A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats: Part One of The Reading League 2019 conference debrief

That was the cry of the 900+ educators from all over the world who converged in Syracuse, New York this week for The Reading League’s Third Annual Conference. The theme, as we sailed off into two days of incredibly high quality professional development, was about sharing knowledge in the best possible way so that everyone benefits.

It was a dreamlike atmosphere. A grassroots organization that began at a kitchen table had, in three short years, become the go-to education conference in 2019. In their words:

A rising tide lifts all boats.

“This year’s theme, A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats, is a double-layer metaphor. First, it refers to all of us – the teachers, administrators, researchers and others who are speaking up and joining forces to spread the word about the evidence base. It also refers to our students. When our instruction is evidence-aligned, we reach more learners and everyone benefits.”

As part of the opening ceremony, we took our little wooden boats that had been placed on the conference tables and floated them in the water bowls provided. Each delegate then put a pebble in and watched as the water rose and lifted the boat. What struck me constantly at this event was how well thought out every detail was, and this was a fine example.

Emily Hanford’s keynote address

For any of you who haven’t yet discovered Emily Hanford, please take the time to listen to her three one-hour broadcasts. She is

Emily Hanford delivers her keynote address

an education journalist and she is shaking up the status quo (to the inevitable straw-man backlash, more of which you can read about here in Daniel Willingham’s excellent blog).

Emily spoke of the unacceptable situation whereby “getting help for a struggling reader is a rich man’s game”. This is because school systems, who have invested in 3 cueing and balanced literacy prefer to add a “phonics patch” rather than take away poor quality practice. Struggling readers often cling to cueing because it’s easier at first, and so they continue to struggle.

Emily delineated the march of whole language, starting with the works of Ken Goodman, moving to Marie Clay and ending with Fountas and Pinnell, who have started to nod towards phonics by publishing their phonics book, in Hanford’s words, “The slimmest book they’ve written.”

She summed up one of the chief reasons why so many can see some kind of logic in balanced literacy and whole language: “In reading instruction, the ends and the means are often confused.” I interpreted this to meant that if comprehension is a destination, phonics is a jet plane towards it, balanced literacy is more like a pogo stick. Some will make it, but too many won’t.

Emily talked about several ‘elephants in the room’ when it comes down to reading instruction. They have to be addressed skillfully and with empathy in any conversation with educators. They are:

  • The 3-Cueing System
  • Book-levelling
  • Knowledge of the way reading develops
  • The way in which class-time is used
Meeting Emily was a highlight!

Emily is a gracious, passionate journalist who has come right up to speed on the importance of high quality literacy instruction. She pulls no punches, but despite her resolute toughness, she ended her talk with a reference that encapsulated the loving, kind, accepting nature of The Reading League. She read from a recent blog by Margaret Goldberg called Teachers Won’t Embrace Research Until it Embraces Them. It’s an important piece and a foreshadowing of what Steven Dykstra humorously drove home the day after. More on Steve’s talk soon.



Up next:

Talks that I saw…

  • Writing With Tiers Dawn Durham, Donna Halpin and Jeanie Hertzler, education consultants with the Pennsylvania Training and Assistance Network (PATTAN)
  • Delivering on the Promise of Literacy for All Through Teacher Knowledge, Data and Leadership, Laura Stewart (National Director, The Reading League), Angie Hamlin (Building Principal, Matthews Elementary, Missouri)
  • Maryanne Wolf’s keynote address
  • Steven Dykstra, Beyond the Science: How We Could Win Every Battle, But Still Lose the War for so Long
  • Deborah Lynham and Dr. Tim Odegard, Utilizing Online Learning and Professional Communities of Practice to Build Teacher Knowledge

Talks that I didn’t see but am fairly familiar with and want to talk about…

  • Lorraine Hammond, Overcoming Teacher Resistance to the Science of Reading: The Role of Professional Development
  • Pamela Snow, Snake Oil or Good Oil? Discerning quality in interventions for children with language-learning difficulties

Talks that I wish I had seen…

Every single other one.

Special offer:

Enrol in our Reading for Life Online course now!

Next instalment soon! But while you’re here, did you know you can enrol on my Reading for Life Online course no matter where you come from? If you liked my talk or if you liked my book, there’s more of that stuff in the course. It’s not just for Australians. And because I’m suffused with love from the conference, you can have a 15% discount. Just use code TRL19 at checkout for your discount.

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