Creating Cognitive Dissonance

After graduating from ITE, I landed a job as a year 6 teacher in an outer London school. Whereas my ITE was definitely of the progressive kind, my school prescribed to a much more ‘traditional’ view of teaching and learning. This included the explicit and systematic teaching of phonics. In ITE, phonics was considered (somewhat begrudgingly) a necessary part but was also very much sidelined. Like the awkward family member you cannot deny you have but try to keep hushed, it was spoken of very quickly and then hidden away from view.

In my first week at my new English school, I underwent training. This included training in phonic work and explicit teaching. I was very sceptical. Why are they focussing on such a narrow aspect of teaching? Why are they engaging students in ‘kill and drill’? Don’t they know it will kill a love of learning and a love of reading? Don’t they know that’s what makes the difference? This was my attitude and it stayed this way for many months, yet over the course of the year, my scepticism began to waver. I was in a very challenging school – the kind where progress is hard-won. I could see the effect my explicit instruction was having, particularly on my students’ reading and writing skills. The more explicit I became, the better things seemed to go for my students, and outcomes of a reasonable kind ensued.

The moment I believe my scepticism changed to a feeling of cognitive dissonance came during a writing moderation. Although almost always a waste of time, we teachers would gather together to try and assess the writing ability of a set of students. It was late in the year so the year 2 teacher attended to present some of their writing, too. His students had obviously undergone intensive phonic work during their R and 1 years.  Some of the writing was truly amazing and so too was the spelling. In many ways, it was clear the students in year 2 had grasped concepts my year 6s were still grappling with. In that moment, I began to doubt myself. Perhaps they were on to something. I decided to investigate.

Cognitive dissonance is the state of having inconsistent views, beliefs or attitudes. Teachers want to raise academic achievement and I am no different. I was imagining a world of romantic possibilities for raising achievement; of students in love with books, writing beyond their years and passionately pursuing their dreams. This progressive ideal was being challenged by the approach reaping some serious results: explicit instruction and phonic work. I wanted to raise academic achievement but I was beginning to realise the way to achieve this did not suit my ideals. It was painful, but after much thought and reading (including papers like this), I decided to change my mind. It was clear the systematic and explicit approach to teaching reading through phonics was best.

Phonics is still extremely unpopular. This is because many Australian educators still think the way I used to think; they still have romantic ideals about how students should come to learn to read. But the more I learn about the subject the more I realise there is little time to waste indulging to romantic ideals: many children still fail to learn to read, and this does not need to be so. That’s why I am thankful for the coming of Initialit. An Australian-based phonics program from an organisation with a track record of success has the potential to shake things up. And this is important, because the more programs we have of this nature, the more cognitive dissonance it will impose on teachers. It is one thing to read about it, quite another to see the results for yourself. They will notice the difference, just like I did, and will begin to doubt their own beliefs about how children come to learn to read.

There is no time to waste on flawed approaches to teaching reading when so many fail. Sticking to ideals is self-indulgent and needs to stop because learning how to read is a one-shot deal for children:

“Schooling is a one-shot deal for kids and if we are wasting time playing around with ideas that have no impact on student achievement… then we are frankly wasting time and wasting the students chances of success.” – Dylan Wiliam

We must draw on the evidence and stop wasting time on worse ideas. It is vital we do whatever we can to ensure students learn how to read and learn it well. We teachers are in control of whether or not that happens. Great, evidence-based programs have the potential to impose cognitive dissonance in the minds of the gate-keepers: teachers. With the tide beginning to turn, it is time we saw some minds changed.


If you are a teacher and are curious about the evidence for phonics and early reading instruction in general, then this report and this report are good places to start.


Development of Phonological Awareness

Phonological awareness is the ability to manipulate units of oral language – onset and rime, syllables and phonemes. Phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness. It is the ability to notice, think about and work with individual sounds in words. It is a target skill foundational for reading achievement as it supports the ability to map sounds to letters – phonics. I tweeted out about the sort of phonological skills I am seeing in my classroom and my general understanding of what this indicates at this time of year.


I did this because I wasn’t sure about how exactly students should be performing late in kindergarten. You can get a general sense as a teacher, but it is hard to ascertain exactly where they are at. Twitter responded and directed me to this page on Reading Rockets, a website held in high regard. Below is an adapted, more succinct version of a table on the website describing milestones and at what age they occur. The progression in synthesised from a range of studies.


Most of my students are working at a pretty high level considering the table above so I can only conclude that the phonic work we are doing is strongly influencing their PA, which makes sense to me because kids do better when PA tasks are tied to print. In saying that, many are still working at a more limited capacity and need extra support. I spend a lot of time working to build PA skills with the most needy; however, like most areas, I am still learning and accumulating knowledge. I have found that this website has a variety of friendly games to mix in with more direct drills and quizzing techniques. Reading Rockets also has a variety of activities to help build PA skills.

