Saturday, 23 May 2020

Reading instruction in Australia can be informed by a pandemic. Here's how.

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When 2020 dawned in Australia, we recoiled in horror at the unfolding tragedy associated some of the worst bushfires in decades. According to Wikipedia, “As of 9 March 2020, the fires burnt an estimated 18.6 million hectares, destroyed over 5,900 buildings (including 2,779 homes) and killed at least 34 people”. The devastation was catastrophic, but pleasingly, in terms of lives lost, we did considerably better than in the 2009 Black Saturday fires, in which the death toll (174 people), was five times higher. Adoption of at least some of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into the 2009 fires contributed to our improved ability to preserve people’s lives, if not property. A win for science-informed policy and practice, you might say. 

Even while the fire season was still with us however, we became aware of a new threat looming, this time on the word stage: COVID-19. At the time of writing, there’s been 5.3 million cases of COVID-19 and 340,047 deaths, a staggering 96K of which have occurred in the USA and 33K in the United Kingdom. In Australia, we took advantage our geography as well as the narrow window of opportunity for some vicarious learning by enforcing a range of emergency public health measures: locking national and some state borders, closing spaces in which effective social distancing is impossible (schools, universities, places of worship, sporting, hospitality and entertainment venues) and requiring people to work from home. At the time of writing, we have had 101 deaths. Another win for science-informed policy and practice, you might say. 

As someone who lives in Victoria (which along with New South Wales, has seen the highest number of cases), I have been impressed with the leadership and firm stance of our state government. While aspects of the restrictions had quirky inconsistencies in them, and there was a degree of frustrating back-tracking in the early days of lock-down, in general, our leaders have demonstrated two important qualities:
  • the ability to be guided by experts who can “see” things in data that the average person cannot, and
  • a willingness to stand firm in response to resistance and push-back from a range of quarters (some more informed than others), even in the face of inevitable uncertainty about the merit of decisions made.
So, this just goes to show that when we all agree that the stakes are high, we can use scientific principles and bear down to effect necessary change and avert disaster. Not only that, we can respond in a reasonably nimble way. 

Why then can this same disciplined thinking not be brought to bear on the teaching of reading?

Let’s have a look what we might take away for reading instruction, from lessons learned from protecting a community from a deadly microbe:

1.     In both cases, we need to be thinking at the level of the population, i.e., of what will produce the best outcomes for the largest number of people. In responding to a pandemic, we have not been side-tracked and distracted by anecdotes about exceptions, such as Aunty Glad and Uncle Warren who went on a cruise, had a lovely time, came home unscathed and are looking forward to cruising again next year. Such exceptions do not mean that cruise-ships responded well to the unfolding saga, any more than you having a cousin who “learnt to read without any phonics instruction” means that applying scientific evidence in reading instruction does not matter in the face of the unfolding catastrophe of educational failure.
2.     In responding to COVID-19, we have made a priority of protecting the vulnerable, such as elderly people and people with chronic illnesses. We have known from the outset that they would bear a disproportionate burden of a flawed response to this public health threat and we have not blamed them for their vulnerability. Sadly, we know that some children come from positions of vulnerability with respect to early reading success, yet we do not put our public health thinking caps on and expose them to the most effective preventative interventions in our toolkit. Instead, we let them fail and blame this on their vulnerability, their poor families, and/or the presumed failure of their parents to read to them in the pre-school years.
3.     We have scorned anti-science thinking. This has been nowhere more evident than in our response to the US President suggesting that it might be worth us all having a go at injecting ourselves with disinfectant. This is an extreme example of anti-science thinking for sure, but it is unfortunate that commentators are not as quick to respond to the pervasive and established anti-science thinking of those teachers and education academics who promote early reading instruction approaches that directly poison children’s chances of becoming successful readers (see here, here and here.
4.     Our state leaders have made short-term discomfort and inconvenience play second fiddle to the demands of science. This has meant that when the community has had the logic of restrictions explained, they have complied, even though inconvenience resulted and significant behaviour change was required. Why then, can we not have a conversation with the community about the logic of changing our approach to early reading instruction, so that we see something closer to 95% success rather accepting that some children will just have to be instructional casualties?
5.     Like a virulent microbe such as COVID-19, low literacy is a public health threat. It just runs at a slower burn with respect to the rate at which it destroys lives and communities. There is currently no vaccine for COVID-19, but if there was one that offered protection to the majority of the community, taxpayers would want it backed. This is especially the case if the vaccine costs no more than usual public health measures in place to keep the population well.
There is protection against illiteracy available for the majority of the community, and it comes in a capsule labelled “effective reading instruction. It is a slow-release formulation with no side-effects and it works effectively for most, when administered by skilled, well-trained practitioners.
In first-world nations, we have long been lulled into the false security of not having to think much about public health principles in our day-to-day lives. COVID-19 has changed that by posing an immediate threat to life and showing us that it means business. In a world in which opportunities for unskilled, semi-literate workers are vanishing, I hope that we will see clever policy makers applying public health principles to the slow-burn pandemic of low reading achievement.

(C) Pamela Snow (2020)

Saturday, 21 March 2020

Anti-science and the science of reading.

Professor Dianne Ravitch, who describes herself as “a historian of education and Research Professor of Education at New York University” has written a brief blog-post this week headlined “There is no science of reading”. Her blog-post is an endorsement of the US
National Education Policy Center (NEPC) March 20 Policy Statement on the Science of Reading.

