Bonnie Macmillan · Chall · Huffington Post blog · Jeanne · Karin Chenoweth

The reading achievement challenge

In her education blog for the Huffington Post, Karin Chenoweth cites recent figures from the (United States’) Nation’s Report Card on reading. Even though there has been a marginal improvement since the early nineties, the statistics are still shocking: 52% of ‘eighth-graders (year 9 in UK) whose parents graduated from college can’t read at the proficient level as measured by the Nation’s Report Card’; and, another 14% can’t read ‘at a basic level’. As you may imagine, if the numbers are so poor for the children of parents who have graduated from college, what then might the figures be like for those whose parents didn’t graduate, or for those from disadvantaged backgrounds?

Chenoweth is right to point out that the persistence of the massive achievement gap in the USA (for which read too the UK, Australia, and other English-speaking countries) is a blight on the education system. [In fact, the great Harvard academic Jeanne Chall devoted a whole book – The Academic Achievement Challenge – to the subject fifteen years ago.] She is also correct in underscoring the importance of teaching knowledge and information, without which, even if children are taught to read fluently, understanding will inevitably be impaired. I, and of course many of my fellow phonics advocates, completely agree with what she is arguing. The purpose of teaching phonics is to enable children to access meaning from text. What children need is the cumulative growth and development of cultural capital: from a very young age they need lots of interactive talk, preferably quality talk, and caregivers who read a wide range of literary and non-literary texts, amongst many other things. In short, they need to know lots of ‘stuff’.

However, when Chenoweth, in her article, writes that she hasn’t heard ‘the term “whole language” in a school in a long time, and [that] most early elementary teachers know that they need to teach kids phonics in some kind of systematic way’, I suspect that just because she hasn’t heard the term doesn’t mean that it has ceased to exist; after all, as Hamlet says, ‘the devil hath power t’assume a pleasing shape’. In the case of reading, the ‘pleasing shape’ comes in the form of ‘mixed methods’, which, as Bonnie Macmillan demonstrated in her book Why Schoolchildren Can’t Read,reduces to whole language. She may also not be aware of how utterly dreadfully badly trained in teaching reading most trainee teachers in ed. schools are – at least if the UK and Australia are anything to go by.

Where Chenoweth is absolutely on the money is where she declares that ‘reading instruction is one of the most complex tasks our schools undertake’. I would contend that poor training of teachers and poor instructional design of reading programmes are the principal reasons why children aren’t ‘proficient’ readers by Grade 8. If reading and spelling (two sides of the same coin) are rigorously taught during the first three years of schooling and children acquire automaticity, they have direct access to meaning. The process of reading becomes ever easier and, if the subject matter is suitable and well pitched, reading is pleasurable. When reading is pleasurable, children are much more likely to want to read: the rich get richer!

At Sounds-Write we have long argued that teaching teachers how to teach phonics and thus how to teach young children how to read and spell to a very high level of proficiency is an immensely skilled job. It doesn’t involve only the simple mapping of one-to-one correspondences between sound and spelling – as we sometimes hear from the denigrators of phonics: ‘Oh phonics! That’s just kuh a tuh, isn’t it?’ Neither does phonics ‘merely’ involve the teaching of all the complexities of how the writing system maps to the forty-four or so sounds of the English language. It includes the teaching of the procedural skills of segmenting, blending and phoneme manipulation. It involves making clear conceptually how the alphabetic code works*. And, just as importantly, teachers need to have a good understanding of how complex learning takes place and what good instructional design looks like. This latter aspect of the teaching and learning process is something that never crosses the radar screen of the vast majority of trainee teachers and yet is an essential element of successful teaching. What I am alluding to here is cognitive load theory and in the next couple of days I shall explain the relevance of CLT to the teaching of phonics.

* See what Pamela Snow, associate professor of Psychology at Monash University, and Alison Clarke of Spelfabet have to say on this here.

