Many students come with reports on their cognitive abilities from psychologists. Many of them have speech and occupational therapy reports too.
We carefully read these reports before seeing the new students and then we go about gathering more information to help make decisions about supporting them. This information comes from the results of a battery of tests, including:Phonological awareness Single word reading (regular, irregular and non-words) Single word spelling Letter sound test (if necessary) Oral reading Listening comprehension
The more information we have about them, the faster and more efficiently we can provide support to them. Like any practitioner in any field, the use of any assessment determines the path we take to making reading and spelling faster/stronger/better.
The one thing we don’t ask them is:
“What’s your reading level?”
You might think that knowing their reading level would help to inform us. Heck, you might even wonder why we don’t use a test that comes up with a reading level. Surely this is valuable information?
Well, turns out it isn’t.
At Lifelong Literacy, our survival literally relies on our students’ success. There is no margin for error. People simply wouldn’t come back.
To that end, we have to be very precise about our students’ current abilities and their potential for growth. Their assigned ‘reading level’ is the one thing we can completely ignore. It is a blunt instrument, prone to subjectivity, bias and unacceptable variability. It tells us precisely nothing about the student in front of us.
The same thing would happen if a person went to a doctor and had a ‘phrenology* level’. The doctor would run whatever tests were needed and would ignore the findings of any phrenological assessment done previously.
If a person consulted a horticulturist about a plant that wasn’t thriving, armed with a ‘vibration level’ for that plant, what do you think the consultant would do?
The possibilities for analogy are endless.
Book levelling, an extension of child-levelling, is a deeply entrenched yet woefully uninformative practice. In almost all cases, reading levels are derived using Running Records (also known as Benchmark Assessment Summaries and Observation Summaries). A reading level is then matched to a set of books whose level is also arbitrarily determined. Some children never move out of the very early levels, and as a result, are robbed of background knowledge and vocabulary development that their more mobile peers enjoy.
I’m a busy practitioner, running a practice that is, frankly, overflowing with students who aren’t making it at school. Efficiency and accuracy are critical features of my assessment. I have spent decades seeking, refining and updating the process of initial assessment so that students get the best possible help as quickly as we can provide it. If Running Records were fit for purpose, believe me, we’d use them.
Saying this publicly has caused quite an outpouring of disbelief, shock and anger in the teaching community. Making people uncomfortable about what they’re currently doing in education is an unfortunate, but necessary by-product of what I do. Beliefs and practices that don’t work well hit my students faster and harder. It is my duty to mention them, because if I don’t, who will?
So my message is: Running Records and the data derived from them are generally ignored by practitioners like me because they give no data of any value. It’s not personal; it’s practical.
Of course, there has been much support for my stance too. Teachers who answered a survey about being mandated to use Running Records were almost unanimous in their distaste for the tests. They reported feeling ignored, undervalued and sometimes even threatened when voicing their doubts. Many testified to the fact that no formal training in administering these tests took place. The survey also revealed that sometimes the data produced from the tests was uploaded to a server somewhere and promptly forgotten about. If we consider the significant amount of time Running Records take per student, this alone presents an unacceptable picture.
There have also been some rather chilling responses, from higher-up figures in various education departments, who have argued that Running Records are only useless if they’re done by incompetent teachers. Way to throw your trainees under the bus! How about arming teachers instead with valid, reliable tests that have minimal margin for error?
I have begun uploading YouTube videos to help suggest #RunningRecordsReplacements, since complaining about a problem is not as useful as offering a solution.
Please, let 2020 be the year we open up dialogue about placing valid tests into the hands of teachers.
*Phrenology: the detailed study of the shape and size of the cranium as a supposed indication of character and mental abilities
Last week I sought information from teachers about being mandated to use Running Records for assessment and reporting. This followed an article I wrote about why these assessments were not fit for purpose. When I say Running Records, I do mean formal Benchmark Assessment System tests and less formal stand-alone Running Records.
