A Culture of Hunch and Intuition

The Australian Education Union is opposing the proposed Year 1 National Literacy and Numeracy Check. I am not overly surprised by this considering Jennifer Buckingham chaired the Panel and is a member of the Centre for Independent Studies. The organisations are not friends. I don’t mind if the AEU opposes the check, as long as they have a valid reason. I understand that the threat of possible draconian style testing accountability is a concern shared by many, and, in many ways, is a valid concern (think the USA and England). This is central to the AEU’s opposition.

If it were the only reason for opposition then all would be fine. But it isn’t. The AEU also opposes the literacy component of the check because they believe it opposes good practice. Unfortunately, quoting a few articles from the Conversation in the manner of appeal to authority does not suffice as evidence. I understand the role of the union and I am a member. I value the protection my membership gives me but I am not going to accept my union supporting things on hunch and intuition at the expense of good evidence. Reading instruction is well researched and the use of synthetic phonics as effective early reading instruction and the use of pseudowords for assessment purposes is well established, widely accepted as good practice and written about by leaders in reading the research, and endorsed in 3 national inquires into the teaching of reading. Many works are free to access and books cheap to buy. Here are some good ones plucked from a very extensive list:

The AEU’s opposition to SSP and pseudoword assessment speaks a lot of the culture of education. It is one of hunch and intuition and not evidence. The AEU is a leader in the world of education and therefore has an inherent responsibility to promote what is scientifically true and just, placing aside personal preferences, ideologies, and agendas at all times, for the betterment of students and teachers. That’s why I was further disappointed to hear that just this year the Victorian branch of the AEU hosted an event promoting the Arrowsmith Progam, even devoting a 4 page spread to it in their magazine. I’d be 100% okay with this if Arrowsmith had any scholarly evidence to support its efficacy. But it doesn’t. It is very odd. The AEU is happy to promote Arrowsmith yet will not accept the scientific efficacy of synthetic phonics and pseudowords. Hunch and intuition reign, and as a member, I would like to see that change.


Systematic Vocabulary Instruction

If you’re a new teacher like me, your knowledge of evidence-based practice is probably frustratingly limited. This post reflects my line of inquiry into effective vocabulary instruction – an area in which I wish to plug some holes in my knowledge and strengthen my own teaching. My first post related to this line of inquiry can be found here.

The focus on phonics in the early years is well justified as this is the area in which students are most deficient upon entry to school. Yet phonics is only 1 of 5 keys so a focus on phonics alone will not ensure reading success. Vocabulary is a very important piece of the reading puzzle yet gains very little attention in comparison. Studies have found that if both decoding and vocabulary are sufficiently developed, only 1% of students present with comprehension difficulties (Spencer, Quinn & Wagner, 2014). This has lead Biemiller (2005) to conclude that “lacking either adequate word identification skills or adequate vocabulary will ensure [reading] failure.” Considering this, and the fact that 20-30% of students present with less than adequate vocabulary development upon arrival at school, vocabulary deserves much more attention than it currently receives.

Of course, all teachers are aware of the importance of vocabulary and it does have some focus in schools, but I think it is fair to say current vocabulary instruction is largely incidental in nature. Unfortunately, incidental vocabulary development through book readings and spoken language is not substantial enough to accelerate vocabulary development (Biemiller & Boote, 2006). A more direct approach is necessary. Mckeown (1985) says, “it takes a lot to know a word” and research indicates she is correct. The long-held folk-tale that children are ‘word sponges’ who pick up language easily from the world around them does not align with research findings. Word learning is cumulative; children acquire new words at a steady rate and their use of these words in spoken and written language accelerates over time. It can take up to 24 repeated exposures of a new word before a child gets to grips with its meaning at a deep level, which refutes the commonly held idea that vocabulary development follows a natural path (Pinkham et al. (2011); Hempenstall, 2016).

Contrary to current, incidental teaching methods, recent research indicates that all children benefit from direct instruction in vocabulary that is planned, sequenced and systematic (Neuman & Wright, 2014) What’s more, starting direct instruction early is key because the earlier word meanings are learnt, the more readily they are accessed in later life (Izura & Ellis, 2002). In a recent post, I wrote about how a systematic approach beginning in kindergarten could benefit a child. If they were to learn 10 words that are low-frequency in spoken language but high-frequency in written language every week for 7 years, they would accumulate some 2800 words crucial for reading comprehension. A child would benefit immensely from such a systematic approach, but, given how hard it is to learn and retain vocabulary at a deep level, how does one implement a planned, sequenced and systematic approach to ensure benefits for the long-term? There is much research in this area and a useful pattern of instruction for effective vocabulary development has been identified by Neuman & Wright (2014):

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They write that “this instructional regime, applied at any grade level, promotes greater attention to the depth of processing of word meanings.” The rest of this post is devoted to explaining this pattern of instruction.

