Aka One Size Fits Some
I did a media interview on ABC Radio National’s Life Matters this week, alongside an education academic who is a balanced literacy advocate, and also Sue Knight, a Victorian school principal whose school has adopted a structured and explicit approach to literacy instruction, after years of using balanced literacy, like so many other schools. Many of the familiar arguments in favour of a status quo that disregards teacher knowledge and leaves too many children excluded from reading proficiency had an outing in this conversation, so I thought I would provide a handy Bingo Card that readers and listeners can use next time there’s such a media interview.
A number of the arguments appear more than once below, because of their urban legend status. I’ve responded to them all under the Bingo Card.
Please adjust your clocks to 1985 and pretend that the last three decades of cognitive psychology research did not happen. That seems to be how things roll in many education faculties.
Ready? Let’s play!
1. One size doesn’t fit all. This is a straw man because no proponent of explicit literacy teaching has said that one size fits all. Ever. Ironically, however, the general principles of how humans learn do apply to the vast majority of children, albeit with appropriate classroom adaptations to allow adequate opportunities for rehearsal, mastery, and consolidation.
2. All children learn differently. Do they? Really? All children have different DNA and are influenced by different biopsychosocial factors in their lives, yes. But if all children learned differently, the work of teachers would be impossible. There are many more similarities than differences in how children learn, hence the phenomenon of pattern-recognition for teachers. Children need complex tasks broken down into simple elements, opportunities for scaffolded practice, repetition, praise for accomplishment, corrective feedback on errors and opportunities to tackle tasks that are increasingly complex, while still achievable.
3. Decodable texts contain made-up words. No, they don’t. Ironically (again), it’s beautiful, so-called “authentic” texts that contain made-up words. Think of popular books by JK Rowling, Julia Donaldson, Dr Seuss, Lewis Carroll and so on. As I’ve noted previously, the distinction between so-called “real” and “pseudo-words” is much more slippery than many might think. Don’t play this card if you’re arguing against the use of decodable (phonically controlled) texts. It’s the Joker.
4. Decoding should be taught in context. I’m not aware of any actual evidence to support this claim, but I understand where it comes from: the whole-language-inspired idea that reading is as natural for children as acquiring oral language, and because oral language is all about meaning, we should start with meaning when we teach children how to read. The logic flaw here is the overlooking of the fact that reading relies on an arbitrary code; that written text is a way of representing language in another modality. There’s actually nothing natural about learning this at all. If it was natural, why do we send children to school to learn it? Further, why are there so many illiterate and semi-literate adults in the world who have been to school? None of this adds up.
5. English is too irregular for phonics teaching. Comments about the regularity or otherwise of English often reflect a lack of understanding about how we came to have the spoken and written language that we now call English. It’s true that English does not have a fully transparent orthography in the same way that Italian and Spanish do, but it is not opaque either. Its rich and varied “borrowings” of words and their spellings from other languages mean that teaching it explicitly, from a position of rich knowledge, empowers students to master their language and its intricacies. Neither teachers nor students should feel that this hill is too steep, but university pre-service teacher programs have shown an egregious disregard for this knowledge over recent decades and it’s not a simple matter to back-fill it. You can read more about this at this blogpost of mine on Chesterton’s Fence and this one on education faculties putting important knowledge on the proverbial junk pile.
6. Decodable texts are not real books.I’m not sure that we actually have an agreed definition of “real” book. Decodable (phonically controlled) texts are designed to give students opportunities to practise skills they are being taught in the classroom. They promote automaticity and fluency, both of which are important precursors to reading comprehension (the widely agreed ultimate purpose of reading). They are no more or less “real” than the predictable, levelled readers that encourage “recitation” rather than reading, and shamelessly divert students’ gaze away from text to pictures, so that they can draw down on an already-developed skill-set (oral language) to make the adults feel falsely reassured that they are reading without having to be taught. The jig is up on this ruse by Grade 3, however, when the famous slump described by Jeanne Chall rears its ugly head. Then the sickening reality that many apparently fluent readers cannot decode unfamiliar words dawns and we have a child who will variously be described as dyslexic, lazy, a late developer, or “just one of those kids who won’t be a strong reader”.
