The gift I would like to return

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So according to the definition do I have vested interests?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setting fire to the ultimate straw man : Phonics only!

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

So what are the phonics zealots advocating for?

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

Why the focus on phonics in the debate?

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

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

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

Evidenced based literacy instruction

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

Oral language at the core

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

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

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

Phonological awareness and phonemic awareness

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

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

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

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

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

Phonics

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

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

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

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

Fluency

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

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

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

Vocabulary

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

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

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

It is also important to explicitly teach children vocabulary.

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

Comprehension

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

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

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

The simple view of reading

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

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

Classroom instruction best practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resources and further reading

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

Reading for life Lyn Stone

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

Understood

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

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.

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

Phonics debate embracing the evidence

Phonics in context debate 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Children’s life chances.”

“Baby as a meaning maker.”

“Reading is an epiphany.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phonics is not enough!

“Not sufficient to privilege phonics”

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

Meaning comes first

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rich Meaningful text – decodables are a concern

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

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

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

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

The High Stakes Phonics check is a concern

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

“Disadvantages good readers”

“The JABBERWOCKY!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commercial programs off the shelf

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

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

We need to meet the needs of the individual

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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