Knowledge for Primary Teachers: Phonetics 101

This post is intended to provide some information to teachers at primary level (it is also part self-indulgent too, as it strengthens my own knowledge). Please note this post is written by a blogger and not an expert and is not intended to be comprehensive. Research gives me reason to believe knowledge in this area amongst teacher is low. I only wish to share vital information with colleagues in the hope it may strengthen their knowledge and understanding in an area that is quite heavily neglected yet extremely relevant to what we do in classrooms.

Why primary teachers need to learn about phonetics

The primary goal of primary schooling is to teach children how to read. In the simple view of reading, decoding skill multiplied by language comprehension is reading comprehension (D x LC = RC). English has an alphabetic orthography which represents the sounds of spoken language with letters and letter clusters. The fact letters of the alphabet represent sounds of spoken language is called the alphabetic principle. Teachers must assist students to make sense of the alphabetic principle and begin to match speech sounds to corresponding letters and letter clusters. Matching sounds to letters and letter clusters will help students learn to decode text.  Teachers who understand how our speech sound system works will be better placed to assist students to map these sounds to corresponding letters.

Phones and phonetics

Phones are the smallest distinguishable speech units that can be isolated in a stream of speech. Phonetics is the study of phones. The process of isolating phones is not so simple because words and sentences are spoken in a continuous stream: words and sentences are not made up of separate blocks of sounds separated by pauses. The idea that you can divide the speech stream into separate phones is only a reasonable approximation. That is, whenever we isolate a phone, we can never be exactly sure when that phone begins and when it ends, we can only make a reasonable approximation of where it begins and ends.

The International Phonetic Alphabet is a set of symbols used to represent phones.

Types of phones

Speech sounds are divided into two main types, consonants and vowels. 

Consonants are produced with an obstruction of airflow. The airstream from the lungs is impeded in some way on its way outside of the body. /b/ as in bat and /th/ as in then are consonants because the airflow is obstructed by the lips and teeth and tongue respectively.

Vowels are produced with no significant obstruction of airflow. It leaves the mouth unimpeded. /a/ as in apple and /ee/ as in feet are both vowels because there is no obstruction of airflow to these phones.


Consonants are described by their place of articulation (where the airstream is obstructed)  and manner of articulation (how the airstream is obstructed). It is possible for some sounds to have the same place of articulation but differ in the manner in which they are articulated. /t/ and /n/ are both made with the tongue touching the alveolar ridge but differ in how they are made – one is a stop and one is a nasal. Similarly, it is possible for some sounds to have the same manner of articulation but differ in place. /t/ and /k/ both involve a short stop before a burst of airflow but are articulated in different places in the mouth – the alveolar ridge and the velum.

 Places of articulation in Standard English.

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Labial – Sounds made with the lips. /b/ in bat, /p/ in pat and /m/ in map are called bilabials because they are formed with both lips. /f/ as in fish and /v/ as in van are called labiodentals because they bring the lower lip in contact with the upper teeth.

Dental – Sounds made with the tongue and upper teeth. /th/ in three and /th/ in this are both dental sounds.

Young students who mix spellings of /th/ with /v/ or /f/ (e.g. wif for with) are having trouble articulating dentals. Encourage mouth awareness and practise describing how these feel different in the mouth.

Alveolar – Sounds made with the front of the tongue and the alveolar ridge (part of the mouth directly behind the front teeth). /t/ in top, /d/ in dog, /l/ in log, /n/ in nag, /r/ in rag and /s/ in sag are alveolars.

Palatal – Sounds made between the hard palate and the tongue. The hard palate extends from the alveolar ridge to the soft palate at the top of the mouth. Alveolo-palatals occur when articulation is made just behind the alveolar ridge. /sh/ in shingle, /j/ in jungle and /ch/ in child are all alveolo-palatals.

Velar – Sounds made between the soft palate and the tongue. The velum (soft palate) is the soft area at the back of the mouth. /k/ as in kill and /g/ as in gate are velars.

Glottal – Sounds made by restricting the opening behind the vocal folds. /h/ as in hot is a glottal.

Manner of articulation

Stops – A phone that begins with complete blockage of the airstream followed by a release of air is known as a stop. They can be made at almost any place of articulation. /b/ /p/ /g/ /k/ are examples of stops. Consonants that occur in the same place and manner of articulation can be distinguished by their voicing. /b/ and /p/ are both stops and are both bilabials. /b/ is considered voiced as it engages vibration of the vocal folds while /p/ is considered voiceless as it does not engage the vocal folds.

Nasals – A phone where airflow is released through the nasal cavity is called a nasal. /m/ /n/ and /ng/ in sing are all nasals.

Fricatives – Sounds produced with incomplete closure at the point of articulation are called fricatives. There is some restriction, but a narrow passage through which airflow is released is maintained. Fricatives are voiced and voiceless. /v/ /f/ /th/ /s/ /z/ are all fricatives.