7. Explicit teaching kills the love of reading. What kills the love of reading is not being able to read. Motivation is an important part of all learning, as is seeing the reason for a new skill. Children who are not proficient readers are understandably not motivated to read. Explicit teaching builds skills, and skills build competence and confidence. Explicit teaching should be based on a scope and sequence, be fast-paced, highly inclusive, interactive, and attentive to the progress of the learners. You can learn more about explicit instruction at this link.
8. Teachers should choose what they think is best. This line of thinking comes directly from the work of the late Kenneth Goodman, whose legacy, in my view, did a great deal of harm to teacher professionalism, as well as eroding the literacy and life chances of more than a generation of children. Ironically (yet again), pre-service education in recent decades has not equipped teachers with knowledge about reading science, the contested nature of reading instruction, the fact that three national inquiries into reading instruction have occurred since 2000, how to critically appraise research literature, nor even the fact that reading can be taught explicitly with a scope and sequence. I’ve lost count of the number of teachers who have told me they did not hear the word “phoneme” once at university, let alone grapheme, morpheme, digraph, schwa vowel and so on. So, in reality, what balanced literacy advocates mean when they say “teachers should use a range of approaches of their choosing” is that they should be picking and choosing from the eclectic grab-bag of approaches that loosely connect under the “balanced literacy” banner, and that is all. I have previously described balanced literacy as being neither fish nor fowl. I have also contrasted balanced literacy with structured literacy instruction.
9. Parents need to read to their children more. Of all the pernicious, disingenuous and gaslighting insults that can be thrown at the parents of children who struggle with reading, this one occupies two special positions: it rolls off the tongues of education academics and some children’s authors way too easily. It is also an inexcusable dereliction of the duty that schools owe to children, as a basic article of faith. Of course, it’s desirable that parents (and other capable readers such as grandparents, pre-school and school teachers, older siblings, childcare staff) read to children, to build their enjoyment of reading as a purposeful activity, as well as building their oral language vocabularies, their exposure to long, complex sentences, and their background knowledge. But reading to children does not turn them into readers any more than playing piano sonatas to them turns them into pianists. We also need to remember that for a range of sometimes complex and not always visible reasons, not all parents are equally well-positioned to support their children’s early literacy development. It’s the job of schools, not parents, to teach children how to read.
10. Children should use all available cues to get words off the page. Again, this is whole language – balanced literacy fuzzy logic about what the novice reader is actually needing to learn when they are transitioning from spoken to written language. Reliance on “a range of cues” (syntactic structure, pictures) diverts the child’s attention away from the very skills that they need to be learning in order to understand how speech and print map to each other. The now famous “purple challenge” video shows conclusively what happens when children are being taught using predictable texts and so-called “three cueing”. It is excruciating and revealing in equal measure; do watch it if you have not done so already. Context is for deriving meaning; decoding is for getting the words off the page. Beginning readers need to put more mental effort into the latter, but then the distribution of effort shifts to the former. Teaching during a literacy block should therefore strategically build skills on both sides of the Simple View of Reading ledger. Scarborough’s Reading Rope is also a helpful conceptual guide here.
11. Immersing children in beautiful literature is what teaches them to read. This is closely related to trope no. 9 above. Immersion in beautiful literature helps to build an understanding of the purpose of reading and helps to carry children away in their imaginations to other times and places. It does not, however, teach them to read. Again, why are we sending children to school? To learn biologically secondary skills that are not just “picked up” as a result of immersion in daily experiences. Those daily experiences are helpful and create opportunities to experience environmental print, to develop print concepts, and to see a purpose in reading. These are not the same, however, as being taught to read and we need to stop conflating them. Children’s authors write books to entertain, enthrall and engage children. Re-purposing them as instructional texts is an ill-informed folly.
