Dr Louisa Moats: We need to be outraged

Learning Difficulties Australia has just marked its 50th anniversary with a national speaking tour by US literacy expert Dr Louisa Moats.

Dr Moats is the author of many influential papers and articles about literacy, and has been a key advocate for better language education for teachers in the US.

Louisa Moats - wanted, teachers with language knowledge

I've written a couple of previous blog posts about some of her work, here and here, but you can just google her name to find out lots more.

I spent all of Saturday and this morning in workshops by Dr Moats, so my head is kind of exploding with good information and ideas, in particular about how to align literacy-teaching with the scientific evidence about what works best.

I tend to get very focussed on sounds and spellings because they're the area of greatest need for most strugglers, and because of the lack of accurate information and systematic teaching about them. Teachers and the curriculum are focussed on letters, but letters are not the basic units for decoding, sounds (phonemes) and their spellings (graphemes) are.

However, Dr Moats' workshops reminded me about the broader context of what constitutes a good literacy program. It's good to get a bit of an "eyes up" now and then.

Dr Moats was very frank: Reading is one of the most studied aspects of human psychology, so we know a great deal about how novices learn, how proficient readers read, what' s going on in the brain when we read and what causes reading difficulty.

So, she says, "At a certain point (or a certain age) you begin to wonder: if we know so much about reading, how come there are so many poor readers?"

Her answer is that the science of reading is not well-reflected in classroom practices.

For example, the "three-cueing system" remains widely used in Australian early literacy teaching, as well as the US.

Young children are encouraged to use three different sets of cues when attempting to read an unfamiliar word (this table is from learningaboutourworld.weebly.com):

Three cueing systems

The three-cueing system has absolutely no scientific basis.

Its treatment of the graphophonic part of reading as primarily a visual activity is frankly absurd, given the weight of research evidence over decades showing decoding words is primarily a linguistic activity.

Dr Moats explained that science has shown that four major brain systems are involved in reading:

  • A context processor which deals with background information and sentence context,
  • A meaning processor which deals with vocabulary and meaningful word parts (morphemes),
  • A phonological processor which deals with speech sounds, and
  • An orthographic processor which deals with letters and spelling patterns.

The phonological and orthographic processors, involved in word recognition, are only linked to the context processor via the meaning processor. So word recognition is not driven by context.

Context is useful once a word is decoded, if there is more than one possible meaning, for example the word "record" can be a verb (as in "I will record this") or noun (as in "she made a record"), and we can work out which is intended from the sentence. But context is not how we get words off the page.

On Saturday, Dr Moats accepted Learning Difficulties Australia's Eminent Researcher award, and I filmed part of her acceptance speech, in which she discusses the remarkable persistence of bad ideas in literacy education.

She says we need to be outraged, put our feet down, and run a coordinated campaign for literacy-teaching that is grounded in the scientific evidence. I couldn't agree more.


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