A letter addressed to The Editor of The Conversation

The following is a letter addressed to The Editor of The Conversation and signed by 96 people who are reading scientists, reading clinicians, teachers or concerned parents:

Dear Mr Ketchell,

The first point of your Charter at The Conversation states that you will Inform public debate with knowledge-based journalism that is responsible, ethical and supported by evidence. The signatories to this letter, who are reading scientists, reading clinicians, reading teachers or concerned parents, consider that the recent article “What are ‘decodable readers’ and do they work?” https://theconversation.com/what-are-decodable-readers-and-do-they-work-106067 does not meet this standard. Here are some examples of claims in the article for which there is no supporting evidence.

1. “Supporters of decodable readers are hopeful these books will support students with reading difficulties, by focusing closely on the sounds in words. However, focusing on sounds alone is not sufficient to support a struggling reader.”

Where is the evidence that anyone has ever claimed that focusing on sounds alone is sufficient to support a struggling reader?

2. “Books like this have no storyline; they are equally nonsensical whether you start on the first page, or begin on the last page and read backwards.

The very large majority of decodable books available today have a storyline. They generally include interesting characters and events including flying on a magic carpet, trips to the vet with a sick pet, stories about witches, aliens, bugs and your pet cat. The implication of this statement is that decodable texts do not have storylines. This implication is false. See for example the article by Berys Dixon in the LDA Bulletin (Vol 48, No 3, Spring 2016) which compares predictable and decodable texts on a number of features including their storylines.

3. “While they may teach the phonics skills “N” and “P”, they don’t teach children the other important decoding skills of grammar and vocabulary.”

Decodable readers, like all well written books, include correct grammar and punctuation. While decodable books often do include interesting vocabulary, there is no suggestion by anyone involved in publishing decodable readers that these books should be the only books that children are exposed to. The story books that are read to them will contain a wider vocabulary for children to discover.

4. “When teaching children to read, we hope they will learn reading is pleasurable and can help them to make sense of their lives and those around them.”

The implication of this statement is that decodable books are not pleasurable to read. The alternative argument is that it is more pleasurable for children to read books that they are actually able to read (by decoding the words on the page) than to be expected to read books that they are unable to read because they cannot decode the words on the page. For example Capper (2013) found that children in a year one classroom who read books from a decodable reading scheme viewed their books positively and enjoyed reading a wide variety of text.

5. “The strategies children are taught to use when first learning to read greatly influence what strategies they use in later years. When children are taught to focus solely on letter-sound matching to read the words of decodable readers, they often continue in later years to over-rely on this strategy, even with other kinds of texts. This causes inaccurate, slow, laborious reading, which leads to frustration and a lack of motivation for reading.”

The authors of the article provide no evidence to support their statement that focusing on letter sound relationships in the early stages of learning to read leads to difficulties in reading in later years. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that once children have learned to decode words this leads to quicker and more accurate reading through the self-teaching hypothesis (Share, 1995) and the processes of automatic word recognition through orthographic mapping (Ehri, 1995).

Mesmer (2005) found that reading more, as opposed to less, decodable text resulted in children reading with greater accuracy, and that they were less likely to ask for help when reading.

Another study by Cheatham et al. (2014) found that children in second grade with low decoding ability who read especially created “meaningful, highly decodable, multiple criteria” text compared to children with low ability who read authentic literature during independent reading time for 20-25 minutes each day performed better on a test of nonword fluency. They found that while children who were advanced decoders did not gain additional benefit from the multiple criteria text, it was highly beneficial for low ability decoders. This fits with the theory that children who are at the consolidated stage of reading development would not benefit as much from more practice with decodable texts as those in the partial or full alphabetic stages. In other words, if you have good decoding skills, of course you can read widely (even with other texts!) and benefit from a rich selection of multiple text types, but if you don’t yet have the skills, you are better off with decodable texts.

These are just some of the ways in which this article violates The Conversation’s declared intention to inform public debate by publishing material that is supported by evidence. For this reason, we consider that your publication of this article does The Conversation no credit and will harm its reputation.

