What are decodable texts and why are they important?

Note: decodable texts, decodable readers, phonics books, phonics readers all refer to the same thing and are used interchangeably. I’ve chosen¬†to use the term ‘decodable texts’ ūüôā

Australian teachers are going to start to hear a lot about decodable texts. Systems are beginning to acknowledge the importance of phonics in initial reading instruction (here and here) and the federal government is pushing for a phonics check. A new focus on phonics will mean new professional learning and resources for teachers to accommodate a phonics-based approach.

Decodable texts are a crucial resource for a phonics-based approach.¬†It’s a type of text¬†used at the beginning of reading instruction that carefully incorporates¬†words that are consistent with the letters and corresponding phonemes that have been taught. The books are intended to allow students to use their phonic knowledge to decode new words as opposed to using other strategies derived from context.

Decodable text is compatible with a model of reading called the Simple View of Reading. The problem is, it is currently not the model widely used in schools. Instead, the 3 Cueing System (3CS) takes pride of place in education circles. Schools that use the 3CS use a different type of reader known as predictable text. It’s worth discussing the flaws in the 3CS and its accompanying predictable text to understand why changing to phonics-based approach with supporting decodable text is desirable and necessary if we want all kids to successfully learn to read.

3 Cueing System and Predictable Text

The 3CS is derived from Whole Language, a discredited theory of how students come to read, although its exact origin is very shady. This is the model of reading taught in Australian universities (I don’t know one that does not) as part of a ‘balanced approach’ to reading instruction.

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It poses that students draw on 3 cues Рsemantic, syntactic and graphophonic Рto make meaning (to comprehend). Students are supposed to use their phonic knowledge (graphophonic is pretty much a made-up word meaning phonics) in conjunction with contextual clues (semantic and syntactic) to decode text. The approach has been heavily criticised and completely debunked by reading researchers as a viable model for how students come to read. The use of context, as encouraged by the 3CS, has actually been proven to be a habit of poor readers. Good readers, in contrast, pay extreme care to the letters and the sounds they represent (see here).

The 3CS is the model that rationalises predictable text. Predictable text is, well, designed to be predictable so that students can draw on all 3 cues while reading. They give multiple repetitions of words and phrases so that students memorise the text. Pictures are also used as a clue (a context cue) to help predict words. Here is a made-up example of what a predictable reader I’ve titled We Have Fun looks like in the beginning stages of learning to read:

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Pages typically continue on in this manner. The next two pages of We Have Fun would have the same sentence with the noun and picture changed to a different place, like a beach (”We have fun at the beach”). The transcript of We Have Fun looks like this:

We have fun at the park.
We have fun at the beach.
We have fun at the shops.
We have fun at Gran’s house.
We have fun at home.
We always have lots of fun!

The problem with predictable text is easy to analyse. The repetitive and predictable elements of the text give off the illusion that children are reading when they are not. After a couple of pages of repetitive text, a student can easily predict and ‘read’ the sentence without even looking at the text by catching on to ‘we have fun at’ and simply looking to the picture to fill in the rest (the rationale being that they are using ‘context’).

The most damning element of predictable texts is the structure of the words included. Let’s analyse the text’s letter-sound correspondences and structure:

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If we acknowledge that this type of text is given to students in their first weeks of schooling, it is very easy to tell that the complexity in structure and the number and type of letter-sound correspondences will be overwhelming and inaccessible to almost all early readers. There¬†are polysyllabic words and digraphs in this text, which isn’t appropriate in the early stages of learning to read.

Indeed, it is this sort of approach to learning to read that ends in disaster for a large number of children, some of whom may even leave primary school not knowing all the basic letter-sound correspondences. They learn to rely on context, and that strategy falls apart very quickly – like a house built on sand.

The Simple View of Reading

Despite near consensus levels of acceptance amongst reading researchers, many Australian educators do not know about The Simple View of Reading. It is a formula based on the widely accepted view that reading comprehension (RC) is the product of decoding skill (D) multiplied by language comprehension (LC). This is the model of reading which is most compatible with a phonics-based approach to reading instruction.

Decoding (D) x Language Comprehension (LC) = Reading Comprehension (RC)

A student’s RC can be predicted if LC and D are known. If a student has a deficit in either LC or D, then reading comprehension will be affected. Most students on entry to school are deficient in decoding skill so phonics-based programs work to¬†strengthen that component. Once decoding skill¬†is¬†sufficiently¬†developed, a student’s reading comprehension is predicted by their language comprehension (hence why an emphasis on vocabulary and oral language skills is also a key component of a phonics-based approach).¬†The key thing to note here is that decoding and language comprehension are two separate processes requiring separate assessment and teaching practices. That’s why teachers using this model of reading teach phonics in isolation as it targets the separate process of decoding.

The Simple View of Reading acknowledges that students must pay close attention to letters and the sounds they represent in order to read (because that’s what good readers do). There is no guessing; no use of context to predict words. This means that predictable text is incompatible with this approach to reading instruction. Rather than using predictable text, decodable text is used so that students can practice their decoding skills in incremental levels as letter-sound correspondences are introduced.