1) Identify words that need to be taught

English has many words but not all need to be taught. The words that are best taught explicitly are known as Tier 2 words. Tier 2 words are characteristic of sophisticated language not often used in spoken language but often used in written texts. The best ones to teach are domain-general and are more sophisticated terms for concepts with which students are already familiar. Notice is a Tier 2 word synonymous with seeing. Commotion is a Tier 2 word synonymous with noise.

The words can simply be found in books selected by a teacher. Read through the book and note down any Tier 2 words in the text. From the text, pick two or three words you think children will be most likely to apply in their daily lives. Below is a list of words taken from texts used in a study by Beck & Mckeown (2007) aimed at raising vocabulary in a disadvantaged school. It is worth noting that Beck & Mckeown’s study found that very young students were very much able to learn sophisticated vocabulary, so avoiding selecting vocabulary because it seems ‘too hard’ is not necessary.

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2 Introduce the words and deepen knowledge through rich instruction

Introducing the vocabulary should be done in conjunction with the book reading. Lenfest & Reed (2015) give a good description of how this was done in their study:

“she [the teacher] introduced the target words using only the definitions provided in the curriculum materials. After providing the definition, she encouraged the students to say the word aloud as well as repeat the definition. Finally, the teacher read the big books.”

It is now important to note that just giving the definition of a word has not proven to be effective (Mckeown, 1985). If vocabulary instruction is to be effective, it needs to provide knowledge at a depth where connections are formed and knowledge is sufficiently flexible and accessible. For this reason, the instruction that follows the book reading – termed rich instruction – is crucial. Rich instruction takes place after the reading and includes explaining the words in student-friendly language, providing multiple examples and multiple contexts, and requiring students to process words deeply by explaining appropriate and inappropriate uses. Below are examples:

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3) Review words to ensure sustainability over time

Repeated exposure is extremely important. As mentioned, it can take up to 24 exposures of a new word for students to know it at a sufficiently deep level. Frequency of exposure strongly predicts word learning and predicts later comprehension outcomes (Harris, 2011). When word learning was extended across several days, the pre to post-test gain in Beck & Mckeown’s (2007) study was significantly higher. Lenfest & Reed (2015) took these findings seriously. They made students keep a vocabulary folder (with materials related to the words inside) at their desks to help create chances for repeated exposures. When beginning the day’s lesson, the teacher would ask the students to review the words they learnt the previous day. This was used as a prompt to cultivate discussion of the words and gave the teachers the chance to add more rich instruction. More rich instruction is crucial. Using a folder as a prompt seems a very clever idea, it also gives students a sense of ownership. At the end of the week, students would take the folder home to show their parents, gaining further exposure to the new words.

4) Monitor children’s progress and reteach if necessary

Weekly pre and post tests should be taken for formative purposes. The teacher can then monitor and reteach vocabulary where necessary. This can be done in two ways: as a picture test or an oral test. In a picture test (it’s pretty much the PPVT), students need to identify the picture that best depicts the concept (e.g. Which couple is standing elegantly?). In an oral test, the student simply needs to approve or disapprove of the use of a word in a particular context or the stated definition of a word. Below are examples of a verbal test used in Beck & Mckeown’s (2007) study:

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In Conclusion

As stated at the beginning of this post, the focus on phonics in the early years is well justified, but if we really want students to find success with reading then a focus on vocabulary is important too. Research indicates this is best done in a systematic way. I plan on implementing this model in the classroom and I look forward to seeing how it gets on!

The most important references for further reading (well worth it)

Beck, I. L., & McKeown, M. G. (2007). Increasing young low-income children’s oral vocabulary repertoires through rich and focused instruction. The Elementary School Journal107(3), 251-271.

Lenfest, A., & Reed, D. K. (2015). Enhancing Basal Vocabulary Instruction in Kindergarten. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice30(1), 43-50.

Neuman, S. B., & Wright, T. S. (2014). The Magic of Words: Teaching Vocabulary in the Early Childhood Classroom. American Educator38(2), 4-13.
Other references

Other references

Harris, J., Golinkoff, R. M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2011). Lessons from the crib for the classroom: How children really learn vocabulary. Handbook of early literacy research3, 49-65.

Hempenstall, K. (2016) Read About It: Scientific Evidence for Effective Teaching of Reading

Izura, C., & Ellis, A. W. (2002). Age of acquisition effects in word recognition and production in first and second languages. Psicológica23(2).

McKeown, M. G. (1985). The acquisition of word meaning from context by children of high and low ability. Reading Research Quarterly, 20(4), 482–496.

