Friday, 25 August 2017

Who’s in your reading instruction family tree?

Many people spend vast tracts of time trawling through family photos, birth, death, and marriage certificates and online repositories of church records and the like to compile an understanding of where they came from, culturally and geographically.  From time-to-time family-tree research even turns up some bragging rights – paradoxically in Australia, that often comes in the form of finding a convict in the higher branches of the family tree.

However, I wonder how many in education (whether as classroom teachers or as university academics) give thought to the ancestry of their beliefs and practices concerning early reading instruction? I often hear (or read, e.g. on Twitter) “I am not a Whole Language advocate”, or "I don’t use Whole Language approaches”, yet the practices these same people go on to advocate do in fact, have their origins in Whole Language.

So let’s have a look at some common philosophical positions, beliefs, and practices, and shake the family tree to see where they come from. In some cases, we can trace lineage to a particular epistemological camp, and in others, we find there is mixed lineage – as in our own family trees.

I may have missed some ideas, and am happy to add them in. You may also think I have muddled the lineage of some ideas or approaches, in which case I am happy to hear from you and be directed to sources that re-calibrate my understanding.

I will contrast “Whole Language”- derived approaches here with approaches derived from cognitive science, as no phonics advocates argue for a single focus on one aspect of the language system over and above the others. 

Lineage and comment
Learning to read is natural – just like learning to speak and understand oral language.
Whole Language
This is such a lovely, but incorrect idea. Reading and writing are derived from spoken language, but they are not a simple representation of spoken language in a different modality. Written language tends to be more formal, has conversational dysfluencies and pauses edited out, and historically, has not occurred in “real time” between two parties. (That has changed in recent times, with the advent of email, texting, etc). 
Spoken language is a faculty humans have developed over millions of years of evolution, such that the human brain devotes significant amounts of its real estate to producing and understanding language.
Reading and writing, on the other hand, have only existed for 5-6000 years – a mere blink in evolutionary terms. This means that the human brain has had to “re-purpose” language pathways for reading, and it requires skilled instruction for optimal development. Interested readers are referred to the work of Professor Stanislaus Dehaene on this subject. 
It should also be remembered that much in all as speaking and understanding may be “biologically natural” children do receive an enormous amount of specific 1:1 input from adults to develop oral language skills in the pre-school years. Oral language doesn’t magically pop up out of nowhere; it develops within the interpersonal space between children and their carers. 
Unfortunately, however, children have quite variable experiences of oral language in the pre-school years, such that some arrive at school with richly developed phonological/phonemic awareness, vocabularies, narrative language skills, and so on, and others are more impoverished. This means that early teaching needs to accelerate the progress of those who start from behind. It's not enough for these children to be making progress at the same rate as their linguistically more able peers. 
It is these same children who start from behind, who often remain behind, and then make up the “long tail of under-achievement” in reading outcomes.   
Oral language skills are fundamentally important to the acquisition of reading.
Here we find some mixed lineage in our family tree, and a good thing that is too, but it creates that awkward moment at family gatherings of look-alike cousins who may not be as similar as they initially appear.
It would be odd if Whole Language advocates such as Goodman, Smith, Cambourne et al. did not emphasise the importance of oral language for learning to read, as it is axiomatic to their views on where reading skills are derived from.
Strangely, however, advocates of cognitive science in early reading instruction are sometimes falsely accused of promoting “phonics only” approaches (I have never actually heard such calls but it is claimed by some Whole Language advocates, without any evidence).

However, a proper look at the arguments from cognitive science shows that they are embedded in a wider emphasis on the so-called “Big Five” of phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, comprehension, and fluency. This is nowhere better represented than in the Five from Five Project which provides abundant resources for teachers and parents. Readers should also check out this paper by Australian education academic, A/Prof Deslea Konza, in which she advocates for a widening of this notion to The Big Six, explicitly including oracy in the framework. 
As I have outlined previously, what separates phonics out from these other language elements is that it is contentious and in many cases, poorly understood.

