A report on Dr. Steven Dykstra’s talk at The Reading League Third Annual Conference in Syracuse on October 19th 2019.

Dr Dykstra talking at The Reading League 2019

In his biographical notes on the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction website, Steve states:

“As a psychologist with over 25 years of experience, working in an urban setting with the most challenging and difficult mental health cases involving children, I came to recognize the role of school failure, and particularly reading difficulties in the complex stories of the children and families I tried to serve. I am particularly interested in the failure of most Universities and schools of education to properly teach the known science of reading, and how that impacts school systems, particularly those in urban areas.  I am not a researcher, but I am an informed consumer of research and I like to help others digest and understand the science of reading so that they can make better decisions. I think facts and information are our only tools, and while we must wield them carefully, we should not be afraid to call out the failures and injustice we see.  Too much decision making is driven by the delicate feelings of adults who, however hard working and well-intentioned, have protected their colleagues and friends over the interests of our most vulnerable children.  We are investing the lives of little children in bad decisions, in order to avoid the shame and discomfort of admitting we were wrong.  This is not unprecedented.  It has happened many times before, in many places, surrounding many decisions.  But, like all of those other times, this must end.  Any other result would be immoral.  The victims are, after all, children.”

He began by referring to three studies from 1967 that have influenced everything else in the great debate since. They are:


Chall, J. S. (1967). Learning to read: The great debate. New York, NY: McGraw Hill. Bond, G. L., & Dykstra, R. (1967). The cooperative research program in first-grade reading instruction. Reading Research Quarterly, 2(4), 5-142. (Steve pointed out that he and Robert Dykstra are not related. Must be something about Fresians that make them good Science of Reading communicators.) Goodman, K. S. (1967). Reading: A psycholinguistic guess- ing game. Journal of the Reading Specialist, 6, 126–135. doi:10.1080/19388076709556976

The first two are huge, rigorous and complex. The last one, which is the original kombucha scoby of whole language, is a 9-page pamphlet, easily photocopiable, easily digested and easily shared. The only problem, as Steve pointed out, was that it was “exactly wrong”.

Steve said:

“Where you land on issues of how to teach reading is, to a large extent, determined by how you or others reacted to these three studies from 1967. Even if you never read them, you learned from or were influenced by others, who were influenced by others, who are all connected in a direct line back to these three studies. You need to know that!”

Steve also paid tribute to one of the leading lights in literacy, the great Kerry Hempenstall. He echoed the thoughts of many of us in the field, when he said:

“I love Kerry Hempenstall…he was David Kilpatrick before David Kilpatrick was David Kilpatrick. He is one of the great explainers of the science. He’s really really gifted at that. When I first got into this and started looking around for things online, I stumbled across Hempenstall’s stuff and it was this wonderful balance of humour, science and cutting edge that reassured me that I was not wrong.”

Steve and Lorraine kicking back at The Reading League

Steve’s talk was on the second day, in one of the ballrooms at the convention centre, and like Lorraine Hammond’s talk the day before, it was standing room only.

Why is Steve so popular? In his own words, if everyone in education understood the process of literacy acquisition, he’d be unknown. In my view, Steve’s particular skills lie in a respectable balance of four factors:

A deep and broad understanding of how children learn and how children learn to read in particular A firm grasp of the central arguments both for and against reading science An impressive ability to create succinct analogies to highlight key points in the reading debate A wicked sense of humour


His talk, although factual and appropriately complex, was often like a stand-up routine, having the audience in stitches on many occasions. But the main thrust was serious:

Science always wins, but in the Reading Wars, it’s too slow. We don’t need better science. We need better marketing. And the worst marketing plan ever, was to alienate teachers by approaching them with an attitude that screamed, “Hey dumbass!”

He started by telling the story of how he was debating someone on social media, using facts and data like he always does. He was asking her to back up her claims, and she said something along the lines of, “I don’t need to back them up. I’m so experienced, I can just tell.”

“I can just tell”, he explained, with some humorous examples, was not good enough. Marie Clay declared herself as the mistress of “I can just tell”, with her “in the head/hidden/unseen” behaviours of reading, that at once lifted the teacher into the realm of mystic without ever having to be accountable for their students’ failure.

He was contacted privately by the person he was arguing with. She told him that she continued to resist his arguments, compelling though they were, because he and they made her feel stupid and bad.

It caused him to pause and reflect on what he termed teacher alienation. He said, “When we walk in with our science, we say, ‘Your instincts don’t amount to much.’”

On the other hand, non-scientific movements such as whole language, balanced literacy, book-levelling schemes etc. win teachers over by building them up with a sense of their own expertise, even if they’re wrong. Hence their continued popularity despite their disastrous effects.

Emily Hanford also referred to this in her keynote address, and used this compelling example written by Margaret Goldberg, entitled “Teachers Won’t Embrace Research Until it Embraces Them”.

I’ve seen numerous examples of whole language programs building ways to talk about the programs into the training. Teachers are imbued with a sense of expertise and elitism in ways that other, more scientific programs don’t do, preferring instead, to stand on their own merit.

Reading Recovery encourages its trainees to market themselves as the go-to literacy experts in schools, paving the way for Tier 1 and Tier 2 instruction that embraces guessing and rejects decoding.

As a recent example (and I can assure you, they are plentiful and never-ending), a Reading Recovery teacher posted on Facebook:

Q. “Good morning, I have been asked to lead a staff meeting afternoon about reading strategies.Any ideas on how to start? What information to hand out & discuss?”

