Harefield

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Saturday, 10 June 2017

Is changing your mind like changing your underwear?


“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”
George Bernard Shaw

It must be over 25 years since I last changed my underwear. No, wait; let me rephrase that: It must be over 25 years since I last changed the brand of underwear I wear. While my family may disagree, my allegiance to Marks and Spencer’s undies was perhaps one of the last vestiges of my Pommie origins to leave me. After all, if it was good enough for the royal family, it was surely good enough for me. And this from a lifelong republican, no less. But I have finally succumbed to the lure of Bonds and I am the happier for it.
It is not flattering to say of someone that they change their minds as often as they change their underwear but why do we tend to view changing one’s mind as a sign of weakness or as a moral failing. If a friend says ‘I’ve changed my mind’, the temptation to respond with “Does it work any better?” is almost irresistible. Keynes probably did not say: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” But he should have. And J K Galbraith did say: “Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof."
To broaden my outlook, I’ve been reading a little bit about Foucault lately. His followers object vociferously to him being described as a Marxist but in fact he was, early on in his career. In his first book, when he was also a member of the (Stalinist) Communist Party in France, he took a Marxist line. But by the time he published a second edition, he not only took out all references to a Marxist perspective but also apparently did his best to ensure that the earlier version was well and truly buried. I find this strange. Why not simply state that you have changed your mind?
Like many a wild child of the late sixties, I too was seduced by the easy answers of radical socialism at university but had changed my mind to such an extent by the time I was in my early 30s that I stood as a parliamentary candidate for the newly formed Social Democratic Party in the ‘Falklands’ general election of 1983; quite a change.
This reluctance to change one’s mind is particularly prevalent in education not least because education is not an evidence-based profession. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the teaching of reading. As the eminent psychologist Keith Stanovich has noted: "that direct instruction in alphabetic coding facilitates early reading acquisition is one of the most well established conclusions in all of behavioral science.” In spite of some thirty or forty years of scientific research into how reading works and how it is best taught, however, the received wisdom promulgated in most initial teacher training institutions continues to be the whole language view (or balanced literacy as it was subsequently, if not convincingly, re-branded). Why is this the case? What stops people, and especially education academics, from changing their mind?
 As I have admitted before, I have not always been an advocate of phonics instruction. When I first came to Australia in 1990, I held what, in retrospect, may seem like a curious mix of views. While being a strong enthusiast of applied behavior analysis in education, I was, however, not a supporter of direct, explicit phonics instruction, as my writing around this time demonstrates. Having witnessed examples of shocking phonics excesses in schools in the West Midlands, whereby children struggling to learn to read barely ever saw a book, I was deeply suspicious. Under the influence of colleagues such as Coral Kemp at Macquarie University Special Education Centre (MUSEC), however, I rapidly saw the error of my ways. The available scientific evidence in favour of my former views just did not stack up whereas the evidence in favour of phonics instruction was overwhelming. And so I very quickly changed my mind. The rest, as they say, is history. Over twenty five years later, I am still the happier for it.
These days, I sometimes find myself as perplexed by the attitudes of some phonics enthusiasts as I am by their whole language opponents. The latter seem to find no problem in ignoring the scientific evidence in favour of phonics instruction because many educationists deny the validity of empirical research in education, opting for a more ‘philosophical’ approach. Equally alarming to me, however, is the reluctance of some advocates for phonics instruction to take on board more recent research findings and to adjust their models of instruction accordingly. Some seem to hold the view that we now know all that we need to know and resist, with vigour, those within the same camp who deviate from the received wisdom.
The Dalai Lama once said that should science disprove the benefits of meditation, he would be willing to rethink thousands of years of Buddhist tradition. “If science proves facts that conflict with Buddhist understanding, Buddhism must change accordingly,” he said. “We should always adopt a view that accords with the facts.” If the Dalai Lama can be so open-minded, why do so many educationists refuse to reconsider their position in the light of the evidence?
As for those who appear to deny the reality of science per se in favour of the view that even scientific research evidence is socially determined (and we're back with Foucault and his mates here), let’s give the last word on this subject to popular author Alexander McCall Smith. In his 2005 book, ‘44 Scotland Street’, he comments:
“The problem was that some people preached social philosophies that paid no attention to reality. Some French philosophers had a tendency to do this, Big Lou had noted: they did not care in the slightest if their theories could have disastrous consequences – because they considered themselves above such consequences. It was perfectly possible to portray scientific knowledge as socially determined – and therefore not true in any real sense – when one was safe on the ground in Paris; but would you ask the same question in a jet aircraft at thirty-five thousand feet, when that same knowledge underpinned the very engineering that was keeping one up in the air?” (p.151)
So, have you changed your mind? Does it work any better?

Crap detecting for beginners


[The following is an edited version of a speech I gave at the launch of this book* in May 2017.]

