silent-army-of-40000-lost-girls-struggling-with-reading

The difference between research and marketing

A recent TES article says a new UK report reveals a “Silent army of 40,000 ‘lost girls’ struggling with reading”.

Great, attention-grabbing headline. Shades of Boko Haram. But we already know that many girls can’t decode, or can’t comprehend language very well, or have both problems.

There are fewer struggling girls than struggling boys, and girls are more likely to shrink into themselves than attract attention by behaving badly when they’re struggling. But struggling girls exist in schools everywhere, which should already be identifying and assisting them.

An over-reliance on phonics?

What made me sit up and pay attention in the TES article was its statement that the report it discusses “suggests that an ‘over-reliance on phonics’ is obscuring deeper problems with reading in primary schools – where children can read words but may not understand them”. Continue reading

jennifer-buckingham-uk-phonics-check

The UK Phonics Check could help reduce teacher workloads

There’s an article in yesterday’s Age newspaper about a proposal from literacy expert Dr Jennifer Buckingham for compulsory use of the UK Phonics check with Australian first grade children. Rather than trying to paraphrase it, I encourage you to read the proposal yourself, it’s in plain English and based on a behemoth of scientific evidence.

Any teacher, school or interested person can already use the UK Phonics Check. It’s quick, free, simple, downloadable and a useful assessment of early reading skills. Some Australian schools already use it. Click here for the 2016 version.

The test asks children who’ve had about 18 months of literacy instruction to read 20 real words like “chin”, “queen” and “wishing”, plus 20 made-up words like “doil”, “charb” and “barst”.

Since its introduction in England in 2012, the proportion of children passing the Phonics Check has increased each year, and the proportion of children below the expected standard on Year 2 reading tests has fallen by a third. The achievement gap between wealthier and poorer students has also narrowed. Yay to that.

Of course correlation doesn’t imply causation, and testing isn’t teaching. The improvement is probably largely due to the implementation of the 2006 Communication, Language and Literacy Development Strategy, which resourced, trained and required teachers to teach explicit, systematic, synthetic phonics in the early years of schooling.

However, the introduction of the Phonics Check probably helped sharpen everyone’s phonics focus, as well as acting as an accountability measure for government. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it etc.

There’s no way to tell whether children who can read real words on a test have memorised them as wholes or are able to sound them out. However, made-up words, which children have never seen before, can only be read successfully by sounding them out.

To successfully read “charb” a child needs to know that it contains three graphemes/spellings, “ch”, “ar” and “b”, match them to the relevant sounds/phonemes and blend them into a word.

Children encounter new vocabulary in books all the time, including nonsense words like “grinch” and “bottersnike” and “muggle”, so children who have grasped the basics of our sound-spelling system don’t blink at being asked to read nonsense words.

To make it absolutely clear which words are made-up ones on the UK Phonics Check, each nonsense word is illustrated with a nice alien, like these:

uk-phonics-check-aliensMost reading problems are the result of poor decoding, and nonsense word reading tests are simply the best way to identify poor decoding skills. Email me if you’d like about a kilometre of supporting references, or see the references in Dr Buckingham’s paper.

NAPLAN starts in Year 3, way too late to identify children needing early intervention. The running record type assessments currently widely used in schools to assess reading skills are far too subjective, not focussed on the things reading research tells us matter most, based on the faulty theory of multi-cueing, and take far too long.

I wish teachers would throw these subjective, time-wasting assessments out the window, and instead use efficient evidence-based assessments like the Castles and Coltheart 2 (Free online! Standardised on Australian children! Writes its own report!) and other free MOTIF tests, the PERA, the YARC or the UK Phonics Check.

Better assessments would immediately reduce teacher workloads. I always want to weep when I see teachers at their desks long after the kids have left and the cleaners are in, pointlessly evaluating error types in order to work out which unscientifically-levelled books to give a child next (don’t start me on levelled books for guided reading), or rushing out the door with a bag full of running records to work on at home.

Better assessments would mean better identification of children in need of extra help, and of what kind of help they need. Fewer kids would fall through the cracks, and intervention resources could be better targeted.

