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Archive for the ‘Early Reading Instruction’ Category

Every school year seems to herald the arrival of a new crop of education books seeking to “fix the education system.”  Some champion the latest educational panacea, others target the supposed causes of decline, and a select few identify a possible pathway for improving teaching and learning or making schools better. Despite significant investments in remedial programs and ‘learning supports,’ a yawning “achievement gap” persists between students from marginalized or low-income families and their more affluent counterparts and, with few exceptions, it has not closed much over the past fifty years.

Two new education reform books, Natalie Wexler’s The Knowledge Gap, and Michael Zwaagstra’s A Sage on the Stage, raise hope that the sources of the problem can be identified and actually addressed in the years ahead. Each of the two books, one American, the other Canadian, offer markedly similar diagnoses and urge policy-makers and educators alike to shore-up the rather emaciated content knowledge-based curriculum. 

Prominent American journalist Wexler demonstrates that elementary school teaching and learning, once considered a bright spot, is so undernourished that most teachers now teach as though it doesn’t matter what students are reading or learning, as long as they are acquiring skills of one kind or another.  Manitoba high school teacher Zwaagstra, in one commentary after another, shows how teaching content knowledge has been downgraded at all levels and overtaken by constructivist experiments embedded in the latest “foolish fads infecting public education.”

Forays into American elementary schools, during Wexler’s field research, produce some alarming lessons.  First graders in a Washington, DC, inner city school are observed, virtually lost, drawing clowns or struggling to fill-in worksheets in a class supposedly based upon a rather dense article about Brazil. Teachers jump wily-nily from topic to topic asking students to read about clouds one day, then zebras the next, completely out of context.  Few elementary teachers seem aware of the science of learning or the vital importance of prior knowledge in reading comprehension. Equally disturbing is the general finding that so many elementary teachers simply assume that children can acquire content knowledge later, after they have a modicum of skills. Such ‘progressive education’ assumptions prevail in most elementary schools, public, private and independent, almost without variation.

Zwaagstra’s book, composed of his best Canadian newspaper commentaries over the past decade, takes dead aim at the prevailing ideology fostered in faculties of education and perpetuated by provincial and school district armies of curriculum consultants and pedagogical coaches. Beginning teachers are trained to resist the temptation to be “a sage on the stage” and instead strive to be “a guide on the side.”  Zwaagstra completely rejects that approach on the grounds that it undermines teacher content knowledge and devalues the expertise of professionals in the classroom. He is, in this respect, speaking the same language as most secondary school teachers who have never really given up the notion that prior knowledge matters and that knowing your subject is critical to higher achievement in colleges and universities.

Zwaagstra speaks up for regular classroom teachers who focus on what works in the classroom and have learned, over the years, to be skeptical of the latest fads. Most regular teachers reading his stinging critiques of ‘discovery math,” whole-language-founded “balanced literacy,” and  incomprehensible “no zero” student evaluation policies will likely be nodding in approval. Not content simply to pick holes in existing theories and practices, he makes a common sense case for strategies that do work, especially in high schools —explicit instruction, knowledge-rich curriculum, and plenty of practice to achieve mastery.

Both Wexler and Zwaagstra go to considerable lengths to spare teachers from the blame for what has gone wrong in the school system. Prevailing pedagogical theories and education professors are identified as the purveyors of teaching approaches and practices floating on uncontested progressive education beliefs. When it comes to teaching reading comprehension, Wexler carefully explains why teachers continue to teach reading comprehension as a set of discrete skills instead of being founded on prior knowledge and expanded vocabulary. It is, in her analysis, “simply the water they’ve been swimming in, so universal and taken for granted they don’t question or even mention it.”  In Zwaagstra’s case, he’s very sympathetic to hard-working teachers in the trenches who cope by carrying-on with what works and developing ‘work-arounds’ when confronted by staunch ideologues or impossible mandates.

What’s really significant about these two education reformers is that both are strong advocates for, and supporters of, the international researchED movement out to challenge and dispel popular myths that have little or no basis in evidence-based research or cognitive science. Zwaagstra is a very popular presenter at researchED Canada conferences and Wexler is one of the headliners at the upcoming American researchED conference, November 16, 2019, in Philadelphia, PA. 