A recent Four Corners program featured the results from a ‘shadow shop’ of 240 pharmacies conducted by Choice. Pharmacists were asked to recommend something for these actors posing as shoppers who claimed that they had been “feeling really stressed lately”. 26% of pharmacists recommended Bach Flower remedies, a product for which there is absolutely no scientific evidence for efficacy. Another 3% recommended homeopathic products.
Non-evidenced based fads like this predilection for so-called ‘natural’ remedies are widespread. Just look at Gwynneth Paltrow’s GOOP website, for example.  I had no idea just what you could do with a jade egg! But it is in educational interventions and therapies for children with developmental disorders that we see some of the loopier manifestations of this generic, worldwide, anti-scientific trend.
And this is not even a recent phenomenon. I have now been working in the field of educational psychology and special education for over 45 years. After graduating in Psychology from the University of Manchester in 1970, I started work immediately as Professor Peter Mittler’s research associate at the ‘Hester Adrian Research Centre for the study of learning processes in the mentally handicapped’, as children with intellectual disabilities were then known. In those days, such children did not attend school, special or otherwise, they attended Junior Training Centres (or JTCs). They were regarded as ineducable and could only be ‘trained’.
It was on one of my first visits to JTCs that I encountered Dolman Delacato Psychomotor Pattterning. I was quite unprepared for what I saw being practised which looked for all the world to me like witchcraft. The little girl with a severe disability lay on a table while two adults moved her limbs in patterns resembling crawling movements, all the while chanting child specific rhymes.
It was seriously weird and extraordinarily time-consuming. (Those interested in this now discredited and largely discarded practice might be interested to read the critique provided by Quackwatch. (https://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/patterning.html .)
This was my first encounter with educational/therapeutic snake oil, at least as an adult, but it was by no means my last. Interestingly, I was advised, at the time, to be cautious about criticising the method because its proponents were notoriously litigious; again this was the first, but not the last, time I was to encounter this tactic for silencing dissenting voices critical of non-evidence based practices and procedures.
In recent years, my esteemed colleagues, Max Coltheart and Linda Siegel, among others, have been threatened with legal action after offering critical commentary on dubious educational and therapeutic practices. Linda received a threatening letter from the lawyers representing the Arrowsmith program but they did not follow through. Legal representatives for the Dore program soon gave up hassling Max when Macquarie University made clear that they were right behind him and challenged Dore to a public debate. It was not long after this that the Dore organisation in Australia, at least, was forced to close down completely. But, as I like to say, when one Dore closes, another one opens! There is always another bogus program lying in wait for the uninformed and desperate.
My academic colleagues and I at Macquarie University Special Education Centre (MUSEC), which I had the honour of directing for over twenty years, shared a passion for evidence-based practice long before it became flavour of the month in educational circles. We were united in our loathing of the plethora of bogus claims for dodgy programs, with which the history of special education was littered, and for which there was no evidence for efficacy. It was my colleague Dr Jennifer Stephenson who, in 2005, urged us as a group to launch the MUSEC Briefings, single page, factual summaries on relevant topics of interest, many of which examined the evidence for popular interventions. Our aim was to highlight programs and practices for which there was good scientific evidence for efficacy and those for which there was not. The MUSEC Briefings became very popular and were, indeed still are, widely distributed. It is sad, then, to report that the future of the Briefings is in doubt, following the recent closure of MUSEC by the University. (But see the following repository: https://figshare.com/articles/MUSEC_Briefings_Archive/5096455 )
The demise of the Briefings is a source of sadness but now we have a new, even more all-encompassing, reference resource which is destined to become a classic, I’m sure, and the first of many editions. Caroline Bowen and Pamela Snow’s witty, informative and, indeed, exhaustive, new text will be our future ‘go to guide’ when we are confronted with an intervention for children with developmental disorders that we have not previously encountered. May I take this opportunity to express my admiration for their painstaking efforts in tracking down so many useless interventions.
Their new text, ‘Making Sense of Interventions for Children with Developmental Disorders: A guide for parents and professionals’, is destined to become the field guide for amateur and professional crap detectors everywhere. As I have already mentioned it is remarkably inclusive. As an enthusiastic crap detector myself, I came across coverage of many interventions that I knew little about or had not heard of before at all. Take FODMAPS for example. It was only a month or two ago that I first heard this term, from my haematologist. I did not know then, but I do now, that low FODMAPS diets are being promoted as a treatment for children with autism spectrum disorders (or ASD).
What is or are FODMAPS? FODMAPS are, wait for it, ‘fermentable, oligo-, di-, monosaccharides and polyols’. And some people say the MultiLit acronym is contrived! FODMAPS refers to fermentable, poorly absorbed, short-chain, carbohydrates but I prefer Caroline and Pamela’s no-nonsense description: “FODMAPS are in disreputable farty-foods like beans, onion and broccoli, and also in milk, apples, wheat, high-fructose corn syrup, and more”. They go on to comment, and I quote:
“The casein-free (CF), GF (gluten free), and GFFC (gluten free and casein free) diets have a new competitor for consumer moolah in the ASD food fad field: the low-FODMAP diet. For years, ASD advocacy groups, families and clinicians have fallen for sharp advertising of the GFCF diet, with scientific-sounding phrases: ‘evolving paradigm’, ‘promising research trend’, ‘new understandings’, ‘latest discoveries’ – but soon, the Low FODMAP diet may become the new black, despite no demonstrable link as yet, between FODMAPS and ASD.”
I have quoted this passage at length to give you a flavour of the engaging style in which this book is presented. It is lively and opinionated, in the very best sense, and is clearly written by human beings rather than by academic Daleks, the preferred speech style preferred by so many wannabe authorities. Moreover, as the comedian Eric Morcombe used to say of comedy partner Ernie Wise’s supposed toupée: “you can’t see the join”. Seriously, you can’t tell where one author stops and the other picks up. This continuity of voice is a remarkable achievement.
Coming in at nearly 400 pages including appendices, it is a hefty tome but its coverage is encyclopaedic and never dull. In their epilogue, they provide two extensive lists of programs and procedures. The first (shorter) list is headed ‘Could try harder’ and puts on notice the developers of these interventions that might show some promise but which are in sore need of sufficient quality evidence for efficacy. Here we find, for example: controlled crying, Lindamood Bell, the Orton-Gillingham/Multi-Sensory Structured Language Program, Positive Behaviour Support and Triple-P Positive Parenting, to name but five.
In the second, far longer list, headed bluntly and unequivocally ‘No convincing evidence’, we find, for example, many old friends such as: BrainGym, Fast ForWord, the Arrowsmith Program, behavioural optometry and, last but not least, Reading Recovery.
I could go on. There is so much to delight and intrigue in this book. So much crap to detect and so little time. Let me finish by saying this: “Buy this book.” In fact, buy two copies and give one to a friend. They’ll thank you for it.

