Autonomy’s great if it delivers success

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The Australian Education Union dislikes our state’s new requirement to teach explicit, systematic, synthetic phonics in the early years, saying teachers already do phonics, must not be told how to do their jobs, weren’t properly consulted, and won’t cooperate. However, many teachers, including AEU members, are pleased by this new requirement. They see it as a vital social justice measure and a way to cut teacher workloads, and are disappointed by the AEU’s response. Teacher James Dobson writes about this here.

I’m not sure why being told to do something you already do is a problem. Everyone is told how to do their jobs, including self-employed folk like me. I’m working on my Speech Pathology Australia Certification, and must comply with Fair Work, NDIS, Medicare, ATO and many other requirements.

The reading/learning science movement has been growing like topsy for years, so I’d be surprised if Education Ministers and the AEU haven’t had plenty of discussions about how to best teach literacy. Having been a union rep myself, I’d be amazed if AEU members went to the barricades to defend teaching approaches which lack strong evidence, or the resulting high differentiation workloads.

Teacher autonomy (not evidence-based practice) gets top priority in the recently-updated AEU Pedagogy Policy. Perhaps whoever invited Barbara Arrowsmith to speak at the AEU office in 2017 led the policy review process. Has teacher autonomy been working well for this state’s struggling readers, and their teachers, who have a right to do high-quality work, and to see their students succeed?

New VAGO report

A new state Auditor-General (VAGO) report says our Education Department isn’t getting good value for the $1.2 billion dollars being spent over five years on its Tutor Learning Initiative. There’s substantial evidence (e.g. here and here) that high-quality, intensive small group intervention can help struggling readers catch up. Across the state in 2023, tutored kids’ test scores increased more than the median increase for all kids (great!), but less than matched kids who weren’t tutored (oh dear).

I’m sure many skilled, experienced tutors who understand reading/learning research provided high-quality intervention in many schools, and their students made a lot of progress. But what were tutors doing elsewhere? Balanced literacy (a balance of things that work and things that don’t)? Other ineffective programs/approaches? VAGO says tutoring was generally timely, but there were problems with targeting intervention, and making it appropriate to school context and student need. Workforce problems mainly affected secondary and F-12 schools.

VAGO concludes that many schools’ tutoring was not effective, and recommends a statewide, staged roll-out of effective programs. Data the Education Department already collects should be used to drive improvement. Absolutely.

What does good intervention look like?

Most kids who struggle to read and write have difficulty at the word level. Kids’ word-level reading and spelling improves when they do a LOT of well-targeted and sequenced reading and writing practice. If watching a Tutor Learning Initiative literacy session, I’d mainly want to see kids with eyes on text (in books, games, whatever) as they read aloud, or pencils in hand, writing, then reading back what they’ve written. I’d want to see tutors providing well-organised and sequenced, fast-paced work with immediate feedback and encouragement. They’d be helping kids get their reps up, and slam-dunk words into long-term memory for instant retrieval and thus fluency.

Take a look at the 90 second video about the Tutor Learning Initiative here: www.vic.gov.au/tutor-learning-initiative. I see children walking, sitting, talking, smiling … but can you see any children reading or writing? What does this mean? I’m not sure, but I’d promote this initiative with a very different video.

System support for the best teaching and learning

The AEU’s submission to our recent state government inquiry into education says on p2:

“Geoffrey Robertson KC correctly argues that “a real revolution in education will only come when a government ensures that its state schools set the standard of excellence. Then and only then will we have equity.” The idea of equality draws on notions that all people in our society are of equal value. This democratic principle is crucial to underpinning the provision of public schooling. Only through proper and fair funding of our schools and a system focused on supporting school staff to provide the best teaching and learning programs that then (sic) we can achieve equity.”

Typo/grammar aside, I couldn’t agree more. It’s time to close the school funding gap. I hope the Federal Next Steps report ensures that future Initial Teacher Education graduates know how to teach reading and spelling fast and well. I hope ongoing Tutor Learning Initiative improvements, and implementation of the VAGO report’s recommendations, help stacks of struggling kids catch up with their peers in 2025. And I hope AEU members can persuade their leaders that early, explicit, systematic phonics is (to paraphrase Snow and Juel) helpful to all children and their teachers, harmful to none, and crucial for some, and that autonomy to wander in the literacy pedagogy wilderness is highly overrated.

