Updated: Feb 23
Imagine if you could be certain about choosing a school that teaches spelling and reading in the most effective way for all students. And imagine if this school also knew how to best teach and support students with a suspected or identified learning difficulty like dyslexia.
This blog is written with two audiences in mind - parents who are looking for a school that is teaching reading and spelling in line with current research, and educators who are eager to see what I'm telling parents who are looking for a school that is teaching reading and spelling in line with current research! The first part of this blog speaks directly to parents. The second section is written for educators keen to hear about the type of teaching happening in schools where evidence-based literacy teaching has taken hold. I have done my best to explain why this teaching looks the way it does and why educators need not freak out about how aspects of this teaching looks somewhat old school.
Over the last decade I've stood inside the classrooms of some of Australia's most knowledgeable teachers in schools who are currently, or are beginning to outperform their counterparts in literacy results. I've been in the classrooms of schools such as Bentleigh West Primary School in Victoria, Angle Vale Primary School, Salisbury Primary School, Saint David's Parish School and St. Peter's Woodlands, in South Australia. There are others I'm yet to visit who are doing exceptional things as well. Sharing the practice of some of Australia's leading schools in this space and then watching other schools emulate their success has been incredibly rewarding. I'm not sure that these schools understand the amazing impact they are having on the lives of kids beyond their gates.
I've watched amazing teachers step into the vulnerable space of putting their practice and knowledge on show to a group of eager onlookers as they impart the complexities of our writing system to their students. Many of these students wouldn't have stood a chance of achieving the standards they are achieving without a teacher as knowledgeable as theirs and leadership so committed to evidence-based teaching. I choose the word impart because our language is not discoverable for most students through mere exposure to it. Our written language has a hidden logic that students must be directly led to by teachers who understand it. I've spent hundreds of hours in our Teaching Students with Dyslexia (TSD) courses and Word Cracking Morphology courses training teachers in this elegant logic. My own area of experience is teaching this logic to young people with learning difficulties, like dyslexia, however, I now get the incredible buzz of seeing many past TSD graduates in their classrooms using their knowledge to lift the literacy levels of their students.
Understanding how to teach students with dyslexia in an intervention setting brings incredible advantages to all students because the teacher simply knows more about how students learn to read and spell. Dyslexia guru Neil McKay is correct when he says "Get it right for dyslexia and you get it right for all". I've marvelled at these schools' commitment to the Science of Reading (a broad term I'll use to describe teaching practices that have a convergence of research to support them). I've been impressed by these schools' deep conviction to only use resources and programs that are supported by a convergence of evidence from reading research and to discard all else.
What really impresses me about these schools is how their staff say, with determination, that they won't allow kids with reading difficulties to fall through the cracks. These schools screen students (some even before they start), using assessments that highlight potential or existing difficulties with foundational skills such as phonological awareness (PA), oral language, alphabet and phonic knowledge. These schools immediately place students with delays into intervention (for up to 5 hours per week) to work individually, in pairs or in small groups with highly trained staff to catch them up as quickly as possible. All of this without a snivel from leaders about how they don't receive additional funding for this. These schools are incredibly shrewd spenders and don't spend on initiatives with low efficacy. Instead, they invest heavily in teacher knowledge.
Schools like these aren't everywhere yet, and the schools mentioned above aren't all at the same stage of development. They have been at least three years in the making and their fine tuning of how they teach never stops. They are in a continual improvement cycle. Educators in these schools will tell you that they had to do a great deal of unlearning of what their teacher training taught them (yes universities, I'm talking to you) as they embarked on retraining. Some of this training was with their colleagues (in house), some individually and some with external consultants. All did hours and hours of reading of the research and watched hundreds of hours of instructional footage from recorded seminars, webinars and conferences (COVID has been good for this). Some visited other schools who were further along in their journey and afterward had conversations in the staff room about what this all means for how they once taught and where to now?
These schools had a common ingredient - one passionate teacher or parent of a dyslexic child (sometimes both) who started it. In South Australia, you'll be hard pressed to find one of these folks who didn't train with us in the TSD suite of trainings. This person led the charge by drilling into the school's literacy results, exposing gaps, doing the research and became enchanted by the Science of Reading (SoR). They begged and nagged Literacy Coordinators and Principals to just read this or that article and developed a coalition of willing colleagues to support them to spark a teaching revolution. And yes, they all upset people along the way. I'm sure some of their leaders got sick of the sight of them, and when they did win over their bosses with the evidence, their bosses became the thorn in the side of their bosses in a similar way. There's always pushback when somebody starts rattling peoples' cages! The good news is, these schools are now producing literacy growth results that nobody can argue with.
