Sunday, 7 September 2014

Reading Recovery and Cassandra's Curse




Last week, I attended an excellent, though quite depressing seminar organised by Learning Disabilities Australia, entitled Reading Recovery and the Failure of the New Zealand National Literacy Strategy, presented by Professors Bill Tunmer and James Chapman (both of Massey University). A summary of the content of the presentation can be found in this paper.

The seminar was very well attended, with senior policy folk from the state and Catholic sectors present, as well as a number of education and speech pathology academics and practitioners, teachers, tutors, and other interested parties. The questions and comments from the floor were many and I think people would have stayed on for hours continuing the discussion if that had been possible. 


So why did I find it depressing? The first depressing aspect was the established evidence on Reading Recovery's failure to deliver (as per PIRLS data) on the stated aims of its developer, the late Dame Marie Clay (1993), to 


".....help children acquire efficient patterns of learning to enable them to work at the average level of their classmates and to continue to progress satisfactorily in their own school's instructional program. When recognized training accompanies the use of procedures contained in this book, success rates are consistently high and surprising."


The second depressing aspect was the fact that policy makers (and as a consequence many, though by no means all, teachers) have been slow to acknowledge and act on the irrefutable data that Reading Recovery is not delivering on its promises. That it is in particular, leaving behind children who come from low socio-economic status families and schools is especially disappointing and unforgivable. 


No-one would disagree with the importance of helping struggling learners to catch-up, and the earlier the better. That's where the consensus in this debate ends, however, and the so-called "reading wars" saga rears its ugly head. I don't intend to deconstruct this debate here (plenty of metaphorical ink has already been spilled on that one), but it is important to note that Reading Recovery is a "child" of the Whole Language movement. In essence, this approach to teaching reading, espoused in the late 1960s and 1970s by Kenneth Goodman stemmed from the attractive (though unsubstantiated) claim that children can acquire literacy skills in much the same way that they acquire oral language skills - through experiential immersion. While this idea may have had strong face validity and appeal to the educational zeitgeist, it lacked one critical ingredient - an empirically derived theoretical basis. In fact, we now know (and probably knew back then) that unlike learning to speak and understand, learning to read and write are biologically "unnatural" acts (Gough & Hillinger, 1980) requiring sustained specific instruction. As Melbourne Speech Pathologist Alison Clarke explains in this engaging YouTube clip phonics-based reading instruction was suddenly deemed "old fashioned" and was pretty much universally abandoned in Australian schools (and teacher-training courses) in the 1970s, in favour of Whole Language-based approaches. 


Many aspects of Reading Recovery have long perplexed me, most notably the question of what is being "recovered" for children who had not acquired the requisite skills in the first place? Secondly, I don't understand why any education system would adopt a reading instruction approach (Whole Language) that assumes a 15-20% failure rate (and need for expensive and intensive intervention) by the end of the first year of school ("failure" here referring to the lowest performing students in the class - those whom Clay argued could be brought up to the norm via Reading Recovery). Why not simply employ effective, evidence-based teaching approaches for all, and move the whole curve to the right?


Imagine a hospital administrator deciding that operating theatre infection control guidelines were "old-fashioned" and unwieldy, and so proclaiming that henceforth, we'll dispense with strict hand-washing protocols, letting practitioners use their own judgement on this, and rely instead on people's natural immunity. As a fall-back, anyway, we have postoperative antibiotics for the tail of the surgical curve who (inevitably) happen to develop a serious infection. Of course those in that tail will already be disadvantaged in other ways, e.g., being older, or having multiple comorbidities, making their immune systems compromised and their benefit from antibiotics equivocal at best, and non-existent at worst. Let's not even try to calculate the cost to the system (and society) of increased length of stay and lost social and economic productivity. 




Of course such a situation would not occur and most would read that scenario and consider it laughable. But why are health and education so different with respect to the way in which evidence is derived, critiqued, and applied?

One key factor might be that when hospitals adopt systems that don't work, patients die, and people can see that patients die. When schools adopt systems that don't work, no-one dies and practitioners are largely shielded from the detrimental effects of their practices, however pernicious these effects may be over the longer term.


