Tuesday, 31 January 2017

The story of an ugly duckling. Aka Phonics Check Furphies.

I have never met a teacher who is not sincere about trying to do the best they can for the students in their classrooms. Insincere teachers may exist, but I don’t see them. Fortunately, in the context of the ongoing community, academic, and political debate about phonics instruction and assessment of children's phonics skills, teachers’ sincerity is not at issue. However it is also not enough, regardless of its abundance.

A dip into the recent (last 3-4 decades) history of reading instruction reveals the strange and sad tale of phonics being turned into the unwelcome ugly duckling of early year’s classrooms. I have written about the contested place of phonics in the early years previously, so won’t re-hash that history here. We are now at an odd impasse, however, that sees most parties to the debate in broad agreement (at least overtly) about the importance of the so-called “five big ideas” surrounding early reading (phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency), but the welcome mat that is rolled out in (a) teacher pre-service education and (b) early years classrooms for these elements is uneven. When was the last time you saw a heated Twitter debate about the importance of comprehension for early readers? Or vocabulary? Of course we don’t see such silly debates, because they do not occur – everyone agrees (OK, prove me wrong someone!) that these are critical ingredients in early years instruction.  Phonics, however (and perhaps to a lesser extent its close relative phonemic awareness) has to paddle very hard to justify its presence in early year’s instruction.

This ambivalence has been more than evident in Australia in the last week since the federal government’s announcement that a Year 1 Phonics Check will be rolled out across Australian states and territories in the next year. I’ve heard all kinds of opposition to this move and would like to collate the key arguments here, together with my responses.

My response
We’re already doing phonics
Phonics is in the mix
There is no doubt some truth to this statement. I think it’s fair to say that in most classrooms, some form of phonics instruction is used, but I will wager that in a large number of cases, this is a third-of-three option in the widely-used Multi-Cueing Strategy (also sometimes referred to in the UK as “Searchlights”). This is a Whole Language zombie that remains alive and well in teacher education and Australian classrooms, and encourages children first to guess, and as a last resort, to use analytic, not synthetic phonics, in order to work out the first sound in the word with which they are unfamiliar.

This leads me to the other problem with the “We’re already doing phonics” defence – the fact that where phonics is “in the mix”, it is more likely to be analytic than synthetic. All children need to learn to decode, and some do so more seamlessly than others. Those who enter school with smaller vocabularies, less phonemic awareness, and less pre-school text exposure will derive particular benefit from being explicitly taught the alphabetic principle via synthetic phonics instruction. These are the same children who teachers then identify as needing “extra resources” when they don’t easily make the transition to literacy. Maybe the “extra resource” they need is more rigorous initial instruction. 
Can you see a circular argument happening here?

My third issue with this response is that if this is the case, why are literacy levels in this country way below where they should be? If all is well with respect to early year’s instruction, how do we account for the fact that we are producing way too many secondary students with inadequate literacy skills and have a workforce with worrying low oral language and literacy skills?
Teachers already assess their students and know which ones are behind
Maybe they do, and maybe they don’t. This assertion is difficult to assess, because there is no universal tool and no central data collection on the decoding skills of Australian students. My bet is that many teachers are using “Running Records” for this purpose – another Whole Language throw-back, and not a substitute for a properly standardised Phonics Check.
Teachers are the experts and should be left alone
No professional group should put itself above scrutiny. Imagine if doctors, nurses, airline pilots, or engineers said “Stop looking over our shoulders. We know what we’re doing”. Have a look at what happened in recent times to babies born at a small regional hospital in Victoria, where doctors and nurses were assumed to know what they were doing, and were left alone accordingly. 
Testing doesn’t improve performance
This is like saying “Guns don’t kill, people do” – it’s a logical fallacy. If testing doesn’t have a place, why do Maternal and Child Health nurses weigh our babies? They weigh our babies to scientifically monitor progress, rather than seeing what they want or expect to see. 
All we need is more money (a la “fund Gonski reforms”)
I have yet to see or hear any explanation as to how more money will improve teacher knowledge and skills with respect to early reading instruction. Perhaps we are to spend it on expensive teacher PD, rather than properly preparing pre-service teachers in the first place?

Fund schools fairly for sure, but don’t assume that more money is the answer. That is simplistic nonsense. Further, we could make significant savings right now by removing support for all kinds of neuroflapdoodle that are endorsed and invested in by schools.
We need more support for struggling students
Yes, we do need more support for struggling students. But if we work from a Response to Intervention framework, we want to ensure the highest quality instruction at Tier 1, so that those students in Tiers 2 and 3 are there because they have genuine needs that will respond to the expertise on offer by speech-language pathologists and educational and developmental psychologists. They should not be there because they are instructional casualties from Tier 1.  
It is too expensive
The cost of the Phonics Check in the UK has been estimated to be around 10-12 GBP per student per year. Compare this to the cost of providing the Arrowsmith Program, as recently promoted by a state branch of the Australian Education Union. Compare it too, to the cost of educational failure.
We shouldn’t subject six year olds to tests
We shouldn’t subject six year olds to academic failure and a lifetime of falling behind. 
A Phonics Check won’t improve children’s reading skills
The evidence from the UK suggests that at a system level, the introduction of a National Phonics Check has contributed to improved reading in the early years. If we have an efficient means of making at least some gains in this critical domain, why would we not take it? Why would we not provide data-driven feedback to the teaching profession about what beginning readers actually can, and actually cannot do

Phrased another way, how can we justify to children in the long tail of under-achievement, turning our backs on an option that is likely to offer them a brighter future? 

