We need GOOD practice, not common practice

I wrote an opinion piece in The Age newspaper this week called “Premiers’ Reading Challenge no fun for kids who can’t read“, arguing we need to close the gap between research and practice in early literacy education, so more kids can enjoy, not dread, the Premiers’ Reading Challenge.

I hope it’s helped put another nail in the coffin of common, but extremely poor, literacy-teaching practices like rote wordlist-memorisation (the “magic words” etc) without regard to their structure, incidental-not-systematic phonics, and encouraging kids to guess words from first letter, sentence structure and context/pictures.

I hope it also helps kill off the idea that reading is natural, and replace educational blah-blah about reader identity and teacher literacy philosophy with more interesting discussions about what science tells us about how to best teach reading.

I’m sorry they didn’t include my link to Emily Hanford’s great “Hard Words: why aren’t kids being taught to read” audio documentary, but otherwise happy with it, especially the mention of David Kilpatrick’s seminar on 19 August at Melbourne Town Hall (have you signed up yet? He will also speak in Perth and Cairns, and Sydney and Adelaide, but they’re booked out).

Of course letters to the editor appeared the next day disagreeing with me. People who agree with something they read in the paper don’t generally rush to write to the editor. Editors don’t usually give a right of reply to these letters, so I’m giving myself one here. (more…)

If you’re already using my free workbook, here’s the next one

If you’re one of the over 3000 people who have downloaded my free Letters and Sounds Phase 2 workbook since the start of the year, your learner(s) might have finished it by now, and you might want another one.

You’re in luck. I’ve finally finished the Phase 3 book, which teaches at least one spelling for each of the remaining sounds of English.

It’s not free like the first one, but at AUD$10 plus GST it’s super-cheap for a printable, colour workbook of 101 pages. Make as many copies as you need.

The aim of these books is to help people try explicitly and systematically teaching young kids about the sounds of speech and how we write them, even if they don’t have many suitable resources, or much cash to buy them.

I thought teachers could print the workbooks on school photocopiers, make them up using the school laminator (for the moveable alphabet included with suggested sequences) and binding machine, and use them with the super-cheap leaflet-size Pocket Rocket decodable books. That would let them start using a sound-to-print teaching approach on a shoestring.

Book sized Pocket Rockets are also now available, and other decodable books which follow the same teaching sequence as this workbook include the Junior Learning Phase 3 Fiction and Nonfiction books, and the Oxford Project X Hero Academy books. Many other teaching resources follow this sequence too, just google “Letters and Sounds Phase 3” to find them.

I’m pretty sure that once teachers try this teaching approach, they’ll soon be hooked on the success it brings, find it makes complete sense, and want to learn more and invest in more polished and extensive resources. But the first step is getting them to dip their toes in the explicit, systematic synthetic phonics water, and often finances are a barrier.

I hope you like the Phase 3 workbook, find it helps kids understand how sounds and letters work, and that it complements all the other good language and literacy things you’re doubtless doing, like reading lots of stories aloud.

Fact and fiction with Mem Fox

On telly’s Today show last week, celebrated children’s fiction author Mem Fox talked about the importance of reading to children, something with which absolutely everyone agrees.

Mem Fox’s missionary parents took her to Southern Rhodesia as an infant. They were, she explains, “very keen on Australian books being read to us, and our reading Australian books”. TV hadn’t been invented, so she developed a love of reading. She thanks three years at drama school in London for her understanding of language and thus ability to write books. I suspect this training may also have contributed to her storytime drama skills.

All good. Then, about three minutes into the interview, I thought I heard Ms Fox say that young children are increasingly unable to communicate effectively using spoken language.

I did a double-take. I’m a paediatric speech pathologist. You’d think I’d know about this, if it were true. I don’t recall any mention of a general decline in young children’s ability to communicate at this year’s Speech Pathology Australia conference, or in any of the journals I’ve read lately.

I rewound the video, and Ms Fox’s exact words were:

“You know if children don’t have language, if they can’t talk by the time they get to school, and I know that will sound extraordinary, people will say ‘what, they can’t talk when they get to school?!’, if children can’t talk by the age of four, or can’t make themselves clearly understood by the age of four, and that is, increasingly, you know, happening, they can’t learn to read. If you can’t, you know if you don’t have language, obviously you can’t learn to read language. So reading aloud is very, very important for education.” (more…)

THIS is a BORING book!

I’ve just watched a great 2016 BBC4 documentary called “B is for book”. It follows a group of London children from their first day at school for a year, and explores how they learn to read.

The kids live on a public housing estate in Hackney, and most speak languages other than English at home.

The film is not currently on the BBC website, but a few people have put it on YouTube. The version I watched is here, and you might like to keep it open in a new tab while you read, so you can quickly find and watch the interesting bits I describe below.

You’ll love all the children, but I was most entranced by a little boy called Stephan. An honest child with a low tolerance for Educrap, he looks and behaves a lot like a little boy I worked with last year, also a twin from public housing inclined to slide under the table.

At 19:42 on the video clock, the two children having the most difficulty learning to read in the film, Maria and Stephan, are asked, “What’s the hardest word you know how to spell?” First, they do this:

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Decodable texts and lesson-to-text match

A state election looms here in Victoria, and parent-run group Dyslexia Victoria Support (DVS) is petitioning politicians to provide decodable books to all kids starting school in 2019.

Decodable books provide the reading practice for phonics lessons. They include sound-letter relationships and word types learners have been taught, plus usually a few high-frequency words with harder spellings needed to make the book make sense, which are also pre-taught.

Decodable books would replace the widely-used predictable/repetitive texts, which encourage children to guess and memorise words, not sound them out.

At the moment, children might be learning about “i” as in “sit” in phonics lessons, but take home a predictable text that might contain words like “find”, “ski”, “shield”, “bird”, “friend” or “view”. Instead of helping kids practise the sound-letter relationships they’ve been taught, their home readers can undermine this teaching.

DVS’s campaign hit the statewide media this weekend, yay, with an article called “Dull, predictable: the problem with books for prep students” in Fairfax newspapers.

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Free Learning Difficulties Including Dyslexia webinars

La Trobe University and the Victorian Department of Education have this year collaborated to run workshops across Victoria about learning difficulties including dyslexia. The workshops have been available to teachers and other Department of Education staff.

The information from these workshops is now being made available free online via YouTube as webinars. Wow. Amazingly generous of both the University and the Department, since most professional development of this type and quality is paywalled. So thanks to all involved.

The webinars are presented by Dr Tanya Serry from La Trobe University, and the workshops on which they are based were developed with Professor Pamela Snow, Ms Emina McLean and Assistant Professor Jane McCormack also from La Trobe, and Dr Lorraine Hammond from Edith Cowan University in WA. (more…)

What is an authentic text?

In linguistics and education, an “authentic text” is a text written for any purpose other than teaching/learning about language.

The word “authentic” doesn’t have its usual meaning in this context, nor its pejorative opposite “inauthentic”. It’s not a value-judgement.

The opposite of an authentic text is a text written for the purpose of language-teaching. This is a valid reason to write a text.

Authentic texts thus aren’t superior to language-teaching texts, they just serve a different purpose. (more…)