Daily Telegraph · Dianne Murphy

Murphy’s law re-stated

What was Christopher Middleton at the Telegraph thinking when he called what Dianne Murphy is doing a ‘literacy revolution’? He evidently has never read Marx’s 18th Brumaire of Louise Napoleon, which, prompted Marx to remark famously that history repeats itself, ‘first as tragedy, then as farce’. Far from being a revolution, this kind of methodology – flash card/sight word drill – is both tragic and farcical. And, far from being revolutionary, it is, in literacy terms, profoundly reactionary.
The principal reason for the failure of many of these kids at secondary school to learn to read and spell properly is precisely because the approach used to teach them throughout their primary years was whole language. So, what do they do when these children arrive at secondary school unable to cope with the demands of the curriculum? Throw more of the same at them!
‘Whole language,’ as Diane McGuinness has said, ‘is based on faith, promising everything and delivering nothing.’ Of course, if you drill a pupil for half an hour, three times a week, you can expect some progress. But, for how long? Set up some independent testing of word reading a year down the line and then see if the effects wash out. Of course, some children will ‘crack the code’, as some of their peers have already done in primary school. Most won’t!
Teaching children to link hundreds and hundreds of words (paired associate learning) to abstract symbols is something that humans find every difficult to do. And then what about all the thousands upon thousands of words that haven’t been taught. 
Unless, pupils are taught explicitly how the writing system works (conceptual understanding), are taught the spellings for all the sounds in the language (factual knowledge) and the skills needed to use the aforesaid conceptual and factual knowledge, they will continue to struggle.
And, Chris, if you don’t understand what you’re writing about, don’t write it!

10 thoughts on “Murphy’s law re-stated

  1. Are you certain this is a "Whole Language" approach?

    The article doesn't describe what a whole lesson looks like or what methods are used. It [i]does [/i]refer to Hattie's work (which champions systematic phonics) and uses the term Direct Instruction, which may or may not refer to Engelmann's work (see Zig Engelmann's site

    The task the article did describe, where the student is reading words and the teacher is making notes (and refers to a "script" ) could easily be a mastery assessment a la Engelmann's DI. The response the instructor is giving here — "Yes,{target word}. Now you say it" is almost exactly the protocol used in many DI reading programs, which have longstanding empirical evidence of effectiveness.

    I can't tell from the article, or her website, whether the instructional procedures Diane Murphy is using are "whole language" or, in fact, the opposite — something based on Hattie and Engelmann and teaching code-based word decoding (and other skills) in a systematic, sequential manner.

    Do you have information that I and other readers lack?

  2. No, I'm not certain, Palisadesk, but then I'm not really certain about anything except death and taxes.
    However, from what I can see from the text – and journalists are notoriously inaccurate when it comes to the detail of such things – here's why I strongly suspect the approach to be WL.
    The example words are: 'plain', 'different', 'usual', and 'direct'. I can't see any link to a methodical phonic strategy in that.
    Then, why would the pupil say the word 'plain' for the teacher to agree and ask the pupil to say it again?
    While this is going on the teacher is making notes of any 'mispronunciation or stumble'. Sounds very much like miscue analysis to me, doesn't it to you?
    Neither is there the merest hint of any phonics work taking place. Again, not a clincher but …
    The article suggests that the approach is derived from the Hattie's DI. The thing is I've seen all sorts of 'direct instruction' before but if the teacher doesn't know the subject and, worse, doesn't know how to teach it from simple to complex, I think it's unlikely that it's going to work.
    What I will say is that when I was working at this (secondary) level for twenty years, using mostly WL, there were still some pupils who 'got it'. We used the term 'clicked' at the time because we had no idea why or how it happened. It seemed that simple exposure and focused shared reading in very small groups worked for some pupils. On the other hand, I can still remember the names of those who left not being able to read at all.
    I'm willing to stand corrected but if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, I think it's a duck.

  3. Thank you 'palisadesk' – the approach is definitely not 'Whole Language' and nor is it 'drill and practise' in the sense of mindless repetition.

    The methodology used is indeed Direct Instruction a la Zig Engelmann and in that sense is nothing new! I also use Precision Teaching (check out Carl Binder and Ogden Lindsley) to build word recognition skills to fluency. Students are also tested on their comprehension of the material every time they read.

