Category Archives: reviews

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.

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.

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. Continue reading

Nobody advocates phonics-only literacy instruction

An important article by Anne Castles, Kathleen Rastle and Kate Nation summarising the process of learning to read from novice to expert, and seeking to end the “reading wars”, has just been published.

It’s written in plain English and freely available online. It says that phonemic awareness and phonics are vital and central during the early stages of learning to read, but that a lot of other things are involved in becoming a proficient reader. Please read it and share the link around.

Of course, the media’s antennae tend to be tuned to conflict not consensus, so one newspaper reports this with the headline, “Call off the reading wars, phonics wins: study“. The ABC also interviewed one of the authors, Anne Castles, who said a lot of tremendously sensible things as she always does (you can hear her in a radio report here), and also sought comment  from Dr Paul Gardner of Curtin University’s School of Education.

Re ending the “reading wars” he said that, “the problem was with those who advocate phonics as the only approach” and added that “They tend to be people with no classroom experience … from speech pathology, cognitive psychology and think tanks”.

Now, I know not everything is about me, but I reckon I’m probably one of the people he is talking about, since I write a widely-read blog about phonics and am a speech pathologist.

If I wrote a blog about cycling, I’d be very surprised to hear anyone claim I was advocating cycling as the only means of transport. If I wrote a blog about pineapples, I doubt anyone would infer that I was advocating a pineapples-only diet. Continue reading

Alternative facts about phonics

I’ve just read a new e-book called Reading the Evidence: Synthetic Phonics and Literacy Learning, edited by Margaret M Clark OBE, a UK Visiting and Emeritus Professor who the About The Editor section says “has undertaken research on a wide range of topics and has developed innovate (sic) courses”.

Its announcement elicited some e-eye-rolling from members of the Developmental Disorders of Language and Literacy Network, and jovial suggestions that others buy, read and comment on it, but apparently I’m the only one with nothing more important to do (sigh).

Also on my reading list at the moment is The Influential Mind, about how to persuade people in the face of Confirmation Bias, our tendency to ignore or dismiss evidence that’s not consistent with what we already believe. Confirmation Bias is why presenting scientific data to the climate sceptic in your life never works. You can watch a video about it here.

Reading the Clark et al e-book thus also became an interesting exercise in thinking about my own thoughts. I’d set aside time to read the book in order to write what I hoped would be a thoughtful, informed response, but my brain kept coming up with other ideas. Did it keep switching off because of my own confirmation bias, or because of the standard of what I was reading? Continue reading

Pip and Tim decodable books from Little Learners Love Literacy

Before I buy a book, I like to pick it up and look through it properly myself.

I also like to hear about it from independent reviewers, not rely on information from those  selling it. They’re hardly going to tell me if there’s something wrong with it.

Unfortunately, a lot of excellent books and other resources to help kids learn to read and spell aren’t readily available in mainstream shops.

They’re only available online, or from specialist shops that aren’t always easy to visit. So they’re hard to leaf through, and it’s also difficult to find independent reviews of them.

I’m thus using this blog to help get the message out about good resources I use and recommend from publishers and specialist stores without huge marketing budgets.

I hope this helps more learners get access to them, plus helps those selling them compete with huge companies peddling nasty look-at-the-picture-and-guess books and other dross.

Here’s a video I’ve made about the Pip and Tim decodable books from Little Learners Love Literacy, which I think are perfect for Aussie 4-6 year olds. I use them with some 7-year-old strugglers too. They’re cute, funny and designed to help kids learn to sound out words quickly and well. They’re also available very affordably as iPad apps.

No, I don’t sell these books or get paid any commission on them. I just like them a lot, and hope that (if you have 4-7 year-old literacy learners in your life) you do too.