Filling the gaps in teacher knowledge and skills

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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.

Author of the book “Reading in the brain” Stanislas Dehaene says “I think it’s a shame that teachers know more about the workings of their car than they do about the brains of their children”. You can watch him talk online here.

Teachers are among those most let down by our current system, particularly teachers in upper primary and secondary school, whose differentiation and classroom management workloads are massively increased by having to teach higher-level curricula to students with inadequate basic skills.

We know that what matters in reading and spelling instruction changes over time, with a heavy emphasis on phonemic awareness and basic phonics needed in the early years, along with work on vocabulary and comprehension and then fluency, and then once decoding and encoding skills are fast and automatic, more emphasis on higher-level, more strategic skills like inference and narrative.

Key gaps in teacher knowledge and skills

1.Evaluating evidence: Not all evidence is of equal value, yet as far as I can tell teachers are not equipped to read and understand research well (we’re not always great in my profession either, because understanding research design and statistics is hard).

Take a look at the 2012 research report on a program called Leveled Literacy Intervention used by the publisher to promote this program, which can be found here. Go to the executive summary and find the words “not statistically significant”. What do they mean to you? Does this research really show that LLI is effective?

Schools across the state seem to be spending thousands of dollars on this program. We need teachers to know how to identify and purchase programs backed up by well-conducted Randomised Controlled Trials showing statistically significant gains.

2.Objective assessment: Using objective, standardised tests to evaluate student progress removes subjectivity and potential bias. All humans are subjective and prone to bias and teachers are no different, as the recent report in The Age about good-looking students getting higher marks clearly shows. Yet teachers often don’t seem to know what Standard Scores, percentiles and Standard Deviations mean, and seem to mostly use highly subjective literacy assessments such as the English Online Interview and Running Records.

Yes, standardised tests usually cost more, but that’s because it is a lot of work to standardise them. Fortunately there are free, standardised tests available to teachers on the MOTIF website. It’s also possible for Australian teachers to use the free, criterion-referenced UK Phonics Screening Check with children who’ve had about 18 months of school, to check whether they are mastering decoding skills.

3.Language knowledge: Teachers tend to be taught very little about language, specifically:

  • Phonetics and phonology: speech sounds
  • Orthography: spelling patterns
  • Morphology: word parts
  • Syntax: sentence structure
  •  Semantics: word/phrase meanings and relationships.

This is something that will only be solved with a serious training effort in schools, and breaking down the silos that seem to exist between education, linguistics, psychology and allied health in universities.

Louisa Moats has training programs called Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading (LETRS) and Speech to Print, and our education department should be adapting one of them to Australian English and offering it to teachers.

In the meantime, you can watch free LETRs webinars here. Lots of them.

  1. Accurate models of reading/spelling

Hollis Scarborough’s Reading Rope diagram is a useful and pretty accurate model of the way the reading process weaves together oral language and decoding/word recognition into fluent, skilled reading. The original reference is Scarborough, H. (2001) Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory and practice. In S. Newman & D. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook of Early Literacy Research.pp. 97-110. New York, Guilford Press.

In the Beautiful Picture, everyone understands the brain does not, and cannot, decode words using context, once again as Louisa Moats explained to us last year.

5. Implications for instruction

Because most of those who struggle with learning to read are struggling with the lower strands of the Reading Rope (word recognition) all schools need a clear phoneme-grapheme correspondence teaching sequence, so that it’s easy for teachers to answer questions like, “when do your students learn the AU in LAUNCH?”, and there is no risk that some key patterns will be taught multiple times while others are not taught at all.

Having a sequence is more important than deciding whether to use the Little Learners Love Literacy sequence, the Letters and Sounds sequence, the Get Reading Right sequence, the Sounds Write teaching sequence, the Jolly Phonics one, or another one.

In the Beautiful Picture, beginners are asked to read books containing the spellings they have been taught, using blending and segmenting skills. Phonemic awareness skills like blending, segmenting and phoneme awareness taught systematically enough.

