Friday, 12 May 2017

Balanced Literacy: An instructional bricolage that is neither fish nor fowl

It is sometimes tempting, in the field of early literacy instruction, to think that progress has completely stalled, and any real hope of lifting literacy levels in Australia (and similar western nations) has slipped through our fingers. So, to start with the good news: it is pleasing that we seem to have some level of agreement that there are many pillars of early literacy that require focus in the first three years of school. Researchers and practitioners at pretty much any point on the “Whole-Language – Phonics” continuum (and I do believe it is a continuum rather than a dichotomy) affirm the importance of the so-called “Big Five” (phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, comprehensions, and fluency). That  said, an Australian education professor last year appeared to challenge this consensus, going so far, in fact, as to argue that a focus “solely” on the Big Five elements could be “damaging” to some children. In the absence, however, of any evidence to support the astonishing contention that a focus on these elements does actual harm to children’s reading progress, I think we can assume that they constitute a good and widely agreed-upon basis for classroom reading instruction.

However, it is not enough to just put all the elements into a metaphorical blender and hope for the best. In this sense, so-called “Balanced Literacy” (BL) might be better termed “Blended Literacy” – all of the elements outlined above are in there somewhere, but the literature describing them in the context of BL does not advocate that they are treated in a systematic, sequential way.

Perhaps this stems from a lack of an agreed definition of BL.  In my search of the literature, I found (e.g. see Rasinski & Padak, 2004) various and varied references to a “compromise position” between Whole Language and phonics, the importance of “multiple literacies”, BL as a “radical middle”, the adoption of “principled pluralism”, a “new consensus in literacy education”, and statements such as

“…. balanced literacy becomes a recognition that language and literacy theories and practices need to be ‘answerable to concrete others’" (Heydon et al., 2005, p. 313).

Now, I do not know exactly what “concrete others” means, but if it is another way of talking about accountability, then I am on board with it.

Wren (2001) observed that “A balanced approach could be generically described as ‘mixing some Phonics with Whole Language,’ but how this is accomplished in any particular classroom is unclear” (p. 4). Another BL researcher (Mermelstein, 2006) further highlighted this lack of definitional clarity thus:

Often when I visit schools and ask teachers to describe their curriculum to me, they’ll say that they do “balanced literacy.” I often ask them what they mean by “balanced.” The answers I get are varied. Their varied answers don’t surprise me because as I worked on this article I discovered a variety of views as to what the word balanced in “balanced literacy” actually means”.

So - one basic problem with BL is its lack of a robust, agreed-upon definition.

I wonder then, how many beginning teachers would find this take on BL of practical value when they enter an early years’ classroom:

“The version of balanced literacy that we espouse …. cautions educators about the slipperiness of subjectivities, power relations, and the inability of an abstract theory or practice to adequately control, predict, or define the needs of a classroom of students and as such insists that all theory and practice be situated within the relationship between teacher, student, time, and place” (Heydony, Hibbert & Iannacci, 2004, p. 313). If anyone can tell me what this actually means in relation to the task of teaching children to read, I am all ears. 

Another notable absence in the BL literature (this undated piece by Starrett comes close though and please update me if I have missed something), is discussion of the fact that there are different approaches to phonics instruction, and they are neither synonymous nor inter-changeable. Analytic, incidental, and embedded phonics align more with Whole Language (whole-to-part analysis) than to approaches such as systematic synthetic phonics that emphasise part-to-whole analysis for beginning readers (see this link for more information).

In fact, the frequent use of the word “eclectic” in the BL literature is the big clue as to what is really going on in many early years’ classrooms. Eclectic has a meaning that is diametrically opposed to systematic. This eclecticism, when coupled with Kenneth Goodman-esque “teachers should be left alone to decide what’s best for children in their classroom” means that BL is really an Alice-in-Wonderland term that can mean pretty much exactly whatever the user wants it to mean. As has been noted elsewhere (Bingham & Hall-Kenyon 2013; Bowen & Snow, 2017) this creates one of the challenging (some might even say clever) aspects of BL from a research perspective – how do we evaluate something that is likely to look very different from one early years’ classroom to the next? Normally, fidelity of delivery is a cornerstone of intervention evaluation, but we can’t establish fidelity if the intervention itself is, by design, open to interpretation by those who implement it.

All of this would, of course, be a moot point if we were doing a better job of getting more children across the bridge to literacy in the first three years of school. But we’re not.

My read of the BL literature also highlights a confusing and disproportionate emphasis in many BL publications on “higher-order” processes (synthesis, analysis, metacognition), while simultaneously overlooking the lower-order skills that need to be in place (i.e. need to be taught) to free up cognitive resources in order to support such processes. Take for example, this 2008 paper, accessible via the Australian Literacy Educators’ Association (ALEA) website. Its author (Cozmescu) refers to the use of a “bricolage" of classroom practices, but makes no reference to phonics instruction as a teaching approach, despite referring to decoding as a strategy that children might use when participating in activities that respond to the question “How will I ensure that this week’s literacy program will include all of my students”? How indeed. And how do children call on a strategy such as decoding, if they have not been taught it?

