Sunday, 16 July 2017

Phonics Check Self Assessment: The Sequel

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a low-key self-assessment rubric, mainly as a conversation-starter for teachers and schools about current practices, knowledge, and beliefs pertaining to the teaching of phonics to beginning readers. Quite a few people contacted me with their views, and asked me to post "answers" to the questions I posed. 

So here goes: 

1. Does your reading instruction begin with the introduction of a small number of letter-sound correspondences, and explicitly (and gradually) teach children how to blend, segment, insert, and delete sounds in order to produce different words?
This approach is at the heart of systematic synthetic phonics (SSP). As noted in my previous blogpost, there are different approaches to phonics instruction, but they are not equally effective for beginning readers, and SSP is most likely to see more children off to a good start, especially those children whose progress is likely to be compromised by known or unknown vulnerabilities. Interested readers are referred to this excellent overview by A/Prof Deslea Konza, from ECU University.

See also this excellent brief video of A/Prof Konza discussing SSP instruction and its importance.
I am aware that some teachers say they find beginning reading instruction in this way “boring”. I have a pretty simple response to such teachers: in the nicest possible way, this is not about your needs, it’s about the needs of young children. I have seen great examples of early years teachers making SSP engaging and rewarding, so this really doesn’t wash. Perhaps teachers just need to feel more comfortable and confident with the approach.   
2. Do you use decodable texts as the starting point for children starting to read, or predictable texts?
It is one thing for children to be introduced to the process of reading via SSP, but it is another thing altogether for that initial teaching to be associated with the use of initial decodable texts. Decodable texts are pretty much what it says on the packet: books that contain words that are easily decodable by beginning readers. Such books provide opportunities to consolidate emergent knowledge of sound-letter links, so that these become more automatic for the beginning reader.
There are many commercially-available sets of decodable readers, such as Fitzroy Readers, Little Learners Love Literacy, Dandelion Readers, and Pocket Rockets
If your school has made the move to SSP, well done – that’s a significant step towards ensuring that more children emerge from the first three years of school as confident and competent readers. If, however, you are juxtaposing SSP with predictable texts, it is likely that your students are receiving mixed messages about the reading process, and may, as a consequence, develop some unhelpful early habits, such as “reading” from picture cues.
I have blogged previously about the uncritical acceptance of the importance of “authentic texts” for beginning readers. What does “authentic” even mean, and who decides which texts will be anointed with this descriptor? These are big questions that can sit on the table for now.  
3. Do you employ a so-called “Three Cueing” process in which beginning readers are encouraged to “guess” unknown words they encounter while reading, with attention to the first letter and its corresponding sound used as a last resort?
Three-cueing is a Whole Language zombie that can be found in many Australian classrooms. How many? Who knows, but it comes up often enough in my discussions with classroom teachers and parents, for me to be of the view that it is alive and well. I am happy to be presented with evidence to the contrary.
I encourage you to read Alison Clarke’s terrific summary as to why it is not aligned with SSP teaching. In fact, as pointed out by Professor Mark Seidenberg, in his 2016 publication, Language at the Speed of Sight, the Three Cueing strategy simply teaches the habits of poor readers, and why would we want to do that?  
4. Do you deal with sound-letter correspondences only “in context” rather than teaching these in isolation as a starting point?
As you would realise, SSP has a focus on early teaching of specific skills, in isolation, to reduce the cognitive and linguistic load imposed on young children early on in the reading process.
Any reference to teaching reading skills in isolation typically elicits protests from the Whole Language die-hards who fervently maintain that meaning making is at the heart of reading, or words to that effect. Meaning making is certainly at the heart of reading for skilled readers, but beginning readers need to familiarise themselves with the apparatus first.
5. Do you introduce lists of so-called “tricky” words (sight-words) to be learnt as wholes, early on in the reading instruction process?
The ultimate aim of reading is for most, if not all words, to become “sight words” – words that are instantly, and in fact, unavoidably recognised and understood as wholes. No-one wants to engage in the laborious and unrewarding task of sounding out every word in a sentence. That would result in poor fluency, low comprehension and a generally unrewarding experience.
However, that does not mean that the “fast track” to filling children’s brains with sight words is to present them with lists of words (in many cases with at least one irregularity in phoneme-grapheme correspondence from the perspective of the beginning reader), and requiring them to memorise them.
By all means, introduce sight words, but do so systematically, and via discussion with children about their composition. Most sight words contain some regular features, plus one or more irregular features. These can be discussed with and explained to beginning readers, as part of the word-study process and the wonder of learning about the origins of the English language.
6. Do you base your reading instruction around some version of “The Big Five” (phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency?
It must always be stressed that effective phonics instruction, and the knowledge of the alphabetic principle that it confers, is necessary but not sufficient for beginning readers. Beginning readers also need to be developing their phonemic awareness skills, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency. Some authors, such as A/Prof Deslea Konza, argue that we should upgrade the “Big Five” to the “Big Six”, to  specifically include oracy- see full-text of her excellent paper here. As a speech pathologist, I can’t argue with this position. Broader language skills (e.g. with respect to narrative language) contribute to, and are strengthened by, effective reading skills. Language and literacy have a symbiotic relationship, as I have described in detail in this open access 2015 paper.
7. Do you focus instruction around a “Letter of the Week”?
Many students arrive at school “knowing their letters”, e.g. as evidenced by the ability to recite the alphabet and/or to sing the Alphabet Song (the one that is sung to the tune of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, and annoyingly for us folk outside North America, has the final letter pronounced “Zee”). Knowledge of these 26 letters is a vital starting point, but as they need to work together to represent the 44 sounds that are used in English, teaching via a letter of the week is slow and cumbersome, and sometimes confusing for beginning readers. You can read more about this here. 

