It is difficult to think of an outcome from seven years in primary school that is more fundamental and more life-changing than emerging as a proficient reader, writer, and speller. This was broadcast in plain language earlier this week, with the publication of an open letter to all Australian ministers of Education, signed by 45 reading scientists and practitioners. The letter could well have had school leaders as the addressees, as responsibility for how reading is taught is (bizarrely) devolved to individual schools in many Australian jurisdictions, and elsewhere as well.
This post is for leaders in primary / elementary schools, whether principals, deputy principals (school administrators in North America) or literacy leads. It will not have escaped your notice that there is a growing discussion and debate about how reading should be taught in the early years of school and how ongoing literacy (reading, writing, and spelling) skills are developed across the school years to simultaneously ensure academic achievement and promote student wellbeing.
Every corner of academic achievement hinges on at least proficiency, if not strength in reading, writing, and spelling. In secondary school, learning across subjects as diverse as English, sciences, history, geography, and yes, even mathematics, assumes the ability to effortlessly derive meaning from increasingly complex texts, whether fiction or non-fiction. The ability to write in a range of genres across the curriculum is equally important, and equally challenging. These are skills that need to be taught by classroom teachers; they should not be by “caught”, hook or by crook by some lucky students and missed by more unfortunate others. This is not a trivial fairground game.
If you buy the line that “there is no such thing as the science of reading” then you also have to sign up for related flat-earth ideas: that there’s no such thing as science of perception; or a science of memory; or a science of cognition. I am sure no school leaders would fall for those. Scientific evidence in any field is imperfect and evolving. It might be tempting, in the face of what looks like so much debate about reading instruction, for leaders to conclude that “Well, the experts don’t agree on which approaches are best, so we school leaders can continue to make our own call on this”.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
As school leaders, you are responsible for ensuring
that approaches to preventing and managing anaphylaxis are based on the
best available evidence, even if physiologists and pharmacologists are engaged
in ongoing academic debates in the background about ways of further improving such
care. You do this by applying well-developed, evidence-based procedures
provided by sector leaders. As the evidence changes, the policies and
guidelines you are provided with will change. You are responsible for ensuring
that children in your school are kept safe from predatory adults, which means
ensuring that appropriate police checks are carried out on staff – even though
better approaches to doing so may be available in the future. You are
responsible for applying the law as it applies to all aspects of workplace
safety and ensuring that children and staff do not experience bullying
in your school. You do this by applying the best available policies and
frameworks provided by sector leaders. As the evidence changes, the policies and
guidelines you are provided with will change. I'm sure you can see the pattern here.
In all cases, the evidence will evolve over time, but you are expected to apply the highest standards as they apply today – not to do you own thing until every possible research question has been resolved.
In the case of anaphylaxis, child safety and bullying, the guidelines are tight because the consequences of failure are immediate, visible, and potentially catastrophic.
The same logic and rigour need to apply to reading instruction.
Many education jurisdictions devolve responsibility to individual schools to decide how reading is taught, but when we hold this up to the light, several fatal cracks become immediately visible.
When students exit primary school with reading, writing, and spelling skills around a mid-primary level, as is unfortunately not uncommon, we are setting them up for a slippery slope of academic failure, behavioural dysregulation, poor school attendance, early school disengagement, possible youth justice involvement, and other emotional disorders such as anxiety and depression. Their attitudes to school and learning are jaded at best, actively resentful at worst, and the adults in their world (teachers, school leaders, parents, and grandparents, allied health professionals, and tutors) despair of knowing how to find and afford the increasingly complex supports they end up needing.
Secondary schools then become de facto mental health-come-adolescent-life-skill services for many students, albeit inadequately resourced ones, and secondary teachers despair of being able to provide all students with opportunities to learn across the widest possible curriculum. Narrowed curriculum choices mean narrowed post-secondary training and education options, in the context of employment opportunities for unskilled workers diminishing, thanks to the march of artificial intelligence into roles that lend themselves to replacement by automation.
As primary / elementary school leaders, you do not necessarily see at first hand, the longterm consequences of ineffective reading instruction practices. You are protected from this by the slow burn of the widening academic gaps between students who have well-developed literacy skills and those who do not. Ask your secondary colleagues though, and you will hear about the cancerous impacts of poor reading and writing skills for a highly visible cohort of their incoming Year 7 students. Students do not go to secondary school to learn to read, write and spell, and nor are secondary settings equipped to teach these foundational skills. They are called primary or elementary skills as a clue to where they should be taught. Growing numbers of Australian primary school leaders are signing the Primary Reading Pledge as a signal to their communities that their students will exit Year 6 as proficient readers, writers, and spellers. It may strike some as odd that this even needs to be given a second thought, yet it does.
It is easy, but incorrect to believe that when students exit primary school without proficient reading, writing, and spelling skills that the reasons for this are located entirely within the child, or their family and should not give cause for reflection on the part of schools. Nothing could be further from the truth. Some students are unfortunately casualties of well-intended, but low-impact reading instruction approaches. It is the job of schools, not parents, to teach children how to read, and schools can do this successfully, even in disadvantaged communities, if they apply rigorous evidence in their approach to reading instruction.
