Petition to dump Reading Recovery and Leveled Literacy Intervention

If you’re in Australia’s state of Victoria you might have seen yesterday’s article in The Age online about a new petition to remove Reading Recovery and Leveled Literacy Intervention from our government schools. It appears to have been bumped by election coverage yesterday, but should be in the paper version of The Age today.

The petition is backed by three leading groups which advocate for children with learning difficulties: Dyslexia Victoria Support, Code Read Dyslexia Network and Learning Difficulties Australia.

I have signed this petition and am quoted in The Age in support of it, because children with learning difficulties need programs with solid, scientific evidence behind them.

Reading scientists now know that children simply do not learn to read by memorising whole words or guessing words from pictures, context and/or first letters. Children who seem to be doing this are actually taking the words apart and figuring out how the sounds and letters work, something many kids can’t do without explicit and direct instruction.

Sounding out right through words should simply not be reserved as a strategy of last resort, as Reading Recovery’s Dame Marie Clay recommended.

The US Reading League has an excellent video online in which the very witty Dr Steve Dykstra talks about how to understand scientific research and statistics, and unpacks the “gold standard” research on Leveled Literacy Intervention and Reading Recovery.

If you don’t have time to watch the whole thing, and your school is using Leveled Literacy Intervention, start at 52.33 on the video clock. If your school still uses Reading Recovery, start at minute 1:03:43.

The DVS/CR/LDA petition to replace Reading Recovery and Leveled Literacy Intervention is addressed to our state Education Minister, and you can read and sign it online here. It has just clocked up over 1000 signatures, so I hope many more readers of this blog will also sign and share it.

Struggling readers and their teachers deserve more effective programs.

Australians keen to learn about the most effective programs/approaches for struggling readers should attend seminars by US academic and experienced school psychologist, Dr David Kilpatrick, who will be the guest speaker for the Learning Difficulties Australia National Tour in August.

These seminars will be held in Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Cairns and Sydney, click on the relevant link for a flyer. Dr Kilpatrick is the author of the very accessible Essentials of Assessing, Preventing and Overcoming Reading Difficulties, so I’m looking forward to getting him to sign my dog-eared copy when he’s in Melbourne.

If you are in/near one of the seminar locations and have access to a school staff room, please print a copy or two of the relevant seminar flyer and leave it/them on the table and/or noticeboard, or otherwise circulate it to people who might be interested, to help LDA promote the tour.

Please also book early to avoid disappointment, as Legendary Kerrie, the LDA admin person, tells me some of these seminars are filling fast.

PS I was just interviewed on radio 3AW about this issue, you can hear the interview here.

The Language, Learning and Literacy conference – Kathy Rastle

Kathy Rastle was another keynote speaker at last week’s great Language, Literacy and Learning conference whose topic is directly relevant to this blog.

You might remember her as a co-author of last year’s influential paper about Ending the Reading Wars, and of this related article (both highly recommended reading).

Hers was the final keynote of the conference, but I met her on the first day. Being a dairy farmer’s daughter who went to Warrnambool High School, I’m still always a little amazed when people with titles like Professor and Head of the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway, University of London say “hi, I’m Kathy”, and are utterly smiley, nice, and not the least bit pretentious.

Here Kathy is (on the right) with the also-legendary and lovely Lyn Stone (on the left) and Sarah Awesome (AKA Asome) of Bentleigh West PS, (check out their NAPLAN Year 3 spelling gain here!) at the conference Sundowner drinks. However, in the interests of showing proper, gender-neutral academic respect I’ll use her surname from now on.

Continue reading

The Language, Literacy and Learning conference – Stanislas Dehaene

I’ve just been to a fantastic conference in Perth, organised by the Dyslexia SPELD Foundation of WA. I missed the first one in 2017 because of a diary facepalm, and have been kicking myself and looking forward to this conference ever since.

I took my laptop, imagining I’d find time each evening to write a riveting blog post about the day’s new learning. Instead I kept going out for drinks with colleagues, sorry not sorry, but a room full of like-minded colleagues is an irresistible thing of beauty and a joy forever.

Then I was going to write a blog post on the plane, but found myself chatting to the nice and distractingly handsome young bloke sitting next to me, sorry not sorry again. Since then I’ve realised that any blog post that did justice to the whole conference would need to be about a kilometre long. So I’ve decided to just write a few posts about the best bits.