National Reading Technical Assistance Center 2010, A review of the current research on comprehension instruction, research synthesis, report prepared by S Butler, K Urrutia, A Buenger & M Hunt.

Pinkham, A. M., Neuman, S. B., & Lillard, A. S. (2011, November). You Can Say That Again! Preschoolers Need Repeated Exposures to Gain Expressive Vocabulary. In annual meeting of the Literacy Research Association, Jacksonville, FL.

Spencer, M., Quinn, J. M., & Wagner, R. K. (2014). Specific reading comprehension disability: Major problem, myth, or misnomer?. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice29(1), 3-9.



Visible Learning, Teacher Knowledge and Formative Assessment

“The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.”
(Barber & Mourshed, 2007)

In 1996, William Sanders and June Rivers published a paper based on an analysis of 3 million records of achievement in Tennessee. Sanders and Rivers were able to identify the quality of teachers and track the impact these teachers had on the outcomes of students. After 3 years with back-to-back high-performing teachers, a student at the 50th percentile in Year 2 would reach the 90th percentile in Year 5, but if the same student were allocated to low-performing teachers 3 years running, they would end up at the 37th percentile rank. Barber and Mourshed were right. The impact good teachers have on student achievement is real, that cannot be disputed, but what makes a good teacher?

This week, Visible Learning was going around yelling with a megaphone about how teacher knowledge doesn’t matter. Pretty rash. This tends to happen when you throw a big pile of data in a blender and make blanket judgment calls based on the muck that comes out. Of course, there is much more to good teaching than subject knowledge. In isolation, it won’t have a significant impact on student learning, but it is a significant piece of the puzzle, inextricably linked to other areas of teaching – most notably: formative assessment.

What Visible Learning is probably trying to say about teacher knowledge is that attempts to improve teacher knowledge have not correlated with significant gains in student performance (And therefore teacher knowledge does not matter). In one study that aimed to improve reading instruction, an eight-day course did increase teacher knowledge; however, after one year, there was no measurable impact on student achievement (Garet et al., 2008). Similar conclusions were made in a study designed to improve teacher mathematical subject knowledge (Garet et al., 2010). Of course, these studies do not indicate that subject knowledge does not matter, just that attempts to raise student achievement by targeting subject knowledge in isolation have not been successful.

Although attempts to raise student achievement by raising teacher knowledge have not worked, there is certainly evidence that where student performance is high, so too is teacher knowledge (Think Finland, China, Singapore, Vietnam). The seminal work in this area was done by Liping Ma (1999) who observed the extraordinary gap between Chinese and American teachers in teacher content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge. Chinese teacher CK and PCK were miles ahead of their American counterparts and this is reflected in the relative knowledge of their students.

There certainly seems to be a connection between teacher knowledge and student achievement, but as we have seen, subject knowledge in isolation seems to have very little impact on student achievement. Yet from Liping Ma’s work, it is easy to see how great CK and PCK can work to support all the other workings of a teacher, including formative assessment. I have a sneaking suspicion that teacher knowledge is a key pillar of formative assessment (long known to have a profound impact on student achievement) and Ma’s work indicates this is so.

Wiliam (2011) defines formative assessment as assessment that strengthens the decisions made for next steps in instruction. You are using what you know to inform what you must do. In her work, Ma discovered that subject knowledge was a huge barrier to making good decisions for future instruction. The quality of the decisions was wholly dependent on a teacher’s knowledge. So much so that “not a single teacher was observed who would promote learning beyond his or her own mathematical knowledge.”

For example, if a teacher did not understand the conceptual underpinnings of a procedure, then they were not able to explain an appropriate model of progression for the student being discussed. The teachers that did have conceptual knowledge were able to explain an appropriate model of progression and those with the deepest knowledge were able to discuss a model of progression in great detail and depth. The teachers with the best knowledge made the best formative assessment.

Clearly, the impact teacher knowledge has on formative assessment is profound. If formative assessment is to be strong, teachers need to have good subject knowledge to make the best decisions they can about their future instruction because, as Ma observed, a teacher cannot promote learning beyond his or her own knowledge. This is likely one of the reasons why countries like China have such strong outcomes: Chinese teachers have better subject knowledge that enables them to make better formative assessment judgments which in turn enables them to make stronger instructional decisions, both within a lesson and across lessons. This, then, would lead to increased outcomes in student learning. Teacher knowledge plays its part.

To suggest teacher knowledge does not matter seems a little rash. Certainly, if we focus on teacher subject knowledge in isolation then we will see little impact on student learning. However, its potential impact on other areas of teaching is great and should not be underestimated. I have discussed how subject knowledge supports formative assessment (in fact, it doesn’t just support formative assessment, in many ways, it enables it) but in reality, subject knowledge is likely to impact all areas of teaching (e.g. demonstrating, questioning, feedback). Visible Learning isn’t likely to put its megaphone away anytime soon, so just keep in mind that what they say may not always be what they mean. An education system is only as good as its teachers, knowledge is part of that.

