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."
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? Is one reason that outstanding teachers are not being asked to create programs and resources, to help others APPLY the science? Take, for example, the Reading Recovery program; created by a clinical psychologist in New Zealand who conducted observational research in the 1960s that enabled her to design ways to detect children's early difficulties with literacy learning. Much of the reason it was so widely accepted for so long, and promoted above so many other interventions, was because of the scientific approach taken. 'Research on the effectiveness of Reading Recovery has also continued around the world. Consistency of independent findings on the effectiveness of the intervention in very different settings offers compelling evidence that Reading Recovery accomplishes its goals.' https://irrto.org/about-reading-recovery/
Policy makers and politicians are naturally going to want 'evidence'; for the same reason they want every child to undertake regular standardised testing. When classroom teachers try to object, or suggest other ways to apply the science, they are often treated scornfully. How can we try to argue, in the face of 'the science'. There is 'substantial evidence evaluating Reading Recovery’s effectiveness with the lowest-attaining pupils in a wide range of educational contexts. Here are the most recent.
How do teachers push back? We don't usually have the time (or training?) to analyse the research deeply and broadly. So we find research that fits with our belief system. What I have found is that SHOWING teachers ways to teach differently can bring even the most sceptical to the table, and start to shift those beliefs. I recently posted a 30 second video showing a child using our 'sight word' videos, which are all 'Code Mapped', in response to someone asking how to teach 'sight words' in line with the science of reading. I could SHOW what the latest science tells us regarding orthographic mapping. The response was overwhelming ! Why? Teachers can SEE the application, and immediately start figuring out how to apply it in their own classrooms. We must making these changes VISIBLE.
My journey; bringing the Science of Learning into Aussie classrooms.
After about a year of delivering workshops across Australia, sharing 'the science of reading' (in 2008/9) I realised I wasn't really getting anywhere. Teachers may have been interested in the research findings (the Rose Report and Australian Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy were fairly recently published ) but they certainly weren't going back to their classrooms enthusiastic about making big changes. I thought I'd try something different, and upload videos to the Read Australia facebook page, even if just to get people talking !
So I went into a Kindy and was videoed working with young children; I worked out who had poor phonemic awareness, and showed 'the audience' how to overcome the deficits, and transition to phonics within a few sessions. As I conducted these sessions outside, using a playful approach, I quickly started creating a buzz. I have put a few clips in the channel below.
I then spent two terms with a prep class in Brisbane, and again we videoed the sessions and uploaded them every day to the 'Read Australia' page. Unfortunately a new school leader came in who couldn't understand why we were asking children to decode words (it was taking them ages to read, apparently) and she wanted more of a focus on PM readers; so my visits were stopped. Teachers and parents tried to explain what I was doing, but it fell on deaf ears.
I showed teachers strategies I had personally developed for example our unique 'this thumb' action, and 'visual prompt' to help children distinguish between the two sounds represented by the grapheme 'th' You can see that we were segmenting the words at the phoneme level, and mapping to graphemes (speech to print)
These are ideas you will only usually find when watching real teachers! We are always trying to make learning easier.
I then spent time in another Kindy (pre-school) and soon afterwards spent a whole year supporting a grade 2 teacher. Pretty soon 4 out of 5 prep teachers at the school started using the strategies and resources. Again, the 'Read Australia!' following grew and grew, and teachers started replicating what they saw on youtube, in their classrooms. Their data improved. The deputy principal even turned down a position as principal at another school as she was excited about what was happening!
Unfortunately the school leader and I disagreed about methodology, and again my help was no longer needed.
You can see clips of the Year 2 class, and some of the wonderful Preppies in the channel. Note the clip where I assessed 135 children for phonemic awareness deficits in 45 minutes, after teaching all 5 prep classes to use duck hands in the hall each morning for a week. We were doing ground breaking, innovative work there! Pity it was only the teachers that realised it.
I also went in to help a local Gold Coast high school develop strategies to overcome the issues faced by 'instructional casualties'; after a decade or so in school they were still functionally illiterate. As far as I know the work was included in a Smith Family community research project (but I wasn't involved) We took groups of 20 or so grade 7-10 students and code mapped for 45 minutes in a temporary classroom. It had no air conditioning, so this was great fun in 40 degree heat. But we had fun, Gold Coast Titans would regularly come to help out, and I became 'The Duck Lady'
These are just a few of the places I visited, to try to make the application of the science VISIBLE.