However, the biggest reduction in workloads which could be achieved with better assessments, plus better training and resources in the early years, is for those teaching later in primary school, as well as secondary and even tertiary educators.

The kids who don’t crack the spelling code in their early years generate masses of extra work for other teachers downstream.

They misbehave to distract attention from their difficulties. Of course. Would you want to be the naughty kid, or the dumb kid?

Because they can’t participate effectively in the mainstream curriculum, they generate huge amounts of curriculum differentiation work for teachers.

Anyone who has worked in schools knows that there are many conscientious teachers who put in massive amounts of extra time outside class helping older students whose literacy skills are poor. They come in early, stay back late and generally bust a gut trying to either backfill basic skills that are lacking or compensate for them.

This week I was talking to a young man with serious literacy difficulties who said he got through English in secondary school because one of his teachers would stay back and explain the texts to him, help him understand his homework etc. Perhaps nobody else noticed, and certainly that teacher wasn’t paid any extra. But like so many teachers round the country, she or he was willing to go the extra mile.

I want the proportion of children below the expected standard on NAPLAN to fall by a third. I want the achievement gap between wealthier and poorer students to narrow. If they can do it in the UK, we can surely do it here.

It’s sad that teacher organisations seem to view Dr Buckingham’s proposal as a criticism of teachers, rather than an idea which might help address what literacy statistics tell us is a serious problem, using a quick, inexpensive, evidence-based tool being used effectively elsewhere. It’s sad that they don’t recognise the poor quality of the tests currently widely used, or the amount of teacher time they waste.

There’s nothing more anti-teacher than failing to provide early years teachers with the training and tools they need to teach and assess early literacy according to the best scientific evidence, and to rapidly and successfully identify children requiring extra help.

Today there’s an article in The Conversation by University of Canberra academic Misty Adoniou arguing against the implementation of the Phonics Check, and she was also quoted in the Guardian yesterday in an article called “Researchers warn against further use of phonics testing in schools“.

In The Conversation, Adoniou writes, “The phonics test has been deemed successful because the children get better at doing it over the course of the year”, but my understanding is that most English children only do the test once. Children in Year 2 only do it if they didn’t meet the standard in Year 1, or didn’t do it before, and anyway each year there are different words on the test.

Adoniou also disparages some UK teachers’ practice of teaching children how to read made-up words. I’d like to know how children can be expected to read books like Harry Potter, Dr Seuss, Winnie the Pooh, Lord of the Rings or Lewis Carroll if they don’t have this skill. What about Pokemon cards, road signs, menus, maps, the footy record, train timetables, shop names and brands?

wollongong-train-map greeves-st-nandos
quirkle rogan-josh

I wrote a  2012 blog post about the blurriness of the line between real and nonsense words, if you’re interested. Suffice to say that the point of having an alphabetic code is that you can write anything you can say. You make a new words up and write them down, just like JK Rowling, how cool is that?

Apparently contradicting her earlier suggestion that measurable improvements in children’s literacy in England since the introduction of the Phonics Check are due to test practice effects, Adoniou writes that “six-year-olds in England are getting better at sounding out individual decodable words…What isn’t clear is if they are getting better at reading”.

I find this baffling. Sounding out words is a part of reading. Skilled readers do it quickly and automatically, while novice readers do it slowly and laboriously. What Adoniou says makes about as much sense as saying “six-year-olds are improving their ability to pedal and balance on a bike, but we don’t know whether they are getting any better at cycling”.

Adoniou’s other main arguments against the Phonics Check seem to be:

