Marketing reading science

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I was glued, green-eyed to Twitter a couple of weeks ago for tweets about the US Reading League’s conference, wondering whether Greta Thunberg and the polar bears would forgive me if I planted 40 trees before I flew to their conference next year (global overheating freaks me out even more than education’s research-to-practice gap).

Excellent local linguist-teacher-blogger Lyn Stone attended the conference, and you can read her reports on it here:

The latter report concerns a presentation by Psychologist Steve Dykstra, who I’ve been nagging LDA folk to invite on a speaking tour of Australia. He makes incisive, witty contributions to the Spell-Talk listserve, and I nearly choked laughing at his critique of the “gold standard” research on Leveled Literacy Intervention and Reading Recovery at the 2018 Reading League conference. This video is still online, and though I know I’ve shared the link before, it bears repeating. He expertly skewers the LLI research at 52.33 on the video clock, and the Reading Recovery research at 1:03:43.

If Steve Dykstra’s presentation at this year’s conference was filmed, it’s not online yet, but I’ll be watching out for it on the Reading League YouTube channel. According to Lyn, he says “We don’t need better science. We need better marketing. And the worst marketing plan ever, was to alienate teachers by approaching them with an attitude that screamed, “Hey dumbass!”’

This is timely because lately, people have been writing some really dumb things about explicit, systematic, synthetic phonics, and the model of reading which underpins it, the Simple View of Reading. It’s difficult to critique content in a way that prevents anyone from extrapolating the criticism to the authors, but such content promotes poor teaching practice, which damages children, and silence is too easily interpreted as agreement. So without casting any personal nasturtiums (yes, I’m from the same town as Kath & Kim) let’s look at a couple of recent articles.

Give your eye muscles a workout

A recent online article by a US Reading Recovery teacher called Gen (like Cher and Madonna she gives only one name) entitled M is Not For Picture Cues says: “The simple view of reading maintains that accurate decoding leads to comprehension”. This is simply not true.

The article goes on: “The complex view of reading asserts that readers use decoding and other sources of information in a text in order to understand during reading.” So Gen hasn’t understood the whole point of the Simple View – to explain how decoding and language comprehension work together to produce reading comprehension.

She writes that balanced literacy contains systematic phonics instruction, “moving from the smallest to the largest phonemes over time”, so she doesn’t know what a phoneme is. She defends teaching kids to guess words from pictures as “a brief step in a continuum of complex word solving skills”, though in current models of reading, context is not involved in word identification, and this strategy directs a child’s attention away from the words they’re trying to read (click here for more on this from Reading Rockets).

Gen writes, “context is meant to receive the message of what has been read, not to solve the word” then contradicts herself with “young readers do use information from pictures because they are new to this! They don’t know how to make sense of the squiggles on the page yet”.

Closer to home, Australian education academic Misty Adoniou has written an online opinion piece for an English Language teaching audience, to which Prof Pamela Snow has written an excellent response. Dr Adoniou selectively quotes statistics, and claims that in synthetic phonics teaching “word meaning is considered irrelevant – even a hinderance (sic) – to initial instruction” and “involves teaching the children to read ‘nonsense’ words, like ‘flug’ or ‘pob’. I’ve been a dreadful phonicator for years, but only use pseudowords for assessment, and regularly check students know possibly-unfamiliar vocabulary.

Dr Adoniou goes on to allege that for English Language Learners “a synthetic phonics approach is particularly harmful…exclusionary and possibly racist” as “non-native regional variances are given a fail”. Warming to this emotionally-charged topic, she continues, “The student’s first language competencies, their English language comprehension all count for nothing – what counts is the pronunciation of anglocentric sounds”.

This suggests that Dr Adoniou hasn’t read Mark Seidenberg’s important book Language at the Speed of Sight, which devotes considerable attention to the issue of minority dialects. Obviously she hasn’t seen my well-worn copy of Learner English, or watched me research the phonology of Somali, Tigrinya, Rohingya, French and other learner home languages as part of preparing their intervention, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who does this. Perhaps she’ll next write an article for a nationalist publication calling synthetic phonics (gasp) un-Australian.