It was when I stopped trying to show how to make **** phonics and other programs more effective, and put together the SSP routine and videos, that I started to experience major resistance. It seemed that some groups were happy to hear me explain where the gaps in the programs were, but not to actually ditch the programs altogether.
We have been collecting SSP data for over 5 years now, and I have met some amazing teachers who have said these early clips were instrumental in changing the way they taught. At every turn, however, I have been thwarted by 'leaders' who didn't understand my work, or want to 'rock the boat' by not using government recommended commercial programs. They had their own agenda; but teachers could see what I was doing, and why. And this is the point ! Teachers generally WANT to find ways to improve the learning outcomes of their students, as they are so emotionally invested in their students. To SEE the science of reading in action, within a 1:1, small groups and whole class settings was powerful. I wouldn't try to 'edit' the videos to show 'perfect' teaching, or to only show the students who 'get it' with ease. Teachers tend to trust what they can see happening in real classrooms, and then they talk. But I could also see just how difficult change can be, even for teachers who really want it.
Policy leaders and academics can be so invested in the science they support, and their own agenda, that they can squash attempts by teachers to bring about change. So I now focus on developing collective teaching efficacy, and creating a movement based around SHOWING 'what works' as opposed to 'what isn't working', and helping teachers as much as possible. We are arrogant if we believe we will ever know 'what works'. We can always teach children more quickly, find was to get them ore excited about the code, encourage them to read more books !
We are always learning about how our students learn. We are teachers !
The strategies for bringing the science of reading into classrooms have not worked well; if they had everyone would have started teaching phonemic awareness and systematic phonic after the report was published from the National Reading Panel 20 years ago. Is it time to start supporting teachers who can, themselves, successfully apply the science - in any setting, and even with a limited budget, resources and practical help. If teachers can show outstanding practice, using their own approach and resources (and with outcomes that can be replicated by teachers elsewhere) why are we not taking those teachers to 'think tanks' and funding their work? Look at the wide spread success already achieved by those using the Speech Sound Pics (SSP) Approach? Ask teachers how many blocks they faced trying to use the techniques and resources in their classrooms! And yet ‘allowing everyone the freedom to follow their interests sends an important message: that good ideas can be found anywhere, by anyone.’ (Price, 2013)
Bit by bit, the autonomy of teachers is being chipped away at by people who don't trust us to plan effectively for the children we teach, and huge numbers of teachers are leaving the profession. It is definitely time for change. Bring in the real experts.
Teachers around the world do not seem to be acting on the scientific evidence; if true, why not?
“Research evidence is essential for identifying effective educational practice” (Reyna, 2004, p. 47). Before considering research evidence, however, we must understand the process of conducting scientific research.
Scientific research begins with clear, answerable questions. At the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), complex questions guide researchers as they examine instructional methods or programs for teaching reading. Researchers consider not just what works in general but also what specific instructional methods work for which students and under what conditions. Multiple researchers may study the same questions. The accumulation of research—not just the results from one study—constitutes scientific evidence.
Before beginning a study, researchers identify what previous research has already established and refine their research questions on the basis of that knowledge. Next, the researchers develop a hypothesis or a set of hypotheses that will guide the direction and methodology used in the study. Specifically, the hypotheses state what researchers predict will happen on the basis of the theoretical model they are using, with the model itself incorporating information from previously conducted, high-quality studies. The researchers then identify an appropriate method for testing the hypothesis. Finally, they collect and analyze the data and report their findings.
Even though different types of studies use different method-ologies, the scientific method provides a consistent foundation for each research study. The evidence derived from a study is only as good as the care with which the researchers ask their questions, select and implement their research methods, and analyze and interpret their data.
Accepted theories are the best explanations available so far for how best to teach students to read. They have been tested, are supported by multiple lines of evidence, and have proved useful in generating explanations and opening up new areas for research. However, science is always a work in progress, and even theories change. Old, previously accepted theories can become obsolete. Teachers who have worked in the profession for 20 or so years have seen 'theories' come and go. Many have talked about failing students BECAUSE they taught using 'research based and research back' programs.
So scientists may think they understand why so many children struggle to read, and what to do about it, they often do not understand all the variables that actually do contribute. Who makes political and policy decisions, and controls the budgets, can play a huge part in this. Scientists need to stick to what they do best, and keep teachers informed of the latest theories. But let us not over-look the role of the teacher as action researchers.
