Dr Louisa Moats: We need to be outraged

24 Replies

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.



24 thoughts on “Dr Louisa Moats: We need to be outraged

      1. alison Post author

        Hi Emma, I’m a bit confused, I had a look at the duckhands website you linked to, but it only contains a parody video of the popular song “Let it go”. Perhaps you have put the wrong link on the page by accident? Alison

    1. alison Post author

      Hi Megan, I think you make a good point, there isn't yet a coordinated campaign which parents and concerned others can easily join, but we're working on it, and there will be! In the meantime watchful and well-informed parents can often help encourage their schools to teach about speech sounds and their spellings in an explicit, systematic way, or at least make sure that if it's not happening at school, their children are being helped with this at home or elsewhere, and not being left behind. I'm sure we can win this once we work out a plan and all pull together.

      1. Carolyn

        Defy dyslexia and the parents on all the dyslexia support group facebook pages are trying to coordinate. a new documentary has been made by tanya Forbes and will be screened soon  – hopefully in schools. it promotes evidence based methods as do all our dyslexia support group facebook pages … but there are also so called literacy experts advising governments who promote non evidence based practices like reading recovery and the 3 cueing system. these people need to be stopped! if this happened in medicine, it would be negligence.


        1. alison Post author

          Hi Carolyn, yes, I wrote a blog post about the documentary Outside The Square recently, http://www.spelfabet.com.au/2015/03/outside-the-square, and was talking to one of the people involved in making it today. I’m looking forward to seeing it, and I agree that we need to move from Reading Recovery, the 3-cueing system and other non-evidence-based practices to practices that we know will produce fewer strugglers and better readers and spellers all round. Louisa Moats was today presenting some studies that show the whole literacy Bell Curve moves up when good, evidence-based practices are used. When we (LDA and others) get our advocacy coalition going, I look forward to your involvement!

    2. Luqman Michel

      Great direct question. I have been writing about how I teach dyslexic kids over the past 11 years. I have written numerous e-mails to many researchers in NZ, Australia, UK and US saying that 'phonological awareness deficit' is not the culprit for dyslexics not being able to read. All researchers had brushed me aside asking me if I had research reports. However, now there are books surfacing saying what I have said all these years.

      Leaving that aside, I believe, most of the students who are illiterate when they leave school are students who have shut-down . Kids whom I have taught over the last 11 years have no phonological awareness problem when they read in Malay (our National Language) and yet they cannot read in English. I began to search for an answer as to why these smart kids cannot read in English and I believe I have found the answer – these kids shut-down when something illogical is taught to them. I have many articles in my blog and you are welcome to read and question me or comment in my posts.

      There is no need to spend thousands of dollars to teach a majority of the kids. Any parent can teach his reluctant and struggling  kid.


      1. alison Post author

        Hi Michel, one of the things that Louisa Moats has been at pains to point out during her national tour here is that poor readers’ difficulties are not all the same, and that they change over time. Early on, poor phonemic awareness is typically the main problem but over time a student can pass all the phonemic awareness tests but still be a poor reader because they haven’t learnt all the graphemes, haven’t practiced them to automaticity, have fallen behind on fluency, comprehension or vocabulary etc etc. I agree that older students who haven’t learnt to read often shut down and stop trying, but if you can break the task down for them and get them to buy in to trying again a different way, they can often learn quickly. I disagree that any parent can teach a struggling or reluctant child, as many parents are not literate enough themselves, and sometimes juggling the parent v/s teacher role can be difficult with children who have a long history of failure. But certainly it’s possible for many parents to teach their children to read, and many do. Thanks for the link to your blog, I’ve only had a brief look but there are some interesting things. All the best, Alison C

        1. Luqman Michel

          That is great news Alison. I am happy to hear that finally someone has said that not all poor readers have phonological awareness problem. This is not what some interested parties would like to be made known.

          You said " ……..over time a student can pass all the phonemic awareness tests but still be a poor reader because they haven’t learnt all the graphemes,".

          That is only partly true. All my students, when they come to me, know all the graphemes as they are sent to me by their parents only mid way into primary one or at the end of primary one or two. They also know the phonemes for all the graphemes they have been taught in school. The fact it they are not taught that each of the vowels and many of the consonants have more than one phoneme. This is why they shut-down. Tomorrow I'll post an article about my current student. Please read it and let me know if I am making myself clear.

          As I have been saying even before 2010 (via e-mails to universities, to professors writing on this subject and to education ministers) kids shut down when a new phoneme is introduced without them being told that many of the alphabets in the English language have more than one sound. I have written many posts in my blog on this matter.

          Yes, I agree with you in that these kids can and do learn when taught in a way suitable for them.

          Yes, you are again correct when you say that not all parents can teach their kids to read. I was not aware of this problem in an English speaking country.

          Do read the articles in my blog and please do comment or write to me to correct me, or to clarify things that may not have been written clearly.

          If you have parents from out of town who have reluctant and struggling students and you are unable to teach them because they are too far away from your place, do let me know. My wife and I will be happy to teach them for about 3 months to get them to be able to read. All we'd need is a place to bunk and simple meals. We enjoy what we do.

          You may read articles I have written on the internet about phonological awareness deficit. I have not received comments disagreeing with me. Type my name in the space bar and you will find the articles I have written.



