“Hey Dumbass!” The marketing problem in the Reading Wars

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:

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:

  1. A deep and broad understanding of how children learn and how children learn to read in particular
  2. A firm grasp of the central arguments both for and against reading science
  3. An impressive ability to create succinct analogies to highlight key points in the reading debate
  4. 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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9 thoughts on ““Hey Dumbass!” The marketing problem in the Reading Wars”

  1. Sara Peden

    And I was sitting right there for the scaling the wall tale! So grateful to have heard the talk and to have this excellent summary of critical points from Steve’s talk. So energizing and strengthening to remember that science wins in the long run. Steve said that the last university to stop teaching that the sun revolves around the world in 1871 (if I recall the year exactly correctly)! It can take hundreds of years, but science wins! Let’s help hurry it up so all kids can be taught to read! Thanks Lyn, for all you do!

  2. Avatar

    Thanks fir sharing your fab experience Lyn I thought your talk at Leongatha last week managed to avoid the ‘hey dumbass’ very well. Together we need to help teachers on the path to change.

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  5. Avatar

    “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.”

    OK. But HOW do you teach the child to use the key? And what can you do for all the kids who believe it’s their Dyslexia rather than the key that keeps them struggling to scale the wall?

    1. Avatar

      Well, Dick, for starters, I wrote a book that answers both those questions. In fact I’ve made it my life’s work to help contribute to the knowledge and practice base of teaching spelling, grammar and reading.
      Thank you for asking!