Affricate – Phones that combine a stop and a fricative are called affricates. /ch/ is an affricate because it begins as a stop and releases airflow following the stop in a restricted manner, just like a fricative. /j/ as in jungle is another example.

Laterals – /l/ as in love is called a lateral because the sides of the tongue are lowered to allow airflow to pass by a closure in the centre.

Rhotic – This term is used to describe the /r/ as in round. Rhotics are much more interesting in other European languages;)

Glides – Sometimes called semi-vowels. They are phones that are vowel-like. /w/ as in wand and /y/ as in yes are the two English glides.


All vowels are voiced sounds and are produced using the position of the tongue. The position of the tongue on two dimensions determines which vowel sound is produced – front to back and high to low. The chart below shows how each vowel is produced in the mouth. The /ee/ as in beet is considered a high-front vowel because the position of the tongue is high in the mouth and at the front of the mouth. In contrast, the /o/ as in bomb is considered a low-back vowel as the position of the tongue is low and at the back of the mouth. Students who have decoding difficulties often have a hard time discriminating vowels.

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Some have asked what I’ve read in this area:

Speech to Print by Louisa Moats

Linguistics: An Introduction by William McGregor

Teach knowledge early

Great minds in the world of education are coming to a consensus on the foundational role knowledge must play in schooling. Dylan Wiliam has said that, “the purpose of schooling is to develop long-term memory in children for content that we value.” Our whole focus on skills is misguided. The common line of thinking – that skills are what we should focus on at the expense of knowledge – is starting to buckle under pressure from research on human cognitive architecture and domain expertise.

What distinguishes the novice from the expert in any field is the content retained in long-term memory. A novice and an expert’s working memories are just as highly limited, but there is no known limit to long-term memory. We’ve known for many years that there is a vast store of knowledge in an experts long-term memory which they can use to execute complex tasks. Expert skill is the ability to use the content of working memory to execute the desired skill. There is no skill independent of the content of the long-term memory. It is as E.D Hirsch says, “skill is content and content is skill”.

It is often thought that teaching facts will get in the way of developing skill but that is a nonsense. It is in fact knowledge which enables skill, as is confirmed by the research on expertise. We must stop focussing on developing skills and instead focus on cultivating expertise by building up student schemata through much knowledge learning and deliberate practise. This will better ensure they are able to execute the skills we want them to have.

So we are coming to realise that knowledge is much more important than we thought. Even if we accept that knowledge plays a crucial role, and that it definitely does not inhibit skills, many will resist an emphasis on knowledge anyway. This is largely because of romantic ideas about how children should learn – that they are special beings that need to run their own course. From a romantic point-of-view, teaching knowledge will corrupt the innate instincts, interests and curiosity of the child. Education reeks of this view. ‘Education isn’t about stuffing the head with facts but cultivating a love of learning’ is a romantic catchphrase used to deflect conversations on the importance of knowledge and Ken Robinson’s thoughts are a prime example of this line of thinking.

Science education has probably been the worst affected area. A focus on skills and a neglect of knowledge is characteristic of Australian primary students’ science education evident through popular and very knowledge-poor inquiry-based learning programs. The subject is knowledge rich but it is thought that to acquire the mind of a scientist we must have students act like scientists. This is flawed thinking because we know that it is knowledge that distinguishes the expert from the novice. If we wish for students to act like scientists, we’re better off giving students the vast store of knowledge a scientist has.

The neglect of scientific knowledge in favour of skills is a prime example of flawed thinking in education. It is knowledge that distinguished an expert from a novice, not the skills. We already have students acting like scientists in kindergarten. That a focus on skills starts so early is especially concerning because we also know that knowledge builds knowledge (also see schema theory) – it makes learning easier because what you already know assists your ability to acquire more knowledge. By not teaching lots of scientific knowledge at primary level, we make it harder for students to acquire complex scientific knowledge later on, and therefore make it harder for them to become experts.

Scrapping the focus on skills (and the folly of having children act like experts) to make way for a new approach is desirable. How exactly should we approach building scientific knowledge? I think embedding read-alouds in all subject areas is a good way to approach knowledge building in the early years. This is the approach taken by Hirsch and Core Knowledge and it makes a lot of sense. The read-alouds are no more than 20 minutes and are very rich in vocabulary and domain knowledge a student needs. If science lessons were centred around materials like these, students would acquire knowledge at a more rapid rate than having them engage in projects or investigations.

The argument for teaching knowledge is strong. There is and always will be resistance to this due to the romantic feelings noted above, but systematically building knowledge can only benefit a child. This is especially so for the disadvantaged who do not benefit from the enriched knowledge building environment enjoyed by their more affluent peers. Using read-alouds may be the way to help students acquire the knowledge they need. No doubt there will be resistance, but the evidence is stacked against those who wish to disagree.


