S1 E15 - 8 Myths of Reading Instruction that Every Teacher Should Know About


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Transcript Summary

Myth No. 1 -  learning to read is as natural as learning to speak.
Myth number one is that learning to read is as natural as learning to speak, and this is where this idea that if we just immerse children in rich text, if we have language-rich environments for them to grow up in, then all will be well and they'll learn how to read. That's where this comes from. 

Now, it's absolutely flawed, and I'm going to read to you a paragraph from my book, Reading Success In the Early Primary Years, a Teacher's Guide to Implementing Systematic Instruction. If you've got your copy,  I'm reading from the bottom of page 34.

Not all skills and information are learned the same way. Biologically primary skills and information are those that are developed automatically and effortlessly simply because we are human (Sweller, 2020). Sweller argues that these skills and knowledge do not usually need to be taught in schools because they are learned automatically. Examples of this are speaking and listening in your home language or regulating basic cognitive processes such as simple problem-solving.

Biologically secondary skills and knowledge, on the other hand, are unlikely to develop without conscious effort. Very often involving instruction from someone else. (Sweller, 2021). Examples of biologically secondary skills are reading and writing or learning about the complex inner workings of our own bodies. We have not evolved to acquire these skills or knowledge, and so they will not be learned unless culturally necessary and explicitly attended to (Lovell 2020).

So the whole idea that if we just read to children, if we just involve them in language-rich experiences, they'll become readers is based on a flawed idea. It is just not true. Hardly anybody is saying it, and those who are are usually arguing for whole language or balanced literacy to continue in our schools.

Myth No. 2 - Levelling children and levelled texts will lead to growth in reading.
Myth number two. Levelling children and levelled texts will lead to growth in reading. What this normally looks like is that you are asked to conduct a reading assessment using a benchmark tool that is aligned to a levelled reading program. The assumption being that if we find the reading level of the student and then provide them with a text that matches that level, they will get better at reading. Now that was the assumption, there's no research to back that up. There is some research to suggest that the text children read needs to be a little harder than they can manage on their own.

Now, I just want to say,  This idea comes into play once children have become proficient decoders. So while children are building those fundamental skills across those first two or three years of school, ideally, they've got it done and dusted by then, or if they're continuing to build fundamental skills up into the upper primary and even secondary years,  they need texts that align to the phonics knowledge they have and the level of reading stamina that they possess. So we call those texts decodable texts.

But once they know their phonics, once they're able to read at a very high level, at least 95 to 98% accuracy of a pretty complex text, and they're doing that at roughly 90 words per minute,  those are sort of the benchmarks that we understand as being that magical point when we can say, well, they've mastered decoding mostly.

Once they've reached that point,  then we switch from this decodable text idea into children learn well when they have texts that are a little bit harder. And that may sound a little strange because we've been taught don't make it too hard, don't make it too hard. But the thing is, we're not giving the text to the students to read once; we're supporting them.

So everyone in the class will have access to the same challenging text, and this could be through a short story in a text-based unit. If you're a Resource Room member, you'll find these inside The Resource Room for you from years three to six. Everyone's having access to that text, not everyone's being asked to decode it by themselves. But the act of working in a supported way through that text is what's going to help them improve in their reading. 

So the idea of levelling is a bit of a nonsense, especially as the levels that have been decided upon don't really mean anything. There's no norm referencing as there is with Acadians or a DIBELS assessment.   It's just someone's idea of what these levels are. If you want to hear more about this, have a listen to the episode that we have here in the podcast,  Episode 7 - Why it's so scary to let go of benchmark assessment, and we talk more about that.

Myth No. 3 -  context is the key to learning to lift words from the page.
This is what the three-queuing method is based on. We can use the context of the piece to think about words that make sense. We might look at the first letter, have a look at the picture, and think about what word that could be. That's actually been shown to be a habit of poor readers.

Lennea Ehris's work has shown that the key to this mapping is to process words through their sounds. We understand that phonics is the key to lifting words from the page, not context, not guessing. The levelled text that we're asked to have students read don't make any sense. Because if you don't know the code, you can't read through the phonics. You can't activate those areas of your brain that map those words.

Incidentally, another myth that we have heard is that 'the phonics people don't care about meaning'. And by the way, I'm one of the phonics people, and you might be too. This is not one on my list, but it's one I'm throwing in. And it's actually not true because Ehri's research shows that, in order for a word to be mapped, we need to know how the word sounds, we need to know what the word means,  and we need to know how the word is constructed. So that's with our phonics and our morphology. When we know those things, then the word is mapped into our long-term memory. 

Meaning is key here. It's not an aside. So if someone says to you, oh, those science of reading people, they only care about phonics they don't care about meaning,  well, frankly, it's just not true. So you can say with confidence that that's not true. That meaning is central to mapping words into our long-term memory.

Myth No. 4 - There are many ways to teach reading.
Myth number four. There are multiple ways to teach children to read. And we hear this often, and so we may hear this from our balanced literacy  loving colleagues who will say things like, well, we shouldn't be prescriptive around how we are teaching reading because there's lots of ways to teach reading.

