Monday, May 24, 2021

Defeating the Science of Reading Narrative, Part 4: Addressing School Boards, Legislatures and the Public

This series of posts has taken aim at the false Science of Reading (SOR) narrative that posits that the Simple View of Reading (SVR; Gough and Turner, 1986) is the scientifically proven best way to teach reading and all schools and all teachers should be adopting it. The first post in the series showed that SOR was far from settled science. The next three posts addressed ways to defeat this narrative by first focusing on the individual child, then talking to parents about the child, and then working with colleagues to improve everyone's breadth of understanding of the issues. In this post, I would like to address the need for teacher advocacy on the political level. Several respondents to the previous posts have noted that school boards and legislators are forcing the SOR instructional design on teachers through policy and legislation. Neither the school board members nor legislators are the professionals here. Neither is the journalist, Emily Hanford, who first brought the SOR narrative to the public in a misguided and misleading editorial in 2018. 

It is past time for the professionals to push back. Here is what I would say to SOR zealots. Please use any of this that you think would be useful in your own situation with school boards, or legislatures, with parent advocacy groups, or as an editorial in the local newspaper.

Dear ______________

The American journalist, essayist and social critic, H. L. Mencken once said, "For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong." I come to you today because I believe the currently proposed Science of Reading approach to literacy instruction is one of those clear, simple, and very wrong answers. The recent discussion of the best way to teach reading which has gained so much currency in the media, among parent groups, and in state legislatures needs to be clarified. The Science of Reading is based on a flawed model of instruction that has been around for almost 100 years and that has been tested and found wanting over all that time. The current Science of Reading rage is based on The Simple View of Reading from the work of theorists Gough and Turners in 1986. Since that time we have learned that the Simple View of Reading, which says that reading is simply a matter of decoding words and comprehending language, is overly simplistic.  Reading is a much more complex activity than the simple view would have us believe. As Duke and Cartwright have stated in a recent article in the Reading Research Quarterly, "Dictating a narrow instructional practice based on this Simple View of Reading leaves educators ill-prepared to understand and identify instructional targets for poor comprehenders with grade-appropriate decoding and listening-comprehension."

If the simple view is, indeed, too simple, what does a more complete view look like? The aforementioned Duke and Cartwright offer a more complete model that they call the active view of reading. In the active view of reading we find four distinct elements of a more complete model of reading and reading instruction. These four include 1) motivation and engagement 2) word recognition 3) language comprehension and 4)  bridging processes . Motivation and engagement involves the reader in actively using a variety of strategies to improve their own reading. As the term motivation implies, this means that students must develop the desire to practice reading. Word recognition includes all the abilities we usually think of as necessary for decoding words such as phonemic awareness and the alphabetic principle. Language comprehension involves the prior knowledge and reasoning ability required to understand what is read. Bridging processes help readers connect words and meaning. These bridging activities include fluency, vocabulary knowledge, and flexibility in problem solving novel words. 

The active reading model holds out greater promise for successful literacy learning for all students. It also provides a more complete model for teacher professional development. With this more complete model as a guide, school leaders, administrators, and teachers can build a more complete picture of the reading process and guide more children toward both the skill to read well and the will to read well.

I urge you, as you consider what is best for the literacy instruction of all children, to take this broader, more inclusive view of the reading process. Simple answers are appealing, but a more nuanced view of the issues is more likely to lead to lasting success.

As we talk to Science of Reading advocates, let's be armed with a clear and much better alternative. Duke and Cartwright's Active Model of Reading provides the kind of balanced take on the issue I believe we can all rally around. Let's not allow this narrative  to be dominated by journalists and politicians. As professionals, we have a responsibility to make our voices heard.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Defeating the Science of Reading Narrative, Part 3: Building Bridges with Colleagues

Over the past month I have been exploring the Science of Reading (SOR) narrative that has dominated discussion about reading instruction for the last few years in posts here, here, and here. What I have argued is that the SOR narrative is far too narrow a conceptualization of reading instruction and that making it the dominant mode of instruction is dangerous. The prior posts back up that argument with relevant and recent research. Some readers, while sympathetic to my overall message, have complained that my language in these blogs is confrontational and likely to cut off conversation rather than build bridges. 

I admit that I have used words like "defeat", "fight", "overturn", and "combat", in discussing how we must respond to the SOR narrative. That is because this narrative is being foist upon school leaders, teachers, and children through lobbying groups, state legislatures, and school boards that have bought into this narrow view of reading instruction. My language is aimed at the narrative and those who blindly promote the narrative, not at teachers who are seeking the best way to teach reading and are looking at the SOR narrative and wondering if this is the best way to go. To those colleagues, I do indeed seek, and hope we all seek, to build bridges. Here are some ways we might be able to do that.

