When the school system fails

Supporting teachers to help students with learning difficulties

 

As a referral and information officer at SPELD NSW we often get calls from classroom and learning support teachers trying to find extra assistance for children with learning difficulties. It never ceases to amaze me the passion and care exhibited by these teachers. As a former high school teacher I understand that there is never enough time in the day, so for these teachers to go out of their way, often for just one of their students, is uplifting.

 

This post was inspired by one such learning support teacher concerned about the mental health of a child with Dyslexia in her care. She was so grateful to have found SPELD NSW and the information and support we provide. But as a parent of a child with learning difficulties I was grateful that she went the extra mile for the student.

 

The phone calls often have an undertone of frustration with the limitations placed upon teachers due to lack of funding and resources for these students. The teachers so desperately want to help these children the best way they can. People enter teaching with a passion to educate and then find themselves in a situation of being underprepared to teach students with learning difficulties. In many ways the system is not only letting down the children with learning difficulties but also their teachers. Even learning support teachers often have no specialist training but find themselves in the role juggling multiple children with a variety of needs.

 

As a parent of a child with multiple learning difficulties it is also much appreciated. Over the years my daughter has had the privilege of so many teachers who have helped her in her difficult journey. As a parent it would be my dream to hear that my daughter’s teacher has experience and training in learning difficulties, but it is rare to even have a teacher with even the most basic knowledge. As a parent I couldn’t be happier if they are ringing SPELD NSW for help, joining Dyslexia Support Australia and asking for guidance. I love it when teachers admit they don’t know much about Learning difficulties and ask how they can support my daughter more in the classroom. Parents and teachers working together to get the best outcome for the child is always the best approach for children with learning difficulties.

 

As parents we often divert our blame and anger at teachers. Like every profession there are some teachers who definitely could do a better job. But we also forget about their lack of training and time constraints. We forget that many of them are going the extra mile for our children. As a parent of a child with learning difficulties and a teacher I can see the issues from both sides.

 

My daughter will never forget her year 3 teacher who built her self esteem back up when she was at her lowest. He came to watch her tutoring sessions. He would take home her stories and type them up for her. He listened and he learnt. At the end of the year when I whole heartedly thanked him for the wonderful job he did he thanked me and my daughter for teaching him so much.

 

We need to support our teachers to get the best outcome for students. SPELD NSW is advocating for improved teacher training and targeted funding for learning difficulties. Easily accessible and appropriate specialist support should be provided in all schools for those with specific learning difficulties. Teachers need more training and greater support in assisting students with learning difficulties and in evidence based methods for reading instruction. The system is not only letting students down but letting our teachers down.

 

 

New review suggests education schools are failing to train new teachers to teach reading effectively

New review suggests education schools are failing to train new teachers to teach reading effectively

https://gregashman.wordpress.com/2019/07/13/new-review-shows-education-schools-are-failing-to-train-new-teachers-to-teach-reading-effectively/
— Read on gregashman.wordpress.com/2019/07/13/new-review-shows-education-schools-are-failing-to-train-new-teachers-to-teach-reading-effectively/

The gift I would like to return

There is a big theme within the Dyslexia community to promote Dyslexia as a gift. Whether being dyslexic comes with strengths remains a controversial issue that is under researched. There is some limited research that supports improved visual spatial processing strengths in individuals with dyslexia. People with dyslexia are certainly overrepresented in the arts and the business world but it remains to be seen whether dyslexia confers any extra benefits. It may be that faced with difficulties at school forces the individual to develop a level of resilience to failure and other coping mechanisms that allow them to succeed in their chosen field. Children may also seek refuge in the arts and creativity when confronted with the stress of the classroom.

I think the Dyslexia as a gift approach has a number of issues. Please don’t shoot the messenger. I’ve lived the Dyslexia roller coaster for a number of years and I hear all the stories.

“Dyslexia comes with gifts” is not backed by a lot of research evidence. I do love my research and for me to jump on the Dyslexia is a gift bandwagon would make me look like a hypocrite.

The “Dyslexia is a gift” line is utilised as a marketing tool for non evidenced based treatments. As a parent it is easy to see how selling Dyslexia as a gift is easy to swallow. I would love to think that my child has a special gift because she has Dyslexia. Because it has been a hard road. It’s a roller coaster ride and I would really like that ride to be a little bit fun. I need to believe it is for a purpose. This thought allows parents to be easily manipulated and sold woo. Some of these alternative therapies with a “gift approach” show an initial boost due to self esteem but they don’t solve the child’s illiteracy. The reality is remediation of reading for most children takes a lot of hard work. This may take years. There is no quick fix.

Many children with Dyslexia will struggle their entire life, particularly if they don’t receive appropriate intervention. I’ve heard if children as young as 6 wanting to kill themselves because they were struggling at school. Tell me how that is a gift? Selling Dyslexia as a gift can send a confusing signal to a child who is already struggling. Because it is just another point of failure for them. “I’m suppose to have a gift but I’m good at nothing.”