  • Teachers already collect heaps of data and don’t know what to do with it all (stop requiring teachers to pointlessly collect so much meaningless data, perhaps?)
  • Northern Irish children do well on the international PIRLS reading test, and Canberra children do well on NAPLAN, yet neither of them have “a phonics-only approach to reading”. Whatever that is. There’s precisely nobody who advocates teaching phonemic awareness and phonics without teaching vocabulary, comprehension and fluency. How is the reading performance of Irish or ACT children (where the Phonics Check is not from) an argument against the Phonics Check? Also, I don’t know about Northern Ireland, but Canberra has the second-highest income in the country, and wealthier kids tend to do better on tests.
  • Phonics is only a part of reading. This is true. Everyone agrees. Knowing the road rules is only a part of driving. Does Adoniou propose we stop testing learner drivers’ road rule knowledge?
  • The background to the UK Phonics Check is research done in Scotland, which Adoniou writes was not peer-reviewed, has been critiqued and “the children from the study ultimately did not perform any better than any other school in Scotland’s national standardised reading test in Year 7”. She doesn’t name or link to this research so we can only assume she refers to the 7-year Clackmannanshire study, luckily I have the link here. The study’s report on the Scottish government website says, “The children in Primary 7 comprehended what they read 3.5 months above what would be expected for their chronological age”, which seems inconsistent with Adoniou’s statement that they were not better readers. I can’t check this out for you, because she doesn’t provide a reference.
  • The Phonics Check is a “distraction”, presumably from teaching as usual. Perhaps when we get the PIRLS 2016 results, we might all welcome a distraction.
  • The money would be better spent on Year Four deep comprehension. I’m trying to imagine how children in Year Four who can’t decode text very well will be able to deeply comprehend it, however well they are taught, and I can’t say I’m getting very far.

The teacher unions’ other, more understandable objection to the Phonics Check is that it’s a distraction from the government’s plan to cut Gonski funding in 2017. Luckily those of us who care about equity in education are not going to be so easily distracted, here’s the link to the I Give A Gonski campaign website if you haven’t already seen it.

controversial-dyslexia-therapies

Controversial dyslexia therapies

Parents often tell me they wasted precious time and money on controversial reading/spelling/dyslexia therapies that didn’t work.

The time wasted is even more of a worry than the money. The more a child falls behind, the more she or he becomes likely to never be able to catch up.

I’ve written a few blog posts about various controversial therapies, but not a summary one that might be easily found by an anxious, googling parent. So I thought this might be a good way to mark the end of Dyslexia Empowerment week, and come in handy while we wait for Pam Snow and Caroline Bowen’s 2017 book “Making Sense of Interventions for Children With Developmental Disorders”.

Most readers of this blog will already know about the MUSEC Briefings, which summarise the research on a large number of special needs interventions, many of them controversial.

Another useful source of information about controversial therapies is a 2015 NZ article called Behavioural Interventions to Remediate Learning Disorders, which reviews Arrowsmith, Brain Gym, Cellfield, Cogmed, Davis, Dore, Fast ForWord, Lexia, Lumosity, Slingerland, Tomatis and several other programs.

The 2007 Santiago Declaration by prominent neuroscientists pointed out that “Neuroscientific research, at this stage in its development, does not offer scientific guidelines for policy, practice, or parenting.” Which is polite scientist speak for “neuro and brain-based interventions are mostly bunkum”. You can read more about this here and here. Continue reading

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Ruth Miskin’s top tips for parents

OMG it’s the end of the term 3 holidays and I had planned to write a blog for parents of children starting school in 2017, as a kind of antidote to any well-meaning but incorrect advice to encourage children to guess written words from pictures, first letters and context rather than sounding them out.

The internet to the rescue! I found some nice, short videos by the UK’s Ruth Miskin called “top tips for parents” about the following topics:

  1. Saying sounds correctly
  2. Linking sounds to letters
  3. Two letters, one sound
  4. Practise, practise, practise
  5. Putting sounds together to make simple words
  6. Tricky words
  7. Reading books
  8. Using pictures
  9. Writing letters
  10. Read to your child as much as you can

Of course Miskin is promoting her own programs and resources in these videos, but the very sensible and evidence-based main ideas can be applied using many other explicit, synthetic phonics programs and materials.

Miskin has a stack of other videos for parents here, but right now I don’t have time to watch them all, I’d be interested to hear what others think of them. Lots of useful stuff, I imagine.

Experienced and extremely nice Melbourne teacher Liz Chapman (who never blows her own trumpet so I like to occasionally blow it for her) was running very affordable Read Write Inc training earlier this year. More details and her contacts are on this flyer, if anyone wants to nag her to run some more.

I’ll embed links to all 10 Ruth Miskin Top Tips for Parents videos below, so they are easy to navigate and revisit and share without getting lost on YouTube.