12. Phonics teaching is boring for teachers. There are many things that responsible, caring adults do for and in the interests of children, and not all of them are spellbinding, but then it’s not always about the adults, is it? That said, in every classroom I’ve visited in which literacy is being taught in a structured explicit way by a knowledgeable teacher (and there are many), the teacher has been far from bored. Better descriptors that come to mind include focused, engaged, energised, and enthusiastic. The evident delight that teachers experience when their students are rapidly mastering their writing system is inspiring and gratifying. It also happens to be good for teacher morale and in the current climate of workforce challenges, we need all of that commodity that we can get.
13. Reading is only one form of literacy in the 21st century. Gag me with a spoon. It doesn’t matter how much the new-age language police try to twist and contort literacy into something that has little or nothing to do with written text, the point remains that it has everything to do with written text. This is one of those glib dismissals issued by people who themselves have the privilege of strong literacy skills, as a vague [wave hands in circular motion here] reference to digital something or others. Don’t fall for it. Literacy matters more than ever in a world in which artificial intelligence is replacing unskilled jobs. The 2018 PISA results, based on the assessment of 14,000 Australian 15-year-olds, indicated that almost 20 per cent were illiterate and approximately 40 per cent were unable to read at a “proficient standard”. I wonder where this growing cohort will find jobs and ways to be part of the social and economic mainstream across their lifespans? I do not expect that the 2022 data will give cause for optimism, but Covid-19 will no doubt be scape-goated here, the clear pre-existing trend notwithstanding.
14. Systematic phonics teaching is just for Tier 2 teaching. This assertion betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of Response to Intervention, which is concerned with preventing reading difficulties, using high-impact explicit teaching, accompanied by careful progress-monitoring, using validated tools that allow analysis of reading subskills on both sides of Scarborough’s Reading Rope. Children whose progress is slow and are identified for Tier 2 services are provided with an increased dose of Tier 1 instruction (which is, in itself, a form of intervention). Increased dose means greater frequency, intensity and duration. Pulling children who are weak readers out of Tier 1 balanced literacy instruction to provide a different form of instruction at Tier 2, and then returning them to their balanced literacy classroom is simply creating a perplexing layer of additional evidence to such children that reading is an opaque and insurmountably complex task.
15. Phonics is boring for children who can already read. There’s no need to re-teach things to children who have already mastered them, provided that we accurately establish that mastery and do not base our assessment of mastery on the halo-effect of reading predictable texts, strongly scaffolded by said predictability and picture cues. Teachers should use valid and reliable assessment tools to determine each child’s level of skill. If there are children who are reliably determined to have mastered the code with minimal instruction, the first thing I would say is that they are the exception and not the norm, as represented by Nancy Young’s Ladder of Reading and Writing. Let’s not forget too, that explicit structured literacy instruction is as much about spelling achievement as it is about reading. Spelling is a retrieval task, rather than a recognition task, so is inherently more complex to master, and just like reading achievement, is best not left to chance. Unfortunately, it is an area in which many teachers lack confidence because of gaps in their own whole language education and in their initial teacher education.
16. Explicit phonics teaching is only for children from low-SES backgrounds. This is a manifestation of the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and the idea that there’s one group of children who we can expect to be “natural readers” because they come from the “right” kinds of homes, in which their parents read to them from birth and in so doing (so the story goes), taught them how to read (see meme 9 above). When balanced literacy apologists play this card, they betray their underlying assumption that reading should not need to be taught at all, and it is a tedious imposition on teachers to have to teach explicitly – a task for which they were almost certainly not prepared at university anyway.
17. Explicit phonics teaching is all about commercial programs. If you want to know about the role of commercial programs in reading instruction, have a listen to Emily Hanford’s recent “Sold a Story” podcast. Education is big business, and yes, there are commercial programs to support the early explicit teaching of phonics with a scope and sequence. It’s hard, however, to think of anything that compares with the scale and profit margins associated with balanced literacy-derived sets of leveled texts and associated intervention programs. I have been in plenty of classrooms, on the other hand, where the financial investment has primarily been into teacher knowledge, rather than outsourcing the thinking to an inanimate leveled set of predictable texts. In such classrooms, instruction can be low-tech and high-quality, augmented by the use of decodable (phonically-controlled) texts to support early consolidation of new skills. No, these are not normally free, but any A-B financial comparison will be eye-watering and aligns with the sunk-cost fallacy that once purchased, such texts need to be used.