References for further reading:

Barber and Mourshed (2007) How the world’s best performing school systems come out on top

Garet et al (2008) The impact of two professional development interventions in early reading instruction and achievement

Garet et al (2010) Middle school mathematics professional development impact study: Findings after the first year of implementation

Ma (1999) Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics

Sanders and River (1996) Cumulative and Residual Effects of Teachers on Future Student Achievement

Wiliam (2011) Embedded Formative Assessment

Changing the Culture from the Ground Up

Last Monday, an expert panel laid down its recommendations for a national literacy and numeracy check. Little is known of the numeracy check but much is known of the literacy check which will take the form of a phonics check. The rationale for the check is clear. We know that phonics is absolutely crucial in the early years and we have good reason to believe it isn’t being taught very well. We also have emerging evidence that the check can focus practice and improve outcomes. A check will monitor the quality of phonics teaching, help focus practice and ensure any student falling through the cracks is swiftly placed into intensive and extensive intervention.

The check makes sense yet there has been plenty of resistance. This isn’t unexpected. For teachers generally, an externally imposed test that they do not quite understand threatens their professional autonomy – a right held dear in teaching circles. Additionally, many careers have been built on shaky ideas incompatible with high performance on the check. Those in ITE are a good example and so are those engaged in Reading Recovery.

When a teacher becomes a Reading Recovery teacher, they make an active choice to undertake the training and change their title from teacher to Reading Recovery teacher. The teacher’s professional identity shifts forever. When a proposal makes a threat to that identity, it’s easier to just put the blinkers on. This is understandable yet unacceptable – one wishes to self-preserve but at the end of the day, this is about the students, not the teachers.

The blind resistance is real and expected but unacceptable. The check is fundamentally about the students and not about the teachers. Given the heavy resistance, one could feel a little hopeless. How will we ever change the culture from one of instinct, intuition, and ideology to one firmly based in evidence? We certainly cannot rely on ITE nor leadership from within the profession. Changing the culture will have to come from on the ground; from real teachers and real schools making a significant difference using evidence-based practices.

The change needs to come from teachers and schools brave enough to use evidence; to use tools like the phonics check, and brave enough to shout and make a lot of noise about their successes (and yes, it is brave). This is already happening in a select few schools. Bentleigh West – whose principal, Steven Capp, featured on the expert panel – is but one example of the many successful schools using evidence-based practices. We need more schools like Bentleigh West making noise. Great teachers in great schools using the best of what we know will change kids’ lives. They need to shout about it and stakeholders need to listen.

AITSL Wants Teachers to Judge Each Other

Have a look at AITSL’s Classroom Practice Continuum. There are six levels of teaching from graduate to lead, each thoroughly described. The continuum is supposed to indicate what we should see from a relative rookie (graduate) to a highly experienced, effective teacher (lead). The idea is that a teacher should wish to move up the levels to become a ‘better’ teacher.

AITSL designed this continuum so that teachers have a framework on which to judge the quality of each other’s teaching. In doing this, AITSL has taken it upon themselves to decide and dictate what good teaching looks like. Most troubling is they have decided that good teaching encourages hyper-individualism whereby learning is almost completely personalised, accommodating for the unique and special differences of the individual child. It is differentiation in the extreme, the earmark of the Level 6 lead teacher:

 “The teacher supports students to use evidence, including prior learning experiences, in personalising and revising their learning goals.”

“They negotiate assessment strategies with students, ensuring these are aligned with learning goals.”

“The teacher involves students in adapting the learning space to support everyone’s learning.”

“The teacher facilitates processes for the students to select activities based on the agreed learning goals.”

This has a clear bias towards hyperindividualism, a constructivist philosophy not shared by all and certainly not backed by good evidence. We so want to believe each individual child is unique and special (and in many ways, they are), but when it comes to learning, students are much more alike than they are different and tend to need to learn the same things. Practicality aside, I know of no robust body of evidence that suggests differentiation to the extreme of personalising learning to each child’s needs leads to better outcomes.

AITSL has taken it upon themselves to determine what good teaching is, but it seems more like an ideological preference than anything else. To give one great example, systematic phonics instruction, long known to be characteristic of good teaching in the early years, does not lend itself to such hyperindividualism – the clue is in the word systematic.

Defining and judging good classroom practice is pretty much impossible. Not only is it unethical, but it has also been proven unreliable. English teachers will be quick to tell you how awful and utterly pointless judging classroom practice is. School leaders would once (and often still do) enter your room with a continuum very similar to AITSL’s and judge your teaching as outstanding, good, requires improvement (once satisfactory) or inadequate. Ofsted did this too.