Changing how we teach reading, spelling and writing is guilt ridden and messy. The most daunting thing teachers report about taking on the Science of Reading (SoR) is learning the incredible complexity of the English orthography (spelling system) and beginning to learn about how the brain learns to read and spell. Teachers have to learn this new stuff all while teaching at the same time. Teachers in schools who've made the transition have built the plane while flying it. This has involved a very messy divorce with Whole Language and Balanced Literacy approaches to teaching and the assessment methods that come with them like Running Records. It also involved letting go of a romantic idea of how children learn to read and replacing it with a pragmatic, highly methodological nothing left to chance approach. In all of this mess however, the hardest thing teachers report (this one included), is the feeling of guilt about how many more kids they could have saved from low literacy if they'd taught this way their entire career.
So, why haven't all schools divorced from Whole Language / Balanced Literacy approaches? National treasure, Lyn Stone, in her book 'Reading for Life' makes the point that Whole Language based teaching has remained appealing to educators because it lets us off the hook in a couple of ways, which she eloquently identifies as ease and absolution. Whole Language or Balanced Literacy teaching based approaches are easy to teach. They require little to no teacher knowledge of our spelling system (orthography) or the science behind how the brain learns to read and spell. The idea is that kids just naturally absorb the skills they need to become good readers and writers through lots of exposure to high quality literature and if they don't, those lazy parents who didn't read enough to them are to blame! And if kids have been read to enough, Whole Language and Balanced Literacy has a convenient alibi that goes like this: a student that doesn't progress has a reading problem, (like dyslexia), and doing anything about it is beyond the resources of schools. I hope Lyn excuses my paraphrasing.
It is highly gratifying to watch the schools who've embraced the evidence (I'll call these schools SoR schools from now on) achieve literacy results that eclipse the results of other schools who are still, (sigh), adhering to Whole Language and Balanced Literacy. It's even sweeter to see schools from disadvantaged areas outperform schools from wealthier postcodes, and modestly funded public schools outperforming private colleges. Putting all that social justice warrior stuff aside, at the end of the day it's the kids who are winning in the schools who embrace the SoR.
So how is a parent to find a school that is on a SoR journey? Given that it takes about three years to see these changes to teaching in NAPLAN results, you could be looking at a school who are building the plane right now, and doing great things, but aren't showing the results in the NAPLAN data just yet. How do you pick a winner in the making? There are things to look out for, but if you are an educational outsider, there's a sneaky little question you can ask that will give you a fairly good idea about whether the school are across the SoR. The obvious question, asked politely to a member of leadership, could go something like this:
"Can you tell me about how reading and spelling is taught here?"
Let's firstly look at some responses to this question that should send up red flags: I'll summarise them and then unpick them a little:
"We promote a love of reading"
"Different teachers teach reading and spelling differently"
"Not all learners learn to read and spell the same way"
"Students are at different points so we don't teach them the same content / same way..."
"We use an inquiry approach to teaching literacy"
Red flag #1 "We believe..."
Anything that begins with a belief or philosophical statement is a red flag. The SoR, like any other evidence-based discipline, doesn't care what anyone believes about how kids should be taught to read. Believing the earth to be flat doesn't make it so. There are ways of teaching that have been proven (over and over) to get better results for more kids, more of the time. There is a scientific consensus from reputable reading researchers around the world. Don't be told otherwise. Three independent inquiries into the teaching of reading from the U.S. (National Reading Panel 2000), U.K. (Rose report) and here in Australia (National Inquiry Into the Teaching of Literacy - Rowe - 2005) all said the same thing about what works best. "We believe", "I believe" or "our philosophy is..." just doesn't cut the mustard. As Associate Professor Lorraine Hammond says so well in the "Outside The Square" Dyslexia Documentary "Research is the only defensible basis for making educational decisions". I highly recommend the "Outside The Square" documentaries to deepen your understanding about what goes on in schools that are evidence based in their teaching of reading and spelling.
