Tuesday, 4 April 2023

Calling time on parent-blame and children’s reading success.


                                                                                                                                        Image source

There’s no shortage of odd, confusing, infuriating, ill-founded and contentious claims in education, and in the wider social chattersphere that sits around it, but surely there’s one that we can put to bed for good and for all: the idea that it is the job of parents to teach their children how to read – and by extension, that parents are to blame when children struggle in this endeavour.

There are many reasons why this cosy, middle-class-meme-cum-system-level-excuse-for-schools needs to be exploded and I’ll address as many as I can here.

First of all though, I think we can agree that reading is a fundamentally important life-skill and one that is best fostered in the early years of school. Reading is the means by which students engage with the academic curriculum and have the opportunity to succeed at school. The downstream benefits of successful early reading achievement yield the kinds of investment returns we can only dream of for our financial portfolios. When students become proficient readers in a timely and smooth way, they are more likely to succeed academically. When students achieve academically, they are more likely to display prosocial, on-task behaviour in classrooms. When students display prosocial, on-task classroom behaviours, they are more likely to feel a sense of attachment to school, to stay at school, and to exit secondary school with open doors to postsecondary training, education and/or employment. When schools have early reading instruction nailed, they are also going a long way to addressing student wellbeing. It’s hard to be self-regulated, calm, and ready-to-learn if you are locked out of the writing system by which learning is transacted in classrooms (see references at the end of this post).

Whole Language (WL) and its descendent ideology, Balanced Literacy (BL) are based on ideas about reading and reading instruction that have not withstood rigorous scrutiny over the last three decades. This scrutiny includes cognitive psychology research as well as system-level data about reading performance. Key among the premises of WL/BL instruction is the notion that reading, like oral language, is a “natural” thing to do. The problem here is that this is patently incorrect. If reading was “natural”, we would not have hundreds of thousands of illiterate or semi-literate adults in the world (who, incidentally, in most cases, have been to school).

The work of US evolutionary psychologist David Geary has been pivotal in illuminating the important distinction between human knowledge and skills that are biologically primary and those that are biologically secondary. Biologically primary skills include acquiring oral language, learning to walk, learning to read facial expressions, and displaying reciprocity in social interactions. Biologically secondary skills, on the other hand, are skills that we humans have the capacity to learn but need to be taught. Here we are looking at reading, writing and spelling, mastering mathematical concepts such as algebra and trigonometry, learning musical instruments, and becoming proficient in activities such as chess, golf, and driving a car. Many biologically secondary skills are developed through classroom instruction at school (though the pedagogical approach adopted will unfortunately result in variable outcomes).  

WL/BL proponents did not consider the fact that humans have had oral language for a couple of hundred thousand years, thanks to advantageous evolutionary changes in our brains, but writing systems for only approximately five thousand years. They did not reflect on the fact that writing is a social, albeit clever contrivance, developed by humans to share information horizontally with each other, and vertically, with future generations. To do this, humans had to create a code to represent oral language, and speakers of different languages did this over thousands of years by developing an orthography for their particular language. English, for historical reasons, has one of the more complex alphabetic writing codes in the world. Unfortunately, the lack of sophistication inherent in WL/BL thinking meant that this was taken to mean that English writing is too “cumbersome and unreliable” to teach explicitly. But conveniently, that didn't matter, because they decided to call reading, writing, and spelling “natural skills” that children could pick up via rich exposure and skills in “prediction” in their environments. Problem solved. Or not.

This smoke-and-mirrors sleight of epistemological hand resulted in a staggering dumbing down of the reading and writing process by faculties of education in English-speaking worlds because they now (apparently) did not need to devote preservice hours to explaining the intricacies of the English writing system to teachers, let alone to equipping them with instructional practices that would maximise mastery by the overwhelming majority of students, regardless of their preschool oral language experiences. Conveniently, this meant that academics did not have to have background-knowledge in linguistics or cognitive psychology. “Reading” (a verb) was replaced by the abstract noun “literacy” and was re-imagined as a vague social and cultural process that students experience through immersion in rich, so-called “authentic” texts. Just as children develop oral language through interactions with others, a misguided folklore took hold in education that this is how they can and should become readers.

This folklore did a number of clever things for academics in schools of education:

·       It meant that education academics could indulge their own love of children’s literature and build entire subjects (units or courses, depending on terminology) around this and pretend that this was legitimate preparation for classroom practice with children who are in many cases complete novices with written text.

·       It justified education academics’ withholding of critical knowledge from preservice teachers about how the English writing system works. I have described this knowledge being like teachers’ family china. It was removed, piece-by-precious-piece, and replaced with what looked like more modern, but plastic wares that do not stand the test of time.