On the subject of letters, I was reminded too, by one of my Tweeps, that letters do not "make" or "say" sounds - they represent sounds, and often work in combination to do so, e.g., in digraphs such as th, ch, and sh

8. Do teachers in your school discourage parents from helping their children “sound out” words they do not know when they are reading at home?
It should be apparent from all I have written above that this is not a recommended approach. Parents are natural teachers of their children and are accustomed to breaking complex tasks down into manageable chunks. That is exactly the approach they should be encouraged to take with respect to early reading.
Sending decodable books home with parents encourages this natural approach and has a hidden benefit for parents whose literacy levels are low* – it makes the process of supporting their young child more enjoyable and achievable.

*This is also helpful to parents from non English-speaking backgrounds, who may, themselves, be learning to read in English. 
9. Do teachers in your school tell students that English is a “random” language (or words to that effect)?

This is yet another piece of Whole Language excess baggage and is incorrect. As I have explained in an earlier blogpost:
About 50% of English words do have a transparent orthography, meaning that they can be read by someone who understands letter—sound correspondences. A further 36% have only one sound that deviates (typically a vowel), 10% can be spelt correctly if morphology and etymology are understood, and a mere 4% cannot be decoded from knowledge of these principles.
Literacy experts should not be promulgating this myth. 

The "irregular" aspects of English spelling create more, not less need for explicit and systematic teaching.

I would be very pleased to add to / amend these responses on the basis of reader comments and feedback. The purpose of this blog is, after all, to share information and ideas.


You may also be interested in The Story of an Ugly Duckling: aka Phonics Check Furphies

(C) Pamela Snow (2017).

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

A Phonics Check of Another Kind

NB - I posted a "sequel" to this post on July 16. Like all good sequels, these blog posts are best read in order, so I'd suggest you start here. I suspect, though, that this is more of a circumquel than a prequel......

There has been much debate of recent times about the proposal to introduce a Year 1 Phonics Check in Australia. I have blogged about this before so will not use space here going over the reasons why I think it is justified and a potentially important part of a response to the challenge of seeing more children across the bridge to reading success in the early years of school. The Phonics Check is not a “magic bullet” and any attempt by its detractors to portray this as the view of supporters is of course simplistic and a touch mischievous.

However, the purpose of this blog is to provide a rubric that primary schools can use to self-assess the extent to which they are “already doing phonics”, as is sometimes the response from schools, teachers, and other interest groups, who oppose the introduction of the Phonics Check on the grounds that current classroom practices render it redundant.

Before moving into this rubric, though, I think it is important to have some shared understandings of terminology and the fact that “phonics ain't phonics”. Simply asserting “we do phonics” or “phonics is in the mix” is not enough to ensure strong translation of scientific evidence into classroom practice. As outlined in this open-access explainer (scroll down to the link to whole issue), there are a number of different types of phonics instruction, and they have different levels of effectiveness for beginning readers.

So – assuming then that we have a shared understanding of what is meant by synthetic, analytic, embedded, and incidental phonics, let’s have a look at some questions schools can (and in many cases already do) ask themselves to assess the level of change in teacher knowledge and practice that may be indicated in order to better align classroom practices with the recommendations of three international inquiries into the teaching of literacy. Bear in mind too, that not one of these inquiries makes any reference to so-called “Balanced Literacy” which I have blogged about previously as a re-badging of business-as-usual Whole Language instruction, with some phonics “thrown in” as individual teachers see fit. In some classrooms, it no doubt represents a quantum shift away from Whole Language instruction, while in others, it equally assuredly represents little-to-no-change at all, in line with the fact that it does not have an agreed upon definition.