3 thoughts on “The reading achievement challenge

  1. The thing is, John, you have the solution hiding in sight in the UK, and it's much simpler than you and Chenowith imply.

    The Screening Check, that is being used in England at the end of Year 2 is a much more powerful tool for untangling the confusion regarding how to teach kids to read.

    The Check is a quick and psychometrically sound way to identify an individual who can handle the English Alphabetic Code–the link between written and spoken language. An individual who can read all 40 items on the test doesn't need any further formal instruction in reading per se. (Yes they will vary in background information, as you note, but that's another instructional matter altogether.)

    The results of the Yr 1 screening show that the modal score on the test IS 40–the highest possible score on the test. This is unprecedented in conventional standardized testing. But the results have as yet not been examined at the school level, which is where the variation action is.

    Put simply, whatever they think or say they are doing, there are schools and teachers "out there" who aren't teaching their kids how to go about reading right.

    The Check has identified the kids who can't read, but the simple act of identifying the schools and teachers who aren't teaching them hasn't been taken.

    In an era of "evidence based decision making" and "accountability," it's a mind-bogggling situation, but such is life.

  2. As always, it's good to hear from you and thank you for your comment, Dick.
    The screening check is not conducted at the end of Y2, by the way. It's done at the end of Y1. Were it to be set for the end of Y2 and be made more wide-ranging, I think I'd go along with you because you're right! It is a powerful tool.
    Anyway, while I agree with some of what you write – 'whatever they think or say they are doing, there are schools and teachers "out there" who aren't teaching their kids how to go about reading right' – and there are plenty of them, I don't entirely agree with your contention that if kids pass the screening check, they're home and dry.
    Plenty of children who pass the test can be pretty good on the Basic/Initial Code and be taught (often quite robotically!) a smattering of vowel digraphs. What they don't get is enough systematic teaching of and practice in the explicit idea that we spell sounds in the language in multiple ways. Neither do they get enough of the same in handling polysyllabic words.
    Now, I'm not arguing that one has to teach every single spelling alternative for every sound. Far from it! After a certain point, most children go on to teach themselves the code. Where I think we may differ in where we need to get to when that point is reached.
    Of course, this will also depend somewhat on the learner. But I don't see why we can't offer first class literacy tuition to all children over, say, the first three years of schooling so that they have what would be a rock solid guarantee of being able to read and (pretty much) spell anything and everything.
    Best regards,

  3. The Check is administered to all children in Yr 2 who didn't "pass" in Yr 1. Both the item data and the score data indicate that few kids who weren't taught "right" in Yr 1 did not "gain" or "grow" in Yr 2. On some items the Yr 1, "strugglers" went backwards at the LEA level of analysis.

    The point that I've been trying to make–here, "there and everywhere" is that the way forward in getting "first class literacy tuition to all children over, say, the first three years of schooling so that they have what would be a rock solid guarantee of being able to read and (pretty much) spell anything and everything" is to look at the available data at the school and class level.

    (My, that sentence got to be a long challenge between the subject and predicate and the with the other words along the way, but anyone reading your blog who can read all the items on the Screening Check should be able to read/comprehend it. Doing anything different after reading the sentence is a whole nother story.)

    Every kid differs and at the same time, all kids are the same. Example: one kid will see the word "airplane" for the first time and say, /a/ (as in ah) /i/ (as in in" /p-l-a-n-e (as in eh). The sounds pronounced are nothing like the pronunciation of the word. Yet for this kids the approximations are "enough" for kiddo to say subvocally words to the effect "So that's how this business of reading works." And kiddo says aloud /airplane/. This kid doesn't need any further formal instruction in reading per se.

    Another kid, who has been biologically or instructionally scuffed, may require "teaching and practice" of the whole gory 170+ Correspondences, as well as syllabication, morphology and punctuation conventions to reach the point where no further instruction in reading per se is required.

    Each kid is different, but one Alphabetic Code fits all.

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