I wanted to know several things about who and what was behind their use in schools. To say it was a massive outpouring of discontent would be an understatement. Here is the breakdown:
My first question was:Are you obliged to use and submit data using Running Records?
I was shocked to hear that some schools and school districts have this as a mandatory requirement. Since these assessments are not aligned with what we know are the key components of reading, does this not equate to educational malpractice?
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. What happened to teacher autonomy? There are teachers all over the world being forced to use these tests despite knowing full well that they are not valid.
Running Records fall short on the science, even if they do score well on the feels for some. I am aware that many teachers swear by them and love using them. Running Records certainly have a reassuringly structured feel to them. Supporters often express the view that Running Records provide insights that are helpful. They like the way the results can be matched to resources and ‘levels’. They like the way they can be used in goal-setting and reporting. But I think we need to open dialogue about replacing them with assessments that do all this and more. And the more I’m referring to is alignment with the findings of cognitive science around how reading works. I’m also referring to validity, reliability and objective measurement.
Next, I wanted to find out who was behind these mandates, so I asked:Who do you have to submit the data to (e.g. a supervisor, a school board, a school district etc.)?
Aside from immediate superiors, many teachers answered that they had to upload the data to a common data portal, like Google Docs, and that in many cases, they were never checked, let alone acted upon. Some respondents were teachers in public schools who are paid to spend a great deal of time administering these tests. One teacher said:
“We enter the results onto a Google doc and nobody does anything with them. Leadership don’t check them and we never get any feedback about the results. They just sit there doing nothing. It’s the number 1 biggest waste of teaching time and so frustrating to have to do that instead of the explicit teaching my class require!”
Curious about their frequency, I asked:How often do you have to use these tests in a school year?
Answers varied from “once every three weeks” to “twice a year”. Imagine the useful information we could have in schools if these assessments measured what was actually being taught.
The answers to the next question concern the use of teacher time. There seems to be an eye-watering amount of time devoted to Running Records. Many of my respondents were incensed to have their precious time wasted like this, but felt powerless to complain or change it. The question was:How long, on average, does it take to complete the cycle, from first test to the last word of your report?
Some teachers couldn’t quantify an exact time, but answered, “about a week” or “by the time I’ve finished all the testing, it feels like I have to start it all over again”.
For those who did give a duration, the average was 23 minutes. Per child. That’s a lot of time measuring what doesn’t amount to reading, especially if it’s done once every three weeks.
But aside from questions of time-wasting, when I asked about training, I was alarmed at the laxity. This was a side of Running Records I wasn’t aware of. I assumed all teachers were given deliberate, approved training at the tertiary level. Bear in mind, these assessments are ubiquitous, time-consuming and very complex. I asked:What training did you do to run this assessment?
A representative sample of typical responses follows:
“I do not have training to conduct PM assessment, although my colleague offered to informally tell me what to do…”
“I have never been trained, just shown by a colleague and we worked together to apply graded to levels with some moderation with schools close by.”
“No training has ever been provided. I’ve taught all year levels at many schools. It’s assumed teachers ‘just know’ how to do it. It’s also assumed teachers know what they’re supposed to be assessing/looking for/ analysing/ commenting on.”
“I have no formal training in administration. How to is handed down from teacher to teacher.”
“10 or so years ago a fellow teacher showed me what to do.”
“We’ve never done any training on it and I’ve noticed that everyone does the test slightly differently thus making the results void.”
There isn’t a wow emoji large enough to express my incredulity.
In all fairness, the Australian Catholic sector seemed to be a little more rigorous in mandating and providing formal training, which would be encouraging should they decide to go with higher quality assessment one day.
So if there’s this much discontent, why not rebel? I posted an optional question at the end of the survey:What would happen if you did not submit that data?
Answers ranged from “disciplinary action” to “not an option”. What I didn’t get was the impression that those who issued these mandates were at all interested in teacher agency or open and honest collaboration. Fear ran through the responses.
