Phonics debate embracing the evidence

Phonics in context debate 2018

I thought seriously about attending the debate. But I knew it would make me angry listening to the same old ridiculous arguments trotted out by the negative team. Listening to it online they certainly didn’t disappoint. I have heard every one of the points time and time again. Seems to be a theme in any phonics debate that the negative team bring out arguments that they have no substantiated evidence for but have become accepted knowledge in the teaching universe. Teachers seem to be in a bubble of ignorance that they hand down to the new generation of teachers. I was a teacher for 10 years so don’t throw the teaching bashing thing back at me!

The negative side was actually hard to analyse because it seemed to lack substance, be emotive and verged on the fluffy side of the debate. I don’t know if this was a deliberate attempt to confuse the audience or showed a level of ignorance on the part of negative side.

Most of all listening to the debate made me so sad. Sad that parents seemed to be lumped with a lot of the blame. The primary function of school is surely to teach children to read. Not parents. Sad that the research and science that has been established over decades is dismissed with the old chestnut “We know best.” Sad that the negative didn’t even seem to listen to the affirmative and continued on their quest despite it making them look like they missed what the debate was about. Sad that so many kids are being failed. Seriously failed. I hear the horror stories of kids as young as 6 wanting to die because they can not read.

The affirmative supported their arguments with research evidence so I am addressing the negative points with research to show the flaws in their arguments. I will include a few anecdotes in there because the negative seemed to like to tell a good yarn.

We have between us been teaching and in education for 100 years.

I hear this one a lot. “I’ve been teaching for decades so I know best.” To be honest I taught with many teachers who have been teaching for decades who were terrible teachers. Never improved the day they walked into a classroom. Never moved with new techniques or learnt from their mistakes. I taught for a decade and I guarantee if I walked back in a classroom today I would be a better teacher. I have researched, experienced and learnt so much as a parent of a child with multiple learning difficulties. I do think about it a lot that I could have done a much better job as a high school teacher, even though I think I was one of the better ones. I could have taught more explicitly, gone to more professional development about learning difficulties and supported kids more who could not read and write.

I think many of the problems of this insistence that “Balanced Literacy” works is that many children look like they are reading initially. Then there is the well documented year 3 or 4 slump when text becomes complex and the picture cues disappear and the child stumbles. By then the teacher has moved on to a bright new cohort of young learners failing to see the strugglers. This was certainly our experience, though compounded by severe anxiety and poor teaching, our slump was in year 2 right after reading Recovery ended. My daughter gained 2 reading levels in the whole year and could not sound out even the alphabet let alone a word.

Reading is a natural process like learning to speak as a baby.

“Children’s life chances.”

“Baby as a meaning maker.”

“Reading is an epiphany.”

The running theme or misguided belief that seemed to be consistent in the negative debate is that the development of oral language is the be all and end all of learning to read. The negative seem to be confused between learning to speak and learning to read!

I have actually addressed this in my previous BLOG https://dekkerdyslexia.wordpress.com/2018/04/10/phonics-check-myth-buster-2-learning-to-read-is-a-natural-process-and-advocating-just-a-phonics-approach-destroys-a-childrens-love-of-books/

I was so saddened by this that the parent blaming game seemed to be a central argument. As admin of Dyslexia Support Australia in our group we have discussed this many times. It makes parents so sad that the default position of teachers when a child struggles to learn to read seems to be “Did you read to your child enough?” This is so ingrained in teacher beliefs that they never stop to think about their own teaching. As a very involved parent it hurts. Without my intervention working on phonics with the guidance of our tutor there is no way my child would be able to read.

Yes being exposed to a rich language environment does give a good foundation of Phonemic awareness and vocabulary but excellent oral language does not ensure excellent reading. A child who struggles to learn to read because they have not been given explicit systematic phonics instruction will not love books no matter how much they are exposed to great literature.