Teachers are busy people juggling a lot of stuff, and some of the stuff they are juggling is surplus to requirements in the Beautiful Picture. If you read the best-selling book “The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up” and went on to fold your socks and undies and stack them vertically as I weirdly did (it helps me feel calm) it will make sense to you that to make space for ideas and methods based on strong scientific evidence, we need to kiss other ideas and methods goodbye. Let’s call it pedagogical decluttering.

Things it’s time to gently kiss goodbye to, because they don’t fit in the Beautiful Picture, include:

  • The idea that reading is a psycholinguistic guessing game.
  • Multi-cueing/the three-cueing system, which is not based on good evidence.
  • Whole word reading. Reading words involves engaging with sounds, letters/spellings, word parts, uses and meanings. It is not a matter of visual memorisation.
  • Letter of the week.
  • Word shapes
  • Repetitive/predictable texts, which encourage picture-guessing.
  • Learning styles. We are all multisensory.
  • Programs with less-good evidence, such as Reading Recovery.
  • Spelling lists that don’t make any useful point about spelling. Teach patterns, note exceptions.
  • I’m not going to say, “throw out all spelling rules” but please consider the language demands and accuracy of spelling rules. Many are very complex, and untrue.
  • Brain training and other fads. See Dorothy Bishop’s excellent blog post on neuroscientific interventions, the MUSEC Briefings and the report Behavioural Interventions to Remediate Learning Disorders.

Free online PD by the world’s experts can be found here:

An excellent reading list is here  on the LDA website.

Don’t forget to join LDA and subscribe to the e-news, the journal and the Bulletin.

I’d show you a picture of quite a few of the key people involved in the distributed leadership of the movement that is going to create the Beautiful Picture here in Victoria, Australia, but I won’t have that picture till I take it tomorrow. This is something we can and must do together, taking all the opportunities afforded to us and pushing as hard as we can.

If the Beautiful Picture isn’t a SMART enough goal for the metrically-minded among you, how about this one:

PISA 2024: 5% of Australian 15-year-olds are low performers in reading literacy. As Liz Lemon would say, I want to go there. Let’s go together.


8 responses to “Filling the gaps in teacher knowledge and skills”

  1. Louise says:

    Thankyou for this blog, which informs and educates me as a kinder teacher (and a Prep teacher in a previous life when I wished I had learnt then what I am learning now from you and others who I find through you). I have a question about stages of learning writing. Is there a good web source of advice for how best to guide the 4 year old chn who won’t start school till next year but are interested? ie don’t interfere with invented writing, or do interfere and give them the correctly spelt word?
    Thanks! Louise

  2. Judith says:

    Thank you for sharing. Sadly I’m not able to attend the conference, so I really appreciate that I still get to read your input.

  3. Alison thank you so much for sharing all this wonderful information. You are quite an inspiration!

    • alison says:

      Thankyou! But there are a lot of inspiring people in education and I’m sure that if we all work together well we can shift the way things are done and make sure many fewer kids fall through the literacy cracks.

  4. ALEX O'MAHONY says:

    Will a video of this be available?

    • alison says:

      Hi Alex, sorry, we didn’t video the session, but it would be good to do that in future. It’s just a matter of technical and volunteer capacity, and then how to distribute the video once it’s made. Alison

  5. Sarah Allen says:

    Hi Alison, I am a student in Cert 4 Ed Support and Disabiities at Wodonga TAFE, lecturer Dr Julie Fry.
    I met you briefly at your car on Friday after the excellent seminar.
    Thank you very much for your useful and accessible presentation and especially for following through with these notes which I can accurately share with my fellow students and also a couple of contacts in remote Australian schools (instead of my scribbled notes).
    I especially noticed that you feel able to speak out frankly on issues because you are not employed by Dept of Ed. Thanks for using your voice for others.
    I will def become a member of LDA and I hope to see you at their next event at Bentleigh West Primary on 18/10/16.
    All the best,
    Sarah Allen

  6. […] Filling the gaps in teacher knowledge and skills. 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. Read more . . . […]

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