However just as we can't hold individual doctors accountable for policies enacted in hospitals, we can't hold individual teachers to account for policies enacted by their schools or education sectors. We must, however, hold policy makers and those who are responsible for teacher training to account to apply evidence ethically. The Whole Language-Reading Recovery grip on teacher education and early years practice is doing a huge disservice to the most vulnerable and socially disadvantaged learners. These are the very learners who need school to accelerate their progress relative to more advantaged peers. The evidence presented by Tunmer and Chapman shows unequivocally that such acceleration is not occurring in NZ, and there is no evidence (of which I am aware) to indicate that it occurs here either. 


I teach medical students enrolled in an undergraduate MBBS. Putting aside for a moment differences in university entrance requirements for medicine Vs teaching, a major difference I see between these students and those in education (whom I have also taught) is their capacity and willingness to question and challenge evidence that is presented to them. In medicine, we know we would be producing graduates who are frankly dangerous to the community if they do not exit university as astute life-long consumers of new research and of edicts from "on high" (e.g. hospital administrators) that they should adopt or abandon a particular practice. Student doctors are taught to "argue their corner" and to do so using the language of evidence, not anecdote. Treating a medical condition is a matter of science (blended with positive personal qualities such as warmth and respect), not a matter of personal ideology (with a few notable exceptions, such as termination of pregnancy, where guidelines exist for how doctors should deal with their personal biases so as not to disadvantage their patient).


In the case of reading instruction however, we seem to have a terrain that has elements of religious boundary-setting around what teachers (and their educators) can and cannot be challenged over. This is ethically indefensible and if allowed to continue will simply perpetuate the widening gap between the "haves" and "have nots" in the early years classroom and beyond. There is nothing progressive, socially or educationally, about standing by and being complicit in maintaining such an unfair status quo.


Academics who have interrogated the evidence on Reading Recovery and found it to be wanting seem to have been afflicted by Cassandra's Curse - the ability to predict the future alongside the sure knowledge that they will be ignored.




References and further reading

Buckingham, J., Wheldall, K. & Beaman-Wheldall, R. (2013).Why Jaydon can't read: The triumph of ideology over evidence in teaching reading. Policy29(3), 21-32. 



Carter, M. & Wheldall, K. (2008). Why can't a teacher be more like a scientist? Science, pseudoscience and the art of teaching. Australasian Journal of Special Education, 32:1, 5-21.

Clay, M. M. (1993). Reading Recovery: A Guidebook for Teachers in Training.
Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Gough, P. B., & Hillinger, M. L. (1980). Learning to read: An unnatural act. Bulletin of the Orton Society, 30, 179-196.


Learning Disabilities Australia https://www.ldaustralia.org/literacy-reading.html 


Reynolds, M. & Wheldall, K. (2007). Reading Recovery 20 years down the track: Looking forward, looking back. International Journal of Disability, Development and Education, 54, 199-223.

Tunmer, W.E., Chapman, J.W., Greaney, K.T., Prochnow, J.E., & Arrow, A.W. (2013). Why the New Zealand national literacy strategy has failed and what can be done about it: Evidence from the progress in international reading literacy study (PIRLS) and Reading Recovery monitoring reports. Australian Journal of Learning Disabilities, 18(2), 139-180.


(C) Pamela Snow 2014

22 comments:

  1. Where are the links to the mountains of research that says Reading Recovery fails children? Does such overwhelming evidence against Reading Recovery exist? Or are we talking about a few reports opposing it whilst other research supports it?

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  2. Dear Anonymous
    Have you checked out the hyper-link at the end of the first paragraph? And of course the many references it contains. You might also want to look at the Tunmer et al paper listed above, as well as the following:

    Reynolds, M., & Wheldall, K. (2007). Reading Recovery 20 years down the track: Looking forward, looking back. International Journal of Disability, Development, and Education, 54,
    199-223

    Best wishes
    Pam

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  3. Thank you so much for this. As you know, I've been raising the issue of the contradictions of 'guidance' in England whereby we did manage to influence government to adopt and promote systematic synthetic phonics teaching including official warnings (guidance) about multi-cueing reading strategies (guessing words from cues) and we even managed to get promotion and funding for systematic synthetic phonics core programmes, cumulative decodable reading books and SSP resources and training - but, at the same time, government continued to fund Reading Recovery which contradicted all other guidance on reading instruction.

    You are absolutely right, and others, that this is a matter of not being able to hold anyone in authority to account.

    And many of our weakest learners are given RR intervention using methods which are officially warned against. It's a mess.

    It is still the case in England to this day - and this scenario goes on and on and on - failing so many children - particularly the most disadvantaged children.

    No-one will face up to these contradictions - so the teaching profession is rightly confused and there is no common understanding across the teaching professions in any of the English-speaking countries.