Let’s look at an example. A new student taught under a phonics-based approach will learn a set of letter-sound correspondences pretty quickly. In a typical phonics program, students are taught to blend (s-a-t = sat; p-i-n = pin) and segment (sat = s-a-t; pin = p-i-n) the sounds to a reasonable level of fluency. Once an acceptable level of fluency is reached, the student will then receive a decodable text reader in order to practice their new skills. The reader the student will receive¬†will only contain the graphemes they have been taught¬†along with a few words explicitly taught on the side (e.g. the). This means that instead of being bombarded with the wholly unreadable We Have Fun, the student will receive a text like Bun in the Sun.

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Source. 

No repetition, no predictability and definitely no guessing is needed to read the text. Notice how, unlike We Have Fun, the word structure is restricted to CV, VC and CVC monosyllabic words and no digraphs or other untaught letter-sound correspondences are included. The pictures give little away, too; the student actually has to read the text in order to work out what it says and is able to do this because it is tailored to what they have learnt. As you can see, Bun in the Sun is far less complex and therefore far more accessible to an early reader. A new student will not become overwhelmed with a book like Bun in the Sun like they will with We Have Fun.

So there you have it. Decodable texts are important because they match a student’s level of expertise. There is no guessing when we decide to teach them how to decode text properly. Like I said, with current developments, don’t be surprised to hear more about decodable text in the coming years. They are a very important part of learning to read, especially for the students at risk of failure.

 

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Intellectual Tribalism

Steven Pinker is a professor of psychology at Harvard University. He has just written a new book titled¬†Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress¬†which I cannot wait to get my hands on. He recently appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast to promote his new book and discuss other related issues. It’s always fascinating to listen to amazing minds in a popular format because it enables a unique form of discussion that is less formal in nature allowing participants to touch on popular issues in society.

Pinker acknowledged that there is bias towards socialist ideas in academia and open discussion about alternative ideologies is somewhat taboo. He explains that the socialist blank slate, no competition ideal has some history as partly a reaction to the hardcore competitive line of social Darwinism. Naturally, the best system lies somewhere in between, balancing socialist and capitalist elements to take advantage of our drive for progress and recognition while ensuring we do not forsake the less fortunate. The problem with making opposing views to socialism taboo in intellectual discussions is that it forces people into an either-or scenario where people begin to take sides and polarity between viewpoints grows.¬†Pinker explains that as the polarity between viewpoints grows, intellectual tribalism begins to manifest and academics (as well as people more generally) tend to reject ideas that do not align with their team’s views and accept and seek out ideas that do, making open discussion even more taboo. It’s confirmation bias layered on confirmation bias to the point where people on both sides of an intellectual discussion fall blind to the other side’s ideas. People begin to fall into the trap of adopting opinions as loyalty badges, rather than objectively assessing ideas. Pinker suggests that this is why people deny climate change (an undeniable truth at this point) – not because they are stupid or uninformed, but because that’s the stance of their ‘side’.

It’s true that sometimes people do not care about what is true as much as they care about what belief will bring them esteem in their peer group. I am not immune to this – yesterday, after publishing my arguments against open-plan classrooms, I reflected on why I took this stance knowing that there is no convincing¬†body of objective evidence reporting open-plan classrooms lower achievement. Although my arguments are definitely informed by some objective truths which have merit (open-plan classrooms are detrimentally noisy and encourage¬†weaker pedagogy), my decision to oppose open-plan classrooms is largely informed by my own agenda, which is heavily influenced by traditionalism, a ‘team’ I align with much more than progressivism. This does not mean I am wrong to take a particular view or ‘side’ on this matter, but it does mean I need to be aware of intellectual tribalism; I need to stay open to alternative ideas and reject blind debate that maintains my loyalty badge.

I obviously do not align completely with the ideas of traditionalist education, but it is nevertheless important to acknowledge which side I align with most in order to evaluate my own bias in any situation so I can reach as far an objective stance as possible (not an easy thing to do). I think this is important for everyone to do. It is clear to everyone who reads my blogs and tweets that I have an agenda. That agenda is informed by evidence and objectivity, but I would be a fool not to recognise that my views are skewed by my beliefs. This isn’t a problem most of the time – there is a lot of grey between right and wrong – but it does become a problem when you lose objectivity when things are much more black and white.

There are indeed black and white areas in education people routinely dismiss because of their bias. Gregory Yates, a senior lecturer in the School of Education of the University of South Australia, wrote a fantastic paper on how research findings often appear falsely to possess the quality of being ‚Äúobvious‚ÄĚ and are rejected on this basis. Yates explains that findings from teacher effectiveness research have always been met with criticism – positive and negative – by pre- and in-service teachers despite the findings being beyond doubt. They often claim that the findings are just far too obvious. But the findings are not obvious at all: pre- and in-service teachers largely overlook the elements of teacher effectiveness when asked to recall them blindly. Yates explains that a myriad of biases cause us to easily dismiss the findings of teacher effectiveness research rather than look at them very carefully. It’s a great example of how what we believe can make us blind to important truths.