*‘Making Sense of Interventions for Children with Developmental Disorders: A guide for parents and professionals’ by Caroline Bowen and Pamela Snow, published by J & R Press Ltd.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Minister, reading recovery requires more than Reading Recovery


An open letter to NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli

Dear Minister
 

I have been impressed by your determination to enhance the effectiveness of
teaching in NSW schools. Your recent policy initiatives designed to improve teacher quality, by requiring that future teachers meet higher entry standards and can also explicitly demonstrate their proficiency in literacy and numeracy, have much to commend them. The next step is to improve the quality of instruction provided, especially for those whose needs are greatest, children from Indigenous and socially disadvantaged backgrounds. These students commonly comprise the greater proportion of young students struggling to learn to read. I would like to draw your attention to the needs of these struggling young readers.

Your Department of Education must think that I sound like a broken record because I have been complaining about the Department’s continued use of the Reading Recovery program for well over twenty years now. But I am hopeful that you will decide that it is finally time to take action. Please bear with me while I reiterate a few of the arguments I have raised in the past.

First, may I point out that my colleagues and I were commissioned by your Department to carry out a thorough evaluation of Reading Recovery as far back as 1991. You may not be aware of this because our research reports have not been formally released by your department to this day. Fortunately, a clause in our contract permitted us to report our findings in academic research journals and at academic conferences. Consequently, our findings were published in what was then the foremost reading research journal, the Reading Research Quarterly, and our study was subsequently reported by international authorities on reading as one of the more “methodologically sophisticated” studies on Reading Recovery, because it was a true experimental, randomised control trial.

So what did we find that your Department (at the time) seemed so reluctant to make public? Our first research report in 1993 was, in some respects, really quite positive about Reading Recovery. We found that, after about fifteen weeks of intervention, struggling readers in Year 1 did indeed perform better than their matched peers who did not receive Reading Recovery. In fact, some advocates of Reading Recovery have, over the years, reported our study in support of its continuing use. But, as always, the devil is in the detail. When we looked more closely at our data, we found that Reading Recovery appeared to be effective for only one in every three students who undertook the program: one student did not ‘recover’, one student would have improved even without the intervention (as our control and comparison groups showed us), and one did ‘recover’. Unfortunately, we also found that the students for whom Reading Recovery was effective tended to be those whose difficulties were less severe, those students who were not so far behind as the others. We concluded that, even if it were shown to be effective, one-to-one individual tutoring in Reading Recovery might be thought to be an expensive way of helping struggling readers; yet it was, in reality, three times more expensive than imagined because it was only effective for one in three struggling readers and those whose problems were relatively minor.

Over the years, numerous studies on the efficacy of Reading Recovery have been published since then and the arguments have gone back and forth. In 2012, a large group of international reading researchers even went so far as to publish an open plea for Reading Recovery to be dropped in favour of methods supported by scientific research evidence on how reading works and how best to remediate difficulties. It fell on deaf ears. In New South Wales and other states in Australia, as in many other western countries, scarce funding for struggling readers has continued to be directed to an expensive program, the demonstrated efficacy of which is, at the very least, equivocal.

