Friday, December 21, 2012

A decade of lost action in reading: Let's get some balance!

The Weekend Australian's front page article A Decade of lost action on literacy reports on Australia's poor performance in a recent international reading test. According to the PIRLS results 25 per cent of year 4 children in Australia failed to meet the standard in reading for their age.

The paper version of the Australian has a cartoon placed at the beginning of the article. The picture shows a female teacher with an annoyed look on her face and assuming an aggressive pose. Her fists on her hips while standing over a sheepish looking boy sitting at his desk. In the middle ground there is an adult male and female looking through the classroom door.

The female figure says, "Is the kid a slow learner?"

The other observer then replies, "No but the teacher is."

The first comment is designed to blame the child by giving him the label - 'slow learner'. The second comment blames the teacher.

What is even more interesting is that the electronic version of the article (see the link above) completely leaves out this very derogatory cartoon. Quite possibly, it may have been a copyright issue or maybe the editor realised that it was demeaning to a mainly dedicated and self-sacrificing group of people.

What did the newspaper replace the cartoon with?

Now this is worth a thoughtful look. The photo shows a teacher  in the foreground with his back to the viewer and facing a large group of students sitting in regimental rows of single desks with heads bent over their work. Presumably this is a test situation but the question is, "Why did they choose this particular photo to go with the article?"

The second attempt to blame the victim employs another label - "Whole Language". The implication being that the drop in our reading results is because teachers have been using a 'whole language' approach.  Whole language was a term that became popular about three to four decades ago but few Australian teachers embraced this as their only approach to the teaching of reading. Can you even find a single teacher still using a whole language only approach today? How long will they keep using this label as an excuse? If you did a word frequency count of all articles in Australian professional journals over the last 15 years you would most likely find that the term 'phonics' or 'phonics instruction' has a high count while the term "Whole Language" is hardly ever mentioned.

Even though the teaching of phonics is essential it is not sufficient for reading progress through school. Phonics teaching by itself is a very simplistic response to a very complex learning process. There is more to reading than what you see. An emphasis on phonic instruction as the panacea for all reading difficulties can lead to a situation whereby children can word call with little or no comprehension. This  debate continues in the United States where similar arguments are often used. Some eminent researchers in the US claim that some phonics only approaches are driven by vested commercial interests. Obviously it is very simple to market a phonic teaching package rather than invest in ongoing training of teachers in effectively teaching the reading process. Recognised research reports advocate for a balanced approach to reading instruction, this includes the US National Reading Panel, Australia's Nelson Report and prominent researchers such as the late Michael Pressley.

Low scores for reading in year 4 support the notion of a well recognised year 4 slump. This is not only a problem in Australia but can be seen in other English speaking countries including the US and England (see my Book). This is a complex problem  - many children, who appear to read well in the lower primary or elementary grades begin to exhibit difficulties in reading around this year 4 period.  At this stage the language in books becomes much more complex with less illustrations to assist comprehension. In the lower grades books are often levelled to match children's individual reading ages and many children tend not to acquire new and challenging words. During the year 4 stage more complex non-fiction genres are introduced and children are expected to read to comprehend. This requires the explicit teaching of reading comprehension skills with practice over an extended period of time. Reading problems begin to manifest in year 4, particularly in schools where little emphasis is placed on comprehension in the lower grades.

The situation is that if education systems continue to place more emphasis on word level skills and neglect training teachers to implement a balanced approach that includes reading comprehension, they will face a very slippery decline in reading performance.  

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Visualization and Comprehension Pt 10

This is the final post in this series of blogs so I thought that I should direct fellow bloggers to three very good resources related to visualization and reading comprehension.

The first site 'TeacherVision' shows you how to begin a series of visualisation lessons .

The second site 'Readwritethink' (the International Reading Association's blog) has a good beginning visualizing lesson plan to start the ball rolling.

The third site is the Lindamood-Bell 18th International conference, 'Imagine Learning' (see the picture below).

I have been invited as a guest Research Presenter and I've chosen to call my presentation 'Tale of Three Cities' tracing my research across three Australian cities. This will be a brief outline spanning twenty-years of exploration and discovery. It centres around Dual Coding theory and the teaching of visual and verbal thinking processes to enhance reading comprehension, particularly for children who struggle in this aspect of their learning. It begins on the Gold Coast (the Surf City), continues in Canberra (the City of the Lake) and finishes in Brisbane (the River City).

The underlying theme of this research journey will be how I have endeavoured to link visulaization (Australians use 'visualisation') at the local level or sentence level with the larger global level comprehension of text discourse.

Hope to see you there!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Visualization and Comprehension Pt 9

Oral  vocabulary is one of the most important contributors to children's reading, academic development, and progress through school. It is a significant indicator of success at school. However, it has been estimated that the size off children's receptive flexibility can vary quite considerably. Children with poorer vocabularies may have as many as 4000 fewer words in their mental lexicon than children starting school from homes where parents regularly interact with their children and provide rich language experiences. As a result, children entering school with larger vocabularies tend to have less problems with reading, read more, and learn more new vocabulary through their extensive reading experiences. In contrast, children who have poorer vocabularies tend to have more difficulty learning to read, read less, and fall behind their more successful classmates in acquiring new words.

Produced using 'Wordle'

At school good readers learn a vast amount of new vocabulary incidentally as they read. They are able to use the context to help them decipher new meanings for new words and add them to their mental lexicons as they read. However, many children struggle with reading and this word learning process becomes quite difficult for them. In response to this, it is necessary for some direct teaching of  vocabulary in the classroom.

I have been working on an article for a professional journal about teaching vocabulary in the classroom.     While doing this I came across an article  by Mark Sadoski called "A dual coding view of vocabulary learning" (see below). This was very timely as it gave some insights on how 'Dual Coding' theory can contribute to the teaching of vocabulary (as well as fitting neatly into this blog series).

According to Sadoski, words are verbal labels for concepts, their meanings and even pronunciations  are determined by their connections to a variety of other words. However some words are easier to learn than others. For example, words like 'sofa', are more concrete and are generally easier to imagine than words that those that are more abstract,  such as the word 'justice'. This notion supports dual coding theory because it demonstrates that people use different coding systems to encode the words. Concrete words tend to be associated with imagery while abstract words depend primarily on the web of verbal associations for their meaning.

One particularly effective direct teaching method for learning new vocabulary is called the keyword method. This requires learners to form an interactive mental image of the definition of the new word together with a familiar concrete word that shares a similar acoustic element. In the article Sadoski uses the example of the word 'potable', which means suitable for drinking. 'Pot' is the keyword that forms part of a word potable and can be visualised as the pot containing water.  Thus, visual and  acoustic  word associations are linked to word symbols, meanings and context. Word roots, suffixes and prefixes can also used in conjunction with the key word method to enhance this learning experience.

Sadoski, M. (2005). A dual coding view of vocabulary learning. Reading and Writing Quarterly, 21, 221-238.