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.

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.


Mind the Gap

Politics, literacy and the Socio Economic Gap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing socio economic gap”

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

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

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

So call me right wing at your peril.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So where does Australia stand in terms of literacy if the status quo continues? “In the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) Australia performed 12th in reading (down from 10th). There is a steady decline in the results since 2000, both in terms of overly simple international comparisons and absolute mean scores.” “the narrative of steady decline on PISA and TIMSS results continues, while educational inequality is on the rise.”

Current Australian reading policy has seen an improvement in average reading scores in the PIRLS but at the expense of the very long tail. “Australia still has the second-largest proportion of children below the international intermediate benchmark for reading among English-speaking countries.” For a full analysis of the PIRLS results see the article.

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

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

In PIRLS 2016, the gap between high and low-performers is still larger than in many other countries, but has been substantially reduced from previous PIRLS cycles. This has mainly been driven by large improvements in the performance of lower-performing pupils, as the 10th percentile score has increased by 15-points from 2011, whereas the 90th percentile score has only improved by 3-points from 2011.”

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

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.

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.

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.”

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

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.