Canaries in the Coalmine: Insights from private tuition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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18 thoughts on “Canaries in the Coalmine: Insights from private tuition”

    1. Avatar

      I’d be happy to be out of this particular job, Kate, much as I love my students. It’s just infuriating to see them not getting what they need at school.
      What’s also galling is that our opposition has the temerity to accuse us of being ‘in it for the money’. If that were so, we’d be quiet about ‘balanced literacy’, 3-cueing and all the other low quality ideas in teaching reading.

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    Sandra Marshall

    Well said Lyn. Working with children with childhood trauma, dysfunctional families and poor literacy makes me ashamed of our education systems, or lack of. At the very LEAST, these children need to leave school literate and numerate to empower them to overcome the massive obstacles In front of them.

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      Your perspective as a GP is very sobering, Sandra. We need to keep talking about the lifelong consequences of low quality literacy instruction. It’s too easy as a teacher to have a one-year view of each child.

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    Yes, yes and yes! Couldn’t agree more and it makes me so sad. I am a classroom teacher – flying under the radar at a school who promote balanced literacy teaching systematic synthetic phonics and using decodable books. Seeing my little strugglers’ confidence explode when they can read words, sentences and books makes my heart sing. Good on you for putting this out there – hopefully it’s a call to action for many school leaders!

  3. Avatar

    Yes, yes and yes! Couldn’t agree more and it makes me so sad. I am a classroom teacher – flying under the radar (at a school who promote balanced literacy) teaching systematic synthetic phonics and using decodable books. Seeing my little strugglers’ confidence explode when they can read words, sentences and books makes my heart sing. Good on you for putting this out there – hopefully it’s a call to action for many school leaders!

  4. Avatar

    preach on. the first thing you to to improve an engrained system is look for the soft spots in their results. reading even in early years is a really easy accomplishment to document . it’s not a reflection if a teacher but of a public system that wants everybody to have the same size foot so they don’t have to buy the whole line. in the interest of honesty, she who wrote this message is my daughter and an envolved mom. she got her difficulties from her dad ( me) but now she’s an r n and is the one you are praying for in the ER. get your money’s worth. teach reading until it learned not till you are satisfied. proud dad

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      Thank you Steve. You’ve hit the nail on the head about results: so many assessment tools given to teachers are not fit for purpose (I’m looking at you, Running Records!).

      1. Avatar

        Hey lyn
        Can you elaborate on why you dislike running records? As a teacher it’s one of the first things I use to understand a child’s reading ‘behaviours.’ It is used in conjunction with other assessments to help plan my teaching.

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          Hey Shani,
          I’m afraid there isn’t enough research evidence for me to subscribe to the notion of ‘reading behaviours’. This phrase and the theory underpinning it are not in alignment with current scientific consensus on the process of literacy acquisition. As you can no doubt understand, my livelihood and that of my staff is reliant on highly effective assessment and intervention, so we try to be as efficient as possible.
          Therefore, our reading assessment is based on standardised, word-level real and non-word reading tests as well as sound-symbol tests, separated from linguistic comprehension tests. Mixing the two, which is what running records do, leads too often to false positives and false negatives.
          If you’re interested in the theoretical perspective on this, here is some information on the Simple View of Reading:
          If you’re interested in a speech pathologist’s view (she too provides literacy instruction for those damaged by low quality practice), this article is appropriate:
          Kind regards,

  5. Avatar

    Hi Lyn, thank you for your article. I am currently reading your book on reading. I am the current Principal at Chelsea Primary School, and previously Assistant Principal at Bentleigh West PS. I started as Principal this year and I am currently implementing evidence-based practices at Chelsea PS. This takes time obviously with previous embedded practices. I am still working closely with both Steve Capp & Sarah Asome. Any extra support or guidance from literacy experts is always appreciated.

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      Hi Taylor,
      Thank you for everything that you do. I’ve heard great things about your school and wish more would follow suit. There’s a new book in the pipeline about that. Watch this space!

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    I tutor 30 students every week from local public, private and charter schools. My students are being subjected to every “low quality” reading instruction practice you list in your article. None of them would be coming to me if I would have been their first grade teacher, teaching the same thing I am teaching them during my tutoring sessions. I see kids as old as 7th grade unable to read a first grade reader, who sail into reading in a matter of months. The real magic is when I get kids in kindergaraten and even prekindergarten because they never have to suffer.

    Great article!