As you can imagine, many good teachers with solid student results would be branded inadequate for silly reasons like talking too much or not showing progress in 20 minutes (whatever that means). People lost jobs because of it; careers even. If a leader were to use AITSL’s continuum, one could be considered a rookie if they are not personalising learning goals or negotiating assessment strategies, which may not be appropriate at the time – or ever. Such a leader would be making the same mistakes made in the UK.

English obsession with grading classroom practice all came crashing down when good people started to research its efficacy. To think you can judge the quality of teaching by watching someone teach for 30 mins is absurd. When your conceptualisation of what good teaching looks like is based on ideological preferences rather than good evidence, then it becomes quite unethical.

The only thing you may be able to grasp from classroom observation is whether or not the class is sufficiently orderly and well behaved, which should be – but often is not – the responsibility of school leaders. If you wish to evaluate the effectiveness of a teacher, just go and have a look at student results. Even then, proceed with caution, leadership is probably impacting the results too. Grading classroom practice is a deep, dark rabbit hole. I suggest learning from the mistakes of others, taking heed of the research and avoiding the practice entirely. Teachers are professionals, they can work towards improving student outcomes together without judging each other.



The Importance of Vocabulary for Reading Comprehension

You’re right! Reading’s not just about phonics.

There are 5 keys to reading identified in the scientific evidence for effective teaching of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension (See here and here). Of the 5 keys, phonics gets the most attention, and rightfully so. Phonics is the area in which students are most deficient upon entry to school and therefore special attention to phonics instruction needs to be made. Yet phonics is only 1 of 5 keys to reading and a focus on phonics alone will not ensure reading success. One worth a heavy focus is vocabulary. Vocabulary is a very important piece of the puzzle yet gains very little attention.

The importance of vocabulary is well established. The link between vocabulary and the goal of reading comprehension is profound. The rationale for a focus on vocabulary is obvious: if you do not know the meaning of a decoded word then you will not be able to make sense of what you read. Biemiller (2005) has this to say on its importance:

“Teaching vocabulary will not guarantee success in reading, just as learning to read words will not guarantee success in reading. Lacking either adequate word identification skills or adequate vocabulary will ensure failure.” 

This claim is backed by a very interesting study made by Spencer, Quinn and Wagner (2014) who endeavoured to find out if there is any such thing as a specific reading comprehension disability. They found that when decoding and vocabulary were both sufficiently developed, only 1% of students presented with comprehension difficulties. The focus on phonics is well justified, but if you want them to read well, you better focus on vocabulary too.

Consider the following example as a demonstration of just how crucial vocabulary is for reading comprehension. Words considered common in written language but not necessarily spoken language have been underlined. If a child moving through the grades who is an adequate decoder does not learn these words, they have very little chance of comprehending the text.

Johnny Harrington was a kind master who treated his servants fairly. He was also a successful wool merchant, and his business required that he travel often. In his absence, his servants would tend to the fields and cattle and maintain the upkeep of his mansion. They performed their duties happily, for they felt fortunate to have such a benevolent and trusting master.

Given how vital vocabulary is, it is concerning that 20% of all students who enter kindergarten are deficient in the vocabulary domain. Even more concerning is how much deficiencies are weighted towards the disadvantaged. The level of deficiency reaches 30% in disadvantaged areas.

I think it is reasonable to assume that the vast majority of students presenting with deficient vocabulary knowledge are either not detected or not provided with adequate assistance. Its systematic development is not a priority. All teachers will tell you they do focus on vocabulary, but this is likely to be in incidental fashion (book readings and spoken language). Kerry Hempenstall (2016) writes that this preference could have to do with a widely held belief that vocabulary development follows a natural developmental trajectory. This could well be the case. The belief that education should accommodate the natural development of a child is widespread and is a key driver behind the constructivist teaching philosophy. What’s more, academics who teach teachers often hold a belief that language must always be taught in context, which could also contribute to a more incidental vocabulary instruction model.

Nevertheless, vocabulary is important and teachers should take note of the research. It indicates vocabulary instruction should start early through a range of strategies. Students can learn the meanings of many new words indirectly, through personal experiences, speech and being read to – the incidental teaching and learning common in schools. They can also learn new vocabulary through reading texts; however, teachers cannot rely on this route of vocabulary development because those who can read well tend to read more and therefore learn more vocabulary through reading. This reality is one of the key drivers behind the Matthew effect. A logical way to overcome such a problem would be to teach students the code (the top priority of early instruction), but some will lag behind and even if all do learn the code to an acceptable level, some will still be restricted in their access to texts outside of school.