The two authors are very much part of the great awakening made possible by the flourishing of social media conversations, especially on EduTwitter, where independently-minded educators from around the world now go to debate education reform, share the latest research in cognitive science, and discuss ways of grappling with common problems in everyday teaching.

Slowly, but surely, the global edu-gurus are losing their single channel, uncontested platforms and facing more and more teachers equipped to call into question prevailing teaching approaches and fashionable education fads. Moving forward is now less about finding and embracing education evangelists or grabbing hold of,  and riding, the latest fad, and far more about interrogating accepted truths and trusting your teacher colleagues to work out what works in the classroom.

What’s significant about the two books — Natalie Wexler’s The Knowledge Gap and Michael Zwaagstra’s A Sage on the Stage?  Now that the call for content-knowledge curriculum is back in vogue in the United States, will Canadian policy-makers and educators  begin looking more critically at their policies and practices?  With more educators embracing a knowledge-rich curriculum, what would it take to successfully challenge the the sugary progressive education consensus in elementary schools?  

 

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British educator Katie Ashford, the spunky curator of Tabula Rasa Blog, is stirring-up much needed education reform thinking.  “Education in the UK isn’t always good enough,” she says in her first “Why I Blog” post. “Far too many children pass through the doors of our schools into the real world knowing little, unable to read, and incapable of expressing themselves. To me, this is a tragedy. Our education system is flawed and we need to do something about it urgently.”

StrugglingTeenReaderThat commitment to raising educational standards and sense of urgency certainly shines through in her most recent commentary, “Please teach my daughter to read,” posted January 17, 2016, and now generating quite an online reaction. In it, Katie utilizes the case of a British teen’s amazing turnaround in reading fluency over 18 months to demonstrate that “correct methods” can work apparent wonders in making Special Education Needs (SEN) all but disappear.

She certainly spins a compelling story. As Assistant Head at Michaela Community School, in the Wembley District of London, Ashford reports that the student’s father enrolled “Georgia” in her school convinced that her academic struggles, entering secondary level, stemmed from not being able to read. Without promising miracles, she took on the project based upon her “hunch” that Georgia was “yet another victim of our profession’s ignorant mistakes” and, rather than having a “cognitive disability,” simply needed to be taught to read through proven, research-based methods.

Her “hunch” was borne out by Georgia’s experience. Eighteen months later, Ashford reported that “Georgia has received rigorous reading instruction and reads thousnds of words per day, including the classics. She is no longer on the SEN register and her reading age (level) has improved by 4 years. She still has lots of catching up to do, but she is making rapid progress.”

Ashford and her Tabla Rasa Education blog are, as expected, drawing flack from ‘diehard’ progressive educators either wedded to “whole word” approaches or simply hostile to academy schools such as Michaela with its explicit KIPP educational philosophy.  Resorting to such criticisms is revealing because it attacks the institution without really confronting the evidence of success.

Hunches about the impact of early reading failure on the rising incidence of SEN coded or designated students are well-founded and supported by mounds of research findings. Since the mid-1990s reading research has tended to show that children who get off to a poor start in reading rarely catch up. The poor first-grade reader almost invariably continues to be a poor reader (Francis, Shaywitz, Stuebing, Shaywitz, & Fletcher, 1996; Torgesen & Burgess, 1998). And the consequences of a slow start in reading become monumental as they accumulate exponentially over time.

The recognized pioneer in the field is Canadian researcher, Dr. Keith Stanovich, Professor Emeritas at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Thirty years ago, Stanovich pointed out in his well-known paper (1986) on the “Matthew effects” (the rich get richer and the poor get poorer) that failure to acquire early word reading skills has lasting consequences ranging from negative attitudes toward reading (Oka & Paris, 1986), to reduced opportunities for vocabulary growth (Nagy, Herman, & Anderson, 1985), to missed opportunities for development of reading comprehension strategies (Brown, Palinscar, & Purcell, 1986), to less actual practice in reading than other children receive (Allington, 1984).