·       It conflated books that children read as novices with books that adults read to children. Where books were considered to have an instructional role, these were predictable and promoted reliance on cues outside the text such as pictures, because there was (apparently) really no difference between oral language and reading. This means that an illusion of early reading could be created cleverly and quickly in the first year of school, by having children draw on their oral language skills and basic vocabulary knowledge to recite predictable texts. This is very different from the usually slow and effortful grinding of cognitive and linguistic gears that occurs when children are mastering an unfamiliar skill-set through explicit teaching of how the code works, e.g., through systematic synthetic phonics instruction. It is initially slow, faltering, and hesitant, in the same way that a novice learning a musical instrument is slow, faltering, and hesitant, or anyone mastering any complex, biologically secondary skill through practice and repetition is slow, faltering, and hesitant.

·       Perhaps most perniciously, it meant that parents could be positioned as the primary agents of reading instruction, so that when children did not successfully become readers after three years of formal schooling, responsibility could be laid squarely at the feet of parents and the impugned quality of the home language and literacy environment. Teachers, schools, education systems, policy makers and education academics could all look the other way. Shame on those parents who obviously did not read to their children from the moment of birth. What did they expect? That schools would somehow turn around their neglectful parenting practices? This gaslighting of parents has unfortunately been supported by some high-profile children’s authors.

So, what IS the role of parents in their children’s early reading success?

What all policy-makers, educators, and clinicians would ideally like to see, is children being raised in language and text-rich home environments, supported by high-quality preschool and childcare experiences. We have known for a long time, however, that there is a social gradient on which families sit with respect to the extent to which they can support children’s early oral language development. This is not a free pass for schools to shrug their shoulders, however. On the contrary, it is a reminder that oral language itself requires a focus in early years classrooms.

The role of parents in reading instruction is, all other factors being equal and within their capacities:

·       To engage in language rich interactions, elaborating on children’s utterances, teaching new vocabulary, and the meanings of common idioms.

·       To model reading as a valued, worthwhile activity in their own lives.

·       To read to their children (ideally even after they can read for themselves).

·       To provide access to quality children’s books (in the home and via library visits).

·       To listen to their children reading instructional texts they bring home from school, providing feedback and encouragement. Parents reading to their children should not be mistaken for the process by which children learn to read, any more than parents playing classical music to their children should be conflated with teaching them how to play a musical instrument. Reading to children should be enjoyable for parents and children and can promote oral language skills and background knowledge. These contribute to the language reservoir that children will draw on at school when the serious business of learning how speech and print map to each other should be one of several early instructional focus areas. 

          Where parents can provide some or all of the above, this is a bonus and should be encouraged, but should not be relied upon as a principal means by which reading success will be chalked up by schools.

Sadly, given the continued stronghold of BL instruction in most English-speaking countries, it is also advisable for parents to critically interrogate reading instruction approaches being employed in their children’s classrooms.

Parents sometimes unwittingly conceal the real ways that their children achieve success and in so-doing enable schools and systems to cruise, falsely reassured that their BL diet is producing healthy outcomes. In many cases in fact, these are coming from supplements provided by parents, directly at the kitchen table, or indirectly via investment in tutors. If credit is taken by schools for reading success, then responsibility must also be taken for casualties.  This requires an honest look at what is going on in the school community and the extent to which parents are ironically, propping up reading success rather than being the scoundrels who neglect this aspect of their child’s development.

Let’s not overlook too, the aspect of teacher well-being and professionalism that resides in the knowledge that they are competent and accountable professionals with respect to this critical aspect of their everyday work. In a time of severe workforce shortages, teacher self-efficacy regarding children's reading success is surely a win we can all celebrate.

When a child is struggling with early reading, questions do need to be asked and answered.

The wrong question is the one directed at parents and is some version of “Do/did you read to her at home?”

The right question for teachers and schools to ask is “Why is this child not progressing and how can we adjust our instruction to address this”?

Effective reading instruction by teachers in the first three years of school is like planting a tree that their students will sit under as adults. Teachers themselves may not see the enormity of the leafy canopy their efforts have fostered, but we can count the costs of early reading instruction casualties by tallying up justice, mental health, substance abuse, public housing, and other social services for adults with low literacy skills.

Further reading (all open access)

Snow, P. (2020). Balanced literacy or systematic reading instruction? Perspectives on Language and Literacy, Winter, 35-39.

Snow, P. (2020). SOLAR: The Science of Language and Reading. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 37(3), 222–233.

Snow, P.C. (2016). Elizabeth Usher Memorial Lecture: Language is literacy is language. Positioning Speech Language Pathology in education policy, practice, paradigms, and polemics. International Journal of Speech Language Pathology, 18(3), 216-228.

Dear Parents: Welcome to the Confusing World of Reading Instruction


Pamela Snow © 2023