Category Archives: research

Four cheers for Emily Hanford

American Public Media journalist Emily Hanford has made some accessible, powerful and widely-discussed documentaries about the gap between reading science and classroom practice in the US. It’s a gap that also exists here in Australia, and elsewhere in the English-speaking world.

If you haven’t listened to her documentaries yet, please make the time to do so. You can click on the pictures below to access each one.

She started in September last year with this:

In October 2018, she followed up with this:

She also wrote a New York Times opinion piece entitled “Why are we still teaching reading the wrong way?”

My apologies to blog subscribers who missed these till now. I circulated them on social media but was too stupidly busy with my new office and sick mother to write a blog post about them.

In January this year, on National Public Radio, Emily made:

In March came this video interview called What Teachers Should Know About the Science of Reading:

Emily’s most recent, again brilliant contribution to aligning teaching with reading science in a pro-teacher, pro-equity way, is this:

I very dare you to get to the end of this documentary and not be gobsmacked by “Father of Whole Language” Ken Goodman’s extraordinary comment “My science is different”.

Goodman shows he is simply not interested in the mountain of scientific evidence contradicting his theory-and-observation-based ideas about how children learn to read, yet his ideas are still the basis of the “three-cueing system” approach to teaching reading that’s still widely used.

The game is up, the facts are out, and thanks to Emily Hanford and APM they’re in a free, accessible and easily digestible format. Please share them with every teacher, parent and other person who might be able to help get a more scientific understanding of how to teach reading into our education system.

I don’t enjoy having to spend a lot of my day undoing damage caused by well-meaning, hard-working teachers who were taught half-baked “my science is different” ideas at university and by “meaning-first” educational consultants. And I’m sure that (as the US Reading League people say) when teachers know better, they will do better, and so will their students.

Last chance to register for LDA’s David Kilpatrick seminars

Registrations close shortly for this month’s LDA seminars by David Kilpatrick. I’m not sure exactly when they close for Perth and Cairns, but Melbourne’s close on 8th August. Adelaide & Sydney are already sold out. The seminar on the 19th at Melbourne Town Hall will include 17 supplier displays (details below) to browse from 8.15-9.00am and during the breaks.

Dr Kilpatrick is the author of the excellent Essentials of Assessing, Preventing and Overcoming Reading Difficulties and Equipped for Reading Success, and you might have also seen him talk online (e.g. here, here, here, here and here).

I recently assessed a teenager with the kind of reading and spelling difficulties I hope these seminars will soon help stamp out. He’s a classic Compensator. Intelligent, hard-working, with good oral language skills, but very poor phonemic awareness and proficiency (<1st percentile on the CTOPP-2 Elision subtest) and thus weak word-level reading and spelling.

He finds it hard to sound out unfamiliar words, tending to look at the start and end of words and guess the middles. If you give him a wordlist including similar-looking words like “complete” and “compete”, he probably won’t notice they’re different.

His teachers aren’t aware of the extent of his reading difficulties because they don’t test word-level reading or phonemic awareness, and when this student reads connected text he gets most of the words right, by compensating for his poor decoding with his good oral language. They notice his poor spelling, and try to help him with it, but it’s not really their area of expertise. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Ros Neilson on the Foundations of Early Literacy Assessment (FELA)

Last month at our office we had the pleasure of hosting Speech Pathology legend Roslyn Neilson for a talk about her newish early literacy assessment, the FELA.

The FELA is intended to supersede two of Ros’s previous tests, the SPAT-R and SEAPART, and help teachers, therapists and others assess phonemic awareness and alphabetic knowledge, which are vital, teachable early literacy skills.

The FELA can be used in preschool screening as well as progress monitoring through the early years of primary school.

On the day, we decided to video the session, as we could only fit 30 people into our biggest room (which Ros scarily called a Conference Centre), and had to turn a few people away, plus many other interested people were too far off or too busy to come.

Here’s the video, with my apologies that it’s blurry at the start and there is a short break and you might need to turn up the volume towards the end (camera malfunction). Ros’s slides can be downloaded here.

Thanks so much to Ros for freely sharing her time and expertise so generously, and for the chocolates, which we are still enjoying. The FELA is available from Ros’s website, takes up to 30 minutes per child and I think is very reasonably priced at $198 inc GST. If you’d like to take a look at it and you’re in Melbourne, Ros has left us a copy, and you’d be welcome to browse it.

Thanks also to fab Spelfabet staff Renee Vlahos, Caitlin Stephenson and Tessa Weadman (yes, I am going to put them on the website soon) for their help, and to my brother for the huge bag of apples that got me making easy, delicious apple cake (here’s the recipe, but I microwaved and drained the apples, and beat the eggs). After I bought my Goodwill Wine I found out they raise funds for Code Read Dyslexia Network. Please consider when next ordering wine.

My brother just gave me ANOTHER huge bag of apples, so maybe that means I should invite another speaker. Ros is a pretty hard act to follow, but let me know if you have ideas/suggestions.

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.