Here’s my rough do-it-yourself checklist that you might find useful as a starting point for discussion in your school or region. This is not a scientifically robust tool and nor does it pretend to be – it is simply a rough guide, based on discussions I have had with many primary teachers who have sought me out in the last two years in particular, to discuss their concerns about practices in their schools.

The first 9 questions concern classroom practices and the following 6 items focus on teacher knowledge/beliefs in your school.

Teacher practices
1. Does your reading instruction begin with the introduction of a small number of letter-sound correspondences, and explicitly (and gradually) teach children how to blend, segment, insert, and delete sounds in order to produce different words?

2. Do you use decodable texts as the starting point for children starting to read, or  predictable texts?

3. Do you employ a so-called “Three Cueing” process in which beginning readers are encouraged to “guess” unknown words they encounter while reading, with attention to the first letter and its corresponding sound used as a last resort?

4. Do you deal with sound-letter correspondences only “in context” rather than teaching these in isolation as a starting point?

5. Do you introduce lists of so-called “tricky” words (sight-words) to be learnt as wholes, early on in the reading instruction process?

6. Do you base your reading instruction around some version of “The Big Five” (phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency?

7. Do you focus instruction around a “Letter of the Week”?

8. Do teachers in your school discourage parents from helping their children “sound out” words they do not know when they are reading at home?

9. Do teachers in your school tell students that English is a “random” language (or words to that effect)?

Teacher knowledge/beliefs
1. Do teachers in your school have detailed and explicit*  knowledge of concepts related to early reading instruction?  Concepts to consider here include, but may not be limited to:

a. Phonological awareness
b. Phonemic awareness
c. Phonics
d. Alphabetic Principle
e. Phoneme
f. Phonemic blending, segmentation, insertion, deletion
g. Consonant
h. Vowel
i. Syllable
j. Stressed/unstressed syllables
k. Schwa vowel
l. Digraph, trigraph
m. Diphthong
n. Stop Vs continuant consonants
o. Short Vs long vowels
p. Morpheme - bound and unbound
q. Etymology

2. Can teachers in your school explain the characteristics of different types of phonics instruction (as per the explainer article mentioned in the link above)?

3. Do teachers in your school know how many sounds (as opposed to letters) are used in the English language?

4. Do teachers in your school believe that explicitly teaching decoding skills equates to a “drill and kill” approach to early reading?

5. Do teachers in your school espouse so-called “Balanced Literacy” as an appropriate pedagogical approach for early reading instruction?

6.     Are teachers in your school aware that there was a National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy in 2005, and of the recommendations it contained about early instruction and teacher knowledge?

As mentioned above, in recent years, I’ve been contacted by a number of teachers who are questioning the received wisdom of their classroom practices and in particular the utility of these practices for children who may not easily make their way across the bridge to early reading success – many of whom start from behind and stay behind.

This self-audit tool might come in handy as a basis for the discussions that many such teachers find challenging to initiate in their schools.

You know who you are.

There are strong ideological forces that make it difficult for you to be courageous and lift your head above the pedagogical parapet to signal your openness to change. You are to be applauded however, for your  insights and determination to do better by reflecting on, and potentially changing, your knowledge and teaching practices.

As a researcher, it’s my job to do what I can to support you.

* Explicit knowledge is knowledge that we can talk about, explaining underlying rules and principles. Implicit knowledge, on the other hand, is an understanding that something is “right” or “wrong” but without the ability to articulate a rule that has been violated. For example, when shown the sentence “The boys goed to the beach” most adults would agree that it is grammatically incorrect, but not all can articulate that it is incorrect because the past tense of “go” takes an irregular verb form “went”. This requires explicit knowledge of grammar.

(C) Pamela Snow (2017)

Saturday, 27 May 2017

The authentic illusion in early literacy education

Teaching them how to read is probably one of the most important duties a civilised society owes to its children. Being able to “lift words off the page” and understand their meaning is transformational as a life skill. It transports one mind into the thought processes, experiences, and world view of another, even though the author of those thoughts and views is not physically present (and may even have been dead for several centuries). It enables mundane but essential everyday life tasks to be effortlessly completed – reading a timetable, following medication instructions, responding to an email, checking items off a shopping list…..the possibilities are endless. Much in all as we might like to believe all students will evolve into adults who read for pleasure, many literate adults do not count reading among their leisure activities. It is simply something that assists with business of everyday life, and that's OK. 

Of course we would not need to engage in endless hours of public and private debate about reading instruction, if a greater proportion of children were achieving (or even better, exceeding) curriculum benchmarks on time, and going on to engage with their ever more complex curriculum. This debate would be even more redundant if the children who start from behind (for a range of biopsychosocial reasons) were seen safely across the bridge to literacy in the first three years of school, courtesy of rigorous reading instruction delivered by teachers who are knowledgeable about the structure of language and how to explicitly and incrementally convey this knowledge to novices. 

