Category Archives: reviews

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

Programs for children with learning difficulties

I wrote an opinion piece in yesterday's online Education Age/Sydney Morning Herald in response to their virtual advertorial last week for the Arrowsmith Program.

My main point was that many programs for children with learning difficulties are nowadays marketed using anecdotes, testimonials and the language and images of neuroscience, but these are not a substitute for independent, peer-reviewed scientific evidence. Parents should ignore them, and instead seek programs based on good science.

I wrote it because I was frankly pretty shocked that a major daily newspaper would run a prominent article about an expensive and controversial program without peer-reviewed research support without seeking comment from independent experts.

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Phonics and Early Reading Assessment

The Phonics and Early Reading Assessment (PERA) is a new reading test from the UK for children in their first three years of schooling.

Molly de Lemos from Learning Difficulties Australia sent me a review copy and asked me to write about it, as some LDA consultants have been asking for more information on it (thanks, Molly!)

At first pass, it looks like a quick, affordable, objective assessment for specialists working with struggling young beginners, as well as early years classroom teachers who think of literacy as a skill to be actively and systematically taught, not a developmental mystery to be observed unfolding.

I managed to get a friend’s six-year-old, a confident reader, to stop talking about Lego long enough to do the PERA (thanks, G and L), and have also tried it with little boy who has had to work hard to get off the literacy starting blocks (thanks to him and his mum too). And I read the not-at-all-daunting 60-page manual. Here’s what I found out.

Five assessments in one

The PERA is actually five assessments in one:

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The Categorical Perception Deficit in dyslexia

I just read an interesting new article from the journal Scientific Studies of Reading called "The Categorical Perception Deficit in Dyslexia: A Meta-Analysis", by the wonderfully-named Mark W. Noordenbos and Willy Serniclaes.

There's been some research showing that dyslexics (notwithstanding the debate about this term) have trouble noticing the differences that matter between speech sounds, and not noticing the differences that don't matter.

This article explored the reliability and significance of this finding by analysing data from lots of relevant research.

When we're babies, we're capable of discriminating all the sounds of all the languages of the world, but we quickly discard the ones that we don't hear in the language(s) around us, and focus on the ones we do (there's a great Ted Talk called The Linguistic Genius Of Babies about this, if you want to know more).

Noordenbos and Serniclaes trawled through the scientific literature and found 632 studies related to dyslexic students' speech sound perception. They distilled this down to 36 studies of a total of 754 individuals with dyslexia which were relevant to their research question, properly-conducted, complete and comparable enough to put through their statistical mill. The studies were of speakers of English, Dutch, French and Chinese.

They found that dyslexics were indeed reliably and significantly worse at discriminating between speech sounds (phonemes), and more sensitive to sound variations within speech sounds (allophones), than peers matched by age, as well as peers with the same reading age (though the differences were greater between the dyslexics and age peers). Sound discrimination tasks showed up their problem more than sound identification tasks.

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How the brain learns to read

I’ve just found a great 20-minute talk on YouTube by Stanislas Dehaene, a French cognitive neuroscientist, called “How the brain learns to read”. He wrote a classic book called “Reading in the Brain” that I occasionally reread bits of when I want to feel wholly inadequate.

“Neuro” language is often used to make questionable or worse programs and products seem more scientific and impressive, but the things Dehaene says in this video are straightforward and consistent with the classroom research on how to teach literacy fast and well. So I hope his pictures of brains don’t put anyone off, he’s not selling anything or trying to get anyone to suspend their critical faculties.

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C that sounds like “s”

The letter C can represent the sound "k" as in "cut" or the sound "s" as in "cent".

Teaching learners how this works and why it's a good thing when we start adding suffixes to words can be tricky, especially if they don't really understand "if-then" sentences yet.

Here's a 6 minute video I made about one way to do it.


Note that the spelling CC is sometimes followed by a letter E but the sound is still "k", e.g. soccer, sicced (as in "I sicced the dog onto the burglar and she ran off"). CC is like other doubled letters, its main purpose is to tell you to say a "short" vowel before it, as in raccoon, Mecca, piccolo, broccoli and buccaneer. Typically, but not always, we write CK instead of CC.

The spelling C+C might also represent a "k" sound at the end of one syllable followed by a "s" at the start of the next syllable, as in "accede", "accent", "accept", "access" and "coccyx". 

Also, either a single or double C might represent a "ch" sound in some Italian-origin words e.g. cello, Botticelli, bocce (click here for more).



One teacher’s early literacy epiphany

I recently met an experienced Melbourne primary teacher, Berys Dixon, who told me the delightful story of how she came to be an advocate of explicit, systematic, synthetic phonics.

Returning to work after raising her family, she was instructed to use a multiple-cues, guided reading approach with her class of five-year-olds. Many spoke a language other than English at home, and the school was in a low socioeconomic area.

One day, a parent complained that her child couldn’t sound out the words in his home reader. Berys advised the parent not to expect the child to sound out, but to encourage him to look at the picture, read ahead, have a guess etc. Then if he still couldn’t get the word, just read it for him.

Berys realised that what she had just said made no sense. She went home and started googling.

Rather than me paraphrasing the rest of Berys’s lovely story, which has a very happy ending, please take five minutes to listen to her telling it herself.

Because we’re all humans, we tend to understand and believe the personal stories other people tell us more than we understand and believe data and graphs.

I hope that Berys’s story (which is consistent with the very best data and graphs) will help persuade teachers of beginners and young strugglers to include explicit, systematic synthetic phonics in their literacy curriculum.

If her super-affordable and funny Pocket Rockets make that more possible, great. Each child’s set can be stored in a little photo album from the $2 shop, making them durable yet very small and lightweight for young children’s (often heavy and full) school bags.

The teaching sequence these booklets follow is from the UK government’s Letters And Sounds program. There are many free teaching resources for this program available online, click here, here and here for examples. Or just start googling, like Berys!

Update April 2019: Berys now has a website and her books are available in larger size and parent packs. I’ve also made a free downloadable beginners’ workbook following the same teaching sequence as her books, which you can print and use with the first set of her books (phase 2, the orange ones).