It is also interesting to read the views of proponents of BL on its historical roots. For example, Manset-Williamson, and Nelson (2005, p. 59) observed that “Influential within the debate over explicitness of strategy instruction are Fountas and Pinnell (1996), who have argued that strategies cannot be directly taught. Instead, they propose that teachers provide rich literature experiences for students so that reading strategies can be naturally constructed with teacher support, but not explicit instruction”.

Did you catch that? “Strategies cannot be directly taught”. Many readers will be aware of course, that Fountas and Pinnell are the authors of the hugely popular and widely used (in Australia at least) levelled readers based around predictable text that encourage guessing rather than decoding as a first-line approach for beginning readers. Their advice flies in the face not only of decades of cognitive psychology research, and the findings of three national inquiries into the teaching of literacy (USA, Australia, and UK), but ironically is also at odds with published statements by some other proponents of BL. For example, Rivalland (2000, p. 2), referred to “Explicit instruction in code-breaking techniques, which include phonological awareness, letter recognition, letter-sound correspondences and sight word recognition” - in spite of the fact that Fountas and Pinnell said that reading strategies cannot be directly taught. Notably, Rivalland still stops short of reference to initial systematic, synthetic phonics as the preferred approach to teaching decoding skills, but I think readers can see just how confusing and contradictory the BL landscape is.

Offering eclectic, only partially targeted instructional approaches as a means of meeting the diverse needs of early learners seems an odd vehicle for a pedagogical approach that has the word “balance” in its name. It’s somewhat akin to using a butter knife to slice a piece of rump steak: it superficially looks like an implement that might be fit for purpose, but in practice offers only a blunt interface with the task at hand.

Thankfully the Five from Five  project offers a means of redressing some of the gaps and inconsistencies outlined above. It is based on the agreed evidence that children need teachers who can draw together processes in phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary development, comprehension, and reading fluency, but value-adds these by positioning systematic synthetic phonics instruction as a first-line approach, and provides resources to teachers and parents to support this. This is an important refinement that is sorely lacking in current conceptualisations of BL. It also neatly gets past the problem of phonics being the only one of the Big Five that needs to “justify” its existence as a pedagogical pillar.

There is perhaps a perverse reward for lack of systematic early reading teaching in the fact that many children will cross the bridge to literacy almost irrespective of the pedagogical focus in their classroom. Such children enter school with a range of bio-psycho-social advantages that set them up for success. This position was well-summarised by Konza, who observed (2014, p. 160)

"It is true that some children readily acquire the skills of independent reading without highly explicit teaching, but if balanced is interpreted as offering all children only an embedded rather than an explicit approach to phonics instruction, those most in need will be further disadvantaged". 

So we cannot expect to see improvements in the performance of children in the tail of the achievement curve unless and until teachers are equipped to teach children who start from behind and require explicit, systematic teaching if they are to have any chance of catching up, let alone engaging with the higher-order language-based literacy activities that await them across the curriculum.

Compromise is a wonderful thing, in its place. But we should not be compromising on translating scientific evidence into classroom practice. It is not enough to offer children (especially those starting from behind) an eclectic, bricolaged, blended literacy program that fails for want of a simple early emphasis on explicit and systematic synthetic phonics instruction, and then to classify such children as “special needs” when they inevitably and completely predictably display low literacy skills by mid primary school years. This is simply amounts to another way of describing Dr. Reid Lyon’s “instructional casualties”.

That’s not fair to teachers or students, and it’s most certainly not what I call "balanced".

Bingham, G.E. & Hall-Kenyon, K.M. (2013). Examining teachers’ beliefs about and implementation of a balanced literacy framework. Journal of Research in Reading, 36(1), 14-28.

Bowen, C. & Snow, P. (2017). Making Sense of Interventions for Children with Developmental Disorders. A Guide for Parents and Professionals. Croydon, UK: J&R Press

Cozmescu, H. (2008). Thinking Balanced Literacy Planning

Heydon, R., Hibbert, K. & Iannacci. L. (2005). Strategies to support balanced literacy approaches in pre- and inservice teacher education.  Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 48(4), 312-319.

Konza, D. (2014). Teaching reading: Why the "Fab Five" should be "the Big Six". Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 39(12), 153-169.

Manset-Williamson, G. & Nelson, J.M. (2005). Balanced, strategic reading instruction for upper-elementary and middle school students with reading disabilities: A comparative study of two approaches. Learning Disability Quarterly, 28(1),59-74.

Mermelstein, L. (2006). The components of Balanced Literacy. What does Balanced Literacy actually mean?

Rasinski, T. & Padak, N. (2004). Beyond consensus—beyond balance: Toward a comprehensive literacy curriculum. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 20(1), 91-102

Rivalland, J. (2000). Finding a balance for the year 2000 and beyond. Newsletter of the Australian Literacy Educators' Association, February.

Wren, S. (2001). What does a “Balanced Literacy Approach” mean?

(C) Pamela Snow, 2017

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