We are riddled with biases that cause us to lose objectivity and blind us from the truth. That’s why Yates observed so many dismiss the crucial information from teacher effectiveness research in search of something shinier. If we do not acknowledge what we are biased towards, we go in blind, looking for things that we¬†want¬†to be true, rather than what actually is true. That’s why some right-wingers tend to deny climate science in favour of conspiracy theories. It’s why some progressives reject explicit models in favour of discovery learning models, too. Pinker’s notion of intellectual tribalism reminds us that we most often need to step back and evaluate our own beliefs before pursuing truth out in the world. I wonder how different things would be if we were wise enough to do such a thing?

 

 

 

Open plan classrooms are nothing new and are probably a bad idea

Open plan classrooms are on the rise in Australia, but this is by no means a new trendy idea. Although open-plan classrooms are experiencing a new wave of popularity, they have been used extensively in the past. They first became popular some 60 years ago following progressive educational reform movements in the 50s and 60s. Didactics were slowly becoming old-fashioned¬†– notably being associated with authoritarianism – in favour of new, child-centred pedagogies. The classrooms were meant to reflect this new approach. By the 70’s, 10% of classes in England were open-plan, and 50% of new school¬†builds in the United States were open- or semi-open plan. It would be foolish to believe the current wave of open plan classrooms, and its associated child-centred approach, is something for the 21st century – it’s been a thing for a long time and they may not be all they’re cracked up to be.

There is no convincing evidence that open-plan classrooms work to¬†raise achievement, nor¬†is there any convincing evidence that they work to lower achievement (it’s probably too hard to establish cause and effect). However, one could easily make a case against them despite a gap in clear research evidence. Research has investigated a number of factors, but the main issue raised has always been excessive noise and the distractions and speech perception problems that noise¬†imposes.¬†In a recent study, up to 70% of children surveyed reported not being able to hear their teacher very well. Students also reported being annoyed when hard of hearing, especially in open plan classrooms with small distances between classes working with different teachers. In the same study, teachers in larger open plan classrooms reported being more often distracted by noise and found speech communication much more difficult.

Surveys are great, but what of objective measures? Well, Mealings has summarised her research and given a pretty dim picture of speech perception in open-plan classrooms. In quieter, closed classrooms, students scored consistently high on speech perception – about 80% on the study’s measure. This was true for children sitting at the back and at the front of the classroom. However, students in noisier open-plan classrooms sitting at the back of the room scored a dismal 25% on speech perception. Scores so low are ‘concerning’ in Mealings’s own words, and I tend to agree. How can we expect students to learn when they cannot hear?

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Source

The study concludes that “the noise levels from adjacent classes in the open plan classrooms tested are excessive and significantly reduce the children‚Äôs ability to hear and comprehend their teacher. The high noise levels also adversely impact the teachers…” This shows that there may be a wide divide between what some teachers, administrators and education gurus dream to be good learning environments and what actually is conducive to learning. Moving into environments where students find it more difficult to hear their teachers seems very counterintuitive.

Open-plan classrooms and the student-centred pedagogy it promotes also align very poorly with information on teacher effectiveness.  Open-plan classrooms are an attempt to move away from teacher-led instruction. They are designed to create a more student-centred learning climate where experiential learning, group work and personalisation are emphasised. The teacher no longer takes the traditional role of teacher of knowledge and skills, but that of guide-on-the-side Рa facilitator of learning. The student-centred teaching practices manifest themselves in inquiry-based learning models, notably the very trendy project-based learning method.

Advocates rationalise the shift on the premise of a changing world where soft skills are going to be paramount and knowledge obsolete. It is thought that by creating an environment where students can be free to collaborate, think critically and create, they will be ready for future endeavours in the ever-changing 21st century. These advocates make the mistake of believing that engaging students in performing soft skills like critical thinking, collaboration and creativity will increase their ability to perform these skills across domains. This is a mistake because we know that performing these skills depends heavily on knowledge of a specific domain. You cannot think critically, work collaboratively or invent creatively in a domain you know nothing about. Diving head-first into a unit of inquiry or project based on the false premise that this will help develop soft-skills will likely end in less learning for time spent because these models fail to acknowledge the knowledge needed to perform these skills in any domain. The open-plan classroom encourages this kind of approach despite this.

The teacher teaching from the front of a four-walled classroom implementing a core set of principles, a model often referred to as explicit or direct instruction, has been proven to work because it is a highly efficient way of ensuring students gain the knowledge they need.¬†That’s why the traditional role of teacher of knowledge and skills has been an enduring one. Open-plan classrooms do not encourage implementation of this core set of principles. It seems quite odd to me that we would wish to shift the teacher-student-four-wall-classroom paradigm on false premises when we have data showing us it is such an effective model for what we wish to achieve. The key question is whether or not we want our teachers to build on what we know works already, or whether we want them to strive to try and get a different approach to work despite what we know. If you wish to take an evidence-based perspective, the decision is pretty obvious.

