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!

 

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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 – an 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.