Red flag #2 "We promote a love of reading..."
This is an overused trope, mindlessly trotted out too many educators. If fluffy platitudes about promoting a love of reading lead the response to your question, be sceptical. Fortunately, some kids will love reading. Not surprisingly, these will be the lucky ones who found reading easy from the get-go. All power to them because the more you read, the better language and literacy outcomes will be for you. However, some kids will not love reading so much. I've written six books and I love a bad round of golf better than I love reading. This love of reading stuff is music to the ears of many a parent but (sigh) it is also something that some folks use as an argument against structured (SoR based) literacy teaching.
This is based on the absolutely false idea that a structured literacy approach to teaching reading (and spelling) will make kids dislike reading. A school where reading and spelling is taught in a deliberate and structured way will have just as many wonderful books as any other school, and young people will be exposed to them because teachers in these schools are well aware of the importance of quality literature to kids' vocabulary, comprehension and thinking skills. However, schools that follow the Science of Reading know that exposure to literature isn't even close to enough! No tennis coach would ever assume that just letting kids hold a racket and hit a ball will develop a good backhand. The skill needs breaking down into its parts and each of these parts needs sequenced, explicit teaching and plenty of practice (over time) under the watchful eye of a knowledgeable and skilled coach. The learner, with enough practice, will develop the skill to the point of mastery and will add it to their repertoire. I love tennis, but loving tennis has not given me great backhand! I'm still working on it!
In my experience, the number one reason young people don't love reading, and learn to hate reading is because they can't.
Red flag #3 "Different teachers teach reading and spelling differently..."
As if a choose your own adventure approach to curriculum is somehow virtuous! Nope! One teacher who teaches reading and spelling entirely differently from the teacher across the hall does not bring richness to kids' learning. It causes confusion and delay. High curriculum variance is often a feature of schools who perform poorly on literacy. High curriculum variance means that there is a high level of difference (variance) in what is being taught from one class to the next (at the same year level) and because of this, outcomes differ more than they should across classes at the same grade level. This makes the teacher that a student gets the huge variable in whether will be taught effectively or not. We all know that great teachers make a big difference, but schools can better control for the other variables like what it taught, how it is taught and when it is taught.
Low curriculum variance is a deliberate effort by schools to create a scope and sequence (a highly detailed plan of what will be taught and when) for the subject areas and to work extremely hard to ensure that kids are being taught the same content, to the same expected standards at the same year level. Makes sense doesn't it! As a parent, you might ask about a school's reading and spelling scope and sequence is coming along.
Red flag #4 "Not all students learn to read and spell the same way"
Another mindless myth that is trotted out by folks who still believe in learning styles and unicorns! Even though learners don't learn to read and spell at the same speed or with the same degree of ease, they all (even students with dyslexia), pass through the same developmental stages of reading and spelling, but on different timelines. Many students will need exceptional teaching and intervention to do so, while others (roughly 5 percent) will pass through these stages with ease, regardless of the quality of literacy teaching (lucky little blighters!). Brains that have learned to read look pretty much the same when studied - the same regions have been repurposed and have specialised for the complex tasks involved in working with letters and sounds. Developmental conditions like dyslexia impact the way that brain processes speech sounds, which necessitates more instructional depth and need for more practice, but all learners must pass through the same stages to learn to read and spell.
A learner who doesn't have sufficient phoneme awareness (PA) cannot bond their mental representations of the sounds (phonemes) of spoken language to letters and strings of letters they see on the page. Because of this difficulty, phonics just won't stick for them unless they receive targeted training. Without strong phonics they can't accurately decode (sound out) unknown words. Without this ability to decode with accuracy and relative ease, they will have difficulty permanently storing new, whole words in their mental sight word bank.
(When a word is stored, it will be instantly recognised when they encounter it again while reading.)
The kids with the word storage difficulties are the kids who often forget (misread) a word that they might have read correctly a moment ago - they have to sound it out again (and may not sound it out correctly). For these kids it's as if the word that they've decoded many times has failed to make a lasting imprint in their memory. What has happened is that the word hasn't been stored permanently in the brain. This permanent word storage process is called Orthographic Mapping, and without it, a learner cannot build a large bank of instantly recognisable sight words that instantly and effortlessly jump off the page for them as they read. Without a large (and quickly growing) bank of these sight words, reading does not become easier for students. It remains slow, laborious, choppy, guessy and full of errors.