(Signed)

Kristin Anthian

Sarah Asome

Jennai Beckett

Faith Borkowsky

Dr Lesley Bretherton

Rachel Buck

Alison Cannon

Sarah Carlon

Professor Anne Castles

Lauren Chaitow

Professor James Chapman

Jennifer Chew

Alison Clarke

Kerry-Anne Coleman

Professor Max Coltheart

Laura Conway

Amanda Craig

Professor Stephen Dinham

Berys Dixon

Kirsten Duncombe

Isabelle Duquennois

Ngiare Elliott

Rhonda Filmer

Charlotte Forwood

Scarlett Gaffey

Heidi Gregory

Laura Glisson

Trish Ghirardello

Kate Gurjian

Dr Lorraine Hammond

Anita Evans Hellevik

Dr Kerry Hempenstall

Debbie Hepplewhite

Carl Hoekstra

Jacqui Holland

Dr Samantha Hornery

Dr Sally Howell

Alison Hyde

Jen Jakobi

Professor Rhona Johnston

Dr Coral Kemp

Dr David Kilpatrick

Rebecca King

Michelle Kingsbury

Molly de Lemos

Coralie Leong

Victoria Leslie

Dr Wayne Levick

Bronwen Macindoe

Dr Sandra Marshall

Emina McLean

Lin Meeks

Yvonne Meyer

Pat Minton

Kate Montgomery

Maria Murray

Cathy Nathan

Mandy Nayton

Professor Tom Nicholson

Dr Roslyn Nielson

Jackie Nieuwenhuizen

Kate O’Callaghan

Shane Pearson

Simmone Pogorzelski

Maureen Pollard

Melina Ramp

Sally Robinson-Kool

Dr Suze Leitão

Megan Russell

Ann Ryan

Dr Catherine Scott

Jessica Scurry

Toni Seiler

Dr Tanya Serry

Professor Linda Siegel

Professor Pamela Snow

Maura Solley

Dr Jennifer Stephenson

Cindy Stirling

Lyn Stone

Dr Darren Stops

Dr Nathaniel Swain

Dr Robert Sweet

Professor John Sweller

Fay Tran

Stacy Turner

Dr Pye Twaddell

Thizbe Wenger

Professor Kevin Wheldall

Robyn Wheldall

Jo Whithear

Grant Williams

Kathleen Williams

Juliet Vanyai

Kimberley Versteden

Tina Zitslaff

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6 thoughts on “A letter addressed to The Editor of The Conversation

  1. Thank you Greg for posting this letter, which includes the 96 signatures. This effort needs to be widely broadcast. More people should use their networks to pass on this declaration.

    I recognize so many names here that are known for their solid credentials and dedicated efforts to promote evidence-informed successful reading programs. This first statement by this impressive group bodes well for the future. Hopefully, this initiative is just the beginning of more concentrated and targeted projects. Truth in education needs champions!

    Whoever took the initiative to start this ball rolling should be applauded. It is amazing that at this time in history we are still replaying the futile, decades old, reading wars. We need to advance the cause of literacy generally and the application of cognitive science to learning/teaching challenges. The life chances if so many children depend on the application of proven programs currently available but not applied widely.

    What remains to be stated and was not clear in the letter to The Conversation is that their article quite likely harms the cause of spreading literacy. Perhaps further overtures will address this publisher’s shortcomings and also reach out to other audiences about how to advance proven research-backed practices.

    The names on that list are astounding and hope this effort marks a needed turning point!

  2. Thanks for hosting this letter, Greg – which I’ve added to this important and interesting thread at the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction: https://iferi.org/iferi_forum/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=1070

    Your readers might be interested in the pinned threads at the IFERI General Forum – which illustrate the topical and very hot topic that reading instruction continues to be internationally: https://iferi.org/iferi_forum/viewforum.php?f=2&sid=13a952a9a527822734e8416512ba50e8

    Challenging flawed and potentially damaging information is a truly collaborative and international state of affairs nowadays!

    Best wishes,

    Debbie

  3. Truth in education matters. It matters very much to parents who are doing their best to obtain the best education possible for their children. It is very frustrating to see mature educators disagreeing so vehemently about teaching methods. Parents find it difficult to make informed choices for their children in such an atmosphere.

    Why is education such an immature field of human service?

    I write from the consumer side of the education equation. I have been involved in parent efforts for a half-century and the only gratifying result is seeing the home education movement take hold and grow.

    Thus, when I see a list of over 90 people — from the 5 main English-speaking nations (AU, NZ, US, UK, CA), most of them specialists or advocates for effective reading programs — I am hopeful. I am hopeful that misleading information can be stopped in its tracks. Hopefully, these brave people can help stop the long Reading War, which harms the life chances of the young. Glad to see that the effort is gaining some international oomph. Congratulations and encouragement to the initiators of this noble effort!

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