25 minutes a day in F-2 so everyone can read!

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Photo: Taaalia, https://www.flickr.com/photos/taaalia/5191198250.

Melbourne newspaper The Age is holding its Schools Summit, you can find their blog about this here.

The big announcement from this summit is that explicit teaching of systematic, synthetic phonics in the first three years of school will be required of all Victorian schools from 2025. Here’s a screenshot from the Premier’s media release entitled “Making best practice common practice in the Education State”:

An article The way children are taught to read in Victoria is about to change provides more detail, but it’s pay-walled if you’re not an Age subscriber. If you are, please make time to leave a comment. Here’s mine:

Kudos to Education Minister Ben Carroll for learning about reading research, and acting on it. Everyone in education and beyond will benefit when all children are taught to read and write in the most effective, efficient way, especially children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

A win for kids and teachers

This announcement must be implemented in a pro-teacher way, recognising the yawning gap in language knowledge in most teacher preparation degrees, and the vast amount of work so many teachers have done in their own time to upskill themselves and others, and get us to this point (yes, Sharing Best Practice, Reading Science In Schools, TFE, SPELDs, LDA, SOTLA, Berys Dixon and Maureen Pollard, I’m looking at you).

This decision should give early years teachers faster success teaching all children to read and write, especially those who struggle. It should reduce later years teachers’ differentiation workloads. Fewer parents will have to spend money on intervention outside school. Fewer kids whose parents can’t afford intervention will miss out on quality teaching about our complex writing system. More success for all means better behaviour and less class disruption. This announcement should help block the school-to-prison pipeline.

I’ve been doing little happy dances about the announcement all morning, but this is only the beginning. The hard work of implementation starts now.

Helping schools choose quality phonics practice texts

Practice makes permanent, so schools need to choose high-quality, good-value phonics practice texts, and make them available to all F-2 children. Our North Fitzroy office is about the only place in Victoria where a wide range of decodable books suitable for F-2 are on display. Next term, I’ll be running small (up to 12 people) three-hour workshops about them on Wednesdays and Thursdays after school, and fortnightly on Saturdays.

There are also a couple of 22nd June workshops for people needing urgent help getting value for EOFY unspent cash, and some workshops for interventionists, librarians, adult educators and parents. I hope this is a useful way to support implementation of this important announcement, and ensure children are given quality phonics practice texts, and Victorians’ money is spent wisely. All the dates and times are on the workshops page, where tickets will be available soon.

Let’s set kids up for success

Finally, I’ve been thinking about the article “The way we teach most children to read sets them up to fail” Prof Pamela Snow and I co-wrote in the Conversation in 2015. Let’s hope everyone in the education system can now work together to ensure all children are taught to read in a way that sets them up for success.

Alison Clarke

New Flex-It games

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Introducing our new, affordable, download-and-print set of games for explicitly teaching and practising Set for Variability skills: Flex It. There are 15 games so far, but more to come soon:

Dr Marnie Ginsberg of Reading Simplified gives a great explanation of the importance of Set for Variability in reading here, including references, or you can listen to her on the Triple R Teaching podcast. So here’s a quick version, please see hers for more details (and yes, I’ve sent Marnie the games and she’s happy to share the term ‘Flex-it’).

Many letters/spellings can represent more than one sound, e.g. the:

  • ‘a’ in ‘atom’ and ‘apron’,
  • ‘e’ in ‘even’ and ‘ever’,
  • ‘i’ in ‘item’ and ‘index’,
  • ‘ow’ in ‘show’ and ‘shower’,
  • ‘g’ in ‘goblin’ and ‘giant’.

Kids thus often include an incorrect but plausible sound in a word when they sound it out. They say things like ‘joblin’ for ‘goblin’ and ‘eever’ for ‘ever’. Kids with strong Set for Variability skills can often then correct themselves, and get the word right. Other learners need to be explicitly taught how to do this.

Our “Flex It” games contain words with a shared spelling that represents two sounds (or three in the case of the o/solve, o/stove, o/some game). Most words on the cards contain two syllables. For example, here are some of the cards for the a/atom, a/apron game:

Here’s how to play Flex-It, this time with the o/often, o/open cards:

You can get the games now from the Spelfabet shop. Download and print each game on three A4 sheets of light cardboard, laminate, cut cards up or ask some helpful older students who’ve finished their work to show off their scissor skills. Repurpose vegetable-bunch elastic bands to hold each deck together for extra good karma.