“Catch Them Before They Fall” is the key message conveyed by Joseph K. Torgesen, Jamie Metsala and other leading reading research specialists.  “It is a tragedy of the first order,” according to Torgeson,” that while we know clearly the costs of waiting too long, few school districts have in place a mechanism to identify and help children before failure takes hold. Indeed, in the majority of cases, there is no systematic identification until third grade, by which time successful remediation is more difficult and more costly.”

Early reading failure is now recognized as a critical factor contributing to the burgeoning numbers of Special Needs students not only in Britain but elsewhere. The Reading Reform Foundation has led the charge in the U.K. and one of the best articles making the connection is Dr. John Marks piece “Special Need or Can’t Read?” published in the May 2001 RRF Newsletter.  In it, he expressed alarm that the U.K. had ten times as many pupils with ‘Special Educational Needs’ than in 1980 and over a million and a half pupils in total.

Across Britain, Marks reported in 2001 that more than one in five of all pupils were on ‘Special Needs’ registers – and in some schools the figure was as high as a staggering 55% or more.  The numbers of SEN children with “statements” of severe disabilities stood at 2 to 3 per cent, meaning that the vast majority of SEN students were what was described as “soft” with, at best, moderate or undiagnosed learning disabilities. He then posed the fundamental question: “Is the explosion in ‘Special Needs’ real? Or has it happened because schools have failed over many years to teach properly – and to teach reading in particular.”

A recent shift in British SEN policy is beginning to address the problem identified a decade ago.  In September 2014, Special Needs and Disability (SEND) reforms to the Children and Families Act were introduced to better track and properly designate students by their SEN provision.  Since then, the total number of SEN students has dropped from 1.49 to 1.3 million, while the number with a clear SEN “statement” stands at 2.8%, a slight increase over the past year.  This was consistent with a 2010 Ofsted Study that found about one-quarter of all children labelled with SEN and as many as half of those on “School Action” lists, did not actually have SEN.

Literacy levels are now considered to be a major contributing factor perpetuating economic inequality.  A 2014 report of the National Literacy Trust and commissioned by Save the Children has now sparked the publication ‘How reading can help children escape poverty’ produced by the Read On. Get On. coalition. That U.K. campaign brings together teachers and other professionals, charities, businesses, publishers and local communities pursuing the lofty goal of all children reading well by the age of 11 by 2025. Much like Katie Ashfield, they see the potential for all children learning to read if taught by more effective methods and fully embraced by the school system.

How many of our Special Education Needs (SEN) population are actually casualties of ineffective early reading instruction? Why are education reformers questioning the incidence of SEN student numbers often labelled as hard-nosed or unsympathetic to students? Which early reading interventions work best in producing fluent readers?  If we were to “catch them early,” what would SEN programs look like and would we actually be serving those who need intensive support much better? 

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The Early Reading Wars have essentially gone underground in many Canadian provinces and school districts. Since the appearance of Keith Stanovich’s acclaimed 2000  book, Progress in Understanding Reading, teaching reading by developing ” phonological awareness” and utilizing effective, synthetic phonics has been gaining significant ground among leading literacy researchers and education policy-makers.  The term “Whole Language” was now been banished from the vocabulary of most faculty of education Language Arts instructors and curriculum consultants.  Yet, more recently, just when it appeared that the Whole Language movement was in full retreat, the warmed-over  strategy– retooled as the “balanced approach” —has reared its head, once again, in two provinces, British Columbia and Nova Scotia.

LiteraciesPosterMSVUTwo respected Canadian literacy researchers, Linda Siegel of the University of British Columbia and Jamie Metsala of Mount Saint Vincent University, have risen to the latest challenge.  Both scholars are highly respected Special Education authorities, specializing in addressing student learning disabilities.  Given the mounting evidence in support of  effective, systematic instruction in phonological awareness and synthetic phonics, they are also troubled by why so many children still struggle in the area of reading.

The latest research report written by Jamie Metsala for the Encyclopedia of Language and Literacy Development (2012-07-25) provides an uncharacteristically blunt assessment.

