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.

 

 

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.

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!

Recovering from Reading Recovery

I read about the new Reading Recovery research with great skepticism. I have learnt a great deal in the last 5 years since my daughter struggled to learn to read. I have read literacy research until I wore my eyes out and gone to numerous professional developments. Most of all I have learnt from my daughter’s amazing specialist literacy tutor. I have’t been to one professional development where the strategies being taught were ones already being used by our tutor. She was our saviour when Reading Recovery failed spectacularly.

Being our first child and an ex high school teacher I trusted the professional advice of the primary teachers even though alarm bells rang early and things didn’t really make sense. The signs were all there. She struggled to learn the 200 sight words she was suppose to memorise. She flung the PM readers across the room. In my mind I questioned instinctively the value of learning sight words when she didn’t even know how to sound out base sounds. I questioned the value of repetitive and boring PM readers.

I was relieved a little when she was placed in a special reading group. The Reading Recovery teacher was lovely and encouraged her a gave her lots of attention. In first class her reading seemed to make some progress. So I set aside the parental worry at the back of my mind. I regret to this day I did not act sooner.

She started Year 2 fresh from a year of Reading Recovery on a respectful level 20 of PM readers. But unfortunately running records are not the best indicator of an early readers ability to read. A smart child like my daughter had an awesome ability to guess. Reading recovery had taught her this was acceptable. A few mistakes were even let through…”Close enough is good enough!” At home my daughter could finish a sentence without even turning a page and often be correct. This is most certainly NOT a good strategy. This is not reading. It took us years to undo guessing.

We started year 2 with an air of positivity. The year 2 teacher promised me that her reading wasn’t that bad. My daughter, having greater insight than the rest of us, was already displaying some level of school anxiety and avoidance. She knew she couldn’t read. She was a master of camouflage. Mid way through year 2 concerns escalated and anxiety soared. Reading became more difficult. Reliance on multi-cueing strategies taught in reading recovery quickly showed their deficiencies. Her reading totally stalled. Teachers told me “we don’t understand she seems really bright.”

In Year 2 under new NSW government funding we had the arrival of another of my daughter’s saviours. A new learning support teacher who had training in explicit and systematic phonics instruction. She tested her phonics. She could not even sound out the entire alphabet let alone decode words. The school counsellor undertook psychometric tests which showed she was above average in verbal comprehension but had difficulties in processing speed and working memory.

I started googling what it all meant and this lead me down a path to recovery for my daughter. Her anxiety had escalated so much that I delayed assessment or tutoring because it would have failed. She spent 6 months seeing a psychologist. She was so afraid of school and reading by then that we had vomiting, sickness and frequent tears. I would sit down every afternoon and have a cup of tea and calm myself as I never knew what she would be like when I picked her up from school. I became afraid of the school bell too!

I started as best I could to explicitly and systematically teach her phonics after school. She was so broken and so anxious that often even with me she would break down and cry. The Nessy learning program gave her back some of her confidence but my skills at that time teaching phonics were inadequate. Teaching reading requires a skilled teacher. She ended the school year on PM level 22. A year of virtually no progress in reading.

At the beginning of year 3 she started with her specialist literacy tutor the day before she undertook an assessment for Dyslexia. Her assessment showed at age 8 ½ she had a reading age of 7 and a spelling age of less than 5. I reinforced skills at home daily guided by the tutor which meant progress in reading was fairly rapid considering we pretty much started from zero. We reinforced phonics learnt using decodable readers which she enjoyed immensely. Suddenly she was actually reading and could decipher the squiggles on a page. The learned helplessness and fear of books took far longer to overcome.

On a positive note my daughter’s school now teaches synthetic phonics from day 1 of kindergarten. The Learning Support teacher introduced Multilit as an intervention which is evidenced based and follows the scientific criteria of a reading intervention program.

Science has repeatedly shown what is needed in early reading instruction. We also have a great understanding of what characteristics a good reading intervention should include. Reading Recovery does not meet the criteria of a good intervention program.

Phonemic awareness is the ability identify the sounds in spoken words. It is like phonics with a blindfold on. Good remediation for reading difficulties will include an assessment of phonemic awareness and appropriate intervention. “Phoneme awareness instruction, when linked to systematic decoding and spelling instruction, is a key to preventing reading failure in children who come to school without these prerequisite skills.” Moats (2010)

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 should be taught systematically and explicitly to automaticity and mastery. This is particularly important for children with Dyslexia who will often need a much more intensive approach to the teaching of 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

Fluency is achieved when children have gained enough mastery and automaticity of phonics and high frequency words that their reading seems effortless. When children have fluency issues they may fail to comprehend the text and not enjoy reading. Decodable readers, are matched to the phonemes they have been taught, enabling faster recognition of words, which in turn reduces the amount of mental energy required to decode the text. This facilitates the building of automaticity and fluency. struggling readers.”

Reading vocabulary is children’s bank of known words that they can use in writing or reading. 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 with adults and being read to is of paramount importance to developing a rich bank of spoken vocabulary.

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.

Reading recovery is based on the principles of “Balanced Literacy” and sprinkles in phonics in context. It is not an explicit or systematic approach to the teaching of phonological awareness. Science has shown repeatedly that a deficit in phonics and/or phonemic awareness (which make up phonological awareness) are the biggest predictor of reading failure.