To say it again, orthographic mapping is the name of the process whereby after a few decodes (sound it outs) of a previously un-read word (between 4-7 decodes for a typically developing reader), the brain forms a strong and lasting connection (map) between the order of letters in a word, the sounds each of those letters makes and the word's pronunciation, and, its meaning. Once this mapping has taken place, that word is now locked in, never to be forgotten. When seen again it will be instantly and effortlessly recognised (in only a few tenths of a second) and it will never be forgotten. Also, because of the precise way the brain has stored it, it will not be confused by other words that look like it (e.g. sad and said or house and horse). Think about how you might confuse two people you know because they look alike, or how you can forget the name of someone you've not seen in a while. Has this ever happened for words you can read? The answer is a definite no. Words are stored in different ways to people's faces or names. This is why any spelling or reading approach based on the visual (non-phonic) properties of words is damaging (yes Running Records and Reading Recovery - I'm talking about you!) It's the order of letters in a word and the sounds that they make that is important for the word's permanent storage. There are no short-cuts to building a large sight word bank that gets around the need for well-developed phoneme awareness and phonic decoding skills. Readers cannot, ever, walk before they crawl and must walk before they run.
Spelling development is equally complex, but kind of in reverse! Quick fire sound-letter associations must be established in the brain, which again relies on strong phonological awareness, and phonics skills that firms up the brain's matching process between speech sounds (phonemes) and the letters or groups of letters that spell them (graphemes). However, in our orthography (English), there's a whole heap of additional knowledge about the rules that dictate what spells what and where in words. This is without mentioning the one third of words with spelling irregularities (like 'said' and 'yacht') that can be usually explained by the word's origins, but need explicit teaching by knowledgeable teachers. Regardless, there are well established stages of spelling development, (gateways if you like), that all students must pass through in the same order. Absolutely no short cutting here either. Some students pass through these developmental gateways with speed and ease, others need much more fine grained teaching and practice. So it's plain wrong to say that different children learn to read and spell differently. They all need the same skills, in the same order, it's just that some need more thorough teaching and the right kind of practice to advance through these stages.
Decades of research findings that have been replicated over and over tell us that these skills must be in place and the different methods to teach these skills fall along a continuum from low effectiveness to high effectiveness. One of the most reliable places to go to compare teaching methods is John Hattie's Effect Size List . If educational research has a rock star, then John Hattie is our Bono (well I guess that depends on what you think about U2!) Hattie carefully pooled data from about 50,000 research studies about different ways of teaching and got data crunching mega computers to spit out a list of methods in order of their level of effectiveness on learner achievement (a sloppy oversimplification but you get the idea). Hattie called these measures of effectiveness effect sizes. The higher the effect size, the more effective the teaching method. Hattie considers an effect size of 0.4 to be the point where a teaching approach can be seen to be having a greater than average influence on learning. Effect sizes at, and above 0.6 are considered to be having a large positive effect on learning.
Below are a few teaching approaches and their effect sizes that are noteworthy in the context of this blog. Keep these effect sizes in mind as you read on about what Science of Reading schools are doing.
Deliberate practice 0.79
Rehearsal and Memorisation 0.73
Phonics Instruction 0.70
Direct Instruction 0.60
Spaced vs Massed practice 0.60
Inquiry Based Teaching 0.40
Whole Language Approaches 0.06
Red flag #5 "All students are at different points so we don't teach them the same content / same way..."
Although it's true that different students are at different stages of learning, the extent of these differences is heavily influenced by how effective the teaching is. Differentiation is a term used in schools. It means that teachers differ how they teach content to different students, depending on ability. Teachers also differ the tasks they set for students. Additionally, teachers differ how they assess students' understanding and retention of taught material. If you are parenting more than one child, you'll understand differentiation already. You explain things differently to different kids, and, (sigh), you know that results vary wildly depending on which of your children you ask to tidy the kitchen, so, you either choose wisely who you ask, or be more explicit in your instructions and oversight with the one who needs more guidance. This is one way you differentiate as you parent.