The bottom line is that what occurs within words is part of the language system – phoneme-grapheme links and morphological affixes are part of the meaning system that we call language. Whole Language cannot be whole unless it takes account of what occurs within words, not just what happens between them. 
Every child learns differently
Whole Language
This is one of those simplistic truisms that got into the education water and is now difficult to remove. If there’s 7 billion people on this planet, there are not 7 billion different learning needs. Teaching would be impossible if that was the case. Yes, all children are individuals and need to be cherished and respected as such, but human brains, like hearts, livers, kidneys, gall bladders, skeletons etc have more in common with each other between individuals, than they do differences.

Of course, some differences do occur,   and of course these differences do sometimes matter – especially in the context of developmental disabilities. But in the main, we should assume similarities in needs not differences. For teachers, this translates into pattern-recognition, without which teaching would not become easier over time and experience would count for little at all.
Literacy develops from whole to part
Whole Language
This view reflects the “top down” approach to early reading instruction espoused by Whole Language advocates such as Kenneth Goodman, who also asserted (2014, p. 85) that “There is no hierarchy of sub-skills, and no necessary universal sequence”.  
This is the kind of thinking that sees a Blunderbuss approach taken to early reading instruction – children are “sprayed” with instructional bullets such as sight-words lists to rote-learn, predictable texts, and encouragement to guess. They are left to infer the alphabetic principle (if they are lucky), and are not afforded the developmental scaffolding of simplified sentence structure, vocabulary, or word structures.
Beginning readers should be encouraged to rote learn lists of sight-words
Whole Language
Because English has only a semi-transparent orthography (i.e. links between sounds and letters are sometimes clear and sometimes not), Whole Language advocates deal with the issue of high-frequency “irregular” words by presenting them to children early in the learning-to-read process as a massive visual memory task. Such words might be written on flash-cards and children simply have to memorise them as wholes. Never mind that most, if not all have some regular features, and never mind that some children have had very little text-exposure in the pre-school years, so just the abstract notion that these black squiggles on the page represent spoken words can be a mystery in itself.
Over time of course, we want nearly every word to become a sight word – a word that readers cannot not read, even if they choose not to – because the level of automaticity for the brain is so high, that reading is not a matter of conscious choice.
Children should be encouraged to invent spellings, and to experiment with punctuation
Whole Language
Delightful in all as some of the products of this process may be, it is an inefficient means of learning, as it provides too many opportunities to learn error patterns. Teaching children correct spelling and punctuation, and giving them opportunities to practice these results in improved automaticity and frees up cognitive capacity for the next level of complexity. Practising errors is confusing to young children and is an inefficient way to learn.
It’s better for children to discover/intuit the alphabetic principle for themselves, through learning to read and write. Phonics (if it must be taught) is best dealt with in the context of authentic, meaningful texts
Whole Language
These are central tenets of Whole Language-based reading instruction and if they dominate your beliefs and practices then you can see where the ancestry of your ideas lies. Check out Kenneth Goodman’s ideas here.
Three language systems interact in reading: the grapho-phonic, the syntactic, and the semantic, so children should use the Three Cueing System to deal with unfamiliar words during reading.
Whole Language
This is a popular and widely promoted approach  (sometimes referred to as “Searchlights” in the UK), though it is atheoretical and had a mysterious entrance into the educational arena, as outlined by Alison Clarke. 

Alison observes that:

“Strong readers and spellers internalise and automatise the links between words’ sounds and their spellings, and eventually can convert speech to print and print to speech at lightning speed without conscious effort. It’s only weak readers who have to guess from pictures, context, syntax or anything else. Context, syntax etc. come into play after a word is identified, in comprehending the text.”

Multi-cueing (or Three Cueing) is also strongly linked to the Whole-Language based idea that beginning readers should be encouraged to look at pictures to “derive meaning from text”.

