Reading and the Dyslexic Child: About that Tsunami of Change Predicted by the Advocates of the Scientific Method of Reading
By Dr. Sam Bommarito
According to some (not all) of the advocates of the scientific method of reading, there is a Tsunami of Literacy change coming. Bad practices in the teaching of reading are going to be replaced by good ones. The reading crisis is going to be solved. The problems caused by the evils of whole language and balanced literacy will be overcome by an unbalanced approach, an approach that uses most (all) of the literacy instructional time in the early grades (k-2) to teach using scientific-based reading practices (translation- TONS of direct systematic synthetic phonics instruction). Comprehension can wait. Comprehension will follow naturally once the decoding problems are solved.
I’ll begin by reminding my readers that a Tsunami is a form of a natural disaster. It usually results in great pain and suffering. It can take months, sometimes years to recover from a Tsunami. Perhaps it would be wise to show some caution before welcoming a Literacy Tsunami as a solution to our perceived problems in the teaching of literacy.
Let me now address the very real problem that was the impetus of the current movement to change literacy practices. That is the failure to provide adequate instruction for the Dyslexic child. I’ll skip right to the end on this one. Dyslexic children do not thrive on a program based on analytic phonics. They truly need a program that is direct, synthetic based and systematic. There is no question they should be provided such programs. My belief is that currently, the best place to do that is in a tier three program. For that to work it would require that Dyslexic children be a “minority” in the sense that most children with reading problems do not have Dyslexia. That would require taking the point of view that reading difficulties have their origins in multiple (complex) factors. The rest of this entry will present some evidence that this is the case. I will present evidence to demonstrate that we may not want to abandon practices that, in point of fact do help a significant number of children, children with very real reading difficulties but who do not fit the criteria for being Dyslexic. Let’s see why I say this based on challenging some of the myths propagated by some of the advocates of the “scientific method” of teaching reading.
Myth one: Programs like Reading Recovery, programs that often use things like the three cueing systems and other unproven educational practices, should be ended and replaced with strong systematic synthetic phonics-based programs. There is a major problem with this point of view. It fails to explain why RR has consistently been found to be the most effective reading program in beginning reading. It is the only beginning reading program to show significant improvement in BOTH comprehension and decoding. Its synthetic-based rivals show gains in only decoding. We’ll dive into that fact a little more deeply later in this analysis. See the following link for the newest information on this point: https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/EvidenceSnapshot/420.
I was always taught that all it takes to call a scientific hypothesis into question is one contrary observation. The What Works Clearinghouse conclusions clearly show that, in spite of its critic’s complaints that it does not follow their vision of “scientific teaching”, Reading Recovery actually works better for many children than the programs advocated by the “science of reading” point of view. (Update Sept 2021- since some of the naysayers cite studies showing RR gains don’t stick coniser this. Susan Vincent reports that in her district they did for multiple years. In her district the main population makes good progress every year and the RR students more than kept up. What would happen if the RR student returns to a district where the overall population makes low or no progress? Check to see if the naysayers studies took that question into account.)
In previous blogs, I’ve pointed out that SOME of the advocates of the scientific method employ the “strawman” tactic in order to make the case against Reading Recovery, along with other constructivist-based tactics. They create a “strawman”. They do this by reporting only studies critical of a method and ignoring studies (like the WWC analysis) that demonstrate that they work. These kinds of tactics may work in heated political campaigns. But if one is pursuing science, one must weigh in with all the data before drawing final conclusions. Ignoring critical data that supports “the other side” is not my idea of science.
Myth two: Whole Language and Balanced Literacy are the cause of all the current problems in literacy. Let’s examine one case where that claim was made. California mandated that whole language be used. Shortly afterward reading achievement went down. That’s a slam dunk, right? Whole language caused a major loss in reading achievement scores. As is often the case in scientific research, the devil is in the details.
Enter on the scene Stephen Krashen. He took a closer look at the data. He asked a simple question. Were most teachers in California actually using whole language? He found the answer was an emphatic no. Most were not. Yet the scores went down. How can that be? He reported that the actual causes of those lower scores were “a large influx of non-native speakers of English and significant decreases in educational funding (larger classes specifically negatively impacting achievement).” See this link for details.
Myth two: The source of most (all) reading problems is Dyslexia. Having taught the analysis and correction of reading course multiple times at both the graduate and undergraduate level I’m familiar with textbooks that were used/are being used in that course. Harris and Sipay was a mainstay textbook for quite a number of years. The earliest versions of that text came out before the current round of the Great Debate. Their conclusion- there are multiple causes for reading problems. John’s is another text often used. His conclusion- multiple causes. Readers are invited to examine other textbooks currently in use. I think they will find- multiple causes is the current conclusion of virtually all the experts in area analysis and correction. If this is true, then solving the overall problem of low achievement in literacy requires much more than solving the literacy problems of the Dyslexic child. IN NO WAY am I suggesting that working toward meeting the needs of the Dyslexic child is unimportant. It is VERY important. But meeting their needs only solves a small part of the overall literacy instruction problem. It does not address the problems of the children whose literacy problems stem from other sources. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that one of those sources is the failure to provide systematic and explicit instruction in comprehension. I predict that those who think that decoding instruction in the first few years should supplant comprehension instruction are going to be sorely disappointed. Solving decoding problems is NECESSARY for a good literacy program. However, solving those problems IS NOT SUFFICIENT.