Sadly, however, in Australia, we leave a significant proportion of children out in the cold when it comes to the transition to literacy, and their lot in life entails falling further and further behind their more able peers. This phenomenon has been referred to as The Matthew Effect in the reading literature. It casts a fixed shadow over the lives of children who don’t master the basics of reading and spelling in the first three years of school. Our workforce increasingly demands skilled workers, and has less and less on offer for those who exit school without marketable work skills (and make no mistake, literacy and numeracy are still, in 2017, highly valued by employers and likely to remain so well into the future). 
In spite of three international inquiries into the Teaching of Literacy (US, Australia, and the UK), it’s difficult to see what has materially changed in early years reading instruction in the last 15-20 years. Sure, there has been a strategically savvy re-badging of Whole Language-based instruction as “Balanced Literacy” – a move that enables a generally tokenistic (begrudging, some might say) and conditional acknowledgement of the importance of phonics instruction. However, as I have noted previously there’s phonics instruction and there's phonics instruction, and I am yet to see a Balanced Literacy article that advocates for explicit, systematic synthetic phonics instruction as the staring point (and am always happy to be pointed in the direction of anything I have missed). In fact, it could be argued that it would be a logical inconsistency for this to be proposed given that Balanced Literacy draws on such a strong Whole Language lineage.
There is a great deal of mis-information circulating in Australian educational circles at the moment, whipped up to new levels in the context of a proposed Year 1 Phonics Check. Some of this contains emotive references to "heavy phonics instruction" (whatever that is), and "a soley phonics approach" (I don't know what that is, either). 
Further, A/Prof Misty Adoniou (University of Canberra) asserts that  “We can be fairly certain that the 15 year old students who are underperforming on PISA or NAPLAN know their sounds. Phonic knowledge, or lack of it, is not the problem. They are performing poorly because they cannot comprehend what they are reading. They have poor vocabularies and cannot follow sentences that employ more complex language structures. They cannot read between the lines, they don't pick up nuance and inference.”
There are two problems with this statement:
  1. Where is the evidence that makes us “fairly certain” (whatever that means) that struggling 15 year olds have no difficulties with decoding, but are struggling because of poor comprehension skills? Confidently asserting something doesn’t make it so.
  2. Even if the statement above were true, it would be ironic, given the emphasis on meaning and inferencing that is placed in classrooms across Australia, courtesy of “Balanced Literacy” instruction, which is heavily promoted to pre-service and practising teachers by education academics in Australia (e.g., see here, here, and here). 

Much is also made in Australian education circles of the importance of "authentic literacy experiences" as a counterpoint to spending (aka "wasting") time on explicit phonics instruction. Contrast this  position with the views expressed by Harvard University reading expert Professor Catherine Snow (no relation) and her colleague at Stanford University,  Emeritus Professor Connie Juel  who observed in 2005 that

Explicit teaching of alphabetic decoding skills is helpful for all children, harmful for none, and crucial for some.

When I taught my now adult children to drive, I did not do so by offering them “authentic motoring experiences” from the outset. Instead, we started in safe, uncomplicated places (in our case, because we live in a rural area, the local cattle sale-yards on a Sunday afternoon). As they became familiar with the role of the three pedals (yes, dear reader, my children learnt to drive manual cars), the response of the steering wheel to being turned, the pressure needed on the brakes to come to a gradual, as opposed to a sudden stop, and the intricacies of operating windscreen wipers and indicators, they developed a degree of automaticity with the driving process. Only then, with the cognitive load associated with handling the car under control, did we venture into “authentic” driving experiences on the road – and even then, this was graduated. We did not progress from the sale-yards to peak-hour traffic in Melbourne, or Victoria's beautiful but challenging-to-drive Great Ocean Road in one step. Along the way, of course, they accrued hours and hours of practice, in different driving conditions, and we all became more confident in their emergent skills.

Similar 101 learning principles can be seen at work across a range of skill areas. Do children become proficient pianists by being asked to read (and play) Mozart sonatas at the outset? No. Do children learn to ride bikes by being placed on a two-wheeler and given a push from behind? No. Do we expect surgeons to learn how to perform coronary artery bypass procedures by being thrown a scalpel and told to “just have a guess” at which artery of their anaesthetised charge to snip? No. 

