The Science of Reading


Beyond the 'Reading Wars': How the science of reading can improve literacy (2018)


A new scientific report from an international team of psychological researchers aims to resolve the so-called "reading wars," emphasizing the importance of teaching phonics in establishing fundamental reading skills in early childhood. The report, published in in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, shows how early phonics skills are advanced with a rich reading curriculum throughout the school years.

Scientists Anne Castles (Macquarie University), Kathleen Rastle (Royal Holloway University of London), and Kate Nation (University of Oxford) report their conclusions as part of a thorough, evidence-based account of how children learn to read. They synthesize findings from more than 300 research studies, book chapters, and academic journal articles published across a variety of scientific fields.

"We decided to bring this knowledge together in one place to provide an accessible overview," Nation says. "We didn't want it to be buried in the scientific literature, we wanted it to be useful to teachers charged with the vital task of teaching children to read."

Read on

This supposed attempt to 'end the reading wars' is not new.  They were supposed to end following the National Reading Panel Report (2000) and the Australian Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy (2005) and the  Rose Report (2006) 

So why are we still taking so long to teach so many to read; some never develop the proficiency to keep up with the demands of the curriculum. If academics have the answers, the 'science of reading', why do we have so many instructional casualties? This is the question we will seek to address, as an ongoing project.   


My Story

I arrived in Australia a decade ago to find that teachers I spoke to were pulling their hair out.  Programs were purchased on the back of research claims. They would try them, find they weren’t ‘working’ for them for a range of reasons (or gains were too slow) and they’d be shelved. Many were using Reading Recovery. All Aussie teachers, nationwide, were having to teach 'sight words, to ‘benchmark’ students into 'reading levels' and the three cueing system was rife. At the same time as sharing the findings of the three national inquiries, that clearly identified what we should be doing to meet the needs of the highest number of learners, I became increasingly aware of how difficult it is to change beliefs. It is also difficult for teachers to challenge their 'leaders' and that many teachers are unable to change the way they teach, even if they want to.   

So I initially started sharing my resources and strategies for free, sharing ideas with other teachers in order to help children read and spell more easily in real classrooms; and it’s snowballed. I ended up doing so much that I got a lot printed and started selling it. Of course that’s when attacks started, especially from those also selling resources and programs. But teachers got excited and started sharing their data from before and after (teachers have to collect so much data) and the word spread. Many actually got kicked off teacher forums as the moderators presumed they must be lying, their claims seemed ridiculous. An increase from average PM7 in prep to 17 in a low socio economic area, with predominantly ESL kids? Never?!

Initially even JUST the addition of various strategies like ‘Duck Hands, Lines and Numbers’ (with or without puppets) to focus on phoneme isolation, segmentation and blending’ and the ‘spelling cloud poems’ and spelling clouds, to visually display grapheme choices made a substantial difference according to the data. The kids were also engaged! They were loving the playful learning, and focus on exploring ‘how words work’. Many teachers had never known what a 'schwa' was until they started exploring the approach as ‘Speech Sound pic detectives’. They had no training in phonetics or linguistics, and the strategies were making them learn with their kids. Speechies in schools actually embraced the activities I shared even earlier than teachers, especially when the Speech Sound Monsters were added in. 


So a lot of parents and educators started to talk. I’ve never paid to advertise anything, because teachers aren’t as gullible as many think. They talk about what is helping them. We should value that. Did my mother or grandmother rely on peer reviewed programs in their classroom? No. But their lives were very different ; they could focus on 'the 3 Rs' in reception (no jam packed National Curriculum) and have a play based classroom. I developed my love of teaching reading because of them. I was probably the only one in my graduating class who wasn’t worried about teaching reading :-) I also immediately got into trouble with my new boss as I didn’t use the ‘let them learn to read using ‘real books’ approach’ being pushed at the time (the 90s) Phonics was a dirty word! Not more 'reading schemes' either! 'Let them become immersed in 'real books' I was told.
Ignored that, and had more children reading at the end of the year than the other (experienced ) reception teacher who blindly followed the 'real books' plan. So I guess I’ve always been a stubborn disrupter. 

In Australia we started running workshops where teachers and speechies would come into the classrooms on the Friday and see the approach within a 2 hour literacy block before training on the Sat. They’d never experienced that ‘open door’ approach before, and they then started doing it themselves. When I mentored a year 2 teacher for a year we ended up having more teachers than kids in the classroom every Friday. Teachers like to SEE things in real classrooms. They would often come to try to find issues. Brilliant! That’s what we want teachers to do. It’s part of the approach. 