It is hard to advocate for your child in the school system demanding your child’s disability be addressed if there is this storyline of it being a gift. The message that it is sending is confusing for children, parents and teachers.

The gift approach promotes the idea that they will be no good at reading but that’s ok because they can just become an artist, or a tradesmen or run their own business. Literacy is a necessity for so many aspects of life. It is essential for the great majority of professions. We should always have the highest expectations of children. We should always strive to teach kids to read. The evidence shows very few children are actually unable to learn to read. Literacy should always be the goal. Literacy opens doors and illiteracy slams those doors shut and throws away the key.

All children have strengths. The most important thing is that your child finds their strengths and utilises those strengths to help overcome their weaknesses. It is also important for strengths and interests to be nurtured to allow the child to have something that they can be good at. This is extremely important to maintain self-esteem. This is important for both my children. For my struggling child this is 100 times more important!

My daughter just turned 14. She got a green screen and studio lights for her birthday as she has shown an interest and talent in film making and acting. She has repeatedly expressed appreciation for us supporting her passion. She is lucky enough to also have the support of extended family and friends. A friend’s mum who is also Dyslexic has offered to take her into her workplace and show her how green screens work.

She has been off sick for a few days since her birthday. She has spent her time reading the book I bought her for her birthday “Film making for teens.” This book has a significant amount of terminology. She can read it because she has received appropriate remediation. Being literate is helping her follow her passion and achieve her dreams.

All children need role models and that is even more important on the days when their difficulties seem insurmountable. Children need to know that they can be successful with determination and hard work. There are many successful adults with dyslexia who have overcome the odds and not only survived schooling but thrived.

Unlike some professionals I don’t see a problem with this. I don’t see a problem with a famous person saying “I’m Dyslexic and struggled at school and look what I have achieved.” Kiera Knightly is one of my daughter’s favourite famous Dyslexics. We have a routine in our house when things get hard. We ask my daughter “What did Kiera do to succeed?” My daughter has a standard answer. “She worked really hard, practised a lot and learnt how to read!”

I do see a problem when we label every creative thinker, like Einstein , as Dyslexic when there is no evidence for it. But a child looking up to successful adults is what all children do. My daughter sees being an author as a possible career for her because of all the wonderful books she has read written by Dyslexic authors like Jackie French. This is no different to the interview I saw yesterday with Ashleigh Barty. She talked about being an Aboriginal child and the importance of Evonne Cawley as an Aboriginal role model. Nit every Aboriginal kid is going to be number 1 in something and neither is every dyslexic child. But it is important to see that it is possible despite hardships.

As a child, I was called stupid and lazy. On the SAT I got 159 out of 800 in math. My parents had no idea that I had a learning disability.” Henry Winkler (Actor, producer, writer)

“I was one of the ‘puzzle children’ myself — a dyslexic . . . And I still have a hard time reading today. Accept the fact that you have a problem. Refuse to feel sorry for yourself. You have a challenge; never quit! ‘ Nelson Rockefeller

“I barely made it through school. I read real slow. But I like to find things that nobody else has found, like a dinosaur egg that has an embryo inside. Well, there are 36 of them in the world, and I found 35. ”Dr. John R. Horner (American paleontologist)

“My learning disabilities pushed me to discover talents that I wasn’t aware of having. It has also led me to develop products to help others who struggled through school as I did.” – Reyn Geyer, inventor of Nerf balls & Twister

Before my daughter’s assessment for dyslexia she thought she was stupid and dumb. She used to verbalise these thoughts frequently and had been called such by bullies and unfortunately by teachers. She was frequently told she could do a better job, try harder and put more effort into her reading and writing. She logically blamed herself. Dyslexia gave the problem a name. She could externalise the blame and was able to identify with role models in the community. Today she says school is hard but being dyslexic makes her feel special and unique. She describes it in one word as awesome!

She has moved towards a thought process that it is ok and a little bit special being different. She has also been empowered by joining in activities with the dyslexic community and finding kids who think the same way and have school struggles. She is lucky enough to have some wonderful friends who enjoy listening to her creative stories at lunch time. One friend said that she has had an interesting life and should write a book! High School saw her make some very special friends with learning difficulties and she said that for the first time ever she feels like she belongs. Her friends agree having a friend who also has Dyslexia is the biggest thing that helps.

“The single most important implication of research in dyslexia is not ensuring that we don’t derail the development of a future Leonardo or Edison; it is making sure that we do not miss the potential of any child. Not all children with dyslexia have extraordinary talents, but every one of them has a unique potential that all too often goes unrealized because we don’t know how to tap it.” Maryanne Wolf (2005)

I love my daughter and have been there for her every step of the way.

Would I prefer she didn’t struggle with many aspects of school? Yes.

Would I prefer she didn’t vomit before school from anxiety? Yes.