Strangely, however, these 101 learning principles do not seem to apply to the teaching of reading, where instead, there is an emphasis on the “authenticity” of the literature experience at the outset.
I am as much a fan of beautiful children’s literature as the next person. I am a speech pathologist and I love language – in all its guises and levels. I am a mother and grandmother and have a home full of beautiful children’s literature. Nothing gives me more delight than sitting down with my nearly two-year old grandson and sharing a beautiful children’s book with him – typically one of his choosing, sometimes a picture book, sometimes a story book. It’s too early to say of course, but by virtue of a happy planetary alignment, he is likely to be one of those children who skips seamlessly across the bridge to literacy in his early school years (if not before). What of his peers who are not so blessed?  Will immersion in beautiful children’s literature in the early years of school allow them to catch-up and make the life-changing transition to reading? The evidence suggests the answer  to this question is no.
I “get” why early years teachers and their umbrella organisations are enthralled by beautiful children’s literature. I am too. What I don’t get, is why it is OK for this fascination to take precedence over the actual learning needs of actual children who don’t cross the bridge to reading and writing via these “authentic” experiences.

All children need to learn to decode.  Some do so easily, while others require explicit and prolonged instruction on this aspect of reading. Who will teach the children who do not learn to decode via standard-issue incidental, embedded approaches attached to “authentic” texts? Such approaches fail to address the need many children have for incremental and explicit mastery of the knowledge and skills needed to get off the decoding blocks and into the world of beautiful literature. Is this the job of speech pathologists, with their limited time and availability to work across three tiers in Response to Intervention models in schools? Do parents need to pay for remedial teaching? Do tax-payers need to keep putting their hands in their pockets to fund Whole-Language-based fixes for Whole Language based instructional casualties?

If we’re going to use the word “authentic” then let's also stare down the inauthenticity of putting educator preferences (ideological and aesthetic) above the educational needs of children – in particular those who start from behind, and are doomed to stay behind.  

(C) Pamela Snow, 2017.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Balanced Literacy: An instructional bricolage that is neither fish nor fowl

It is sometimes tempting, in the field of early literacy instruction, to think that progress has completely stalled, and any real hope of lifting literacy levels in Australia (and similar western nations) has slipped through our fingers. So, to start with the good news: it is pleasing that we seem to have some level of agreement that there are many pillars of early literacy that require focus in the first three years of school. Researchers and practitioners at pretty much any point on the “Whole-Language – Phonics” continuum (and I do believe it is a continuum rather than a dichotomy) affirm the importance of the so-called “Big Five” (phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, comprehensions, and fluency). That  said, an Australian education professor last year appeared to challenge this consensus, going so far, in fact, as to argue that a focus “solely” on the Big Five elements could be “damaging” to some children. In the absence, however, of any evidence to support the astonishing contention that a focus on these elements does actual harm to children’s reading progress, I think we can assume that they constitute a good and widely agreed-upon basis for classroom reading instruction.

However, it is not enough to just put all the elements into a metaphorical blender and hope for the best. In this sense, so-called “Balanced Literacy” (BL) might be better termed “Blended Literacy” – all of the elements outlined above are in there somewhere, but the literature describing them in the context of BL does not advocate that they are treated in a systematic, sequential way.

Perhaps this stems from a lack of an agreed definition of BL.  In my search of the literature, I found (e.g. see Rasinski & Padak, 2004) various and varied references to a “compromise position” between Whole Language and phonics, the importance of “multiple literacies”, BL as a “radical middle”, the adoption of “principled pluralism”, a “new consensus in literacy education”, and statements such as

“…. balanced literacy becomes a recognition that language and literacy theories and practices need to be ‘answerable to concrete others’" (Heydon et al., 2005, p. 313).

Now, I do not know exactly what “concrete others” means, but if it is another way of talking about accountability, then I am on board with it.

Wren (2001) observed that “A balanced approach could be generically described as ‘mixing some Phonics with Whole Language,’ but how this is accomplished in any particular classroom is unclear” (p. 4). Another BL researcher (Mermelstein, 2006) further highlighted this lack of definitional clarity thus:

Often when I visit schools and ask teachers to describe their curriculum to me, they’ll say that they do “balanced literacy.” I often ask them what they mean by “balanced.” The answers I get are varied. Their varied answers don’t surprise me because as I worked on this article I discovered a variety of views as to what the word balanced in “balanced literacy” actually means”.

So - one basic problem with BL is its lack of a robust, agreed-upon definition.

I wonder then, how many beginning teachers would find this take on BL of practical value when they enter an early years’ classroom:

“The version of balanced literacy that we espouse …. cautions educators about the slipperiness of subjectivities, power relations, and the inability of an abstract theory or practice to adequately control, predict, or define the needs of a classroom of students and as such insists that all theory and practice be situated within the relationship between teacher, student, time, and place” (Heydony, Hibbert & Iannacci, 2004, p. 313). If anyone can tell me what this actually means in relation to the task of teaching children to read, I am all ears. 

Another notable absence in the BL literature (this undated piece by Starrett comes close though and please update me if I have missed something), is discussion of the fact that there are different approaches to phonics instruction, and they are neither synonymous nor inter-changeable. Analytic, incidental, and embedded phonics align more with Whole Language (whole-to-part analysis) than to approaches such as systematic synthetic phonics that emphasise part-to-whole analysis for beginning readers (see this link for more information).