1. Saying sounds correctly

I think the video about how to say sounds she refers to is this one, or try Get Reading Right’s Phoneme Pronunciation page (make sure you scroll down, there is more than just the video).

2. Linking sounds to letters

3. Two letters, one sound

4. Practise, Practise, Practise

5. Putting sounds together to make simple words

6. Tricky words

7. Reading books

8. Using pictures

9. Writing letters

10. Read to your child as much as you can

 

try-learning-a-new-alphabet-yourself

Try learning a new alphabet yourself

I have a quick workshop activity which gives adults a small taste of what it’s like for children beginning to learn to use a new alphabet.

I’ve decided to make it available to my gentle blog-readers to try out with colleagues, at workshops etc., to help make the point that learning new, abstract symbols is very difficult.

You can download the worksheets for this activity here. The pictures are free-to-use ones from the internet, thanks so much to the generous photographers.

The activity takes about five minutes. There are four tasks:

Task 1

task-1Filling gaps in sentences by listening to them being read aloud and copying the relevant high-frequency words. Five-year-olds are often asked to memorise the 12 “golden” words used (a, an, be, I, in, is, it, of, that, the, to, was) as one of their first literacy tasks when starting school. Typically adults find they can do this task quickly and without having to think very hard.

Task 2

task-2Completing 10 words by listening to each word, identifying the first sound and writing the missing first letter from a choice of three letters – “d”, “p” or “t”. This very simple phonics task is also quick and absolutely easy for adults.

Task 3

task-3The same as Task 1, but in Wingdings. Suddenly what was a simple task becomes close to impossible for adults. The unfamiliar symbols just make the page look like gobbledygook, and they find it very hard to work out which word is which.

I hope this experience drives home the message that working with whole words is very hard if you aren’t familiar with at least the basic code used to write them.

Task 4

task-4The same as Task 2, but in Wingdings. Adults can usually do this task fairly easily, though they have to put a little conscious thought into which letter represents which sound, and how to form it – it’s not fast and automatic like when using familiar symbols, and if the pictures were removed they would still struggle to read the words.

Activities like this teach useful information about sounds and their spellings, which after additional practice can then be applied to other words. The task does not assume prior knowledge beyond an awareness that words are made of sounds and letters are how we write them, and the ability to segment initial sounds.

I’ve made a Youtube video of my fourth-year Speech Pathology students, Nicky and Jess (thanks, Nicky and Jess!) doing this activity, so you can see it being done before trying it yourself. Here it is:

I hope this activity helps to encourage teachers and others working with literacy beginners and strugglers to postpone work on high-frequency words until children have learnt the basics of how to sound out simple words.

As Professor Anne Castles has pointed out in her recent Read Oxford blog post, sight word teaching should only be “targeted at children who can recognise letters and who have some grasp of the alphabetic principle. Teaching sight words to children who have not reached this stage – by encouraging them to identify words by their overall shape or by salient visual features – does not transfer to long-term benefits”.

puzzle soup

Filling the gaps in teacher knowledge and skills

I’m the final speaker at the Maryanne Wolf seminar tomorrow in Melbourne, and am just finishing off obsessively polishing my talk.

I don’t have any handouts for the session – I’m wrapping up quite a long day and don’t want to make anyone’s head explode with lots of new information. However, I do have quite a few links I’d like to share, so I thought I’d make them available via this blog post.

Here’s a summary of what I am planning to say, and the links.

The Beautiful Picture

The title of this talk makes it sound like teacher knowledge and skills are like a neat jigsaw puzzle with just a few pieces missing. All we have to do is find the missing bits, put them in to create a Beautiful Picture in which everyone learns to read and spell to the best of their ability, and the average age of diagnosis of dyslexia is five or six, not nine.

Our long tail of literacy underachievement puts us a long way from this Beautiful Picture now. PISA 2012 told us that 14% of Australian 15-year-olds (9% of girls, 18% of boys) were low performers in reading literacy.  Improving teacher knowledge and skills is critical to changing that.

The Beautiful Picture we need to create has:

  • Knowledgeable, skilled and confident teachers.
  • Best-evidence-based teaching in all three of classrooms, small groups and 1:1 intervention.
  • Well-equipped schools.
  • At least 95% of kids reading/spelling at or above 30th percentile.