Would I prefer I didn’t have to fight for her to get the best possible outcome? Yes.

Has it broken my heart to see her struggle? Absolutely.

Would I like to return the gift of Dyslexia and get a refund? You bet I would!

Crying foul in the phonics debate. The influence of vested interests.

The anti-phonics advocates, like a bunch of lemmings lined up to jump off the cliff, like to dismiss phonics advocates valid arguments and research with the cry of commercial interests or evil right wing influences. Some even refuse to even read research based on unproven vested interests.

Twitter quotes… have a go yourself and search for vested interests phonics, think tank phonics, right wing phonics…never ending! Some tweeters pop up repeatedly.

“So, a right-wing libertarian think tanker on the cover of #researchEd magazine? No thanks….”

“Some years back reading became “phonics”. Pushed by linked right-wing “think tanks” and vested interests selling phonics programmes.”

So let’s get my vested interests out of the way first.

Someone even asked me if I truly had children’s interests at heart implying that I had some other vested interest. She then blocked me when I requested an apology. That individual actually has presented at seminars for a commercial program!

I do not gain any commercial interest from any product. All my advocacy is unpaid and has cost me money to advertise my Facebook pages and take time off work in the past to attend seminars which are not tax deductible. I am a founding member of Code Read Dyslexia Network (a charity). I am a board member of SPELD NSW. I run a volunteer support group Dyslexia Support Australia. My children are too old to benefit from primary schools teaching explicit systematic phonics and the phonics screening check (PSC) is 7 years too late for my daughter.

So according to the definition do I have vested interests?

“If you have a vested interest in something, you have a very strong reason for acting in a particular way, for example to protect your money, power, or reputation.” (Collins Dictionary)

The answer to that is probably yes as I have put myself out there strongly advocating and I will certainly look the fool if proven wrong. I have some sort of reputation to protect.

Do those crying vested interests have any investment that influences them?

Those who have built a career around supporting an approach to teaching reading that no longer follows current research certainly have a lot invested. Particularly so in the case of very public supporters with big reputations. There are many University teacher educators who are very public and have gone so far as selectively using evidence to support their position in news and teaching publications.

If the PSC gets implemented and shows significant deficiency in phonics teaching and then leads to an increase in reading outcomes they have big reputations on the line. Not only that but they have to sleep at night with the understanding that the thousands of teachers they have trained over the years could have been teaching kids to read better.

This certainly leads to a degree of cognitive dissonance when faced with a growing body of research.

Teachers who have long careers have a vested interests as they need to believe that what they are doing is the best possible for the students in their care. To finally admit that probably you could have been doing a better job is a hard pill to swallow. Many never get to see the long term outcome with “balanced literacy” often giving the impression of reading but failing when reading becomes more complex.

I know personally that since I have learnt and studied so much about learning difficulties that I now see, over a decade later, the faces of those kids I could have helped better. Those kids in my mind are what led me to advocacy work.

One of my fellow admins of Dyslexia Support Australia, like many of our teacher members, was led down the path to questioning her teacher training when her own child struggled to learn to read. She has since re-educated herself with further training and is a self confessed literacy research geek. Explicit systematic phonics and the PSC is over a decade too late for her child.

Is is fair to attack people’s comments based on their involvement in a phonics program?

One of the biggest catch cry’s in the phonics debate is most certainly about money making phonics programs. The majority of the stories I have heard about people designing phonics programs is that these programs have grown out of a need and desire to help children learn to read. I will admit I also know of exceptions and these “business owners” are obvious in their behaviour in decrying other programs and supporting only their methods.

I know that many Thrass advocates are quick to cry Multilit on one hand whilst singing the praises of the Thrass creator on the other.

Marie Clay gets quoted often and held up like some sort of god by her supporters. But not once have I had her research dismissed on the basis of her involvement in the Reading Recovery program. A program that was costing over $50 million a year in NSW alone. I’m not sure if during her life Marie made a cent out of Reading Recovery and I don’t care. I’m more concerned about her research validity.

Despite their vast differences Reading Recovery and Multilit have many parallels in their back story. Born out of research with a passion to help children learn to read. The big difference being Multilit continues to change and develop with ongoing research and feedback from teachers and parents.

Let’s not forget the huge amount of income that is being made in schools right now from companies selling “balanced literacy” resources and programs. They have a significant amount of cash and reputation to lose. Some are even moving into the phonics market.

Let’s not forget that no one is actually advocating the exclusive use of a particular program. I have seen the accusations that if a kid fails the phonics check they will be pushed into Multilit. This is an unfounded claim and there is no such evidence of a government pushing one program in England.

Many would like to see every teacher trained in explicit systematic phonics well so that they do not need to follow or use a particular program. Phonics teaching does not require fancy resources. My daughter was taught with a very old set of alphabet letters. Programs are really only as good as the teacher implementing them. Phonics programs exist because of the inadequate training of teachers. They are a very easy solution for a school to implement an across the board approach to teaching phonics.