Learning is a process of neuronal recycling

French cognitive neuropsychologist Professor Stanislas Dehaene gave the opening keynote address of the conference. He firstly told us we should forget everything we’ve heard about the differences between the left and right brain.

Young children’s brains are astonishingly flexible and able to reorganise. There are twice as many synapses in a child aged one or two as in an adult. Synapses come and go all the time.

A child whose entire left hemisphere was surgically removed in infancy was still able to learn language and literacy more or less along the usual lines.

Learning to read = establishing a visual interface into the language system

When we learn to read, we establish a new visual interface into the language system.  It develops in an area of the brain otherwise used to recognise faces and objects, but the cells (called voxels) in it are weakly specialised. When you teach children to read, you specialise voxels for words.

In the process of learning to read, the task of recognising faces and objects is partially displaced to the right hemisphere. The lack of this displacement is therefore also a marker of dyslexia.

This makes room for the creation of the Visual Word Form Area (VWFA), and the development of a whole new circuit for processing language visually. Learning to read increases the physical connections (myelination) between vision and language in the brain.

The VWFA develops in the same area in the brain, regardless of which language you speak.

Learning music or maths also reorganises your brain. Competition for neurons means that learning music shifts your VWFA slightly. Brain scans of mathematics professors looking at numbers and formulas appear different from scans of the brains of humanities professors on equal salaries looking at the same numbers and formulas.

The process of learning to read then changes the spoken language system.

It’s much harder to learn to read as an adult

The brain area that children typically re-purpose for reading has already been specialised for recognising faces and objects by the non-literate adult brain.

This makes it much harder to learn to read as an adult. We see this in the slow progress of most adult learners. It’s a bit too late for their brains to re-specialise.

It’s also harder to relearn reading if this skill is lost. A colleague of Dehaene’s had a small, specific stroke to the reading area of the brain and lost the ability to read. He was eventually able to relearn in a painstaking, letter-by-letter way, but not able to read fluently.

While neuroplasticity declines gradually over time, puberty is an important moment for the loss of brain plasticity.

Studying les enfants’ learning

France has a national phonics check to make sure children can read 50 simple words by the end of grade 1. This is not controversial.

To study brain area activation in children in Dehaene’s lab, they ask children to pretend to be astronauts going on an adventure in a rocket, and this helps them find going into a scanner to have their brains scanned fun, not scary.

Learning to read is at first very effortful. In their first year of learning to read, children’s brains light up a lot on scans during reading.

In the second year, skills are more automatised so there is lower activation.

Letter reversals

Our brains have a mirror invariance system that allows us to recognise objects as the same, even though they look different from different angles.

We have to override this system when we learn to read, so we can perceive letters like p, q, b and d as different. This is difficult and takes time, which is why children often reverse letters.

Learning the different gestures involved in writing each letter allows us to surmount this problem.

The difference between novice and expert readers

Children need strong oral language in order to learn to read, including strong phonology (speech sounds) and a strong lexicon (vocabulary).

When they start school, teaching needs to focus first on phoneme-grapheme (sound-spelling) mappings, as this is the main route into reading.

These must be explicitly taught, as the concepts involved are very abstract. Children must relate the space of the written word to the time of the spoken word.

At first, graphemes must be consciously processed in a series/one by one.

As the learner’s skills and experience grow, the letters of a word start to be unconsciously processed in parallel/all at the same time.

This frees up the learner’s attentional resources to focus on the meaning of what is being read.

Dehaene says, “Reading is never global or whole word, especially not in children”.

Beginning readers engage in slow, serial decomposition of words, and skilled readers engage in fast, parallel decomposition of words.

This means it’s time to stop asking children to memorise lists of high-frequency words. Research has shown that whole word memorisation doesn’t help to create the brain’s reading circuit.

Attentional focus affects learning

A group of researchers (Yoncheva et al) taught two groups of adults to read an artificial script.

One group was taught to pay attention to the words as wholes (taught in a Whole Word way).

The other group was taught to pay attention to the graphemes and phonemes (sounds and letters) in the words (taught in a phonics way).

Only the group taught using the phonics approach were then found to have left brain activation when reading the script. The whole word group had right brain activation.

The group taught using a phonics approach were able to generalise what they had learnt to allow them to read new words written in the same script. The group taught to pay attention to whole words couldn’t do this.

