Reading to children is not enough!

“If every parent, or carer …read aloud a minimum of three stories a day to children in their care, we could eliminate illiteracy within one generation.”

This is one of Mem Fox’s favourite bylines. Every time she is interviewed she likes to declare how she is going to solve illiteracy. Unfortunately she is wrong!

The first time I saw this quote was on a poster in our school library. My daughter had just been diagnosed with Dyslexia. I was already filled with enough parental guilt for not intervening in her schooling earlier. I really didn’t at that point to need any more guilt. It made me so sad and so angry. For a few years I had been asking teachers questions. They would answer …”she seems so bright!” “We don’t know why!” “Don’t worry she will get it.” “Do you read to her?”

Now I know better. I know I did do all the right things to give my daughter the best chance to read. But my daughter has Dyslexia and she did not receive the instruction she needed in school to teach her to read. I know that reading to your child is foundational to learning to read. But I also know that for most children it is not enough and they need to be taught explicitly how to read.

Yes I did read to my daughter more than any parent I know. She was my first child. I left my job as a teacher and spent all my energy playing with my child, talking to my child, singing to my child and reading to her.

From the moment she was born we read to her. We knew her favourite books off by heart. I remember her screaming in the car once so from the front I recited the entire “Each Peach Pear Plum” which was a definite favourite. Books were always how we settled her before every sleep, calmed her when upset and comforted when she was ill.

I remember being part of a government survey when she was a toddler and one question asked whether I read to my daughter 10 minutes a day. I laughed. The lady must have thought I was crazy as I was thinking it was more like hours. It was the thing she wanted to do most. Even before she could walk she would crawl over and grab books out of her book box for us to read. She never seemed to have enough.

I thought that once she learnt to walk she would not want to be read to so much. Instead she would toddle behind me demanding to be read to! One of her first sentences etched in my mind was “Read dis book yep!” All her grandparents, Aunties and Uncles read to her enthusiastically too. They include doctors, teachers a lawyer and even an author.

We owned about 6 or more Mem Fox books. I could recite to you “Time for bed” even now a decade after I read it to my child over and over every night before bed. My husband’s favourite was “Where is the green sheep?” He used to make up silly names for all the characters and would ask my daughter to point out the “Carmen Miranda sheep” and the “Ned Kelly sheep”.

Before school she spent 2 1/2 years at the local preschool. The year before school she had the most amazing preschool teacher 3 days a week who used to teach kindergarten. She read books to the children, did amazing activities, sang songs, played with rhymes.

So my daughter went to school primed to learn to read. She couldn’t have had a better foundation of oral language. In fact her preschool teachers commented about how good her vocabulary was. In her assessments later, when we were looking for answers, she was shown to have verbal comprehension and vocabulary well above average. She loved a complex story early.

In kindergarten we started reading her Harry Potter. Sometimes she’d be wriggling and I would accuse her of not listening. She would then recite to me the last line or tell me what the story line was for the last 10 minutes. At the same age her sister was still enjoying picture books being read to her.

So when she didn’t learn to read we were shocked. She so looked forward to learning to read books because she had always loved books so much. She struggled, she cried and threw predictive readers across the room. She began to hate and fear school. Eventually in year 3 we found out she had Dyslexia and at the age 8 1/2 she had a spelling age of less than 5 and a reading age of 7. After we employed a structured literacy tutor and she spent many hours with me at home reinforcing explicit phonics lessons she learnt to read. But that’s another story.

I know Mem Fox is a passionate advocate of whole language. A methodology of teaching that has been proven time and time again to be not an effective strategy to teach children to read. Her views are from a position of power but are based on significant ignorance. With power and influence comes a great responsibility because the myths you are spreading are doing damage. Kids are being left behind and families are being blamed for their children’s failure.

My understanding is not only supported by research evidence but by the thousands of parent stories I have heard in Dyslexia Support Australia. Parents over and over again tell how they were blamed for their child struggling to learn to read. They discuss in great detail how they always read to their child from day one, yet they did not learn to read. We have teachers in our support group who join when their own child struggles to learn to read. We have parents with multiple children but only one struggled.

I’m not discounting the importance of reading to children in the early development of oral language. It is an essential foundation for later reading acquisition. But well trained teachers can bridge the gap that some children bring to school with them. My child had no oral language gap. My child had no disadvantage other than a disability that could have been overcome without the heartbreak through early evidenced based intervention. Reading 3 books a day to children will not eradicate illiteracy. Training our teachers in systematic and explicit phonics instruction, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension will.

The cutie in the photos is my daughter being read to!