A book to help you teach writing

My ITE literacy units were definitely of the more implicit variety. The only thing I remember being taught explicitly to do was a running record (which, in my opinion, isn’t a very useful assessment tool). What’s more, reading was definitely emphasised over writing, and this is probably justified. If a student does not learn to read then they have very little hope of learning how to write. Teaching children how to write is still important, even if it is a little less important than teaching children how to read. I did not learn how to teach writing.


Nothing will expose the quality of your teaching more than teaching kindergarten. The kids come to school not being able to read or write and it is very obvious how the quality of your teaching impacts their writing ability. Forming a simple sentence is a tougher task than many foresee and I did not have a clue how to teach it well. I would get sentences like this:

Bob is a man who is. big and I like Bob because. he is big.

Admittedly, some teachers figure out how to teach sentence structure. They are creative enough to work out how to communicate it well (following a few hits and misses). I am not that teacher. How many others are like me? I’d posit there are more teachers than not who, upon reflection, would probably tell you they don’t really know how to teach writing. They don’t really know what to teach, when to teach it and how to teach it well. They, like me, are probably growing increasingly frustrated by it – or worse: they’ve given up trying to get better, allowing children to learn writing by osmosis. If NAPLAN results are anything to go by, I’m probably right.

The solution to my sentence teaching problem came through the post in a book called The Writing Revolution. The Writing Revolution is a guide to writing that is unashamedly about content driven explicit instruction of writing skills, especially sentences. The content drives the rigour of the writing tasks. there is no need to have a separate writing lesson because writing can be embedded across all curriculum areas using this approach. The first technique Hochman and Wexler teach their readers is how to teach students to distinguish a sentence from a sentence fragment. “They need to spend time hearing and reading complete sentences alongside sentence fragments and distinguishing between the two.” This then will help students understand what a sentence is but also, crucially, it will help them recognise when their sentence is not a sentence, so they can fix it themselves.

“Say you’ve been teaching your students about early settlement in the American colonies, and you’re not too sure of their grasp of the material. You might give them this sentence:

settled near rivers

Your students could then draw on the content they’ve learned to turn the fragment into a sentence, such as the following:

Early Americans settled near rivers.

If you’ve been teaching your students about the story of Columbus, you could give them a list such as the following:

___ queen Isabella and king ferdinand
___ colombus never reached
___ the sailors were tired and frightened
___ in three small ships
___ columbus an Italian sailor

After marking these examples F or S, students should convert the fragments into sentences at the bottom of the page and add the correct punctuation and capitalisation to the sentences.

Fragments are the first focus and there are many others all highly useful. The book even has a sequence from year 1-8 (America) outlining which activities to introduce each year. Students are not going to learn how to write well by osmosis. For the first time, I really feel like I have the knowledge and clarity needed to approach writing systematically and explicitly and, in my opinion, that makes this book a must read.


What about comprehension strategies?

Reading is about making meaning. Although whole language advocates argue phonics advocates don’t believe reading is about making meaning because they ‘drill kids in meaningless phonics activities’, the reality is all teachers with a sound understanding of reading research agree that reading is, without a doubt, about making meaning. The disagreement is how students should be taught to access text to make meaning.

Whole language advocates believe that everything we do in the reading classroom should be centred around context because reading is about meaning. Phonics advocates disagree. Phonics advocates will tell you that in order to make meaning, you have got to get the words off the page first. You can’t make meaning from anything if you cannot get the words off the page. Learning to decode must precede an emphasis on meaning-making for this very reason. As obvious as this sounds (and as heavily backed by research as it is), many from whole language choose to target meaning from day one because they do not draw a distinction between decoding and meaning-making. Comprehension strategies – predicting, questioning, visualising, monitoring, summarising and visualising – are introduced early in a whole language classroom even though it is a complete waste of time.

The reason it is a complete waste of time is that the texts students read lack complexity and are therefore very easily understood. A student will understand the texts they read if: 1) they understand 95% of the vocabulary in the text; 2) they have sufficient background knowledge about what they are reading; 3) their decoding fluency is good. Of course, this is not to say we should simply have them ‘bark at print’ but it doesn’t mean we should explicitly teach comprehension strategies either. During read-alouds, teachers will, of course, have students discuss aspects of a text all without explicitly teaching comprehension strategies. During student reading, the teacher simply has to remind the students to make sure they are thinking about the story as they read. This, with sufficient vocabulary, background knowledge and decoding fluency, is enough to ensure students understand the simple texts they read.

Now if they don’t understand what they read, the reason is not that they aren’t using comprehension strategies; rather, it is very likely they are deficient in either decoding fluency, vocabulary or background knowledge (here and here). Teachers have limited time and should use it wisely. It would be far better for a teacher to explicitly teach these before even bothering thinking about introducing comprehension strategies.