Learning indirectly does help, but students need to be taught vocabulary systematically through direct instruction. Direct instruction supports students to learn complex concepts and ideas that are uncommon in spoken language but perhaps more common in written texts. What words to teach directly is an important question. In Bringing Words to Life (2002), Isabelle Beck breaks vocabulary down into 3 tiers:

  • Tier 1 – high frequency in spoken language (table, slowly, write, horrible)
  • Tier 2 – high frequency in written texts (gregarious, beneficial, required, maintain)
  • Tier 3 – subject specific, academic language (osmosis, trigonometry, onomatopoeia)

Tier 1 vocabulary does not need to be taught because we can reasonably assume this set of vocabulary will be picked up incidentally. If students are presenting with serious deficiencies in Tier 1 vocabulary, then keywords may need to be addressed in class and most certainly in out-of-class intervention. Tier 3 vocabulary is subject-specific and should be addressed whenever the time arises. For example, trigonometry can be introduced when students first encounter it in maths class.

Tier 2 vocabulary is the vocabulary we should target directly because such words are frequent in written text but are less likely to be learned incidentally through spoken conversation. The words underlined in the example above (merchant, required, maintain etc.) are examples of Tier 2 vocabulary. Knowing the meanings of Tier 2 words like these will have a profound impact on reading comprehension.

If a primary school were to design a systematic approach to building vocabulary concentrating on a core pool of Tier 2 words, then the effects on reading comprehension could be profound. Consider a kindergarten child who is directly taught 10 Tier 2 words a week (2 words, 15 mins a day) every week for 7 years of primary school. That child would learn roughly 2800 words that are high- frequency in written text at a deep level. Support this learning with the study of synonyms, cumulative retrieval practise, incidental exposure through text reading and a knowledge-based curriculum (the importance of a knowledge curriculum for vocabulary development cannot be underestimated) and the impact could be very profound indeed, especially for the disadvantaged.


References for further reading:

Beck, Isabel L. McKeown, M., & Kucan, L. (2002). Choosing Words to Teach. In Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction (15-30). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

CESE (2017) Effective Reading Instruction in the Early Years

Didau (2014) Closing the Language Gap

National Reading Technical Assistance Center 2010, A review of the current research on comprehension instruction, research synthesis, report prepared by S Butler, K Urrutia, A Buenger & M Hunt.

Hempenstall, K. (2016) Read About It: Scientific Evidence for Effective Teaching of Reading

Spencer, M., Quinn, J. M., & Wagner, R. K. (2014). Specific reading comprehension disability: Major problem, myth, or misnomer?. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 29(1), 3-9.

Early Reading Instruction: You can choose to ignore the research, but you cannot deny it is there.

When it comes to early reading instruction, the gap between what we know and what we do is wide. We have detailed reports (see here, here, here and here) outlining what good early reading instruction looks like, yet these findings are rarely reflected in practice and often denied by those in powerful positions. 

There is a significant amount of research on early reading instruction because of fierce disagreement. The reading wars have raged for many years. Whole language advocates favour an approach to early reading instruction that introduces students to language through context (picture books and stories). The approach is aligned with the constructivist philosophy whereby students construct their knowledge with guidance from a teacher. In this approach, phonics instruction is embedded in other experiences. In recent times, faced with the mounting evidence against whole language, the approach has been morphed into balanced literacy. Balanced literacy is still constructivist in nature and does not align with what we know is effective. It teaches phonics through context.

In the last 10 years, a swing back to explicit models of reading instruction has taken place. The shift toward the explicit model has been informed by a large body of research which indicates this approach is most effective. Explicit models of early reading instruction emphasise the systematic, explicit and intensive teaching of the alphabetic code. The National Reading Panel identified 5 elements which need to be taught explicitly to ensure all students gain the most from early reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, comprehension, vocabulary and fluency. The findings are reflected in Australia’s own report, the National Inquiry Into the Teaching of Reading (2005) which says that:

“The incontrovertible finding from the extensive body of local and international evidence-based reading research is that children during the early years of schooling must first master the alphabetic code via systematic, explicit and intensive instruction in: phonemic awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension strategies.” 

The most controversial element is the teaching of phonics. Phonics teaching in the early years requires special attention as this is the area in which early readers are most deficient. Phonics instruction teaches students about the relationship between letters and sounds. Understanding this relationship is critical because English represents individual units of sound (phonemes) with corresponding single letters and groups of letters (graphemes). Mastery of the relationship between letters and sounds ‘unlocks’ print for early readers.

There are a number of approaches to teaching phonics, and not all are equally effective. Effective approaches to phonics instruction are systematic and the most effective systematic approach is synthetic phonics. Its efficacy is endorsed in the UK’s 2006 Rose review:

“The evidence is clear that the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics is the most effective way of teaching young children to read, particularly for those at risk of having problems with reading.”