    All graduate students are retested on a yearly basis to ensure that they maintain their gains – they do.

  4. Dianne, Thank you for your reply to Palisadesk.
    I did check the link given in the Telegraph article yesterday but it looked as though there was an error because it brought up a blank page.
    Now, clicking on your name, I see that you have posted three case studies.
    To get pupils of these ages to make several years progress in a fairly short period of time is, without doubt, impressive. Nevertheless, I'm sure you'll concede that, even using a whole word approach, it is possible to make very rapid progress with some pupils with reading ages in excess of 10 years, especially when they've been badly taught and are bright and very well motivated.
    Perhaps you'll share with us how your approach works.

  5. Thank you, Dianne, for the clarification.

    I can answer John's points in part:
    (1) Direct Instruction programs, which are definitely a synthetic phonic approach, test students for mastery of words which have previously been introduced to teach correspondences, morphemic patterns (affixes), and so on, in a direct and explicit way. The student is taught to sound out all words; however, after much practice in text, these words should be read without overt sounding out.

    Corrective Reading utilizes this technique and also (at higher levels) as a pre-reading exercise. Words with a new correspondence or patterns (such as -ique) may be introduced and explicitly sounded out, phoneme by phoneme, then practiced again in a list or random order to ensure students are applying their phonic knowledge.

    I have seen students make a leap of several grade levels in a matter of months, using Corrective Reading, because they had no difficulty with oral comprehension, they simply could not decode words accurately and fluently enough for comprehension of written text. When this happens, it looks like a miracle.

    Other students, who don't have the same level of oral language development, will struggle with comprehension even after they become good decoders. However, the automatic decoding is an essential step. Corrective Reading has three comprehension strands that teach students, explicitly and in small steps, to understand written (mostly expository) text. I have found these very effective with 11-14 year olds with weak reading ability because of poor comprehension, whether this was due to low cognitive ablity or limited background knowledge and vocabulary.

    UK readers need to know that the "precision teaching" model as generally discussed in the UK is definitely NOT the same thing as Lindsley, Binder and others have developed in the USA. While "precision teaching" in the USA is not a method but a measurement tool, its practitioners overwhelmingly favour systematic, synthetic phonics for reading instruction. Google Regina Claypool-Frey’s terrific Precision Teaching Wiki for more information.

    (2) As for the correction procedure, your query, why do they repeat the word if it is correct? surprised me, considering that you have a background in psychology. You reinforce the correct responses! In DI, all elements of the lessons have been subjected to rigorous and extensive field trials with tens of thousands of students, and many revisions to the protocols based on feedback acquired through field testing. If they have made having the student repeat his correct response a regular part of the protocol, it us because it has been shown to be effective. I originally started using DI before they made this change; however, I now observe this aspect of the lesson format. It provides both accurate feedback and needed practice for many students.

  6. I too was sceptical when I read the article but am impressed with Dianne's results on her website. However, I do wonder if these will be the students who, once they leave school and stop reinforcing their word recognition in required daily literary activities, lose their improved literacy skills.

    As a secondary literacy teacher of 30 years experience, I went through phases of using both Direct Instructional and Precision Teaching methods, but almost always with whole words and/or an analytic phonics approach (word families, blends, etc). Those students I worked with persistently and regularly did make progress, but it was never maintained over a long period without frequent top up sessions, nor did they ever seem to be able to apply what they had learned with me to other curriculum situations, particularly writing.

    Once I started using a linguistic phonics approach based on the concepts, skills and the code knowledge mentioned by John in his blog, I had no need for either of the previous two teaching models. Progress was maintained after intervention ceased and continued to improve independently. Very little further intervention was ever needed because students had developed understanding of how the code worked and could apply it to new words, and they could do it in any reading or writing situation across the curriculum, the true measure of a successful literacy intervention programme.

  7. Dianne wrote that she uses, 'Precision Teaching (check out Carl Binder and Ogden Lindsley) to build word recognition skills to fluency'

    Dianne, do you expect your students to remember the words as whole, visual units, or do you use synthetic phonics, decoding all through the word?