Anyone who heard Louisa Moats speak last year knows that level of literacy success is possible. If you missed her, or you want  to refresh your memory of her key messages, you can watch her online here and here. If you want to read about how Hartsfield Elementary in the US relentlessly improved its literacy performance, try this report.

In reality, instead of a neat puzzle with just a few bits missing, the “balanced literacy” teaching widely used in schools is like trying to make a coherent picture using pieces from multiple jigsaws. Children are cognitively confused by multiple instructional approaches. Continue reading

maryanne wolf title page

12 reasons you should come to Prof Maryanne Wolf’s seminar

Professor Maryanne Wolf, an international expert on the reading brain and dyslexia, will give a seminar at Collingwood Town Hall on 9th September 2016.

Maryanne WolfProf Wolf is from the Centre for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in the US. Her seminar will be called, “Lessons from the Reading Brain for Reading Development, Dyslexia and Instruction in a Digital Age”.

I’m helping organise the session with my LDA hat on, so I’ve read her book “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain”, and am really looking forward to using my new copy of her test of Rapid Automatised Naming, the RAN/RAS.

Now I want all the professionals and keen-on-science parents who read this blog to come and hear her speak (she’ll also speak in Brisbane on 2 Sept and Sydney on 9th Sept). It’s going to be great.

You should come if you’re interested in how the brain learns to read, by hijacking brain areas which evolved to do other things, and creating new circuits. When we learn to read, we change our brains in profound ways. This happens differently in different languages with different writing systems. Being literate then changes the way we listen and speak and think, and what we can learn and feel.

You should come to this seminar if you want to think clearly about the science of helping novices become expert readers, and how the layers of phonology, orthography, morphology, semantics and syntax work together. Teachers have often been taught things that are just plain wrong (e.g. that children use context cues to decode words), but this seminar will look at what the latest science tells us about what is really going on in learners’ brains, and how they best learn.

You should come if you want to build your understanding of the different ways learning to read can go wrong, and what we can and must do to prevent and resolve problems.

You should come if you’re interested in where literacy might be heading in the digital age.

You should come because those who know Prof Wolf say she is a very engaging speaker, from whom we will learn a lot.

You should come to hear the other speakers, Professor Pamela Snow of La Trobe University, Hannah Stark of the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, who will present their interesting research on teachers’ knowledge and confidence in language and reading instruction. I’ll then wrap up the day briefly, with ideas about how to fill identified gaps in teacher knowledge and confidence.

You should come if you need more special needs PD points for your Victorian Institute of Teaching registration, due on 30 September. The state government has required that ALL teachers boost their skills at teaching students with special needs, so this is not just a seminar for specialists.

You should come if you’re a speech pathologist, psychologist or other allied health worker whose training didn’t prepare you for the number or complexity of children with learning difficulties on your caseload.

You should come to browse the trade display, including Prof Wolf’s own literacy program Rave-O, as well as many other evidence-based resources you can usually only see on the internet.

There will be display tables by Auspeld (who have excellent parent and teacher books called Understanding Learning Difficulties), Cumquatmay, Lindamood-Bell, Firefly Education (Sound Waves), Little Learners Love Literacy (including a lovely new workbook), McGraw-Hill, Silvereye, Spalding, plus I’ll bring along some of my favourite clinic resources for display, including Phonic Books for catch-up learners, Flyleaf books, and some card games (my own and TRUGS) for sale.

You should come to enjoy the delicious catering by the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre Catering service, and tea and coffee by the Friends of Baucau, fundraising as usual for Timor Leste.

You should come because the recently-magnificently-renovated Collingwood Town Hall is a simply splendid place to mingle with colleagues, build your networks, lift your eyes from the daily grind and think outside the square.

You should definitely come, and encourage others to join you. Download a flyer here, email it round, leave one on the staffroom table. Hope to see you there.

P.S. Registrations absolutely and finally close on the 6th of September, and the session is filling fast.

P.S.2 You should come to the seminar by public transport, as car parking is scarce in the area. Collingwood railway station is right behind the venue, and Hoddle St buses run right past the front door. It is a short walk from Johnston St buses and Victoria St trams.

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