Category Archives: theory

What kind of knowledge is needed for good spelling?

A lot has been written by philosophers and in Dilbert cartoons about different types of knowledge.

Often these are described using terms like “explicit” versus “tacit” or “declarative” versus “procedural” knowledge. What matters most for spelling?

Declarative versus procedural knowledge

Explicit, declarative knowledge is theoretical information about a subject e.g. that we use a base 10 number system, and that our Solar System has 8 planets (sorry, Pluto). Libraries, databases and the internet are full of it.

Procedural knowledge is often harder to describe (more tacit) and more practical. It’s knowing how to do something, like tie up a shoelace, play the guitar or ride a bike.

I have quite a bit of explicit, declarative knowledge about how to play brilliant tennis (yes, the Australian Open men’s final is on, but we love both Roger and Raffa, so who to barrack for?!) but despite years of trying (our tiny country town didn’t have enough kids to field a team without unco asthmatic me), I never managed to convert this into much procedural knowledge.

I’ve been nerdily immersed in spelling books lately, and have realised that most books about spelling are full of explicit, declarative knowledge, but aren’t necessarily much help with the “how”, or what we should be doing to build tacit, procedural knowledge of spelling. Continue reading

Controversial dyslexia therapies

Parents often tell me they wasted precious time and money on controversial reading/spelling/dyslexia therapies that didn’t work.

The time wasted is even more of a worry than the money. The more a child falls behind, the more she or he becomes likely to never be able to catch up.

I’ve written a few blog posts about various controversial therapies, but not a summary one that might be easily found by an anxious, googling parent. So I thought this might be a good way to mark the end of Dyslexia Empowerment week, and come in handy while we wait for Pam Snow and Caroline Bowen’s 2017 book “Making Sense of Interventions for Children With Developmental Disorders”.

Most readers of this blog will already know about the MUSEC Briefings, which summarise the research on a large number of special needs interventions, many of them controversial.

Another useful source of information about controversial therapies is a 2015 NZ article called Behavioural Interventions to Remediate Learning Disorders, which reviews Arrowsmith, Brain Gym, Cellfield, Cogmed, Davis, Dore, Fast ForWord, Lexia, Lumosity, Slingerland, Tomatis and several other programs.

The 2007 Santiago Declaration by prominent neuroscientists pointed out that “Neuroscientific research, at this stage in its development, does not offer scientific guidelines for policy, practice, or parenting.” Which is polite scientist speak for “neuro and brain-based interventions are mostly bunkum”. You can read more about this here, here and here. Continue reading

Filling the gaps in teacher knowledge and skills

I’m the final speaker at the Maryanne Wolf seminar tomorrow in Melbourne, and am just finishing off obsessively polishing my talk.

I don’t have any handouts for the session – I’m wrapping up quite a long day and don’t want to make anyone’s head explode with lots of new information. However, I do have quite a few links I’d like to share, so I thought I’d make them available via this blog post.

Here’s a summary of what I am planning to say, and the links.

The Beautiful Picture

The title of this talk makes it sound like teacher knowledge and skills are like a neat jigsaw puzzle with just a few pieces missing. All we have to do is find the missing bits, put them in to create a Beautiful Picture in which everyone learns to read and spell to the best of their ability, and the average age of diagnosis of dyslexia is five or six, not nine.

Our long tail of literacy underachievement puts us a long way from this Beautiful Picture now. PISA 2012 told us that 14% of Australian 15-year-olds (9% of girls, 18% of boys) were low performers in reading literacy.  Improving teacher knowledge and skills is critical to changing that.

The Beautiful Picture we need to create has:

  • Knowledgeable, skilled and confident teachers.
  • Best-evidence-based teaching in all three of classrooms, small groups and 1:1 intervention.
  • Well-equipped schools.
  • At least 95% of kids reading/spelling at or above 30th percentile.

Continue reading

12 reasons you should come to Prof Maryanne Wolf’s seminar

Professor Maryanne Wolf, an international expert on the reading brain and dyslexia, will give a seminar at Collingwood Town Hall on 9th September 2016.

Maryanne WolfProf Wolf is from the Centre for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in the US. Her seminar will be called, “Lessons from the Reading Brain for Reading Development, Dyslexia and Instruction in a Digital Age”.

I’m helping organise the session with my LDA hat on, so I’ve read her book “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain”, and am really looking forward to using my new copy of her test of Rapid Automatised Naming, the RAN/RAS.

Now I want all the professionals and keen-on-science parents who read this blog to come and hear her speak (she’ll also speak in Brisbane on 2 Sept and Sydney on 9th Sept). It’s going to be great. Continue reading

Dissing, choosing and teaching sight words

The Developmental Disorders of Language and Literacy Network (DDOLL) has recently been having an interesting discussion about whether systematic explicit phonics advocates have been dissing sight words too much. Not everything is about me, but I think I might be one of the possible-over-dissers – see for example my blog posts here, here and here.

Anne Castles blogA few days ago, Professor Anne Castles of Macquarie University, who’s on the Learning Difficulties Australia (LDA) Council with me, wrote a guest blog post on the Read Oxford website called “Are sight words unjustly slighted?”, which I encourage you to read.

Prof Castles has a brain like a planet and a string of relevant publications longer than both my arms, so we need to take what she says seriously.

What is a sight word?

To Prof Castles, sight words are words containing spellings which are tricky for beginners to sound out, which should be taught focussing more on the word level than the sound-letter relationships. However, she notes that “sight words” are often confused with the process of reading words “by sight” rather than having to sound out every word. Continue reading

How many inquiries into literacy education do we need?

The Productivity Commission is holding an inquiry into the national evidence base for school and early childhood education.

An issues paper is now available (click here to get it), and submissions are open until 25th May 2016. So you’ve got plenty of time to write a submission. But is it worth writing one? Will this inquiry ultimately lead to more evidence-based practice in education? Or will its recommendations be ignored?

The 2005 National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy examined the evidence on the teaching of literacy. You can read all about its findings, which are yet to be widely implemented, here.

Former Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services Bill Shorten, now the Opposition Leader, also commissioned a report on how to help people with dyslexia, and another comprehensive report can be found here. Its recommendations still haven’t been implemented either.

In 2014 there was also a Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group report called Action Now: Classroom-Ready Teachers which said (among other things) that teachers need to be better equipped to teach reading. How well this is being implemented is difficult to know. Continue reading

How literacy transforms the human brain

One of the great things about Twitter is that it dredges up and recycles good information for those of us who were gazing out the window thinking about lunch the first time around, sigh.

The Twitterverse recently took me to a June 2013 article called “Inside the letterbox: How literacy transforms the human brain“, by French cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene.

It’s 4500 words, and not an easy read, but contains great information I want lots of people to know. So I thought I’d have crack at summarising it in easier language, both to help myself understand it better and to encourage others to read it.

Here’s roughly what it says, with my apologies for any (almost inevitable) oversimplifications:

All the world’s writing systems rely on the same part of the brain. Under a brain scan, whatever language you’re reading, the same small section at the base of the left hemisphere lights up.

This area is called the visual word form area, or the “brain’s letterbox” because it responds to written words more than almost any other stimulus. Continue reading

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