Many 'reading scientists' seem to think that the reason so many students are failing to learn to read as quickly and easily as possible (and able to become students who read for pleasure) is because teachers are not aware of, accepting of or acting on it. In this day and age we can learn about pretty much anything we want to learn as we have the internet at our finger tips, instructional videos on youtube, support forums...if teachers want to know something they can. In simple terms some don't want to learn more and make changes (which may, or may not, help teach their students to read more quickly and easily than using the program or strategies previously incorporated into the teacher's teaching tool box) and some do want to change, but are prevented from taking action. Some probably want to do better but are not as competent as others; some do not have the support and budget needed to effectively action the change that is needed. The reasons why so many students struggle to learn to read are incredible varied, and complex.
'Reading scientists have been talking about this for a long time and tried to communicate with educators and failed. We have not been able to get the science past the schoolhouse door.
What I can do is explain how reading works, how children develop and how we can teach children to read better.'
Seidenberg is a cognitive scientist and professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He has a book; Language at the Speed of Sight.
But the reality is that 'reading scientists' have been giving conflicting 'evidence' when you step away from whether to choose 'whole language' OR 'phonics' (as if teachers made such a black and white choice.) Start to pick apart what 'systematically taught phonics' actually looks like within the available programs. Are we to assume all are going to meet the needs of all students, and help them learn as quickly as possible? So should we not be spending time picking apart the details, rather than continuing to debate 'whole language v phonics?'
I am currently in a fabulous group that is attempting to apply the science of learning, and to change the way children are taught. A few issues keep coming up against and again. I'll attempt to go through some of them, not necessarily to share what I believe is 'right' or has 'the most research evidence' to support the approach or strategy, but to try to shed some light on why teachers might struggle to 'bring the science into the school house'.
Speech pathologists use the 'umbrella' of phonological awareness to work on speech and language, primarily the production of speech sounds, to help the child overcome oral language difficulties. Phonemic awareness is the ability to isolate phonemes, segment, blend and manipulate (and doesn't include larger sound units such as onset and rime or syllables)
This 'hierarchy' can be seen around the world, on education related web sites. For example in Australia:
‘We can think about phonological awareness as a sequence from basic phonological awareness skills, to more complex ones.
See the Phonological Awareness: Staircase to success diagram.
‘When working on phonological awareness with early communicators and early language users (birth – 36 months), the relevant phonological awareness skills are syllables and rhymes. With older ages, educators may introduce more complex phonological awareness skills (for example alliteration, onset/rime), but the focus of phonological awareness experiences should be informed by current assessment of each child’s learning.’
Despite a lack of empirical evidence, it is universally ‘accepted’ that phonemic awareness cannot be achieved when educators deviate from this supposed developmental pathway. "Phonological awareness develops along a continuum from awareness of large and concrete sound units (i.e., words, syllables) to awareness of small and abstract sound units (i.e., phonemes)" (Lonigan et al., 2009, p. 347)
Many academics have written books for teachers, reinforcing this 'continuum' and use research to support their program. Teachers can be seen religiously drilling their students, and not 'moving to the next stage' until they have 'mastered' the previous one. So the PA 'program' might look like this, regarding learning outcomes.
The UK government mandates not only that phonics be taught, but that it should be ‘synthetic’ phonics; the ‘Letters and Sounds’ program (DFES-00281-2007) was created to support implementation. As of 2012 Year 1 students have had to undertake the Phonics Screening Check (ISBN 978-1-78644-873-6, STA/19/8112/e) unless they attend an independent school. We therefore have a national measure of student achievement with regards to recognition and blending of the high frequency graphemes included in the Letters and Sounds program, using real and pseudo words. Achievement levels have stagnated since 2016, with almost 1 in every 10 student still failing to pass the test after being taught using this approach for three years, including receiving additional intensive 1:1 and small group synthetic phonics teaching after they fail the test again in year 2.
There is also a notable discrepancy between phonics and reading test results (National curriculum assessments at key stage 1 and phonics screening checks in England, 2018. 1.1 3.1) The scatterplot on page 65 of the DfE’s report on PIRLS shows that there is only a moderate correlation between children’s PIRLS scores and their phonics check scores several years earlier. Ten-year-olds in Northern Ireland ‘significantly’ outperformed English ten-year-olds in PIRLS 2016, where synthetic phonics is not mandated.