Let’s now jump ahead to the present. Last year two very important reports on Reading Recovery were released. The first was from New Zealand, where the program was originally developed by the late Dame Professor Marie Clay, undoubtedly a formidable and highly regarded reading researcher in her day. The New Zealand research team led by Professors James Chapman and Bill Tunmer analysed NZ Ministry of Education Reading Recovery data covering 10 years, along with data from three PIRLS surveys (2001, 2006, 2011), to assess the impact of Reading Recovery on the reading performance of students in New Zealand. They concluded: 

Our analyses of RR data from annual monitoring reports and from the 2011 PIRLS survey indicate that RR has had little or no impact on reducing New Zealand’s relatively large literacy achievement gap because the programme is of limited benefit to those children who need help the most, especially Maori/Pasifika children and children from low-income backgrounds. We also reported research indicating that positive maintenance effects for large numbers of students successfully discontinued from RR are modest to non-existent.”

The second, more recent, report comes from your own Department’s Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation and was released just before Christmas (2015). Again this study was based on a very large sample of young struggling readers, all children throughout the state who received Reading Recovery in 2012. The summary of the report (published as Learning Curve, Issue 11), reads as follows: 

“The results showed some evidence that RR has a modest short-term effect on reading skills among the lowest performing students. However, RR does not appear to be an effective intervention for students that begin Year 1 with more proficient literacy skills. In the longer-term, there was no evidence of any positive effects of RR on students’ reading performance in Year 3.” (my emphasis)

So there’s no longer any need to take just my word for it, Minister; your own Department has concluded that Reading Recovery may have only a modest short-term effect but that even this ‘washes out’ by Year 3; in other words a pointless and worthless exercise.

Now, we may argue backwards and forwards about the relative efficacy of Reading Recovery for some students but I put this to you, Minister: If Reading Recovery were so powerful an intervention for young struggling readers as is claimed, would we not expect to find, after twenty five or more years of implementation across the western world, strong, positive research findings, reported repeatedly, testifying to the undoubtedly large and long-lasting effects of this program? Should it not clearly have been shown to be earning its keep by now?

Minister, for the sake of the children for whose education you are responsible, I urge you to show regard for these research findings on Reading Recovery, including those from your own Department, and to provide educational leadership by discontinuing the earmarked funding for this program of marginal utility and to encourage schools to try other methods and programs for helping struggling readers based on the best available scientific research evidence.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

On Marx, parking fines and Positive Teaching

Inscribed upon his tomb in Highgate cemetery in London, are these words by Karl Marx:
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”

Have you ever had the experience of being flagged down by a traffic cop and when you wind down the window, he says: “Mate, I just wanted to congratulate you on a great piece of driving back there” …? No…? Me neither. Mind you the other day, when I got back to my car, there was a note under the wiper that said ‘Parking Fine’ – so that was nice.
Why do we laugh at stories like these? Simply because society tends to work the opposite way around, most of the time. We don’t seek to approve and applaud desirable behaviour; we expect it, and when we don’t get it, when we become aware of behaviour of which we do not approve, then we punish it with barbed comments, dirty looks, reprimands, penalties, social ostracism, deprivation of liberty and, in some countries, even death.
So we expect people to behave well, in a socially responsible way, and we punish them if they don’t. Almost certainly not the most effective way of moderating adult behaviour, it is a downright cruel way of treating young people – particularly children of school age – who are still trying to learn how to behave appropriately.

Our findings on classroom behaviour management
Over the years, I have been involved in a number of studies, carried out both here in Australia and in the UK, with both primary and high school teachers, that have looked at the ways in which teachers respond to students’ behaviour in the classroom.
If you talk to teachers about their use of praise and approval in the classroom, they say that they use praise a great deal in their day-to-day interactions with students. And, to a degree, they are right; about 50% of the responses of primary school teachers to their students are positive comments offering approval and praise statements.
When we look more closely, however, at the types of behaviour that they are praising and reprimanding, a different picture merges. For responses to student academic behaviour – answering questions, written work, completion of maths problems and so on – teachers typically give nearly four times as much praise as they give reprimands and disapproval.
But when we look at their reactions to students’ classroom social behaviour – keeping to the rules, not disturbing others, getting on with their work quietly, for example – teachers typically give four times as many reprimands as they give praise and approval. In fact, they hardly ever praise students for behaving well; in some classes, it is a total non-event.
Sadly, this is particularly the case for boys. Even though the amounts of time boys and girls spend appropriately academically engaged, or ‘on-task’ as we call it, is not that dissimilar, with boys being a little less engaged, they receive twice as many reprimands for their perceived inappropriate classroom social behaviour. According to our calculations, boys in primary school are reprimanded for their behaviour about 40 times per week.
Most Australian primary teachers, then, while frequently praising academic work, hardly ever praise students for behaving well in the classroom. But they often reprimand students for behaving inappropriately, especially boys.