Show learners the words on the cards and remind them that they’ve learnt that (whatever) letter/spelling can represent both (whatever) sound and (whatever other) sound. Model trying both sounds in a few less-common words in the deck e.g. ‘fragrant’ and ‘flagon’, putting any unfamiliar words in sentences, and maybe showing them a picture (hooray for instant internet pictures of flagons etc.)

Shuffle your deck and deal 5 cards to each player, put the rest face down in the middle, turn over the top card and take turns to play cards with the same colour or symbol, or a ‘change’ card, until someone wins by running out of cards. Learners must read the word on each card as they play it. If a learner mispronounces the target sound in a word, ask them to try the other sound. Just tell them the sound if it’s slipped their mind. Provide lots of specific praise when learners correct their mispronunciations.

Thanks to Elle Holloway for the idea, and setting up the template, so I could just nerd on the words.

Myself and other Spelfabet staff will have a table at the SOTLA event with Emily Hanford in Melbourne this Saturday (squee, when we’re not lining up for a selfie with Emily), if anyone there wants to try out these games.

Hope they help lots of kids to tackle reading words flexibly and successfully.

Alison Clarke

Workshops comparing decodable books

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Schools everywhere are replacing their predictable/repetitive texts for beginners/strugglers with decodable texts. Excellent. Kids need to practice decoding words, not guessing or rote-memorising them.

There’s been a recent market explosion of decodable books. I’ve just updated my website list, and discovered that the Reading League in the US has an even bigger list. My head is spinning. It would be very sad if people spent a lot of money on well-marketed, pretty, but pedagogically low-quality ones, then tried them out, didn’t like them, and went back to predictable/repetitive texts.

I’d like to be able to write a blog post giving my full and frank opinions about the range of decodables we have in the Spelfabet office. Well, maybe not the ones we keep at the bottom of the back cupboard. Unfortunately, we live in a litigious world, so I’d have to check such a blog post with a lawyer first.

However, I can invite locals to small workshops to have a Proper Look at these books, and discuss their features, advantages and disadvantages. After so much online learning and online shopping, that’d be a nice thing to do.

We’ve almost finished setting up our display of decodable books suitable for early years children in our workshops room, see photo above. My excellent colleagues Georgina Ryan and Elle Holloway have spent many hours preparing information sheets about each set of books, and I’m just finishing the task off.

I’ll be running a two-hour in-person, hands-on session about this display on Wednesday 22nd May from 1.30pm till 3.30pm, and more will be scheduled soon. Numbers are strictly limited to 20 people per session. If you work at a City of Yarra, Merri-Bek or Darebin school or local library (our local patch) please email info@spelfabet.com.au from your work address with the name of your school for a 50% discount code. Click here for a ticket.

We don’t have every available decodable book series, or full sets of every series, but once we’ve added a few new things, our early years display will include texts from:

We also have the No Nonsense Phonics kit (UK) and iPads with decodable books as apps, and a projector to show you a few cool online things, like the new Reading Doctor decodable texts (hilarious pictures are on the following page, so you CAN’T guess from them!). Please note that the workshops will be about decodable books for youngsters, not older, catch-up readers (8+ years to adult). We’ll need another whole session or two to discuss them. Let us know if that’s of interest.

If you’re local and want to attend, but can’t do so on Wednesday afternoons, let us know when would suit you at info@spelfabet.com.au. You might also like to try the Decodable Book Selectors from NSW SPELD.

Alison Clarke

Speech Pathologist

Dyslexia facts, myths and strategies

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I’ve just listened to a great Ontario IDA Reading Road Trip podcast, in which the IDA’s Kate Winn interviews Dr Jack Fletcher about dyslexia facts, myths and strategies. Click here to listen to the whole thing yourself, and/or read the transcript, which includes references. For the time-poor and my own learning, here’s what I thought were key takeaways.

Defining and diagnosing dyslexia

Dyslexia is a word-level reading and spelling problem which results from a combination of biological and environmental factors. It’s a persistent inability to respond to the kind of explicit, intensive, instruction that works for most people.

