Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Reading Recovery


I just read a very disturbing article by Alexandra Smith in the Sydney Morning Herald dated 31st December, 2017. The article reported on the New South Wales (N.S.W.) government’s decision to axe the $50 million dollar Reading Recovery program even though it may have had some impact on students who are really struggling with basic reading. The government claimed that gains were often short-lived. 

This is a concern because this very important decision was made with little consultation with educators, policy makers and caregivers. Furthermore, it has been timed to coincide with the Christmas/New Year's break when many educators, policy makers and caregivers are away on holidays. The government does acknowledge that there have been gains and that these gains were not followed up with ongoing support and consolidation. 

There are two essential questions that need to be answered: Has Reading Recovery been adequately implemented in New South Wales? and How has it been implemented elsewhere? Reading Recovery Council of North America, for example, wrote a very comprehensive report - ‘What evidence says about reading recovery?” They found there is substantial scientific evidence to support Reading Recovery’s effectiveness with lowest-performing first-grade students. They also stated that Reading Recovery does not claim to be the only solution to the nation’s reading problems. However, it seeks the right to be considered as an early intervention option for state and local educational authorities.

More recently on the ABC Radio National, Life Matters Program (Thursday 11th February, 2016 11:58am)  What evidence says about Reading Recovery  Amanda Smith asked Dr Michael Bezzina, director of teaching and learning at the Catholic Education Office in Sydney, what he thought about Reading Recovery. He supported the continuation of Reading Recovery and stated, "We have a success rate of 90 per cent. Kids with English as a second language are doing better than the rest of the cohort… We've tracked our ex-Reading Recovery students over 20 years, and by year three those kids who were in the lowest 20 per cent of readers in year one, 20 to 30 per cent are in the top two bands of the NAPLAN test."

If there is compelling evidence for the effectiveness of the program then why axe it? Maybe, I can offer some insights from my own research into literacy and learning difficulties. Many research studies have attested to the efficacy of individualised tutoring program, not only in literacy but also in mathematics as well. My own research has supported this. Reading Recovery is one that has been around since the 1970s and so needs to reflect change in line with ‘evidence based’ research. The reading Recovery Council of North America maintained that ‘policy makers have the responsibility to consider evidence from a wide range of perspectives and validated research models.” The question is, has this change taken place systematically in N.S.W. in the light of recent research?

Reading Recovery is, however,  not a panacea for all literacy problems. The reason that it targets children in year 1 is that it is an early intervention program that is meant to supplement other literacy lessons in the classroom. Its purpose is to provide extra meaningful literacy opportunities in a direct and systematic way. It was not meant to replace other literacy activities (such as phonic lessons)  in the classrooms but to compliment them. Thus, an early intervention program, such as Reading Recovery should be in integrated part of a comprehensive literacy effort.

Reading Recovery was not meant to be a remedial reading program but a preventative measure for students that are at risk of failure. In most cases these students tend to have poor language exposure and poor experiences with book reading at home before starting school. They usually require extra literacy input to give them the necessary skills to keep pace with their more literate peers. On the other hand, students with specific learning difficulties most likely will not benefit from Reading Recovery as they need to have their specific learning problems addressed, often with a program that addresses their particular needs. 

In conclusion: Reading Recovery should:
  1. be an integral part of an overall year 1 program for students who are considered to be at risk of failure at school;
  2. not include students that have a specific learning difficulty;
  3. include ongoing training and  improvement in light of recent research; 
  4. offer diversity by being included as one of several approaches, according to need; and 
  5. supplement other literacy activities in the classroom rather than being a replacement for them.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Self-regulation (Part 1): Self-control


Earlier this week we celebrated Christmas with the family, including our 11 grand children, on Christmas eve. Of-course it wasn't the games or the food that would be the main focus of the evening but the anticipated sharing and opening of presents. Numerous times through out the evening I was met with a chorus of, "When can we open our presents?" Finally the time came for gratification with the tearing of wrappings and smiling faces.

