What can we learn from the L3 debacle?Posted: April 13, 2017
From the outset, concerns were raised about a programme launched in New South Wales to teach early literacy known as “Language, Learning and Literacy” or simply “L3”.
In Winter 2015, Learning Difficulties Australia published a feature article in their magazine about the programme. According to this article:
“The L3 guidelines involve small group teaching within the whole classroom, with the classroom teacher focussing on groups of two or three children for short periods at a time in what is called the ‘engine room’, while the rest of the class are hopefully engaged in literacy-related self-directed activities.”
If we bear in mind that L3 covers the first year of schooling then these arrangements sound entirely impractical. Furthermore, L3 seems to be based upon dodgy ideas about reading instruction:
“The words, letters and sounds chosen for explicit lessons in Word Work are drawn from the language of the text. There is not a predetermined sequence to follow.”
So it is not a systematic approach then. Systematic approaches cycle students through grapheme (sets of letters) and phoneme (the sounds encoded by these letters) correspondences in a logical order rather than one dependent upon a particular text. In their groundbreaking 1999 review of the available research for the U.S. government, Catherine Snow and colleagues found that ’embedded phonics’ programmes of this kind were less effective than systematic ‘direct code’ programmes where texts were selected to practice the correspondences that had recently been learnt rather than the other way around.
L3 also seems to be teaching ‘multi-cuing’ strategies. These are where children are encouraged to guess words from context – such as the pictures in a picture book – rather than sound them out. In his 2005 review for the U.K. government, Jim Rose ended up devoting an entire appendix of the report to such strategies, highlighting that they do not represent the methods used by skill readers and are at odds with the science of reading. Teaching these strategies not only wastes time that could be spend on actual decoding but it also encourages students to rely on them, something that will work less and less effectively as text complexity increases.
It seems odd that a brand new programme in New South Wales would have such fundamental flaws.
You may have noticed that I have used the word ‘seems’ a great deal. This is because the actual L3 materials are shrouded in immense secrecy and so it is hard to make any definitive statements. So it was with interest that I recently found myself chatting to a few teachers with first-hand experience of L3. All had negative tales to tell. It was hard for them to get past the sheer classroom management madness of the ‘engine room’ approach in which most of the class are unproductively occupied for most of the L3 session. However, when they did talk about the theoretical basis, it was clear that this was not a scientifically sound phonics programme.
If you are a teacher in NSW who is starting to question L3 then I suggest completing some reading on scientifically-based literacy instruction. The Snow report above is a good place to start. The 2005 review of reading for the Australian government is also a good source.
L3 will undoubtedly collapse at some point and so NSW teachers might therefore decide to cut their losses sooner rather than later. If you are looking for an alternative to L3 then I can recommend the U.K. government’s Letters and Sounds programme. It is not perfect but it is based in better evidence and is free to use (the U.K. government obviously saw no reason to keep it secret). There are also a variety of strong commercial programmes available* and there are a number of people who are working on evidence-based alternatives to the kind of mixed methods approach typified by L3. So there are plenty of folks out there who can offer you a hand.
What this debacle proves is that state education ministers can proclaim a commitment to using evidence but unless they have control of their departments then such proclamations are empty.
*if you have a sound SSP programme to pitch then please feel free to do so in the comments