And now we cross live, for the launch of the Correct Reading Alliance People.

Interviewer: I’d like to welcome Professor Donna Kruger to the launch of a visionary new initiative, called the Correct Reading Alliance People. Welcome, Professor Kruger.

Professor Kruger: Thank you John, delighted to be here.

I: So what exactly is the Correct Reading Alliance People?

P: Well a group of us, who have been ignoring the findings of cognitive science for some time, banded together, because with our combined authoritative veneer, we could see there was a real need at the moment for a meaningless defence of our position.

There’s a lot of misinformation put out there by us and we feel it’s getting missed by teachers, leaders and policy makers.

So what we’ve done is redefined the notion of expert to describe only us, and then presented our opinions, in plain Doublespeak.

I: With a few empty platitudes sprinkled in?

P: With a few empty platitudes sprinkled in! How else would we be able to show how deeply we care about our opinions?

I: Well, certainly not by teaching teachers to teach reading!

P: Exactly, but making teachers and parents feel better about illiterate children is what really counts here. And not only that, but parents, teachers, school leaders, community members and politicians also need to find ways of accepting that 15% of children not being able to read is totally fine.

I: And do you have a way of maintaining or even increasing this 15%?

P: Well we do, but, far be it from us to ever tell teachers what to do! Teachers are the most joyful, inquisitive, creative, wonderful little creatures and that needs to be nurtured, not stifled by directives or facts or research or heaven forbid… thinking!

I :* gasps* Are there really some monsters out there asking teachers to think?

P: Yes! We see it all the time. So we’ve decided to disqualify anyone who was not us, you know, like speech-language professionals, or psychologists, or cognitive scientists or those nasty little linguists with their knowledge and resources, and we’re challenging them with the big doozy question that always shuts them up!

I: And what’s that question?

P: Have you ever been hopelessly confused by your not fit for purpose degree ? No? Didn’t think so!

I: Fantastic! If those guys never got a low quality set of useless tools to set them and their students up for failure, how could they even dare to comment about the authentic, lived experience of so many teachers?

P: Certainly not the ones we’re churning out!

I: Amen!

P: And that’s the essence of C.R.A.P.! Although we do also have the 11 commandments that all teachers need to learn to recite before we give them their certificates.

I: Don’t you mean 10 commandments?

P: No. These commandments go up to 11.

I: Oh, I see. And most commandments go up to 10?

P: Exactly.

I: Does that mean they’re better?

P: Well it’s one better, isn’t it? It’s not 10. You see most experts, you know, will be doing a top 10. You’re on 10, all the way up. Where can you go from there? Where?

I: I don’t know.

P: Nowhere. Exactly. What we do is, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do ?

I: Make up an 11th commandment?

P: 11. Exactly. One bigger.

I: Why not just make 10 really good ones?

P: *pause* Ours go to 11.

I: OK and what sort of things are in your top 11?

P: Well, I thought you’d never ask. Firstly we talk about how important reading is.

I: Because some people say it’s not ?

P: Well people who can’t read say it’s not. So we’d like to come right out at the start and really rub it into that unlucky 15% that if they can’t read, life is going to be pretty rubbish.

I: Got it. So to the 15%, straight off the bat: you’re screwed!

P: Precisely. Then we go on to say that the only thing you need to be good at to read is oral language.

I: Not decoding?

P: Wash your mouth out! Decoding is the opposite of joy!

I: Sorry.

P: Then we talk about how much pleasure and power the fortunate 85% are going to have over the 15%.

I: Nice touch.

P: Right. But even if they can’t read or write, they can still be lovely and creative and imaginative in their own heads.

I: They just can’t share it in print.

P : Precisely. Never let learning to read and write get in the way of a good daydream. It’s the same with making sense. It’s all got to make sense right from the start.

I: Oh, so when five year olds get lists of words to take home and memorise as whole, decontextualized, disconnected from similar words, undefined units that they later can’t spell, it’s all to help them make sense ?

P: You’re really getting the hang of the C.R.A.P. way!

I: Thank you!

P: What’s C.R.A.Pper still, is our 6th commandment. It goes like like this : Stanislas Dehaene doesn’t know Jack about individual children. Don’t listen to him. I know it’s tempting, with his rich, Gallic tones and his machines that go ‘ping’…

I: Do you mean his functional magnetic resonance imaging equipment at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research?