Synthetic phonics is superior to other systematic forms of phonics instruction. The Clackmannanshire study investigated the relative effectiveness of synthetic phonics and analytic phonics – a form of systematic phonics instruction whereby letter-sound correspondences are embedded in context. At the end of the study, students taught synthetic phonics were reading 7 months in front of the analytic phonics group. When the researchers followed up the progress of the students 7 years later, they found that the students taught synthetic phonics had not only maintained their advantaged but it had increased over time. It is clear that systematic synthetic phonics instruction has benefits for the long term.

The research evidence is clear. Early reading instruction needs to be taught explicitly and not implicitly. Phonics needs special attention in the early years as this is the area in which early readers are most deficient. Synthetic phonics – whereby letter-sound correspondences are taught in isolation from context – is the most effective way to teach phonics. Teachers can choose to ignore the evidence, but they cannot deny it is there. I encourage all teachers to go and review the research and let evidence guide your practice.


I’ve embedded all my references in the post. The reports are large meta analyses with extensive reference lists for further reading. 

Teachers Are Awesome

Last night, we had our annual school disco – glowsticks, glitter and all. I was manning the front desk, ticking off names and giving out smiles when I noticed a girl – let’s call her Lisa – arrive with her mum. Lisa has special needs and finds loud noises and busy places quite overwhelming. She did not want to go inside. Her teacher came outside to greet her and to try to convince her to give it a go, but Lisa was still not ready. So what did her teacher do? She did not go back inside, she waited outside with Lisa for the whole 2 hours, for Lisa was not confident enough to enter the disco.

Many people have quite a romantic view of teaching and the role of the teacher. Looking at this single example, it may seem romantic, but it is anything but romantic. It is only a sample of a much bigger picture. I cannot count the amount of times I have seen Lisa sit out of assemblies and special events; refuse to enter classrooms and abscond as a result. It happens regularly. Across three terms of schooling, hanging outside with Lisa would become tedious; those romantic, heroic feelings long past.

Regular readers of this blog will know I do not shy away from criticising teachers. I think criticism is, at times, warranted . But criticism must be met with acknowledgement when great things are seen and heard. Yesterday, I saw a great thing. It was a moment in time that spoke a thousand words about some of the great work teachers do. This was just one example of what goes on all the time in our schools. Indeed, looking around at the disco, I saw countless, tedious acts I know my colleagues have been doing for three long terms. This happens everywhere, all the time, for many years of long teaching careers. This is but one example of why teachers are truly awesome people. Teachers’ character and resolve are amazing.


How NAPLAN Places the Disadvantaged at a Disadvantage

In a skill-centric curriculum, reading is seen as a generic skill. Because reading is generic, the content of a text does not matter. In your typical upper primary classroom, this leads to Student A reading a magazine about his/her favourite football team while Student B dives deep into Harry Potter. The content is different, but it does not matter because the students are practising the same skill – reading.

The Australian Curriculum (AC) is skill-centric and views reading as a generic skill. Nowhere in the AC will you find mention of the content of a text because, as a skill-centric curriculum, the content simply does not matter. The only requirement is that the texts students read are ‘authentic’. So because a football magazine is ‘authentic’ it is considered just as valuable as the culturally rich Harry Potter series.

The view of reading as a generic skill is confirmed by how ACARA assesses the AC through NAPLAN. Here are the minimum reading standards at Year 5:

When reading a short narrative, students can:

  • locate directly stated information
  • connect and interpret ideas
  • recognise the relationship between text and illustrations
  • interpret the nature, behaviour and motivation of characters
  • identify cause and effect.

When reading an information text, students can:

  • locate directly stated information
  • connect ideas to identify cause and effect
  • identify the main purpose for the inclusion of specific information, diagrams and illustrations
  • identify the meaning of a phrase in context
  • infer the main idea of a paragraph.

When reading a biography or autobiography, students can:

  • connect ideas
  • identify the main purpose of the text
  • make inferences about the impact of an event on the narrator
  • interpret an idiomatic phrase or the meaning of a simple figurative expression.

When reading a persuasive text such as an advertisement, students can:

  • locate directly stated information
  • identify the main idea of a paragraph or the main message of the text.

Taken from the NAP website.

As you can see, students are assessed by their ability to implement the generic skill of reading. There is no reference to the content of reading.

Yet reading is not a generic skill. No matter how hard students practise how to “identify the main purpose of a text” or “connect and interpret ideas”, they will not get better at them. The ability to execute both of these skills is directly related to how well the students know and understand the content of the text they are reading. In other words, reading skill is content specific.