Most children, when they are very young desire immediate gratification, particularly when it comes to presents or sweets. Self-gratification is what they instinctively desire but most children learn to develop self-regulation skills, often that means delaying immediate self-gratification for a higher but distant goal. Self-regulation is often characterised by the ability to ignore distracting impulses, being able to persist at a task, and not forgetting what they have to do to complete the task. 

More than 40 years ago Walter Mischel explored self-regulation with his now famous experiment referred to as the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment (see video example) which laid the groundwork for much of the research into self-control and self-regulation. In this experiment Mischel and his colleagues presented preschoolers with a simple choice. The experimenter sat each child in turn in front of a plate with a treat, such as a marshmallow. The child was then told that he or she had to wait a few minutes while the adult left the room but their choice was that they could eat the one marshmallow or could have an extra one if they could delay eating until the adult returned to the room. This led to further research that found children who could delay self-gratification at this stage were often more successful in later life.

This morning I listened to a an ABC 'Life Matters' podcast called "Self controlling your future" . Amanda Smith interviewed Dr Sandhya Ramrakha, research manager for the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, also maintained that young children with more self-control had better life outcomes. This is based on a New Zealand longitudinal study of 1000 subjects. Dr Ramrakha proposed that self-control is a skill that can be learned.  Parents and teachers can teach children many important skills that promote self-control. This can be achieved by encouraging them to: take turns, delaying gratification in order to obtain a set goal, improving attention span by gradually increasing the amount of time to concentrate and focus attention on a particular task. Naturally the best window of opportunity is in the preschool years and continuing throughout the childhood years.

Monday, September 18, 2017


New phonics test will do nothing to improve Australian children's literacy

Misty Adoniou, University of Canberra

Minister Birmingham released a report today recommending that all Year 1 students in Australia complete a phonics test. The panel responsible for the report has recommended that Australia adopt the Year 1 phonics screening check that has been used in England since 2011.

What is phonics?

Phonics is the process of matching sounds to letters. It is an important skill when learning to read and write in English. There are two main approaches to teaching children phonics - synthetic phonics and analytic phonics.

Analytic phonics starts with taking a word that children know the meaning of, and then analysing it to see how the sounds in the word match the letters we see within the word. So five-year-old Emma will learn that her name starts with the sound “e” which is represented by the capital letter E, followed by the sound “m” which is represented by the two letters “mm”, and ends with the sound “u”, which is represented by the letter a.

Synthetic phonics starts with letters which the children learn to match with sounds. The meaning of the words are irrelevant, and indeed, inconsequential. The theory is that the children should master letter/sound matches first before trying to attend to meaning.

Which phonics method is better?

There is no evidence that one phonics approach is better than the other. In England, the US and Australia, there have been major inquiries into reading and all have concluded that systematic and explicit phonics teaching is a crucial part of effective reading instruction. But none have found any evidence that synthetic phonics approaches are better than analytic phonics approaches, or vice versa.

All inquiries have concluded that whatever phonic instruction method is chosen, it should be one part of a suite of skills children should have when learning to read.

What is the phonics test?

The phonics test is based on synthetic phonics. The children are given 40 words on a computer screen, with no context. The words are not put in a sentence, or given any meaning. This is deliberate, and an important feature of a synthetic phonics approach, as the children must show they are not relying on meaning or prior experience with the word in order to successfully decode it.

To this end, 20 of the words the children are given are nonsense words, like “thrand”, “poth” and “froom”, to ensure they are not using meaning to decode the words.

Why are we introducing it?

Minister Birmingham is concerned about the numbers of students in Australia who are struggling with literacy. The decline in literacy standards of Year 9 students is very concerning, and he is right to be looking for solutions. But the solution will not be found in this phonics test for six-year-olds.