18. The goal of balanced literacy is for children to love reading. This is where we can play bingo and snap at the same time. The goal of advocates of structured and explicit literacy teaching is precisely the same but comes from a cognitive psychology perspective concerning the factors that support optimal learning by all children, of complex new skills. We can’t “love children to literacy” any more than we can love them to playing the piano, riding a bike, tying their shoelaces, playing chess, or learning algebra. See trope no. 11 above.
19. Give them time, they’ll catch on / catch up This is the quietly earnest but desperate prayer of the teacher who was not adequately prepared to teach reading, to identify struggling readers, or to intervene appropriately to ensure their success. As noted by Sue Knight in a 2021 guest post on this blog, teachers are forced to secretly cross their fingers behind their backs when they utter these words, which they increasingly learn to be untrue, but do not have anything meaningful to offer struggling children, until they discover another entire world of reading instruction in the form of the science of reading. Dr Kerry Hempenstall has observed that it takes four times as many resources to address reading difficulties in Year 4 than it would have taken in Year 1. Balanced literacy advocates are forced to defend and/or rationalise the indefensible when it is realised that such intervention services are simply not available.
20. His / her comprehension is great, and that’s all that matters. Comprehension of unfamiliar text can only occur if children are proficient on both sides of Scarborough’s Reading Rope. Children who understand texts that are read to them are drawing on their oral language skills and their background knowledge. Children who understand predictable texts are doing the same. This can create a halo-effect for unsuspecting teachers and parents, as described in my response to trope no. 10 above.
21. Students these days can use spell-check / speech-to-text software. This is lazy, undisciplined thinking, and begs the question what school is for, if most things that parents expect their children to learn there can be outsourced to technology. Spell-checkers are not much use if, for example, you know nothing of homophones and homographs. Speech-to-text software is certainly indicated in the case of a relatively small proportion of students with significant language-based writing and spelling difficulties, but it is inequitable to deprive children of the opportunity to gain a knowledge and understanding of their writing system, in the mistaken belief that this can simply be by-passed by technology.
22. All books are decodable. Well yes, they are….for children who know how to decode, and are orthographically mapping a large number of new words every week as a result of their experience of explicit teaching in a systematic manner, and, to a lesser extent, incidental text exposure by being read to by adults. As Dr Heidi Anne Mesmer explains in this recent Melissa and Lori Love Literacy podcast episode, text decodability is not a binary, it is dimensional. All texts might be decodable, but some more easily than others.
23. The science of reading is just for new teachers who don’t yet know how to teach reading. I had not previously heard this meme, but it was shared with me via Twitter. Ironically it contains a grain of truth, in that the science of reading certainly is for newly graduated teachers, but it is certainly not only for them, as indicated by the groundswell of interest in and enthusiasm for adopting this body of knowledge and translating it into classroom practice. See Sue Knight’s blog-post, linked to at response no. 19 above.
24. Systematic phonics teaching produces children who bark at print. Systematic phonics teaching produces children who can decode print, regardless of the presence of context cues. If this is all they can do, their teaching has been deficient and is not aligned to key frameworks such as Scarborough’s Reading Rope and the Simple View of Reading. This is an implementation problem.
25. Balanced literacy is all about a repertoire of practices. This harks back to the idea that balanced literacy is a bit of this and bit of that, in no particular order, and according to individual teacher preference and taste. Balanced literacy is very different from explicit, structured literacy teaching in just about every respect, but neither side of the reading debate can claim an exclusive stronghold on “a range of teaching practices”, and neither should they attempt to do so. It is the way these practices are applied and their underlying rationales that are points of difference.
I wish you all the same luck in balanced literacy bingo as I wish the children who are learning to read in balanced literacy classrooms. You won’t all be winners.
© Pamela Snow (2022) Originally posted by Pamela Snow | The Snow Report