“Unfortunately, in some school districts and provinces, the reading wars are still alive and well.  In documents outlining provincial strategies for providing interventions to young children at risk for reading difficulties, explicit and direct instruction may not be mentioned or supported (e.g., B.C. Ministry of Education, 2010; N.S. Department of Education, 2011), and in practice may be strongly discouraged. This impedes teachers learning about, receiving professional development ion, and having access to research-based intervention programs and strategies.” (pp. 5-6)

Most reading difficulties can, and should, be prevented using research-proven effective classroom instruction and early intervention. Recent research has only buttressed claims that systematic, synthetic phonics strategies produce far better results for more students than the “balanced approach” back-stopped by the short-term Grade 1 intervention known as  Reading Recovery.

So you can only imagine Dr. Siegel’s shock, back in June 2010, when  the B.C. Department of Education posted, without warning, a draft policy document, Primary Program: A Guide for Teaching 2010, endorsing the “balanced approach” to literacy totally at odds with the research on best practice.  She responded with a scorching letter to Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid, and, since then, has been campaigning to correct the damage to special needs kids and especially those diagnosed with dyslexia.

The next jolt came from Nova Scotia.  In 2010, Education Minister Ramona Jennex raised hopes by cancelling the $7 million province-wide Grade 1 Reading Recovery program and announcing that it would be replaced by a more affordable, comprehensive “home-grown” program covering Grades 1 to 3. Provincial advocates for effective, research-based literacy methods and interventions were skeptical in April 2011 when the Department unveiled the policy framework for Succeeding in Reading.

The Succeeding in Reading policy framework (April 26, 2011) confirmed the fears of Metsala, Halifax Region private tutoring providers, and many Special Education teachers.  While Nova Scotia had abandoned Reading Recovery, the “balanced approach” found a new lease on life.  The mandated Approach, as stated in the document, was to provide: “focused, developmentally appropriate instruction”; and “immersion in rich oral and text language and literacy experiences.”  The only real changes were to identify struggling readers earlier, in Primary Class, to spread literacy instruction over three years, and to provide support in groups of up to 3 students.

A March 6, 2012 session on Succeeding in Reading held at Mount Saint Vincent University, featuring N.S. Provincial Curriculum Consultant Janet Porter, left many in stunned silence.  It went over like a lead balloon. Most of the questioners poked holes in the generalized, fuzzy program description and a Frontier College official and two Halifax psychologists, seeing no reference whatsoever to “phonics,”  demanded to know why it was missing from the document. Assurances that it was one of a number of possible approaches failed to mollify them or really satisfy anyone in the audience.

The initial results for the first cohort of Grade 1 students in 2011-12 did little to inspire confidence in Nova Scotia’s new program.  Of the 806 Grade 1 students in the Halifax Regional School Board participating in the assessment, 44 per cent failed to meet the expected standard for achievement. Of those lagging students, 70 per cent were boys.  The board’s French Immersion students did only marginally better, with 39% failing to make the standard, 61% of whom were boys.  Under the new program, two out of five students entered grade 2 already struggling with reading deficits in the Atlantic region’s largest school system.

Those abysmal results not only made front page news in The Chronicle Herald (22 January 2013), but confirmed Dr. Jamie Metsala’s research findings.  “Word recognition is the leading obstacle for young children learning to read and for disabled readers, “she reported, and “phonemic awareness deficits are one of the most frequent causes of these difficulties.”  The root cause, Metsala pointed out, citing a 2008 JLD study, was “instruction that is either insufficient in its design or intensity for students at risk for reading disabilities.”

Why have the 2010 B.C. Ministry of Education and the 2011 N.S. Department of Education literacy programs been identified as fundamentally flawed in their approach?  How have Ministry of Education consultants managed to implement “balanced” WL-based programs in defiance of the proven scientific research?  When will research-based best practice be enshrined in policy documents, begin to reach classroom teachers and actually come to the rescue of children struggling with learning to read?

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“It’s a hidden shame for far too many people,” says Paul MacNeil, Executive Director of the Bedford-Sackville Literacy Network (BSLN). http://www.chebucto.ns.ca/education/bsln/  “Adults with literacy challenges… tend to struggle on alone… and need a helping hand to get the educational upgrading they desperately need to make it in the world.”

MacNeil is a living example of those struggles. Born in Sydney, Cape Breton, he quit school, went to work at the SYSCO steel plant, and raised four children on short pay checks while being laid off by the company some 21 times.  In his late 30s, he used his EI to help finance an education, earning two university degrees.  Even then, he struggled to find regular work, that is, until discovering the crying needs in the adult education field.