Despite disagreements on how best to teach reading, there are some things we can all agree on. In conversation with colleagues let's start there. After establishing our basic agreements, let's explore together what the research says. Finally, let's agree to try instructional strategies with our students, gather some informal data and report back to each other on how things are going. These conversations can be either formally structured professional learning committees, informal book groups, or just two colleagues getting together to explore their understandings.

Start with the Things on which We All Can Agree

  • No matter our philosophical differences when it comes to instruction, all teachers want all children to develop both the skill to be a successful reader and the will to be a lifelong reader.
  • We can all agree that children need to learn to hear and segment the sounds in words (phonological awareness).
  • We can all agree that in order to be successful readers children must learn to rapidly decode words based on their knowledge of how words work (phonics, onset-rime, morphology).
  • We can all agree that the goal of reading is comprehension and that skilled comprehension requires prior knowledge, content specific vocabulary, fluent reading, and use of a variety of comprehension strategies.
  • We can all agree that reading aloud to children helps to develop comprehension, vocabulary, and interest in reading.
  • We can all agree that no matter how good our instruction in reading is, children will learn most of what they need to know for skilled reading by doing actual reading, so motivating children to be engaged readers is part of the teacher's job.
Work Together to Learn What the Current Research Says
Try Things Out in the Classroom
  • Invite teacher volunteers to try new ideas, strategies, and approaches out in the classrooms and report back to the group.
  • Set up opportunities to observe each other teaching using strategies discussed together and meet in groups to discuss what was observed. I like to think of this kind of activity as similar to "making rounds" in the medical profession. We need to find time to learn from each other.
This kind of work takes time. It also takes cooperation from the administration. It would be wonderful if this sort of professional learning time was already built into the school day, but I know in most cases it is not. 

The important perspective here is that fighting back at the SOR narrative demands expanding everyone's understanding of the breadth of possibility in reading instruction. Whatever side of the fence you might find yourself on, don't we owe it to the children to provide them with everything we know that works, not just a type of instruction that we personally favor?

Next time I will look at how teachers can communicate a more balanced view of instruction to school leaders and community groups.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Defeating the Science of Reading Narrative, Part 2: Talking to a Parent

In my first post in this series on how teachers and literacy specialists can push back at the Science of Reading (SOR) narrative currently dominating reading instruction conversation and legislation, I leaned on the work of Peter Johnston and Deborah Scanlon in their report An Examination of Dyslexia Research and Instruction to argue that dyslexia is not a useful term, and that the SOR narrative, with its focus on word level instruction, casts literacy learning in too narrow a light. In the second post, I posited that a focus on getting to know the individual child as a learner immediately makes clear that each reader is unique, and that each reader's needs must be viewed from a broader lens than is suggested by SOR. In this post I would like to suggest a way of communicating with a concerned parent, who has read and bought into the SOR narrative, about the literacy instruction needs of their child.

Much of my framework for this conversation comes from new work by Nell K. Duke and Kelly B. Cartwright in their recent article published in Reading Research Journal, "The Science of Reading Progresses: Communicating Advances the Simple View of Reading."  The International Literacy Association has made this an open access article and I encourage you all to read it in full. Essentially, the authors argue that we have learned a great deal about what works in reading instruction in the years since Gough and Tummer suggested the Simple View of Reading (1986), which is the basis of the SOR instructional narrative. The authors suggest a new model of reading, the Active View of Reading, which encompasses word recognition instruction, plus motivation and engagement, fluency, vocabulary, flexibility, and language comprehension.

Armed with the insight that comes from the Active View of Reading, let's see how a conversation with a concerned parent might go. Our teacher is a classroom teacher, Mrs. Hannah Jones, working with first grader Johnny Smith. It is the end of October. Johnny had entered first grade with some concerns reported by the kindergarten teacher that he seemed to have difficulty with hearing and recording sounds in words. While he had developed about 25 sight words and could write about 20 words on his own, his progress in decoding unfamiliar words was not as expected. In most tasks in school, Johnny was bright and eager, but he was not generally engaged by literacy activities and his attention to these tasks seemed to waiver. Some reversals (b, d ,e, r) were evident in his written work. Johnny's mother, Amanda Smith, has requested an update on his progress.

Hannah Jones: Thank you for contacting me to talk about Johnny's progress in reading. Now that I have been working with Johnny for about a month, I have had a chance to get to know him as a person and as a learner, so this seems a good time to meet.

Amanda Smith: Yes, thank you. I am very concerned about Johnny. The kindergarten teacher gave me a heads up that Johnny seemed to have trouble learning new words and hearing letter sounds, so I want to make sure he is getting the instruction he needs.