I’ve only highlighted 2 key problems with an open-plan approach (noise and bad pedagogy), yet I am sure there are many more arguments against them. My advice to teachers is to think carefully about what you are trying to achieve in these classrooms. They are probably a bad idea, at least that’s what some have figured out in hindsight. Tread carefully.

 

 

New Resources for Teachers of Reading

The team at FIVEfromFIVE has just developed a new resource section for teachers on phonemic awareness. Readers of this blog will know I am critical of teacher education’s lacklustre attitude towards the role of codebreaking and knowledge and skills related to code breaking. This has lead to a situation where teachers have very limited explicit knowledge of important language concepts, concepts they need to understand in order to teach reading well. The team at FIVEfromFIVE are working to fill this void to help ensure every child gets the very best out of their teachers by providing information on the Big 5 – phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension. So far, the website only has information on phonemic awareness, with information on the other aspects coming soon.

The release of information for teachers is timely. As NSW moves on from Reading Recovery and the bad ideas associated with it, teachers will need to begin to upskill themselves in evidence-based practices. This is a great place to start. The webpage clearly explains what phonemic awareness is, how it differs from phonological awareness, the role it plays in learning to read, and how best to explicitly teach and assess it. There is also a reading list, which¬†I like because it means us teachers can deepen our understanding and take an active role in evaluating and interpreting the research in this area. You’re not just being told what you need to know, you’re being invited into the conversation.

I am confident you can rely on this website as a good, unbiased source of information on what you need to know in order to teach reading as well as you possibly can. Dive in!

 

The Innocent Child?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was an 18th-century philosopher who wrote the very influential work on education titled Emile, or On Education. The book poses that a person is born into innate human goodness and is then corrupted by the world. Rousseau seeks to explore how a child could be instructed in a manner that retains their innate goodness and avoids corruption by the world Рan endeavour to create the perfect citizen. The book was not well received at the time of release. It was banned in France and was publicly burned for what were perceived to be anti-christian sentiments. Beyond rocky beginnings, the book has had a profound impact on how western society views childhood.

“Coming from the hand of the Author of all things, everything is good; in the hands of man, everything degenerates.” (p. 1) The idea that a person is born innately good and is henceforth¬†corrupted was a new one. Up until then, childhood did not have a separate identity from adulthood; instead, children were simply considered miniature adults. The book,¬†from its opening line, was the beginning of the romantic view of the child; the idea that a child is born a special being with unique and trustworthy impulses that should be allowed to run their course. This idea has left a lasting, profound impression on how we view children and how they should experience childhood (and, by extension, education).

The romantic view of the child is at the core of educational progressivism. This idea echoes in the arguments of educational progressives who advocate strongly for a play-based education (nature’s education) at the expense of an academic-based education – direct instruction in reading, writing and mathematics (man’s education). Why impose man’s education on a child so young? It will simply corrupt this time of innocence and benevolence that nature has bestowed upon them – it will simply corrupt the development of the ‘whole child’. It also echoes in the argument that educational endeavours must have a sense of discovery (guided discovery; discovery learning) about them. Why impose what we know upon them? That will only corrupt. The child should discover information naturally so as to avoid the corrupting knowledge of man.

Despite the tit-for-tat about methods, ultimately, progressivism is not so much about methods as it is a way of thinking – it is a philosophy deeply embedded in the romantic idea of the child. It is the idea that education should not be imposed on the¬†child, but it should be part of its natural development. In my view, this has also had an impact on how teachers view the role of discipline in our schools. I, for one, was very much of the view that discipline was only necessary to maintain order and safety for everyone within the school. I thought discipline was restrictive. It would act to impose society’s self-constructed ideals and suppress the natural flourishing of the child, and should, therefore,¬†be kept to a minimum (obviously this is not how I would have described my thoughts at the time). This, of course, reflects the thinking of Rousseau, who, as noted, claimed that nothing was so wonderful as a man in his pre-civilised state.

I don’t think I believe this anymore. This line of thinking hangs on the premise that children are indeed good and will stay good if they could simply avoid society’s corrupting power with all its prejudice and injustice. But are children innately good? Are they really born innocent? And is organised human society really a corrupting power?

Jordan Peterson is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. He argues that children are not innately good. They have the same capacity to do harm in the world as adults do, which is in large part motivated by their want to dominate; a biologically human characteristic. Five-year-olds often whack other children to get what they want, or even knock over their peer’s block tower to invoke tears when they don’t have it their way. They also manipulate their social environment to do mental harm to others. Their willingness to upset their parents is also apparent. Small children will push and push and push to get a reaction, and they know full well they are inflicting mental distress. Similar happens between teacher and student, too. Just like adults, children have the capacity to manipulate their environment to try and get their way, even if that means inflicting harm. There is nothing innately good about that.