I am going to be heavily criticised (probably hammered) by many for saying what I'm about to say, BUT, I think that the notion of differentiation in schools needs some serious interrogation. Differentiation is more easily talked about than achieved. In my experience, the amount that someone goes on about how "teachers need to differentiate more" is directly proportional to the number of years since they last taught in a classroom. It is incredibly hard, bordering on impossible to successfully modify what you teach and how you teach it for 30 students, and even if you can plan for this level of differentiation, mentally keeping track of what you have planned for each individual student is rendered impossible by the constraints of your working memory. Differentiation might sound like the solution for students being at different stages in their learning, but in reality, is incredibly labour intensive, mentally overloading and I would suggest only done partially well by a very small handful of very experienced teachers with exceptional working memory capacity! The rest of us are hard pressed to keep 25+ kids busy on tasks that they have some chance of doing with some degree of challenge and success. If you consider yourself to be a fantastic differentiator, then all power to you. Just spare a thought for us mere mortals, and by the way, when do you sleep?
The good news is that schools who are teaching to the Science of Reading (SoR) over time, create a narrower range of ability levels (within age groups) and don't have to differentiate as much. Schools who've lowered their curriculum variance by creating detailed scope and sequences are getting fabulous literacy growth results with all of their students, no matter where they sit on the performance distribution. You just can't beat high quality explicit teaching that follows a detailed plan (no teachers choosing their own adventure in this regime). These schools also use teaching methods based on Explicit Direct Instruction (EDI) or Direct Instruction (DI) depending on who they've trained with. This type of teaching, pioneered by Siegfried Engelmann, includes meticulous daily reviews of previously taught content (see Barak Rosenshine's Principles of Instruction), where students revise previous learning, following a carefully crafted review schedule, so practice is appropriately spaced for maximum memory retention. This means that fewer students forget what has been taught and need much, much less re-teaching. In other words, they forget less!
Now, please don't think for a second that I'm saying that if you teach something well then you shouldn't have to differentiate. That's not it at all. What these schools I'm referring to have found, is that there is a way of teaching that significantly lowers the gap between the high achieving and the lower achieving students. This is not achieved by dumbing curriculum down; it's quite the opposite. At the risk of repeating myself (but I'm gunna) - these schools simply don't have to differentiate as much. This has significant workload implications for teachers.
Something else these high-performing schools do is provide high quality literacy intervention sessions for students with learning difficulties. However, the number of students needing this additional help reduces over time, due to the high quality teaching in classrooms. I will stress that these interventions have students coming out of regular class for sessions, sometimes up to 5 hours per week. Yes, students leave the classroom for intervention. They have to.
In the beginning of adopting SoR and implementing improved intervention processes, schools notice that there's lots of students needing this withdrawal intervention! What I hear again and again from these schools is that when they started out on their SoR journey, they had tonnes of students in their intervention programs (in some cases up to half their student population), but as classroom teaching improved and curriculum variance fell, places in intervention programs were freed up for students with the actual learning disorders. The higher quality classroom teaching saw to it that less students needed intervention. What you don't hear from leaders in these schools is whining about how specialist withdrawal intervention is expensive and how they're not funded to run withdrawal programs for struggling learners. Leaders in SoR schools just refuse to let kids with learning difficulties down. They look carefully at what they're spending money on and just find the money to cover the costs inside existing budget structures. That does mean that the programs and initiatives that have little proven effect on learning are dropped, which always causes upsets as some folks have to say goodbye to their pet projects.
Now, before you cry "but this sounds like these schools are focusing on weaker learners and must be holding back the top achievers", let me put your mind at ease. This is not a zero sum game where someone must be missing out just because someone else is benefitting. As I write this, there are folks coming out of the woodwork (blogging like me) who'd like to convince you that the top end of kids are being disadvantaged in these SoR schools. The achievement data coming from these schools tells a different story.
A pattern is emerging that shows that the achievement gap between the highest and lowest achieving students (in reading, spelling and writing) is being compressed - the data tips and tails are contracting toward the mean (if you know what a box plot looks like you know what I'm talking about - an example box plot is above). Entire student cohorts are lifting their results - the weak and the strong are both achieving better. Winners everywhere! I love getting excited emails and phone calls from school Principals and Literacy Leaders when they see the results of their hard work. It's simply joyous!
There is, however, a down side. These schools then have to explain to parents why their Grade 2s and 3s read, spell and write better than their Grade 6s (who didn't get this type of teaching when they were younger). Sigh, you can't win 'em all!