Decoding decodable readers

This blog has been in the pipeline for awhile. I got sidetracked with other projects. I write my best blogs when I’m mad or passionate. Misty Adoniou and her continual efforts to ensure her myths are spread makes me very passionate, sad and certainly angry. So Misty and her latest creativity interpretation of the facts in the conversation article entitled “What are ‘decodable readers’ and do they work?” spurred me into action! One must ask if Misty has ever actually seen a decodable reader. Is the misinformation she spreads deliberate and therefore unprofessional? Or does it stem from a level of astounding ignorance?

Decodable readers provide a bridge between initial phonics instruction, which is the foundation of reading, and the comprehension of more complex texts.

It takes quite some skill to construct the carefully controlled text in decodable readers as the writer is constrained by the phonics pattern and irregular words of the early reader. Though phonics readers for early readers do have engaging pictures the aim is not for readers to use these pictures to help “guess words”. Reliance on picture clues is a very unhelpful strategy which will catch up on older readers when pictures vanish from text. Phonics readers follow the sequential pattern of systematic, explicit phonics instruction which builds on the phonics knowledge of the student to allow automaticity and mastery.

Decodable readers are for the child to practise phonics skills and are aimed at the beginning reader. They should be used in conjunction with parents and teachers reading to a student to increase vocabulary.

Well written decodables with words that children are able to successfully decode boosts confidence, allows mastery of phonemes and allows children to apply their emerging skills.

There is some research to support decodable readers place in readers supporting phonics instruction and it also it certainly makes sense for children to apply knowledge in a realistic reading scenario. “This study suggests that readers with knowledge of the alphabetic principle, given the same phonics instruction, will apply it more (and with more accuracy and independence) in a highly decodable context” (Mesmer 2005)

readers (such as PM readers or levelled readers) are an example of predictable text and they are poorly designed. They need pictures because they use such words as giraffe and aquarium and rhinoceros in a beginning reader. “At the zoo I saw a ……….” if we are going to teach children to read words so they can comprehend a story then picture cues is not the way to do it. Good readers will survive this, educationally vulnerable students will not.” Julie Mavlian

Misty said “”Books like this have no storyline; they are equally nonsensical whether you start on the first page, or begin on the last page and read backwards.

My kids loved it when our tutor switched them to decodable readers. They even requested I read them to them at breakfast again after they had read them themselves. The school readers were atrocious. Some were written when I was in Kindy and I am no spring chicken. I was appalled at some of the boring and outdated topics. You can not tell me that predictable readers that have a picture on each page that go something like…. “The boy jumped.” “The boy ran. “The boy cried.” are engaging or go anyway to the teaching of reading. My daughter even brought home readers with no words. Maybe that’s ok for a child who has never seen a book before but she was read to extensively.

Once there was even a picture of a father smoking a cigar while the mother was in the kitchen preparing the meal and looking after the kids! So don’t let’s perpetuate the myth that decodables are boring. Modern decodables are engaging. Levelled readers were quite often flung across the room by my daughter. This never happened with her decodables. Often i would be perplexed out how they even came up with the levels for the predictive readers. Some weeks the words would be so complex.

Many decodable readers are certainly engaging. At the lower levels both decodables and predictive texts are limited. But at least a decodable at a low level will give the child the joy of actual reading! I remember quite well having to sit through countless children reading predictable readers to me when I helped out at school. To say they are more engaging is nonsensical.

This example of a predictable reader it is certainly dull and repetitive. I think i may have pasted the pages in the books in the wrong order but since there is no story it doesn’t matter! https://www.primaryconcepts.com/articles/SightWord_sample.pdf

My kids absolutely loved the floppy phonics books. The stories and illustrations were engaging. They couldn’t wait to read what adventure floppy would get up to next!

Extract from Floppy phonics level 5 decodable reader “The Gale” https://global.oup.com/education/content/primary/series/oxford-reading-tree/floppys-phonics/?region=international

My daughter’s specialist tutor wrote a series of digital e book decodable readers because she loves to write, knows what struggling is like personally (Dyslexic) and wanted to give adolescents topics of interest that were engaging. As a high school teacher I know how horrible it was for teenagers who were really beginning readers to have to read a predictable little kids reader! They are certainly engaging! Don’t forget these are NOT for kindy kids!!!

“Decodable books allow students to read using the level of phonic code they already know. This brings confidence. When confidence is gained, more code is explicitly taught and new books are introduced. This pattern of explicit teaching and appropriately introduced texts is the key to confident and empowered readers who, when ready, will be able to read any book they might desire! Victoria Leslie, Author Tap Decodable Readers http://www.focusontap.com/decodable-reader-decodable-books/

Misty said :”While they may teach the phonics skills “N” and “P”, they don’t teach children the other important decoding skills of grammar and vocabulary.”

This is absolute nonsense. Of course decodable readers use correct grammar and vocabulary at an appropriate level. They also introduce appropriate sight words. Decodable readers introduce vocabulary a child can actually read. No one is saying they should be the only books children are exposed to. My child has a vocabulary (has been assessed) well above her age level because she has been extensively read to. If we had relied on the vocabulary in predictable readers this would in no way be the case.