The logical inconsistency of course, is that if children are looking at pictures in order to work out what the words are, then they are looking at and naming pictures, which is a different skill from reading.
Comprehension of meaning is always the goal of readers.
Whole Language
This is a bit of a motherhood statement that is intended to sweep away more nuanced consideration of the task at hand for the beginning reader. As summarised by Hoover and Gough’s (1990) Simple View of Reading, the beginning reader’s success is a product (not a sum) of their decoding ability and their language comprehension skills. 
So yes, the end-game is comprehension but we need to get to comprehension via decoding. This becomes only too apparent in the middle primary years, when picture cues and predictability diminish, and some previously apparently “good” readers are devoid of decoding skills. 
An early emphasis on systematic synthetic phonics equates to
·        Drill and Kill
·        Barking at Print
·        A neoliberal conspiracy to destroy children’s love of reading and literature. 
Whole Language (obviously!)
It is better to systematically teach children how to de-code at the outset, while carefully introducing sight words, constantly developing vocabulary skills, and strengthening comprehension skills.
Cognitive science (obviously!)
A “Balanced Approach” to early literacy is what works: making sure that phonics is “in the mix”, but starting with predictable texts, sight words, and encouraging children to guess from context.

Whole Language
I’ve blogged about the problems associated with this “instructional bricolage” before. Balanced Literacy, as the diagram below illustrates, is a “bit of this, and a bit of that”. It is atheoretical and open to an infinite number of ways of being interpreted by different teachers. It does not position explicit phonics teaching as the starting point in early years classrooms, and is basically a re-badging of Whole Language instruction.

Letter of the Week
Someone will need to help me out here as I am not 100% sure of the lineage of LOTW. It does not intrinsically look like it belongs in either camp. Maybe it’s reading instruction’s cuckoo’s egg?
Either way, there is a good critique of this approach here
Identification of word families – onset and rime
Cognitive science
According to Hempenstall (2015, p. 16) “The onset of a syllable is its initial consonant(s), and the rime is its vowel and any subsequent consonants in the syllable". 
Hence in the words “tap” and “trap”, the onsets are “t” and “tr” respectively, and they share the rime “ap”. The aim of this approach is to strengthen syllable and phonemic awareness and to teach decoding by analogy (e.g., knowing that “mug” and hug” belong in a “word family” should help a child to decode “jug” by analogy. This approach seems to have had some popularity in recent years, however its usefulness over an emphasis on phoneme-grapheme relationships for beginning readers is questioned by eminent reading researchers, such as Professors Maggie Snowling, Charles Hulme, and Kate Nation of Oxford University (see Hempenstall, 2015).
Children should read authentic texts from the outset
Whole Language
This is a central tenet of Whole Language instruction and is one of those nice ideas that has inherent face appeal, while lacking empirical substance. It goes something like this:  

There are so many beautiful children’s story books out there, so surely if we use those to teach children to read, we will instil a love of reading and hey presto, will produce a generation of passionate readers.

If only it were so.
Given the influence of Whole Language instruction in our schools over the last three-four decades, I think we can be fairly certain that this logic does not apply. I have blogged before about the authentic illusion in early literacy instruction.
We should not conflate the books that adults read to children (which should be rich and varied in their content: vocabulary, syntactic structures, and narrative complexity) and books that we provide to beginning readers to get them off the blocks. These should be simple and decodable, to allow graduated consolidation of sound-letter correspondences, while also introducing high-frequency sight words that are not readily decodable (e.g. “could”). There are many options for decodable texts and some are listed here
All that’s really needed to improve literacy skills is to better engage parents in the process of reading to their children and instilling a love of reading.
Whole Language
This is a view promulgated by some children’s authors (e.g. Mem Fox). Reading to children is important at so many levels – as a soothing, engaging, entertaining, horizon-expanding activity that parents and children can enjoy together. It is not enough, in itself, however, to get children across the bridge to literacy.
Teachers should provide a rich language and literacy environment for students and should emphasise speaking, listening, reading, and writing.
Mixed lineage.
This is a point of furious agreement between the Whole Language and cognitive science camps, as reflected in the Five from Five Project mentioned above.

It's good to know that when the extended family gets together from time to time, there are some safe topics on which we can all agree. 

(C) Pamela Snow (2017)

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