Indentifying common challenges
When we look at what Australian primary school teachers think about children’s classroom behaviour, there are a few surprises. First, according to our research, about half of them feel that they spend more time on problems of order and control than they feel that they should have to. In an average class of 28 students, they typically report four (about 15%) to be behaviourally troublesome, of whom three are typically boys. In fact, over 90% cited a boy as their most troublesome student in the class.
But what was it that the students actually did that teachers typically found to be most problematic? Surprisingly, more serious misbehaviours such as physical aggression were cited by less than 10% as being a problem. Nearly 50% of teachers cited ‘Talking out of Turn’ (or TOOT) as the most troublesome behaviour in their classes, followed by ‘Hindering Other Children’ (or HOC). These surprising findings replicate what we also found in the UK and what other researchers have subsequently found too. The findings for high school teachers are very similar.
To summarise, most Australian primary teachers are bothered by the behaviour of some of their students, but the most common and troublesome behaviours are relatively trivial, like TOOT and HOC. They are not particularly serious, but they are time-wasting, irritating, stressful and, ultimately, exhausting for teachers.

Using Positive Teaching to manage behaviour
The good news is that these sorts of behaviours, from boys or girls, are relatively easy to manage using the methods and procedures of Positive Teaching, one of the foci of our research for many years now.
Achieving effective classroom behaviour management is as easy as ABC; that is, if we consider the Antecedents, the Behaviour, and the Consequences. By the careful control of the antecedents or the context in which behaviours occur and the consequences following behaviour, disruptive classrooms can be brought into a state where they are more pleasant and positive for both teacher and students, and where real learning at least has the opportunity to take place. By becoming more positive in their interactions with students, everybody benefits.

A word on praise and reward
A great deal of damage has been done by educational critics such as Alfie Kohn by perpetuating the myth that praise and rewards are actually harmful. The key to the successful use of praise and reward is contingency: who is being praised by whom for what under which specific circumstances. Non-contingent and undeserved praise and reward, scattered like confetti with no thought to the contingencies, might indeed do more harm than good. But positive teachers know that to be effective, their use of praise and reward strategies has to be carefully thought through and delivered with skill, tact and subtlety. This is what our new course, the Positive Reaching Workshop,  aims to do.
To conclude, it is almost impossible for effective classroom learning to take place where disruptive and inappropriate behaviour is frequently exhibited by students. Moreover, initial teacher training is commonly criticised for providing inadequate training in methods of effective classroom behaviour management. Teachers typically claim that they had to learn how to manage a class by trial and error 'on the job', having been given vast amounts of theory but precious little advice on what to do actually do.
As Marx chided us, it is not enough merely to attempt to interpret the world, the point is to change it. This is precisely what Positive Teaching aims to do: to change student behaviour by changing teacher behaviour.


For more information about the MultiLit Positive Teaching Workshop, visit www.multilit.com/professionaldevelopment/positive-teaching-pd/.


Wednesday, 18 February 2015

A Matter of Balance

Preamble
  For the online magazine, The Conversation (dated February 18, 2014), Stewart Riddle has contributed an article entitled ‘A balanced approach is best for teaching kids how to read’:
Its publication reminded me of an article I contributed to the Bulletin of Learning Difficulties Australia in 2009, ‘A matter of balance’ which addresses similar themes albeit from a rather different point of view. Six years later, little has changed and I see little reason to resile from the views expressed. It is reproduced below.

