To Perth for the Language, Literacy and Learning conference organised by the Dyslexia-SPELD Foundation. I am suspicious of many education conferences because there is a tendency for the sessions to be dominated by sociological theories rather than scientific evidence. But this is not a standard education conference. It is an event where speech pathologists, researchers, policy wonks and teachers all mingle and where the common touchstone is evidence.
The morning keynote was delivered by Professor Kate Nation from Oxford in the U.K. The topic was poor comprehenders. These are the students who show a strong ability to decode – turning written words on a page into the correct sounds – but who struggle to comprehend what they have read. Nation does not set decoding in opposition to comprehension as some whole-language advocates might. She stresses the need for explicit and systematic phonics instruction. Yet she also made the point that nobody thinks this is all there is to reading. She referred to the ‘simple view of reading’ that sees reading as the sum of decoding skills and oral comprehension. With a few caveats – reading is not simple – this model provides a good guide.
So what should we do with the poor comprehenders? Nation discussed an RCT from the U.K. that I had not heard about before. It had a cunning design: Students with poor comprehension were assigned to one of three groups. The first group was a waiting-list control. The other three groups had withdrawal lessons in text comprehension, oral language or a combination of the two. All groups benefited but the greatest, sustained benefits came from oral language training, with this improvement seemingly related to an improvement in oral vocabulary.
This is a variant of an ABC design that pits one intervention against another and I believe that this is the best way forward for large-scale RCTs such as those conducted by the Education Endowment Foundation in the U.K. and Evidence for Learning in Australia.
It is no surprise to me that improved comprehension comes with improved vocabulary growth. It is a relative lack of knowledge that differentiates low achieving students from their peers and our current instructional methods only serve to enhance this gap.
This was a point that came up in the symposium that I contributed to as part of the second session of the day. First, Dr. Jen Buckingham of the Five From Five literacy project showed us domestic and international data to demonstrate the stagnation of Australia’s literacy performance over time, particularly in terms of the long tail of low performance. Then Professor Pamela Snow took to the stage to look at the issue from the perspective of the school-to-prison pipeline. There were a number of issues to reflect on from Snow’s talk but chief amongst these was her coining of the term ‘edugenic academic failure’. This is academic failure caused by education.
This happens, for instance, when schools defy the evidence and use ‘balanced’ approaches to teaching decoding skills rather than explicit synthetic phonics teaching. Almost all of the students in the school-to-prison pipeline have academically underperformed and one of the greatest protective factors against entering the criminal justice system in strong academic performance. Reading is a basis for all academic performance and so literacy is a key ‘bridge’ for students to cross.
Mandy Nayton then placed the discussion in the perspective of school practice and how we might be able to diagnose a learning disability, again making it clear that schools have an impact in the teaching methods they choose.
I spoke about the reasons why explicit instruction leads to more equitable outcomes. Explicit instruction does not require students to bring prior knowledge from home. It doesn’t assume what students know. Instead, it teaches all of the components. I suggested that this is the key difference between explicit teaching and implicit methods. Explicit teaching takes a standard level of explanation – the sort of explanation we might give in everyday life for how to operate a dishwasher or how to make a casserole – and adds to it. For instance, explicit programmes might use non-examples. There is a good discussion of this in a book that I bought at the conference: When teaching the concept of an equilateral triangle, we might show equilateral triangles of different sizes and rotated in different ways but we might also show an isosceles triangle and explain why that is not equilateral.
Implicit approaches generally give less guidance than an everyday explanation because they prioritise students figuring things out for themselves. This then becomes dependent upon the child’s prior knowledge and home experiences and this leads to the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots.
And so we have a potential mechanism for edugenic academic failure which made me think about a few other implications.
Firstly, Kate Nation’s possible solutions to oral language comprehension issues involved explicit teaching. The oral language component of the RCT that she mentioned combined a number of processes but they were all explicitly taught and, as Nation pointed out, they were proximal to the issue: You don’t fix an oral language problem by running a philosophy for children programme, you fix it by explicitly teaching oral language content.
Secondly, as Barak Rosenshine describes in this piece, explicit teaching has been shown to be the most effective way of teaching pretty much anything. Sometimes, there is quite a heated debate about the behaviour problem in Australian schools. There are a number of ways to tackle this, including tackling root causes such as poor literacy. Yet one other obvious way to tackle it – explicitly teaching the behaviours that are socially normative – is attacked on the basis that this is authoritarian or coercive. Instead, we do little other than contain behaviour problems until they escalate to a stage where students are excluded.
Thirdly, it may seem obvious that children need individual, differentiated, small-group intervention. I certainly think we should follow this logic wherever we can, provided that our interventions are based on sound, scientific principles. However, the bulk of the school day will continue to involve teachers interacting with relatively large groups of students. Whole-class, explicit instruction offers a way of organising this teaching that does not disadvantage the struggling students in the class.