Many creators of phonics programs and remedial tutors have expressed that nothing would make them happier than, after decades of advocacy, being out of a job.

Is it fair to dismiss a person’s views based on their political leanings or where the cash for their research comes from?

Politics should be left out of the debate and I have addressed this in previous blog. https://dekkerdyslexia.wordpress.com/2019/02/22/mind-the-gap/

My brother in law is a medical stroke researcher and he spends a lot of his time trying to fund his research. I’ve seen him writing research proposals on Christmas Day lying on the floor after back surgery. This is an on going battle that all researchers face. Does where the cash cow come from influence his work? I doubt that very much.

Are medical researchers possibly bias by drug company money? Undoubtedly! Freebies by drug companies has been scaled back in recent years due to such concerns.

But do people refuse to read medical research by a researcher based on their income source? I think not. Declaration of conflicts of interest are a part of any good research. Complete lack of bias in research just does not happen. This is human nature. Researchers are trained how to read and identify valid research and how to identify bias. They don’t validate research based on the author but on reading the research.

The Ad hominem personal attacks and knee jerk right wing, commercial program cries need to end. We need to start listening to the research evidence and questioning how we can drag up Australia’s growing tail of struggling readers. One child who could have been taught to read left suffering due to illiteracy is one child too many. I know because that one child was mine.

Setting fire to the ultimate straw man : Phonics only!

There seems to be this gigantic straw man in the phonics debate that those that advocate systematic phonics want there to be only phonics taught. When pushed there doesn’t seem to be one valid example of anyone who advocates a phonics only approach. If you can find one let me know. This blog is about setting fire to the phonics only straw man and outlining evidenced based literacy instruction.

So what are the phonics zealots advocating for?

Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) is often mentioned in the phonics debate but I prefer to use the terminology systematic explicit phonics instruction as this not only distinguishes itself from phonics in context, embedded phonics and analytic phonics but includes SSP and linguistic phonics. Evidenced based literacy instruction includes systematic explicit phonics early as a foundational concept otherwise many children will fail to comprehend text once reading becomes more difficult. I like Louisa Moats labelling “scientific based reading research (SBRR).

Why the focus on phonics in the debate?

Decades of research shows the importance of explicit phonics instruction as a foundational reading skill. Phonics in context is not enough and phonics instruction is often embedded in a balanced literacy program where students are expected to learn to read by some level of magic osmosis. This approach works for some children but leaves a significant number of children at risk of reading failure.

Phonics is an essential foundational skill that for many years has either not been taught at all (whole language) or been sprinkled onto a whole language approach in “balanced literacy”. Such phonics in context teaching has an ideological strangle hold in teacher training as it represents the romantic view of reading instruction. The evidence shows that such an approach will leave many children behind. Phonics needs to be explicitly taught by the teacher in a systematic fashion.

“… studies of reading development, studies of specific instructional practices, studies of teachers and schools found to be effective – converge on the conclusion that attention to small units in early reading instruction is helpful for all children, harmful for none, and crucial for some” (Snow & Juel, 2005, pp. 501–520).

Evidenced based literacy instruction

Evidenced based literacy instruction includes 5 key elements that must be taught explicitly and systematically. Phonological awareness, Phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension are all essential components of evidenced based literacy instruction. Without a solid foundation of essential reading skills comprehension will be impacted.

Oral language at the core

Oral language is a skill that should be achieved naturally before school and is also an essential foundation to achieve literacy. Oral language should be achieved through everyday interactions with adults. However some children may have language delays and should be referred for specialist intervention. Children with Dyslexia can often initially present with speech language delays due to an underlying phonological deficit.

Unlike the acquisition or oral language, literacy is a skill that needs explicit instruction. Only a small handful of children will achieve the skill of reading seemingly effortlessly and with little instruction through exposure to books. Explicit and systematic teaching in the 5 elements of literacy instruction are beneficial for all children and absolutely essential for a significant percentage of children.

Whilst exposure to a rich language environmental is essential to literacy acquisition it is certainly not enough to enable the great majority of children to become capable readers.

Phonological awareness and phonemic awareness

Phonological awareness (PA) is the ability to perceive and manipulate the sound and language components of words onset, rimes, phonemes and syllables. Many children develop the basic skills of phonological awareness through songs, rhymes and listening to children’s books. Poor phonological awareness is a very good predictor of reading failure.