Well, I guess technically there are, but they're not all created equal. Systematic synthetic phonics has been shown to be the most direct path to teaching children the fundamentals of reading. So yes, some people claim that phonics in context is the only way it should be done. In fact, those people talk about that teaching systematically is harmful for children, and of course, that makes teachers very nervous because the last thing they want to do is harm children. But it's simply not true.

Other people say that an analytic approach to teaching phonics and word-level reading is the way to go. Well, that works for some, but not all. Systematic synthetic phonics, where we teach the smallest units of sound and we teach the children how to put them together to read words, is the most direct path to teaching.

So the answer to there's lots of ways to teach reading is, well, yes, they may be, but they're not all equally as effective. And in our school, we are dedicated to providing instruction that reaches the largest number of children possible,  and those pointy end tier three children who may need something extra, we're going to talk with our speech pathology colleagues around that, and they're going to help us.

But the research is pretty clear. 95% of our overall population can learn to read. The fact is that we're looking at about half that in terms of proficient reading. So something is not working.

Myth No 5 - Explicit teacher-led instruction destroys students' love of reading.
Myth number five is explicit teacher-led instruction destroys students' love of reading. Oh, goodness me. You know, you hear this one often as well. How do we build children's love of reading? Well, my answer is to teach them to read. We like doing things we feel successful in. We don't like doing things that we don't feel successful in. It's as simple as that. 

Children love reading when they can do it. Should they have some choice about some of the books that they read? Absolutely.  Should they have voice about their learning? 100%. But we are the grownups. We are leading learning. We are responsible. But students should be intellectually engaged and stimulated. Their success should be visible. They need to know how to be successful,  and that success needs to be celebrated.

We often hear the question, how do we help children feel successful? Well, we teach children to be successful. That's how they feel successful. It's not some false sense of praise,  simply because that feels nice. Let's help kids achieve goals. Let's help them celebrate, and then they will like doing it. And, of course, they need to have interesting reading to go along with that.

Myth No. 6 - Benchmark assessments from levelled reading schemes means something.
Myth number six,  and I've kind of touched on this one already. Benchmark assessments from levelled reading schemes mean something. Now we've come to think we know what they mean, but actually, they don't mean what we think. So I'm just going to suggest to you go back and have a listen to the episode about why it's scary to let go of benchmark reading assessment. Basically, somebody made up some levels and we went, "Oh, that sounds good."

 When I ask a group of people to tell me what number students are expected to read at the end of year one,  the answers vary wildly. Sometimes there's 10 levels between the highest and the lowest. So thinking that those levels mean a grade is a mistake, because they don't. It's just that someone's assigned meaning to it, and then we've taken that on. I'm sorry to tell you it doesn't mean anything.

Myth No. 7 -  Children learn in their own way and their own time.
Myth number seven, children learn in their own way and their own time. They'll do it when they're ready. This is often said to worried parents whose children are in the foundation year or year one. I think it comes from that idea that we learn to read in the same way we learn to speak that, somehow, it's developmental. The truth is that if we wait, then children will fall through, not through the cracks, but through the gaping abysses that exist in our education system.

We need to identify as early as possible when a student might be a struggler and intervene immediately. So while the phonic screening check in year one is a great measure, and I support that, waiting till term three of year one to take action is way, way too late.

You will know in Term One of Foundation which children are likely to have a difficulty. These are the children who will not make the same progress in phoneme-grapheme correspondences as their peers. They're the ones who are not coming to oral blending, so you say /d, o, g/, and they say 'gas'. These are the children who are showing signs of having difficulty early. Now, it's not to say that we have to hit the panic button on those students,  but absolutely we need to be aware of them from the start, and we need to put tier-two intervention into place as soon as possible. 

Myth No. 8 - Immersing children in language and literacy-rich environments will make them readers.
Number eight,  immersing children in language and literacy-rich environments will make them readers. I'm not going to tell you that it's not helpful for parents to read to children. I'm not going to tell you that children having well-developed spoken vocabulary isn't important. Of course, it is. All literacy floats on a sea of talk, as we've heard time and again. But it is not enough to help children be rich in oral language. It is necessary but not sufficient.

In conclusion -  We need to challenge the status quo.
Those are the eight (plus one extra) myths that we hear often around reading instruction. And if you have been wanting to take the conversation further than just nodding and smiling, then you can feel confident that what you are thinking is on the right track.

Explicit instruction across the curriculum,  across the school day, is absolutely evidence-informed.   It is shown to be the most effective way to support novices, and frankly,    every child in the primary school is a novice. 

Those are the myths. We need to question them, and we need to challenge the status quo about what happens because our kids don't have time to waste.   They don't have three years or five years for people to come to the party. We need to be their advocates. Don't get yourself fired, but absolutely feel justified in questioning and challenging, and you may not be able to influence what happens in the rest of your school,  but you absolutely can influence what happens in the four walls of your classroom because it's your knowledge and expertise as a teacher that's going to make the biggest difference to kids.

Are you looking for simple, quality teaching tools for phonics and decoding? Reading Success in Action walks you step by step through teaching important foundational skills of students of all ages.  Learn more here

Reading Success in Action D1,2,3



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