Think about this. Intelligent adults did not deduce the alphabet from words, yet that’s what young children are often expected to do. Directing attention correctly sends information to the correct brain circuits.

The Rosetta Stone and reading comprehension

Whenever you train phonics you improve comprehension, because reading is a cipher.

Think of the Rosetta Stone. If you can’t decode it, you can’t understand it.

Developing adult-level language comprehension is a long-term process, involving vocabulary enrichment, understanding of complex referents and so on.

Once you can read, this changes your spoken language system. It gives you access to more and different language.

The importance of writing for reading

Our brains have a circuit which specialises for recognising writing gestures. There is a lot of evidence that reading improves when learning to write.

The research is very clear that reading and writing should be taught together. You can learn to type later on.

Daily practice and sleep are also very important for learning.

Want to find out more?

Reading in the Brain by Stanislas Dehaene is published by Penguin Random House. Highly recommended. I have a dog-eared copy, but in a weird, groupie way bought an extra copy I will probably never read for him to sign at the conference.

He also wrote a book called Apprendre à lire: Des sciences cognitives à la salle de classe, which my rusty high school French translates as “Learning to read: from cognitive science to the classroom”. I’m looking forward to the (apparently imminent) English translation.

In 2015 I wrote a couple of blog posts about Prof Dehaene’s work, one of which includes a link to a video of him giving a talk. They are here and here.

Running Records are an uninformative waste of teacher time

I’ve been doing lots of assessment of my clients’ skills in the following areas lately:

  • Receptive and/or expressive language
  • Articulation
  • Phonological awareness
  • Phonological/auditory memory
  • Rapid Automatised Naming
  • Word and pseudoword reading accuracy and efficiency
  • Spelling.

These allow me to identify problems in their reading and spelling systems, and work out how significant/severe these problems are, and what to do about them.

I use the robust, evidence-based Simple View of Reading (SVR) to guide my decision-making. A new, plain-English explanation of the SVR by retired US teacher Stephen Parker can be found on Pamela Snow’s blog.

Wherever possible, I use valid, reliable, standardised tests for assessment. However, I once administered a Running Record to a child with selective mutism, because she would talk to me, but not other adults at school (we were working on it). Her class teacher thus asked me to administer the assessment required by the school, which (sad face) used a multi-cueing model of reading and a text level gradient approach to reading assessment. Continue reading

Budget embedded picture mnemonics

Early years teachers around Australia are this week starting to set up their classrooms for the new school year. Many are about to set up alphabet friezes and word walls.

I’m hoping that my new, cheap-and-cheerful embedded picture mnemonics ($10 plus GST) will encourage and help them to instead set up sound friezes or sound walls.

Early last year I commissioned talented, tolerant, patient Melbourne illustrator Cat MacInnes to turn my vague ideas into 46 cute, colour pictures you can print to help kids learn sound-letter relationships. They’re her copyright, so I have a limited number available (get in quick!).

Continue reading

Now advertising: jobs at Spelfabet in North Fitzroy

I’m now advertising for an experienced speech pathologist, and a receptionist/office manager, to work with me in my (nearly-all-set-up) large, quiet, well-equipped office in North Fitzroy.

If you want to help me keep this website fresh and interesting, with more videos, reviews and other useful stuff, please tell any great speech pathologist and/or health sector receptionist/office manager who might be interested in these jobs.

My caseload is now far too big for one person, admin is eating my life, and I’m fed up with being too tired to work on my website. Also, private practice is too lonely! I want a team of lovely people, to laugh and have birthday morning teas with, and learn from each other.

Here’s the ad I’ve just put on the Speech Pathology Australia website, and below it is the ad for a receptionist/office manager I’m about to figure out where to post (Seek? Indeed? Where do Melbourne medical and allied health receptionists look for jobs?). I’ll put photos of the office at the end of this post, to give interested people a better idea of the look and feel of the place.

Please pretty please hive mind, send me wonderful people! I promise to be really nice to them.

Speech Pathologist Level 3 job advertisement

Join Speech Pathologist Alison Clarke in her busy private practice, now called Spelfabet and located in a large, quiet, well-equipped office in North Fitzroy. Alison also runs the Spelfabet website (www.spelfabet.com.au) which seeks to promote explicit, systematic teaching about phonemes, graphemes and morphemes as key ingredients in reading and spelling programs for beginners and strugglers.