In fact, the frequent use of the word “eclectic” in the BL literature is the big clue as to what is really going on in many early years’ classrooms. Eclectic has a meaning that is diametrically opposed to systematic. This eclecticism, when coupled with Kenneth Goodman-esque “teachers should be left alone to decide what’s best for children in their classroom” means that BL is really an Alice-in-Wonderland term that can mean pretty much exactly whatever the user wants it to mean. As has been noted elsewhere (Bingham & Hall-Kenyon 2013; Bowen & Snow, 2017) this creates one of the challenging (some might even say clever) aspects of BL from a research perspective – how do we evaluate something that is likely to look very different from one early years’ classroom to the next? Normally, fidelity of delivery is a cornerstone of intervention evaluation, but we can’t establish fidelity if the intervention itself is, by design, open to interpretation by those who implement it.

All of this would, of course, be a moot point if we were doing a better job of getting more children across the bridge to literacy in the first three years of school. But we’re not.

My read of the BL literature also highlights a confusing and disproportionate emphasis in many BL publications on “higher-order” processes (synthesis, analysis, metacognition), while simultaneously overlooking the lower-order skills that need to be in place (i.e. need to be taught) to free up cognitive resources in order to support such processes. Take for example, this 2008 paper, accessible via the Australian Literacy Educators’ Association (ALEA) website. Its author (Cozmescu) refers to the use of a “bricolage" of classroom practices, but makes no reference to phonics instruction as a teaching approach, despite referring to decoding as a strategy that children might use when participating in activities that respond to the question “How will I ensure that this week’s literacy program will include all of my students”? How indeed. And how do children call on a strategy such as decoding, if they have not been taught it?

It is also interesting to read the views of proponents of BL on its historical roots. For example, Manset-Williamson, and Nelson (2005, p. 59) observed that “Influential within the debate over explicitness of strategy instruction are Fountas and Pinnell (1996), who have argued that strategies cannot be directly taught. Instead, they propose that teachers provide rich literature experiences for students so that reading strategies can be naturally constructed with teacher support, but not explicit instruction”.

Did you catch that? “Strategies cannot be directly taught”. Many readers will be aware of course, that Fountas and Pinnell are the authors of the hugely popular and widely used (in Australia at least) levelled readers based around predictable text that encourage guessing rather than decoding as a first-line approach for beginning readers. Their advice flies in the face not only of decades of cognitive psychology research, and the findings of three national inquiries into the teaching of literacy (USA, Australia, and UK), but ironically is also at odds with published statements by some other proponents of BL. For example, Rivalland (2000, p. 2), referred to “Explicit instruction in code-breaking techniques, which include phonological awareness, letter recognition, letter-sound correspondences and sight word recognition” - in spite of the fact that Fountas and Pinnell said that reading strategies cannot be directly taught. Notably, Rivalland still stops short of reference to initial systematic, synthetic phonics as the preferred approach to teaching decoding skills, but I think readers can see just how confusing and contradictory the BL landscape is.

Offering eclectic, only partially targeted instructional approaches as a means of meeting the diverse needs of early learners seems an odd vehicle for a pedagogical approach that has the word “balance” in its name. It’s somewhat akin to using a butter knife to slice a piece of rump steak: it superficially looks like an implement that might be fit for purpose, but in practice offers only a blunt interface with the task at hand.

Thankfully the Five from Five  project offers a means of redressing some of the gaps and inconsistencies outlined above. It is based on the agreed evidence that children need teachers who can draw together processes in phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary development, comprehension, and reading fluency, but value-adds these by positioning systematic synthetic phonics instruction as a first-line approach, and provides resources to teachers and parents to support this. This is an important refinement that is sorely lacking in current conceptualisations of BL. It also neatly gets past the problem of phonics being the only one of the Big Five that needs to “justify” its existence as a pedagogical pillar.

There is perhaps a perverse reward for lack of systematic early reading teaching in the fact that many children will cross the bridge to literacy almost irrespective of the pedagogical focus in their classroom. Such children enter school with a range of bio-psycho-social advantages that set them up for success. This position was well-summarised by Konza, who observed (2014, p. 160)

"It is true that some children readily acquire the skills of independent reading without highly explicit teaching, but if balanced is interpreted as offering all children only an embedded rather than an explicit approach to phonics instruction, those most in need will be further disadvantaged". 

So we cannot expect to see improvements in the performance of children in the tail of the achievement curve unless and until teachers are equipped to teach children who start from behind and require explicit, systematic teaching if they are to have any chance of catching up, let alone engaging with the higher-order language-based literacy activities that await them across the curriculum.