If children are not innately good, because they demonstrate quite clearly that they are not, then the argument that society’s imposition on childhood leads to corruption seems pretty silly. Even more so when we consider the objective truth that as societies have become more civilised, they have become less corrupt. Death, abuse and tyranny were common elements of life not so long ago, and still are in many places in the world. The homicide rate in the UK is 1 per 100 000. It is 90 per 100 000 in Honduras. Circa 1840, the indigenous Kato of California had a murder rate of 1450 per 100 000. Beyond homicide, the rights and civil liberties of all peoples are far better than they have ever been, and this continues to grow as societies advance.¬†Society works to put constraints on the destruction humans are capable of producing. Peterson believes that it is not society that is corrupt, but individual humans themselves. Society doesn’t make human beings worse, it actually helps to make us better.

What does this mean for schools? The arguments around methods needing a naturalistic element seem quite silly if we acknowledge that children do not need space away from societies impositions to flourish. The teaching of what society knows seems an obvious first choice if we know that it will empower and not corrupt. Passing on what we know is likely a better way to ensure flourishing, for it will allow young people to participate in and access what society has to offer. It also seems clear to me that discipline, contrary to being oppressive, is of utmost importance if we are to shape young people to grow into accepted, contributing and happy members of the society we have built. Rude, selfish and indifferent young people will surely grow into rude, selfish and indifferent adults if we do not train them well, and the world will treat them harshly for it. Surely that is not what we want for our young people. Instead of falling for the lie that insisting on good discipline will corrupt, we should work to ensure all students reach a certain standard of civility.

Jordan Peterson’s book

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s book¬†

We can do better than Reading Recovery

Reading Recovery (RR) is a short-term tutoring intervention¬†that provides one-on-one tutoring to first-grade students who are struggling in reading and writing. It has been a popular program, but it is now on the way out in New South Wales. The NSW DoE decided to axe its $50 million dollar funding of the program following its own internal review. NSW’s internal review was not the first time Reading Recovery has been red-flagged. New Zealand academics have mentioned that the research into the effectiveness of the program in New Zealand isn’t doing RR any favours. Distinguished literacy expert, Louisa Moats, on a recent visit to Australia even went so far as to say the program is ‘harmful’. She comments that “the whole [Reading Recovery] approach is based on ideas that have not held up to scientific scrutiny. So it is indefensible to keep on spending money on this.”

Yes, there have been some red flags for a while, but now that the decision has been made, was it the right one? I say yes.

Reading Recovery is theoretically flawed

Reading Recovery uses a well-known¬†model called the 3 Cueing System. Students are meant to draw on three cues¬†– syntactic, semantic and graphophonic¬†– to decode and make meaning from text. The 3 cueing system has a shady past and reminds me of Kenneth Goodman’s long-discredited Psycholinguistic Guessing Game.

Both ideas share the understanding that students draw on contextual clues to decode text and that the use of phonological information does not play a significant role. For many years in the 20th century, rhetoric and intuition reigned because decisive evidence on the issue of how students come to read was hard to obtain. However, this is 2017 and there most certainly is evidence. Research has 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. It is now known that good readers do not rely on context to decode text; 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.

Knowing that the use of context is characteristic of poor readers, we must ask why we would support a program that encourages students to use it.

Reading Recovery support was always based on flawed research evidence

It is true that Reading Recovery has research evidence in its favour (examples), but the evidence oft presented is flawed. From what I have seen, the studies never actually pin the intervention against any other plausible intervention designed to increase reading achievement. Instead, most of the studies evaluate its effectiveness against doing nothing. Even if Reading Recovery is flawed in its design, doing something is better than nothing, especially on a one-to-one basis. In this paper, Benjamin Bloom describes the profound effect a one-to-one intervention has on achievement. Given that a child in a one-to-one intervention has the exact same time for instruction as peers in a normal classroom scenario, the child in the one-to-one intervention will learn significantly more than their peers (in one study, it was 2 standard deviations). This tutoring effect has a lot to do with the fact students in one-to-one environments are much more likely to stay engaged in the task, and the corrective feedback they receive is tailored perfectly and given at the perfect time. So, even if Reading Recovery is flawed, students are of course still going to benefit from it in the short term – it is better than doing nothing!

There are better alternatives

If we would like to measure the effectiveness of RR, perhaps we should compare its effect to other one-to-one interventions for struggling readers such as a high-quality systematic synthetic phonics program. Indeed, we now have 3 national inquiries into the teaching of reading that explicitly state that systematic phonics is an absolutely essential part of learning to read. The conclusions of the 3 inquiries are no doubt informed by the large body of evidence explicitly stating that the use of phonological information is an essential element in skilled reading. Because RR is designed to help students who are struggling readers, it is worth noting that those students presenting with reading difficulties overwhelmingly have problems with English’s deep alphabetic code; they have trouble matching the sounds of the language to the letters that represent these sounds in writing and vice versa. To help our struggling 6-year-olds, it seems completely logical to implement programs that target this problem. These programs do exist and they are a much better alternative.

