The ACARA media release on the latest NAPLAN data says, “compared with 2016, there is no improvement in average results across the country that is significant”.
Sigh. So many teachers working so hard to improve results, and still 10% of Australian kids are not meeting basic minimum standards. Add to that the many strugglers who didn’t even sit the NAPLAN tests. Sigh.
Teacher-blogger Greg Ashman writes, “The blame for this situation lies squarely with a widespread adherence to bad ideas“. Whole Language – the idea that literacy is “caught not taught” – was a massively bad idea, inculcated into almost our entire teaching workforce at university, but now thoroughly discredited.
What-works-in-education expert John Hattie even puts Whole Language on his pedagogical “disasters” list, see slide 11 here, whereas Phonics Instruction is on slide 21’s “winners” list.
However, the Whole Language pig still has not been put out to pasture where it belongs. Our literacy education brains trust simply applied a bit of phonics lipstick, changed its name to Balanced Literacy, and carried on much as before.
To finally put the Whole Language pig out to pasture, here are five things that need to happen:
1. Replace repetitive/predictable texts with decodable texts
The book-levelling system used widely in schools is still a Whole Language-based one. Its books for absolute beginners are repetitive/predictable texts, full of spelling patterns and word types that children are yet to be taught. Let me write an example book for you now, let’s call it “On The Farm”.
- p1. I can see the cows.
- p2. I can see the sheep.
- p3. I can see the chickens.
- p4. I can see the ducks.
- p.5 I can see the turkeys.
- p6. I can see the dog.
- p7. I can see the cat.
- p8. I can see the farm animals!
I detest such books, my fingers always itch to grab and bin them, especially levels 1-5. Not only are they unspeakably dull, but true beginners can only “read” them by guessing from the pictures. This gives children a false idea of how reading works, and encourages the habits of weak readers, not the habits of strong readers.
The nasty little book I just made up contains the following digraphs: ee, th, ow, ch, ur, ey, ar. What is a child still learning to recognise individual letters supposed to make of them?
Repetitive/predictable books belong in the recycling. They are harmful to many children.
Schools should replace repetitive/predictable books with decodable books, which start off with just a small number of sound-letter relationships and very short words, and then incorporate new sound-spelling patterns and word structures as these are taught.
I take my hat off to schools which have already replaced repetitive/predictable texts with decodables. Throwing out books is hard, and school budgets are always tight, but this a vital step that will prevent a lot of reading failure.
2. Directly teach both early and advanced phonemic awareness
Ideally, children should arrive at school with phonological awareness (awareness that words have structure, as well as meaning), and thus be able to clap or tap syllables, detect and generate rhyme, and identify the first sound in a word (e.g. Mum starts with /m/). The ones who can’t do these things are likely to need extra help learning literacy, and careful monitoring.
Once at school, children need to learn basic phonemic awareness, or awareness of the individual sounds (phonemes) in words, because phonemes are the things represented by letters and letter patterns in our spelling system. Children who can’t pull words apart into their component sounds (segment) will not be able to spell well. Children who can’t combine sounds into words (blend) will not be able to read well.
These skills need to be established in the first year of schooling. A number of useful strategies for teaching them well to young children feature in the new, free, online Sounds~Write Udemy course. It’s meant for parents, but there’s a lot in it that will be useful to early years teachers, therapists and other interested professionals too.
Decodable books can be used in blending instruction, along with other reading and word-building activities containing the sound-spelling relationships and word types that have been learnt. Working on spelling the same kinds of words targets segmenting skills, and my Workbook 1 and 2 samplers are free downloadable activities targeting segmenting too.
After children can blend and segment spoken words well, including words with consonant combinations, like ‘camp’ and ‘bench’ and ‘stop’ and ‘bring’, they need to develop advanced phonemic awareness. This is crucial to reading fluency, as it allows children to rapidly build the pool of words they can instantly, effortlessly recognise (via a process called orthographic mapping, which you can read all about in this excellent book by David A. Kilpatrick).
Advanced phonemic awareness involves being able to manipulate sounds in words, for example taking the “l” sound out of the spoken word “helm”, the “s” sound out of “boast”, replacing the sound “s” in “west” with “n”, or doing Spoonerisms (Harry Potter – Parry Hotter etc). It’s a necessary skill in reading word attack when dealing with spellings which represent more than one sound e.g. when the word “dream” changes to “dreamt” we take out the /ee/ as in “sea” and replace it with an /e/ as in “head”.
Most kids develop advanced phonemic awareness as part of the process of learning to decode and encode words, but some children focus too much on letters and not enough on sounds, and benefit from active teaching in this area.
I like to teach advanced phonemic awareness by building and changing words with my moveable alphabet, working from spoken words to spellings (e.g. “make stick, now change it to slick, now change it to slim, now change it to swim” etc) because I worry about missing opportunities to link sounds to spellings. However, the irregularities of written English mean that once you get past “short” vowels you have to plan carefully, as (for instance) when you replace the “s” sound in “wrist” with “p”, you get “ripped”, and the letters no longer work.
There are stacks of one-minute phonemic awareness activities in “Equipped for Reading Success”, also by David A. Kilpatrick, but be aware that he has an American accent, so he can take the “s” out of “fast” and get “fat”, which doesn’t work in Australian or UK English. If you’re as old as me you might also like to drag out your old Rosner program, still available here.