Compromise is a wonderful thing, in its place. But we should not be compromising on translating scientific evidence into classroom practice. It is not enough to offer children (especially those starting from behind) an eclectic, bricolaged, blended literacy program that fails for want of a simple early emphasis on explicit and systematic synthetic phonics instruction, and then to classify such children as “special needs” when they inevitably and completely predictably display low literacy skills by mid primary school years. This is simply amounts to another way of describing Dr. Reid Lyon’s “instructional casualties”.

That’s not fair to teachers or students, and it’s most certainly not what I call "balanced".

Bingham, G.E. & Hall-Kenyon, K.M. (2013). Examining teachers’ beliefs about and implementation of a balanced literacy framework. Journal of Research in Reading, 36(1), 14-28.

Bowen, C. & Snow, P. (2017). Making Sense of Interventions for Children with Developmental Disorders. A Guide for Parents and Professionals. Croydon, UK: J&R Press

Cozmescu, H. (2008). Thinking Balanced Literacy Planning

Heydon, R., Hibbert, K. & Iannacci. L. (2005). Strategies to support balanced literacy approaches in pre- and inservice teacher education.  Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 48(4), 312-319.

Konza, D. (2014). Teaching reading: Why the "Fab Five" should be "the Big Six". Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 39(12), 153-169.

Manset-Williamson, G. & Nelson, J.M. (2005). Balanced, strategic reading instruction for upper-elementary and middle school students with reading disabilities: A comparative study of two approaches. Learning Disability Quarterly, 28(1),59-74.

Mermelstein, L. (2006). The components of Balanced Literacy. What does Balanced Literacy actually mean?

Rasinski, T. & Padak, N. (2004). Beyond consensus—beyond balance: Toward a comprehensive literacy curriculum. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 20(1), 91-102

Rivalland, J. (2000). Finding a balance for the year 2000 and beyond. Newsletter of the Australian Literacy Educators' Association, February.

Wren, S. (2001). What does a “Balanced Literacy Approach” mean?

(C) Pamela Snow, 2017

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

The story of an ugly duckling. Aka Phonics Check Furphies.

I have never met a teacher who is not sincere about trying to do the best they can for the students in their classrooms. Insincere teachers may exist, but I don’t see them. Fortunately, in the context of the ongoing community, academic, and political debate about phonics instruction and assessment of children's phonics skills, teachers’ sincerity is not at issue. However it is also not enough, regardless of its abundance.

A dip into the recent (last 3-4 decades) history of reading instruction reveals the strange and sad tale of phonics being turned into the unwelcome ugly duckling of early year’s classrooms. I have written about the contested place of phonics in the early years previously, so won’t re-hash that history here. We are now at an odd impasse, however, that sees most parties to the debate in broad agreement (at least overtly) about the importance of the so-called “five big ideas” surrounding early reading (phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency), but the welcome mat that is rolled out in (a) teacher pre-service education and (b) early years classrooms for these elements is uneven. When was the last time you saw a heated Twitter debate about the importance of comprehension for early readers? Or vocabulary? Of course we don’t see such silly debates, because they do not occur – everyone agrees (OK, prove me wrong someone!) that these are critical ingredients in early years instruction.  Phonics, however (and perhaps to a lesser extent its close relative phonemic awareness) has to paddle very hard to justify its presence in early year’s instruction.

This ambivalence has been more than evident in Australia in the last week since the federal government’s announcement that a Year 1 Phonics Check will be rolled out across Australian states and territories in the next year. I’ve heard all kinds of opposition to this move and would like to collate the key arguments here, together with my responses.

My response
We’re already doing phonics
Phonics is in the mix
There is no doubt some truth to this statement. I think it’s fair to say that in most classrooms, some form of phonics instruction is used, but I will wager that in a large number of cases, this is a third-of-three option in the widely-used Multi-Cueing Strategy (also sometimes referred to in the UK as “Searchlights”). This is a Whole Language zombie that remains alive and well in teacher education and Australian classrooms, and encourages children first to guess, and as a last resort, to use analytic, not synthetic phonics, in order to work out the first sound in the word with which they are unfamiliar.

This leads me to the other problem with the “We’re already doing phonics” defence – the fact that where phonics is “in the mix”, it is more likely to be analytic than synthetic. All children need to learn to decode, and some do so more seamlessly than others. Those who enter school with smaller vocabularies, less phonemic awareness, and less pre-school text exposure will derive particular benefit from being explicitly taught the alphabetic principle via synthetic phonics instruction. These are the same children who teachers then identify as needing “extra resources” when they don’t easily make the transition to literacy. Maybe the “extra resource” they need is more rigorous initial instruction. 
Can you see a circular argument happening here?