Researchers have shown that this strong relationship between phonological awareness and reading success persists throughout school” (Calfee, Lindamood, & Lindamood, 1973; Shankweiler et al., 1995). http://www.ldonline.org/article/6254/

Phonemic awareness is a sub skill of phonological awareness which where children identify and manipulate individual sounds (phonemes) in a word. It includes the ability to separate a word into the sounds that make it up and to blend single sounds into words. It is like phonics without the actual association with letters. It is the top tier of phonological awareness. The development of phonemic awareness, being a higher order phonological awareness skill, can be difficult for most children and very difficult for some children. It is often an area of difficulty for children with Dyslexia and for children who have not been exposed to a rich oral language environment. For those children at risk of reading failure phonemic awareness needs to be explicitly taught.

http://www.ldonline.org/article/6254/

PA instruction helped all types of children improve their reading, including normally developing readers, children at risk for future reading problems, disabled readers, preschoolers, kindergartners, 1st graders, children in 2nd through 6th grades (most of whom were disabled readers), children across various SES levels, and children learning to read in English as well as in other languages.” National Reading Panel Report: An evidenced based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction.” https://www.nichd.nih.gov/sites/default/files/publications/pubs/nrp/Documents/report.pdf

Phonics

That direct instruction in alphabetic coding facilitates reading acquisition, is one of the most well established conclusions in behavioural science” Stanovich, progress in understanding reading

Phonics is the alphabetic code of the English language. It is the relationship between speech sounds and how we represent them in writing using letters of the alphabet. Phonics utilises the ability to break down the code of a word into individual phonemes and attach them to graphemes. This is particularly important for children with Dyslexia who will often need a much more intensive approach to the teaching of phonics. All students benefit from an explicit and systematic approach to teaching phonics.

Current research tells us unequivocally that struggling learners benefit: When the structure of spoken and written language, beginning with phonemes, is represented for them explicitly, sequentially, directly and systematically in the context of a comprehensive reading program” Birsh and Ghassemi 2010

The evidence is clear that the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics is the most effective way of teaching young children to read, particularly those at risk of having problems with reading.” Rose review, England (2006)

Fluency

Fluency is achieved when children have gained enough mastery and automaticity of phonics and high frequency words that their reading seems effortless. Children who are fluent read out loud with expression. Children who have achieved fluency at an appropriate level for the text do not guess but read with accuracy and sound out unknown words. Often children with Dyslexia don’t have the automaticity of the alphabetic code to achieve accurate reading at a flowing speed and their reading is laboured and choppy as a result. Lack of fluency will require a much greater load on working memory and processing speed and thus hinders comprehension of text.

Fluency can be assisted by the use of decodable readers in the early stages of reading. Decodable readers enable faster recognition of words, which in turn reduces the amount of mental energy required to decode the text. This facilitates the building of automaticity, fluency and confidence.

Students should be given ample opportunities to read out loud. Guessing and the use of multi cueing strategies should be discouraged in early reading acquisition. Children should be encouraged to decode unfamiliar words..”

Vocabulary

Knowing the meaning of words is essential for comprehension. The ability to read a word is essentially meaningless without understanding the word. Early exposure to conversations and being read to is of paramount importance to developing a rich bank of spoken vocabulary.

Achieving early reading fluency is essential to prevent the Mathew effect which will have a significant impact on a students acquisition of reading vocabulary. The Mathew effect is where poor readers are limited to restricted vocabulary in their reading and leads to a widening gap between readers as those who are successful early in reading are able to build a huge store of vocabulary through reading more complex texts.

Audio books and adults reading text can assist children to build vocabulary who are struggling to read at grade level.

It is also important to explicitly teach children vocabulary.

http://www.readingrockets.org/article/teaching-vocabulary

Comprehension

Comprehension is the extraction of meaning from text and is the end point for reading. It requires a set of complex foundational skills as discussed. Any deficit in any of these skills will hinder comprehension. A child who cannot read at a word or sentence level or a child will poor vocabulary will have impaired comprehension. A child without adequate fluency, poor working memory or attentional issues may lose the meaning of the text.

“Teaching reading [comprehension] strategies is worthwhile, but we should bear in mind that knowledge of strategies is only a small part of what makes an effective reader. A good reader also decodes fluently, has a broad vocabulary, and has wide-ranging background knowledge.” Willingham (2006)

Fewer than 1% of children who a good decoders with adequate vocabulary will have comprehension difficulties. (Lyn Stone, Reading for Life, 2019)

The simple view of reading

The ‘Simple View of Reading’, (Gough & Tumner, 1986) describes that reading comprehension is achieved when decoding and linguistic comprehension is achieved. Deficiency in either area will lead to poor comprehension. My daughter is an excellent example of the importance of each aspect. Assessed at age 8 ½ she had a reading comprehension age 1 ½ years below her peers. But testing also revealed a superior level of oral comprehension. My daughter was exposed early to a rich language environment. She enjoyed having complex text read to her much earlier than my other child. In preschool the teachers noted her huge vocabulary. Yet she struggled to learn to read because for children with dyslexia explicit systematic phonics is absolutely essential.

Strands of early literacy development. Reprinted from Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice, by H. S. Scarborough, in S. B. Newman & D. K. Dickinson (Eds.), 2002, Handbook of early literacy research, p. 98,

Classroom instruction best practice

The 5 keys to evidenced based literacy instruction must be taught explicitly, systematically, early and well.