P: Yeah. What would he know about the lived experience of being confused by Ken Goodman?

I: Hack.

P: Right. So anyway, that leads us into the vaguest part of our commandment panoply: If we just hint that reading is a good idea, 85% will figure it out, in their own creative, joyful way.

I: And the 15%?

P: Well we’ve already established in commandments 1 and 3 that joy, pleasure and power are beyond their grasp so who cares? I mean if the 15% aren’t going to eat at the banquet table of multiple engagement opportunities, learner negotioation, guesswork and the idea of confidence, then that’s neither our circus nor our monkeys.

I: Okay . So how can we make sure we’re doing enough to keep that 15% where they belong?

P: Well, through the C.R.A.P. assessment protocols of course! Or the C.R.A.P.-A.P as we like to call it! The C.R.A.P.-A.P ensures that those annoying features like assessment validity and reliability don’t get in the way of a child’s confidence, even if they don’t learn to read or write. We can use C.R.A.P.-A.Ps to show growth in confidence, in having ago, in looking at pictures…

I: We all love the pictures!

P: Quite…and skipping words, and guessing and staring at pages pretending to read…

I: And don’t forget concepts of print!

P: Absolutely! As long as a kid knows where the front cover and index are and what a caption is for, they can go ahead and daydream their way to knowledge!

I: Visionary! So what else have you got?

P: Well, it was getting towards tea time so we thought we’d round off with a quick SBO.


P: Oh, sorry industry jargon: Statement of the Bleeding Obvious.

I: Which is?

P: That we need to keep on teaching kids stuff after the first couple of years. Even if they haven’t actually learned to read or write anything we just need to go on and on. I think it’s a point worth making, because some of those non experts in their right wing think tanks and research institutes have come up with ways of teaching kids to read and write in the first two years of schooling.

I: Even the 15%?

P: Even the 15%!

I: The swine!

P: I know! Never let it be forgotten that it’s not well designed, easy to follow, effective, research based resources that teach kids to read , it’s hearts.

I: Hearts?

P: Hearts of confused, overworked, under-resourced teachers. We’re sick of them being undermined by quality approaches that bring universal success.

I: Oh that should be a commandment!

P: Well actually that is number 10.

I: Hurrah! So I take it commandment 11 is a revelation of the big technique, the culmination of decades of research, the consensus among those who truly understand the big picture?

P: Yes!

I: I can hardly wait!

P: Here it is.  *clears throat *Are you sitting down?

I: * Squeals*

P: *clears throat* If you can’t read, it’s your mother’s fault.

I: Glory be! Professor Kruger, it’s been a pleasure and a privilege to be here with you and launch the C.R.A.P. Initiative. 85% of the children of Australia thank you for your efforts in maintaining the status quo.

P: Thank you!

I have had the great honour, over the last year or so, to have been a regular guest on the ABC Radio Adelaide Jules Schiller Drive show. Jules is a keen wordsmith and a bit of a larrikin, hence the title of his linguistics segment: Polish a Word.

This week, Jules wanted to talk about Arabic and its contribution to English. Being one of the world’s main languages, Arabic has influenced many others and English is no exception. There are the obvious contenders, such as falafel, hummus, baba ganoush and tahini, but some of the other Arabic-derived words may come as a surprise. For instance, did you know that candy, orange, lemon and artichoke have Arabic origins too?



A clue to a few of these words is the syllable al-. This is the definite article in Arabic (e.g. Al Jazeera – “the island” or Al Qaeda – “the base”). So we get:

·      algebra (the reunion of broken parts),

·      algorithm (from the surname of the mathematician who introduced sophisticated maths to the West),

·      alcohol ( the fine powder produced by the process of sublimation), 

·      alkali (burnt ashes) and

·      alchemy (going all the way back to “that which is poured out”).


Our entire numbering system is based on Arabic numerals and the concept of zero was introduced through Arabic notation. It is closely linked to the word cipher.


Sticking with the numerical theme, tariff (“inventory of fees to be paid”) and average (“damaged goods”) are also in the Arabic-derived category.


That mathematical influence also reached English terms for measurement by the stars. We have zenith, nadir and the gorgeous azimuth all from Arabic terms.