When parents show me their children’s ILPs and it has some kind of target that refers to a reading level or a benchmark, I ask them to ignore it or to return to the school and ask for a valid assessment. Parents have less to lose and more to gain from doing this. Teachers, on the other hand, feel threatened at worst, voiceless and ignored at best. Teacher burnout is real, and with mandates like this, it’s no wonder.For a series of #RunningRecordsReplacements, head over to my YouTube channel:
Taking steps to improve the quality of instruction so that all children progress appropriately towards literacy is not a job for the faint-hearted. Yet my 2019 was filled with stories of courageous schools and teachers making huge strides. The ambition to make my tutoring practice (and others like it) a necessity only for those with extreme literacy difficulties is a little closer to becoming a reality.
Many of the schools who have decided to take the plunge towards more evidence-aligned literacy instruction have also taken into account the critical importance of valid assessment. These are the schools who have the best chance of succeeding.
I’m therefore offering a suggestion to all teachers and schools who want to raise the quality of their literacy instruction quickly:
Check your assessment battery. If it contains Running Records, you will make slower progress. They are time-consuming and inaccurate.
Besides that, when striving to change literacy instruction for the better, teachers and leaders can find themselves opposed. Sometimes the opposition is external. The school implementing change could be surrounded by schools or systems that are steeped in whole language or balanced literacy philosophies. Sometimes the opposition comes from within the school itself, from leadership, parents or colleagues.
The most effective way of dealing with opposition, of course, is to gather evidence that what you’re saying is true. Assessment data that is reliable, objective and measures what is being taught are both ammunition and armour in the battle.
So here’s the part that I try to get my school clients to understand: if they are committed to raising the standard of literacy instruction in their school and showing it, they have to be able to measure progress with validity.
Running Records, or indeed any assessments that attempt to incorporate the 3 cueing system into the assessment rubric, are not their friends.
To help challenge the idea of using Running Records, I try to get school leaders to ponder the following points:Word-level reading and language comprehension are two separate things. Reading comprehension is a product of both. The two have to be measured individually so that the cause of low reading comprehension is correctly identified. If you ask a child to read a passage out loud and then ask them comprehension questions about that passage, you won’t know how to account for any low scores unless you measure both processes separately. As Dr Heidi Beverine-Curry, The Reading League‘s Vice President for Professional Development says in this video, “Students’ decoding ability and language comprehension are discrepant in the primary years, so why measure it with the same instrument?” If teachers are using the tests with fidelity, then they have to mark every error as a meaning, structure or visual. If that’s what they’re doing, how does the result then inform their subsequent teaching? If it’s a so-called meaning error, what does a corrective lesson look like? If it’s structure, what are the key teaching points necessary to avoid this error? And if it’s ‘visual’, well, that’s not really even a thing, is it? And how do they correct it even if they believe in its existence? If they are using a systematic, structured literacy approach that has a stated sequence of introduction of graphemes and practice to mastery, then their continuum will not match the texts in the assessment. So why would anyone assess what they aren’t teaching? If they aren’t using the tests with fidelity, but are just using them to get a general picture of where their students are, why are they spending time on this at all? Aren’t there much better ways of doing this that don’t require such a large expenditure of time, energy and money? The text level that this type of measurement spits out is inaccurate, arbitrary, not replicable and misaligned with the teaching material. It gives false information to parents and students about skills and progress, since it doesn’t measure growth in the key areas of literacy. This is ultimately damaging to the populations most at risk of reading failure. For that reason, wouldn’t the use of Running Records in fact be unethical?
Questions that arise from these discussions and some answersSo what should teachers do instead? How about using some of the readily available, low-cost or free assessments like the ones from Acadience, or Macquarie University? If you want to test listening comprehension, have a set of passages with comprehension questions, read them out to your students, then ask the questions. The Probe Test is one example of a resource that allows you to do this.