Some answers:

“Removing the phrase “sound it out” from our literacy vocabulary.” “I introduced the symbols to display in classes to help the children remember what strategies they could use…get your mouth ready with the 1st sound, look at the picture, break it, it’s a red word and you just have to know it, listen to see if it makes sense.” “Once we showed a passage with scrambled words to show that you use word patterns, letter sound knowledge, structure and meaning to read and figure out unknown words in the passage. That’s why those strategies/ ways to read need to be taught. Just a quick activity, but good to do.”

No only do those teachers think they are using expertise in their responses, but they’re being labelled as experts by their schools. It must feel really cosy and fulfilling. Except they’re talking nonsense and they are doing actual harm to students.

And therein lies the “Hey dumbass!” urge. Reading scientists are intellectuals and/or rigorous academics who have overcome their own biases in order to write facts (see Stanovich). They’ve worked long and hard to truly understand the process of literacy acquisition. People in the field, who deal with the casualties of low quality literacy instruction, see first-hand the devastating consequences of illiteracy. It’s infuriating when teachers fail to understand even the basic terms within the subject and then argue that what they’re doing works.

On the other hand, you don’t have to be an intellectual to hawk your philosophy to time-poor, overworked, under-appreciated teachers. You just have to create a movement and make your adherents feel good.

Dykstra compares movements to science. He says:

Movements create new rules and definitions of science to suit them (see the three-cueing model for a prime example of this). Movements are agile and fast-moving. Movements are unencumbered by truth. The declaration “I can just tell” when making observations about student achievement needs no citation. It goes deep into the emotional inner-world of the teacher and lifts them up towards security, admiration, and appreciation.

Science, on the other hand, is:

slow-moving, complex, careful authors on the science of reading typically write for a scientific audience, often behind paywalls and expensive publications

And this is how we won every battle but are still losing the war.

Thanks to Maria Murray for ignoring my plea to not introduce me to Steve.

To end, I’d like to share with you an analogy made up on the spot by Steve when I had a chance to catch up with him in person. Of teaching guessing at words instead of sounding them out, he said (and I paraphrase):

If you were to present to a child the process of learning to read as a treasure, locked away in a castle, you could help them reach the treasure in a range of ways. Guessing is the equivalent of scaling the walls to gain entry. It’s possible, but it requires a lot of effort, and every year, the walls get higher. Alternatively, you could teach the child to use a key (i.e. the alphabetic code), and once they learn to use it, they can unlock any door in any castle, no matter how high the walls.


Beautiful, and not a “Hey dumbass!” in sight.

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“A rising tide lifts all boats!”

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.

Emily Hanford sure is a hard act to follow (see part one). Luckily, those who did follow were outstanding. Conferences are always a joy, but coupled with it is the terrible fear of missing out (FOMO). Delegates have to regretfully choose between concurrent presentations. Presenters have to present at the same time as big names. There’s not much that can be done about it. Everyone has fun.

I decided to choose talks by people I hadn’t heard or read before, as much as I’m a fan of so many of the people there, I wanted to seek out the new and extend my networks. I was not disappointed.

Writing With Tiers Dawn Durham, Donna Halpin and Jeanie Hertzler, education consultants with the Pennsylvania Training and Assistance Network (PaTTAN)

In their words:

“Practitioners often struggle to find the time and resources to provide meaningful writing instruction to students. Growing proficient writers is a daunting task that includes multiple factors which may result in student challenges. This session will help educators gain insight in to explicit writing instruction across all three tiers. Participants will expand their continuum of resources to enhance writing outcomes in an effort to meet the needs of all students.”

I’m so glad there is a shift of focus that includes writing in education. The call for evidence-based practice has moved many educators to think in terms of what will help children achieve the gargantuan task of fluent writing. After all, many learn to read, but so many fail to learn to write. In America, poor writing skills are estimated to amount to a business loss of $3.1 billion (as quoted in this talk).

I myself was scheduled to deliver a talk about writing later that afternoon and it was gratifying to hear that others thought the way I did on the subject. I won’t be reporting on my talk here, but you can always book me to come and deliver it. As you can see, travel is no obstacle!

The main points of agreement between me and PaTTAN (and I daresay anyone who has thought long and hard on the subject) are:

Teachers need to be aware of the similarities and differences between reading and writing. Writing involves integration of several complex skills. Writing requires high quality, frequent practice (“Short writing often, not long writing seldom.” – Anita Archer).

The wonderful Donna Halpin led with the statement, “You can’t intervene your way out of a crappy core.”

The talk was beautifully delivered, with all three presenters contributing at appropriate times. I must say, I fell a bit in love with Dawn Durham. What a punchy style she has! That’s not to detract from the brilliance of Donna Halpin and Jeanie Hertzler of course. We were quite spoiled!

The presenters showed the way in which good quality instruction at the sentence level forms a bridge from microstructure skills (such as handwriting, keyboarding, spelling, vocabulary and sentence structure) to macrostructure skills (such as sentence combining and complexity, and the actual process of writing).

They offered several planning templates for instruction at all RTI Tier levels, and best of all, those templates are open-source. You can find them and a wealth of other incredible resources here. Not least amongst them is the PaTTAN scope and sequence for writing describing skills and content to be mastered by the end of K-12. Treasure!

Coming soon to a blog near you…

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
Through a faulty lens

I once met a woman at a conference who seemed very nice. It was a big conference and comprised many of the leading lights in literacy and education. She told me she provided dyslexia tutoring and also that she was an Irlen practitioner. I expressed surprise that she would be present at an event that was clearly run by and for those who appreciated high standards of evidence.