  8. I went through phases of using both Direct Instructional and Precision Teaching methods, but almost always with whole words and/or an analytic phonics approach

    Very interesting, Gini. If you were directly instructing with a whole word or analytic phonic approach, you were not using the “Direct Instruction” approach that I (and Dianne) are referring to. Direct Instruction has students explicitly sound out ALL words, even “irregular” words. It is not a whole word or analytic phonic approach. However, directly teaching anything will usually yield better results than leaving students to muddle through on their own.

    An interesting factoid is that the Precision Teaching folks in the USA (remember, their work has nothing whatever to do with the “precision teaching” I’ve read about in the UK) have addressed the retention and generalization issue you mention. It is particularly a factor in teaching students with autism, so “PT” masters (Google Michael Fabrizio and Alison Moors for examples) have developed protocols for measuring students’ learning and progress to ensure that they retain the skill over time (even if it is not practiced), and that they generalize it to new curriculum areas and environments. An acronym the PT people use is “RESAA” (retention, endurance, stability (resistance to distraction, among other things) application and adduction. They have some pretty impressive data. This kind of thing is easier done 1:1 or in very small group teaching situations.

    Engelmann’s DI programs are designed for use in the U.S. and are (naturally) Americentric, so people in other places can and should develop their own materials or adapt the Engelmann ones as need be. There are many excellent literacy programs available in the UK (I envy you there); linguistic phonics programs (including some recommended by D. McGuinness) were at one time widely used across the pond, and delivered good results, but having used both DI and several LP programs I can’t say any particular one is a panacea. We need different tools for different students.

    Very important is having teachers understand the code and how to teach it; they can then adapt good programs for their students if needed, or develop their own materials, as is usually required over here, where “programs” are strongly discouraged.

    I’d love to hear more about Dianne’s program, if she is comfortable sharing some details. We can all learn from what works.

  9. Many thanks to Palisadesk, Gini and Anon for your contributions.
    Actually, Palisadesk, I know very little about precision teaching (USA) and will read up on this and DI over the vac. So, thanks for your tips. Also thanks too to Dianne. I have already bought an Ogden Lindsley book.
    My background isn't in psychology, by the way; it's literary theory and linguistics.
    I would also like to know more about what Dianne is doing.

  10. "I’d love to hear more about Dianne’s program, if she is comfortable sharing some details. We can all learn from what works."

    Having studied DI and PT for a post-graduate diploma in New Zealand I saw the effectiveness of these methodologies and readily applied them when I needed to develop reading programmes that teacher aides could deliver under supervision.

    My lessons are in two parts: sight word acquisition and reading graded texts. The sight word reading component is in three parts – acquisition, accuracy and fluency. These words are drawn from a 1st and 2nd 1000 list of common words that were read incorrectly or unknown on pre-assessment.

    Using the DI approach I analyse the text for various teaching points eg vocabulary items, affixes, verb endings, word families …. The pre-teaching is scripted according to DI principles and includes an error correction procedure.

    The student reads the text while a running record is taken. Pause, Prompt, Praise strategies are used as necessary during the reading:
    PPP Overview

    Comprehension questions are asked and guidance is given as necessary. An accuracy rate of 97% or more is needed to continue to the next section of the book – it is rare for a student not to achieve this. Most books are covered over 3-6 lessons. Reading the whole book and achieving 97%+ is a signal to move to the next level. 95-96% = instructional level, 94% or less is frustration level.

    Factors essential to the success of the programme include: the student having a choice of text, the careful grading of the material, the detailed pre-analysis of teaching points and careful monitoring of student progress and immediate, precise feedback. Students are motivated by seeing their progress in visual format (as per the graphs on the website). The aim is to make it hard for students to fail while moving them rapidly through the levels.

    Pre and post programme assessment is with unseen graded material and includes comprehension questions. Students are post-tested on an unseen text on a yearly basis.

    DI comprehension programmes are under development. However, we are finding that some students with comprehension difficulties have these addressed in the course of the decoding programme.

    Palisadesk's point about finding what works for each child is right. Sometimes, for example, I will move children to a phonological awareness programme – see Gail Gillon from University of Canterbury NZ, who now has her programme downloadable for free!

    Thank you for your apology, John – no offence taken. As Palisadesk says "we can all learn from what works".

    PS I should add that some parts of the article were (unintentionally) a little unclear. I hope this quick overview has been useful.

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