We can do so much better than Reading Recovery. It was time for the program to go.

 

 

Finnstralia

In the year 2001, Finland was recognised for educational excellence, doing very well in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). PISA measures student performance in Reading, Mathematics and Science and Finland placed 1st, 4th and 5th respectively. Governments the world over flocked to the nation to figure out what was working so well. Of course, it came as quite a shock to find that Finnish children have a pretty lax introduction to education compared to their English speaking counterparts. They start school relatively late – 7 years old – and don’t undergo the perils of ‘high stakes’ standardised testing until they are well into high school. Instead, Finnish children play and the Finnish teacher focuses on social and emotional wellbeing first and foremost before educational achievement.  This line of thinking has urged many to call for an overhaul of English speaking education systems such as Australia, which has a much lower average starting age of 5 and has ‘high stakes’ testing in years 3, 5, 7 and 9 through NAPLAN.

Pasi Sahlberg is coming to Australia this year to take up a post at UNSW. Sahlberg is a strong advocate for Finland’s progressive approach and so his coming arrival has sparked renewed hope from those who wish to push a progressive agenda – a Finnstralia of their own. On social media, Sahlberg has said that he will not advise Australia to follow the Finnish approach but I am very sceptical. From what I have read of Pasi Sahlberg, including in his book, his values are the Finnish values – to push his personal agenda is to push the Finnish approach. My scepticism was done no favours when this article came out in the Guardian in which Sahlberg lavishes play and condemns testing (his condemnation includes the Phonics Screening Check).

Alas, despite the very Finnishness of the Guardian article, I will take Sahlberg at his word, though I will remain sceptical. Calls for a Finnish approach are still common though – it has stirred up much debate on Twitter – and I feel that many who support Sahlberg will continue to support the Finnish approach and the implementation of those ideas here in Australia. I believe it would be a mistake to pursue that line of thought.

Calls for a ‘Finnish approach’ are indeed pretty common but not all is rosy in Finland. Despite being lauded for their results, in the past decade, Finland has been in educational decline. In 2006, at the height of their achievement, Finnish students scored means of 547 in Reading, 563 in Science and 548 in Mathematics. In 2015, it was 526 for Reading, 531 in Science and 511 in Mathematics. 2015 was not a random off year either – it represents the bottom of a decade-long decline in results. Yes, it is true that Finland still does well comparatively across nations, but the trend is downward, which is concerning.

There are many who will argue that this trend downhill is not perceived as a problem in Finland because that isn’t what they are about. I doubt this is the case. For one, I think all nations are concerned with the educational achievement of their students because of how educational achievement links to economic prosperity and social stability. I see no reason why Finland would not be just as concerned with the achievement of their students as everybody else. Further, why would Finland enter PISA if it is not at all interested in analysing the data it receives from the test? If they are not interested in the downward trend, one would have to ask why they enter the test at all. Of course, some may refute my logic and say that they indeed do care about the educational achievement of their young people, but it is not everything. The thing is, it isn’t everything in the English speaking world either.

Adopting the somewhat lax Finnish approach to education seems a little silly if we acknowledge that Finland is in a decade-long state of educational decline. Moreover, there are stark differences between the two countries that cannot be ignored. Finland’s population is about the same size as Sydney alone, and the cultural and racial diversity is night and day – Finland lacks diversity; Australia is one of the most diverse countries in the world. The monoculture means Finland has shared values and a shared understanding of how children should be raised, which includes a love of learning, reading and knowledge of the importance of schooling. This gives Finns a headstart on academic achievement. Imposing Finnish ideals, and trusting the diverse population of Australia will fulfil their end of the bargain, is a fantasy.

A diverse nation with differing values and beliefs about educational achievement means we cannot wait until kids are 7 to begin investing in their education. There are too many children who start from much further behind to wait. This is exacerbated by the fact that Australia reads in English – a language with a notoriously deep orthography. Finnish children read well and this has a lot to do with their very shallow orthography. In Finnish, letters match sounds extremely consistently. This makes it relatively easy to learn to map speech to print. This is not the case in English. Experts posit that it can take 3 years to learn the full English code. An Australian child will take far longer to learn to read English than a Finnish child will take to read Finnish. In fact, I’ve read that a significant minority of kids can already read before they reach formal literacy instruction. This is not going to happen in Australia. Having Australian kids play until they are 7 is simply not the answer.

So although many continue to dream the dream of a Finnstralian education system, it seems that adopting the Finnish approach probably would not be the right way to go for Australia. Not only are they in educational decline, but the nations differ markedly in many ways. I’ve no doubt that the coming of Pasi Sahlberg will renew calls for a more progressive, Finnish style approach – especially in the early years. Hopefully, our leaders can ignore the fantasy of Finnstralia and continue to work towards important reforms.

 

 

‘If you are nice to them, then they will behave.’

‘If you are nice to them, then they will behave.’