Perhaps this is a marketing conversation

In M is Not For Picture Cues, Reading Recovery Gen rebrands what US journalist Emily Hanford (hurrah!) calls balanced literacy with a phonics patch as “the complex view of reading”, implying the Simple View of Reading is simplistic.

My initial reaction was, “Simple and complex are both loaded terms, but this is not a marketing conversation, so cut out the spin. Your teaching approach is based on observing skilled readers, imagining what they are doing, ignoring what science shows they are actually doing, and conflating experts with novices. The Confused View of Reading, more like.”

But actually, if Steve Dykstra is right, maybe this IS a marketing conversation. If you ignore what advocates of the teaching status quo are saying, and listen to how they’re saying it, it often sounds more like marketing or campaigning than rational argument. Unsubstantiated assertions. Loaded, emotive language. Reassurance to supporters. Appeals to status.

To counter this and close the gap between research and practice, we probably do need to get better at marketing what scientists know about reading, and campaigning for the teaching methods that flow from this knowledge, in a positive, appealing, pro-teacher, pro-social-justice way.

The Reading League to the rescue again. Another of their great videos features Dr Jan Hasbrouck, and is called “The Science of Reading: An Overview”. If a teacher role model prototype existed, she could be it. She’s warm, she’s funny, she’s articulate yet accessible, and she’s on team science! I suggest you skip the chat at the start, and watch from 4.45 on the video clock.

The highlight for me is at 38.17, where Dr Hasbrouck quotes neuropsychologist Jack Fletcher on the importance of teaching children to read: “What teachers need to understand is that they are doing brain surgery by instruction. They are changing how these brains work, not the structure of the brain, but permanently changing the function of the brain. That’s what powerful instruction does, rewires the brain, for language, for reading, for literacy activities”. If that can’t be used to market reading science to teachers, I don’t know what can.


7 responses to “Marketing reading science”

  1. Karey says:

    A really strong argument can be made that whole word approaches harm disadvantaged and ESL students most. Social justice is a strong argument for the essential role explicit and systemic phonics instruction plays in giving these students the opportunity to develop high levels of literacy competence.
    The fact the whole word marketing is getting away with such bodgy arguments is scandalous.

    • Sharon Clink says:

      Karey, Yes! I could not agree more! Who are you? Can I quote you? I am an ESOL teacher in the U.S. who naively thought my straight A’s in my graduate TESOL program meant I would be a good language/reading teacher. It took my stumbling upon Alison Clarke, and a teaching stint abroad, to learn how I could be a much better teacher, and my students much better readers and writers, despite the inadequate and [infuriatingly] biased teacher education I received. Insult to injury is that my education was offered – and paid for, by me – in the spirit of promoting opportunity and social justice for English Language Learners. By learning from Alison Clarke, various dyslexia experts (including my local ones), David Kilpatrick, Emily Hanford, Louisa Moats, The Reading League and others, I am thankfully so much better informed. (And today courtesy of this blog, I’ve discovered Pamela Snow 🙂

      • alison says:

        Hi Sharon, thanks for the nice feedback, great to hear you now have the knowledge and skills you need to teach really well, I’m sure you’ll now go on to help make sure future teachers are better equipped by their universities (at least here that means getting teacher unions and associations to shift their approach too). All the very best, Alison

  2. Diane Barwood says:

    Thank you, Thank You, Thank you Alison for sending a link such an enlightening lecture by Dr Jan Hasbrouck on the Science of Reading : an Overview. In just 53 mins she covered an amazing amount to inspire us all.

  3. Persuasive and packed with a punch as always Alison! Thank you!

    Here’s more back-up to one of your points. Dr. Julie Washington gave a presentation at The Reading League this past Oct. that implied that rather than being racist, giving non-mainstream dialect speakers access to the written code allows them to code switch–work both in their own dialect but ALSO in the mainstream dialect.

    She said, “If we were doing a better job at teaching them how to read, they would learn how to code switch.” As you know, learning the minutia of our written language actually empowers the child.

  4. Genevieve says:

    I’m interested in knowing what is the ‘best’ age to learn to read. Is their research on this?

  5. Tayo Oni says:

    I find it ironic that she calls it the complex view of reading versus the simple view because balanced literacy and it’s ilk make reading into a complex and convoluted process that isn’t logical at all.

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