Adult illiteracy remains largely a hidden problem, even in our larger cities. Since the 2003 International Adult and Life Skills Survey (IALSS), the brutal facts are well known. A shocking proportion of Canada’s adult population simply lack the essential skills required to cope in our 21st century “knowledge-based” economy. Two out of five adults operate at Level 1 (Poor) or Level 2 (Weak) levels in literacy and the numbers are higher for numeracy.  Whether observing factory workers struggling with instruction manuals or watching cashiers attempting to make change, the outward signs are everywhere.

Most of those afflicted with illiteracy are powerless to change their current circumstances without “essential skills” training. Many rural Canadians hide their shame and in Canada’s cities the casualt ies of our education system drift along, moving from job-to-job, marginalized in one of the world’s most advanced and affluent societies. It’s so serious that the biggest Canadian businesses, most notably, the TD Bank, have started to take notice.

“One of the biggest challenges we have in business,” TD Banks’s Chief Economist Craig Alexander recently declared in Halifax, “is awareness of the problem.” A few short years ago, he counted himself among those still in the dark.  “I was absolutely shocked,” he admitted, “when I looked at the actual figures for a supposedly advanced country like Canada. It stunned me that 4 in 10 young Canadians and 5 in 10 adults are lacking in literacy, and it’s higher  (6 out of 10) when it comes to numeracy.” http://www.td.com/document/PDF/economics/special/td-economics-special-literacy0907.pdf

What’s the root cause of our adult literacy challenges?  Provincial Euucation Departments and even publicly-funded literacy associations tend to dance around that issue. “The regular system is failing them, ” says Paul MacNeil, ” They are shunted along in school and they’re still coming out at the end unable to properly read or write. They’re self-esteem is shot… It’s a shame what we are doing to them.”  http://halifax.openfile.ca/halifax/text/hidden-shame-adult-illiteracy

“Our number one economic problem,” Alexander claimed, “is abysmal productivity – and a lack of innovation.”  A Statistics Canada survey, cited by Alexander, reported that lifting literacy scores by 1% could raise labour productivity by 2.5% and output per capita by 1.5%, boosting national income by $32 billion.

Literacy advocates in Nova Scotia are quick to pinpoint why the problem persists, even in cities like Halifax with five accredited universities and an illiteracy rate of 34 percent. The fight against adult illiteracy in Nova Scotia is largely entrusted to thirty poorly-funded Community Learning centres in the Literacy Nova Scotia Network. While the NS NDP government has tripled funding for short-term Workplace Training from $300,000 to $ 1 million over the past 2 years, the local volunteer-driven Literacy Network agencies are struggling to stay afloat.

Cathy Hammond, Secretary of the Bedford-Sackville Literacy Network, speaks with some authority on the subject. As the parent of four children, including one with severe learning challenges, she is gravely concerned about the current trend.  “Adult literacy funding,” she insists, “has changed… providing more of an employability focus than educational upgrading and it threatens to leave some adult learners without options.”

Over at the Dartmouth Learning Network, Sunday Miller put it more bluntly.  Government funding for adult learning, she told Chronicle Herald columnist Brenda MacDonald, is “a joke.”  http://thechronicleherald.ca/dcw/54795-adult-literacy-can-be-shortest-path-educated-society

“There’s not enough money being put toward adult learning,” Miller insists. “I don’t believe in a free ride…but when people want to start to change their lives, and they hit roadblock after roadblock after roadblock and get doors slammed in their faces, then there’s something wrong with the system.”  In short, providing short-term workplace training does not really get to the root of the chronic problem.

Adult illiteracy is still a sleeper as a major Canadian education policy issue, perhaps because it focuses on the products of the K-12 public school system. Why is adult literacy considered to be an afterthought?  Who will step-up and tackle the problem head-on in Canada, now that the TD Bank has put it back on the public agenda?  What are the political obstacles and structural barriers to addressing Canada’s “hidden shame”?