The National Inquiry into Teaching of Literacy in Australia (2005) states; “in sum, the incontrovertible finding from the extensive body of local and international evidence-based literacy research is that for children in the early years of schooling (and subsequently if needed), to be able to link their knowledge of spoken language to their knowledge of written language, they must first master the alphabetic code – the system of grapheme-phoneme correspondences that link written words to their pronunciations. Because these are both foundational and essential skills for the development of competence in reading, writing and spelling, they must be taught explicitly, systematically, early and well.

Explicitly: “Explicit teaching is where teaching follows a very important direct principal of instruction when helping students to acquire essential skills.” Julie Mavlian 2018

 Systematically: Students are introduced to one concept or skill at a time before moving onto more complex areas. “Explicit instruction is also systematic: there is a carefully planned sequence for instruction, not simply a spur of the moment approach. The plan is constructed in a logical sequence that proceeds in a hierarchy from simple to complex objectives.”Hempenstall (2016) Read About It: Scientific Evidence for Teaching of Reading (p31)

Early: Before school students need to be exposed to a rich language environment in order to develop foundational vocabulary and phonological awareness. When children start school they should be explicitly taught phonological awareness and phonics due to the fact that they form an essential foundation to reading.

Well: Skills should be assessed and monitored and mastery of each skill should be achieved before progression to higher order skills.

We are leaving too many children behind. Illiteracy has devastating consequences. One child struggling to learn to read, who could have been taught, is one child too many. I know because that one child was my child. With the assistance of a tutor I was able to teach her to read. But the emotional scars remain years later. What I would like to see in this debate is less ideology, rhetoric and straw men and more facts and evidence!

Resources and further reading

Examples of High Quality, Evidence-Based Phonics Programs DSF https://www.education.sa.gov.au/sites/g/files/net691/f/examples_of_high_quality_evidence-based_phonics_programs.pdf

Reading for life Lyn Stone

https://www.bookdepository.com/Reading-for-Life-Lyn-Stone/9781138590922

Understood

https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/reading-issues/phonological-awareness-what-it-is-and-how-it-works

Mind the Gap

Politics, literacy and the Socio Economic Gap

Let’s shine a bit of light on the constant attack of phonics being right wing. The chatter on twitter attacking phonics on the basis of it being a “right wing idea” is quite constant and downright ridiculous at times. The teacher unions and teachers in general are certainly left wing. I used to be one of those left wing teachers.

“Either a secretive, corporate-backed “free market” thinktank that advocates privatising/charterising public schools, cutting education funding, and increasing class sizes really really wants kids to read good… Or there’s another agenda here. 🤔 #phonicscheck “

“All of the “research” in education carried out by the conservative think tank Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) is right wing rubbish.”

“It IS odd isn’t it. I have wondered about that too. Not about the veracity of phonics research but the right wing obsession.”

“WHAT is the *phonics* obsession with right-wing people in the teaching of literacy? I DO NOT UNDERSTAND.”

“Teachers in Australia are so fed up with being harangued by right-wing think tanks (and some politicians) about phonics.”

“I teach reading. Some years back reading became “phonics”. Pushed by linked right-wing “think tanks” and vested interests selling phonics programmes.”

“About to start teaching 27 (!) middle primary kids, who’ve come through whole language classrooms. According to #1in5 maniacs, this means that 5 or 6 won’t be able to read. Or could that just be another dogshit talking point from synthetic #phonics spivs?

Closing socio economic gap”

The “phonics is right wing myth” makes me quite angry for a number of reasons and not because it is just plain wrong.

Let’s get my political leanings out of the way first. This week saw the anniversary of my father’s death. On his coffin we placed a book on the The Australian Labor Party (ALP) to represent his undying love for politics, the ALP and his working class roots. Dad taught me about politics and to have my own strong opinion on matters. He taught us as children that we could express any point of view providing we based it on facts. He valued education and his generation was the first in the family to attend University. My grandfather made boots in a factory. As a big leftie he taught me to fight for those who couldn’t fight for themselves thus leading me into a path of volunteer advocacy. I joined the board of SPELD NSW in the wake of his death last year determined that I would continue his legacy.

I met my husband at a BBQ after we had been handing out How to vote leaflets for the ALP. My father in law died hammering in a ALP voting sign as an ALP elected member of the local council. He stood for federal parliament at one point as the ALP candidate. Many high up representatives of the ALP attended his funeral.

So call me right wing at your peril.

The accusation that the right wing must be interested in phonics due to financial interests needs to be examined for validity. This argument is absolutely ridiculous when you think about the enormous sums of money that are already being spent on PM readers, Reading Recovery, L3 and other commercial whole language and “balanced literacy’ programs and resources. It is also well established that excellent literacy instruction early reduces the the need for intervention and the amount of intervention thus saving money in the long term. Companies like Fountas and Pinnell have a lot to lose if schools move towards the use of phonics resources.