The scientific evidence that refutes the idea that learning to read is a natural process is of such magnitude that Stanovich (1994) wrote:

That direct instruction in alphabetic coding facilitates early reading acquisition is one of the most well established conclusions in all of behavioral science. . . . The idea that learning to read is just like learning to speak is accepted by no responsible linguist, psychologist, or cognitive scientist in the research community (pp. 285-286).http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/mar98/vol55/num06/Why-Reading-Is-Not-a-Natural-Process.aspx

Scientists have established that most students will learn to read adequately (though not necessarily well) regardless of the instructional methods they’re subjected to in school. But they’ve also found that fully 40 percent of children are less fortunate. For them, explicit instruction (including phonics) is necessary if they are to ever become capable readers. These findings are true across race, socioeconomic status, and family background.” https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED498005.pdf

Not only is this supported by research I can attest to this through personal experience. My daughter adored books until she went to school. I read to her constantly. It was our main activity. I still read to her at age 13. She went to preschool for 2 1/2 years and was surrounded by rhyme, songs and books. She was read to and spoken to by Aunts, Uncles and grandparents who are Doctors, lawyers, teachers and authors. Her first sentence was “read dis book yep” as she followed me around the house toddling and carrying a book. When tested, in our search for answers, she had above average verbal comprehension.

The cover photo for this blog is me reading a book to my baby who struggled to learn to read until she got explicit and systematic phonics instruction.

Phonics is not enough!

“Not sufficient to privilege phonics”

I’m actually wondering if the negative side actually listened to the affirmative side at all or just came with a defined script. Which is poor debating. Both Jennifer Buckingham and Anne Castles started their speeches outlining this as the exact point and Jennifer runs a project FivefromFive it is most definitely not OnefromOne.Troy Verey actually outlined how phonics is taught at his school in 30 minutes sessions explicitly and sequentially. He also outlined how explicit instruction was given in phonological awareness, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension. He said more than once the 5 essentials of reading. Yet Mark Diamond ludicrously followed this minutes later with “ Phonics is not enough!”

Meaning comes first

This was reiterated over and over again by the negative side of the debate. I’d like to know how you get meaning out of text if you cant actually read the individual words?

Comprehension is most certainly the ultimate goal of reading but unlike what the negative say there are many foundational skills needed for comprehension to occur. Research supports that comprehension and fluency is achieved when a solid foundation has been laid down to achieve success. The foundational skills of oral language, phonemic awareness and phonics are of paramount importance. Often children with dyslexia have a phonological deficit which will impact significantly on their ability to learn the alphabetic principle and sounds of the English language. This doesn’t not mean that they need alternative methods. It means that they need to be explicitly taught in a systematic and intensive way to decode the sounds of the English language.

The Simple View of Reading outlines that learning to read requires two abilities – correctly identifying words by decoding and understanding their meaning (comprehension).

“ Reading Comprehension = Decoding x linguistic comprehension (R=DxLC)

The Simple View of Reading differentiates between two dimensions of reading: Word recognition processes and Language comprehension processes. It makes clear that different kinds of teaching are necessary to promote word recognition skills from those needed to foster the comprehension of spoken and written language, which is the goal of reading. Though considered separately, both dimensions are essential to reading. It is of first importance for teachers of reading to be clear about which of these two dimensions their teaching aims to develop, and make sure each of them is taught explicitly.” Sir Jim Rose https://www.teachermagazine.com.au/articles/teaching-reading-its-simple-but-not-simplistic

“Research has shown that good readers do not skim and sample the text when they scan a line in a book. They process the letters of each word in detail, although they do so very rapidly and unconsciously. Those who comprehend well accomplish letter-wise text scanning with relative ease and fluency. When word identification is fast and accurate, a reader has ample mental energy to think over the meaning of the text. Knowledge of sound-symbol mapping is crucial in developing word recognition: the ability to sound out and recognize words accounts for about 80 percent of the variance in first-grade reading comprehension and continues to be a major (albeit diminishing) factor in text comprehension as students progress through the grades” Moats, 1999 Reading is Rocket Science.

“ . . . less-skilled readers often find themselves in materials that are too difficult for them (Allington, 1977, 1983, 1984; Gambrell, Wilson, & Gantt, 1981). The combination of deficient decoding skills, lack of practice, and difficult materials results in unrewarding early reading experiences that lead to less involvement in reading-related activities. Lack of exposure and practice on the part of the less skilled reader delays the development of automaticity and speed at the word recognition level. Slow, capacity-draining word recognition processes require cognitive resources that should be allocated to comprehension. Thus, reading for meaning is hindered; unrewarding reading experiences multiply; and practice is avoided or merely tolerated without real cognitive involvement” (Stanovich, 1986).

Rich Meaningful text – decodables are a concern

I suspect that Robyn Ewing may have never read a decodable reader. They can certainly be fun and engaging because there is nothing more exciting for a child then to be able to be able to fluently read a story on the page. In my personal experience as a parent the PM readers were actually mostly terrible. My daughter hated them and would throw them across the room. We even had one that showed a mum in the kitchen cooking while the dad was in his study smoking a cigar. When our tutor switched us to Phonics readers both my children loved the stories and would ask for me to read them to them at bed time also. My daughter’s face would light up as finally reading made sense.