Comprehension strategies should definitely be taught but they should be taught much later on after decoding fluency has been reached. Willingham suggests introducing them around year 3-4 as this will help students focus their working memory capacity on meaning-making. Once the strategies have been taught, they should be revisited but only to remind students of what they are, why they are useful and how to use them because there are diminishing returns to teaching comprehension strategies – once they are taught, there is very little to gain from teaching them over and over. It would be a much better use of time to explicitly teach vocabulary (including morphology), background knowledge and spelling. These will all support comprehension of a text much more than constantly banging on about the super six.

Dipping my toe into retrieval practice

Recently, I identified retrieval practice as an area of great potential. It is a low cost, high impact strategy well supported by cognitive research. Simply put:

Retrieval Practice occurs when learners recall and apply multiple examples of previously learned knowledge or skills after a period of forgetting. (Lemov, 2017)

Examples of retrieval practice tend to show the students engaging in recalling a series of fact-based questions to mitigate the effects of forgetting. The act of retrieving previously learnt information from long-term memory and placing it in short-term memory will strengthen the memory and reduce forgetting. That is the rationale behind engaging students in retrieval practice.

The rationale behind retrieval practice is to reduce the forgetting curve

We’re at the end of the school year in Australia. A year in a 5-year-old’s world is a lifetime (I teach 5-year-olds). I was intrigued after reading a bit about retrieval practice through Doug Lemov. I wondered how much of the content we had covered throughout the year had been remembered by my kindergarteners. I decided to investigate.

The answer was not much at all. For example, at the beginning of the year, we covered the five (traditional) senses. To my dismay, some of my students could not even recall the senses (let alone recall how they work) even though we had covered them and I had data telling me they knew them.

The truth is, I had made a fundamental error most teachers make: I mixed up performance with learning. Performance is how well students complete a task at the point of teaching (quite interestingly, Robert Bjork has done research showing performance on a learning task does not correlate well with long-term learning). Learning, on the other hand, is a change in long-term memory. Memory is plagued by forgetting and that is why it is not the same as performance. Learning is not performance because, for learning to have taken place, there needs to be a change in long-term memory. If students, after a period of time – say, 6 weeks –  have forgotten material taught, as mine did, then they haven’t really learnt the material even if they’d been exposed to it and understood it. I made the error of assessing before a period of forgetting. I assessed the performance of my students (which simply reflects the teaching) and not the learning that had taken place.

Of course, performance is not the goal, learning is. My students were taught the content and definitely understood it – that much was clear from performance on the learning task – but they had forgotten it in the long term because we had not revisited it. They had not engaged in retrieving the information from their long term memory which led to forgetting. Retrieval practice is a powerful way to engage students in this recall and stop the forgetting curve.

I decided to revisit the senses through a series of read-alouds but this time I engaged my students in a series of retrieval practice questions at the beginning of lessons. I also integrated the subject-specific questions into 5-minute blocks of mixed retrieval practice throughout the day. My questions focussed primarily on the latest content with fewer questions related to the earliest content and were asked in a ‘rapid-fire’ way (I mostly cold call, but will also take hands, especially if low performers show enthusiasm).

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The results have been promising. The students remembered more lesson-on-lesson and so engagement was also way up. Students love to know things and the more they know and remember, the more confident they become in sharing and discussing ideas. I had students jumping off the carpet in eagerness to answer questions. What’s more, the students started to point things out to me outside lessons. One student mentioned to me that it was always loud at the beginning of assembly because the sound waves kept ‘bouncing off the walls’. She suggested we take assembly outside instead. This is what happens when students know things well: they start to apply it to their surroundings; they gain interest in a topic and how it applies to their lives.

I am currently waiting 6 weeks to assess their knowledge and understanding of the material covered. Retrieval questions related to the topic during my blocks of mixed-subject retrieval practice are naturally becoming less frequent. I will be very interested to see how they go and I dare say they will know much more than they did before. We know incontrovertibly that knowledge builds on knowledge and knowledge is the foundation of skill development. The process of retrieving information this young will only help them gain powerful knowledge and skills in the future. Retrieval practice is low cost, high impact and I would encourage all teachers, including early years teachers, to use the technique. It’ll make a big difference.

On a final note, I think there is great potential in engaging young children in a series of read-alouds. E.D Hirsch is a big fan of them and I think he is on to something that could become a powerful teaching tool. Combine short read-alouds with retrieval practice and writing tasks and you’ve got yourself a powerful formula for effective learning.

How can we fix the bell curve?

EDIT: In the original post, I argued for flattening the bell curve. You’ll see in the article I am not arguing for flattening the bell curve but for a decrease in standard deviation – a reduction in variability between outcomes – and increase in average results overall. It was just a mistake. I’ve made changes to make my meaning clear.