Alison now needs help managing her large caseload, and is also seeking a receptionist/office manager. Over time, she hopes to build a multi-disciplinary team.

You would assess speech, language, phonological processing, spelling and reading skills, and where relevant pragmatics and play skills, writing these up promptly in succinct, jargon-free reports.

You would provide individual and small group therapy to a caseload of mainly school-aged children and teenagers with reading and/or spelling difficulties. Many clients also have Autism Spectrum disorders, Developmental Language Disorders, speech, memory and/or attentional difficulties or other developmental difficulties. Some have difficult behaviour.

Usual hours of work would be 10.30am to 6.36pm weekdays, as most school-aged clients prefer afternoon appointments. Some flexibility in hours is negotiable. Assessment and group therapy sessions are usually one hour, and individual therapy sessions are usually 40 minutes. Maximum client load would be based on qualifications and experience.

The position is clinic-based without many school visits or other offsite work, so no driver’s licence or car is required. The location is highly accessible by train, tram, bus and bike, and on-site parking is available. Great cafes and shops, a supermarket and a linear park are all nearby.

You would be expected to attend and help provide professional development, help create therapy resources, participate in supervision/mentoring and quality assurance and assist with student supervision.

This position is classified at Level 3 under the Health Professionals and Support Services Award 2010. The salary range is $67,849.60- $74,412 per annum plus 9.5% superannuation, depending on qualifications and experience. Working conditions and leave are as per the Award and National Employment Standards. Annual leave during school holidays will be encouraged.

VAHPA membership is encouraged, and environmentally sustainable work practices are expected. Joint job-share requests will be considered, especially from speech pathologists already working part-time in schools. A six-month probationary period applies.

This is an equal opportunity employer, and encourages applications from individuals of diverse backgrounds, including but not limited to those of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, Culturally and Linguistically Diverse background, the GLBTIQ community and those living with a disability.

Applications close at midnight on Monday 28th January (the last day of the school holidays) for commencement as soon as possible.

Job requirements

You would need a calm, friendly, flexible approach, and the ability to build warm, positive relationships with even anxious, grumpy and socially unskilled children and teenagers, and their parents/guardians.

You would need the ability to identify and negotiate barriers to getting enough work done to achieve success, and relentlessly minimise the amount of time wasted in sessions, emphasising motivating goals and rewards.

You would need a commitment to inclusion, a positive attitude to linguistic and cultural differences and families of all configurations, and:

  • A tertiary qualification in Speech and Language Pathology.
  • A current Certified Practising Membership of Speech Pathology Australia, and eligibility for a Medicare Provider Number.
  • A strong grasp of current science about learning to read and spell, including connectionist and dual route models, SVR, the role of PA and phonological memory, WM and RAN, the Self-Teaching Hypothesis, orthographic mapping and cognitive load theory, and their implications for assessment and intervention.
  • Training and experience using one or more explicit, systematic synthetic phonics programs such as Sounds-Write, Little Learners Love Literacy, Jolly Phonics, Read Write Inc, Get Reading Right, MultiLit or Spalding.
  • At least five years’ paediatric speech pathology experience, including experience working in schools and with small groups.
  • Demonstrated ability to work independently in a team environment and build positive relationships with colleagues.
  • Excellent oral and written communication skills.
  • Outstanding spelling skills and knowledge of English word structure.
  • A current Working with Children Check.
  • Professional Indemnity Insurance (you will be reimbursed).
  • An Australian Tax File Number.

Applications should be sent to info@spelfabet.com.au by midnight on 28th January. This is also the email address for more information, or you can phone Alison on 0402 075 306.

Receptionist/Office Manager job advertisement

Join Speech Pathologist Alison Clarke in her busy private practice, now called Spelfabet and located in a large, quiet, well-equipped office in North Fitzroy. Alison also runs the Spelfabet website (www.spelfabet.com.au) which seeks to promote explicit, systematic teaching about phonemes, graphemes and morphemes as key ingredients in reading and spelling programs for beginners and strugglers.

Alison now needs help managing her large caseload, and is also seeking to employ another experienced Speech Pathologist. Over time, she hopes to build a multi-disciplinary team.

You would undertake a range of administrative activities, including scheduling appointments, invoicing, taking and reconciling payments, providing receipts, managing client files, monitoring and ordering supplies, maintaining equipment, setting up and maintaining a book/equipment loan system, managing correspondence including Medicare referral letters, overseeing office cleaning, maintenance and on-site parking, providing administrative support for professional development, making and organising therapy materials, and ordering (but not making) the birthday cakes.