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Threats to any early literacy programs have a way of arousing passions. After the Nova Scotia government of Darrell Dexter announced in early February 2011 that it was “phasing-out” Reading Recovery, the immediate response was predictable. Parents of early elementary age children were panicked, early years teachers were up in arms and , before long, a “Save Reading Recovery” Facebook group rallied in its defense. Then on March 9, 2011 dozens of parents and teachers descended upon the Nova Scotia House of Assembly to make their personal pleas with heart-rending stories and a few tears. http://thechronicleherald.ca/Front/9020121.html

Passionate supporters of Reading Recovery were desperate to save the embattled literacy program for Grade 1 pupils. Many assumed that killing RR meant a further decimation of both literacy programming and special education services. Since the promised alternative was described in only the vaguest terms, they feared the worst. Few educators, let alone the general public, had any inkling that Reading Recovery was a problematic program, according to a mounting number of research studies. Fewer still knew that both its cost and effectiveness had been called into question.

Reading Recovery (RR) is a hardy plant in the garden of elementary education. Since being developed by Marie Clay in New Zealand in 1985, it has attracted a loyal following as a means of responding to the alarmingly high incidence of reading failure in early elementary grades. It actually emerged out of the “Reading Wars” as a kind of antidote to the rise of phonics (the “sound-out -letters” method ) While critics of Whole Language (WL) (“see and say” methods) campaigned for the restoration of systematic phonics, Reading Recovery programs popped up all over North America as a “band aid” for what ailed WL-based literacy programs.

The RR program was seized by Education Departments and boards as the latest panacea. By 2000, RR had spread to 10,000 American Grade 1 classrooms and had made inroads in Ontario as well as Nova Scotia. Over a 15 year period, Nova Scotia poured millions into RR, training some 600 teachers and running 33,000 kids through the 12-week, intensive, one-on-one program.

Thousands of parents in the 1990s were “hooked on phonics,” but school boards found their salvation in Reading Recovery. “These days,” Ramesh Ponnaru wrote in the OQE Newsletter (March 2000), ” it’s rare to find a school that does not claim to teach phonics, but whole language programs like Reading Recovery remain prevalent.” Simply stated, RR filled the need for a “balanced” program where phonics was “embedded in the context of a total reading/language program.”

Overzealous promoters of Reading Recovery contend that it works miracles with struggling readers. It focuses only on 6-year-old children who show signs of reading difficulty and score in the bottom 20 percentile in reading. Pupils selected for RR are provided with 30 to 40 minutes of daily one-on-one “pull-out” instruction for at least 12 consecutive weeks. The one-to-one delivery model and the use of regular “on-grid” teachers make it exceedingly expensive to run.

Reading Recovery does have a fiercely loyal following, but independent educational research has shown that it is not good value for money. Not only does it serve only a few students (and those are Grade 1 students) per year in a school, but for the same or less cost a school could offer a variety of more empirically validated, effective interventions for groups of children at several grade levels.

With Reading Recovery, what do school boards get for their money? The best validated research says not enough in terms of improved reading skills to warrant the expense, compared to other early reading programs and interventions. One leading authority, Dr. Melissa Farrall, reviewed the literature and conclude that it fell short on five different counts. She cited research studies identifying high program withdrawal rates, challenging the company’s success rate indices, and analyzing the negligible effects on demand for special education language services. “Independent research, ” she stated bluntly,” does not validate Reading Recovery’s claims of success.” http://www.wrightslaw.com/info/read.rr.research.farrall.htm

Struggling readers cry out for support and should be an educational priority for schools. So if Reading Recovery is not the answer, what is?

School districts in Britain, California, and even New Zealand have demonstrated the success of systematic phonics. One school, Elmhurst Primary in Newington, UK, a low SES area, has had amazing success with such an program for all Grade 1 students. They actually found they no longer had a need for Reading Recovery after implementing a structured and systematic reading program. http://www.teachers.tv/videos/applying-a-systematic-phonics-scheme.

The stakes are high for kids when it comes to learning to read. What explains the remarkable spread of Reading Recovery in school boards across North America? Why has Reading Recovery survived, in spite of the independent, validated research findings? If it is overly expensive and of dubious merit, why do parents cling so passionately to the program? To what extent does the fixation start in faculties of education where novice teachers continue to be socialized to believe in Whole Language and its methods?

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