    And it does not have to be like this.

    Thank you once again, I shall be circulating the link for your posting.

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  4. Thanks for your comment and reflections Debbie. You are so right, that the contradictions are particularly unhelpful for all concerned and work against achieving optimal outcomes for all children, but especially those who really need the direct instruction from the outset.

    And you're right too, to say that someone has to face up to these messy contradictions and untangle them. I'm sure the experience of classroom teaching would be more enjoyable if teachers weren't receiving such unnecessarily mixed messages. I think it's going to take a generation for this mess to wash out :(

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  5. If it ever does wash out!

    One thing which is very encouraging, however, is the development of international and collegial support and interaction.

    It's a team effort to draw attention to these fundamentally important issues.

    Debbie
    X

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  6. I'm an optimist :)
    And I agree - the international collegiality around this is very strong - made easier of course by the internet and social media.

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  7. Yes - it is the internet and social media that will make the difference at this point in time!

    So I'll be an optimist too! ;-)

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  8. Hello Professor Snow,
    It was with interest that I read your commentary on Reading Recovery. Just for the time being however I will answer the question that is perplexing you about why the term 'Recovery" is used in Reading Recovery. Clay refers to the 'Recovery' not in terms of 'recovering requisite skills' as you stated but as seeing children, at the acquisition stage of literacy learning, beginning to go 'off course'. Clay likens this to a yacht that needs to 'recover' its course so it may reach its destination safely. Like you and your colleagues, Reading Recovery, is enabling young literacy learners in becoming literate.
    I hope I have lessened you perplexity regarding the trademarked name "Reading Recovery".
    regards
    Andrea

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  9. Dear Andrea
    Thanks for your comment and my apologies for the rather slow response.
    I appreciate the explanation and while I understand the metaphor, I don't think it's one that really works for children who are beginning readers, because many of them were never "on course" in the first place and as you know, the term has a very entrenched everyday meaning from the medical paradigm, where it refers to "getting over" a disorder. Unfortunately far too many children who are exposed to RR as an intervention do not "get over" their disorder - they take it forward with them into the higher grades, where the language and literacy demands only increase with time.

    Perhaps, to extend Marie Clay's analogy a little further, these children remain far too susceptible to the prevailing winds, and are unable to achieve steady progress towards that great but elusive finishing line - academic achievement.

    Best regards
    Pam

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  10. And what is to become of those children who have had very good exposure to excellent phonics teaching but can still not read? More phonics instruction until they leave for secondary school?

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  11. Dear Anonymous
    Phonics has been shown to be foundational to early reading success - in this sense it is "necessary but not sufficient". Good teaching draws on range of strategies and lingusitic knowledge bases (e.g., of morphology, vocabulary, comprehension monitoring, narrative skills etc). So if a child has had "excellent phonics instruction" and is still struggling, then s/he needs a timely assessment by someone appropriately qualified (e.g., an educational psychologist or a speech pathologist), to determine the underlying reason for their continued difficulties, followed by exposure to an evidence-based intervention.
    Best regards
    Pam

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  12. Like the alcoholic, until the educational establishments admits a problem there is no admitting of a solution. Anyone can teach a child to read, but this can only be done with explicit phonics. Abstract notions like try using context, look at the shape of the word and guessing are non-informative to a child (or even an adult) learner.

    Vic

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  13. http://www.intrinsicphonics.net/Teaching_Reading/Understanding_Reading/Entries/2009/3/7_The_History_of_Reading_%26_Reading_Recovery.html

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  14. Like the alcoholic, the educational establishment, until it admits there is a problem, will not admit of a solution. Anyone can teach a child to read, but only with explicit phonics. Abstract notions like guessing, using context or the shape of the word are non-informative to beginning readers.

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  15. Thanks Pamela,
    Some really challenging ideas here - and lots of contention.
    Personal Recovery Coach

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  16. Wow if you say something that works doesn't work repeatedly and adamantly enough, I guess you can fool yourself and others. You need to look at the data tracking kids entire learning trajectory over primary and secondary after reading recovery. Plainly you haven't, empty vessels clang loudest and you're being very loud about reading recovery. Sorry the name is a bit naff. Obviously that has informed your partisan, ideological anti program stance. That or the "research" $ of some agency that would rather not fork out to turn around children who would have grown to adulthood illiterate and don't.

