocabulary words every week. We have begun to implement a Reading Spine, a list of high-quality books that children will have read to them over their time at primary school. We have started to explicitly teach content, so children have knowledge to think with. We are learning all the time and our instruction will get better as our knowledge increases.

The research to classroom gap is real and a huge challenge. Sometimes there aren’t clear answers to questions teachers have but what I do know is that with a deep understanding of how reading develops, teachers can nuance and respond to their individual students rather than feeling helpless and looking to justify poor literacy as a result of factors outside school. Teachers feel empowered with this increased knowledge. From everything I have read, listened to, watched and learnt, there is increasing agreement about the teaching practices that have the biggest impact in ensuring a child becomes literate. But this knowledge is not in the hands of every classroom teacher.

Measuring the impact of these changes does take time. At my previous school, it wasn’t really until the Foundation students who had structured literacy right from the start of school did NAPLAN (the National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy) in Year 3, that we felt we had hard data. Sustained impact on results is distinct from movement up and down based on the strength of cohorts. So that measurement is yet to come. But we are on the journey together and our students will reap the benefits. 

And it still feels extraordinary.

[1] Foundation is the first year of school in Victoria (formerly called “Prep” or Preparatory. It corresponds to Reception in South Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland; pre-primary in Western Australia; Prep in Tasmania, and Kindergarten in the Australian Capital Territory. 


(C) Sue Knight; Pamela Snow (2021)



Sunday 18 July 2021

Masking up in a pandemic and decodable texts for beginning readers: What’s the link?



As the world continues, 18 months on, to battle its way through the enormous challenges thrown up by COVID-19, we’ve all had to come to grips with the uncomfortable reality that our talented, knowledgeable and hard-working scientists don’t have an immediate, ready-made answer that also happens to be incontrovertibly right, for every question we ask

We have had an opportunity, however, to look at what happens, when different nations approach the same problem in different ways. And we’ve been able to observe in real time how these responses play out against contextual factors such as poverty, density of living conditions, population demographics, and the level of advancement in different health care systems. 

One of the most hotly contested aspects of the COVID-19 debate, from the earliest stages, was the merits, or otherwise of requiring people to wear masks in public. Professor Trisha Greenhalgh of the University of Oxford has been both a staunch advocate of masks as well as clear science communicator about why we have to act in the absence of “robust empirical evidence” that unequivocally supports their use. You can read a long, but clear thread about her reasoning and research at this link

In Tweet No. 11 of the above thread, Professor Greenhalgh states: The most fundamental error made in the West was to frame the debate around the wrong question (“do we have definitive evidence that masks work?”). We should have been debating “what should we do in a rapidly-escalating pandemic, given the empirical uncertainty?”. 

Professor Greenhalgh goes on to outline why, in this situation, turning to the gold-standard randomised controlled trial (RCT) is not the right response, which may seem like surprising advice from an esteemed public health professor at the University of Oxford. She explains (among other things) that well-controlled RCTs that rely on statistical significance, are likely to miss reductions in spread that make a real-world, practical difference. 

Tweets 25 and 26 in thread state

Take the number 1 and double it and keep going. 1 becomes 2, then 4, etc. After 10 doubles, you get 512. After 10 more doubles, you get 262144. Now instead of doubling, multiply by 1.9 instead of 2 (a tiny reduction in growth rate). After 20 cycles, the total is only 104127. 

=> if masks reduce transmission by a TINY bit (too tiny to be statistically significant in a short RCT), population benefits are still HUGE. UK Covid-19 rates are doubling every 9 days. If they increased by 1.9 every 9 days, after 180 days cases would be down by 60%. 

So – what does this analysis on mask-wearing have to do with reading instruction? 

Like many others dedicated to the imperative of better reading outcomes for all children, I understand that reading experts are often in the same boat as public health experts. We have to offer well-considered advice in the absence of all of the empirical evidence that we would like to have available. 

In both public health and reading research, the evidence may be unavailable because the relevant studies have not been done. In other cases, there are studies, but they are judged as insufficiently powered to provide what is regarded as a “definitive answer” (inasmuch as anything is ever “definitive" in scientific research). This does not mean that we are operating in a complete vacuum however, as there are some widely (no, not universally) agreed state-of-play maxims about the nature of the reading process and the skills that novices need to master to be off to a successful start. I have blogged previously about these on this site. 

Like our colleagues in public health, we also need to observe the maxim of “first do no harm”, to minimise the risk that those following our advice inadvertently worsen rather than improve the futures of children learning to read in their classrooms. Not issuing advice can in itself be a form of harm, however, as it tacitly condones a status quo that puts children’s outcomes on a static or downward trajectory. 