Myth three: SES Doesn’t Matter
It is sometimes implied by SOME advocates of the scientific method that because Dyslexic children can (and do) come from families who are what we would call high SES (Social Economic Status) that SES doesn’t matter much. On the one hand, it is absolutely true that some Dyslexic children come from high SES families. So, it is true that SES is not always a factor in reading difficulties. Does that mean that SES never a factor reading achievement? Hardly. There is a TON of data demonstrating SES is a factor. By and large areas with low SES have consistently had scores about 1 standard deviation below the expected reading achievement scores. That has been a widely accepted fact of life since I began my teaching career in 1970 right through to today. Many of us in the reading world view that solving the poverty crisis and mitigating the effects of poverty is crucial to solving the literacy problems of many children. I’ve mentioned before that back in the day I worked in three different Title one programs that won awards for the achievement gains in reading. By definition Title 1 programs are in low SES areas. One can find many examples of programs in low SES areas doing that. I think a careful examination of those programs will demonstrate that they accomplished their gains by doing much more than simply solving the decoding problems of their students. I’ll leave it to my friend Dr. William Kerns to provide more research around that point in future blogs.
Myth four: Applying the Methods of the “Scientific Approach to Reading” results in tremendous gains in reading achievement.
Careful examination of the data some proponents of the scientific method of reading provide does demonstrate major gains in DECODING ability, not reading achievement. Please examine the instruments used in their studies. Most of the variance measured by those instruments come from Decoding, not comprehension. Too often their comprehension data, if it is present at all, relies on vocabulary only or data based on correlations with comprehension tests instead of directly measuring comprehension. Correlational data may be satisfactory for exploratory studies, but for studies used to justify large expenditures by districts, direct measures are needed. That includes actual comprehension questions like those found in the Gates, not some indirect measure(s).
My next remarks are addressed to district level decision makers “shopping” for literacy programs. If you are looking to make long term investments in a program, I think it is prudent that you demand something more than the current level of proof provided by some advocates of the scientific method. My advice is to ask for data indicating 1. Long term sustained gains (critics of the “Scientific Approach” often point out the gains they claim happen disappear once data is looked at over extended periods). 2. Studies that use actual direct measures of comprehension. In my day we used the Gates-Macginitie. It has a Vocabulary Section and a Comprehension section resulting in an overall reading score. Once again, as is often the case, the devil is in the details. It is a buyer beware kind of situation. Before you buy into a particular set of methods, please ask your local experts in testing to search programs you are considering for evidence of long-term READING ACHIEVEMENT gains based on widely-accepted tests of COMPREHENSION. I’d recommend against adoption if such proof cannot be provided.
An important footnote. I’m sure you’ll hear answers like- if you take care of decoding problems then the comprehension problems will be solved as well. The problem is, reading is not a natural process (one point on which the science of reading folks and I agree). Since it is a LEARNED process, it follows that in addition to learning the decoding strategies readers must be explicitly and systematically taught comprehension strategies (or the single comprehension strategy if some analysts are correct) as well. Do you really want to wait until the second or third grade to do that? That is what many advocates of the scientific method are asking you to do in order to make time for all that extra decoding instruction they recommend. If you follow that advice you run the risk that the “hidden curriculum” (only decoding matters) will cause many of your readers to pay little or no attention to the ideas of the things they read. Does that sound like the kind of learner that can survive in the 21st-century work environment? Does that sound like a learner that will provide your district with long term gains in reading achievement? As I said, buyer beware. Until and unless they provide comprehension instruction from the outset, I would not consider buying into implementing their programs.
Update made July 11th, 2019. Here is another study reinforcing the fact decoding gains do not automatically result in comprehension gains:
‘The conclusions of one study on phonics and similar word-level training represents … Benefits for “reading comprehension were not significant” (Reading the Naked Truth, 92). A recent analysis by literacy researcher Jeff McQuillin drew similar conclusions from a large-scale study in England.’
Myth number Five- All districts are using balanced literacy/whole language and that is why the current reading scores are so low.
I will begin with the obvious. Some advocates of the scientific theory seem to assume that all (almost all) of the district programs currently in place are “whole language” or “balanced literacy”. They treat the two terms as synonymous. They are not. They attribute things to the programs that are simply not accurate or true. For instance, they often say whole language means no phonics. Sorry, I was at the 1995 ILA convention in Anaheim and heard Ken Goodman speak at the Reading Hall of Fame session. During that session, he directly stated that there is a place for phonics in a whole language program. In addition, there is the same issue raised by the whole California fiasco. What is it that different district programs are ACTUALLY doing? Are there some programs that are more successful than others? If the science of reading folks were to try to present their findings to a doctoral committee, they would quickly find themselves being told to nail down which programs are failing and the characteristics of those programs. They would be required to provide evidence of where those programs are being done or not being done. They might even be required to see if differences in implementation results in differences in achievement results. For instance, how do Guided Reading programs that follow the advice of Burkins and Yaris on time allotment fair compared to programs that don’t? They are currently painting with far too broad a brush to meet anyone’s definition of scientific research. If they are going to claim the title of the scientific method, then they need to tighten up their research methods considerably, especially when making such broad statements about what districts are currently doing.