She became a little exasperated and told me there was plenty of evidence for Irlen Syndrome and so I asked her to send it to me.

A large envelope arrived yesterday from her. It was a letter and 22 pages of ‘evidence’. I’m writing about it because it is a classic example of failure in logic, wishful thinking and cognitive dissonance all rolled into one. My intention is that what I write here will help others debate well with people who promote snake oil.

I will tell the author of the letter about this blog piece and will give her right of reply. I’m not sure I can get her to change her mind about Irlen, in fact I’m anticipating a substantial backfire effect, but there’s always hope.

She begins:

“When I mentioned [to you] that we were Irlen Screeners you replied ‘I hope you don’t tell too many people that’. The truth of it is…no I don’t…”

Stop right there. “No I don’t”. Why? Because deep down you know it’s shameful. When you meet highly regarded people in the field, you know they don’t support your view for a very good reason. So you don’t mention it.

She continues:

“…but when I see students sitting in front of me with all the physical symptoms of visual stress…”

This is not an actual thing. Visual stress is not a thing. It is a made up, arbitrary diagnosis.

“…I most certainly tell them Irlen lenses might be a non-invasive solution to their problem.”

That sounds unethical. I have since found out that you perform  Irlen “tests” on students without their parents’ permission and in their parents’ absence during dyslexia intervention. This isn’t okay.

Secondly, the use of “non-invasive” is sneaky. It immediately suggests to a naïve person that other interventions are invasive. It’s also a lie. Spending lots of time, money and hope on an unproven intervention is pretty invasive, if you ask me.

“I also tell them to do their own research and let them know I’m here if they decide to do a screening.”

And there it is: the pseudoscientific mantra of the poorly informed and willfully ignorant “do your own research”. It’s a soft-sell phrase designed to give people a false sense of control. Anti vaxxers use it all the time: “I did my own research and now I’m convinced that vaccinations cause autism.”

No. You didn’t do your own research. You didn’t go into a lab. You didn’t do a systematic review of the literature. You didn’t suspend your own bias.

When you position yourself as an expert and you offer hope to those who struggle, they will believe just about anything you say. You’d better be talking about things that help them. Coloured lenses are not that.

She continues:

“If I could sit you down, with an open mind…”

Thank you for the suggestion that I’m somehow closed-minded. Could it in fact be that I’m just well-informed? This is, after all, a field I’ve worked in for my entire career. It’s a subject I’ve written numerous books about. It’s a discipline I’ve studied for decades. Could it be that in fact I have a very open mind and that I’m constantly searching for things that will benefit my students and have decided to reject these products because I have logical and ethical grounds on which to do so? Where is your open mind? When you walk amongst people who you obviously regard highly, but who condemn this kind of thing, does it not cause you to question your position?

“If I could sit you down, with an open mind, and tell you all the things I’ve seen and how coloured overlays or lenses have helped I’m sure you wouldn’t be so closed to it.”

Please take your anecdotes and burn them. They do not equal data.

Then comes some bewildering self-foot-shooting:

“Here’s the thing I don’t like about Irlen…it’s expensive. It’s a pyramid scheme-type of product and that’s the unfortunate part about it.”

You want me to open my mind to a pyramid scheme. Can you actually hear yourself?

“But set that aside…” she pleads.

No, I don’t think that’s actually a detail worth setting aside.

“…and I don’t care what you call it (Irlens, Scotopic Sensitivity, Visual Stress), colour helps (some…not all).”

I don’t care what you call snake oil either. I care if you make a living selling it though. Then another admission:

“It’s not an immediate fix for learning difficulties. It’s not going to make someone who can’t read able to read. It’s not going to ‘cure’ anyone.”

Correct. It’s not. I’m in the business of fixing the effects of learning difficulties and helping those who can’t read learn to read. I also don’t look for ‘cures’. Why, then, are you bringing this nonsense to me?

“…BUT it will calm the physical system so that one can attend to learning.”

Calm the physical system. That’s not a term Stanislas Dehaene, Alison Clarke, Pamela Snow, David Kilpatrick or anyone else you’re posting selfies with uses. Are they closed minded too?

She elaborates:

“You have to understand (and here’s what I think many academics don’t get) Irlen is a ‘method’ not a syndrome.”

Okay, so much to unpack here. The implication is that ‘academics’ are somehow removed from the real world and their theories are merely theories. Has it occurred to you that they too have contact with students? Many of them have a teaching background. They reject certain things on a very strong basis. They get it more than most. Do you say this to their face? I’ll take a wild guess and say you probably don’t.

Also, the ‘method not a syndrome’ quote is baffling. It’s called a syndrome by the inventors of it. Are you saying you disagree with the people who made it all up? That’s an even weaker position.

Out trots another cliché:

“You also made the comment that ‘there’s no research’. I wish I had a dollar for every time that’s been repeated. The fact is – there’s plenty of it. But you know as well as I do that in any type of research for every ‘pro’ article you will find an ‘anti’ article to match it.”

Please don’t assume what I know. We are talking about established scientific fact, not papers written by whoever. The overwhelming consensus in the field is that coloured lenses and overlays have no place in the treatment of reading disorders. There is no convincing evidence to say otherwise. When there is, I’m all ears, because believe me, I’ll do whatever it takes to help my students. It just so happens that it’s not this.

Another assumption follows:

“The research says…that one out of five students that sit in front of you and your colleagues will have a sensitivity to light [whatever the hell that means]. Would it be asking too much for you to contact the Irlen Regional Director near you and arrange a sit down? Imagine if you could be convinced.”

