Sunday 29 July 2012

Taking care of Matthew

Some 25 years ago now, Keith Stanovich popularised the concept of Matthew effects in reading. The Matthew Effect takes its name from a passage in the St Matthew Gospel:
“For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath” (Matthew 25:29)
Often translated as “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer”, this neat analogy clearly struck a chord with reading specialists. Because if you start off by learning to read well, you will indeed get richer and richer; certainly metaphorically, but probably quite literally too.
You will read far more than your less fortunate peers, you will have greater exposure to a wider variety of books, you will learn far more new vocabulary words, you will pass from learning to read to reading to learn much more quickly, and so on. If, on the other hand, you come to school ill-prepared for learning to read, with poor language skills as a result of social disadvantage for example, and you do not latch on to what reading is all about quickly, in that first year of schooling, you are likely to experience continuing failure throughout your educational trajectory. Because literacy underpins everything. In other words the gap between the reading haves and the reading have nots, the literacy rich and the literacy poor, widens over the years creating social division and perpetuating social disadvantage from one generation to the next. Teaching children to read, then, is not just an educational issue; it is a social justice issue.
And it is this concern with social justice that has motivated our work in MultiLit from the outset. Our aim has always been to help those who struggle to learn to read for whatever reason, but particularly those students from socially disadvantaged, culturally diverse and Indigenous backgrounds, as well as those with other special learning needs. Our non-categorical approach to teaching asserts that what all of these children need is effective scientific evidence-based instruction.
It is a source of continuing bewilderment to me, that so many professionals in education continue to resist the idea of direct, explicit and systematic instruction in phonics, while at the same time shedding crocodile tears about the plight of the disadvantaged children struggling in our schools. But they are often the cause of the problem. To use a medical term, the problem is iatrogenic; it is the ‘treatment’ the students are receiving, or rather the lack of effective instruction in schools, that is often the cause of the reading problem. Low-progress readers are frequently simply ‘instructional casualties’.
It is a concern with helping all children to learn to read, regardless of the apparent reason for their difficulties, that has been the driving force behind our work. This is why we launched the Making Up Lost Time In Literacy or MultiLit Initiative in 1995. We were initially concerned with trying to help older low-progress readers in the final years of primary school so that they could stand some chance of making a success of high school. The MultiLit Reading Tutor Program was our solution, a one to one program of direct, explicit and systematic instruction in the basics of reading comprising a focus on teaching word attack skills, teaching a bank of frequently occurring sightwords and providing a supportive context for book reading in which to generalise these newly acquired skills.
We worked with older low-progress readers because this is what we knew; this is what we had been researching for a number of years. But we were always aware that we were the ambulance picking up the instructional casualties while also lobbying for more effective initial reading instruction in schools. As we often said, our aim was to make ourselves redundant! We naively thought that the effort we put into pressing for the National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy might bring this about. But we all know what happened as a result of the Inquiry … very little indeed.
Whatever the case with initial reading instruction, and even if scientific evidence-based teaching of reading were to be introduced, there will always be a minority of children who will struggle to learn to read. We currently estimate that we should target the bottom 25% of students as being in need of additional remedial support. Consequently, it makes good sense to intervene early with children who are struggling to learn to read in their first year of schooling, before the Matthew effect becomes entrenched. Whatever reservations one might have about aspects of Reading Recovery (and we have certainly not been bashful about expressing our own reservations), the late Dame Professor Marie Clay deserves enduring credit for her pioneering work on the importance of intervening early with children who are seen still to be struggling in the key skills of learning to read after their first year of schooling.
While we can admire Marie Clay’s pioneering work, it has to be remembered that Reading Recovery has remained virtually unchanged in over thirty years now. An awful lot has happened in that time. We now know far more about how reading works and how it should best be taught. But we always thought that someone else would come up with an alternative program that would ideally be at least as effective but more cost effective than Reading Recovery, predicated as it is on daily one to one tutoring by a highly trained Reading Recovery Teacher. We waited but nothing happened and so, over five years ago now, we started to think about how MultiLit might be adapted to meet the needs of this much younger target group.
The MiniLit Early Literacy Intervention Program is the product of an ongoing program of research and development carried out by our specialist team of academic researchers and special educators. A continuing process of refinement by trial and revision was employed until the program met the stringent efficacy criteria to justify its release to the wider community. We do not just write and hope! This final published version of MiniLit entailed a major revision of previous experimental versions and represents what we believe to be scientific evidence-based best practice.
MiniLit is informed by the findings of scientific research, carried out over the past 40 years, into how reading works and how it may best be taught. It is also completely in accord with the recommendations of the various national reports into effective reading instruction that have emphasised the five key pillars of reading instruction (sometimes known as the ‘five big ideas’), namely: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.
It consists of 80 carefully structured lessons (sufficient for at least two terms of instruction) in an easy to hard sequence and is divided into two levels, Levels 1 and 2, with 40 lessons at each level. There are three main components of each lesson: Sounds and Words Activities; Text Reading; and Story Book Reading. It is very important that all three of these components are taught daily, as specified in the manual.
But does it work? A recent analysis of the progress of 90 struggling young readers who had attended MiniLit programs for four days per week for 15 weeks showed that they had made substantial and statistically significant gains on all of the measures of reading and related skills with large effect sizes evident.  ‘Gold Standard‘ randomised control trials have also been completed supporting the efficacy of the new MiniLit program.