Usual hours of work would be 10.30am to 6.36pm weekdays, as most school-aged clients prefer afternoon appointments. Some flexibility in hours is negotiable. The location is highly accessible by train, tram, bus and bike, and on-site parking is available. Great cafes and shops, a supermarket and a linear park are all nearby.

This position is classified at Level 8/9 under the Health Professionals and Support Services Award 2010, Support Services Employee Level 8-9. The salary range is $49,935 to $55,827 per annum plus 9.5% superannuation, depending on qualifications and experience. Working conditions and leave are as per the Award and National Employment Standards.

Annual leave during school holidays and VAHPA membership are encouraged. Environmentally sustainable work practices are expected. A six-month probationary period applies.

This is an equal opportunity employer, and encourages applications from individuals of diverse backgrounds, including but not limited to those of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, Culturally and Linguistically Diverse background, the GLBTIQ community and those living with a disability.

Applications close at midnight on Monday 28th January (the last day of the school holidays) for commencement as soon as possible.

Job requirements

You would need a professional, sensitive and friendly approach, including the ability to engage in a calm, reassuring way with anxious children and parents.

You would need a commitment to inclusion, a positive attitude to linguistic and cultural differences and families of all configurations, and:

  • Experience in allied health and/or medical receptionist roles.
  • Proficiency using practice management software, preferably Cliniko.
  • Experience managing allied health/medical client files, office supplies and equipment.
  • A good understanding of the funding options and rebates (Medicare, DSS, NDIS, private health insurance) available for Speech Pathology services.
  • Demonstrated ability to work efficiently and independently in a team environment, and build positive relationships with colleagues.
  • High levels of maturity, initiative and attention to detail.
  • Excellent oral and written communication skills.
  • A current Working with Children Check.
  • An Australian Tax File number.

Applications should be sent to info@spelfabet.com.au by midnight on 28th January. This is also the email address for more information, or you can phone Alison on 0402 075 306.

This is the small clinic room, still not completely furnished yet. The other room is bigger but it’s full of junk at present so I’m not showing you, sorry. They both have full internal blinds for privacy/to reduce distractions.

Staff and sensitive storage room. Again, still working on more furniture.

Group room. I still have to get a projector and whiteboard, maybe an interactive one if budget permits. I do not have a ping-pong table. Yet.

Example cupboard of PA and phonics teaching resources.

Main storage area, please note powerful, brand new stick vacuum cleaner, because children. Also emergency banana Paddle Pops, as I once shared a house with Laurence Mooney, who says any food with the word “pops” in it makes you instantly happy. I believe him.

Kitchen stuff, to encourage the bringing and making of healthy lunches.

I like to give little kids an opportunity to make their parents a nice air latte in the waiting room. Will get a bookshelf to replace the cardboard box. And comfy couch or two.

This is my office, note the standing desk, which we are all having, because sitting down too much is bad for your health.

Shallow and deep phonics

My last blog post copped a little flak for its focus on the Victorian Education Department’s top two pieces of advice for parents when their children are stuck reading a word, both of which start with the sentence, “Look at the picture.” (see p14 of this document).

This is very bad advice because it directs children’s attention away from the key information required for good word-level reading. It’s based on the idea of multi-cueing/the three-cueing system, which is scientifically-debunked nonsense. A complex but excellent explanation of why can be found here, and the actual role of context in reading is explained well here.

To read an unfamiliar word, children need to take it apart into spellings (graphemes) e.g. “n”, “igh” and “t”, not “ni”, “g” and “ht”, associate these with the relevant speech sounds (phonemes) and blend them into a word. With practice, familiar words are unitised in memory, via a process called orthographic mapping, and no longer need to be sounded out, they become instantly recognised.

Unfamiliar words of more than one syllable must be sounded out a syllable at a time. Earlier syllables must be held in memory while later syllables are worked out, making long words harder.

Once a printed word is converted into a spoken word, its meaning can be accessed, if it’s known. But even if a child doesn’t yet know what a word means (i.e. it’s not yet in their semantic memory), having heard it before (i.e. having it in their phonological memory) kick-starts the process of putting it into long-term memory for instant recognition. Over time the child can learn and refine its meaning(s), and how to use it, by hearing and seeing it in use. Continue reading

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