No teacher of synthetic phonics excludes rich and meaningful texts from the classroom. As Troy Verey outlined at Marsden road they start children on decodables and move them to full text as appropriate. Until then they read books to them to improve their vocabulary.

My daughter arrived at school absolutely loving books. From an early age she loved a complex story and preferred that we read things to her like Harry Potter whereas her sister (who is not Dyslexic) wanted us to read simple picture books. But being taught phonics poorly and non systematically in a “balanced classroom” made her hate reading. It took us much longer to remediate her reading than remediate her fear of books. Now after tutoring in explicit systematic phonics and the 5 keys of reading she reads for pleasure. She wants to be an author and writes books for relaxation. She went well in Year 7 English and was reading for enjoyment the text chosen by her teacher to study in class later in the year just by coincidence. English is her favourite academic subject.

Without intervention by myself, her tutor and thankfully a Learning support teacher (came to the school in year 2) who believed in explicit systematic phonics I have no doubt she would have been another child to add to the illiteracy statistics. A child behind grade level in reading at the beginning of year 4 has a 12% chance of ever catching up!

The High Stakes Phonics check is a concern

“Nonsense words are problematic if reading is about making meaning.”

“Disadvantages good readers”

“The JABBERWOCKY!”

The concern actually is that Robyn Ewing has obviously not read the research on the importance of nonsense words (psuedowords).

“the speed of naming pronounceable nonwords is one of the tasks that most clearly differentiates good from poor readers” (p. 40). Also, “the persistent differences between skilled and less skilled readers in reaction times to pseudowords seem to be due to processes…operating on subword processes” (p. 41). One of these “subword processes” is the application of phonics rules to recognize written words.”

” pseudoword naming is discovered to be a “potent predictor of reading ability at all levels” (p. 100).

Keith Stanovich (2000) http://www.nrrf.org/old/essay_pseudowords.html

In sum, one of the most well replicated findings in reading disability research is that, compared to chronological-age controls, reading-disabled children have difficulty in reading pseudowords” (Stanovich, 2000, p. 129). That is to say, there is an “incredible potency of pseudoword reading as a predictor of reading difficulty” (p. 207). A notable experimental finding in this regard is that pseudowords, “such as bint that have word neighbors that are inconsistent in pronunciation (pint, mint) took longer to pronounce than nonwords without inconsistent word neighbors (e.g., tade)” (p. 215).

Studies of the reading of pseudowords also have implications regarding the performance of poor readers with high and low IQs. It is found (Stanovich, 2000, p. 329) “that these two groups of children display equivalent pseudoword reading deficits.” This kind of evidence leads some reading researchers to conclude that “unless it can be shown to have some predictive value for the nature of treatment or treatment outcome, considerations of IQ should be discarded in discussions of reading difficulties” (p. 96).”

http://www.nrrf.org/old/essay_pseudowords.html

There is no evidence in the UK that the test disadvantages good readers. The nonsense words are clearly indicated. I find it quite incredulous that she says that the UK has not improved their reading. The first cohort of the phonics check has just achieved the best PIRLS results in a generation.

Yet Kathy Ruston quotes a Reading Recovery teacher who talks about Marie Clay. The home of reading Recovery and Marie Clay is New Zealand who have terrible PIRLS results.

“New Zealand continues to have the largest spread of scores from good to poor readers among developed countries. The long tail of poor literacy achievement remains, despite attempts to shrink the gap. New Zealand, now ranked 33rd, used to be in first place in 1970. New Zealand is the poorest performing country in the English-language world. Our teachers have been trained and provided with teaching resources that are out of step with contemporary research, and with literacy teaching practices in other countries. Britain, for example, has made significant improvements in literacy learning outcomes since the introduction of systematic phonics instruction towards the first decade of this century. As the UK newspaper The Telegraph noted today, “Reading standards in England are the best in a generation, new international test results show, after the push towards phonics led to a dramatic improvement in children’s attainment.”” Professor James Chapman, Distinguished Professor Bill Tunmer and Dr Alison Arrow http://www.massey.ac.nz/massey/about-massey/news/article.cfm?mnarticle_uuid=FFBE6235-9CB5-4742-97C0-E1AA4ED407B5