“We need to find ways of increasing student achievement for every single student, more for the ones at the bottom. Now, this is really hard to get
your head around, but IQ is the single most important predictor of GCSE success. Ian Deary, from the University of Edinburgh, reckons that 80% of the variation in GCSE success is caused by IQ. And people don’t like that fact. People say, ‘ow, I don’t know, IQ isn’t important.’ But it is! And if I asked you, as I asked you earlier, do some kids find learning school stuff easier to learn than others? You all said yes! But as David Hume the Scottish philosopher pointed out many years ago, ‘you can’t deduce an ought from an is’. The fact that something is the case does not mean it ought to be the case. And if you are getting a bell curve of results in your school, I would suggest that you are not doing your job. Because the bell curve is what nature gives us.” (Dylan Wiliam)

There are some who think on an entirely different level and Dylan Wiliam is one of them. The quote is taken from a recent presentation. In the presentation, Wiliam stresses that in order to succeed in the future, students need better academic qualifications more than ever. Not just some students, not just the students who find learning easy, but all students, including the ones who really struggle. Once upon a time, those who struggled at school could go out and work with their hands – they didn’t necessarily need academic success. Those days are fast coming to an end. There will likely be a certain threshold all students will need to reach in order to fully participate in work. There will be jobs for everybody, but those jobs will require high levels of skill and academic qualifications. All students need to succeed more than ever before.

The current model in school ensures that there is a bell curve. All the students are given the same amount of instruction and the same amount of practice. Inevitably, those with a high IQ will succeed; those with a low IQ will flounder. This reality is exacerbated by teachers and it needs to stop. We gather all the kids in a class and instantly we lower the bar for some and heighten the bar for others. It’s commonly called differentiated instruction, often executed with 3 levels of work. Some for the tops (high IQs), some for the middles (middle IQs), and some for the bottoms (low IQs). This only strengthens the bell curve. It is so mind-numbingly obvious that it does. Often people will suggest the alternative, having all students do the same work, is even worse because some will fly through it and some will inevitably flounder. This is most certainly the case in the current thinking because all students are given the exact same amount of instruction for learning the same content. Schools need to find ways to reduce variability between outcomes and the only feasible way I think we are ever going to ensure that happens is if we increase the amount and intensity of instruction for those who need it most.

The students who struggle simply need more (and better) instruction and more practice than others. Yet some will simply tell you that ‘they’re just not that-type-of-kid.’ ‘They’re just not academic.’ ‘We should focus on what they’re good at instead.’ Such thinking only strengthens the bell curve. The simple truth is they need to work harder, and longer. This means 1) supporting children who need it with more instruction within a lesson, and 2) giving students who need it more time – extra instruction and practice – on the content, especially on foundational stuff, in intervention. It is not mean. It is not unjust. It is simply what is necessary. It is kind. We need to target equity over equality because, if we want students to have a happy and fulfilling life, they will need to do well at school. Life outcomes are tied strongly to academic outcomes. That tie is only going to become stronger with time.

Wiliam is right, no one wants to live in a world where the tallest people succeed and the shortest people don’t (as is the case in basketball). No one wants to live in a world where the people who have an advantage win and the others lose. “The fact that something is the case does not mean it ought to be the case.” Schools need to find ways to decrease the variation in outcomes. It is the central challenge facing our schools. This is obviously not easy and will definitely need some outside-the-box thinking, structural changes and great teachers. Currently, we deal with disparity by morphing to accommodate it, rather than trying to address it. I think the focus should be on ensuring those who need it gain the most attention and work the hardest.

Find the presentation here 

Find the Q&A following the presentation here (well worth a listen)

Teachers need to be sceptical

There are so many vested interests in education. This isn’t at all surprising considering that 1) every single person in the western world has benefitted from the effects of education and 2) all other sectors of society rely on its quality. Without a good level of education for its population, a country’s productivity would inevitably fall apart. A moral and just society relies on the quality of education too, for the ability to evaluate the happenings in the world at a subjective level requires a baseline level of knowledge. The economy and society would fall apart without education; it is the bedrock from which everything else is built. Hence, everyone is interested in education.

This interest isn’t necessarily a good thing though. This is because not everyone agrees on what education should look like for our young people, which inevitably leads to a wide variety of ideas for how we could improve the experience they receive, and not all of them are good. TED talks are a great source for discussing the grand ideas everyone has for education. Ken Robinson would like to see a ‘paradigm shift’ where schools would change forever, focussing more on the innate personal qualities of the individual above all else. We also have Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, who also has a great idea for how to better education. He urges teachers to ‘flip the classroom’. Allow students to watch videos at home and talk about them the next day in class, he says. This then could also revolutionise what we do in the classroom. And then there is Sugata Mitra who envisages the future of learning up in the cloud through Self Organised Learning Environments. Why do students need a teacher telling them things anyway? We’ve got the internet for that. The internet changes everything, and so too school should change too! Geoff Ulgan also has an idea for a ‘new kind of school’. His studio schools will ensure bored teenagers fall in love with learning again and grumpy employers receive kids who are ‘work ready’. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Everyone has a great idea.