Reading is about extracting meaning, not sounding out words
The Simple View of Reading holds that successful reading requires both decoding skills and comprehension. Children should be equipped to read using skills of decoding and inferencing, not inferencing (aka guessing in some cases) alone, along with a long list of learned-by-sight words. 
We take a “Balanced Literacy” approach
This is akin to the “phonics is in the mix” argument. Balanced Literacy, however, simply lines up all the ducks and says “off you go – jump in the pond!” It does not position systematic synthetic phonics instruction as the starting point to get children off the blocks.

If you look at the literature on Balanced Literacy, a word you will encounter frequently is "eclectic". That does not inspire confidence that a systematic approach to instruction is being taken.

“Balanced Literacy” is the answer to good phonics instruction in the same way that “throw in some sultanas” is the answer to “How do you make a fruit cake”?
English is too inconsistent a language for phonics instruction to be useful (so a Phonics Check is a waste of time)
This is another urban myth regularly trotted out by Whole Language disciples, who themselves were probably never taught about the morpho-phonemic structure of English, or about how to trace the etymology of the various words English has appropriated from other languages.

About 50% of English words do have a transparent orthography, meaning that they can be read by someone who understands letter—sound correspondences. A further 36% have only one sound that deviates (typically a vowel), 10% can be spelt correctly if morphology and etymology are understood, and a mere 4% cannot be decoded from knowledge of these principles (see Snow, 2016). 

As I have said a number of times, there are no magic bullets in the important business of reading instruction. There is, however, a wealth of scientific evidence to draw on, and it is inexcusable for teacher educators to stand between this evidence and the next generation of classroom teachers.

No doubt there are other fallacious arguments in this space too. Feel free to tweet/email me if you would like me to add them to this list – it can be a living document.

Let’s hope in the meantime, however, that reading instruction’s ugly duckling can be transformed into a beautiful swan. There are children out there whose educational futures depend on it. 

(C) Pamela Snow, 2017


Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Can't teachers be part of the solution?

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It's been a pretty depressing week in Australia for people interested in trying to find ways of improving outcomes for students in Australia whose performance sees them lagging behind (a) others in this country and (b) international peers. The latest PISA and PIRLS results are depressing enough in themselves, given the continued decline they reflect across the core areas of maths, science, and literacy. Perhaps more deeply worrying though, is the highly divisive debate that has erupted on social media platforms such as Twitter regarding how we can trade our way out of this mess.

In recent days I've witnessed every kind of logical fallacy, straw man distraction and ad hominem attack imaginable, largely from the loose alliance of education academics whose staunch opposition to discussing classroom practices is something that can only be likened to climate change denial for its anti-intellectual, anti-science stance.

I have been busy over the last two decades, doing my bit research-wise in the oft-referenced "long tail of under-achievement". My research concerns young people in the youth justice system, those in Out-of-Home care, those in flexible/alternative education systems, and those in disadvantaged schools and communities (and very often all four categories coalesce of course). These are the young people who need to encounter an education system that is primed and ready to teach them, and to quickly catch them up on key developmental assets (such as vocabulary and world knowledge), so that they can join the mainstream of successful learners.

Let me be very clear in expressing my support for fairer education funding models in this country, and in particular for students with additional needs. However, as I have noted previously on this blog, no amount of money will change what teachers are taught in their pre-service education, nor what they do as a consequence, in their classrooms. Take for example, the science of teaching reading - yes, there is an actual science behind the optimal ways of ensuring that all, not just some children make this magical transition in the first few years of school. Little of the cognitive science seems to make its way through to teacher pre-service education, however, being supplanted by Whole-Language favourites such as Three Cueing and a huge emphasis on sight-words as a starting point, rather than the early systematic teaching of essential decoding skills. I can produce many online examples that show that peak teaching bodies have not grasped the nettle of what evidence-based phonics instruction actually means, preferring instead to park the Trojan Horse of so-called Balanced Literacy outside the classroom door. I am not doing so here, however, because my point is that the knowledge-to-practice pipeline is severely clogged by ideological waste, and that is in no way the fault of classroom teachers.

My interactions with classroom teachers are invariably lively, positive, mutually informative, and underpinned by genuine curiosity about how to best work together to do things better/differently in order to strengthen student outcomes. Unfortunately, my interactions with some education academics leave me pondering the proposition that we can't expect teacher pre-service education to actually teach beginning teachers anything much at all. The sense of nihilism is breath-taking.

Can't teachers be part of the solution?