Yes. Yes it would be too much. That’s like a Flat Earther asking me if it would be too much to sit down and try and be convinced by the regional director of the Flat Earth Society. It would be a colossal waste of time and energy.

Appeal to authority fallacy is the next step:

“In his seminars, world renown [sic] Asperger’s expert Tony Attwood always mentions the likelihood of ASD and Irlens being comorbid conditions.”

I don’t care what Tony Attwood says. He is capable of being wrong. Also, the term Asperger’s is controversial due to facts revealed about Hans Asperger’s work in a paper last year. You would be more convincing if you came up to date with that. Actually, you wouldn’t. Not to me anyway.

“Oh…one other thought…Irlen screeners, diagnosticians and medical directors must have relevant qualifications in the educational…fields.”

So? It’s not actually that hard to get a degree in education. I know lots of people with degrees in education that don’t know the first thing about learning difficulties. In fact, it’s one of my biggest peeves.

There then follow 22 pages of ‘visual stress/scotopic sensitivity/irlen articles’, in an effort to appear rigorous, thorough, convincing and overwhelming all at once. What it lacks in quality is made up for in quantity. It’s not evidence though.

Let’s have a little look, shall we?

I see an ‘unpublished Doctor of Philosophy Thesis’ in there. Hmm. That’s not very good. What else? Oh, a ‘paper presented to the 6th Irlen International Conference’ in 2000. Nope. A Korean pilot study is hardly evidence. “Anatomy and physiology of a color system in the primate visual cortex”? Seriously? You think slipping that in makes you look well-read? References by plainly wrong, disproven and poorly regarded Ken Goodman and Marie Clay are in there too. Ugh! John Stein’s magnocellular hypothesis. No thanks!

Most of the articles in this list have been withdrawn, disproven, successfully disputed or are worthless for a variety of other reasons. Here is a systematic review, published this year.

I asked you to send me evidence. You sent me propaganda and examples of lazy thinking. I know pretty much beyond a doubt you won’t agree with me or change your mind about this. You’re just going to get angry and declare me your enemy. So be it. But if I can use your example to help one family avoid this pitfall, it’s worth it.

If, however, you do somehow wish to lead a professional life that’s aligned with the science of reading and learning, I’m sure you’ll be welcomed into that community with open arms and forgiven for your past stance. We all live and learn.

Finally, since you seem to be impressed by figures of authority in this field, I’ll leave you with a thought from the section Crank Interventions in the excellent book Making Sense of Interventions for Children with Developmental Disorders by Caroline Bowen and Pamela Snow (the Pamela Snow you took a selfie with and commented that you were humbled to be in her presence).

Irlen appears on pages 16, 17, 178, 240-242 (it has its own sub-section in the Reading chapter and is described there as “a crafty example of disease mongering”), 288, 313, 314 and 339 of the book, and never in a positive light:

“Crank interventions for children’s developmental disorders range from diets…to spectacles with coloured lenses, coloured overlays…These thrive alongside the motherlode of other pseudoscientific treatments and even ‘cures’ and ‘scientific breakthroughs’ for ADHD, ASD, ankyloglossia, apraxia, and the rest of the dictionary known conditions, as well as remedies for a number of made-up conditions: [e.g.]…Irlen… Classically, crank interventions are marketed, spruiked and talked up to parents and professionals without a whisker of scientific evidence. Proponents often come with elaborate, authoritative-looking websites, questionnaires and online DIY assessments that hoodwink potential clients into ‘diagnosing’ their own or their children’s ‘problems’.”

Am I ringing any bells for you at this point? Or do Caroline and Pam just not ‘get it’ either?

Private tutors have insight into what DOESN’T work for the most vulnerable.

Being an independent specialist practitioner affords me a unique view. We’re all working in a coal mine, but I’m the one who looks after the canaries. When something isn’t being done right, it’s the population I deal with that suffers first and hardest.

Over the years, I’ve seen the casualties of low quality instruction in many forms. I can tell what’s going on in a classroom just by looking at the way a child approaches reading and writing.

When publically debating with me, teachers often ask, “Are you a teacher?”, as if to claim some superiority.

Such a rude and loaded question deserves the answer, “Are you aware of the long-term consequences of your ignorance?” Because I sure as hell am.

When students arrive at my doorstep, they’re often quite broken. When I interview prospective staff, I place the trait of kindness above all else. I place huge importance on manner. I need practitioners who understand the sheer humiliation suffered by children who are not taught to read. When you go through years of schooling and make little or no progress in literacy, you start to think something very deep and very serious is wrong with you. Do you have any idea how corrosive a thought like that can be?

Morgan, Farkas and Wu do. In 2012 they published a study called “Do Poor Readers Feel Angry, Sad and Unpopular?”. The resounding conclusion was, yes.

People in the specialist tuition business get to see what happens after reading instruction fails. We are the people who deal with the casualties of low quality instruction. And by ‘low quality’, I mean:

Systems that promote ‘balanced literacy’ Ludicrous analytic phonics programs with a scope and sequence dictated by teacher perception The illogical, inefficient three cueing system Massive, sprawling, complicated code charts that children are supposed to memorise Teaching consonant blends as units Sending home lists of unrelated whole words for memorisation Teachers who blame parents for their children’s lack of progress (“He doesn’t get read to at home” etc.) Teachers who blame students (“She’s lazy” etc.) Book-levelling schemes based on invalid assessment Reading Recovery Schools that allow disruption during literacy instruction Schools that deal badly with bullying Schools that have no well-structured behaviour management systems Pointless, burdensome homework

All of the above affect my students and impede their progress, their wellbeing and ultimately their life chances. It’s been 25 years since I graduated and went into literacy tutoring, and I’ve still never met a casualty of systematic synthetic phonics. I’ve still never had a student who needed help with their ‘guessing’ at words. All I’ve ever seen is children who were not taught the code, not taught to blend and segment phonemes in words and attach them to graphemes, not assessed on their phonological awareness and not given reading material that matches the sequence of what they’re being taught.

