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.
*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)