Red flag #6 "We use an inquiry approach to teaching literacy"
This one sends the biggest shiver up my spine. Those who've followed me for a while are in no doubt about my views on Inquiry Based Learning (effect size 0.4) when it comes to teaching reading, spelling and writing. There's compelling research that shows how an over-reliance on Inquiry Based Learning is at best ineffective, and at worst outright damaging to learning. It turns out that it's not so much a matter of if, but more a matter of when Inquiry Based Learning works. John Sweller's recent article called Why Inquiry Based Approaches Harm Students' Learning is well worth a read. Educational researcher John Hattie (mentioned earlier), also highlights the low effect size of Inquiry learning in an excellent short explainer video where he explains that Inquiry Based Learning can work to develop deep knowledge, but it is introduced far too early in schools - before students have learned basic skills that they need to use to inquire.
Regardless of this, over previous decades, Australian schools have fallen over themselves to buy into, and show off to their parents, programs that are based heavily on Inquiry methods. The clever schools are now reconsidering their love affair with Inquiry and beginning to redirect resources into areas like teacher training (increasing teacher knowledge in the SoR). They're also replacing repetitive or predictable early years take home reading books with phonic (decodable) books and throwing out their ineffective programs based on Whole Language and Balanced Literacy approaches.
Inquiry Based Approaches align naturally with Whole Language and Balanced Literacy approaches (and their low effect size of 0.06), leaves far too many students to fail. Professor Louisa Moates famously says (and writes about) how Teaching Reading is Rocket Science, and how its component skills need to be well understood by educators and deliberately, explicitly and systematically taught. The English Orthography (our spelling system) is an elegant and logical, but it's complex and deeply rooted in other (sometimes ancient) languages. Our alphabet is Phoenician - a system of written symbols (graphemes) that map onto the 44 sounds (phonemes) of spoken English. Without thorough, systematic instruction, the complexities of this system remain hidden from too many students. There exists a small percentage of students who do learn to read and spell through mere exposure to printed words (it's as if they learn to hit a backhand by just watching a good backhand), however, the remaining 95% (see Nancy Young's Reading Ladder) do not inquire their way to automaticity with these phoneme-grapheme relationships that every other literacy skill stands on.
So what! Now you know what you don't want to hear - what are you looking for?
So by now, after telling you what you don't want to hear in answer to your question about how reading and spelling are taught, you've probably started to build a pretty good idea of what you do want to hear.
The list below is not a tick-a-box audit where everything I've mentioned needs to be raised, but anything from here being part of the answer is good news. So listen out for this sort of thing!
Early entry students and children who are new to the school have their literacy skills assessed upon (or before) starting (you may also be asked if there's a history of reading difficulties in your family, as genetics are the strongest predictor of reading difficulties)
Children with difficulties identified by these assessments are regularly withdrawn from classrooms for additional literacy support (intervention), either in small groups (tier 2), in pairs or individually (tier 3) when they need it, and that this intervention will last as long as it needs to.
The staff running intervention are the best trained literacy teachers and support staff in the school - this doesn't mean they are necessarily teachers.
The school has a strong focus on foundational reading and spelling skills like Phonological Awareness
All early years teaching of reading and spelling follows a Structured Synthetic Phonics sequence, and as students move into higher grades, the emphasis moves to more sophisticated layers of the orthography including morphology, grammar (syntax), etymology and the nuts and bolts of writing, such as complex clause and sentence structure.
Literacy lessons take place at the same time of day in all classrooms and are uninterrupted teaching and learning time
Decodable (phonic) reading books come home after a few weeks of instruction and remain the mainstay of reading practice until students are ready to move on, this means that in the early years, what children are asked to read will be heavily (phonically) controlled to ensure that they only read texts with words containing graphemes they have been taught. Alison Clarke has a stunning video explaining the need for this. When it comes to what an adult can read to the kids, it's open slather!
The school insists that parents don't teach reading, rather:
Read a variety of books to their children
Do the practice activities sent home by the teacher, and,
When a child eventually brings home reading material, or a decodable reader, listen to them read these (St Peter's Woodlands has done an excellent explainer video for parents)
Literacy teaching incorporates direct and explicit teaching of new content and constant review of previously taught content.
