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Posts Tagged ‘Structured literacy’

‘Balanced Literacy’ enjoys a charmed life in Canadian elementary education. A whole generation of elementary teachers have not only been taught reading with ‘balanced literacy’ approaches and resources, but employ those same methods in teaching our youngest children to read.  The Canadian province of New Brunswick is typical of most North American educational jurisdictions in its adherence to the dominant approach embedded in its provincially-sanctioned text materials and leveled reading books. 

A “literacy crisis” has finally exposed the source of the problem and New Brunswick education authorities are beginning to connect the dots.  Conservative Premier Blaine Higgs, now campaigning for re-election,  described the “literacy rate” as “an embarrassment that we cannot put-up with any longer.”   Literacy was identified as a priority in Education Minister Dominic Cardy’s October 2018 Green Paper on Education, but the plan of action stopped short of committing to remedial changes.

It took a Twitter spat to flush out the province’s actual plans. On August 5, Minister Cardy took great exception to rumors circulating that New Brunswick was sticking with its conventional provincial literacy strategy, based largely upon the Fountas & Pinnell Literacy program.  “@FountasPinnell is ideological gobbledygook,” he tweeted, and then added “We are moving away from it as quickly as possible.” 

Abandoning the Fountas & Pinnell literacy program would constitute a sea change in the 2017 provincial literacy strategy inherited from the Brian Gallant Liberal government.  It would also mean breaking away from the pack because Fountas & Pinnell’s model of Literacy Level Intervention (LLI) and resources are firmly entrenched in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Manitoba and other provinces.

Early literacy expert Erin Schryer was stunned by Cardy’s Twitter revelation.  With a Ph.D. in Early Literacy from University of New Brunswick, Dr. Schryer has experienced, first hand, the unintended harvest of the existing strategy and curriculum. As Executive Director of Elementary Literacy Inc., from 2014 to 2018, she embraced “structured literacy” and offered two supplementary volunteer-based reading achievement programs aimed at rescuing struggling readers in the early grades.  

“The science of reading is not new,” Schryer says, “and more and more teachers are questioning standard practice and awakening to the need for dramatic change,” in the form of a more systematic, structured approach where ‘phonics’ is not a bad word.  “Not all can read by osmosis, “she adds, “so we are excluding a large segment of the student population.”

Trying to fix students experiencing reading failure proved frustrating.  “I left Elementary Literacy Inc.,” Schryer explains, “because we were not moving the needle. We couldn’t extend what the schools were doing, so it wasn’t really working.”  Instead of banging her head against the wall, she’s taking matters into her own hands, as CEO since July 2018 of Origins Early Learning Childcare and Academy, serving over 400 children and families in Quispamsis and Saint John.

Challenging the dominance of what Cardy described as “ideological gobbledygook” will not be easy and the Minister can expect subterranean resistance.  ‘Balanced literacy’ is a term appropriated by Fountas & Pinnell as a means of preserving whole word reading pedagogy now under intense attack from educators, like Schryer, armed with evidence based-research demonstrating more conclusively how children learn to read and favouring a more structured approach to teaching early reading. 

Fountas & Pinnell has cornered the early literacy market with a patented a system of reading levels developed by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell and published by Heinemann to support the use of their Levelled Literacy Interventions (LLI) series of student readers and teacher resource products.  It’s also closely aligned with Reading Recovery, a short-term, one-on-one Grade 1 literacy intervention, exemplifying a similar approach.

The program comes with a Benchmark Assessment System (BAS) that is often used as the primary measure of student reading progress.  Despite Fountas & Pinnell’s 2007 cautionary note about using the reading levels as an evaluative measure, employing it for that purpose is commonplace.  Co-founder of the American Right to Read Project Margaret Goldberg found administering BAS to be a time-consuming exercise and a “poorly-constructed assessment” on students for whom it was not designed, using material that limits student choice, and constrains their access to more advanced grade-level content.  

The most popular reading programs in Canada and the United States, including Fountas & Pinnell, are not backed by science. A year ago, the U.S.-based Education Week Research Centre identified the most widely used reading programs and then subjected each of them to closer scrutiny. The Education Week evaluators found many instances in which Fountas & Pinnell and the others diverged from evidence-based practices. 

Today, it’s widely accepted by reading researchers that programs for young children need to include phonics and Fountas & Pinnell purports to teach young pupils about sound-letter correspondence. In spite of such claims, the focus is on word identification and phonics instruction is so intermittent that students may not actually learn or be assessed on certain skills. Students are mostly taught to approach words in ways that undermine what can be gleaned from phonics.

The F &P system works on the assumption that students use multiple sources of information, or “cues,” to solve words. That may be true for some poor readers, but it flies in the face of evidence-based neuroscience research.  Effective readers, we now know, process all of the letters in words when they read them, and that they can read connected text very quickly. Early reading programs based upon the F &P system teach students to make better guesses, under the false assumption that it will make children better readers. The fundamental problem with that “three cue” approach is that it trains children to believe that they don’t always need to look at the letters that make up words in order to read them.

Many early years consultants and teachers do not recognize, or perhaps even know, that cuing strategies are not consistent with the science of reading. That’s not just the view of Dr. Schryer, but of many leading researchers, including University of British Columbia psychology professor Linda Siegel and Mount Saint Vincent University learning disabilities specialist Jamie Metsala. 

One of the reasons for the disconnect is that school system consultants not classroom teachers generally decide on what curriculum is authorized across a province or a school district. Two-thirds of the teachers surveyed in 2019 by Education Week reported that their school district selected the primary reading programs and materials, and the figure is likely higher in New Brunswick.

Back in December 2019, American Education Week reporter Sarah Schwartz made a telling comment about the state of teacher consultation and input when it comes to evaluating reading programs. “Even when teachers want to question their school or district’s approach,” she reported, “they may feel pressured to stay silent.”  Three teachers from different districts who spoke with Education Week requested that their names not be used in the story, for fear of repercussions from within the system.

What Minister Cardy has done, in criticizing the Fountas & Pinnell system, is to demonstrate that tinkering with the existing program is not the answer.  If F & P is on the way out, let’s hope the province leads the way in embracing a more soundly evidence-based approach recognizing the benefits of structured literacy.

*An earlier version of this commentary appeared in the Telegraph-Journal, Provincial Edition and all daily papers in New  Brunswick.  

What explains the continued dominance of ‘balanced literacy’ in the form of Literacy Level Interventions and supporting reading materials? What does the science of reading tell us about how most students succeed in mastering reading?  Where’s the evidence to support the effectiveness of balanced literacy applied in universal fashion?  Why are so many early elementary teachers so reluctant to speak up to effect change? 

 

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