More chilling still, is that those children who come to see me have parents who can afford the time and money to bring them (we do have a scholarship program for no or low cost too, but it has its limits). There is a massive population out there with no means for private tuition, and it’s those children who end up with dramatic social and economic disadvantages. It’s everyone’s problem.

Unless teachers are trained well at university, this problem isn’t going to go away, and the coalmine will remain full of struggling canaries.

Cute, but not a good reading instructor.

Over the past seven years or so, I’ve been honing my dog-sneaking skills. I have tried, somewhat successfully, to include my dog Finnigan in all aspects of my professional life. He sits at my feet while I work with my students. He comes to the schools I consult to whenever they’ll let him. He regularly attends my professional development workshops for teachers and parents.

This year, I’ve topped it all by managing to include two photographs of him on page 20 of my new book Reading for Life. His image will now occupy a small space on bookshelves all over the world.

I do this because I like him a lot and I like it when he’s around. He’s the sort of dog other people like too, in that he’s very serene and enjoys a good pat. He is also quite goofy and he smells terrific.

Other things I like working with and having around me are my fountain pen and the desk in my office. I’m really very lucky. But what if I told you that my students made progress because of my fountain pen? What if I said their sight word vocabulary increased as a direct result of my desk? You’d be perfectly justified in telling me to quit my delusions.

And yet, with tedious regularity, I see stories of miraculous ‘reading dogs’ helping children learn to read, trotted out in what can only be slow news weeks up and down the country.

Learning to read is a complex process that takes time, practice and effort. It is staggeringly easy for some, and frustratingly difficult for others. But no matter who is learning it, the acquisition of literacy follows much the same sequence. Some just do it at warp speed with very little instruction, some do it on a much slower timeline and require massive amounts of instruction and repetition. What it doesn’t require, is the presence of a fountain pen, a nice desk or a dog.

Positive reinforcement is not the same as instruction. If you have a budget for literacy floating around your school, perhaps teacher training, decodable reading material and valid assessment tools should be the first priority. Then when you’re successfully teaching 95% of your students to read and are making sure the 5% trailing behind are getting the best possible intervention, then perhaps you could think about spending the thousands it takes to have a ‘reading dog’ on site. Surely that’s fair?

So when you hear breathless accounts of how reluctant readers were drawn out of their catatonic states and blossomed into bookworms “because dogs”, do remember to ask how these children became reluctant readers in the first place. Reading failure is traumatic. Low quality instruction leads to reading failure.

Guess which one of us teaches children to read.

I don’t mean to sound negative, but I’m the one who has to sit with the crying parents who are led to believe their child is beyond instruction. I’m the one who has to hear my students talk about how stupid they think they are. I’m the one who has to scribble over Individual Learning Plans and ask for strategies and goals that will actually lead to reading. Some of these students come from schools who have invested in ‘reading dogs’. Fancy that.

Much as my dog is pleasant to have around, my students’ progress has nothing to do with him. I have the luxury of being able to admit that. This is because I know what to do to help a child become a reader. Like any practitioner who understands and can apply the science of reading, so far I’ve had a 100% success rate. Until your school can say the same, cute, furry creatures are very nice, but ultimately are a waste of time, money and effort.

My first ever teacher was called Mrs Green. Or as I secretly called her, “Grisses Mean”, and by that I meant that I viewed her as a perambulating vinegar cruet*, a shameless child-hater and a nasty bigot; I just didn’t have the words for it when I was five.


I cried on my first days at school. I was scared and not happy about being separated from my mum. I’d lived a life full of change and unusual events up until then and I guess I wasn’t the most secure of five-year-olds. I’d lived in Singapore, Poland and Egypt and it was in Egypt that we felt the threat of war and had a rabies scare. Our pet dog got the virus and attacked us all. We had to have hideously painful shots in our stomachs every day for weeks. The memories are still vivid.

So being dropped off at my first school on that September morning in 1976 wasn’t my cup of tea at all. Especially since I was delivered into the hands of Grisses Mean. I played truant that year to cope with the horridness.

“Stop crying, or I’ll give you something to cry about!” were among the first words she hissed at me. I didn’t really understand the saying back then, but there was no misinterpreting the threat.


My school was also attended by local Romany families, whose encampment was nearby. Christopher was a young boy from the encampment and given his unkempt appearance, probably didn’t have access to the laundry and bathing facilities the rest of us took for granted. But he was nice enough and the children treated him no differently. On the other hand, Grisses Mean and the other Reception teacher, Miss Humble (no, she wasn’t), were awful to him. When Miss Humble announced her engagement, we all rushed to congratulate her, Christopher included. He, like many of the other children, gave her a big hug. Grisses Mean turned to her and said, “You’ve probably caught something nasty now!” and they both laughed. You can imagine the effect it had on Christopher.

