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Reading Through Tears
by Byron Harrison, VAS Research
Let us start by agreeing that literacy levels are uneven, that some children emerge from schooling as good readers and spellers but that too many children struggle to read everyday print.
Let us further agree that for years employers have been complaining that employees cannot spell and that it doesn't appear to be confined to lower intelligence because universities are also needing to provide basic remedial English courses for some students.
What does that tell us?
1.That the methods of acquiring literacy suit some children but not all?
2.That the teachers do not seem to have any answers, from which we can assume that neither do their trainers?
3. That the deficits don't appear to be caused by intelligence?
4.That the reading levels still fall behind those of other countries which suggests that Australian researchers in education faculties are either unable or unwilling to identify the cause when other university faculties appear to be producing breakthrough changes almost on a daily basis.
5. That, if the teacher trainers are unable to identify the cause, suggests that the diagnostic basis is flawed.
6. That if the teacher trainers are unwilling to identify the caused, there must be some hidden impediment to research.
How do we teach children to read?
The two major strategies for learning to read are:
a) Phonic (sometimes called "code-based" reading because it is based on the blending the sounds of the alphabet code c+a+t= cat) and
b) Whole Language (sometimes called "whole word" because it believes that, because superior adult readers appear to be guessing on the basis of whole words we don't need to use letter sounds. Whole Language is also sometimes also called "meaning based" because it believes that children should be able to guess words on the basis of reading to the end of the sentence ("The dog chased the ***") or by usimng
What is the history of?
The following report is an extract from a paper by Chall, arguably one of the leading authority in the teaching of reading
"The prevailing view on beginning reading methods in1967 was to start by teaching whole words, emphasizing reading for meaning from the start. Phonics and other word analysis skills were to be introduced, later and slowly. Throughout the elementary grades, a controlled, high-frequency vocabulary was to be used (Chall, 1967)...
In the middle 1960s there was a perceptible but slow movement away from a meaning emphasis to a code emphasis-one that put an earlier and heavier emphasis on the relationship between sounds and letters (Chall, 1967). By the late 1960s and early 1970s the trend was definitely in the direction of code emphasis. By the middle l970s most o f the published beginning reading programs had a code emphasis (Popp, 1975). Even those that were classified as meaning emphasis had earlier and heavier decoding programs in the first grade- an emphasis on phonics found only in the strongest code-emphasis programs of the early 1960s. What brought about this change? No doubt it was a long and growing discontent with the results achieved by existing methods.
There was also research support for the change. Learning To Read: The Great Debate (Chall,1967), by synthesizing the relevant research on beginning reading (from 1910 to 1965) and by analysing the major reading programs, provided the facts needed for discussion and decision. The conclusion that the evidence was stronger for a code-emphasis than for a meaning emphasis seems to have had a substantial effect on the published reading programs that followed, on methods textbooks, and on research (Chall, c. 1977).
What was this "research"?
In the 1970s, in Tucson, Arizona, an alternative method of teaching reading was suggested. It was called the 'Tucson Early Education Model" (T.E.E.M) and was based on the observation that good readers did not appear to be reading using sounds, they appeared to be reading by recognizing the shape of the word or guessing from the meaning of other words in the sentence or from their knowledge of grammatical form.
In Tucson, Arizona (the home of Whole Language) the biggest and most expensive study of teaching reading the massive Follow Through Study was held. It compared 7 major methods of teaching reading and found that the TEEM methodology was one of the worst ways to teach children to read. In the face of criticism, advocates of the TEEM approach changed the name a number of times before the name "Whole Language": was adopted but the T.E.E.M. content went largely unchanged.
Three years later Australian academics ignored the Tucson Whole Language adverse research findings and mandated Whole Language throughout Australia.
In Dec 1992 Members of the Australian House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Education & Training reported "We were appalled that during the inquiry State, Territory and Commonwealth education authorities were unable to tell the committee, with any degree of accuracy, the extent of the problem as it exists in primary schools because most systems do not test basic skills on a systematic basis. It appears, however, that the numbers could be as high as 25 per cent of students and may represent the majority of the school population in some education districts. (This report was submerged in the Dissenting Appendix 1 p63).
In April 2004, twenty six senior academics and researcher signed an open letter to the Minister condemning "Whole Language guessing" as unscientific. The signatories were drawn from Psychology, Speech/Hearing and Language research, Education research, Diasability development, Audiology, Special Education, Communication Science, Linguistics.
All three national inquiries (USA, UK and Australia) independently recommended a Systematic Phonics approach to the teaching of reading.
Instead of following the "Phonics-first" recommendations of their National Inquiry, Australia adopted NAPLAN that, more than a decade later, still doesn't test phonic skills
This approach, classified as a meaning emphasis (Chall, 1967), assumed that there is no fundamental distinction between the reading processes of the beginner and the mature reader. In essence, it proposed only one reading process-the mature one.
In Australia Harrison, Zollner & Magill revealed evidence of widespread phonic deficits. We demonstrated that at the age of seven, 49% of 'failing readers' and 29% of 'superior readers' lacked the necessary memory storage capacity to support the whole word guessing strategies promoted by Whole Language.
In Scotland's longitudinal study, the Whole Language-based administrators accepted that the Phonics first approach produced better outcomes but refused to introduce it to schools " no matter what the research says ".