Who's for coffee?

Several years ago now, my wife, Robyn, and I found to our amazement that we had actually won something in a prize draw. Apparently our name had been pulled out of the hat at the local vet clinic and we had won a brand new, all singing, all dancing, espresso coffee machine. (Considering the vast amount of money we had invested over the years with the vet to keep our dogs in tip top health, it was not a huge return, but decidedly better than nothing at all.)
            With mean-spirited glee, and to the angst of our trendy kids then still living at home, we decided to take it away with us to our weekender in the country (‘Harefield’), so that the ‘young adults’ would not wreck it while we were away.
            It sat on the kitchen bench, still in its box, for several country weekends before I finally decided that I really did have to learn how to drive the thing. To this old fogie, it looked more like something that belonged in a science lab, or in Dr Who’s Tardis, than in a kitchen.
            I examined each part carefully and gratefully located the instructions booklet. This is when the trouble started…  I read the instruction booklet thoroughly. Then I read it again. I was still none the wiser. As a literate adult, I could read and understand every word in the booklet but I still had no idea what to do with the coffee machine.
            The booklet continually referred to ‘the coffee maker’ that, not unreasonably, I took to mean the gadget, the espresso machine. It was only on the third reading that the light went on and it dawned on me that it meant me. I was the coffee maker!
            Now what lessons can we draw from this little tale of domestic confusion, other than that it is never safe to trust a baby boomer with a Generation Y affectation …?
            First, we can reflect on the simple model of reading that posits that reading comprehension is the product of reading accuracy and listening comprehension. It is no use being able to read the words if you do not know what they mean. I thought I knew what was meant by coffee maker in this context but I was wrong. Hence, I could read the booklet but I could not understand what I had read.
            Second, what I really needed was tutoring in coffee making from a barista or at least someone who was more accomplished in the dark arts of coffee preparation than I am. And this sort of tutoring is, of course, one of the things that low-progress readers need to achieve success: effective tutoring by a more accomplished reader.
            Third, I should have stuck with the coffee plunger that works really well for me. (Incidentally, my wife bought about ten coffee plungers on sale, for next to nothing, but we could not give them away to our sophisticated kids!) Now the analogy is not perfect because I like good espresso coffee as much as the next poseur but new and modern, let alone cool and trendy, is not necessarily a good thing. And so it is with reading instruction.
            We have learned to our cost that cool and trendy Whole Language teaching made for far too many low-progress readers. We once knew how to teach reading; we did it quite well and most kids learned how to read reasonably quickly. And then we wilfully adopted an unproven method that proved to be not nearly as effective, but we carried on using it regardless. And we called it progressive education! As my kids would say: “how weird is that?”
            Fourth, it wasn’t my fault! The espresso machine booklet was a lousy instructor: it did not operationally define its terms and present the information in a logical order. Nor did my pathetic attempts at discovery learning serve me any better. I was completely unable to construct my own personal approach to coffee making with this machine.
            With basic skills, like coffee making and reading, we all need initial direct instruction in the early stages. I can construct my own version of a decaf triple shot macchiatto later, in the same way that I’ll subsequently be able to detect the inherent, privileged phallocentic hegemonies in the books I read. But I do actually need to learn how to read first.
            I could go on … I’m on a roll here with the lessons to be learned about reading from my attempts to make espresso coffee. Suffice to say that the espresso machine languished in a kitchen cupboard for quite a time while I continued to use the plunger. Some years later I finally learned how to use it. Now, who’s for coffee …?