I’ve had lots of great teachers since then (and some terrible ones), but I paint the picture of Grisses Mean to highlight one particular point. You see, I was one of the lucky children that just took to reading and writing like a duck to water. I was doing both proficiently before I even entered the World of Mean. She taught me NOTHING in terms of literacy, and the thought of her somehow claiming that she did makes my skin crawl.

I’m not the only child who was literate before school entry. Quite a large number of children achieve this easily and many more achieve it with minimal guidance. This is why weaker, lower quality methods of literacy instruction still exist. For some, it doesn’t matter how badly you teach, they’re going to learn anyway. How good does that make an inefficient teacher look?


That’s why, if you show me a bunch of beautiful writing samples, you fail to impress me. Those samples prove nothing.

In fact, I think it’s somewhat creepy that any teacher would consider reveling in phony glory over achievements that mostly had nothing to do with them.

For every one of those samples, I can show you samples of children in all grades, all the way to adulthood, who slipped through the net of poor instruction and ended up illiterate.

Show me instead, your outliers: the ones whose odds are already stacked against them, the Christophers of this world, the ones from backgrounds that don’t support literacy development or the ones who got first prize in the dyslexia lottery (not a great prize, I can tell you).

Six year old boy after one year of ‘balanced literacy’, 3-cueing and analytic phonics.

The same boy after one year of systematic, synthetic phonics and structured literacy.








If you want to make an impression, show me the samples of those who struggle and the difference you’re making to them over time. Show me them two, three, four years up the track. Show me how you’ve passed them on to their next teacher with a meaningful learning plan and the intention of checking back on them to make sure they’re progressing. That’s something that takes expertise and excellent tools. That’s impressive.

If you can make a difference in their lives, you have my attention. If you understand, campaign for and demand a better deal for them and the thousands all over the world like them, you have my respect. A better deal means higher quality teacher training, phonics screening and decodable reading material that matches the sequence of your systematic synthetic phonics teaching. It means understanding the Simple View of Reading and the Big Five of literacy.

As for those who were going to read and write anyway, try to remember this: it’s not because of you and it’s not about you. Put your samples away. I’m not interested, and neither is anyone else in the field who has the slightest understanding of how literacy acquisition works.

*I stole this insult from an excerpt of a 1922 will.

Amanda BugieraFirst in the series of parent/practitioner perspectives, Walking the Line is a useful guide to approaching schools to advocate for your children. Amanda is a specialist dyslexia tutor here at Lifelong Literacy. She has three dyslexic children, all at primary school, and has successfully navigated a path through the dyslexia minefield for all of them.

Amanda Bugiera: advocate extraordinaire

Walking the line between being one of ‘those’ parents and being an effective and assertive advocate is a tricky part of the journey for any parent of a child with additional needs. We have all been there and had to mask our emotional fury, disappointment, sorrow or resignation to the futility of it all, while attempting to bargain for the best deal for our child.

There is inevitable inequity and power dynamics at any school meeting or negotiation.

Firstly, the match is on home ground for school staff. This is their arena and at the end of the day they call the shots. Even the information about what goes on within the classroom is provided to you at their discretion. It may leave you feeling like the outsider despite the fact that this is your child.

Secondly, you may feel intimidated when the teacher, Vice Principal/head of special education and other members of the school team outnumber you. They may tag team in response to your concerns. They may fail to respond, and wait for you to push the issue. I like to call this phenomenon ‘the path of least resistance’. If they ignore the issue and it goes away, in their minds it did not require a response, as the problem resolved itself.

After all ‘your child is one of many students!’ I’m sure you have been fed that pointed reminder before. This does not mean that your child’s potential and rights are any less important than those who aren’t struggling. Polite non-acceptance of this implication goes a long way.

At the end of the school year, the school also holds power in the teacher lottery. Revealing next year’s selection at the last minute leaves parents with little time to dispute any class allocation.

Here are some key skills required to gain the most out of any school interaction:


If you are concerned about class allocation, an incident at school, accommodations not being implemented act immediately (though after you have slept on it can help to provide emotional distance).



Go in armed with information; research, studies, articles. Prepare, prepare and prepare again! What is it you are asking for? What evidence do you have to that supports your request?



You are the expert and almanac of information regarding your child!

For in-person meetings, take your ILP folder and any resources you use from home to share with the school (you never know what you are going to need, and if nothing else it proves your dedication and organisation and willingness to collaborate).



When emailing, refer to reports and recommendations previously provided by you to the school regarding your child.



Take an advocate with you. Equal out the numbers. This applies to meetings but also emails. CC your literacy specialist/tutor or partner into your emails.



You are going to get nowhere fast if you do not put your perspective forward calmly. Being calm helps you provide your best argument. Be calm but assertive. This takes practice. You may cry, but don’t let it disarm you. If nothing else it’s hard to be attacked when you are temporarily defenceless.



Be realistic, find common ground and acknowledge the reality of their position: ‘I understand it may be hard to implement initially, and my child is one of many students, but my child needs this to allow him/her equitable access to the curriculum. I want to form a team for my child that collaborates to provide the best education and outcome for him/her. I am sure we can all agree on that being imperative.’



Rome was not built in a day. Start small, ask for something they are unlikely to refuse and build from there. Small and frequent steps will propel you towards the end goal.



After all you catch more flies with honey. If you are pleasant to deal with the school are more likely to involve and approach you in the future.

Amanda has a specialist advocate role at Lifelong Literacy and is now taking bookings from families to help with the following tasks: Organising ILP/IEP/ILEP folders Helping to construct achievable, measurable goals for children, parents and schools to work on Attending meetings with schools to assist with gaining the best outcome Please contact us for an initial consultation with Amanda and to enquire about her hourly rate.