Won’t parents be upset that they don’t get to gauge their children’s reading level? Only if you don’t keep parents in the loop. Explain why you’re moving toward even better assessment for a clearer picture. Establish a culture of collaboration with parents and get them to embrace meaningful assessment reporting.
How do we report on the reading level students are at if we don’t use running records to reveal their level? That’s kind of like saying, “How do we tell them what colour their aura is if we don’t get a clairvoyant in?” The answer is, it’s not important. Book levels are not a valid measure. More about that here and here.
I’ve put out a survey to all teachers via social media regarding mandated Running Records. The results so far have been eye-opening and I’ll be following up with an article on the state of play worldwide. We’re seeing such an encouraging shift towards high quality practice, let’s match it with assessment of a similar calibre.
I’ve been asked to coin a derogatory term for my detractors to help shift attention off the weaknesses in my resources and put it back where it should be: on the Reading Wars. To that end, I’m going to go with phonics-centric. It has an eccentric connotation to it, as well as hinting that they’re a bit obsessive. Smart, huh? I’ll also be referring to them as a nefarious ‘interest group’ who are trying to claim that they own science. I’m not going to outright call them the Phonics Mafia or even phombies, as some of my more unhinged colleagues are wont to do because I’d like my followers to believe that I’m way better than that, but between you and me, those labels are pretty funny, no? Lol!
What I might do is start by offering my opinion that the phonicators mean well, bless their hearts, but they need to shut up, because no one wants to go back to that time when all children, regardless of background, were mercilessly forced to learn how to read and write proficiently. Repeat after me, “The real problem is poverty…the real problem is poverty!”
I’d also like to take the first of many opportunities to discredit and deride a very dangerous movement, comprising my worst nightmare, and yours too if you’re clinging to whole language: well informed parents! Gasp! Those scamps have HAD ENOUGH of their dyslexic children being poorly taught and are making quite a lot of bad-for-business noise, if you know what I mean. How DARE they? Those chumps aren’t qualified to mess up teaching reading. Sheesh!
While we’re at it, now that Bob Sweet is no longer around to defend his life’s work, it’s probably safe to start complaining about the threat Reading First posed to brands like mine. I’ll return to that little nugget shortly, but at this point, I’d like to tell you how well I’ve grasped the process of literacy acquisition. I might get it a bit wrong, and please don’t mention orthographic mapping or the Simple View of Reading, because those doozies frighten the bejeesus out of me, but as you can see, I really know what I’m talking about without those eggheads telling me what’s what. As long as I sprinkle in some obvious facts about talking predating writing, you won’t notice how mindbogglingly wrong I got it in the past. Right?
Now here’s where I’ll refrain from calling my detractors a derogatory name, because it’s time to align myself with their good works. Ready? Here goes: I for one have always said phonics needs to be explicitly taught. I mean, duh! Have you seen my new phonics patch? I didn’t invent that for the good of my health…or anyone else’s for that matter, but I diverge.
So yeah, phonics rocks. I’ve always said it and I want you to say it too. Just don’t take away my guessing god! I’ve built an empire on this thing and those naughty phonicators are starting to get through to my customers! So how about we all just agree not to use the word “guess” any more? Instead, let’s imply to children that they should guess. After all, that will develop those gorgeous little inferencing skills even more, right? Here’s a list of words that you may say to replace the G-word when children are reading. You can choose one or all of them, heck, you can even improvise, just as long as you keep ‘em guessing:
“What could this be?”
“Chunk your head off!”
That sort of thing will do just fine.
I also want to say a word about some of the more pesky journalists that are getting up my nose at the moment. Even though I go to great lengths to encourage people to revere and respect writing and writers, I just want you to remember one thing: journalists are baddies that don’t know what they’re talking about. Just because their bread and butter literally relies on them looking deeply into topics and expertly writing about them, just because they have mastered the art of synthesising their background knowledge with the interpretation of complex topics through a highly developed ability to think critically, doesn’t mean they get to say my philosophy sucks.