In some respects, there has been little progress on the battlefield in the literacy wars, neither side giving way, but the language describing the opposing camps has changed. Advocates of a ‘whole language’ approach rarely describe their position in these terms these days, redolent though it sounded of all things good and natural. Like a sort of literacy muesli, you could feel it building up your moral superiority.
But all good things come to an end and ‘whole language’ began to be exposed as the sham it is, based on unsubstantiated predicates emanating from romantic theory about what should ideally be rather than what is empirically founded in fact. As it became harder and harder to cling to discredited notions, such as the idea that learning to read was a natural process like learning to talk, a new term, ‘balanced’, entered the literacy lexicon to describe essentially the same model with a tiny tip of the cap to phonics as a method of last resort, to be used only when all of their discredited, ineffective methods for teaching decoding had failed. The term ‘balanced’ also had the added benefit of ‘getting your retaliation in first’ by its implication that those favouring an emphasis on phonics instruction are clearly not balanced - ‘unbalanced’ in fact. And, of course, if your opponents are not balanced, it is only a short step towards depicting them as extremists who favour phonics to the exclusion of everything else. This is unfortunate since even the most fervent advocates of a synthetic phonics approach today would  never seek to claim that phonics is all that is needed to teach reading effectively. They too favour a ‘balanced’ approach - but that seat is already taken …
As I have said before, elsewhere, the inconvenient truth is that advocates of whole language or balance and those who favour a phonics emphasis actually agree on more than they disagree. If we look at the five pillars of effective reading instruction as identified by research (sometimes known as the ‘five big ideas’), both sides would have little to quarrel about with regard to the importance of teaching phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary or comprehension. The key distinction is on the little matter of phonics and how and when phonics should be taught. Even the most rabid adherents of the old school whole language philosophy today claim (at least in public) that there is clearly room for phonics in the mix – some even claim that they have always said this … 
But here is the rub: they typically do not advocate phonics instruction as the method of first choice for teaching decoding and prefer, if it has to occur at all, that it be incidental as opportunity arises. Those on the other side, favouring a strong emphasis on phonics, however, are adamant that phonics must be taught in a structured, systematic, intensive way from the outset and not left to happenstance. To be fair, it is important to emphasise that those of us with long memories also recall the bad old days of bad phonics teaching when children with reading difficulties rarely saw a real book but instead read lists of sounds to the exclusion of almost anything else – not an edifying spectacle. Very few of these old style phonics backwoodsmen exist still today, if any, and it sometimes seems as if the advocates of whole language or balance are fighting, at least in part, an imaginary enemy.
And so, in effect, we are all ‘balanced’ these days while still having our differences in terms of how reading should best be taught. For what it is worth, my version of balanced is, however, rather different. At the risk of sounding like a promotion for a new dog food, I favour what I would call a ‘scientifically balanced’ approach to teaching reading.
By a ‘scientifically balanced’ program of reading instruction, I mean instruction in the five key areas of reading and related skills as identified by the scientific research literature (the five pillars or ‘big ideas’ referred to earlier), as advocated by the reports of the National Reading Panel in the United States and reiterated in the Australian National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy and the Rose Report in the UK. This constitutes the what of that which needs to be taught for students to become effective readers. But we must consider not only the what of reading instruction but also the how. In a scientifically balanced approach, the methods employed must also be based on the most effective methods of instruction as identified by scientific research; that is instruction that is systematic, intensive, explicit and (in the case of phonics) synthetic.
Over the past thirty or more years, by means of steady, cumulative scientific research, we have learned a very great deal more about how reading works and how it may best be taught. And yet some are still clinging, romantically, to notions and methods that are now clearly well past their sell-by date. The ideas underpinning Reading Recovery, for example, were good in the seventies, ground-breaking even, but we now know that the use of what is, in effect, ‘incidental phonics’ as part of the mix is very inefficient and has led to a program of only marginal cost effectiveness. It is time to move on, to put young and low-progress readers first, instead of pride or ideology, and to use what has clearly been shown by scientific evidence to work effectively for most students most of the time.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Should we dispense with the D word?


By Kevin Wheldall, Anne Castles and Mandy Nayton

[Note: This article appeared in a more abbreviated form in The Conversation:


The word dyslexia seems to arouse strong emotions, both for and against, and has a chequered history. Viewed by some as a device to spare the blushes of middle class parents whose children struggle to learn to read, it is seen by others as a credible explanation for the reading difficulties their child has been experiencing.

In their recently published book, The Dyslexia Debate (http://www.cambridge.org/us/academic/subjects/psychology/educational-psychology/dyslexia-debate), Joe Elliott and Elena Grigorenko open up a can of worms. But it is a can that needed opening, and we applaud these authors for bringing this important issue up for discussion and debate. Elliott and Grigorenko argue that the term “dyslexia” should be abandoned – that it is an imprecise and unhelpful label that does nothing to assist the individuals to whom it is applied.

So what do Elliott and Grigorenko say, and why do they say it?

Two key points need to be made before proceeding. First of all, this debate is largely about terminology. Elliott and Grigorenko are not denying the reality of children’s reading difficulties, or that these difficulties need to be identified and treated as early as possible. What they are arguing is that giving the label of “dyslexia” to children who experience such problems is not helpful.

Secondly, it is important to keep in mind that reading ability falls on a continuum in the population; it is normally distributed like height or weight. This means that deciding whether a child does or does not have a reading difficulty will always involve applying a somewhat arbitrary cut-off. In this sense, a diagnosis of dyslexia is similar to a diagnosis of obesity, but quite different from a diagnosis of, say, measles where it is clear when someone has it and when they don’t.

With these points in mind, let’s look more closely at Elliott and Grigorenko’s two main arguments:

1.    There is no agreement about how to diagnose dyslexia

Elliott and Grigorenko’s first key point is that applying the label of dyslexia is intrinsically unscientific because there is no universally agreed set of criteria for its diagnosis. What one clinician might call dyslexia, another does not. Some apply the label to any child who struggles with learning to read; others apply it only when the reading difficulty is accompanied by strengths in other intellectual domains; still others when the reading difficulty is associated with particular cognitive “markers” such as phonological or visual deficits. And even within these different definitions, there is variability associated with where the cut-off for an impairment is applied: consequently, estimates of the prevalence of dyslexia may range from 3% - 20% of the population.