The word ‘demand’ can certainly raise some emotions in people. I have been using it liberally lately in my writing and presentations and I’m finding that there is a little bit of knee-jerk, if not deliberate, misinterpretation of the term.

Let’s start with my quote, recently uploaded to Dyslexia Support Australia and Dyslexia Victoria Support on Facebook. It comes from my next book, Reading for Life:

“If you want to make a difference in your school, demand decodable readers and campaign to have levelled reading systems and predictable readers eradicated.”

If you wanted, you could choose the following OED definition:


ask authoritatively or brusquely:

[with direct speech]: ‘Where is she?’ he demanded

[with clause]:the police demanded he give them names.’

Contrast that with the definition that actually fits the context, and was, of course, the one intended, as anyone who doesn’t want to set up a straw man can see:


[with object] insist on having: an outraged public demanded retribution”

So, when I say ‘demand’, I don’t mean march into the principal’s office, brandishing swords and flaming pitchforks. I don’t mean be unreasonable, brash, rude, arrogant, selfish or aggressive. I simply mean insist on having better resources, better quality teacher training and a better deal for everyone.

Demand has a direct effect on supply. If you do not make your demand known, then suppliers of low quality resources are free to keep supplying them.

Because what is the alternative? A quiet request? A suggestion? These too have their place, but we have huge ideological, economic  and political barriers to overcome if we are to achieve reading success for all. Unless we as parents and educators take a forceful stance, we will have little or no impact on the quality of supply. It requires demand. According to the OED:

“[mass noun] the desire of consumers, clients, employers, etc. for a particular commodity, service, or other item: a recent slump in demand”

You can demand a better deal by doing one or all of the following things:

Sign the petition for decodable readers in Victorian schools or start one in your state/country. Support and advance non-profit organisations like LDA, SPELD and Code Read Dyslexia Network. Offer research-supported strategies on your child’s Individual Learning/Education Plan as an alternative to guessing, multi-cueing and other balanced literacy methods. Team up with other parents to increase the power of your voice (see the rope below).













And don’t be afraid of the word. Demand and diplomacy are not antonyms.

“In real science, one is eventually influenced by the evidence.” Keith Stanovich (2000)


In response to some absurd notions floating about on social media this month in the wake of the #PhonicsDebate, I have published this article. It is actually an expunged chapter from my next book, Reading for Life: How to demand and supply high quality literacy instruction for all.

I never really thought I’d have the problem of having to cut whole chapters from a book, but there is so much to say about the subject that I found myself going 15,000 words above my agreed-upon limit. It also serves to answer my recent Twitter detractors one at a time, most of whom are muted due to being in one or all of the categories below:

Shrill (but still wrong) Illogical Abusive

I’d also like to thank whoever it was who published my teacher training workshop prices from my website on Twitter. This publicly available information does need to be disseminated, and as a result, enquiries and bookings have increased this week.

The flat Earth

Once upon a time, it was widely believed that the Earth was flat. Many ancient cultures portrayed the world as being a flat surface and this belief survived until Pythagoras and the like started proving otherwise in the 6thcentury BC.

Through the cumulative efforts of cosmologists, philosophers, mathematicians and astronomers, to name but a few, a vast body of knowledge about the shape of the Earth has developed. The competing view has taken something of a back seat due to the sheer weight of evidence against it.

There is however, even in this day and age, a group of people who cling dogmatically to the flat Earth ideal and they are called, surprisingly enough, Flat Earthers. Many are influenced by religious literalism and strong suspicion of the government, and most are mocked or ignored by the rest of the world.

If only the science of reading had similar clear divisions between itself and what has come to be a pseudoscience of reading. Reading science doesn’t lack a weight of evidence, and yet false theories continue to exist.

Flat Earthers do very little harm, although indoctrinating children is somewhat abusive, especially if that indoctrination causes them to reject science. Pseudoscience in reading, however, has racked up an extensive list of casualties, not least an incarcerated/disenfranchised underclass in every English speaking country.

A brief history of reading science

Back in the old days, when functional brain scans and the internet didn’t exist, three major theories about how children learn to read emerged. These were known broadly as phonics, whole language and whole word.

Phonics can be regarded as a bottom-up approach, starting with the smallest units, i.e. letters and sounds, and building up towards words, phrases and sentences. Whole language and whole word are top-down approaches, in that they start with larger units such as meaning and whole words, and work their way down to the smaller building blocks of language incidentally, if at all.

The three major theories of reading


Scientists in numerous fields have spent the best part of the last century testing the theories. Some started off supporting one theory, and found that they had to change their mind about their notions of learning to read.

Keith Stanovich talks about this in his highly acclaimed book Progress in Understanding Reading: Scientific Foundations and New Frontiers. He says:

“We did start out with a theoretical bias, one consistent with the top-down view. But in real science one is eventually influenced by the evidence, regardless of one’s initial bias, and the consistency of our findings finally led us away from the top-down view.”

This kind of hypothesis-testing is how we concluded that he brain was, in fact, not the organ we pushed blood around our bodies with. It’s how we found out that the heart wasn’t the seat of thought. It’s how we came up with useful ideas that stuck, like hand-washing before and after performing surgery.

The act of testing is called research. The result of testing is called evidence. These are very important terms to understand when selecting teaching methods. The words research and evidence are thrown around a little too much in the education arena without being properly defined.