As the test has been has already been in use for six years in England we are fortunate to be able to learn from their experience. A major evaluation of the test conducted by the Department for Education in England found that the test is not delivering improvements in literacy capabilities, and in fact, is delivering some unwanted side effects, like class time being spent learning to read nonsense words rather than real words.

Numerous other recent studies of the implementation of the phonics test in England provide valuable information that allow us to test the claims for the test against research evidence.

What does the research say?

Claim: The phonics test has improved reading results in England since its introduction.

Evidence: Year 1 children in England are certainly getting better at passing the phonics test. Over the past six years, pass rates have increased by 23%. This means around 90% of Year 1 children in England can now successfully read nonsense words like “yune” and “thrand”.

However research has found that the ability to read nonsense words is an unreliable predictor of later reading success.

And so far, the phonics test in England has not improved reading comprehension scores.

As the test only tests single syllable words with regular phonic patterns, it is not possible to know how many English children can read words like “one”, “was”, “two”, “love”, “what”, “who”, or “because”, as such words are not included in the test. This is unfortunate because these are amongst the 100 most common words in the English language, which in turn make up 50% of the words we read everyday - whether in a novel, a newspaper article or a government form.

“Yune”, “thrand” and “poth”, on the other hand, make 0% of the words we read.

Claim: The phonics test will pick up children who are having reading difficulties. Birmingham has stated “the idea behind these checks is to ensure students don’t slip through the cracks”.

Evidence: Research in England has found that the test was no more accurate than the teacher’s judgement in identifying children with reading difficulties. Teachers already know which children struggle. As researchers, teachers and principals have all said - teachers need more support in knowing how to support those struggling children.

Claim: The phonics test will provide detailed diagnostics to support teachers to make effective interventions. The chair of the panel recommending the test says that the phonics test will drill into the detail of phonics to establish what children know.

Evidence: A thorough analysis of the test’s components found it fails to test some of the most common sound/letter matches in English, and indeed screens for a very limited number of the hundreds of sound/letter matches in English. They found that children can achieve the pass grade of 32 from 40 with only limited phonic knowledge.

Other research found the test fails to give any information about what the specific phonic struggles of a child might be , or whether the struggles are indeed with phonics.

These limitations mean the check has negligible diagnostic or instructional use for classroom teachers.

Learning lessons

Australia is in the fortunate position of being able to learn from the research that has been conducted since the implementation of the phonics test and mandatory synthetic phonics teaching in England. The lesson is clear. The test is unable to deliver what was hoped. Australia should look elsewhere for answers to its literacy challenges.

Already state Education Ministers have begun to let Birmingham know that they will not be taking up the offer of the national phonics test.

This may be an issue where Australia is able to overcome its intellectual cringe, and act on the research evidence rather than old colonial ties.

Misty Adoniou, Associate Professor in Language, Literacy and TESL, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Developing Literacy in the Secondary Classroom


This week I received our latest book.

Let me share some insights about this publication.

'Developing Literacy in the Secondary Classroom is an accessible and comprehensive guide to a wide range of topics relating to literacy, learning and assessment. Taking a learner-centred approach with discussion questions and activities that encourage reflection on key issues and topics covered in each chapter, this is a book that will appeal to teachers and researchers looking for a clear, well-referenced and very practical guide to the field.' Marcello Giovanelli, Senior Lecturer, Aston University.

Today's secondary classrooms are increasingly diverse places and skilled teachers need to be able to develop flexible teaching strategies that can be adopted to best serve diverse learners with divergent needs. This book provides teachers and pre-service teachers with practical guidance on many essential aspects of literacy teaching, and shows how research can be applied to teaching practice.

Key coverage includes:
  • The fundamental aspects of teaching reading and writing to adolescent learners
  • How to intelligently select and use literature with secondary students
  • Multi-literacies and the use of technology in Teaching
  • Assessment strategies for the classroom
  • Teaching techniques for developing reading comprehension




Tuesday, June 21, 2016


How should reading be taught in schools?

