Thursday 4 January 2024

Pouring old wine into new bottles? Constrained Vs unconstrained skills in reading success


About three years ago, during the COVID-19 pandemic, I was asked to review an academic paper that was concerned with children’s acquisition of so-called unconstrained skills with respect to reading success in early years classrooms.

The idea of constrained Vs unconstrained skills in early reading instruction was not one I had encountered before, so I found myself tracking down citations in the reference list, which is a sure way to make the process of reviewing someone else’s work a much longer, though ultimately more satisfying, task. Because this was during the unpredictable days of COVID-19 and its associated lock-downs, and I was distracted with other matters, I did not come back to this construct straight away but have been giving it more thought in the last 12 months.

The manuscript I was reviewing made reference to this 2016 paper by Catherine Snow (no relation) and Timothy Matthews. Subsequently, during an exchange on “X” (formerly Twitter), I was introduced by Matthew Writer to this earlier (2004) paper by Scott Paris that was not referenced by Snow and Matthews. Some further digging also revealed, among others, this 2011 paper by Katherine A. Dougherty Stahl. There are other papers on this construct as well, but I will draw on these three publications to pull together some thoughts here on the notion of constrained Vs unconstrained skills and why this idea could be useful for teachers and teacher educators. I also want to draw attention to what I see as some potential pitfalls with this construct.

Snow and Matthews (2016) conceptualised the relationship between constrained and unconstrained skills as being categorical:

Snow, C. E., & Matthews, T. J. (2018). The role of background knowledge in reading comprehension: A critical review. The Future of Children, 42(3), 214–240. (p. 59)

Dougherty Stahl (2011) presented the relationship between the skill-sets as a continuum

Dougherty Stahl, K. A. (2011). Applying new visions of reading development in today's classrooms. The Reading Teacher, 65(1), 52-56. (p. 53).

What does it mean to say a reading-related skill is “constrained”?

Let’s back up a little first. Many readers of this blog will be familiar with frameworks such as the Simple View of Reading (SVR) and also Scarborough’s Reading Rope. Both of these frameworks provide ways of organising our thinking about the skills that children, as reading novices, need to both further develop, and in some cases, acquire from scratch, in order to become skilled readers. Both frameworks have strong empirical support and are useful conversation starters with teachers, school leaders, and policy-makers interested in transforming reading instruction. While there does not seem to be major disagreement on the merit and relevance of these frameworks, debate continues to rage as to the how of supporting skill development on both sides of their ledgers. These sides can be broadly thought of as word identification and its subskills and language comprehension and its subskills. Many workers have noted that weaknesses on one side of these models cannot be “propped up” by strengths on the other side. Strong oral language skills do not compensate for poor word identification skills and strong word identification skills do not do the work for weak oral language skills. Students need high levels of proficiency on both sides.

When workers such as Paris (2004), Dougherty Stahl (2011), and Snow and Matthews (2016) talk about constrained skills, they are referring to skills related to word-identification that are finite with respect to their scope. In the case of teaching reading in English-speaking countries, these include:

  • Basic print concepts (directionality of text; book orientation; spaces between written words as word boundaries).
  • Knowing the names of the 26 letters in the English alphabet.
  • Knowing that speech sounds (phonemes) map to written letters and letter combinations (graphemes) in rule-governed ways, albeit with varying levels of orthographic transparency.
  • Being able to blend sounds to decode unfamiliar words.

All of the authors referred to above describe these constrained skills as “easy to teach” and “easy to assess”. There is also a hint, in all of them, however, that because of these characteristics, constrained skills have been over-emphasised in policy and practice. I agree with the assertions regarding the relative ease with which they can be taught and assessed, but would caution that this does not necessarily mean they are taught and assessed well, to the level of mastery and automaticity that supports the all-important process of orthographic mapping, as described by Linnea Ehri. Their emphasis by science of reading researchers and reading policy reformers reflects the fact that balanced literacy prevails in many English-speaking jurisdictions and so by definition, constrained skills have not received rigorous and systematic focus in enough classrooms (see here for further on problems with balanced literacy).

Everyone seems to agree, to at least some extent, that mastery of the so-called “basics” (constrained skills) in early reading is critical, though many don’t even draw breath before then diminishing their importance with a “but” statement. This but statement normally contains one or more of the following elements:

  • There’s more to reading than phonics;
  • An over-emphasis on phonics will be harmful;
  • Decoding skills are only important in the early stages of reading;
  • Phonics should be taught in context.
  • Decoding is not reading.

It's easy to see how easily these can morph into another version of “everything is in the eclectic mix in a balanced literacy classroom”. To take the final point in particular, no, decoding is not reading, but it is not possible to understand text that cannot be decoded. Efficient decoding is a necessary but not sufficient pre-condition for reading comprehension to occur.

What are the skills that are “unconstrained”?

Here we move our focus to the language comprehension side of the SVR and the upper stands of the Reading Rope. This means we are now thinking about “skills without borders", such as:

  • vocabulary knowledge – understanding of both denotative and connotative meanings of words and the ability to deal with the polysemous* nature of many Tier 1 words in English. Acquisition of “higher-order” literate language (Tier 2 words) is also important. See this link for more on tiers of vocabulary.
  • the ability to draw inferences from idiomatic, non-literal language, such as metaphor, irony, and sarcasm and to understand the use of language for humorous purposes, e.g., in puns and other jokes.
  • the ability to deal with a range of syntactic structures and the meaning they support (e.g., active Vs passive voice; subordinate clauses; fronted adverbial clauses; apposition). Knowing how punctuation supports meaning in written text is also important.
  • background knowledge – the ability to bring prior knowledge to both fiction and non-fiction genres, and to apply and modify this, based on the reading of new texts. Reading comprehension both supports and is supported by, ongoing acquisition of background knowledge, across a wide range of subject areas.
    *Polysemous words have multiple meanings, while their spelling and pronunciation do not change. Consider for example, the multiple meanings attached to the Tier 1 word "bank".