My third issue with this response is that if this is the case, why are literacy levels in this country way below where they should be? If all is well with respect to early year’s instruction, how do we account for the fact that we are producing way too many secondary students with inadequate literacy skills and have a workforce with worrying low oral language and literacy skills?
Teachers already assess their students and know which ones are behind
Maybe they do, and maybe they don’t. This assertion is difficult to assess, because there is no universal tool and no central data collection on the decoding skills of Australian students. My bet is that many teachers are using “Running Records” for this purpose – another Whole Language throw-back, and not a substitute for a properly standardised Phonics Check.
Teachers are the experts and should be left alone
No professional group should put itself above scrutiny. Imagine if doctors, nurses, airline pilots, or engineers said “Stop looking over our shoulders. We know what we’re doing”. Have a look at what happened in recent times to babies born at a small regional hospital in Victoria, where doctors and nurses were assumed to know what they were doing, and were left alone accordingly. 
Testing doesn’t improve performance
This is like saying “Guns don’t kill, people do” – it’s a logical fallacy. If testing doesn’t have a place, why do Maternal and Child Health nurses weigh our babies? They weigh our babies to scientifically monitor progress, rather than seeing what they want or expect to see. 
All we need is more money (a la “fund Gonski reforms”)
I have yet to see or hear any explanation as to how more money will improve teacher knowledge and skills with respect to early reading instruction. Perhaps we are to spend it on expensive teacher PD, rather than properly preparing pre-service teachers in the first place?

Fund schools fairly for sure, but don’t assume that more money is the answer. That is simplistic nonsense. Further, we could make significant savings right now by removing support for all kinds of neuroflapdoodle that are endorsed and invested in by schools.
We need more support for struggling students
Yes, we do need more support for struggling students. But if we work from a Response to Intervention framework, we want to ensure the highest quality instruction at Tier 1, so that those students in Tiers 2 and 3 are there because they have genuine needs that will respond to the expertise on offer by speech-language pathologists and educational and developmental psychologists. They should not be there because they are instructional casualties from Tier 1.  
It is too expensive
The cost of the Phonics Check in the UK has been estimated to be around 10-12 GBP per student per year. Compare this to the cost of providing the Arrowsmith Program, as recently promoted by a state branch of the Australian Education Union. Compare it too, to the cost of educational failure.
We shouldn’t subject six year olds to tests
We shouldn’t subject six year olds to academic failure and a lifetime of falling behind. 
A Phonics Check won’t improve children’s reading skills
The evidence from the UK suggests that at a system level, the introduction of a National Phonics Check has contributed to improved reading in the early years. If we have an efficient means of making at least some gains in this critical domain, why would we not take it? Why would we not provide data-driven feedback to the teaching profession about what beginning readers actually can, and actually cannot do

Phrased another way, how can we justify to children in the long tail of under-achievement, turning our backs on an option that is likely to offer them a brighter future? 

Reading is about extracting meaning, not sounding out words
The Simple View of Reading holds that successful reading requires both decoding skills and comprehension. Children should be equipped to read using skills of decoding and inferencing, not inferencing (aka guessing in some cases) alone, along with a long list of learned-by-sight words. 
We take a “Balanced Literacy” approach
This is akin to the “phonics is in the mix” argument. Balanced Literacy, however, simply lines up all the ducks and says “off you go – jump in the pond!” It does not position systematic synthetic phonics instruction as the starting point to get children off the blocks.

If you look at the literature on Balanced Literacy, a word you will encounter frequently is "eclectic". That does not inspire confidence that a systematic approach to instruction is being taken.

“Balanced Literacy” is the answer to good phonics instruction in the same way that “throw in some sultanas” is the answer to “How do you make a fruit cake”?
English is too inconsistent a language for phonics instruction to be useful (so a Phonics Check is a waste of time)
This is another urban myth regularly trotted out by Whole Language disciples, who themselves were probably never taught about the morpho-phonemic structure of English, or about how to trace the etymology of the various words English has appropriated from other languages.

About 50% of English words do have a transparent orthography, meaning that they can be read by someone who understands letter—sound correspondences. A further 36% have only one sound that deviates (typically a vowel), 10% can be spelt correctly if morphology and etymology are understood, and a mere 4% cannot be decoded from knowledge of these principles (see Snow, 2016). 

As I have said a number of times, there are no magic bullets in the important business of reading instruction. There is, however, a wealth of scientific evidence to draw on, and it is inexcusable for teacher educators to stand between this evidence and the next generation of classroom teachers.

No doubt there are other fallacious arguments in this space too. Feel free to tweet/email me if you would like me to add them to this list – it can be a living document.

Let’s hope in the meantime, however, that reading instruction’s ugly duckling can be transformed into a beautiful swan. There are children out there whose educational futures depend on it. 

(C) Pamela Snow, 2017