Wednesday, 11 January 2023

Guest Post: Getting Reading Right. On Truths, Truce, and Trust

Every so often I have the pleasure of giving voice to reading practitioners via The Snow Report. This time, it is US reading specialist Harriet Janetos.

For the past twelve years, Harriett has been working as a reading specialist in an elementary school in Hayward, California. Over 35 years in education, she has taught every grade level K-12: Play-Doh to Plato. She is working on a teacher's guide to reading instruction: From Sound to Summary: Braiding the Reading Rope to Make Words Make Sense.We look forward to this publication, but in the meantime, Harriet is sharing some reflections on recent debates and discourses following the release of Emily Hanford's Sold a Story podcast, in late 2022.

The dust-up from Sold a Story has been swift and sweeping: education professors roiled; parents and teachers rallying to its defense. Over six episodes of this audio documentary, Emily Hanford has systematically peeled away the layers to show how we got reading instruction so wrong for so long. But a few layers remain, those that contextualize the messages sent by the science of reading movement, as well as those showing how reading specialists like me make daily decisions informed by those messages. In examining these layers, I have three goals: to offer some reading truths; to explain why the reading wars truce implicit in "A call for rejecting the newest reading wars" is ingenuous; and to propose solutions for seeking trust in expert advice in order to get reading right. 

Truths: Word recognition and language comprehension – both are necessary, neither alone are sufficient

We must teach both the upper and lower strands of Scarborough's Reading Rope: five strands in language comprehension and three in word recognition. No phonics advocate has ever claimed exclusivity; hence, the ongoing efforts by proponents to address this straw man argument bandied about by phonics foes. 

Some more truths:

  • There is no comprehension strategy powerful enough to compensate for the fact that you can’t read the words. --Anita Archer

  • If I’m always providing kids with the appropriate background knowledge to understand each text used for instruction, then how do students ever learn to take on a text on their own? --Timothy Shanahan

  • The components are not independent: background knowledge affects reading which depends on word recognition which affects which background knowledge is relevant which depends, in part, on reading varied texts for varied purposes. Basic skills and background knowledge cannot be disentangled from each other–they are intrinsically intertwined and therefore must both be the focus of instruction. --Mark Seidenberg

Sold a Story delivers another powerful truth related to word recognition: The three-cueing system that has been promoted through Balanced Literacy over the past two decades is not what good readers use to read. In fact, that system describes what poor readers do. Accepting this truth should be non-negotiable and has implications for instruction--my instruction. As a reading specialist faced with administering flawed assessments based on three-cueing that masked whether my beginning readers could decode, I rewrote those predictable test booklets to make them decodable, thereby obtaining meaningful data. So reference to a “fabricated phonics debate” in the open letter “rejecting the newest reading wars” simply adds insult to injury.

Truce: The attempt to resolve the reading wars through ‘balanced literacy’ has failed 

That letter from 58 professors, authors, and curriculum developers expresses a desire for a reset in the reading wars. The contention is that phonics is in fact covered within a balanced system, but those of us who have worked in a Balanced Literacy district using Balanced Literacy materials know that while phonics might be a feature, it is seldom taught systematically as a dedicated part of reading instruction. Instead, it is covered randomly, which is why critics refer to it as ‘incidental phonics’.

Balanced Literacy advocates often cite the ostensible failure of the phonics-filled Reading First program following the National Reading Panel Report from 2000 but neglect an important truth: You cannot declare defeat unless a program is actually used, preferably to fidelity. The decodable books that I currently send home for my intervention students to read are 20 years old, purchased as part of Reading First--and yet still in mint condition

Trust: Knowing which reading experts to follow         

For me, trust comes from gleaning where experts intersect with each other and how their recommendations in turn intersect with my classroom experience. I was fortunate to have stumbled upon the science of reading nearly two decades ago through the books by cognitive psychologist Diane McGuinness. She was right, for example, that the notion of an 'r-controlled vowel' is a phonics fabrication, as made-up as three-cueing because the vowels in 'for,' 'far,' and 'fir' are not uniformly ‘controlled’. But she was wrong about dyslexia, so I've looked to Nadine Gaab for guidance in that area. Similarly, Timothy ShanahanMark Seidenberg, and Daniel Willingham have helped me contextualize the oft-cited baseball study and have illuminated both the promise and limitations of promoting the background knowledge that Natalie Wexler ardently advocates.

Ideally, we would have knowledgeable district leaders vetting practices and programs for time-strapped teachers who are changing the tire while driving the car. But this is not commonplace, so diligent journalists have filled the void. Emily Hanford has investigated a truth that is part of settled science: how readers do not use multiple cueing systems for word identification (though they do use them for word confirmation). Over four years, she has brought us tidings of comfort and joy. We should gratefully take comfort in the fruits of her labor and in another truth as well: knowing that the joy of teaching and learning comes through the “thrill of skill”, as Anita Archer reminds us, which is essential if teachers want to get reading right.

Picture this joyful scene: children beaming with pride as they crack the alphabetic code. It’s the delivery of the lesson that can and must be joyful--not the dilution, misdirection, or downright deceit conjured up through good intentions that have led to bad outcomes. Ignorance is not bliss; it hurts children.

We need the truth. No more making it up. No more stories.


(C) 2023 Harriett Janetos

Reading Specialist