The authors mentioned above have all noted that these skills are harder to teach and also harder to assess than constrained skills. If you are not familiar with Nancy Lewis Hennessy’s 2021 text The Reading Comprehension Blueprint, I recommend it as a great source on the complex integrated processes involved in reading comprehension and the need for high-quality curriculum materials and monitoring processes to support the work of teachers. Importantly, though, Hennessy includes constrained skills that support word identification, as being key to the comprehension process.

Why might a distinction between constrained and unconstrained skills be important?

I think the idea of constrained Vs unconstrained skills is a valuable one in conceptualising the reading process and understanding the challenges faced both by students and teachers in the journey from novice to proficient. It reminds us that there is a finite nature to the skills involved in “getting words off the page” aspect of reading and ensuring that literally thousands of words are efficiently orthographically mapped – stored in long-term memory with a meaning, a pronunciation, and correct spelling glued together for ease of access. Ease of access promotes reading fluency (accuracy, appropriate rate, and expression), and as noted by Jan Hasbrouck, fluency is a strong contributor to reading comprehension. It has been described by Tim Rasinksi as the bridge between decoding and comprehension. This suggests that the relationship between constrained and unconstrained skills is more a continuum than a dichotomy. Importantly, it is not a hierarchy, in which some skills, by virtue of their greater range and complexity, assume higher importance over other “lower order” skills.

Consider, for example, the plight of the Year 10 science student who needs to read text like the example below, concerning balancing oxidation-reduction equations, but brings only partially developed constrained skills to the table in the sense that she is unable to decode through unfamiliar polysyllabic/multi-morphemic words – the types of Greco-Latin (Tier 3) words that turn up with great frequency in subject-specific texts in the secondary years:

Neutral Conditions

The first step to balance any redox reaction is to separate the reaction into half-reactions. The substance being reduced will have electrons as reactants, and the oxidized substance will have electrons as products. (Usually all reactions are written as reduction reactions in half-reaction tables. To switch to oxidation, the whole equation is reversed and the voltage is multiplied by -1.) Sometimes it is necessary to determine which half-reaction will be oxidized and which will be reduced. In this case, whichever half-reaction has a higher reduction potential will by reduced and the other oxidized (source).

It is obvious that skilled reading for comprehension here will require the student to draw on well developed constrained and unconstrained skills, and has been noted previously, lack of skills on one side of the ledger cannot be compensated for by the presence of skills on the other.

We need to check our assumptions when we buy into the argument that things that are "easy" to teach are ipso facto taught well. As I have noted previously on this blog in relation to South Australia:

“……following the 2016 trial of the Phonics Screening Check in SA, it was reported that "For many teachers and leaders, the PSC was an eye-opener with some expressing surprise and disappointment about the results - particularly for students they identified as strong readers" (p.18)”.

I also think most teachers would contest the claim that teaching constrained skills efficiently, systematically, and well is "easy". Many were not adequately prepared to do so by their pre-service teacher education programs (see references on this page) and have had to invest considerable time and financial resources into upskilling in this domain.

So – it is important to remember that while the constrained Vs unconstrained framework can certainly be useful in early reading instruction, it can also potentially be weaponised to diminish the importance of constrained skills and to overlook the interconnectedness between the two sets of skills. This was a key take-away for me from the paper by Paris (2005, p.192) who observed that:

"Researchers have analyzed reading skills as if they are independent when many are required as precursors or enabling skills for others". Paris observed that different skills are closely connected at some stages and not at others, describing what he saw as  "...developmentally co-dependent constraints on the skills". 

Paris also argued that where constrained skills are taught to mastery, low variability will exist between readers, but even competent readers will vary widely with respect to the extent of their unconstrained skill development.

We should not assume that just because constrained skills can be taught with a scope and sequence and assessed using rigorous curriculum-based materials, that all children are being exposed to instruction that ensures that this occurs. Where it does, there is a better chance that constrained skills form a strong foundation for students’ lifelong acquisition and refinement of unconstrained skills. We should also not assume that older struggling readers need attention only to unconstrained skills.

If, after three years of schooling, students cannot efficiently and automatically lift words off the page, they will not be in a position to maximise working memory and other executive function systems, activate background knowledge, or employ comprehension monitoring processes and inferencing skills to understand what they are reading. That then imposes serious constraints of another kind, on academic success and psychological wellbeing.

Perhaps rather than a constrained Vs unconstrained dichotomy or even a continuum, what we are actually looking at here is a kind of conceptual double-helix, with the strength of the connecting bonds being an under-recognised point of difference between stronger and weaker readers. Students do not stop using constrained skills over time; these skills simply become an invisible force for good in ensuring that most of a reader's cognitive and linguistic effort can be channelled to demands placed on unconstrained skills when they are reading increasingly challenging texts.

 Image source

(C) Pamela Snow (2024)