Relief teachers would come in to that class when the teacher was absent and sit in the corner while the students ran the session. They would then tell the teacher they’d never met such articulate, argumentative 7 year olds. We thought that was a good thing.


Many packaged programs just show an explicit HF grapheme teaching order, and away they go. They don’t help the teacher become a better teacher, or differentiate. Until fairly recently most phonics programs didn’t even have decodable readers that allowed for the development of fluency at Code level, or that were used to develop fluency and comprehension. Most were asking kids to learn HFWs as ‘sight words’ and talking about 'silent letters; made no sense to me.


When magic happens in their classrooms teachers want to try more of the techniques and activities. Many have to do it secretly, until their leaders ask why they’re getting better outcomes than the others using the mandated program. 'Awkward', as my son would say. But they will say that I’ve shared an approach that’s changed how they teach. How do we ‘measure’ that? All their leaders really care about are the improved outcomes; unless thrown into dissonance and they demand the teacher stops, as messing up their ‘whole school approach! But we should be analysing those changes. Last year we wanted to publish PM levels, after analysing how their 'Code Levels' aligned with Bechmarking. The majority of teachers were told not to submit; not to potentially challenge the education system, or upset 'stakeholders'. 


Teachers who were using ‘step by step’ gov recommended programs to teach basic phonics were dropping them and the data difference even within six months has caused a lot of confusion for education depts:-) The differences being HOW children are being taught. Many had never used spaced repetition within whole class teaching, for example, or seen a whole class learning basic phoneme to high frequency grapheme mapping with large groups, and all working independently (with teacher barely involved) The 'brain training videos' as we used to call them, were a game changer. The students could learn to recognise graphemes, blend them into words and read in sentences using headphones and a splitter ! The teacher could set up the room so that all were learning what they needed, at their pace, and supervise (or give individual students extra 1:1 attention) The clouds made spelling visible and accessible to all, and the spelling cloud poems brought these graphemes to life. This is because teachers focus on student engagement and interest when developing resources.     


I then started developing resources for my non verbal (mainly ASD) students, so they could demonstrate they were isolating, segmenting and blending the phonemes they couldn’t articulate, and so that was further extended to add the phoneme representation (Speech Sound Monster) to the visually (Code Mapped) segmented text. 'Monster Mapping' is already being used on solar powered tablets with students who have no trained teachers, internet or electricity, to teach reading and spelling (Teacherless teaching tools). Teachers see activites that make sense to them, choose to incorporate into their teaching, and then share their experiences. It’s what teachers have always done. I learnt so much from watching my Gran and Mum, and this is why I teach teachers as I do. It does not help that various academics are scornful when hearing of our experiences, and dismiss as anecdotal. If they truly want change, they need to understand collective teacher efficacy. This is a MASSIVE element of the 'movement' I am proud to be a part of.    


We shouldn’t be making teachers use any programs blindly, however we know what is likely to be effective as we have so much evidence. If real teachers started with the question 'where is the research' they would just blindly use Reading Recovery, or whatever the peer reviewed program of the month (or decade) is, and not look at what teachers are doing and talking about. That’s turned out to be pretty disastrous. Had I done that I wouldn’t have helped so many kids learn to read. Isn’t that the bottom line for teachers? Science is all about discovery, and we’re action researchers who care. We’re often being told to use programs, and they all tend to use the ‘we have peer reviewed studies to back up our claims’ argument. Are they replicable? In real classrooms? Mainstream and special ed? In areas where kids speak little to no English, and the teacher has little to no understanding of phonetics? Does the program/approach  train the teacher? What happens with the kids while the teacher is learning? So many questions to ask. And we must ask them! 

I have always suggested that critics ask for volunteers who are struggling, and we compare phonemic awareness and word recognition skills after the same amount of instruction (compare what I do with what they do!) so they can study my methods, video every session to pick them apart, and evaluate scientifically. Funnily enough I’ve had no takers! I’m always prepared to put my money where my mouth is. But what they will see me do is difficult to study, as there are so many variables. 

When I deliver training in schools I often ask them to give me a student they have seen go from grade to grade as a functionally illiterate instructional casualty. I ask that they tell me nothing about the student. I then work with that  student (with their permission) for about 45 mins to an hour. The teachers watch, and I’m videoed. I then find that even the most sceptical teacher comes to training wanting to learn new strategies. Of course 8 sessions would be even better. So if anyone wants to study me, get in touch! I just share what I do. I make it 'visible'. 