I’ve said before that my analysis of the Great Debate and why the pendulum continues to swing is based on something I learned from one of my mentors, the late Dr. Richard Burnett, professor emeritus from the University of Missouri St. Louis. A very long time ago he told me “Sam- the great debate has never been about phonics vs. no phonics. It has always been about my phonics vs your phonics.” My take on this is that the debate is really about analytic phonics (preferred by those of a constructivist bent) vs. synthetic phonics (preferred by those of an empiricist bent). My next statement will please almost no one but does have the potential to help everyone. There are SOME children who thrive on analytic phonics, SOME children who thrive on synthetic phonics, some children who can thrive on either and SOME children who can get by with almost not phonics at all.
Evidence supporting the above position is as follows: “According to Torgerson et al., ‘There is currently no strong randomized controlled trial evidence that any one form of systematic phonics is more effective than any other’ (2006: 49). Research evidence which is available is insufficient to allow for reliable judgments to be made about the efficiency of different approaches to systematic phonics instruction (Stuart, 2006). “
Go to this link for details
I’ve attributed the ever-swinging pendulum to the fact that when people at the two extremes (in the sense they take the positions of ONLY synthetic or ONLY analytic) start saying only their way works and only their way will be allowed things start to go badly. When that happens, we find ourselves in a situation where it is guaranteed some children will not thrive. What happens next is a call for “out with the old, in with the new”. Usually, enough time has passed so that most folks have forgotten that the “new” didn’t work the last time around. As a result, the cycle has become never-ending. My suggestion has already been made. Let’s for once try stopping in the middle. Let’s talk to each other about what works for PARTICULAR kids. Let’s stop debating and start dialoguing. Let’s learn from the ideas of all sides and ask the question of what works best for THIS PARTICULAR CHILD. In the course of that, we can start a reading evolution.
Dr. Sam Bommarito (aka the Mythbuster)
Copyright 2019 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of this author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.
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None of us die-hard “phonicators” is relegating comprehension to the after-decoding-mastery-has-been-achieved moment. We all can have our cake and eat it, too. Yes, instructional time is reductive, but there is still time to do some whole-class sound-by-sound blending and a good read aloud. Methinks you overstate. Do thoroughly agree (and stated so in the comments on the latest Shanahan on Literacy article) with your thoughts that what works for some kids may not work for others and that behooves teachers to hold dearly-held theoretical reading presuppositions loosely in our hands.
It’s not a case of my philosophy vs your philosophy. It’s a case of demonstrating that what you propose works over time and produces SUSTAINED gains in both comprehension and decoding. A bump in scores followed by a long plateau is not sufficient. And please demonstrate the comprehension gains by using direct widely accepted tests of comprehension, not vocabulary only or correlation-based data. For instance, if you want to boost comprehension it will take more than a good read aloud. It takes read aloud/think aloud and some direct and systematic instruction in comprehension. Teaching decoding is necessary but not sufficient for literacy instruction. Teaching literacy without improving comprehension is pointless. If you are really having your cake and eating it to then demonstrate with better data than I’ve seen so far. Welcome the specifics of studies to that end and please do include the full data for examinations. Happy Reading and Writing.
Doctorsam7- I am in the private sector -working with kids who struggle with reading. From personal experience as a parent AND educator, I have found that the push towards teaching all kids phonics/decoding is just not working like everyone hopes that it would. We see a number of children who CAN decode, but have no comprehension. I agree that the basic decoding patterns must be taught,but again, find that because there are so many other factors that are hindering the student from learning, are not being addressed or even acknowledged. I would appreciate your input on issues like working memory, attention, visual motor integration and anxiety– all of which can be issues. We are also in the middle of “parenting by Facebook”- so every parent thinks their child is dyslexic and needs the same intensive training. So many of these children are lacking in basic LANGUAGE skills. Besides vocabulary, they do not seem to understand the meaning of so many words/concepts. I’m sorry to sound as if I am rambling– I’m just so frustrated that so many reading professionals are trying to teach the kids the same way. Thank-you for your perspective!!!
You’ve hit on several very important points. Overdoing decoding can really adversely affect comprehension. Building language skills, talking to kids, giving kids wide experience e.g. field trips et al, building background, doing all that will have a positive impact on literacy.
Right now there is a lot of misinformation out there, some of it intentional, some of it not. My suggestions for navigating all that. Demand evidence of COMPREHENSION gains from any new programs, using widely accepted test of comprehension. Be open to different things working for different children. Read to and with your children from the very earliest ages. All of that will help.
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