Failing to take an educated punt on the best available evidence creates the kind of change paralysis that sustains entrenched practices for which the evidence may be virtually non-existent e.g., the use of so-called Three Cueing (Multi-Cueing) and predictable (or leveled) texts, taught alongside banks of so-called “sight words” to be rote-learned by students. Those of us who are privileged to have strong literacy skills simply opting to live with uncertainty and throwing our hands up in the air with an “oh well” resignation, is not, in my view, an acceptable option when children’s lives are literally at stake. 

If we apply Professor Greenhalgh’s number doubling exercise outlined above, it’s not difficult to see how, by the end of three years of formal reading instruction, Western industrialised nations have created so many struggling readers. The learning support resources needed to successfully intervene for struggling readers are akin to the intensive care units and respirators needed to treat people unnecessarily infected with COVID-19. They are expensive and difficult to resource from a human labour-force perspective, and sadly, they do not always work. Like COVID-19, the burden of poor outcomes in classroom reading instruction is disproportionately borne by those who are already disadvantaged in some way. 

To paraphrase Professor Greenhalgh’s analysis of the effectiveness of masks, I would suggest we have been asking the wrong question in early reading instruction with respect to decodable texts* (Do we have definitive evidence that decodable texts “work”?) and should ask instead: What should we do in the context of widespread poor reading data in English-speaking countries, given the empirical uncertainty? 

In the absence of a clear, empirically-derived answer, I can think of no better evidence-and-practice-informed, classroom-friendly advice and guidance than that provided on The Reading Ape blog in what seems to be an undated post (reproduced with permission): 

Like masks, decodable texts are not a stand-alone “solution” to a population-level problem. Their impact is also difficult to study in isolation from other interventions (e.g., structured and explicit code teaching delivered by knowledgeable educators, using a clear scope and sequence). But if we were asked to place the available practices in a rank order, my Number One vote would be for explicit teaching of how the English writing system works (for both reading and spelling), accompanied by opportunities for practice to support early mastery of automatic decoding, via carefully selected decodable texts**. 

Of course, decodable texts do not represent the full range of morpho-phonemic, syntactic and semantic complexity of the English language. But why should they? We are talking about novices here. Texts of that sophistication are not those we ask 5-and 6-year-old children to read, in the same way that we do not ask beginning pianists at the outset to play pieces that contain all the notes in a chromatic scale (let alone all of the complex rhythmic patterns that exist in the complete musical repertoire).

The COVID-19 pandemic will no doubt teach us many things, including the importance of making weighty decisions in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity. Professor Greenhalgh backed masks from the outset, applying a mix of scientifically-derived principles and dare I even mention it, common sense.We need to do the same on the use of decodable texts, as part of an explicit approach to teaching the code. Using decodable texts in isolation from other rigorous practices would be like advocating mask use, but not reducing social mobility, rolling out vaccines, and encouraging physical distancing.

My prediction? History will view masks and decodable texts in similarly positive lights at a population level, and 2021 detractors and naysayers will be re-writing their positions to be on the right side of said history.

COVID-19 achieved pandemic status in early 2020, but low literacy levels have been endemic in English-speaking industrialised nations for decades. If we are waiting for the perfect RCT to illuminate the path, then we may as well pray for a vaccine against poor reading outcomes. Oh wait……we may already have one, albeit one with imperfect efficacy and a continued need for vigilance. I refer of course, to widespread application of practices we already have to hand, that promote (I did say not say guarantee) better outcomes at a population level and reduce the burden borne by those who are already socially and economically disadvantaged. 


Information about recommended sets of decodable readers can be obtained on the DSF website and also on Alison Clarke's Spelfabet website.


*A reader, Berys, has commented (below) that the term "controlled" text is preferable to "decodable" text and I agree with her on this and for the reasons she outlines: in theory, all texts are decodable, for those who know how the code works, but what we are really referring to here is texts that control the text complexity, in a graduated way, to ease novices into the process of reading connected text. Harriet points out below too, that we should be thinking about multiple criteria, not just decodability (e.g. word frequency and literary quality). Both are relevant and important points. Thanks Berys and Harriet! 🙂

** It should go without saying, but I will say it anyway: decodable texts should never be the only books that children are exposed to and once children have mastered the code to automaticity as judged by a knowledgeable teacher, their use can be discontinued. They may, however, be called upon in higher year levels to support struggling older readers. 

© Pamela Snow (2021)