Dysteachia: A preventable disorder

Yesterday I spent the whole day with 5 leaders from a K-12 school north of Sydney. Their incredibly supportive principal ducked in from time to time whilst doing everything else he needed to do, and you could see he had complete trust in his team.

Indeed, these teachers have been on a long journey, the best part of a decade, to find training and coaching that will help the whole school keep on improving in delivery of high quality literacy instruction.

They have consistently risen above the state and national average in standardized tests over the past ten years and are known far and wide as a highly effective school.

It warms my heart to see such dedication, but it also makes me wonder, with sadness, about how much easier it would have been if the training those teachers received in the first place, as part of their tertiary studies in education, had been aligned with what is known about how children read and learn.

Think about it. A DECADE. A decade spent wondering why some kids didn’t make it. A decade having to unlearn the preposterous notions about reading and learning that the majority of teacher training courses promote.

I have spent much of my career working with children who are damaged by dysteachia (the inability of educators to facilitate learning). I have now almost completely retired from tutoring in order to focus on school consulting. My works on spelling, grammar, language, reading and writing were born of frustration at having to remediate bad teaching and advocate for children who really ought to have had a better deal.

Even yesterday, I received a copy of a school report on one of my students who first came to me with very little alphabetic knowledge, zero understanding of the orthography and no notion of morphology after FIVE YEARS of schooling, and it said:

“She uses a range of reading strategies to comprehend texts and can interpret sequences of images in texts. She has made steady progress in Reading [sic] and when she comes across an unknown word should continue to focus on chunking and blending, as well as reading on and thinking about what word would make sense in the sentence.” [my emphasis added]

I will leave the word “chunking” alone in my analysis below, but if you know me, you know how much I HATE that stupid word. Let’s pick our battles and pull the rest of it apart:

Ranger danger

“…a range of reading strategies to comprehend texts…” –  There’s that vague ‘range’ again. What range? What is in that range? Which part of that range should she prioritise? Which part of that range will lead her to be a better speller? You don’t actually know do you? Does that not cause you to question the wisdom of this prescribed ‘range’? Does it exonerate you when your students (who aren’t having private tutoring) fail to make progress? What do you wonder about them? Did they not select the appropriate strategy from the ‘range’ and that’s kind of their fault or what? You don’t know, do you? And you don’t know how to find out either, because you assessed these kids using running records. And so, in six months, they will leave your class literally none the wiser. That’s deeply shameful.

Because hieroglyphics are still a thing, apparently

“…interpret sequences of images in texts…”: what even IS that? I can tell you this, though, it’s not reading. What have you been told? Is there something in your reporting rubric that allows you to evaluate and report on your students’ ability to look at pictures? That’s something a monkey can do. Is this the standard you’re setting for your students? Is it in your rubric to help you feel better about not teaching them to read and write well? Seriously, do you have no cause to question the value of this item in the rubric?

Too hard basket

“…as well as reading on and thinking about what word would make sense in the sentence.”: Reading on and thinking about what word would make sense is death to working memory, death to comprehension, death to orthographic mapping. She cannot be allowed to develop these habits of poor readers. She is already a poor reader. She doesn’t need to be encouraged to get worse. Every single week for eighteen months I’ve had to say to her, “Don’t skip, don’t guess, pronounce all the sounds from left to right.” I have actual video footage of her sounding through and successfully reading words like ‘creation’, ‘oxygen’, ‘clusters’ and so on. Each time I had to waste a part of her valuable lesson by reminding her to do this. No wonder, if what you’re telling her, day in and day out is the exact opposite.

My student has made significant improvement in reading, going from well below the normal range on all measures (regular, irregular and non-word single reading) to below or within the normal range. Her spelling has improved by two years since beginning our lessons 18 months ago.

This has been the direct result of high quality instruction that has caused her to stop guessing and read the actual words on the actual page. It has been the direct result of showing her, explicitly and systematically, how the writing system works and building her background knowledge as we did it. It took a while, and she still has a lot of catching up to do before her final year of primary school.

And yet her teacher blithely, innocently even, prescribes techniques that can and do negate our hard work because the teacher has absolutely no idea about how children read and learn.

And much as it makes me mad to watch adults in positions of authority cast these blights on the progress of vulnerable children, it’s doubly clear, now that these adults have become my own students, that they are not the problem. Their degrees are the problem. The piece of paper they paid tens of thousands of dollars for are not fit for purpose.

Will it take a decade before this teacher changes her approach? How long until she realises the damage she’s doing? My student doesn’t have a decade. She needs high quality teaching all day every day now but her teacher, and every teacher in that school and in every school in the anglophone world isn’t trained for that at teacher college.

They have to seek high quality training elsewhere after suffering the painful realisation that they’ve let a whole bunch of kids down. They have to pay consultants like me to show them why the bad stuff is bad, why the good stuff is good, and where to get the information they need to support all their learners. How come that’s my job? That shouldn’t be my job. I shouldn’t have to offer comforting phrases to adults who regret their interactions with children. It’s distressing and sad for everyone.

I know that in a lot of cases, we have to wait until those teacher trainers in colleges all over the world, with their flawed philosophies about reading and learning, leave the profession. Such is their hold on their jobs and their status that they cannot and will not improve. So year after year, decade after decade, they churn out under-equipped graduates because their jobs and their feelings are so much more important than the lives of well-meaning teachers and children in need.

For what it’s worth, my message is simple: If you, in your faculty of education, spend time teaching teachers that ‘ranger danger’, ‘hieroglyphics’ and the ‘too hard basket’ above are worthwhile for them to learn, then I for one hold you in the highest contempt. You are harming people. You should be sued by the teachers and families you’ve misled, stripped of your titles, retrained and never allowed to work with teachers again until you can demonstrate understanding of the process of literacy acquisition that goes beyond Ken Goodman, Frank Smith and Marie Clay’s twisted, demonstrably false garbage.

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