I’ll start offering free drop in sessions next month in the UK and we will video sessions. They’re then shared, without edits, to get folks talking. Those kids and adults (many dyslexic) have struggled and have asked for help. So I invite anyone who is sceptical about my own abilities to watch and see what I do. They’re all evaluated at first and after 8 sessions we have data. We will upload all clips to a dedicated channel.  But they show that although I teach all the essential skills, the most powerful tool I have is my ability to teach each individual in the way that will help them learn best. This can be confusing for researchers, as the variables continue to change. Teachers 'get' it though; great teachers know 'what works' even before seeing the data.  

I’ll invite researchers to study what I do. But I'm not chasing that. Not because I don’t value the scientific method, but because I know what changes teacher beliefs, and what doesn't. I have tried to share research to a room full of teachers! Have you ever shown a smoker the evidence? Did he or she then quit? When we approach things differently (and help them replace one behaviour with another) we change practices in the classroom. That’s when I get excited. Ironically there is a lot of research to show that teachers ignore research ! As a problem solver my response isn’t to force them to read research; it’s to find ways to get them to the table. We won't end the 'reading wars' without understanding teachers, and also understanding the people who STOP teachers from changing. 

I speak out and face a lot of pushback;  I expect that! Everyone should question and challenge! When I started talking about mapping phonemes to graphemes even when teaching 'sight words', a decade ago, you would have thought I'd suggested the kids learn them by standing on their heads. When I questioned the use of PM benchmarking in Australia, and especially when I uploaded footage of a child 'reading' a Level 2 reader, without being allowed to see the text, I caused such a stir that I was sent a very angry letter from the publishers, who demanded that I stop questioning the use of levelled readers during the beginning stages of learning to read, immediately ! When a school dropped a well known phonics program six years ago and started using SSP strategies, and spoke to ABC about the massive improvement (not only in literacy levels but 'happiness' of the children) there was a 'ministerial' and the school was sent a formal directive to explain the shift. After seeing their data the school was 'allowed' but the rumours of SSP being 'controversial' remain.  They claimed that the old program was evidenced based and the school had been duped into trialling SSP. This caused issues (and a lot of cognitive dissonance) as of course they could see the improved data. Darn that data we’ve been demanding, it’s disproving our theory with regards to using programs from our ‘evidence based program’ list! Others would say ‘So more kids there are reading, and reading earlier? So why the uproar?' But change can be messy.
To this day the SA education dept seems unwilling to add SSP to their list of 'evidence based phonics programs'. Recently a school, also dropping one of the programs on their list, achieved incredible results with the UK Phonics Screener. So it is not only the 'whole language' advocates (I have actually yet to meet any) who are preventing children from learning phonics effectively, it can also be individuals within an education departments who claim to embrace this 'big six' approach (oral language, phonemic awareness, phonics taught systematically, fluency, vocabulary knowledge and comprehension) but only when the evidence based programs are the ones they endorse. In the end however, data cannot be ignored. We look forward to being added to 'the list' at some point :-)        
Issues often arise when teachers are getting better outcomes than when they used a ‘gold star’ program that has peer reviewed studies to back up their claims; it causes quite the disruption for education depts who are pushing for those programs. Many were incensed when teachers dropped Reading Recovery and started using SSP for intervention. However NSW have now admitted that the $50 Million they were spending on RR each year, as 'research based and research backed' may not have worked out for them. Perhaps the 'reading wars' persist, in part, as the 'scientific evidence' we are supposed to accept regardless of our own beliefs, seems to change. It is also confusing to teachers to be told that certain programs have 'published research' and yet the study was conducted using children as guinea pigs; any program is 'untested' at some point. Most of us don't have researchers on hand to publish our findings, and so our techniques and strategies remain scientifically 'untested' regardless of how much evidence we have. As teachers, we are generally really, really careful about what we trial, as the kids are our priority. Unfortunately we have to learn on the job; most of us can look back and realise we failed some students at some point, for a range of reasons. Due to the nature of teaching we can all do better, because we learn more every day. This is what we need to focus on; we need a place to share and collaborate with others, leaving judgement at the door.        


If I see a videos showing kids thriving even after a relatively short period of time I want to know more; far more than what any researcher may claim about the approach or program. I want to watch the TEACHING, to see the interaction between educator and child. Science is about discovery, and continually evolving to be better. If we want to end the 'reading wars' we need to make the 'science of reading' visible; and know that it will look very different in different classrooms ! But we need to recognise that teachers cannot be programmed to teach like robots, any more than students can learn as if a blank page ready to be written on, or a computer ready to be programmed. So let's focus on supporting and empowering teachers so that they understand the 'science', so that they can challenge it when necessary, and make it easier for teachers to SEE great practice, and become exceptional action researchers with kind and happy hearts. We need a spiritual and cultural transformation too.