Sometimes, the language of education can get away from you and leave you with the urge to place all key terms in inverted commas. ‘Constructivism’ is one such term. It is a theory of learning; one that suggests that we relate new knowledge to what we already know. Carl Bereiter rightly cautions us not to see memory as a filing cabinet in to which we may simply slot new information. Instead, I suggest that we should recognise that ideas and concepts are organised in ‘schema’ and that incomplete and possibly inaccurate schema already exist for many of the things that we want students to learn. Students may indeed hold misconceptions and these can be quite resilient.
However, there is a perhaps naïve view that constructivism as a theory of learning implies a particular set of teaching practices; constructivist teaching. Here, it is often assumed that we can only truly understand concepts that we have discovered or directly experienced ourselves. Whilst this may be true for most animals, humans are exceptional for our ability to communicate ideas; ideas that can live-on past the lifetime of any one individual. It is not the case that we must directly experience things in order to understand them. Think of all the books.
This slipperiness of language makes it hard to have clear discussions about teaching approaches. If you wish to comment on constructivist teaching techniques then, no doubt, someone will remind you that constructivism is a theory of learning and not a theory of teaching. You are then left without an alternative, agreed description for the thing that you are trying to comment on.
Similarly, imagine if you wish to raise questions about an approach known as ‘balanced literacy’. What kind of narrow-minded person would want to be critical of balance? Surely, any reasonable commentator would see that balanced literacy represents the best of all worlds, eschewing the false choice that is often presented between whole language and systematic, synthetic phonics (SSP).
Except that there may be reason to question this approach and it is closely related to the discussion of constructivism. The ‘systematic’ part of SSP is an attempt to order and structure the learning of phonics so that it best builds appropriate schema and avoids misconceptions. However, there are other approaches to phonics. For instance, An influential 1998 report by Snow, Burns and Griffin for the National Research Council in the US described two such approaches; embedded phonics and direct code instruction. Direct code instruction is essentially SSP and it is this method that Snow’s panel found to be most effective, particularly for struggling students.
So, the claim that balanced literacy includes a phonics component should perhaps be met with the question; what type of phonics component?
I have some sympathy with the proponents of SSP, given the evidence in favour of the approach. However, there is no denying that they have an image problem, particularly when they attempt to question a ‘balanced’ approach. Conversely, ‘systematic synthetic phonics’ might be an accurate description but it’s not a heart-warming one. I suggest a strategy.
The simple view of reading is that reading involves two components. The first is the decoding of words; turning the letters on the page into their corresponding sounds. The second part is understanding what those words then mean. For instance, you may be able to decode the word ‘trireme’ using your knowledge of letter-sound correspondences but you may have no idea what a trireme is. So you lack comprehension. The solution is to gain knowledge of the world and the words that describe it. This can happen in parallel to learning to decode.
Advocates of SSP are often accused of ignoring comprehension; unfairly, in my view. However, there are now a number of systematic approaches to building knowledge available such as the Core Knowledge Sequence. Perhaps there is a case for creating a scheme in which knowledge is systematically developed in parallel with reading skill. Given that this would deal with both aspects of reading – decoding and comprehension – we could call it ‘holistic literacy’. And who could possibly be against that?