Fashion and fabric owes many of its terms to Arabic, such as damask, gauze, macramé, mohair, muslin, cotton and even sash. You can read about all of these in a magazine (makzan – “storehouse”) while sitting on a sofa (suffah – “bench of stone or wood”) drinking coffee (qahwah – possibly originally meaning “wine”) with some sugar in it (you guessed it, sugar is Arabic-derived too). If sofas aren’t your thing, you can always sit around on a large cushion called al-matrah, which gave us mattress.

Giraffe, gazelle and safari can be traced back to Arabic, and possibly even camel, which some say comes from jamala, meaning “to bear”.

Three surprises for me were admiral (from amir – “military commander”, also emir and so Emirates), ghoul (which I thought was related to ghost and ghastly but actually is an Arabic word for an evil, corpse-eating, grave-robbing spirit) and lastly checkmate, a derivative of shah mat, literally meaning “the king has died”.

Shukran, Jules!



We are judged on our linguistic output whether we like it or not. People are instinctively primed to make snap decisions about others based on a range of subtle signals. Language is a huge factor. This is one of the reasons that language-based disorders in children can have such long-term, corrosive effects.

In my practice, many of the children who come to see us for help with reading and writing also have trouble with irregular past tense forms. They often add an -ed suffix to verbs whose forms change in other ways to express tense (e.g. “runned”, or “eated”). Sometimes they confuse active with passive voice (“I seen it.”) Sometimes they mis-associate similar forms (“Sing goes to sang therefore bring goes to brang”). Wherever there is irregularity,  be it in spelling or grammar, we see hotspots of slow or faulty acquisition.

Many of our students who struggle with past formations even hyper-correct during oral reading. For example, a passage might say The boy threw the ball into the tree, but the child hyper-corrects to “The boy throwed the ball into the tree.” This habit of not believing the evidence of their eyes and preferring to call out what they think should be there is further compounded by schools that embed the three cueing system or other guessing strategies into their reading instruction.

As a result, students who already struggle to acquire irregular forms are further disadvantaged. They don’t pick up the correct forms through reading either, since accuracy is not granted the importance it deserves.

Another problem is that typically developing students need no or very little explicit instruction in irregulars. They acquire knowledge of such things through oral language development. As a result, schools tend not to write explicit instruction of this kind into their curricula.

The net result is a population of children stranded in a world of ‘brang’ and ‘drawed’, with all the social consequences of that.

Children are acutely aware of their similarities and differences and form hierarchies accordingly. Linguistic inaccuracy is often publicly corrected by well-meaning adults: “No, Johnny, it’s not brang!” Those micro-shamings over time surely must add to a whole raft of behaviours, ranging from word-avoidance in speaking and writing, to acting out and disengagement.

It has become something of a standard during our lessons to screen for and explicitly teach irregular past tense forms. We use a basic list and go through it systematically, marking correct and incorrect responses and giving around five a week to practise at home.

It goes like this:

Introduce the concept of regular verbs. Introduce the concept of irregular verbs. Start with the first item on the list and put it into context: “Today I run, yesterday I…” If the student makes an error, we write it down, we kindly correct the error and coach the parent/carer to use the sentences above to practise correct formation with the child. Re-check in the next and subsequent session before finding and adding more. Five at a time is usually enough. Interleave these forms through subsequent spelling and reading tasks until stable.

Grouping the words according to their common features is also helpful. As a matter of course, all my students learn this grid sooner or later, both for spelling and for reading (and yes, I teach and define sought):

Irregulars not being part of Tier One instruction is understandable, as there’s only so much you can do in a day/week/school year, but if you are working in a smaller setting with children who struggle  with some aspect of language, irregular formation is a mighty good thing to check and assist with.

The start of every year brings a new influx of students. They all have certain things in common: They have not progressed in reading and/or writing enough to keep up with their peers. They are in need of support. They are in need of assessment. They have, at some point, been told that they have a reading level.

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:

Single word reading test (The CC2)

Letter sound test (The LeST)

Valid assessment is both armour and ammunition in the battle for higher quality practice.

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 answers

So 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.

This just in from a slightly panicked vendor of teaching resources:

Hi everyone!

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:

“Try it”

“Check it”

“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.

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