Grand ideas like these are not uncommon and they are intuitively appealing. Robinson’s ideas are especially so. Focusing on the individual sounds like a beautiful idea. After all, what child doesn’t deserve all the attention in the world? And many have fallen to the intuitive appeal of Mitra’s Self Organised Learning Environments. It is self-paced learning in the new technological age of the 21st century. Why wouldn’t we want to look to the future and start to ensure our students are ready for it? But who, exactly, should we believe? All of these ideas and all the other ideas thrown at educators all sound great but how do we know if they will have an impact on what we want to achieve in the classroom? Our core purpose is to ensure students meet a certain threshold of competence in their learning. We cannot adopt all ideas in education to help see this come to fruition. The sheer amount of ideas are all filtered into a bottleneck, all fighting one another to enter the small opening into the classroom. Which ideas we adopt and which ideas we reject are big choices.

The sheer amount of ideas is somewhat overwhelming. The TED talks are only the tip of the iceberg. It is for this very reason teachers need to be highly sceptical when they encounter a new idea – there are just so manyand not all of them are good ideas. The first thing teachers should do when they encounter a new idea is ask themselves what sort of impact the idea will have on student learning and at what cost. How will this idea make a difference to student learning and what burden will this place on teachers? Unfortunately, this question is rarely asked. We have seen bad ideas seep through the idea-bottleneck into the classroom before. Braingym is your classic example of an idea that found popularity but had zero impact on student learning. De Bono’s Thinking Hats are another classic case (as if coloured hats were ever going to have an impact on student learning). There are many ideas like these that have served only to waste teachers’ and students’ time with pretty much zero (or even negative) impact on learning. If teachers would’ve simply asked – simply thought critically about the idea before adopting it – time would not have been lost on these fads.

We have seen the zero to negative impact fads, disguised as good ideas, have had in the past. Teachers should have been sceptical and the need for teachers to be sceptical is only increasing with grander and grander ideas approaching the ideas bottleneck. It is important we work out which ones are fads and which ones are genuine ideas. Schools have started to adopt the ideas of Robinson, Khan, Mitra and Ulgan, amongst others. For example, tonight’s AussieEd chat is devoted to flipped learning, the idea pushed by Khan in his TED talk. The reality is flipped learning could just be another brain gym – zero impact and high burden. There is no way of knowing unless we adopt a sceptical mindset and study its impact. Teachers should be looking for evidence that the idea will have a high impact, low burden ratio. Luckily, there is research on what good instruction looks like and what limits the capacity to learn. These lessons from research, amongst others, can guide teachers when making choices about what to adopt and what to reject. This is the only way to filter out the good and bad ideas. If we don’t do this, then we risk going round and round in circles, constantly adopting bad ideas and then abandoning them only to take up the next one. The solution is to be a little sceptical, ask good questions, look for evidence and only adopt that which we know will likely have a high impact and low burden.


A Psycholinguistic Guessing Game

Learning to read is no easy feat. Reading is an unnatural act requiring years of teaching and learning to forge new pathways in the brain. There is a significant amount of research on reading instruction due to fierce disagreement about how best to teach children to read. The debate has largely been between two sides. Whole language advocates favour teaching children how to read through context. Attention to word structure is not emphasised. It is assumed that, with the right amount of effort and incidental guidance, immersion in language will ensure reading success. Those who favour the explicit instruction model, in contrast, emphasise the explicit, systematic and intensive teaching of all aspects of reading and especially the teaching of phonics to ensure mastery of the alphabetic code. Nothing is left to chance in this model of instruction. The debate between whole language and the explicit model has raged for decades and still does today.

In 1967, Kenneth Goodman published a paper titled Reading: A Psycholinguistic Guessing Game. In this paper, Goodman seeks to refute the ‘common-sense notion’ that reading is a precise process – one that requires exact, detailed and sequential identification of letters, words, spelling patterns and larger language parts (the position taken by those who adopt the explicit model). Instead, he conceptualises reading as a psycholinguistic guessing game. He writes that reading is a selective process involving the partial use of available language cues – syntactic, semantic and graphic – by the reader on the basis of their expectations while reading. During reading, decisions are made about whether to accept, reject or refine acquired information from these cues. Goodman believes it is this decision-making process that characterises efficient reading, not the reliance on text recognition, “efficient reading does not result from the precise perception and identification of all elements, but from selecting the fewest, most productive cues necessary to produce guesses which are right the first time.”

