Friday 15 November 2013

Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb

 It was one of those supermarket moments. The young man at the checkout looked at the long red stalks topped with exuberant green foliage and asked my wife what it was. My heart went out to him. To have reached your teenage years without knowing the sensuous delights of rhubarb crumble was almost unbearable – far superior to the traditional teenage delights of sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ rock ‘n’ roll, but then I am well over sixty and he is, perhaps, sixteen. And perhaps he just did not recognise rhubarb in its raw state and, in any case, I digress.
            My wife telling him the name of the product did not seem to help him to locate it on his checkout touch screen. We waited. In desperation, I hissed “Tell him it’s r-H-u …”. Problem (finally) solved.
   As if I needed any reminding, this served to illustrate yet again the importance of factors other than decoding (phonically or otherwise) in reading and, indeed, spelling. To be literate, to be able to read and write (and spell) with reasonable proficiency, it is not enough to be able to decode or encode words and text. You actually have to know what you are reading or writing about. You need knowledge.
This sounds painfully obvious on the surface: how could it be otherwise? But a sole preoccupation with decoding and encoding, especially when teaching low-progress readers, can sometimes distract one from the equally important task of teaching … well, stuff. It is all very well to be able to read aloud “The rodent consumed the gorgonzola” but, effectively, barking at print is all that will be achieved unless you know what a rodent is, what consume means and that gorgonzola is a type of cheese.
The problem is, of course, that learning quite a bit of this ‘stuff’ actually comes about via reading. Consequently, if you are poor at reading, you will tend to read far less and to learn less general knowledge. Moreover, many of the words and terms that we learn do not crop up frequently in everyday conversation; we only encounter them in books. Hence, low-progress readers experience what Keith Stanovich calls ‘the Matthew Effect’ whereby the rich get richer and the poor get poorer; those who can read well, read more and learn more; those who read poorly, read less and hence learn less.

All of this leads to the rather obvious point that we need to teach ‘stuff’ to low-progress readers as well as how to decode effectively and efficiently. In recent years, there has been a noticeable and welcome shift among those interested in teaching reading effectively to focus on all five of the five ‘big ideas’ of reading instruction; to give equal prominence to vocabulary and comprehension as to phonemic awareness, phonics and fluency. We also need to focus on the acquisition of general knowledge about the world and to find ways of bringing low-progress readers up to speed with what typically developing readers are already likely to know. To contemplate a world without rhubarb in it is just too sad.

Vital Signs in Reading

Anyone who has spent time in hospital or has a long term illness will be well aware of the importance doctors and nurses attach to the continual monitoring of ‘vital signs’: body temperature, heart rate (or pulse), and blood pressure (BP). Measurement of these vital signs can also be achieved very quickly, easily and frequently. What is perhaps not so commonly known is that these vital signs can be highly variable and subject to considerable fluctuation as a result of varying circumstances.           
Blood pressure measurement, for example, can fluctuate from one reading to the next and is particularly susceptible to changes in when and where it is taken and by whom. Sometimes simply being examined by a medical professional can make our blood pressure go up: the ‘white coat phenomenon’.
            But does this variability in BP measurement mean that it is useless for diagnostic or monitoring purposes? The answer is no, of course not; measures do not need to be totally reliable to be very useful; in detecting hypertension for example. We can also iron out some of the blips by taking several measures and averaging them or by taking repeated regular readings and looking at BP levels over time. Hypertension or high blood pressure is, of course, not an all or nothing affair since blood pressure is variable across individuals and is on a continuum. The BP levels we refer to as indicating degrees of hypertension are not magic markers but are, in a sense, arbitrary cut-offs that have proved in practice over time to be useful indicators for detecting potential problems.
            By the same token, there are ‘vital signs’ like BP that are very useful to us when teaching reading. We can measure reading performance reliably enough for it to be very useful to us in practice; to help us in determining which of our students need additional help, for example.
There is another parallel here with hypertension. Some people still seem to believe that dyslexia or reading disability is a clearly differentiated specific condition that is either present or it is not; all or nothing. But reading performance, like BP, is on a continuum and where we set the performance bar to indicate a reading disability is essentially arbitrary. Children vary in the extent to which they display difficulties in reading. By changing the performance criterion, we can define reading disability as referring to 5, 10 or 20 per cent of the population, for example. The decision where to place the bar is a judgement call and is likely to be influenced not only by student need but also by the resources available. To take an extreme example, there is little point identifying 50 per cent of students as being dyslexic if we have resources available to meet the needs of only 5 per cent.
            The important thing to bear in mind, then, is that reading difficulties may be present to a greater or lesser extent. Many reading researchers and specialists today would argue that defining dyslexia is a largely futile exercise and that we should concentrate instead on helping all struggling readers to perform at a level that can reasonably be considered as being within an acceptable range for their age. To help us in this endeavour we need good measures of reading performance that are reasonably reliable (like BP they will not be perfect), that are quick and easy to administer, and that we can use to screen for reading problems and to monitor the reading progress of those whose performance is of concern to us frequently, on a regular basis.
Unfortunately, many of the reading tests out there are time-consuming to administer and may only be used reliably at infrequent intervals. Such tests are not very useful to us in monitoring the reading performance of our students.
In recent years, reading researchers have been experimenting with so-called curriculum-based measures of reading that have been shown to be both remarkably reliable and valid measures of reading performance while being both quick and easy to administer. This new approach to reading assessment also allows teachers and others to test students frequently to monitor progress, by providing numerous different reading passages that have been shown to be of an equal difficulty level. (One such reading assessment instrument, the Wheldall Assessment of Reading Passages (or WARP), has recently been released by MultiLit Pty Ltd: www.multilit.com .) When such an effective reading assessment tool is available to them, teachers and others can use the data collected to make instructional decisions so as to tailor their teaching strategies to meet individual student needs.
Like hospital patients, low-progress readers must be monitored on a regular basis to ensure that the interventions being employed are working and that they are making real improvements. Educators need to be like doctors to their students, monitoring their vital signs in reading and ensuring that no student is left behind.

[Acknowledgement: I would like to acknowledge the editorial assistance of my daughter, Rachael Wheldall, with this article.]