Instructional response is the most important criterion for diagnosing anyone with a Specific Learning Disorder, especially dyslexia. Diagnosis should be based on multiple criteria, including progress monitoring measures from intervention, and norm-referenced achievement testing. Specialist dyslexia assessment tools aren’t helpful or necessary. Cognitive tests are only useful in identifying kids who are at risk in the first two years of schooling. After grade two, assessment should be focussed on academic measures of reading, spelling, and writing.

It’s not valid to diagnose dyslexia based on a discrepancy between cognitive skills and academic performance. Kids with reading problems with high and low IQs have the same difficulties with phonological awareness, rapid naming and so on. IQ tests have racial and social bias, so there are social justice issues associated with their use. A Pattern of Strengths And Weaknesses model is also a discrepancy model, is typically inaccurate and grossly under-identifies kids with learning disabilities. We also need to be aware of English Language Learners when identifying at-risk kids, so they’re not misidentified.

Related/co-occurring difficulties

Other kinds of learning disorders and difficulties often co-occur with dyslexia, such as problems with writing or mathematics. Kids with dyslexia often also have difficulties with attention and/or language needing separate intervention. Stimulant medication can help a child pay attention but it won’t teach them how to read. Learning to read words doesn’t guarantee you’ll know what they mean.

About 25% of kids with dyslexia have clinical levels of anxiety. Anxiety predicts a poorer response to intervention, so one US expert, Sharon Vaughn, has introduced five minutes of mindfulness meditation at the start of intervention sessions, to reduce anxiety.

Psychiatrist Shepherd Kellam studied an approach which prevented behaviour problems, but found this didn’t help kids improve their reading. So he introduced a reading intervention, and found that when they became better readers, the girls were less depressed and the boys were less disruptive. He also found that kids all knew who was struggling with reading, and that this was a source of anxiety.

Can dyslexia be prevented?

Many severe reading problems can be prevented if kids get the right kind of explicit instruction and reading experience in their first three years of schooling. About 40% of kids find it hard to learn to read well without really explicit and fairly intense instruction and early reading experience. This makes them aware of the sounds in spoken words and helps them grasp the idea that these sounds are what letters represent (the alphabetic principle) and develops their brains as mediators of reading. Early access to print gives the brain the kind of visual experience it needs to become an automatic reader.

If kids don’t learn to read in the first three years of schooling, it’s very hard for them fully develop their neural system and get the reading experience and vocabulary they need to become skilled, automatic readers. They can be taught to decode, but end up with persistent reading problems. Intervention in first and second grade is twice as effective as intervention after the third grade. It’s hard to differentiate reading problems due to biology and those which are due to environment. Brain scans of third grade poor readers who were not taught well and third grade poor readers at biological risk of dyslexia look the same.

Poor instruction is unfortunately still quite common, though teachers are not to blame, they always have good intentions. They just may not have the training and the knowledge that they need to be effective instructors for kids who are at risk. Improving and maintaining high-quality instruction, including classroom management, needs to be an ongoing priority.

What kind of intervention?

Explicit, systematic instruction in the general early years classroom works for everyone, but works twice as well for the at-risk kids (see this research by Barbara Foorman et al). There should be systematic, explicit phonics: teaching the relationship between what words sound like and what they look like. There should also be cumulative practice of skills to automaticity, and work on comprehension. Reading and writing strengths and weaknesses should be monitored, and intervention adjusted accordingly.

If you are including all these elements and collecting data towards your benchmark, and making good progress, then you should just continue until students achieve the benchmark.

Research by the late Carol Connor suggests decoding/word level intervention is about four times more effective in a small group (3 or 4 children per teacher) than a large group, as long as the groups are well matched and managed. This makes sense, as in phonics lessons, teachers have to listen closely to each child, and notice and correct their errors. There’s no evidence that individual phonics instruction is better than this kind of well-matched small group work (click here for information about upcoming Spelfabet holiday groups). The best indicator of which kids should be grouped together is their reading fluency.

Meaning-based instruction, on the other hand, can be done equally well in small or large groups. For English Language Learners, quality of instruction seems to make more difference than language of instruction.

Myths about dyslexia

Dyslexia is not a gift. The myth that people with dyslexia have special talents might result from individual differences and the natural orientation of development towards strengths.

People with dyslexia don’t see letters backwards. As we learn to read, we see mirror images of words in both sides of the brain, which gradually lateralises to the left side of the brain. This happens more slowly in people with dyslexia.