HJ: That's what we all want here as well. Can you tell me a little bit about Johnny at home. What does he like to do?

AS: Well, Johnny is obsessed with baseball. Most of the time at home he is either playing catch or bugging his dad to pitch to him or just throwing a ball against the garage wall. He likes to watch baseball on tv, too. I swear he would sleep with his baseball bat, if I would let him. He's very active, likes running around. It can be hard to just get him to sit down long enough to eat dinner.

HJ: How about his interaction around books or writing?

AS: Well, I try to read to him at night before bed, but he is usually pretty impatient about that. I gave him a journal, but he doesn't choose to write in it that I know of. Sometimes he draws pictures and writes on them. I have noticed his spelling is pretty bad and that he reverses some letters.  Do you think he should be tested for dyslexia? My husband said he had trouble learning to read when he was in first and second grade.

HJ: Well, Mrs. Jones, I have noticed his difficulty with hearing sounds in words and reversals, and it is true that some perceptual difficulties can be inherited, but I believe these are issues we can work on through instruction. That instruction would not be different if Johnny were identified as dyslexic. What I think is important here is that Johnny get the instruction he needs and that is what I would like to focus on.

AS: Well, I am very concerned about that. I have talked to some neighbors and they say that unless he is classified as dyslexic he won't get the instruction he needs.

HJ: I hope you will find that that is not true in this school district or this classroom, Mrs. Jones. In fact, I would like to to talk to you about that instruction now.

AS: Well, good. I've been reading about that, too. I know that schools have not done a very good job with instruction for kids like Johnny. That article in the New York Times a couple of years ago laid it all out. This Science of Reading. It seems to me that that is the kind of reading instruction Johnny needs, a focus on phonics. Everybody is saying that schools don't teach phonics and I know that Johnny certainly needs that, so I hope that is what you are talking about.

HJ: Mrs. Jones, Johnny certainly needs good instruction in how words work and in the phonics knowledge that will help him discover how they work, I assure you that Johnny will receive that instruction, but I want to also assure you that Johnny will receive much more than that. Since the Science of Reading work was done in the 1980s, we have learned that many things influence a child's learning to read. Decoding, guided by phonics knowledge, is one important one. Instruction in this area will include phonological awareness, that is, hearing the sounds in words, like the word cat has three sounds (k-a-t). Instruction will also focus on how to blend those sounds into words. In learning about words we need to also look at how words are spelled, what we call orthography. So, we will also spend time on learning spelling patterns, like how the word ship is made up of two parts sh- and ip. As part of our instruction in decoding we will do considerable writing using invented spelling. As Johnny writes words on the page, he will learn to stretch out the sounds of the words and try to write down what he hears. This type of writing has been shown to help readers develop their ability to hear sounds in words. 

Also very important is comprehension - understanding what we read. Comprehension is the central goal of reading and we also know that comprehension, the attempt to make sense, helps readers decode words. We can work on comprehension through our daily read alouds in class as well in stories that we use for reading instruction. Talking about what might happen in the story not only helps with comprehension, it also helps with word identification. We will also work on reading fluency, which is the ability to read aloud so that it sounds like talking. Fluency is what we would call a "bridging" activity that helps readers connect decoding ability with comprehension. We often practice fluency with short pieces of text that children read over and over until they can read it with ease.

Finally, we also need to focus on Johnny's motivation to read. We know that good instruction in decoding and comprehension needs to be reinforced by having Johnny do lots of reading on his own. Because Johnny is struggling right now, he may not be as willing to engage in this type of reading. Here is where Johnny's obsession with baseball can help us. I have already begun to gather as many books about baseball that I think Johnny can read as I can. Since Johnny knows a lot about baseball, he will already know many of the words he encounters there. If we can help Johnny have success in some reading in a topic he already knows well and is interested in, we may be able to extend his interest to other topics moving forward. Johnny's baseball love should also help us with engaging him in writing, about games he has played or baseball rules or games he has watched. Finally, his interest in baseball may help us expand his decoding ability by using words like bat, ball, base, throw, pitch and run as anchor words for learning other words that fit those patterns.

So as you see, we have a good deal of work to do, but I think an approach that considers all the variables of an active reader will support Johnny the best.

AS: Well, ok, as long as you can assure me he will get that phonics instruction he needs.

HJ: He will.

AS: What can I do at home?

HJ: Continue with your read alouds and talking about what you read. You might consider an arrangement where you choose the reading one night and Johnny the next. Also, you might consider reading to him about baseball from articles in the newspaper or magazines, even the backs of baseball cards can provide some interesting reading. Continue to take advantage of opportunities to write -even making shopping lists. Encourage Johnny to stretch out the words and replicate the sounds he hears. Also, I will be sending home books that we have read in school. Have Johnny read them to you at home for practice. Encourage him to read as smoothly and fluently as he can. He can repeat these readings as many times as you can get him to do it.