In Britain, Turner examined the records of 150,000 children and linked the greatest peacetime decline in reading skills to the introduction of Whole Language and was sacked.
In 2005 the British House of Commons published the results of a 7-year trial, the National Literacy Strategy, which required teachers to add extra teaching in phonics to the then-dominant Whole Language programs. They found that the mix of methods produced inferior results to strictly phonic methods, confirming our conclusion that phonics and whole word processing are competitive not cooperative strategies in the infant years.
In Jan 2015 The New South Board of Studies (Australia) conducted the first audit of what is being taught in Australian teacher-training centres. They found:
that teaching of reading is mired in theory, with too little focus on practical skills;
that schools needed to identify the gaps in their knowledge and commission the retraining of existing teachers;
that universities have the attitude that nobody tells them what to do and who to enroll and were reluctant to cooperate with the external audit;
that courses had a stronger emphasis on years 3 to 6 rather than the first three developmental years of schooling when basic reading habits are established.
that training colleges were teaching strategies that were discredited and not based on research evidence
Nine months later (Oct. 2015) the Victorian Auditor-General (Australia) reported:
The Victorian Education Department consumes a third of government spending but fails students.
Bonuses have been paid to top departmental managers despite dysfunction, flagging student performance and defrauding of school funds by departmental executives.
15 of the department's long-term outcome indicators have either deteriorated or shown no significant change.
The Acting Auditor-general is quoted as saying that "the Education Department has failed to be a learning organisation for a long time"
The Auditor General's department has conducted 27 audits covering literacy and numeracy, teachers' performance, student completion rates etc. The audit reports that "These audits have consistently revealed a depressing pattern of underperformance. Collectively these audits have prompted questions about the department's governance, leadership and planning activities.There has been a culture of complacency. defensiveness and siloing within the department and lack of accountability across its leadership. Unless the culture is changed, the department's performance will not improve".
So there we have it:
The level of failure of Whole Language has thus been reported many times throughout the English-speaking world and yet Whole Language continues to be promoted by certain teacher training colleges and education departmental administrations. The failure of Whole Language continues to be hidden by the simple expedient of not testing phonic skills and thereby hiding the resultant massive levels of phonic deficit.
The refusal to adhere to the research, the international evidence of declining reading and spelling skills, the pro-phonic experience of teachers who have to pick up the pieces and the criticism of Education from researchers in other faculties makes one wonder how educators and administrators have got away with malpractice for three decades.
American Academic Martin Kozloff disputes the word-guessing strategies of Kenneth Goodman the father of Whole Language and draws attention to the change from simple phonic-based teaching to complex Whole Language attention to 'selecting, testing, confirmation and revising'.
He claims that this has driven the simple, sequenced teaching of beginner readers into complex theories of processing that Kozloff describes as 'esoteric' which is defined as "understood by or meant for a select few".
In other words, academics in minor universities promoted their international and publishing careers by making the simple teaching of reading obscure, thereby creating an elite minority preoccupied with elevating the prestige of their departments.
That conclusion melds exactly with a lecture given in Hobart by Australia's leading Whole Language guru who, when asked how to make submissions without detailed test data, openly exhorted Tasmanian teachers to "increase the rhetoric" when applying for government funding or when discussing the teaching of reading with parents. In other words he advocated 'conning' the government and parents by using weasel words, words that appear to be science-based.
These are the academics who have controlled teacher training. It is no wonder that reform is impossible in teacher training where brain-washing is substituted for evidence.
These are the people who derided phonics as 'barking at print' and denigrated phonic teachers as being out of date and ,without any supporting evidence, drove them into retirement or compliance.
These are the people who attacked experienced academic researchers like Turner in the UK and Prof. Jackson in Hobart and the 24 researchers from cognitive faculties throughout Australia who described Whole Language as having no basis in science.
These are the people who, when the Systematic Phonics-first approach was shown to outperform every aspect of reading (including comprehension) in Scottish schools, still refused to abandon Whole Language "no matter what the research says".
We can now understand their refusal to admit fault, their changing the name but not the content of teacher training, their refusal to test phonic skills out of context, their weasel words and wordy explanations of simple processing tasks.
We can now understand recent highly critical audits by the NSW Board of Studies and the Victorian Auditor-General's Department in 2015.
We therefore now release the diagnostic system used in our research for use by any teacher, any parent. If you can spell you can test.
But VAS Theory not only explains why Whole Language fails so many children. It enables parents
to detect the child at risk;
Testing a child
Legal opinion on the Disability Discrimination Act is that current Whole Language teaching practices are not only unethical, they may be illegal.
The Act requires teachers :-
a) to diagnose each child's problems,
b) to design a program that addresses those problems,
c) to inform parents of short term goals
Teachers however are not being given the training to deliver the first requirement under the Act and that automatically eliminates the other two legal requirements.
If that legal opinion is correct, then compensation may be sought on behalf of the significant number of children who failed to read as a consequence of science-free teaching practices.
We have now reached the tipping point, the stage where parents and teachers are beginning to understand some of the non-sensical, classroom practices, where over-generalised school reports no longer expose reading deficits, especially phonic deficits, where research in the USA, England, Australia and Scotland have openly condemned Whole Language practices in the K-3 grades.
Our on-line technology now delivers power and control back to parents and teachers.
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