I am really not sure why Misty picked as an example of an alternative to decodables some common children’s books. These are not like any predictive or PM reader sent home from school. It is a deliberate unfair comparison. We loved reading Who sank the boat to our daughter. She knew the book off by heart. She still couldn’t read it herself until she received explicit phonics instruction supported by decodable readers. Use of decodable readers does not prevent the use and analysis of rich and authentic text in a classroom no more than predictable readers do.

Misty said: “And as many a parent will testify, they don’t teach the joy of reading.”

My daughter was read to from infancy. Books were how we would calm her, get her to sleep, comfort her when she was sick and bring her out of a rotten mood. We journeyed as parents with her to many far off places. Her first sentence was “read dis book yep!”. She would say this when she learnt to walk and would toddle around the house all day carrying a book and demanding its secrets to be revealed!

So she went to school, with a bounce in her step, adoring books and ready to read! Despite a lovely Kindy teacher she hit a road block. She hit a road block that so many kids will hit, Dyslexic or not, when instruction is not explicit or systematic enough for quick reading development.

Intensive explicit literacy instruction from a specialist tutor in year 3 taught her to read and write. Unfortunately because intervention was delayed she had developed a fear of reading. The fear and negative associations that had been fostered by poor literacy instruction in a “Balanced Literacy Environment”. The tutor introduced us to decodable readers and my daughter expressed shear joy. For the first time ever she was able to crack the hidden code to reading. You have no idea how much joy can be felt when after 3 years of schooling your child can actually read!

In the end her love of books and the skills she has learnt from her tutor outweighed her fear of reading. My daughter,at age 13, will now disappear into the world of books quite often. She reads when she is angry, bored or anxious. She reads to help her sleep. She says she prefers books to movies. We have a chuckle every time I have to say “put the book down” because she is late to dinner and school because its always just one more page. We both know how hard the journey has been.

Decodables allow children to access the joy of reading early without the reliance on picture and other cues (guessing). Children move rapidly through decodable levels.

As my daughter now says “books are the portal to magical worlds!” We need to give all children access to the same magic by using evidenced based teaching methods and not relying on myths, distortion of facts and ideology.

Please support SPELD NSW by buying your decodable readers from SPELD NSW. SPELD is a charity and all profits will go back into supporting SPELD’S goals. Available at the online store.

https://speldnsw.memnet.com.au/MemberSelfService/Merchandise.aspx

See SPELD NSW information on decodable readers http://speldnsw.org.au/news/speld-nsw-recommends-decodable-readers/

For a unique range of ebook decodables designed for struggling adolescent beginning readers please check out. http://www.focusontap.com/titles/ .

Read these great blog and articles

http://pamelasnow.blogspot.com/2018/11/who-sank-reading-boat-sad-tale-of.html

http://thekeep.eiu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2367&context=theses

http://speldnsw.org.au/phonics-and-decodable-readers/

https://crackingtheabccode.com/decodable-versus-levelled-readers/

https://www.spelfabet.com.au/2018/05/what-is-a-decodable-book/

References

http://cech.uc.edu/content/dam/cech/centers/student_success/docs/summer-institute-2009/ebbers_decodable_readers_handouts.pdf

https://theconversation.com/what-are-decodable-readers-and-do-they-work-106067

http://www.focusontap.com/decodable-reader-decodable-books/

Text Decodability and the First-Grade Reader

Mesmer, Heidi Anne E.

Reading & Writing Quarterly, v21 n1 p61-86 Jan-Mar 2005

Fighting the good fight – Advocacy and SPELD NSW

Volunteer advocacy is a hard and thankless job at times and it is easy to lose motivation. I’ve been verbally abused quite often and my life seems to revolve around the same frustrating issues. The abuse sometimes seems to outweigh the thanks. But then there are the inspirational moments when a family is helped or a hug is given by a random stranger who I helped but can’t remember. Sometimes the stories of struggling children tug at my heart so much that I am brought to tears. Sometimes the nights are sleepless with the frustration of advocating for change in an education system that is slow to embrace change.

My daughter’s own struggles and successes give me the strength to keep fighting the good fight. I went into advocacy because as a high school teacher I realised that unlike my daughter many children didn’t have a parent with the knowledge skill or drive that I have. Many parents also struggle with illiteracy and have terrible memories of their own schooling. In life and in advocacy I’m a bit like a tornado. I plough my way through just about anything armed with a mountain of evidence. I have the knowledge of the school system and learning difficulties both from a parent and teaching perspective.