AS: Ok. I guess we'll see how it goes.

HJ: Yes. Let's check back in two months and see what progress we notice.

We need to push back at the Science of Reading/Dyslexia narrative by acknowledging parent concern, demonstrating knowledge of the individual child, clearly explaining our instructional goals, and most of all, delivering on our responsibility to meet every child where they are and providing the instruction they need.

For the next post in this series, I would like to look at fighting back at the SOR Narrative through teacher professional development.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Defeating the Science of Reading Narrative, Part 1: Focus on the Child

Last week I wrote a post, Unsettling the Science of Reading Narrative that highlighted a new report from the Literacy Research Association, on dyslexia and the Science of Reading. The report titled An Examination of Dyslexia Research and Instruction, with Policy Implications,  by Peter Johnston and Donna Scanlon, posits that 1) "dyslexia" is not a useful term for guiding teachers in making literacy instructional decisions and  2) the "Science of Reading (SOR)" narrative, which states that a heavy phonics emphasis is the best and only way to teach reading to dyslexics and everyone else, is neither accurate nor scientific. Several readers of that post responded favorably, but asked, "Given that SOR has the support of the media, powerful parent lobbying groups, and state legislatures, what can we as teachers and literacy leaders do about it?" The question is a good one and the answer is complex. I will try to respond to that question over the next several posts. I think to turn this narrative around, which in various guises has been circulating since at least the 1950s, we need to start locally and then move our message more globally. The place to start is with a focus on the child. In later posts I will focus on the parent, the teacher, the school board, and beyond.

Child Focused Response

When we focus on the child the absurdity of SOR becomes clear. Early screening of children using such tools as Marie Clay's Observational Survey can help us identify children who are at risk. Research indicates that early intervention with at risk readers is effective for most. Research also suggests that focusing instruction on one aspect of reading, say decoding, to the exclusion of others doesn't necessarily translate into improved reading. What we do know is that at risk children benefit from rich and varied literacy instruction. This includes explicit instruction designed to develop the ability to analyze the sounds in spoken words (phonological awareness), an understanding of how print is related to the sounds in spoken words (alphabetic code), and the predictable patterns of letters in printed words (orthographic structure). This word focused instruction must be combined with instruction designed to develop reading comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency. One final critical aspect is motivation. Teachers  need to guide children toward developing what Johnston and Scanlon call "a strong positive relationship to literacy."

When we identify a child as "at risk", we risk making the mistake of grouping that child into a category and applying instruction meant to address children in that category. Every child, and every at risk child, however, is an individual with individual strengths and weaknesses. The original screening should not be seen as a prescription for a certain kind of instruction, but rather as a guide to help the teacher begin to probe the individual needs of each learner. Perhaps for some children teachers need to focus on developing a rich oral language to underpin literacy learning. Perhaps for others teachers need to help them develop a positive attitude toward literacy through exposure to books and stories and talk that invite them in to the literacy world. Perhaps with others teachers need to help build the experiential knowledge that will help them comprehend what they read. And, of course, with most teachers will need to provide instruction in the way the sounds and symbols of our language works.  

Children who struggle in reading are as individual and unique as snowflakes. We know what instruction works generally, but we don't know what critical combinations of instruction will work with each individual child. While our early intervention attempts will work for many, some children will not progress. When the child fails to respond to instruction, Johnston and Scanlon suggest our best response is not to label the child dyslexic or to double down on the same instruction, but to try something different. The person in the best position to make these critical instructional judgments is the classroom teacher. The classroom teacher can only make those judgments through informed, systematic, and documented instructional moves over time. 

As the teacher works with individual students and provides instruction, they begin to deepen their original diagnosis of "at risk" to a richer and fuller understanding of the child's individual needs as a literacy learner. This knowledge is powerful. Not only does a deep knowledge of the child as a learner help the teacher design instruction that will help the child grow in reading, that knowledge also gives the teacher the information needed to talk to parents and other stakeholders about the needs of this individual child in a holistic sense, rather than through the label "dyslexic." It also helps teachers to argue against simple prescriptive reading program recommendations. Too often when children do not thrive in literacy learning, an Orton-Gillingham style, phonics-heavy program is prescribed when the individual child's needs are much more complex than a "more phonics" approach. The teacher's focus on the child provides the ammunition to combat this Science of Reading narrative, with a clear, more complex picture of the child as a learner.

In my next post, I will take us into a potential parent-teacher conference, where the parents are arguing for a dyslexia label for their child and for a SOR instructional approach from the teacher. We'll see how the teacher can use their knowledge of the child to combat the SOR narrative on the parent level.