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  17. Dear Sally
    I have published your comment in the interests of being open to a range of views on my blog. However you may like to check my front page where I invite collegial engagement, rather than shrill, ad hominem attack. Reading Recovery clearly helps *some* children - as any 1:1 intervention delivered over 20 weeks clearly should. However that is not enough on a population level. Evidence from three national inquiries into the teaching of reading (USA, UK, and Australia) emphasises the importance of phonics as a starting point, but in RR, as in other Whole Language-based approaches, phonics is a last resort, and even then it is analytic and not synthetic.
    I am fully aware of the passion attached to RR in some teaching circles and it both saddens and disappoints me that the cognitive science on what makes for good reading instruction and remediation is not welcomed with open curiosity and preparedness to review current practice - in the same way that we expect our medical colleagues to constantly review new evidence and consider changed practices as a consequence. Heaven knows, Sally, we might ALL be wrong and be missing something important. But if we're not open to new ideas, we'll never know.
    Kind regards
    Pam

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  18. Pam - I'm sorry to say even that 20 weeks figure is misinformed - 20
    Weeks is the MAXIMUM - it is accorded most often to the very low acquisition children, those given highest priority and tested on with greatest need - those that after a year of good classroom input, phonics programs and extra assistance, are typically still only able to read a level 1-3. Most children in the first intake require less than this maximum - say 17 weeks. The second and third intakes typically see anywhere between 7-13 weeks of intervention - sometimes more or less but not often. The program is always based on meticulous observations of the child at point of need, so if phonics is what they need that's what they get. Most often with the third intake it is simply orchestration of a number of skills that needs to be worked on but As all learners are different there is never a rule, just a format to fit the individualised planning/focus for each lesson into. I fear you have looked from outside with a great deal of misinformation at your disposal.

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  19. Pam - I'm sorry to say even that 20 weeks figure is misinformed - 20
    Weeks is the MAXIMUM - it is accorded most often to the very low acquisition children, those given highest priority and tested on with greatest need - those that after a year of good classroom input, phonics programs and extra assistance, are typically still only able to read a level 1-3. Most children in the first intake require less than this maximum - say 17 weeks. The second and third intakes typically see anywhere between 7-13 weeks of intervention - sometimes more or less but not often. The program is always based on meticulous observations of the child at point of need, so if phonics is what they need that's what they get. Most often with the third intake it is simply orchestration of a number of skills that needs to be worked on but As all learners are different there is never a rule, just a format to fit the individualised planning/focus for each lesson into. I fear you have looked from outside with a great deal of misinformation at your disposal.

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  20. Sally you and I are in furious agreement about the importance of supporting low-progress readers, but we obviously don't concur on how best to get there. It is great that you have seen positive results, which of course do occur for some children in RR. My research, however, focuses on the tail of the curve, and my fundamental concern is actually not so much RR, but rather the instructional camp from which it arises - Whole Language. RR teachers always say that "phonics is in the mix" (a la so-called "Balanced Literacy"), but for many low-progress readers that is not enough, and in RR it is analytic, not systematic synthetic phonics that is used - as part of the much loved Three Cuing Strategy (see Dr Kerry Kempenstall's excellent commentary on this here: http://www.readaustralia.com/three-cueing-system.pdf).
    You may also be interested to read this open access paper of mine: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.3109/17549507.2015.1112837
    I don't expect you to agree with my arguments (though I think we will have common ground on at least some isues), but just as you have shared reading material with me in an effort to influence my thinking, I would hope I may do the same with you.
    Best wishes
    Pam

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  21. Pam you seem to be overlooking that the kids who receive RR have just had a year of phonics and great teaching and it hasn't worked. The kids who do well on RR (most) have all the dots in the puzzle alugned and they are just not connecting them. We work out why for rack kid and help them Mage it happen.

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  22. Sally you're making a VERY big assumption there when you refer to "a year of teaching and great phonics". The research shows that what teachers are referring to when they talk about "doing phonics" is highly variable. You're also overlooking the fact that children who are exposed to systematic synthetic phonics from the outset have a very different entree to reading from those who begin in the land of Three Cuing and analytic phonics. Perhaps this is a distinction you haven't encountered before? Alison Clarke has written a great blog post on the folly of Three Cuing (in addition to the paper by Kerry Hempenstall that I shared earlier). You can find it here: http://www.spelfabet.com.au/2016/08/multi-cueing-teaching-the-habits-of-poor-readers/
    Cheers
    Pam

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