The inescapable problem for the NEPC, Professor Ravitch and those who sing from the same songbook, is that there is a science of reading, in the same way that there is a science of memory, a science of cognition, a science of perception, a science of language, and a science of learning. And the science of reading is not going away.

In all of these fields (as indeed, in the science of reading field), scientific endeavours are ongoing, building incrementally on knowledge which is released via academics to practitioners. Practitioners then apply it, to be part of the knowledge translation loop that results in ongoing refinements of theories and their implications for policy and practice. 

However, the science of reading has been the Cinderella of knowledge translation because of the resistance of some influential players to adopting the scientific method and changing their messaging as shifts in evidence occur.

If we left debate about reading instruction solely in the hands of Whole Language and Balanced Literacy advocates, it’s difficult to see how the discourse would have shifted at all in recent decades. What, for example, are most pre-service teachers learning in 2020, that is materially different from what they were learning in 2010? Or 2000? Or even earlier? 

If we interrogate Balanced Literacy practices employed in the late 1990s what would we find?

  • An emphasis on Three Cueing (Multi-Cueing) that encourages guessing rather than decoding;
  • banks of de-contextualised sight words that have no scope and sequence with respect to their phoneme-grapheme correspondences;
  • reliance on predictable levelled readers;
  • reluctance to apply phonics-based instruction of any kind, but begrudging acceptance of analytic phonics as a final resort;
  • advice to parents that they should discourage children from decoding through the word, because this is not true engagement with text; 
  • progress monitoring tools such as Running Records rather than psychometrically valid alternatives. 

And if we interrogate Balanced Literacy practices 30 years later in 2020, is anything different?

Back to the future.

Telling teachers that 

The truth is that there is no settled science of reading. The research on reading and teaching reading is abundant, but it is diverse and always in a state of change.
is designed to foster knowledge translation paralysis and keep teachers in the dark with respect to shifts in understanding that occur in research circles about approaches that are optimal for all children, not merely for those who will likely succeed, irrespective of their backgrounds and the pedagogical rigour to which they are exposed. 

When children do not succeed in Balanced Literacy classrooms the next step is to make blanket calls for better school funding, which understandably chimes with most teachers. Who would not want more money for their school? But there is a fixed cost to the tax-payer of having a teacher in a classroom. Would it not be better use of everyone’s resources for that teacher to be an expert on the current sate of play in the science of reading so s/he can apply this, in the tradition of scientist-practitioner that we promote in other fields such as medicine and psychology? 

Ravitch also quotes and endorses the NEPC statement that:

This key idea of a “balanced literacy” approach stresses the importance of phonics, authentic reading, and teachers who can teach reading using a full toolbox of instructional approaches and understandings. It is strongly supported in the scholarly community and is grounded in a large research base.
I have written previously about the self-described instructional bricolage that is Balanced Literacy. Having everything in the mix does not constitute systematic instruction by knowledgeable teachers. And just who is the “scholarly community” that is being swept up into one convenient collective bundle by this generalisation? I am part of the scholarly community and I for one, did not sign up to have my views appropriated in this way. 

Ravitch also endorses the NEPC argument that 

Education legislation should address guiding concepts while avoiding prescriptions that will tie the hands of professional educators.
This is just another way of saying “let a thousand flowers bloom”, or “choose your own adventure” and is what sustains this ongoing mess. If Balanced Literacy was a success-story, why are such large proportions of children in English-speaking industrialised nations not reaching their reading (and academic) potential? Where will the jobs be for these future unskilled workers as our economies replace unskilled roles with artificial intelligence and other forms of technology?

Posts such as this recent one by Ravitch (and the NEPC policy statement on which it is based) are a blatant attempt to slow the march of science and in particular, to retard its transfer into the classroom, via transmission to pre-service teachers. Many in education bemoan what is sometimes seen as the low professional standing of teaching as a profession. There is no more sure way of keeping education in the professional esteem shadows than preaching flat-earth mis-truths such as “there is no science of reading”. 

Some years ago, in Australia, there was a proposal prior to a federal election, to bring in a goods and services (consumption) tax. Do you know how this proposal was rolled? By a clever political slogan: “If you don’t understand it, don’t vote for it”. 

Exactly the same meme is being plied at teachers with respect to the science of reading. 

Unfortunately, there is abundant evidence that teachers in the main, are not exposed to the science of reading in their pre-service years (see references at this link). It is not surprising, therefore that many do not have an explicit grasp of such linguistic concepts as phonemes, morphemes, graphemes, syllables, phonemic awareness, phoneme-grapheme correspondences, digraphs, trigraphs, schwa vowels, and the need to teach these explicitly, with a scope and sequence in play.

But perhaps there’s another group who don’t understand it and so don’t vote for it: those in the academy and government who are stuck in a 1990s vision of what they would like the process of reading to be, rather than a 2020 science-informed position about its complexity and optimal ways of unlocking this for students. 

The only reason that we are not closer to a consensus on what constitutes the science of reading (what the reading process is and optimal ways of teaching it) is the deliberate obfuscation and anti-science rhetoric of some in pre-service teacher education and influential policy roles.

We don’t have a science problem. 
We have a rhetoric problem. 

(C) Pamela Snow (2020)