Misty Adoniou, University of Canberra

When my son was nine years old, he put aside the large Harry Potter novel he had been slowly, but enthusiastically, reading each evening and instead began ploughing through lots of fairly uninspiring books that he brought home from school each day.

It turned out the Year 4 teachers had devised a competition at his school - whichever class read the most books would be rewarded with an end of term pizza party.

The aim, I presume, was to motivate the children to read. It is ironic then that the effect was that my son stopped reading for pleasure and instead began reading for the numbers.

Reading is now increasingly being reduced to a numbers game in schools.

What level is your child at?

At pick up time, parents quiz each other about what reading level their child is on. Inside the school staff room, teachers are directed to have children on level 15, 20 or 30 by the end of the school year.

Six year olds are deciding whether they are good readers or not based on how many books they have ticked off on their take home reader sheet.

These levels are based on algorithms that calculate the ratio of syllables to sentences, or measure word frequency and sentence length.

The rationale is that these formulae can be applied to rank books on a scale of readability and thus guide teachers to match books with children’s reading ability.

There are two key problems with this numbers approach to reading. First, the algorithms are faulty. Second, publishers misuse them.

What makes a book hard or easy to read?

The missing variables in readability algorithms are the authors’ intentions, the readers’ motivations and the teachers’ instruction.

These are key omissions, and they seriously reduce the usability of the algorithms and the credibility of the reading levels they produce.

Fictional stories often use familiar and high frequency vocabulary, and many authors use relatively simple sentence structures.

However the use of literary tools like allegory and metaphor, along with challenging text themes, increases the difficulty of works of fiction in ways that are not captured in readability algorithms.

For example, readability formulae give Hemmingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” a reading level suitable for primary school students. They may be able to decode the words on the page but comprehension of the book is less likely.

The same formulae may rank a non-fiction book on dinosaurs, for example, as only suitable for high school students because of its uncommon vocabulary, lengthy sentences and multi-syllabic words.

Yet a child’s interest and familiarity with the topic, or a teacher or parent’s support and instruction, can make that non-fiction book very readable for younger children.

Reading schemes

As readability formulae are not always a good fit for books, the solution has been, instead, to write books which fit the formulae. And publishers have been very keen to supply those books.

These are the books that our children take home each evening. They are written according to the numbers - numbers of high frequency words, numbers of syllables, numbers of words in a sentence.

What is missing in those books is author intention and craft, reader engagement and interest, and teacher support and instruction.

Essentially, then, what is missing in these books is the very essence of reading.

What books should children read?

We have been using the reading scheme system for decades and we still have children struggling to read.

When we use these quasi books to teach reading, we are not adequately preparing them for real reading.

These books, written to fit algorithms, don’t build broad vocabularies in our children. They don’t teach our children how to read complex sentence structures or deal with literary language or read between the lines. In many cases, they turn children off reading altogether.

Children learn to read by reading a book that is a little beyond what they can already read. The gap between what they can read and what they could read is reduced when the child:

  • is highly motivated by the content of the book;
  • has existing background knowledge about that content;
  • is receiving good instruction from a teacher.

We don’t need books arranged in coloured boxes labelled with level numbers to teach a child to read.

Beautifully written pieces of children’s literature will do the job.

Books full of carefully crafted writing by authors whose intentions are to engage, entertain and inform.

Books that teachers can work with in the classroom showing how sounds work in words, and how words work in sentences to make us feel, see or think new things.

Beautiful books that parents can also buy and delight in reading with their children.

Why it matters

The way we teach children to read will fundamentally influence what they understand the purpose of reading to be.

When we teach children to read through schemes that tally their books, we teach them that reading is simply about quantity. If reading is about getting a reward of a pizza, then children are less likely to read for intrinsic rewards.

The claims made for well-written children’s literature are many and varied.

Reading books to your children brings you closer to them, can teach them philosophy and about world issues.

But they can do something else. They can teach our children to read.

The Conversation

Misty Adoniou, Associate Professor in Language, Literacy and TESL, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.