Why should we follow the Science of Reading?
“My child is finding it difficult to read.”Parents from all over the world
As a school leader and parent, this is one of the most common comments that I hear.
Unfortunately, the main reason why this occurs is because for far too long many educators have not been following an evidence-informed way of teaching. There are a number of reasons why this has happened with Initial Teacher Education being at the heart of it.
Jennifer Buckingham and Linda Meeks found in their report Short-Changed: Preparation To Teach Reading In Initial Teacher Education:
- Only five (4%) of the 116 literacy units reviewed had a specific focus on early reading instruction or early literacy; that is, how to teach beginning readers in the first few years of school.
- None of the unit outlines contained references to the Simple View of Reading.
There are other issues like:
- The misconception that children will just learn how to “crack the code” naturally
- Because teachers aren’t taught how to teach their students to read, they resort to externally provided programs and guess what, The Most Popular Reading Programs Aren’t Backed by Science
- In Ending the Reading Wars, Castles et al highlight the guessing games that the popular Balanced Literacy approach takes with the “three-cueing approach (1. meaning drawn from context or pictures, 2. syntax, and 3. visual information, meaning letters or parts of words.)” and the lack of explicit teaching
The result of this mish-mash of mistakes in teacher education has led to evidence-informed practitioners working together to make a positive change, under the umbrella term – The Science of Reading.
What is the Science of Reading
“The science of reading is a vast, interdisciplinary body of scientifically-based* research about reading and issues related to reading and writing.
This research has been conducted over the last five decades across the world, and it is derived from thousands of studies conducted in multiple languages.
The science of reading has culminated in a preponderance of evidence to inform how proficient reading and writing develop; why some have difficulty; and how we can most effectively assess and teach and, therefore, improve student outcomes through prevention of and intervention for reading difficulties.”
The Reading League: Science of Reading Defining Guide
‘Being able to read and write is profoundly transformative, both for individuals and for population level health and wellbeing more widely’.Dr. Pamela Snow – SOLAR: The Science of Language and Reading (sagepub.com)
How we learn
Cognitive developmental and evolutionary psychologist David Geary suggests that there are two categories of knowledge. Ollie Lovell summarised these in Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory in Action as:
Biologically primary: knowledge that humans have evolved to acquire
Biologically secondary: knowledge that has only become relevant to humans in the last few thousands of years.
This is important to know because it explains why we are able to “pick-up” how to speak and listen, but that the task of learning to read and write needs to be deliberate.
So, the development of oral language is less cognitively demanding and starts from the moment we are born.
However, if rich conversations and behaviour have not been modelled at home, students are starting off on the back-foot as soon as they enter school.
Having taught at a school where 98% of the students first language was a language other than English, I have seen first-hand the impact poor oral language development has on learning.
It also highlighted the need to know where your students are at and provide the right level of scaffolding and modelling to ensure success. I learnt the hard way, if this isn’t provided it will lead to disengaged pupils with low motivation!
This infographic from Nancy Young explains why teaching explicitly and systematically is so important. It is the only way we can ensure all of our children learn.
Learning the English language
“The basic principle with this schematic representation is that building up children’s oral language skills (receptively and expressively) and later their reading, writing, and spelling skills, is akin to building a house, in the sense that both require strong foundations, and careful attention to structural integrity and inter-connectedness of component parts.” Pamela Snow
Snow’s Language House reminds us of the fact that many of our students start school without a “solid ground”. Their oral language development is affected due to a lack of “serve and return” interactions and emotionally responsive carers. This will then slow down the process of the walls being built.
Scarborough’s Rope is a visual metaphor for the development of skills over time (represented by the strands of the rope) that lead to skilled reading.Scarborough, H. S. (2001). Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice. In S. Neuman & D. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook for research in early literacy (pp. 97-110). Guilford.
Scarborough’s Reading Rope has received a lot of fanfare in recent years and I think it’s because the analogy of the rope allows us to understand that each strand of Language Comprehension and Word Recognition needs to be developed in order to become a skilled reader.
The English language has 26 letters in the alphabet, about 44 phonemes (individual units of sound) and about 250 ways of spelling those phonemes.
If we leave it up to chance for students to learn to read, then of course there will be areas that we miss!
The Big Six
Below you can hear from Deslea Konza speaking as a part of the podcast series – Principals as Literacy Leaders from the Australian Primary Principals Association. I have also provided the links to her “Research into Practice” series. This is the first one, Understanding the Reading Process. Each of the summaries provides an overview and a list of practical activities that can be used.
This graphic from Dr. Jan Wasowicz details how many different strands are involved with English and that the more we can link them, will help our students make deeper connections.
“The Language Literacy Network infographic highlights the reciprocal relationship and transfer of skills between the decoding and spelling words and the advantages provided by a speech-to-print approach based on current models and research.”
The importance of Writing
The Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO) recently put out Writing and writing instruction – An overview of the literature by Emina McLean. There were three key reasons found that highlight the importance of writing:
- Writing about what we learn helps us understand and remember: When writing instruction prompts students to think deeply and/or make decisions about content, learning is improved.
- Writing about what we read boosts understanding: Writing about material students have read facilitates comprehension because it is a tool for permanently and visibly recording, analysing, evaluating, and modifying the content or ideas in the text.
- Writing improves reading and reading improves writing: Teaching writing and writing subskills improves reading comprehension, reading fluency and word-level reading.
Why we need to look at improving writing instruction:
- no improvement in the writing abilities of students in Years 3 and 5, and a moderate decline in the writing abilities of students in Years 7 and 9 over the last 10 years (McGaw et al. 2020)
- Approximately 30% of Year 7 students and 40% of Year 9 students, score at or below the national minimum benchmark on the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN).
- Students who are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, have a language background other than English, live in regional, rural, or remote areas, and/or experience socioeconomic disadvantage tend to perform worse, with some groups having approximately 60% of students scoring at or below the minimum benchmark (Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority [ACARA] 2019).
- two-year gap between the performance of boys and girls based on Year 9 NAPLAN data (Thomas 2020).