Studies have shown the key role knowledge plays in comprehending a text. In one study (Recht & Leslie, 1998), identified poor readers outperformed good readers when they knew more about the text. Another (Schneider, Korkel & Weinert, 1989) found that when two students with differing IQ scores knew just as much about a text, they performed just as well. Finally, and crucially for this discussion, Arya, Elfrieda, Hieibert & Pearson (2011) found that topics unfamiliar to third graders (tree frogs and soil) affected comprehension but topics familiar to the third graders (tooth-paste and jelly beans) did not. These studies indicate that domain knowledge trumps text complexity, perceived reading ability and IQ.

This has huge implications. On arrival in kindergarten (prep, reception), the knowledge gap between our most advantaged and disadvantaged students is staggering. Those lucky enough to be born into families with a high level of advantage are more likely to be exposed to a wide variety of books, words and cultural experiences. The knowledge they have accumulated – of text, spoken language and the world – far exceeds that of a disadvantaged child. Already on day one of kindergarten, our disadvantaged students are behind – far behind.

By assessing reading as a generic skill, NAPLAN does not pay attention to the content of the texts they prescribe. Because our disadvantaged students are likely to have less knowledge, this puts them at a potential disadvantage because the texts could literally be about anything. Let’s look at an old example from NAPLAN taken from Year 5, 2008:

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Text can be found here

Here we have a text on dinosaurs. Dinosaurs did not feature in the curriculum documents NAPLAN was assessing in 2008.* If students did not gain knowledge of dinosaurs from school, where and when were they assumed to have gained this knowledge? Preschool. Museums. At home. In books. In places only the advantaged have access.

So while the disadvantaged juggle the new vocabulary and new knowledge coming from the text in their working memories, the advantaged are able to pull acquired knowledge from their long term memories, giving them more space in their working memories to comprehend the text and answer the accompanying questions. This text would likely have been easier to comprehend for the advantaged students. The content of this text put the disadvantaged students at a greater disadvantage.

No one can tell me NAPLAN does not matter. It does matter. Whether we agree with it or not, it is here and it matters. If ACARA wishes to assess our students, then perhaps they should instate a curriculum that explicitly prioritises knowledge development so that the disadvantaged actually get a fair go. Our current skill-centric curriculum is not enough to overcome the knowledge deficit. Once this is in place, NAPLAN should use texts directly linked to specified content across curriculum areas, including English. This will ensure all students have at least had access to the content of the readings used for assessment in NAPLAN, mitigating any potential knowledge deficit disadvantage. Reading is not a generic skill, they should stop treating it like one.

* NAPLAN began assessing the Australian Curriculum in 2016; however, the design of the test has not changed and there remains no specified link between the content of the texts and the Australian Curriculum content.

Books used to create this post:

Hirsch (2016) Why Knowledge Matters.


Do I Have a Narrow View of Teaching?

Yesterday, I was accused of having a narrow view of teaching after questioning the use of De Bono’s Thinking Hats. This got me thinking. Obviously the phrase ‘narrow view of teaching’ was used in the pejorative. This was likely targetted at my belief that evidence should triumph over ubiquitous ideas and ideological preferences. When I explained I thought it was important to question ubiquitous ideas, I was told that I don’t just question, I “dismiss, ridicule, brand as myths or fads.” It is apparent that my questioning of ubiquitous ideas in light of research and reasoned debate is unwelcome in some circles.

I do not believe my view of teaching is ‘narrow’. I simply do not accept everything I am told to be true or useful in education. I choose to be cautious because education has for so long fallen under the tyranny of bad ideas. Learning styles spread widely within a short amount of time, presented as good and equitable, yet in reality, it was anything but. Whole language was grossly popular with little evidence to support its flawed approach and still, after all this time, has not died away – its ghost lingering on in balanced literacy approaches. Fads, gimmicks and ideological preferences spread quickly and die hard.

In my own, short career, I have seen how being told one thing by those in authority can so grossly conflict with the research evidence. Teaching children synthetic phonics was not the best approach, I was told, and nor was explicit teaching the best way to teach science. Yet I saw the use of these strategies executed to great effect in schools and read countless times about their efficacy in the research literature. To this day, I am still told these approaches are not best.

So when De Bono’s Thinking Hats appear in my feed, I will question why we, as professionals, choose to use such gimmicks. For if this were to catch on in a school, and if I were asked to use them, I would be asking some serious questions about their efficacy. One day, it’s just a resource; the next, a magic bullet. The spread of fads and gimmicks affects the work being done in the classroom. If we do not question them, they spread like wildfire.

I do not think I have a narrow view; I have a cautious one, steered by what we know. I will not stop questioning the long-held beliefs we hold about teaching and learning. If that upsets a few; if that means I must endure insults, then so be it. I do not want to work in a profession that blindly dismisses synthetic phonics, happily accepts learning styles and happily considers De Bono’s Hats a worthwhile idea. I know many others feel the same way.