Therapists’ duty of care means we must recommend evidence-based teaching

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A local school leader recently contacted me ask that my colleagues and I delete one of the recommendations we often put in assessment reports, because it is prompting parents to question the school’s teaching approach.

The recommendation reads:

(Child name) should not be taught using a ‘whole language’ or ‘balanced literacy’ approach (Reading Recovery, Leveled Literacy Intervention, Guided Reading, PM Readers, Running Records, etc.) as this approach does not control adequately for word structure and phoneme-grapheme correspondences, and encourages the strategies of weak readers, such as guessing and rote-memorising words. This approach is not explicit or systematic enough in its teaching of sound-spelling relationships or word structure.

The school leader explained that her school system requires staff to use approaches we recommend against, so our reports were putting their Reading Recovery teachers and other staff in a difficult position.

We have no desire to put anyone in a difficult position, but our duty of care is to our clients. We must make recommendations which are in their best interests, based on the best available scientific evidence.

It’s completely unfair to a child to have one set of adults teaching them to sound words out, and another set of adults teaching them to memorise and guess words. Memorising and guessing words are the habits of weak readers, but are encouraged when high-frequency word lists are used as spelling lists, and children are given predictable/repetitive texts containing spelling patterns they’ve never been taught.

Undoing bad habits and building strong foundational skills is hard work, especially when we only see clients for 40 minutes once a week or fortnight. They’re at school five days per week. It would be professionally irresponsible not to tackle this issue in our reports.

I agreed to send the school leader evidence supporting our recommendation, but this is the second request of this type, so it probably won’t be the last. Answering the question in this blog post, and linking to it in our reports, should help parents argue kindly and clearly for science, and help school leaders learn about reading research, and discard programs and practices that don’t help children thrive.

Reading Recovery

Leveled Literacy Intervention (LLI)

  • Research its authors call the independent, gold standard evidence for LLI received funding from the program’s publisher, and was published on a university website, not in a peer-reviewed journal. The valid, reliable, objective measure of progress used in this research – DIBELS – showed that LLI was not effective. Children only improved on the subjective, LLI-devised measure. Here’s a video explanation.
  • Pedagogy Non Grata’s Effect-Size-based meta-analysis of LLI research is here, which concludes, “The program is not research based”. The author discusses this analysis in this video.

Fountas and Pinnell Classroom

Other balanced literacy strategies/resources

Science of Reading

  • American Public Media journalist Emily Hanford’s* six years of reporting on this issue, including her podcast Sold a Story, can be found here. Recently interviewed in New Zealand, home of Reading Recovery (now rapidly being replaced by Better Start and other programs), Hanford said this:

Switching to evidence-based teaching

I hope leaders of Australian schools still using balanced literacy (an ill-defined mishmash of things that work, and things that don’t, some of which can be harmful) find the knowledge, resources and inspiration to switch to science based teaching of reading and spelling in 2024.

* No, Emily Hanford and Pedagogy Non Grata’s Nathaniel Hansford (who writes/speaks as Nate Joseph) are not related.


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