Never be afraid, dear teachers, to point out that the only source of knowledge about teaching literacy comes from classroom experience. And from me. Don’t forget about me. That’s it. No one else can possibly know anything about literacy unless they are me or teachers.
Also, a quick warning: the 3 Cueing System is getting a bad rap. Time to distance ourselves from that cute little Venn diagram, methinks. I know, right? So sad! It’s such an adorable graphic, but I hate to tell you, we need to unhitch ourselves from this unpopular little wagon pronto! Shhh, though, we don’t want people noticing too much, so follow these baby steps:Let’s pretend we only ever used it for assessment and never for teaching. Get all those posters down from your school walls and Facebook pages that disprove 1 above. Quickly point to decodable reading material and shout, “Look over there!”
Because, you see, dear friends, one of our most powerful ways to keep the competition at bay is to cast doubt on the utility of decodable reading books. Stick to your guns when attacking them by saying things like, “Children are never taught what the words in those books mean, so sentences like ‘Jan can lug the tug’ make no sense!” Gasp! Those fonatix are like the nihilists of the education arena, going around saying: “Everything is meaningless so let’s just bark at print!” As long as we perpetuate the myth of phonics in isolation, my market share…I mean…our philosophy…is safe. We’ll call it all extreme decoding and laugh (all the way to the bank in my case).
At this point in my manifesto, dear reader, I’d like to get back to whacking that rotten National Reading Panel by listing a whole bunch of teachable skills, like phonics and writing, with a whole bunch of non-teachable thought processes like comprehension and critical thinking, and hinting that teachers are being forced to choose between having children develop them. I mean, hey, no one really has really to grasp the difference between them, do they? As long as we keep saying, “No one size fits all!” about teachers, about students, about schools, we’re free to justify any old horse manure. Amirite, folks? Lol!
So anyway, back to my market share. Somehow I’m going to have to find a way to placate a bunch of people whose kids we spent decades ignoring. Yep, I’m talking about those annoying, well-organised, well-informed dyslexia moms! Because let me tell you, knowledge is power and those bitches know way too much! Remember the good old days when you could just rock up and say you were an expert and the parents just believed you? Well those days are gone. Those dogs are using the internet and finding out the big secret about reading (you know, the stuff you weren’t taught at teacher school that all the smartasses in their labs and their newspapers and their speech-language clinics learned about?). Turns out, this is making the dyslexia mom movement mad as a cut snake! And people are listening to them!
So I’m just gonna go right ahead and claim that me and a whole bunch of neuroscientists got together and we all agreed that as much as we love those dyslexic kiddoes, we don’t love them quite enough to get rid of whole language in the classroom just yet. That would mean so much lost business…I mean lost time retraining everyone in how to teach the structure of words explicitly and systematically to all the kids. No, those little challenged cherubs can just be segregated from their classrooms and given high quality instruction (or not, who cares?) somewhere else, while the rest of us get on with the much more profitable (and easier) business of teaching guessing. Okay, dyslexia moms? See? I have empathy.
I just want to conclude by thanking you all, for what has been a very lucrative career. I’ve benefitted immensely from being falsely hailed as someone who has an inlking about teaching reading to all children. Now that my work is being called into question on so many fronts though, I feel it necessary to address those questions in the only way I know how: with a rambling, passive-aggressive mishmash of half truths and slogans.
To demonstrate the stupefyingly impressive learning trajectory I’m on, I will close with a list of a bunch of publications that sort of agree with the points I’m making, whilst taking great pains not to mention any of those silly smartass reading scientists with their facts and their research, trying to make me look dumb.
PS Keep buying my stuff.
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”.
“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’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.
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.
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.If you liked this post…
…you might like to join us in an online course. They’re built for educators worldwide and are low-cost, on-demand informative courses on spelling, grammar and reading. You can also enrol on the sample courses to try before you buy.
“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:
“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
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
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.
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.
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
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.”
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?
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.
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.
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.