3. Use a synthetic phonics teaching sequence
Teachers often can’t answer questions like “when does your school teach the spelling ‘igh’ as in ‘night'”, as this decision is left up to individual teachers, or year level groups of teachers.
This is an unsatisfactory state of affairs, because it means that there is no simple way of knowing what has already been taught to each group of children and what hasn’t, or ensuring that all the main patterns are taught systematically. If a child can’t spell words with ‘igh’ as in night, is that just because they haven’t been taught yet? Or have they done it every year for three years, and still can’t remember it?
Each primary school needs a synthetic phonics teaching sequence, which should be the same one used in its decodable books. Examples are:
- the Little Learners Love Literacy sequence
- the Letters and Sounds/Get Reading Right/Pocket Rockets sequence
- the Jolly Phonics/SA SPELD books sequence
- the Sounds~Write/Phonic Books sequence
- the Phonics International sequence:
These ensure that all major spelling patterns are explicitly and systematically taught and reviewed in the first three years of schooling, both in reading and spelling tasks, and that spelling activities teach a pattern at a time to mastery, and don’t overload children with too many patterns at once.
Beyond this, it would be helpful if all schools had a clear sequence for teaching harder spelling stuff like lower-frequency consonant spellings, homophones, and word parts like prefixes, suffixes and Latin and Greek word roots/stems. These are the focus of my workbooks 6-9, free samplers of which include their contents pages, which might be useful in devising your own teaching sequence for these skills, if you don’t have one, and can’t buy/find one that suits you.
4. Scrap rote-learning of high-frequency word lists
Lots of the words on high-frequency word lists can be easily decoded once basic spelling patterns are learnt. Why on earth is any child being asked to visually memorise words like “it” and “in”, as per the “Golden Words”?
Most decodable books address the issue of high-frequency, irregularly-spelt words by including a few important words like “to” and “the” and “was” early in the sequence even though they include sound-spelling relationships not yet taught. The Little Learners books call these words “heart words”, Get Reading Right calls them “camera words”. Whatever you call them, high-frequency words with funny spellings are addressed in synthetic phonics teaching approaches. There is no need to memorise high-frequency word lists by rote.
Encouraging children to rote-memorise high-frequency word lists can lead to considerable confusion about sound-letter relationships. Teachers tell children in alphabet lessons that the letter S sounds like “s”, but in the Golden Words, the only sound represented by the letter S is “z” (in the words “is” and “was”) and there are no words in the Golden Words where the letter S is pronounced “s”. The only sound represented in the Golden Words by the letter F is “v” (in the word “of”). And so on.
5. Use current, evidence-based models of reading
Marie Clay, who said words should only be sounded out as a last resort*, is a guru to many literacy leaders in schools. However, her model of reading was a Whole Language one, and simply wrong. We do not decode words from context.
This means it’s time to take the multi-cueing/three-cueing model of reading off school pinboards and out of overheads and handouts, and put it in the recycling too. And most importantly, stop assessing and teaching according to this model.
Recycle your Running Records. They’re slow, subjective, and classifying and counting miscues is just a waste of precious time. The bizarre Whole Language idea that it’s better to misread “horse” as “pony” than “house” doesn’t even pass the pub test, much less stack up with the current reading science. There are fast, objective, free tests that do available here.
Current, evidence-based models show that word reading draws on knowledge of sounds (phonology), letters/spelling patterns (orthography) and vocabulary (semantics), and that the context processor is not part of the word reading “triangle” system. The following diagram is from p140 of the 2017 book “Language at the Speed of Sight: How we read, why so many can’t and what can be done about it” by Prof Mark Seidenberg:
Good readers read words accurately whether they are in proper sentences, gibberish sentences, or standing alone. Poor readers can’t, which is why they end up guessing and making lots of mistakes.
Reading for meaning of course involves more than just reading words, and scientific evidence on reading comprehension has consistently supported the Simple View of Reading:
Reading Comprehension = Decoding X Listening Comprehension.
If you want a recent scientific paper with references on the validity of this model, click here.
Reading comprehension combines one’s decoding skills and one’s listening comprehension. Learners who have weak decoding, and/or weak listening comprehension, will have weak reading comprehension. To work out what to do about that, it’s necessary to assess which part of the equation is weak:
- Is it just decoding? (dyslexia-type difficulties)
- Is it just listening comprehension? (hyperlexia, typically seen in kids on the Autism Spectrum, or kids with poor listening skills who’ve been taught to decode well)
- Is it both? (language delay or disorder).
Once the source(s) of the problem is/are identified, it’s possible to work out how to address it/them, through listening/language therapy and/or intensive systematic phonics.
I hope everyone worried about the latest NAPLAN results will ask people involved in early years education whether their schools use decodable books, teach both basic and advanced phonemic awareness, follow a synthetic phonics teaching sequence, skip rote-memorisation of high-frequency word lists, and are using models of literacy which stack up with the reading science. And if not, how and when this is going to change.
* Regarding the process of word identification, Marie Clay wrote: “[Beginning readers] need to use their knowledge of how the world works; the possible meanings of the text; the sentence structure; the importance of order of ideas, or words, or letters; the size of words or letters; special features of sound, shape, and layout; and special knowledge from past literary experiences before they resort to left to right sounding out of chunks or letter clusters, or in the last resort, single letters. Clay, M.M. (1998). An observation of early literacy achievement. Auckland, NZ: Heinemann. Quoted in Seidenberg, M: “Language at the Speed of Sight, 2017.