Headlines from some news media’s education desks indicate that the state of education is verging on collapse.
The articles themselves sometimes include a variety of opinions, but their headlines and text are highly emotive – ‘critics sound alarm’ and ‘decades of bitter debate’ (SMH 01/08/2020), ‘Too many children leave primary school unable to read, campaigners warn’ (SMH 06/08/2020) SMH News Page 3 – ‘Outdated reading program dumped following review’ with a blue highlight of ‘FALLING LITERACY’ September 12-13 2020, and ‘literacy crisis’ (SMH 19/09/2020).
A 1999 comment, rings true today:
Interestingly, the debate, accompanied by its warlike metaphors, appears to have more life in the public and professional press than it does in our schools. Reporters and scholars revel in keeping the debate alive and well, portraying clearly divided sides and detailing a host of differences of a philosophical, political, and pedagogical nature.
Pearson 1999 p. 30
There is a history of the media sensationalising education generally, and particularly the teaching of reading – often reduced to that simplistic model of two diametrically opposed camps.
It is important that we have the knowledge to counter such impressions by being informed as possible – a big ask in the current climate of ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, and all the other pressures of teaching.
It boils down to three questions:
- What should we read to know a bit of the history to now?
- What should we do to keep reliably informed of developments in both research- and evidence-based thinking?
- What should we be careful of?
What should we read for the history of the teaching of reading?
All research adds to the corpus of knowledge, but some is more relevant and appropriate than others.
While there’s not necessarily a direct link between research and practice, the following overviews help us understand the distance we have come since the end of the 19th Century.
- David Pearson’s Reading in the Twentieth Century (1999) presents major research trends and their impact to 1999, many of which also had influence on practice in Australia. He examines what he describes as the most difficult task … to understand the underlying assumptions about the nature of reading and learning to read that motivate dominant practices in each period. (p.1). Pearson addresses the changing fortunes of ideas, including phonics traditions from the end of the 19th Century, through to ‘whole language’. This essay ends with some interesting predictions for what is now the last 20 years.
- The National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy (2004) had major impact on approaches to the teaching of reading in Australia. It identified the key elements necessary for reading development – phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary knowledge and comprehension, together with the need for support from home. The Executive Summary of concluded with:
The attention of the Inquiry Committee was drawn to a dichotomy between phonics and whole-language approaches to the teaching of reading. This dichotomy is false. Teachers must be able to draw on techniques most suited to the learning needs and abilities of the child. (p.1)
- PETA’s Beyond the Reading Wars, (2006) collection of essays reminded us that different ideas have been repeatedly resurrected in Australia, and that we should be able to move on from an adversarial dichotomy of practice.
Unfortunately the adoption of narrow perspectives in the public arena has encouraged the continuation of this apparent ‘war’.
- In 2019 PETAA published current perspectives on the teaching of reading in Australia titled The Alphabetic Principle and Beyond: Surveying the landscape.
The editors committed to providing teachers with the latest research-based and evidence-based pedagogical practice while at the same time translating these big ideas. — PETAA
How can we stay informed?
Teacher professional associations provide credible and highly regarded curated information, ideas and research. The following organisations provide national and international academic research, readings and teachers’ practical ideas and experiences in the classroom. They are well worth joining – membership is tax deductible and they hold great conferences.
The International Literacy Association (ILA) – a strong advocate for the teaching of reading and literacy in the US and internationally since its inception (International Reading Association, 1956). Both online and print versions of their publications, a wide range of links to research, and online professional learning are provided.
The Primary English Teaching Association Australia (PETAA) has been supporting teachers with resources and professional learning in the teaching of English in the primary grades for over 40 years. The website has just had an upgrade to make access to their growing range of materials much easier – online courses, professional readings, advice and direction. Their 2020 conference Reading to Write is in Sydney and online in November.
The Australian Literacy Educators’ Association (ALEA) has a particular focus on literacy, and provides face-to-face and online workshops, research, journals and information.
Each of these has a total commitment to supporting teachers, and as professional associations they do not have profit-making as a motive for recommendations. Each has a strong ethical basis for its work.
According to the ILA, teachers generally agree that academic experts and professional associations were the best sources (2020, p.16) for keeping up with literacy research.
What should we look out for?
The ILA’s latest edition of Literacy Today Volume 38, Issue 2 ‘Research on Reading Instruction’ (September/October 2020) focuses on what high quality, rigorous research says about instruction. All the research, not just the studies that support or contradict SOR. [Science of Reading] (p. 6).
Over many years, much has been made of “scientifically based” (1990s), “research-based” (2000s), and “evidence-based” (2010s) instructional practices.
Hruby (2020) p. 19
Now we have moved into what is being called the ‘science of reading’. As with all ‘evidence’, the ‘science’ of research that is being touted in the US has to be approached with caution. This volume provides us with guidance for examining any ‘evidence’ based on research.
- Consider the source: commercial organisations have commercial interests at the forefront of their purpose, ie making a profit.
- Use ERIC (eric.ed.gov), and Google Scholar (scholar.google.com).
- Read articles critically, by considering questions like:
- Is there a clear purpose to the study, or is the purpose fuzzy?
- Are the research questions clear and answerable or vague or confusing?
- Are there enough subjects in the study so that the results can be useful to you?
- Are the subjects of the study similar to students in your school, district, or state?
- Do the researchers draw logical conclusions from what they found, or are the conclusions more related to their own biases than to what the study actually found?
based on Dole 2020 pp16-17
and Hruby warns us to Be cautious of
- single studies as “proof”: … they often cannot be replicated, … [so] are unreliable
- lots of single studies lined up as a packaged narrative
- complicated metaanalyses and syntheses of lots of single studies … multiple meta-analyses, and on their basis theoretically coherent research syntheses, can at least point you toward mainstream findings on vexing literacy questions, even if the verdict is “the jury is still out.” Which is often.
- binaries: … the complexity of the world, society, learners, or effective instruction to only two opposing stances.
- colorful metaphors sneakily insinuating principles of causation or constraint
- anyone who cannot explain things clearly
Currently, there is a small cadre of marketers declaring the virtues of an avowed science of reading, claiming complex questions about reading development, student variance, and disability are settled—which is news to most scholars and teachers of literacy. Apparently, science-inspired certainty sells products.
from Hruby, 2020 p.19
Beware also the use of terms like ‘patients’, ‘customers’, ‘clients’ or ‘subjects’.
We teach children who are students.
Examples of these often appear in the alarmist news reports in the ‘popular’ press.
What is not argued about is the importance of reading in the development of academic skills for students and their success at school. Texts and reading are about communicating to make meaning.
Dole, J. A. (2020) CONNECTING EDUCATORS WITH READING RESEARCH in LITERACY TODAY Vol. 38 Issue 2 September/October 2020 pp. 16-17
Ewing, R. (Editor) (2006) Beyond the Reading Wars Newtown, Primary English Teaching Association
Hruby, G. (2020) Questioning Research: Distinguishing incredible reading research claims from more credible (and useful) findings in LITERACY TODAY Vol. 38 Issue 2 September/October 2020 pp 18-19
Pearson, P. David (1999) Reading in the Twentieth Century Michigan State University/CIERA at https://www.oelp.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Reading-in-the-twenthieth-century.pdf accessed 18/09/2020
Rowe, K., & National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy (Australia). (2005). Teaching Reading: Report and Recommendations. Department of Education, Science and Training. https://research.acer.edu.au/tll_misc/5