Research on Reading Recovery has certainly been mixed and there has been much criticism of the research undertaken by Reading Recovery. This is what the experts have to say; “In this open letter, more than 30 international reading researchers expressed concerns about the continued use of Reading Recovery. These experts urged policy makers, educational leaders, researchers, and federal research organizations to acknowledge the weaknesses of Reading Recovery. They concluded, “Reading Recovery leaves too many students behind.”

“While research distributed by the developers of Reading Recovery indicates a positive effect of the program, analyses by independent researchers have found serious problems with these conclusions. Studies conducted by researchers associated with Reading Recovery typically exclude 25-40% of the poorest performing students from the data analysis.”

“The lack of efficacy of Reading Recovery with the poorest readers is not surprising given the research base that highlights the importance of explicit teaching of phonics for this group. Reading Recovery teaches phonics, but the instruction is not sufficiently explicit. A common finding in research on Reading Recovery is that those students who do not respond are weak in phonological awareness (Snow et al., 1998; Tunmer & Chapman, in press b).”

“Reading Recovery has not met the needs of these lowest performing students. Most significantly, its excessive costs can make it more difficult for a school to provide help for all students in need, especially those who are behind in the upper grades.”

https://www.wrightslaw.com/info/read.rr.ltr.experts.htm

In 2016 NSW education dumped Reading Recovery’s $55 million a year specific funding after they commissioned a 2015 research review which found it had limited efficacy, especially considering its huge cost. The report concluded “While the current findings reveal short-term positive effects of RR on reading outcomes for the lowest performing students, they do not support the effectiveness of the intervention on other aspects of literacy achievement or the longer-term sustainability through the early years of school. One possible explanation that is asserted strongly by RR critics is that RR does not provide sufficient tuition in phonics and phonemic awareness to effectively remediate literacy performance among struggling readers (Center et al. 1995; Chapman & Tunmer 2011; Greaney 2011; Moats 2007; Reynolds & Wheldall 2007; Tunmer & Chapman 2003; Tunmer et al. 2013). Center et al. (1995) argue that “while Reading Recovery stresses the importance of using all sources of information available to access meaningful text, it may not provide enough systematic instruction in the metalinguistic skills of phonemic awareness, phonological recoding, and syntactic awareness for students to acquire these processes” (p. 244). The lengthy examination of the research is certainly worth a read here. https://www.cese.nsw.gov.au/images/stories/PDF/Reading_recovery_evaluation_FA_AA.pdf

I think the biggest indicator of the true nature of Reading Recovery is to look at the spectacular failure of New Zealand literacy in recent years, the home of reading Recovery, where the principles on which it is founded dominate the teaching of reading. New Zealand literacy and Reading Recovery are based on a constructivist approach to literacy teaching encouraging a multi-cues approach to the teaching of reading. Phonics takes a backseat and is taught (if at all) in context and not explicitly or systematically. A detailed analysis of the failure of Reading Recovery and the teaching of reading in New Zealand is given in this 2013 article in the Learning Difficulties Australia Bulletin. https://www.ldaustralia.org/BULLETIN_NOV13-RR.pdf.

Since this article was written in 2013 New Zealand has continued to be a poor performer in reading despite millions being poured into improving literacy. New Zealand according to the latest PIRLS result in 2016 is now ranked 33, making it the poorest performing country in the English-language world. In 1970 they were ranked first. Marie Clay’s Reading Recovery and the constructivist approach to literacy has been the dominant ideology in New Zealand for decades seeing a steady decline in literacy.

This article by literacy and teaching training experts at Massey University, New Zealand examines the failure of New Zealand literacy. Massey University has also undertaken research into Reading Recovery. “The problem with literacy outcomes doesn’t lie with teachers, but with teaching. As a country, we continue to rely on an approach to literacy instruction that was discredited by scientific research over 30 years ago. 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.“

“Reading Recovery was introduced in the 1980s to lower the number of children experiencing literacy learning difficulties. This programme has not achieved this major goal. The Reading Recovery website claims that the programme acts as an insurance against reading failure. This is not true, as successive PIRLS results have shown since 2001.” http://www.massey.ac.nz/massey/about-massey/news/article.cfm?mnarticle_uuid=FFBE6235-9CB5-4742-97C0-E1AA4ED407B5

Certainly Reading Recovery does give a boost to those children whose failure is due to lack of exposure to a rich language environment. Hattie has shown any intervention or teaching strategy is certainly going to have an affect more than no intervention. This is particularly true for children who may have come from a neglected environment. A true examination of Reading Recovery would be to compare it to an explicit and systematic phonics intervention program.

“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” Louisa Moats https://www.ldaustralia.org/client/documents/Teaching%20Reading%20is%20Rocket%20Science%20-%20Moats.pdf

Reading Recovery fails too many children. As admin of Dyslexia Support Australia we get many parent members who join our group bemused at the failure of their children fresh out of Reading Recovery. Reading Recovery is an expensive program that has not adapted to research in the last 30 years that shows what struggling learners need for reading success. Reading Recovery wastes valuable intervention dollars and time.We know how important early and appropriate intensive intervention is for struggling readers. We can do much, much better than Reading Recovery.

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!

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/