It is undoubtedly true that the term “dyslexia” has been used in a wide variety of contexts over the years, and that this has led to considerable confusion. We think that three particular factors have contributed to the problem:

Firstly, there has been a failure to distinguish between research and clinical uses of the term. Researchers often select samples of “dyslexics” with very specific profiles. They do so in order to answer particular research questions, or to control for factors in which they are not interested in a certain context. For example, they may select their sample to have average or above average IQ, so that this factor does not influence their results. But the fact that the use of these specific selection criteria can be valuable in a research context does not mean that they should necessarily inform a clinical diagnosis of dyslexia. Similarly, researchers may decide that, for their experimental purposes, ‘dyslexia’ will be defined very generously as those students scoring below one standard deviation from the mean. But this does not necessarily mean that this (relatively large) proportion of the population (about 16%) should be regarded as dyslexic and hence in need of special treatment and/or afforded educational dispensations.

Secondly, there has been a tendency to conflate symptoms and causes within definitions of dyslexia. Sometimes the condition is defined purely in terms of the presenting problem – a reading accuracy and/or fluency difficulty  – with the diagnostician remaining agnostic as to its underlying cause. In other cases, the definition incorporates a particular theoretical perspective as to why the reading difficulty arose in the first place.  The most prominent and certainly widely-supported of these theories centres on underlying language-based phonological deficits, but there are also a host of other neural, visual and attentional theories.  Given the wide range of theories as to the causes of dyslexia, it is not surprising that this has generated an equally wide range of definitions.

Thirdly, the term is widely used, and very frequently misused, by non-experts in the field and by the mainstream media. The label is particularly popular with promoters of dyslexia “cures” of dubious merit, including such things as: nutritional supplements, exercise regimes, coloured glasses and ‘high frequency’ ear plugs. The briefest of Google searches confirms this fact - and this, of course, only serves to add to the confusion.

But, these points aside, is it the case that there is no generally agreed set of criteria for the diagnosis of dyslexia? We think that this may be overstating the case. Amongst experts in the field, there is in fact a substantial degree of consensus about what is meant by the term and how it should be defined in a clinical context. Dyslexia is widely viewed as a severe and enduring reading difficulty that persists despite high quality instruction and evidence-based intervention. This is enshrined in documents such as the Rose report (http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130401151715/https://www.education.gov.uk/publications/eOrderingDownload/0201-2006pdf-EN-01.pdf)
in the UK  and the report of the Australian Dyslexia Working Party (2010) (http://www.dyslexiaaustralia.com.au/DYSWP.pdf).

The definition of dyslexia above is effectively couched within the widely-accepted “Response to Intervention” model of remediation (RTI) (http://www.musec.mq.edu.au/community_outreach/musec_briefings#17):
a model that  seeks to match the amount and nature of reading intervention to the support needs of the child. In doing so, it provides relatively straightforward means of distinguishing between children who are performing poorly on reading measures because they have not received the appropriate instruction for some reason and children who are performing poorly because they have severe and enduring learning difficulties that require sustained intervention (whom we might classify as having “dyslexia” or some other label).

The RTI model works as follows: All children receive a systematic program of scientific evidence-based reading instruction right from the outset of schooling, ie a program of instruction that is predicated upon what reading scientists have found to be critical and most effective in terms of teaching children to learn to read. This is referred to as Tier 1 instruction. The reading progress of all students is closely monitored, and those children whose performance, following instruction, is poor on curriculum-based measures, regardless of the reason, are identified as low-progress readers and are provided with more intensive small-group reading instruction. This is referred to as Tier 2 and typically involves about 20% of the age cohort.  (In some socially disadvantaged areas, of course, this figure will be much higher.) The progress of Tier 2 children is again closely monitored and those who continue to have low scores, that is, who are not “responding to Tier 2 intervention”, are provided with even more intensive one-on-one intensive remediation and support. This is Tier 3 instruction.

Children who still struggle following a period of intensive Tier 3 intervention or who progress at an unusually slow rate, are viewed as having, a severe and enduring reading difficulty that persists despite high quality instruction and evidence-based intervention. This has been estimated to be about 3% of the population of students. Thus, without needing to look to underlying causes, or to associated deficits, a small subgroup of children can be identified who can reliably and consistently be given a diagnosis of “dyslexia” on the basis of their need for continuing intensive literacy instruction. However, it is generally viewed as important to gather additional clinical information from appropriate professionals at this point to contribute to the development of effective individual education plans (IEPs) with recommendations for both remediation and accommodations.

There are two key features of this definition. First, it makes a distinction between children who are struggling with reading because they have not had the appropriate instruction (perhaps because they have not attended school regularly, or have had poor teaching) and those who are struggling despite having had sufficient opportunities. Secondly, it focuses the diagnosis at the level of reading itself. Scientists have come a long way in developing precise and detailed theories of the reading process, and these have been translated into valid and reliable clinical assessment tools. It is our view that, armed with these tools, well-trained clinical experts are in a stronger position to provide a scientifically-informed diagnosis of dyslexia than Elliott and Grigorenko suggest. Whether the actual term ‘dyslexia’ is used or some other label is employed, this small group exists and can be identified.