That’s the gist of some pretty poor advice I received early on in my teaching career. The idea is that because student behaviour is influenced by a teacher’s actions, we should make decisions to minimise the problems we may face. If you just be kind and speak nicely to them, they will do it back. This was the advice I was given, and it was pretty poor advice.

I’m sure you can imagine how shocked I was when I realised that this didn’t work. My first job teaching a Year 6 class was in a very challenging school. No amount of kindness could’ve stopped me getting kicked in the shins, sworn at or having paper aeroplanes thrown at me when I was not looking. I wasn’t the only one: within the first term one teacher had quit, my partner teacher had walked out of her class in tears (5 years a teacher), and I myself walked out of my class quite shaken after trying to gain my class’s attention, who were quite merry in their conversation, for a solid 15 minutes (It was not a rare occurrence). I remember the feeling that came over me quite well in that moment: it was a deep feeling of helplessness; like there was absolutely nothing I could do. Thinking back on it now, it reminds me of Seligman’s Learned Helplessness Theory. For so long I struggled, and so, just like Seligman’s dog, I saw no other option but to quit.

The story seems grim and it was, and so it has shaped the way I think about behaviour ever since. It is definitely true that teachers do influence student behaviour. There is no doubt that the way you interact with students has an influence on how they act. It is a transactional process. However, my experience has taught me that sometimes it does not matter how positive or nice or kind or generous you are to students; sometimes students will treat you like dirt regardless. This is what happened in my classroom. I was positive, nice, kind and generous, but the students still treated me poorly.

Consultants, academics and even experienced teachers seem to communicate to me that I must not have been managing the situation very well. This seems to stem from observation that teachers who have calm classrooms seem to act in a¬†calm manner and are ‘nice’ to their students. Sure, I acknowledge that it could be possible that I was just a poor, unkind teacher who therefore created a crappy climate in which the students felt trapped or unsafe or whatever, but I doubt that. I doubt that because there were better people than me experiencing the same problems in my school and other schools in my MAT. Bad behaviour was rife, and that was true for all of the teachers no matter how skilled or experienced they were.

No, it is probably the case that, given the opportunity, students in some settings misbehaviour regardless of niceties. It’s probably true that I am not a ‘natural’ at getting students to behave, but no amount of niceness was ever going to fix that in my classroom, nor the classrooms I had whilst teaching casually thereafter. Students were still throwing pencils into the fan and swearing at me when I asked them to listen so we could get started. Perhaps the solution to this problem is to put a natural into every rowdy classroom and get rid of the teachers like me. I’d pitch a guess that these teachers are too rare for that.

I eventually gave up trying to smile my students into behaving well and adopted what one would call a much more ‘traditional’ approach to behaviour management. A pretty simple system of rewards and consequences – one with bright lines for right and wrong that does not compromise. The thing is though, I am now in a school with a much better SES profile, so harsh behaviour problems are not prevalent in my context. I really feel for teachers in tough schools – it is impossible to describe how hard it is. If you are a teacher in one of these schools, my advice to you is pretty straightforward: ignore whatever they’re telling you about niceties because it will not be enough.¬†Being nice to your students is, of course, exactly what you should be doing, but do not believe that this will be enough for students to behave in your classroom. In tough schools, it is likely the leadership that will make or break the behaviour in your classroom. I’d lean heavily on them or get out.

 

Why you should blog in 2018

I began blogging in July this year. It was something I was considering doing for a while, but I was nervous about putting my ideas in writing for fear of ridicule in a world where tolerance of ideas is waning. Although informed by what I read, most of my ideas – knowledge-based curricula, systematic synthetic phonics, better discipline etc – aren’t mainstream in the Australian education context. Puting them in writing seemed risky and so I seriously considered doing it anonymously to protect myself. I’m glad I decided to go fully transparent in the end, for it has allowed me to build relationships with like-minded people at a rate far exceeding my pre-blogging¬†days.

Perhaps you are a teacher with ideas. Let me tell you in no uncertain terms that teachers connected on social media crave your perspective. You will inevitably encounter people who agree with what you say and, just as importantly, you will also encounter people who vehemently disagree. Sometimes people do overstep the mark and do become offensive but, in my experience, these incidents are rare and often debate leading from your own writing will get you thinking deeply about your ideas, allowing you to grow your understanding.

Whether or not you do it anonymously is a decision for you, but if you feel confident that your teaching post will not be compromised by writing what you think, then I strongly encourage you to go fully transparent. I know that when there is a face to a name, I feel a sense of camaraderie with fellow teachers who blog about their thoughts and experiences. I also know that putting my own face out there has helped others connect with me. In saying that, if going transparent makes you feel a visceral no, then do consider going anonymous, at least in the beginning. The veil may make you feel a little more confidence in publishing your ideas. It is a sad reality that intolerance is spreading. There are people in education who wish to silence alternative ideas, and some of the tactics deployed are very nasty. Nasty encounters are admittedly rare, but they must be acknowledged during the decision making process.