By the same token, some primary schools “cruise” on the coat-tails of their post/zip codes, and do not extend their students’ abilities beyond what would be expected on the basis of family socio-economic status. Because there is a proportion of students who will succeed regardless of the instruction they receive, staff in such schools may mistakenly give themselves credit where it is not really due and be blinkered to the possibility that their students could be excelling, rather than just succeeding. This is a loss to our future human, social, and economic capital as a community.
Teachers and school leaders have been sold many stories about reading, including the idea that something called “Balanced Literacy” is the sensible mid-point between two polar extremes and provides an equilibrium of equally valid teaching approaches. Unfortunately, however, there is no research to support Balanced Literacy as a preferred initial reading instruction approach to ensure success for 95% plus of students. In fact, its corollary, Reading Recovery, has been discredited and New York’s Columbia University has recently dissolved its Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, a longstanding pillar of Whole Language / Balanced Literacy-based instruction.
Let’s be honest. Balanced Literacy is an approach to reading instruction that works best for the adults. It does not place demands on teacher knowledge about the nature of the English writing system. This makes life so much easier for universities. It allows reading instruction to be out-sourced to large publishing houses, via sets of levelled readers and tick-box monitoring tools. This makes life so much easier for literacy leads and classroom teachers (and is not bad for the bottom line of those global publishing houses either). It is associated with a narrow majority of students succeeding (at least at essential levels), while a significant proportion will struggle. Hmm, now things are starting to become awkward, but let’s just say that “some kids take longer”, or “we have to find books this child is passionate about”, or “boys take longer”, or “writing and spelling are not really 21st century skills anyway” any other number of uncomfortable mistruths that teachers and leaders have to fall back on when their approaches inevitably create a trail of casualties. A Victorian school principal wrote about this painful squirming in a guest post on this site in 2021.
Teaching reading explicitly and systematically requires significant shifts in teacher knowledge and classroom practice, over a three-to-five-year period. This requires staff to overcome some entrenched misconceptions and, in some cases, anxieties about gaps in their own knowledge and skills. These gaps were created by their initial teacher education and impose significant burdens and ultimately unease for teachers. Such anxieties are not easy to talk about, so it is understandable that teachers (and indeed leaders) will sometimes fall back on memes and catch-phrases like “phonics is already in the mix”; “phonics teaches children to bark at print” and “reading is all about meaning, so we can’t start with phonics”. All of these assertions topple when exposed to the slightest puff of research and practice evidence, and when they do, space is made for new conversations to take place. But don’t believe me. Talk to fellow leaders who have overseen such transformations in their schools and ask them what they have seen with respect to student data (academically and behaviourally), teacher feedback, and parent satisfaction. Look at the Canberra-Goulburn Catalyst Project, to see what happens when coordinated, sector wide change is led from the top. Further, I challenge you to find leadership colleagues who are strategically transforming practice in the other direction, away from structured explicit literacy teaching and towards Balanced Literacy. That’s just not a thing in 2023.
If your school is teaching reading in a way that is diametrically different from how a neighbouring school is doing so, then logic dictates that they cannot both be using “best practice” approaches. On what basis should we ask the community to tolerate high and often random variability in reading instruction and the inevitable unevenness in quality that ensues from this? The community is not asked to accept such high rates of variability on any other aspect of children’s wellbeing, such as their response to vaccinations or their safety in motor vehicles, but in reading instruction, high variability is somehow the accepted norm.
It would be one thing for us to lack good evidence about effective reading instruction. If that was the case, allowing schools to muddle through, as best they can, might be reasonable. Ironically though, we do know a great deal about the reading process and how best to teach it. A knowledge translation blockage has prevented best evidence from reaching the hands of school leaders and classroom teachers. This needs to be halted as a matter of priority.
For you as school leaders, it would be so much easier if the teaching of reading was “set and forget” but it is not. It is as complex and as high-stakes as prevention and management of anaphylaxis or ensuring child safety and should command the same levels of scientific rigour in schools. You are not asked to develop your own approaches to these aspects of your portfolio and nor should you be asked to “choose your own adventure” on reading instruction. I predict that in ten years time, it will be viewed as laughable that schools could once do their own thing with respect to reading instruction.
Part of being a leader is managing up as well as down. In the interests of your students’ academic success and wellbeing, your teachers’ professional self-esteem, and your parents’ satisfaction, one of the most powerful levers you can pull as a school leader is the one that demands policy makers to apply and provide the best current evidence on reading instruction in a bottom-down fashion, in the same way they do on other key elements of running a school. Schools should then be resourced accordingly, in terms of professional learning and materials, rather than islands of good practice popping up here and there. These islands join together over time to some extent but imagine how effective schools could be without the curse of high variability knocking high quality off its pedestal at every turn.
It may seem counter-intuitive to be advocating for less rather than more school autonomy on something core like reading instruction. But it is the very core nature of reading instruction that means it should be taught consistently, regardless of sector, location, or the composition, knowledge, and personal likes and dislikes of the school leadership team.
Leadership and professionalism are concerned with balancing autonomy and accountability. School leaders will see stronger student outcomes for all when they advocate with one voice, for their leaders to lead by elevating reading instruction to the same standing as anaphylaxis and child safety: an everyday, high-stakes part of school life that should be guided by rigorous evidence, not by feel-good ideology, a mish-mash of approaches, personal beliefs and/or adult comfort-zones.
(C) Pamela Snow (2023)