There are certainly many excellent commercial phonics programs available for teachers to use. But the reality is that any program is only as good as the expertise of the teacher implementing the program. I would like to see more teacher training in systematic, explicit systematic phonics so programs become less needed. Personally everything I do in the area of phonics is by a volunteer basis. I have no commercial interests in anything!

Personally I don’t care if The Five from Five project gets their funding from a right wing think tank. My father always respected anyone’s views and actions from any side of politics if it was the right thing to do. He taught me never to blindly follow anything or anyone unless the research and facts led me there independently. It’s a little offensive and certainly defamatory to accuse Jennifer Buckingham of twisting facts due to “financial interests”.

The current politics in Australia is beginning to take a bipartisan approach to phonics to some extent. The Liberal government has pushed for a phonics check nationally. This started somewhat with Christopher Pyne who at the time of being education minister listened intently to Dyslexia groups in Australia due to a family history of Dyslexia including his twin children. Implementation of the Phonics Check in South Australia was a commitment of the Liberal State government but it has bipartisan support with the Labor party having also being committed to introducing the check if they were elected. Most political parties are starting to listen to expert advice and the advocacy of Dyslexia groups.

I find it extremely odd that phonics and explicit teaching is seen as a right wing ideology as the evidence shows that excellent literacy instruction in early years goes a long way to closing the socio economic gap.

“Findings from the best-evidence synthesis of strategies for struggling readers living in poverty – What works for struggling readers? – identify that:

 Structured phonics-based approaches, in general, work better than non- phonics approaches.

 One-to-one tutoring by qualified teachers is very effective for improving literacy outcomes, but this is an expensive strategy. Tutoring by teaching assistants and volunteers can produce positive outcomes if they are well trained and use structured phonics materials.

 Intervening immediately is most effective for primary reading, where preventative whole-class strategies are adopted first, followed by tutoring for the small number of pupils who still need it.

https://www.york.ac.uk/media/iee/documents/Closing%20the%20Gap.pdf

So where does Australia stand in terms of literacy if the status quo continues? “In the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) Australia performed 12th in reading (down from 10th). There is a steady decline in the results since 2000, both in terms of overly simple international comparisons and absolute mean scores.” “the narrative of steady decline on PISA and TIMSS results continues, while educational inequality is on the rise.” https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-12-07/pisa-australia-ranks-poorly-but-what-can-we-learn/8097546

Current Australian reading policy has seen an improvement in average reading scores in the PIRLS but at the expense of the very long tail. “Australia still has the second-largest proportion of children below the international intermediate benchmark for reading among English-speaking countries.” http://theconversation.com/international-study-shows-many-australian-children-are-still-struggling-with-reading-88646 For a full analysis of the PIRLS results see the article.

The UK has one of the highest Socio Economic Gaps of any OECD country and has a policy of synthetic phonics introduced by a right wing government. In contrast with Australia, England has closed the literacy gap achieving the best PIRLS results in a generation. This was the first PIRLS cohort to go through the Phonics check where the mandated synthetic phonics policy was more strongly implemented. England managed to drag up its long tail in literacy. “The socio-economic gap is relatively high in England, but many students also overcome disadvantage.” The average reading score of students in England was significantly higher than in PIRLS 2006 and 2011, and higher than the 2011 majority of other countries. The improvements were mainly among boys and lower-performing students.” https://www.nfer.ac.uk/media/2530/ilsa02.pdf

“PIRLS 2016 marks the first cycle where it is possible to evaluate how pupils’ performance in the Year 1 phonics check, introduced in 2012, is associated with performance in PIRLS. The correlation between performance on the two tests is 0.52, indicating a moderate, statistically significant relationship; the group of pupils achieving full-marks in the Year 1 phonics check also have the highest average score in PIRLS 2016.

In PIRLS 2016, the gap between high and low-performers is still larger than in many other countries, but has been substantially reduced from previous PIRLS cycles. This has mainly been driven by large improvements in the performance of lower-performing pupils, as the 10th percentile score has increased by 15-points from 2011, whereas the 90th percentile score has only improved by 3-points from 2011.” https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/664562/PIRLS_2016_National_Report_for_England-_BRANDED.pdf

By spreading the myth that literacy is all about the influences of home environment we are undervaluing the ability of teachers to close the gap that children often bring with them to school. Teachers should set the highest standards and expectations of their pupils. Yes it is well established that some children are behind the day they walk into a classroom but that just means good evidenced based instruction is even more important.

