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.
Buckingham, J., Wheldall, K. & Beaman-Wheldall, R. (2013).Why Jaydon can't read: The triumph of ideology over evidence in teaching reading. Policy, 29(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.
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 Tweet