Can age tell us what kind of reading instruction a child needs?

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A while back, I debated Structured Word Inquiry (SWI) with one of its proponents, Jeffrey Bowers. You can see the discussion in the comments on this post. One issue seemed odd to me at the time and I will try to explain it.

The post was about a study by Bowers and his colleagues where SWI was compared to ‘motivated reading’ as an intervention for struggling readers. I found this odd because Bowers has expended a great deal of effort trying to dismantle the evidence base for systematic phonics. You would therefore think he would want to compare SWI to systematic phonics but ‘motivated reading’ is not a systematic phonics program.

The fact that SWI and motivated reading had pretty much the same impact therefore tells us little because we are left wondering what the impact of a systematic phonics intervention may have been.

In the comments, Bowers responded that, “group phonics instruction was not appropriate as the children were in years 3 and 5“. It is as if the age of the children matters even though, as I go on to point out, there are plenty of phonics interventions available for older children.

The inverse of this is the Devonshire study that provides some positive evidence for SWI. Bowers’ contention is that SWI, with its emphasis on morphology and etymology alongside letter-sound relationships, is a suitable alternative to systematic phonics from the very beginning of reading instruction. And yet the students in the Devonshire study were not beginning readers and had already received between one and two years of a form of phonics instruction.

Again, this seems of little importance to Bowers who suggested, “SWI worked for 5-7 year olds. If you are happy with that, me too.

Why does the age of students matter in this way? If an eight-year-old does not understand letter-sound relationships then why would an intervention to address this be inappropriate? If a child is five years old and already knows at least some letter sound relationships then this is not the beginning of reading, right?

If you accept the simple view of reading, as many reading researchers do to a greater or lesser extent, then you see reading as being the product of two factors – oral language comprehension and the ability to turn the squiggles on a page into words familiar from oral language. If you cannot do the latter, it does not matter what age you are.

I was still puzzled by this argument when Debbie Hepplewhite drew attention on Twitter to the phonics guidance produced by England’s Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and this section on older students:

For older readers who are still struggling to develop reading skills, phonics approaches may be less successful than other approaches such as Reading comprehension strategies and Meta-cognition and self-regulation. The difference may indicate that children aged 10 or above who have not succeeded using phonics approaches previously require a different approach, or that these students have other difficulties related to vocabulary and comprehension which phonics does not target.

This seems to assume that older struggling readers have previously been exposed to a high quality systematic phonics program. I don’t think we can assume that at all. At the very least, the EEF should be suggesting some diagnostic tests to figure out whether students know their letter-sound relationships before jumping to conclusions.

As for the suggested interventions, teaching reading comprehension strategies may provide a limited boost to reading comprehension but they are no panacea. In my experience, most children are likely to already have ample instruction in these strategies but I will take my own advice and not assume this. If letter-sound relationships are assessed and are not a problem then reading comprehension strategies are a good bet.

As for ‘meta-cognition and self-regulation’ – what can I say? The EEF seem obsessed with this grab-bag of approaches such as Philosophy for Children – “is it OK to hit a teddy bear?” – and explicit writing interventions that they have arbitrarily grouped together.

However, in sum, these two different sources perhaps demonstrate the emergence of a worrying fallacy that age is a guide to what kind of reading instruction a child needs.

This is false. As ever, the instruction a child needs is determined by an assessment of what they know and can do now.


2 thoughts on “Can age tell us what kind of reading instruction a child needs?

  1. Pingback: Can age tell us what kind of reading instruction a child needs? – Filling the pail – The Literacy Echo Chamber

  2. Jennifer Chew says:

    Thanks for this, Greg. I certainly agree that children need a good phonics grounding, but we also need to be aware of research showing that some can have comprehension problems even when their decoding is average or above average. Jim Rose recently alerted me to this presentation by Kate Nation:

    Nation 2020Conference.mp4

    The bit starting just after 19 minutes may be particularly relevant. The children identified as poor comprehenders needed something other than a phonics intervention.

    Also relevant is a 2010 article by Clarke et al: ‘Ameliorating Children’s Reading Comprehension Difficulties: A Randomized Controlled Trial’. In that study, the Year 4 children who made the greatest longer-term gains were those who were given oral language training. Here’s the abstract:

    ‘Children with specific reading-comprehension difficulties can read accurately, but they have poor comprehension. In a randomized controlled trial, we examined the efficacy of three interventions designed to improve such children’s reading comprehension: text-comprehension (TC) training, oral-language (OL) training, and TC and OL training combined (COM). Children were assessed preintervention, midintervention, postintervention, and at an 11-month follow-up. All intervention groups made significant improvements in reading comprehension relative to an untreated control group. Although these gains were maintained at follow-up in the TC and COM groups, the OL group made greater gains than the other groups did between the end of the intervention and follow-up. The OL and COM groups also demonstrated significant improvements in expressive vocabulary compared with the control group, and this was a mediator of the improved reading comprehension of the OL and COM groups. We conclude that specific reading-comprehension difficulties reflect (at least partly) underlying oral-language weaknesses that can be effectively ameliorated by suitable teaching.’

    In 2011, a year after that study was published, a Phonics Screening Check pre-trial was done – only 32% of children met the required standard, which was set at 32 out of 40 by teachers involved in the trial. Since then, that mark has remained at 32, but the number reaching it in Year 1 is now 82%, with more reaching it in Year 2. This should surely mean that children are now better decoders than their predecessors, and that the percentage of poor comprehenders needing something other than phonics interventions is higher than it used to be.

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