Blogging will give you a platform from which to be heard. You will be able to spread your ideas and ideals, find people who are like-minded, and even influence people to think the way you do. In¬†my short career (2 years a teacher), I’ve already noticed that teachers have very few platforms. Teachers are too often told what to do following a debate between people who are not teachers. We seem to get lost in the black box, forgetting that there are serious debates taking place that will inevitably affect what we do inside our classroom walls. Blogging gives teachers the chance to be heard and connect and build; it gives teachers agency, and that is important because teachers are the difference. Non-teachers can debate all they like, but it is what teachers think and do that matters most. That’s why other teachers crave your ideas: they matter most.

Blogging is a platform to get your ideas out beyond the walls of your classroom, but this process will ironically affect what you do inside the classroom as well. Beginning writing and reading about that which interests me in education has allowed me to become better at what I do. It has also made me even more passionate about it, too. I can guarantee that the reading and writing process of blogging will make you think deeply about what you are doing in the classroom. You will inevitably question everything you do as you reflect and assess. I write a bit about differentiation. I don’t have many kind things to say about how it is currently done in schools. In criticising it, I was forced to assess how I myself approach adjustments for my class. I was forced to constantly check myself, to wonder if I was wrong or right or somewhere in between. You will begin to do this too and it is the kids who benefit most from it.

But perhaps the greatest reason to start a¬† blog is best described through a metaphor used by David Foster Wallace. It reads like this. Two young fish are swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way who acknowledges them and says, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” After exchanging pleasantries, the two young fish swim on for a little bit. Eventually, one of them looks over at the other young fish and says, “What the hell is water?” Being a teacher can be like being one of the young fish. The water became so ubiquitous to the fish that it ceased to exist. You are surrounded by ideas, practices and beliefs from day one of your career as a teacher, and perhaps you haven’t stopped to question why they are there. I know I didn’t. Questioning them is the best thing I have thus far done in my career, and blogging is part of that journey. Ultimately, I encourage to start writing because it will help you question ubiquitous ideas, and that is important.

 

Should we teach children to be grateful?

English edutwitter went into meltdown this week. It appears that a school Рwell known for its strict behaviour and traditional values Рmade their students write thank you cards to their teachers on the last day of school before Christmas. The card writing included a text supposedly written by someone in senior leadership about the things the students had to be grateful for. The text was rather long and made pretty clear why the students ought to be grateful for the changes made to their school and for the hard work of their teachers. Some took offence to forcing students to write cards to their teachers, indicating that this is oppressive as it strips the students of their rights to freedom of choice and expression. But is forcing students to display gratitude really a bad thing?

This has all reminded me of how adults teach kids how to use good manners. When children begin to speak, their parents are instantly onto them, insisting they say please and thank you every single time. A toddler originally has no idea what they are saying. They just parrot it back over and over until delivering please and thank you becomes part of who they are.¬†When students enter primary school, this habit of saying please and thank you is not yet embedded, so we see primary school teachers doing exactly the same thing parents do. When a student says, “I need to go to the toilet” you’ll find 99% of the time a teacher will insist they ask – properly. “May I go to the bathroom, please?” is what teachers are looking for with “thank you” to follow. Towards the end of primary school, using manners becomes a deeply ingrained habit.

Developing the habit of using good manners takes a very long time. It takes A LOT of teaching. It is worth taking that time because out in the big bad world people will not respect you if you do not display good manners. An individual would be less happy for not knowing how to display them. Gratitude is an important virtue, too. You will be a happier person for being grateful and people will respect you for displaying it. Unfortunately, just like manners, gratitude needs to be taught and it takes a very long time to instil in one’s character. Most children do not naturally display a grateful nature, so it needs to be taught extensively over a long period of time, just like teaching good manners. Just as children are forced to display manners until they are well embedded, so too should we force children to display a grateful nature.

The school in question clearly has the same thinking in mind: they want to instil a grateful nature that they can take forth into the rest of their lives. One of the ways the school has chosen to instil a grateful nature is to get the kids to write thank you cards to their teachers. Apart from their parents, no one in their lives does more for them. It seems a perfect opportunity to continue to teach the children how to be grateful. Quite coincidentally, I had my kindergarteners do a similar thing: they had to write a thank you card to someone in the school. I did not restrict this to just teachers, but most of the kids picked teachers anyway. Some loved the activity; some didn’t, but they all did it because I thought it a good thing to do regardless of whether or not they wanted to.

One of the key objections to the school’s decision to make students write cards is that the students were supposedly forced, and therefore the gratitude was not genuine. In all honesty, some of the students probably weren’t grateful at all, and I can make this educated guess because that’s what happened in my classroom. Yet I insist on students saying thank you to every adult every single time no matter whether they are genuinely thankful. I expect them to say it because it will make them a better person in the long run. I do not think it matters if students are genuinely grateful or not, for engaging in the practice of gratitude will make them better people regardless. This, I am sure, is the mentality of this particular school, and I wholeheartedly agree with them. Some things need to be taught. It’s as simple as that.