          1. alison Post author

            I just want to clarify that most poor readers start off with a phonological problem, but over time their difficulties change, depending on their cognitive skills and how they’re taught. My idea of all the graphemes incorporates the spellings that represent more than one sound i.e. when I think of the grapheme “ea” I think of the phonemes in “sea”, “head”, “break”, “Sean” and “bream”, not just the one in “sea”. All good synthetic phonics programs incorporate teaching of all the main sounds for all the main spellings in their scope and sequence. Learning Difficulties Australia and Speech Pathology Australia are two organisations with many members who use such programs, so if a student is too far away for me to see them regularly myself, I suggest they find an LDA tutor or Speech Pathologist in their area who specialises in literacy.

      2. Heather

        Yes, I agree that children can shut down when something illogical is taught. And yes, there is no need to spend thousands of dollars, because there is free information available, as well as inexpensive materials. Thank you for your post.

  1. Miss Emma

    We SHOULD be outraged, we SHOULD be working together. But this isn't happening in Australia. I find that those in the 'learning differences' arena are the most stubborn ! Especially those 'fighting for dyslexia.' To the extent that people who voice opinions or even ask questions are often personally attacked and bullied.

    Much needs to change. But why it isn't changing is just as important, to pick apart.
    I have learnt to just get on with my own work. Results speak for themselves.

    But I will post this article on the ReadAustralia facebook page, thank you for it.

    The SSP Spelling Cloud Keyring is an example of my contribution to change.
    Every spelling choice for every speech sound in a handy keyring. 

    Miss Emma
    The Reading Whisperer
    Wiring Brains Education

    1. alison Post author

      Hi Emma, I guess we have two separate constituencies and need to be mindful that they each have slightly different interests. The parents of learners who are already struggling with reading/spelling want their problems to be taken seriously and to identify and access appropriate resources, and one way to do that is with the medical diagnosis “dyslexia”. The horse has bolted for these learners on Systematic Synthetic Phonics from school entry, and there is no going back. A much larger consitutency is the parents of children aged 6 and under who want quality school entry/Tier 1 intervention, as well as good Tier 2 and Tier 3 intervention for anyone who doesn’t get off to a flying start. And we professionals are concerned about both problems, and need to work out how we formulate and articulate a narrative/campaign that meets everyone’s needs and brings everyone along. But of course along the way there will be differences of opinion. Thanks for the work you do to help struggling learners, both current and prospective. Alison.

  2. Luqman Michel

    I have asked this question on many forums – Aust, NZ, UK and US- I'll ask again from anyone here who may be able to provide an answer. "Why is it that all my dyslexic students have no problem reading in Malay and those learning Chinese in school who have no problem reading in Romanised Mandarin but cannot read when it come to the English language?" . How is it that teachers all over the world are able to teach thousands of children who are considered reluctant and struggling students? These are the 2 questions that hold the answer to reducing the number of kids leaving school without being able to read.


    1. alison Post author

      Michel, my understanding is that Malay has a very shallow orthography, with words spelt the way they sound, like Spanish, Italian and Finnish, which are typically much easier to learn than English. English is a wild rumpus of many languages with 44 sounds represented by 26 letters in 200+ spelling patterns, many of them overlapping. I don’t know about Romanised Mandarin, and I don’t know how you define “dyslexic”, there are a range of definitions, I consider them to be people who have had quality early teaching and intervention yet still struggle. There are people who struggle to read in all languages, but many more in English than in most languages. That’s partly a product of the phonology and orthography itself, and partly a product of the way it’s taught (or, often, not taught).

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  4. Luqman Michel

    Yes Alison, you are correct. Many people have said the same thing to me. However, let us try and elaborate on what ‘shallow language’ is about and why kids can read shallow languages. The Malay language has one sound for each alphabet except for the alphabet ‘e’ which has 2 phonemes.

    Is that the reason to call it shallow? English, on the other hand has the same 26 alphabets as does the Malay language (the Malay language does not use the letter ‘x’ so in fact there are only 25 alphabets) but, like you said, there are 44 phonemes. Does this mean it is a deep (as opposed to shallow) language? I would rather call it a complicated grapheme/phoneme language.

    I just accept Stanovich’s definition of dyslexia. It is in my blog. He has defined it perfectly. There are certain parties that have been trying and they  continue trying to dupe the masses into believing that dyslexia is more that what was defined by Stanovich in 1991.

    I would say that most children who are reluctant and struggling students are ‘shut-down’ students. Read the articles in my blog and we will discuss this again. Ask me whatever questions you may have regarding what I have written in my blog.

    I think you are doing a wonderful thing with this blog and may God Bless you for it.

    1. alison Post author

      “Shallow orthography” is a linguistics term meaning the relationships between sounds and letters in a language are fairly straightforward. It’s not a pejorative. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orthographic_depth.

      Yes, I think most experts in Australia take the term “dyslexia” to mean the severe and persistent end of the reading difficulties continuum, perhaps 3-5% of learners who still struggle despite good intervention. Like all diagnoses which are based on behaviour, the cut-off point is somewhat arbitrary, and the difference in performance between the “dyslexic” student with underlying cognitive difficulties and the severe “instructional casualty” who is yet to catch up (and may never do so) is quantitative not qualitative.

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    1. alison Post author

      Hi Heather, I started watching the video from the link you sent, but was astonished to hear the speaker say that spelling has nothing to do with the language function of the brain. Sorry, but he’s just incorrect. Spelling is a sophisticated language function. Letter-name spelling is a useful tool if you need an extra “handle” on a very unusually spelt word like “choir” or “sure” but it’s not something that works well for the vast majority of words.

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