I am an admin of Dyslexia Support Australia (DSA) an evidenced based support group, which not only supports families and people affected by Dyslexia, but also strongly advocates for evidenced based literacy instruction for all children. Associated with DSA I have a twitter account and 2 facebook pages aimed at Dyslexia and Dyscalculia awareness. I have been admin of DSA for about 4 years though it seems so much longer!

Through my volunteer work as DSA admin I got involved with all the other Dyslexia advocates and admins across the country. This driven group of angry mums started the Australian charity Code Read Dyslexia Network. I am a founding member and ardent supporter but I am not directly involved in the brilliant work that the board of Code Read Dyslexia Network are doing in raising Dyslexia awareness and driving the push for explicit phonics instruction in Australia. See my blog on Code Read Dyslexia Network here. https://dekkerdyslexia.wordpress.com/2018/02/01/code-read-dyslexia-network/

Last year I hit a personal roadblock and became a little tired of advocacy. I lost my way a little. This was no doubt compounded by watching my father deteriorate due to the ravages of dementia. At times I actually questioned the point of all the work I do. After my father died in March, George Perry, the new Executive officer of SPELD NSW, and I chatted about the possibility of joining SPELD NSW board. I am not sure whose idea it was but never the less a seed was planted. An opportunity to really make an impact.

George and I met at a Light it Red for Dyslexia event 2 years ago. As a successful dyslexic and with a child with learning difficulties she was keen to learn as much as she could. She also turned out later to be a great choice to drive SPELD NSW forward. George, who has a Law degree, is an example of what can be achieved by people with learning difficulties if given the right support and opportunities.

In back of my mind was the pride my father always had in the volunteer work I do. He brought me up to be the tornado force I am. He brought me up to have a strong opinion but to always back that opinion up with facts. He brought me up to have a strong social conscious and always look after those who were unable to look after themselves. As Regional Director of Probation and Parole Service he had seen the best and worst of people but never lost his faith in humanity. He saw first hand the damage illiteracy does and its long lasting impact on individuals. Many of the children he spoke to in his retirement, as the Official Ministerial visitor to Juvenile Correction facilities, talked about their schooling struggles. The high rates of illiteracy in incarcerated populations are certainly well researched.

So I joined the Board of Directors of SPELD NSW. The Board is made up of a wide range of individuals with expertise in Business, Education, Law, Finance and Marketing. Some have been personally affected by Learning Difficulties and others just have a great personal drive to help people and families affected by learning difficulties. The chairman of SPELD NSW has been a specialist tutor for many years and sees the devastating affects when kids struggle.

After every board meeting at SPELD NSW and every interaction I become inspired to help as many people as I can and drive for change in education. Inspired by the dedication of volunteers and staff at SPELD NSW my drive has been reinvigorated. I feel my skills, experience and knowledge in the area of learning difficulties are valued and appreciated at SPELD NSW. I think at SPELD NSW I might really be able to make a difference. Even my rusty accountancy skills are valued somewhat ,though I don’t find budgetary meetings too invigorating.

It was very exciting to be involved in the SPELD NSW move to new premises in Parramatta, the geographical heart of Sydney. It was certainly inspiring to see the contagious enthusiasm of the executive officer and her dreams for the new space and what it can help SPELD NSW achieve. In house professional development, parent seminars and SPELD NSW as a place to go for learning difficulties in NSW! Hopefully another 50 years of helping families!

A word on SPELD NSW from the SPELD NSW website. “The name SPELD NSW stands for The Specific Learning Difficulties Association of New South Wales. SPELD NSW is a Public Benevolent Institution whose mission is to provide advice and services to children and adults with specific learning difficulties and those who teach, work with and care for them. SPELD NSW is one of the National Federation of SPELD Associations, AUSPELD. It is an incorporated not-for-profit association of parents and professionals committed to advancing the education and well-being of children and adults with Specific Learning Difficulties. SPELD NSW Inc. is a Registered Charity with ACNC.

Yvonne Stewart of Mosman was a Primary school teacher. She started SPELD NSW in 1968. When other States and Territories started SPELD Associations, she created AUSPELD the National Federation for SPELD Associations. She worked tirelessly for over 22 years, most of the time it was run from her home. She and the Committee members went to schools, performed advocacy and helped many parents. In those days it was by letters and phone.

Today, we continue that valuable work.

Big thanks go to all our Members, Committee, Staff and Volunteers past and present who have all helped SPELD NSW remain useful and relevant for our community.”

How to help?

If you have time to spare SPELD NSW certainly has the need for volunteers with any sort of time or commitment. I have done a range of things including move furniture, contact shelves, review the website and pack decodable readers! Please contact George Perry at SPELD NSW to volunteer. https://speldnsw.org.au/volunteer-with-speld-nsw/

SPELD NSW also relies on membership and donations so please join or donate if you can. Every cent is spent wisely! https://speldnsw.org.au/membership/