“Research shows that pupils from low socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to attend pre-school or to have a home environment incorporating literacy and language activities than their less disadvantaged peers. As a result, children from low socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to enter school with the social and academic skills needed to set them up for success.” “The authors found that between one- and two-thirds of the variance between schools in terms of disadvantaged pupils’ achievement can be explained by school-level characteristics, suggesting that intake and circumstance are influential but do not totally determine outcomes.” http://www.beib.org.uk/category/achievement-gap/page/2/

The problems of low socio-economic gap is certainly multifaceted and has no easy solution. My friend used to teach at a school where there were so many issues it broke her heart. It was a school that used to make it onto the news on occasion for all the wrong reasons. In her classes the majority of kids had never seen a book before. She had refugees who had lost their parents in the Christmas Island boat tragedy. She had parents who were in jail, drug addicts and completely dysfunctional. Kids threw chairs across the room and beat each other with cricket bats.

She ensured those kids had the best possible education that they could receive with often little home support. She cared for them, nurtured them and read them lots of books. She also always had the highest expectations of them in terms of behaviour and achievement. She also taught them systematically and explicitly phonemic awareness, phonics, comprehension, vocabulary and fluency. She gave them a chance. I taught in a disadvantaged high school. Already life was mapped out for them. Stints in jail already, illiteracy and a continuing cycle of poverty.

Ensuring best practice in the classroom is just one aspect of many to ensure all children are given the best start in education. We need to leave ideology and political leanings at the door and examine the evidence. The science of reading is well established. Children of low socio economic status need good literacy because it may very well be the only chance they have of escaping the cycle of poverty.

Time to fly

The only time you should ever look back is to see how far you have come!

This blog is a bit of reflection on how far my daughter has come. I used to be afraid of the future. She struggled so much I couldn’t look forward to where she would be in the years ahead. But now I see how far she has travelled and how far she can go. I can see her strengths fighting to be seen and I can see her coming out of her cocoon and spreading her wings. My daughter still has so many challenges in front of her and there are still many hurdles to her success but I have hope. I can see the light at the end of a very dark tunnel. Just a glimmer of it.

My daughter has working memory and processing speed issues, severe social and general anxiety, Moderate Dyslexia, Dysgraphia and Dyscalculia. At the beginning of year 3 when she was assessed she was already years behind and had spent 6 months at a psychologist for her anxiety. By then school was such a dark place for her she would vomit, scream and cry before and after school. She had significant self esteem issues and was a good example of learned helplessness. She had given up. She couldn’t spell anything and reading was something she hated and feared. She would barely speak to teachers or strangers.

She has now just finished a year of high school. It has been a challenge but she has surpassed my expectations in every aspect. My goal was just to manage to hand things in, cope with the organisational aspects, make a few friends and control her anxiety. She had an extra challenge of the death of her grandfather early in Term 1 when she was still finding her feet.

She has impressed teachers with her creative thinking, her hard work ethic, her speeches and her writing. She has achieved grades higher than we could have imagined often getting A’s and B’s for assessments. Even in examinations she has often gone well despite all her difficulties. I’m not afraid of this years school report. I know it will be positive. The high school teachers almost universally (there are always a few) can see how much she tries and appreciate her strengths. Her half yearly report was a positive experience for her. I’ve already had a phone call from the year coordinator congratulating her on a wonderful year. She has exceeded everyone’s expectations. The learning support teacher mentioned how pleased he has been to see her personality come out and how confident she has become.

She has the most wonderful friends who appreciate her quirks, her strengths and support her when she is struggling. They have given her the confidence to be her unique self. They have helped turn on the light inside of her. They have turned up to see her drama performances, hugged her when her grandfather died and laughed with her when she has made mistakes. For the first time she feels like she belongs. For a teen belonging is what it is all about.

My daughter now reads for pleasure and keeps on her bookshelf every book she has read like a trophy. She spends her afternoons locked in her room writing stories. All those stories locked in her head are now finding their voice on a page. On the weekend she enthusiastically completed her English homework. A narrative with symbolism written with creativity and passion. Her creative writing is better than anything I could ever do and always amazes me. She wrote a poem for her grandfather’s funeral that made everyone cry.

On Saturday my daughter stood a metre from a group of strangers and her best friend and recited a Shakespeare sonnet without seeing it. She was nervous and had to wait through a dozen other kids for her turn. My husband lent over and said “How is she going to do it?”. All the other kids were nervous too. She is the youngest in her High School NIDA class. But she stood up and read it. Any mistakes she covered and to me it sounded perfect. She also performed in a pair a long scene from Shakespeare. This is a child who in year 3 could not read or talk in front of anyone.

A Dyslexic kid with social anxiety reading Shakespeare in front of an audience is an amazing achievement. It is a testament to what can be achieved with the right intervention and support. It has certainly not been easy and I’m exhausted and emotional writing this. But I’m so proud of how hard she has worked to get to this point. There have been many setbacks. Her anxiety and learned helplessness hold her back more than her learning difficulties do at times. This year there have been many achievements. There have been far more tears of joy than sadness. There have been so many moments of wow this year that I can now see the path ahead filled with hope.

It is so important to have the highest expectations of our kids. They will do amazing things. They will find their strengths. My daughter has found her feet and now she will fly!