Wednesday 18 February 2015

A Matter of Balance

  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.