Testing and re-testing, over time, by different scientists and coming up with predictable results produces a theory. When various scientists agree on a theory, we have what is called scientific consensus. When scientists from various fields come to the similar conclusions, this is known as convergence. Psychologists, linguists, educators and speech-language professionals have done so on the subject of reading.

A century of testing and evaluating evidence has resulted in a consensus and a convergent understanding of the processes involved in achieving skilled reading and writing. Here is the conclusion:

Systematic synthetic phonics is currently the most effective method of initial reading instruction. Systematic synthetic phonics is a necessary step in the process of literacy acquisition, but is not sufficient on its own to guarantee literacy for all. Timely and appropriate instruction in phonological awareness, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension is also necessary to ensure literacy for the largest possible population. Reading is not a psycholinguistic guessing game. Learning an alphabetic language by memorising whole words in the absence of blending and segmenting their parts is ultimately impossible for most people.

The problem is, claims that children can learn to read using context and whole words, like the claim that the Earth is flat, are not so absurd that anyone can dismiss them out of hand. There are enough instances of children learning to read in spite of poor instruction and there are enough examples of the Earth being seemingly flat to give these theories some weight.

Why are whole language and whole word methods like the flat Earth?

Whole language and whole word are very seductive theories, and still enjoy enormous popularity worldwide. They tie in with the trendy, but ultimately empty idea that children’s creativity, personal interests and individual sparkle should be at the forefront of all teaching.

Now I’m all for individualistic and sparkly children, but nothing loses a sparkle quicker than a child entering their third year of schooling still unable to read/write/count. No one enters my practice to get help with their creativity, collaborative abilities, critical thinking or play-based skills. They want to learn to read, write and count as a result of not being well taught at school.

The casualties of top-down ideas are everywhere. The remnants of whole language are deeply and firmly entrenched in the collective educational psyche.

Words are not independent objects to be learned by sight like people’s faces or the flags of the world’s nations. They contain a limited set of parts that can be combined and recombined to form many and varied wholes.

Methods which ignore this truth have been shown repeatedly to be less effective, but, like the flat Earth theory, they don’t seem to go away.

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that when whole language and whole word started to gain popularity, like the Flat Earthers, their proponents didn’t have the research to verify their claims, but either did anyone else.

And so the three camps became ever more distinct from one another and rivalry, bitterness and vitriol ensued. But there’s one very important point that often gets missed, and that is that whole language and whole word proponents failed to advance their theories. Most of their time was spent furiously defending their position or trying to merge with the other two.

Not so the majority of phonics proponents. Theorists, researchers and practitioners in this field continued to refine and build upon phonics. They realised that phonics is necessary but not sufficient for fluent reading with comprehension.

The most effective practitioners use appropriate and timely instruction in the keys to literacy. Systematic synthetic phonics should feature most heavily within the framework of those keys, especially in the early years. This is widely acknowledged by authors, publishers and teachers who understand the evidence base. But more has to be done to get children reading and writing competently.

One of the greatest problems faced by people who understand this is that there is no standard name for this set of principles. They are denigrated by whole language and whole word proponents, despite vindication by science. Their work is referred to only as ‘phonics’. I myself have even been, hilariously, accused of being a ‘phonicator’ or ‘phombie’ for supporting and advancing the notion that systematic synthetic phonics is important.

Name-calling and misrepresentation of this set of principles implies that those who support systematic synthetic phonics are basing their stance on philosophy. Therefore, if it’s philosophical, the competing view must be equally valid. Research evidence is ignored.

A further problem emerges because reading scientists are just that: scientists. They tend not to use their energy to create user-friendly explanations of complex processes. They are generally busy conducting and publishing actual research. So we have a vacuum, and into that vacuum creeps the philosophical brigade, whose time isn’t spent in the lab, and so they are free to spread disinformation in order to cling to comforting falsehoods.

A grudging recognition of the importance of phonics has started to seep into some corners of education and a new beast has arrived on the scene called balanced literacy. It is touted as a mixture of low-pace, analytic phonics, whole language and whole word; the worst of all possible worlds, in fact.

Top-down proponents say that children should be taught to read using the following strategies:

Being read to Guessing at unknown words Using context to guess unknown words Using picture cues to guess unknown words Learning ‘sight words’ by memorizing their shape or visual features Looking at the first letter of a word and moving to the next word (this is the balanced phonics part)

These methods fail to serve a large number of children and have indeed been shown in laboratory conditions to be the strategies employed by poor readers who have not yet mastered the alphabetic code.

Yet balanced literacy and whole word proponents maintain an illogical attachment to these methods instead of advancing the field by admitting they were wrong. To admit that would be painful and challenging. It would require the author/teacher to face that they have made a mistake that has likely done a disservice to many children.

Top-down methods sound plausible and are often strongly argued. Politicians, education bureaucrats and the general public do not, and often cannot, understand the data put forth in the research. Therefore they are swayed by the most emotive, strongest argument.

Unfortunately, whole language, and to a lesser degree, whole word proponents are far more advanced and well organized than Flat Earthers. We would laugh them out of the geography lecture theatre if they tried to put their views forward in a tertiary setting. And yet I don’t hear anyone laughing at teacher training colleges when the psycholinguistic guessing games or sight word lists spring up.

If you are a teacher or a teacher in training, your acceptance of flat Earth reading theory could make the difference between literacy and illiteracy for countless children. This open letter to student teachers might provide some insight as to how to demand better training.


Stanovich, K.E. (2000). Progress in Understanding Reading: Scientific foundations and new frontiers. New York: Guilford.