How do we ensure that all children learn to read?

            If all children are to learn to read to a good level of proficiency in the first few years of schooling, we need a clear plan to ensure that no child falls through the net. Such a plan must be both effective and cost-effective. It has become increasingly accepted in recent years that a three tier, phased model of reading instruction, known as Response to Intervention (or RtI), is the best means of achieving this.
            The three tier RtI model is predicated upon a first tier of exemplary initial instruction in reading for all students during their first year of schooling (Kindergarten in New South Wales). This first tier of instruction should essentially comprise the best scientific evidence-based instruction. To the layman, this sounds obvious but in many Australian schools a less effective implicit model of reading instruction has held sway for the last few decades. Much of this implicit approach to reading instruction is highly desirable as a bedrock upon which to build effective reading instruction, and it may be enough for a minority of children, but most will need direct, explicit and systematic instruction in the five pillars or ‘five big ideas’ of teaching reading : phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. What is often lacking in initial reading instruction, in particular, is effective, specific instruction in what is known as synthetic phonics; how to relate letters to sounds and to blend letter sounds into words.
            Even when afforded exemplary reading instruction, there will always be some children who take longer than others to catch on. It is important to identify these low-progress readers as early as possible so that they do not fall too far behind their peers as their difficulties compound. Children who do not learn to read in the first few years of schooling are typically destined to a school career of educational failure because reading underpins almost all subsequent learning. A safe strategy is to target students who fall into the bottom twenty five per cent of the population for remedial reading intervention, as soon as their difficulties become apparent. Students’ progress should be checked regularly, in order to provide remedial intervention for those who need it from the beginning of Year One, at the very latest.   
            The RtI model recommends that struggling readers, the low-progress readers who comprise the bottom quartile, should be offered more intensive Tier 2 intervention in small groups of three to four students. Again the instruction provided to these students should be based on what the scientific research evidence has shown to be most effective— essentially the same five big ideas of reading instruction but more intensive and more individualised. In small groups, teachers are able to be more responsive to the specific idiosyncratic needs of the students with whom they are working. Small group instruction can be just as effective as one-to-one instruction for children without severe reading difficulties.
            Even with a solid Tier 2 small group reading program in place, there will still be a very small number of students who ‘fail to thrive’, perhaps about 3-5% of all Year 1 students. These are the students for whom we should reserve Tier 3 one-to-one intensive reading instruction, preferably with a specialist reading teacher with a sound background in special education. The same five big ideas are still critical. What is different, of course, is the intensity of instruction. Having successfully taught the vast majority of Year 1 students the basics of learning to read by Tier 1 and, where necessary, Tier 2 small group teaching, it is a far more manageable proposition to provide these few remaining students with the individual reading support that they will need, for as long as they need it.
            With this three tier Response to Intervention model in place, predicated upon scientific evidence based reading instruction, almost all, if not all, children will become proficient readers. Of course, the RtI model does not stop at the end of Year 1, it is important to monitor reading progress closely for all students, especially for the first three years of schooling. But by employing these procedures rigorously and teaching scientifically, it is not too much to expect all of our children to learn to read.

Note: A longer version of this post is available at: http://tinyurl.com/7cr8ddo