High stakes testing!? Teachers must be very scary indeed if they can’t sit with their students one on one and perform a 5 minute check of 40 words without stressing out the kids. The overwhelming majority of parents with children with dyslexia in our group found the suggestion that a 40 word check would cause student hardship ludicrous. Because the reality is illiteracy causes far more hardship including children who self harm, talk of suicide, have school refusal, learned helplessness, behaviour difficulties and secondary mental health issues. This has already been addressed in my blog https://dekkerdyslexia.wordpress.com/2018/03/09/phonics-screening-check-myth-buster-1-the-phonics-tests-will-be-too-stressful/

The example of the Jabberwocky as reading for meaning really did make me chuckle as I actually used it as an example in my blog of the need for decoding to translate the many nonsense words in rich children’s literature. https://dekkerdyslexia.wordpress.com/2018/04/19/phonics-check-myth-buster-3-nonsense-words-are-silly-and-we-should-test-reading-in-context/ . How could you possibly read the Jabberwocky from context alone is beyond me. One of the great problems with the concept of phonics for adults is that they don’t realise they are decoding, as they do it so effortlessly, and can’t remember how they learnt to read….especially the ones who need walking sticks. (Robyn Ewing mentioned walking sticks not me!)

Commercial programs off the shelf

Commercial programs certainly play a roll in the introduction of synthetic phonics within a school when teacher training proves inadequate. They are a quick way to achieve teacher training and give a good guide for the systematic approach that must be taken in the teaching of phonics. However none of the panel are selling or advocating commercial programs to be the way to go. As Louisa Moats states “A program is only as good as the teacher implementing it.” If our teachers are inadequately trained introducing systematic explicit phonics through a program will ultimately fail.

I also find this quite strange when many commercial programs with a poor evidence base are being readily embraced in schools in Australia. Brain Gym is now considered the poster child of pseudoscientific rubbish that finds its ways into our schools. Should we dare mention the $50 million dollars a year NSW was throwing at Reading Recovery until a research review showed it was little bang for a bucket load of cash. Many states are still throwing $ at Reading Recovery. Read more about Reading Recovery here. http://www.kevinwheldall.com/2013/02/small-bangs-for-big-bucks-long-term.html

We need to meet the needs of the individual

No actually we need to use a scientifically based approach that gets all children reading. Our current dominate way of teaching children to read learning phonics in context is leaving a great percentage of children illiterate.

“Thanks to new scientific research—plus a long- awaited scientific and political consensus around this research—the knowledge exists to teach all but a handful of severely disabled children to read well. Recent scientific studies have allowed us to understand more than ever before how literacy develops, why some children have diffi- culty, and what constitutes best instructional practice. Scientists now estimate that fully 95 percent of all children can be taught to read.“ Louisa Moats Reading is Rocket Science 1999

“Research indicates that, although some children will learn to read in spite of incidental teaching, others never learn unless they are taught in an organized, systematic, efficient way by a knowledgeable teacher using a well-designed instructional approach. And, while many students from high-risk environments come to school less prepared for literacy than their

more advantaged peers, their risk of reading difficul- ties could still be prevented and ameliorated by liter- acy instruction that includes a range of research- based components and practices. But, as the statistics testify, this type of instruction clearly has not made its way into every classroom.” Louisa Moats teaching Reading is Rocket Science 1999

12% of English words are regular so phonics doesn’t get you far to reading

I really have no idea where this ludicrous statistic came from. “The spelling of words in English is more regular and pattern- based than commonly believed. According to Hanna, Hanna, Hodges, and Rudorf (1966), half of all English words can be spelled accurately on the basis of sound-symbol correspondences alone, meaning that the letters used to spell these words predictably represent their sound patterns (e.g., back, clay, baby). These patterns, though, are somewhat complex and must be learned (e.g., when to use “ck” as in back and when to use “k” as in book). Another 34 percent of English words would only have one error if they were spelled on the basis of sound-symbol correspondences alone.* That means that the spelling of 84 percent of words is mostly predictable. Many more words could be spelled correctly if other information was taken into account, such as word meaning and word origin. The authors estimated that only four percent of English words were truly irregular.” How Spelling Supports Reading And Why It Is More Regular and Predictable Than You May Think, Louisa Moats

“We Don’t leave reading to chance!” Troy Verey

“Too many kids missing out on learning to read due to the rejection of the scientific knowledge” Jennifer Buckingham

It is time as a nation that we took a scientific approach to the teaching of reading as we are leaving far too many children behind. As a parent of one of those children who still has learned helplessness, anxiety and self esteem issues as a result of early reading failure one child is too many.

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