There are few comparisons of the various UK government recommended synthetic phonics programs, however when two synthetic phonics programs were compared their impact on reading skills was linked to a child's phonological awareness when starting school. Dr Shapiro, British Journal of Educational Psychology (2015) This supports wide spread findings regarding predictors of reading and spelling success, however it fails to acknowledge that it is the phoneme level that is crucial, rather than the broader elements of phonological awareness.
The first official EYFS baseline assessment for children in their first year of school will be September 2020, and include phonological awareness testing; again this broader measure is mentioned. It is unclear as to what teachers will do with this information ie whether it will be used to adjust the teaching of phonics. The RBA will be used to measure the learning progress of children between Key Stage 1 and 2, and potentially further support the findings regarding correlation of phonemic awareness on school entry level and phonics achievement, regardless of which synthetic program is used by the school.
There is a big push by certain groups in Australia to mandate that 'synthetic phonics' be the approach of choice, and what is relevant here is that this means there is no 'staircase', if they are to be 'true' to that specific type of phonics teaching. Teachers go directly to the phonemic awareness element. There is always a focus on the phoneme to grapheme 'mapping'. (personal note here; I actually only use syllables for convenience, as we do when remembering telephone numbers. So children may use syllables to remember a very long word they intend to spell, and use 'Slash and Dash' type marks, to plan out the syllables and then their grapheme parts. This can lead to the addition of phonemes, but is a useful tool to assist with working memory and for 'planning' of the word - isolation, segmentation.)
Teaching reading and spelling at the level of the phoneme unit of sound has been shown to be highly successful and to be more flexible and more effective than teaching in larger-sized units such as onset and rime and consonant clusters. The number of discrete units of sound that need to be taught is also reduced. What is the point of teaching separate phoneme units of sound /k/ /a/ /t/ /r/ /i/ /s/ /p/ as well as the sound units of onset, rime and consonant clusters such as at, cr, isp, sp? When teachers teach at the level of phonemes for one to one mapping (as for the word c-a-t) and in addition teach the sounds units of consonant clusters and onset and rimes, then this unnecessarily multiplies the teaching of discrete units and it is a potentially confusing way to teach phonics. Bear in mind also, that whilst the teacher is busy introducing units of sound which are onsets and rimes (rimes include a vowel + word ending such as ‘-ack’, ‘-ock’, ‘-ick’, ‘-imp’, ‘-amp’, ‘-ump’, ‘-unk’, ‘- ank’, ‘-ink’) and consonant clusters (known as ‘beginning clusters’ such as ‘cr’, ‘st’, ‘spr’ and ‘end clusters’ such as ‘nd’, ‘lk’, ‘lt’), the teacher is not being systematic and steady in introducing the phoneme units of sound - the teacher is side-tracking, confusing and complicating the phonics teaching. Not only that - the skill of blending and segmenting the phonemes is being skewed by expecting learners to blend and segment with larger units of sound as well. The emphasis is invariably taken away from the skills of blending and segmenting and placed upon the learning of more and more units of sound. This simply makes no sense at all. Unfortunately, long-standing phonics teaching tends to be based on the notion of onset and rime and consonant clusters, special needs teaching tends to be a mixed approach including these larger units of sound, the commercial market is flooded with long-standing material based on these larger units of sound - and therefore it is very hard to suggest that there is actually a simpler and better way to approach phonics teaching. It’s not that the larger units of sound fail to work in terms of teaching effectiveness (although this could be the case for some learners), the suggestion (based on accumulating results from research and classroom findings) is that the synthetic phonics approach based on the level of the phoneme and the importance of the skills of blending and segmenting allthrough-the-word is more effective.
So some education departments assert that teachers should adhere to this 'staircase' as a teaching sequence, and other academics and organisations reject it.
Balanced decoding strategies instruction follows what many early years academics and teachers believe is a biologically dictated developmental progression; that as they move up through the early primary years, children 'naturally' become able to perceive smaller and smaller units of sound (whole words (logographs)->syllables->onset and rimes->individual phonemes), so teaching needs to follow this order too. Despite a lack of empirical evidence, many early years educationalists strongly suggest that deviating from this supposed developmental pathway, or anything but child-initiated, intrinsic learning, will damage children's 'naturally' emerging phonemic awareness and spoil their love of reading'
'Scores of developmental studies show that phonemic processing is one of the most “buffered” language skills humans possess, and is least susceptible to disruption and malfunction. Chaney showed that by age three, children are highly sensitive to the phoneme level of speech. Nearly all of the 87 three-year-olds in her study could listen to isolated phonemes (/b/ -- /a/ -- /t/), blend them into a word, and point to a picture representing that word – with nearly 90% scoring well above chance. Of the 22 tasks that she administered, this was the second easiest task. And contrary to Goswami’s assertion, the ability to reproduce rhyming endings or alliteration were the most difficult, with the vast majority of the children failing these tasks.