Goodman uses an analysis of student text reading to validate his claim that reading is a series of guesses informed by graphic, semantic and syntactic cues, and that reliance on precise, graphic (phonic) information will cause meaning to break down. In his analysis, the student substitutes the word the for your during reading. Goodman argues that because there is no graphic relationship between these two words, but do have the same grammatical function (both are determiners), the student must be using a syntactic cue to decode the text and that the use and subsequent error is acceptable because meaning is not lost. The ‘successful’ use of the syntactic cue is set in contrast to the unsuccessful use of graphic cueing. For example, the student makes several attempts at decoding the words philosophical and fortune without success. It was later found that the student knew the meaning of both words, information Goodman leverages to argue that if a student were to rely on semantic information during reading – if they were to make an anticipatory guess – meaning may not break down in these instances. This, therefore, validates the claim that successful reading cannot be a precise process but must incorporate all three sources of information simultaneously.

Goodman did not stop at describing reading as a balance between the 3 cues though. He believed it was poor readers who relied heavily on graphic cues and, just like in his analysis, this is why meaning often breaks down for them. So, although good readers must rely on some graphic information, they only sample just enough to confirm an informed guess from syntactic and semantic information, “as the child develops reading skill and speed, he uses increasingly fewer graphic cues…” therefore, “skill in reading involves not greater precision, but more accurate first guesses.”

Goodman’s assertion that good reading is not precise but relies on a series of guesses has been completely crushed in the scientific research literature. For many years leading up to Goodman’s paper, rhetoric and intuition reigned because decisive evidence was hard to obtain. However, the years following consisted of research with several types of findings which converged on the same conclusion: phonological information is an essential element in skilled reading and impairments in the use of phonological information are typical of poor readers. No research has argued that attention to word structure is all reading is; rather, it is an essential part of reading and one crucial characteristic of skilled reading. Good readers do not rely on a series of guesses; they rely on precise and detailed attention to letters and words. Guessing informed by syntactic and semantic cues is used by poor readers to compensate for their poor decoding ability.

Charles Perfetti led some breakthrough research that showed it is indeed poor readers, not good readers, who rely heavily on context to compensate for their poor decoding ability. Perfetti studied good and poor readers’ ability to read single words categorised as common, less common or non-words. Both good and poor readers read the common words equally well, but the poor readers did much worse reading the less common and non-words. Later studies yielded the same results when the words were embedded in context (within sentences). Good readers were faster and more accurate overall, as expected. Poor readers relied much more on context to read less common words and were far less accurate. The message from these studies is clear: good readers rely less on context and read much more accurately; poor readers rely more on context and read less accurately. These studies’ findings have been confirmed many times and are well known amongst reading researchers, yet they are still not aligned with how students are taught to read.

Goodman’s psycholinguistic guessing game was simply a bad idea invalidated by scientific research. It should be history – and in reading-related fields, it is – but bad ideas die hard in education. Although most educators have not heard of Kenneth Goodman or the PGG, they are sure to be very familiar with the semantic, syntactic and graphic cues associated with it. Yes, all educators are familiar with the 3 cueing system with its 3 circles intersecting at the centre to make meaning. It is considered the ideal model for teaching reading, incorporating a balance between all three cues. The model (and how it is used) is incredibly similar to how Goodman describes his PGG and is, therefore, predicated on notions of reading that have long been discredited, just like the PGG.

How this model has damaged the teaching of reading cannot be overstated. If the questions and prompts listed in the above table aren’t enough to convince you, please take the time to consider the texts students are introduced to when they initially learn to read. They are designed to accommodate this model of reading – one where students are encouraged to guess using cues long demonstrated to be characteristic of weak readers and not good readers. We are literally encouraging students to use the compensatory strategies common amongst poor readers from day 1 of kindergarten. There are many students who will overcome this obstacle, but some will really struggle. Having them engage in the psycholinguistic guessing game will only make things worse, not better.
Why the 3 cues written about by Goodman in 1967 are so popular 50 years later is a topic worth discussing. We know that this theory of reading does not align with common understandings of skilled reading and how one learns to read, so why does it persist? Why did I, like so many, read about it in my assigned textbook at university? Why do teachers hold onto it like a childhood toy? I think teacher educators have a lot of explaining to do, and that is certainly the position taken by Mark Seidenberg. In his book, he has a chapter titled The Two Cultures of Science and Education. In this chapter, he talks about how schools of education so readily preference their personal ideologies – often quite romantic – over the scientific consensus on how we come to read. The 3 cueing system is a microcosm of a much bigger cultural problem, one where ideology reigns and evidence does not:


“The 3-cueing approach is a microcosm of the culture of education. It didn’t develop because teachers lack integrity, commitment, motivation or intelligence. It developed because they were poorly trained and advised. They didn’t know the relevant science or had been convinced it was irrelevant. Lacking this foundation, no such group could have discovered how reading works and how children learn.” (Seidenberg, 2017, p.304)

When will education change tack? Reading is most definitely not a guessing game. It is time to stop the guessing. It is time to embrace scientific evidence. Surely, after 50 years, it is time to move on.

Goodman’s Pyscholinguistic Guessing Game

Seidenberg’s Language at the Speed of Sight

Perfetti’s research (1980)