The view that solutions to our current challenges all sit in either funding and/or political fixes seems particularly disempowering to classroom teachers, who are confronted on a daily basis with the challenge of trying to engage struggling learners, many of whom develop secondary behavioural and/or mental health problems as a consequence of their academic under-achievement. These make school an unhappy place for everyone, teachers included. Suspensions, exclusions and early departure are the offerings for vulnerable students with inadequate academic runs on the board.

So (we would be told) these students do poorly because of who they / their parents / their communities are, not because of how they have been taught. This reflects the so-called "soft bigotry of low expectations" I have referred to previously.

Teachers cannot become serious players in changing the outcomes for vulnerable learners until education academics, teacher unions, and literacy peak bodies are prepared to place children at the centre of the debate, rather than their own ideological patch or bias. This means acknowledging that there are some cherished classroom practices that are not serving all children as well as they should, particularly children who are starting from behind. These children will continue to under-perform on any academic (and life)  measures without the best instruction current educational science has to offer - irrespective of whose ideology this aligns with.

I'll bookmark this post, because I am pretty sure we'll be coming back to the same depressing responsibility-evasion when the next round of international data is released.

(C) Pamela Snow, 2016

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Why is a Phonics Check a good idea in Australia?

 Image result for skills check

This week, the Centre for Independent Studies released a report authored by Dr Jennifer Buckingham, arguing the case for a Phonics Check at the end of Year 1 in all Australian schools. The rationale behind this call lies in the underwhelming engagement of (a) states/territories and their education sectors and (b) Faculties of Education in taking seriously the recommendations of the 2005 National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy (NITL). The reasons for this resistance are largely ideological and have been discussed elsewhere on this blog. If Australia was a high-performer with respect to literacy outcomes, then we would not be having this debate. We could all content ourselves with the knowledge that whatever it is that early year’s teachers are doing, it is working, so there is little need for us to interrogate their knowledge or practice. However that is not the case. 

Where is the evidence that reading performance in Australia is problematic?

In addition to PIRLS data on low literacy levels of Year 4 students in Australia, we also have Australian Bureau of Statistics data on poor literacy rates in this country. NAPLAN results have been flat-lining since 2008 and it is estimated that 40,000 15 year-olds (1 in 7) do not achieve baseline proficiency in reading, a failure rate that is echoed in the Industry Skills Council of Australia's 2011 report No More Excuses, which cautions that low language, literacy and numeracy (LLN) skills threaten our capacity to compete economically as a first-world industralialised nation (p.1):

Literally millions of Australians have insufficient LLN skills to benefit fully from training or to participate effectively at work.

The situation looks as if it could be getting worse, not better: the LLN performance of Australian students has, over the past decade, worsened in comparison to other OECD countries. 

So – we have multiple sources of evidence that we are under-performing, and our situation may be getting worse rather than better. 

Teacher educators have had more than ten years to be pro-science and show leadership in engaging with the recommendations of the NITL, however progress remains glacial and highly uneven. I suspect many of them hoped the NITL would simply go away if they didn’t talk or think about it. Perhaps the hope was that so-called Balanced Literacy would appease/fool enough politicians and policy-makers and then any remaining attention could simply be deflected to school funding debates.

Ironically, in the meantime, many schools continue to engage with pseudo-science and non-evidence-based approaches, which rarely if ever seem to be called out by education academics.


How could a Phonics Check be helpful?

Many stakeholders who are concerned about children’s unnecessary academic under-achievement and ultimate failure are on-board with the evidence that a Phonics Check is an appropriate intervention to raise awareness about, and address:
  • Uneven knowledge on what effective phonics instruction actually means (incidental Vs analytic Vs synthetic - they are all different and not equally effective).
  • The fact that teaching below the word level in a systematic way helps children to learn and apply critical de-coding skills that we all need in order to be effective and efficient readers.
  • The role of effective phonics instruction at the outset in setting the overwhelming majority of children up for academic success – not just those who come from linguistically enriching home environments, with shelves groaning with often-read books.
  • The role of accurate and timely feedback on student learning to inform and influence teacher practices.
  •  The importance of getting early instruction right, rather than applying costly band aids after the fact, when early instruction has not been optimal, as per Dr Misty Adoniou’s perplexing suggestion that rather than a Phonics Check, we should wait until failure is deeply entrenched at Year 4.
  •  The importance of rigorous translation of research evidence into classroom practice. We don’t need more evidence in this space; we simply need more on-the-ground application of the rich body of evidence sitting at our feet.
The quality of what transpires in classrooms is not simply a matter for the judgement of teachers in the classroom, their employers, or their unions. If we applied this lack of logic and accountability in medicine, there would be riots in the streets, and banner headlines in our newspapers. We expect medical practitioners and their educators to engage with evidence and to ensure it is translated into practice. Patient safety and wellbeing is rightly placed above doctors’ ideological preferences and egos.

Why is it then that children’s educational wellbeing is not placed above the taboo of talking about uneven quality in teacher education and practice?

(C) Pamela Snow, 2016