Other myths include: that coloured lenses or overlays help with reading; that dyslexia is a reading comprehension problem; that it’s rare; that people grow out of it; that Brain Training programs not involving reading instruction work; and that improving home literacy will overcome dyslexia. See the blue box on the right of Fletcher and Vaughn’s interesting article titled “Identifying and Teaching Students with Significant Reading Problems for the full list of 18 myths Dr Fletcher refers to in the podcast.

Thanks a quintillion to Kate Winn and Ontario IDA for this interesting podcast series, I’ll be going through the back catalogue in coming weeks, and just noticed a new 4 March 2024 episode pop up, with Australia’s own Dr Jennifer Buckingham. One for tomorrow’s morning dog walk, methinks.

Ten cheers for our new Children’s Laureate!

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I was so excited to be invited to the launch of Sally Rippin’s two year program as Australian Children’s Laureate on Tuesday, though surprised to spot a former colleague in the crowd who was once staunchly anti-phonics and pro Reading Recovery/Fountas and Pinnell.

Then I realised: Sally is the Perzackly Perfect Person to cheer people off the sinking Balanced Literacy ship (especially since the Grattan Institute’s Reading Guarantee report), and onto ship Structured Literacy, so all kids can hurry up and start enjoying wonderful stories.

Sally isn’t just an author of great kids’ books, she’s the mum of a neurodivergent kid who struggled to read and spell, and a staunch advocate of making sure all kids are taught to crack our spelling code, instead of being encouraged to memorise and guess words. Her book for adults about this, Wild Things: how we learn to read, and what can happen if we don’t, should be in every school and local library. Here she is at the launch with queen of our activist dyslexia mums, Dyslexia Victoria Support founder Heidi Gregory.

Sally’s term as Children’s Laureate is the perfect time for a strong push to dump dross like predictable/repetitive texts and rote-memorisation of high frequency word lists, and promote things like decodable texts and systematic, explicit phonics teaching in Years F-2. It’s also the perfect time to improve early identification and intervention for neurodivergent kids in schools, and knock down barriers to reading for all kids.

The Grattan Institute report (there’s a podcast about it here, and a 20-minute YouTube summary here) says kids with poor literacy currently in school could cost taxpayers $40 billion over their lifetimes, not to mention the personal cost to those kids. I cannot think of a better use of my taxes than ensuring all schools use literacy-teaching methods that are based on the best available evidence, and that struggling and neurodiverse kids whose parents can’t afford high-quality private intervention don’t miss out on it.

At the launch I also got a copy of Come Over To My House, a picture book co-authored by Eliza Hull, full of stories about making the world more accessible for everyone. It’s perfect for our waiting room. I also got some School Of Monsters compilations for our lending library, signed by Sally and illustrator Chris Kennett (who also drew little bats on them). Chris taught everyone at the launch how to draw a monster, which was rather hilarious.

Sally will be travelling all over Australia in the next two years, so make sure you find out when she is coming to a town or city near you (the ACLF newsletter and social media information is here), and spread the word. It’s a story well worth telling.

Benchmark Assessment: often wrong

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It’s the end of the school year in Australia, so children are getting their end-of-year reports.

Many Australian schools use the American Fountas and Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System (BAS) to evaluate reading skills, but a new American Public Media (APM) report says it fails to identify most struggling readers.

If teachers rely on the BAS results, they will be advising many parents not to worry about their children’s reading skills, though there’s good reason to be concerned.

If you’re in this situation, please seek more reliable and valid assessment. Early intervention is highly effective, and ‘late bloomers’ are more likely to wilt and suffer than catch up.

There are plenty of more cost-effective, efficient, reliable, valid literacy skill assessments available for school use. The excellent, Australian Reading Science in Schools website has an assessment list you can download here. Chances are that teachers using the BAS don’t know about researchers’ adverse findings on it, or good alternatives. Do them a favour, send them the APM report and RSS assessment list.

If your school can’t provide valid, reliable reading/spelling assessment, try asking local Speech Pathologists, Educational and Developmental Psychologists or Specialist Educators for a second opinion. Very young kids can do quite a lot of learning in the summer holidays with good professional guidance and/or by attending programs like our holiday groups. The sooner they catch up with peers, the happier they’ll be in 2024.