It is only fair to note, however, that while RTI does have the potential to: improve reading outcomes significantly and will, in addition, identify students at risk of reading failure far earlier, create a more equitable system and should result in better ongoing monitoring and assessment of all students, we are only seeing a minority of schools implementing anything even vaguely resembling RTI at this stage in Australia. This makes the use of it, at this point, as the mainstay identification model challenging, to say the least. This is not to say, however, that it should not be an important goal. It also means that until RTI is established, students will not necessarily be picked up as falling behind until later in primary school or even into secondary school. This means that the transition through the three tiers is not as straightforward as it is in the early years. Identified students will simply move straight into a Tier 2 or even Tier 3 intervention. And finally, while it is our firm view that the RTI model has many advantages, it is viewed by some as being limited in that it does not individualise, it does not diagnose, and it does not classify.

2.    Reading interventions will be the same whether dyslexia is diagnosed or not.

The second key point made by Elliott and Grigorenko is that a diagnosis of dyslexia does not have any implications for treatment. Again, they are broadly correct. Let us suppose that two 8-year old girls present at a clinic, both of whom can barely read. One girl has frequently been ill and has attended school only intermittently over the past two years. As a result she has fallen behind in learning to read. The other girl has a history of struggling to learn to read in spite of having been provided with additional instruction. The latter child might well be diagnosed with “dyslexia”; the former most likely not. But the programs of intervention put in place for each child would most likely differ very little in both content and method. A large body of evidence tells us that the most effective thing we can do for each of these children is to provide them with systematic, intensive evidence-based reading remediation, targeted at the gaps in their reading skills.

So does this mean, as Elliott and Grigorenko argue, that a diagnosis of dyslexia (or some other label) is unnecessary and redundant? Again, we feel that this may overstate things. Although the nature of the treatments provided to these children will be similar, the evidence tells us that their length and intensity are likely to be quite different. Our first girl should respond quickly and well once she receives the required intervention; our second girl, by definition based on the RTI model, is likely to need sustained and ongoing support. She may need one-on-one assistance and, ultimately, compensatory technology.

More generally, the fact that the treatment is similar across the spectrum of a condition does not mean that there is no justification for giving a label to those at the extreme end. In the same way that the diagnosis of “obesity” serves to identify the most severe and at-risk cases along the continuum of weight, and the diagnosis of “hypertension” serves to identify the most severe and at-risk cases along the continuum of blood pressure, a diagnosis of dyslexia can identify the most severe and at-risk cases along the continuum of reading. Such labels focus attention and resources where they are most urgently needed. Where we might disagree is in the term we use to describe such children and their condition.

There remain the quibbles about terminology. Many researchers and clinicians do not like the term “dyslexia” because it medicalises the condition and invokes a disease model that is not appropriate. They prefer a term like “reading disability” or “reading impairment”. Others, however, counter that the use of a medical term like dyslexia attracts attention and resources to a problem that may not be so forthcoming if these other terms were used. And as Dorothy Bishop notes, this concern seems to be borne out in the case of the much less visible condition of “Specific Language Impairment” (http://deevybee.blogspot.com.au/2010/12/whats-in-name.html). Finally, not to be underestimated is the positive effect that a diagnosis of dyslexia has on the parents and children involved, validating their concerns and often providing a much-needed boost to self-esteem. For these reasons, there is considerable divergence in the field as to which label should be preferred (and indeed divergence even amongst we three authors!)

Elliott and Grigorenko argue that the most important thing is that all children who encounter literacy difficulties receive the help that they need. We could not agree more. At the end of the day, what we choose to call the small proportion of students with severe and persistent reading problems is not nearly so important as ensuring that they receive the support that they need. In the past, passionate advocates for dyslexia may have gilded the lily by claiming that up to 20% of children are dyslexic (and some still do). This is unhelpful and ultimately counter-productive since government agencies will baulk at the expense of providing special treatment and dispensations for such a large proportion of the population. Nor is such expenditure warranted when the reading difficulties of the vast majority of low-progress readers may readily be attended to in school with effective small group Tier 2 and individualised Tier 3 interventions.


Kevin Wheldall is an Emeritus Professor of Macquarie University and Director of the MultiLit Research Unit. You can follow him on Twitter (@KevinWheldall) where he comments on reading and education (and anything else that takes his fancy).

Professor Anne Castles is Head of the Department of Cognitive Science at Macquarie University and Deputy Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders. You can follow her on Twitter (@annecastles), where she comments on issues related to reading difficulties and other cognitive disorders.


Mandy Nayton is currently the Executive Officer of DSF Literacy and Clinical Services in Perth, Western Australia as well as President of AUSPELD, The Australian Federation of SPELD Associations. She is an educational and developmental psychologist and qualified teacher with extensive experience in the field of literacy education. Mandy is an Adjunct Research Fellow at Curtin University’s School of Psychology and Speech Pathology, and a member of the Federal Government’s Schools Disability Advisory Council.