Despite results like these, Goswami persists in holding to her theory that “rhyme” is as important as phonemes in learning to master an alphabetic writing system. She even claims that rhyme is relevant to our spelling system: “spelling-sound consistencies occur at two levels, rhyme and phoneme.” The notion that the rhyme (word endings that sound alike) is relevant to learning an alphabetic writing system (which is entirely based on phonemes) has been largely discredited. When the National Reading Panel in the US published their landmark survey of reading research in 2000, results showed that rhyme-based teaching methods were singularly ineffective either alone or combined with something else. By contrast, the programmes which were highly successful all shared these features:
Teach the 40+ phonemes in English as the basis for the code (and NO OTHER UNITS), teach children to decode and encode in sequence from left to right (segmenting and blending), introduce letters as soon as possible (don’t teach phoneme awareness independently of print), include lots of copying and writing to link visual, auditory, and motor systems, avoid letter names, and never allow or encourage children to “guess” words on the basis of partial cues or pictures on the page.
Dr Macmillan explains that, ''teaching children about onset and rime as a route to discovering individual phonemes is similar logic to thinking that a person can be taught to read music by memorising chords on, say a guitar or piano. Although it may be relatively easy for a person to learn the names of some musical chords and how to play them, there is little possibility that this knowledge will lead to the ability to read musical notation, to the ability to play individual notes on these instruments in response to the corresponding written symbols'' (Macmillan p82).
Recent studies, ''have shown conclusively that children do not use rhyming endings to decode words; hardly ever decode by analogy to other words; and that ability to dissect words into onsets and rimes has no impact whatsoever on learning to read and spell''
(D.McGuinness WCCR p148)
Diane McGuiness created a 'prototype for teaching beginning reading, and it included only attention to the smallest sound unit (phonemes) and no 'staircase'.
'Case, Philpot and Walker (2009), followed 1607 pupils across 50 schools over 6 years. The programme aligned directly with McGuinness’s (2004) ‘Prototype’ and revealed that children taught by the model achieved decoding levels substantially above the national data (Case, Philot, Walker, 2009), with 91% attaining the national expected level at KS1 statutory assessments. This longitudinal study, carried out by the programme designers using data from the schools using the package, found little or no variations across gender, socio economic or geographical groupings. The Queen’s University Belfast study (Gray et. Al, 2007), derived data from 916 pupils over 22 schools utilising linguistic phonic approaches, concluded that children exposed to this teaching approach gained substantial advantage in both reading and writing and that this advantage was sustained throughout the primary phase.'
As suggested by 'Reading Ape' All Phonics Instruction is not the same '...it would seem apposite for extensive and explicit research to be carried out to establish the most effective programmes being utilised to deliver phonic mastery.
So I do think we need to discuss the details ! eg whether promoting the teaching of onset and rime, syllables etc in order for the children to develop phonemic awareness adheres to the science of reading, or whether other reading scientists who prove an opposing theory (go straight to the phoneme level) are BOTH valid?
There are many opposing 'theories' and we seem to be trying to lump lots of opposing views/ studies together, perhaps simply to have a stronger voice against 'whole language'? A united front? But if we do this are we actually trying to apply the science? Or just the science we choose? So how can we then condemn those who chose Reading Recovery as an intervention program, or 'three cueing' as a strategy etc?
They did so based on an assumption that the science behind the programs and approaches were valid. Education depts around the world have spent MILLIONS on these programs each year, in order to teaching children to read using 'research based and research backed' programs. There are over 100 international research studies that document the benefits. So teachers should just use it, without question, right? Otherwise we are 'failing to bring the research into our classrooms?' But here's the problem. New research might show us the old research 'doesn't work'
So how can we shift our analysis and USE of the research, and put more of a spotlight onto what real teachers in real classrooms are discovering? For the sake of argument, let's say, every teacher starts to use 'evidence based practice'; teaching children to read using 'oral language, phonemic awareness, phonics (taught systematically) fluency, vocabulary knowledge and comprehension'... which programs or approaches enable students to learn more quickly and easily? Rather than our goal to be 'every child reading' why can it not be 'every child reading early'?