Literacy reviews and teaching typically happen early in the school day, so being on time is essential to keep up; (if you're in school plagued by chronic student lateness, don't roll your eyes, I've seen schools, just like yours, where lateness is significantly reduced by this expectation).
The literacy program covers the Big 5 (or the big 6) and you might even hear the reading rope mentioned - boy I hope they mention the Reading Rope to you. You'll really know you're onto a winner then!
This is of course not all there is to say, but this list contains some of the key ingredients that sets schools who've embraced the Science of Reading apart from schools who have not. Now I want to go into depth about what some of the teaching looks like in these schools. I'm going to do this because of the misconceptions about the highly structured, highly explicit and teacher directed teaching that happens in SoR schools.
Parents - you're dismissed!
As much as I dislike the choose your own adventure format for curriculum planning in schools, I used to love reading books with this format. So, if you are a parent, you are excused if you want to stop reading here. I've covered what I wanted to cover to give you a feel for what to look out for. The remainder of this blog has been written with educators in mind. However parents, you are more than welcome to read on if I have you intrigued. In fact, I'd would like you to understand a little about how some schools are marketing themselves to you and how the images and scenes portrayed in advertising material for schools has very little to say about how effective the teaching actually is. Yes, I reckon in many cases, you're being sold the dummy! So by all means, read on!
Teaching based on what we know about human cognitive architecture and memory
Schools engaging with the Science of Reading look carefully at how information is best taught and retained by learners. The SoR rabbit hole that they venture into eventually insists that they strip back the layers of what goes on in classrooms to examine the very heart of how to teach information so learners will be best able to remember, recall and use it. In these schools, there are parts of the day where teaching is highly explicit and dare I say, regimented, which at first glance can freak out teachers who were trained at University the same way I was. In tours I've run to schools who are leading the adoption of evidence-based literacy teaching methods (SoR), I've seen reactions to this type of teaching ranging from delight: "OMG, I just knew this is how I should be teaching" right through to "We will NEVER teach that way in our school". Thankfully the latter only happened on one tour when I broke my own rule and invited leaders from a school who were not already on a SoR journey. This explicit, routine-focused, review-heavy, teacher-led way of teaching is not what many picture when they think of effective teaching, particularly from a constructivist learning standpoint.
Yes: the teaching looks traditional
When teachers first observe the explicit teaching they often comment on how the teaching looks like it could be from a by-gone era. They immediately notice that students are seated at desks and in rows so all students are facing the teacher. Students in rows were considered a no-no when I was training to be a teacher, and teachers who used rows were mocked! None of this criticism was evidence based, it was just not in step with what was educationally fashionable at the time.
In some parts of lessons, students have a marker and small whiteboard that they pick up, write on, hold under their chin when it's time to show their work to the teacher and place down, all on command from the teacher. If students aren't at desks, they're sitting, legs folded in rows on the floor with whiteboards on laps. If students don't use the whiteboards correctly, they have them confiscated for a few moments.
At the front of the class, the teacher will model a skill or introduce the new learning. This could be a new grapheme, a new suffix, a sentence type etc. The students watch the teacher explain and model the skill and are then directed to do the same on their whiteboards.
On the command of "chin it" students will show their whiteboards to the teacher, or, to a student next to them. In a Year 5 classroom at Salisbury Primary School, I saw students check each other's whiteboards to make sure that their complex sentences began with a subordinating conjunction (yes, link provided so you can check what it is!) My brain exploded shortly after! After a few cycles of this, students may be released to practice the new learning independently as the teacher moves around checking and correcting. Often in this type of teaching, the teacher will verbalise something that the class repeats back chorally (sometimes sings) e.g. "the sound /oy/ is spelled 'oi' in the middle of words and 'oy' on the end." There's often a multisensory component to this that has students making hand, arm or full body gestures to engage kinaesthetic memory. My YouTube channel has footage of this type of teaching if you'd like to see it in action. These videos all have "Teach them all as if they're dyslexic..." in the title.
Teachers regularly check for student understanding by asking a question to the class, waiting, then randomly removing a pop stick from a container that is full of pop sticks, each one with the name of a student on it. That student has an opportunity to reply to the question and if they can't answer correctly, the teacher gives feedback ("nice try Bill, but not what I'm looking for" or "I'll check with someone else and come back to you"). The teacher then quickly draws another pop stick, giving a second student a chance to answer. If this student is correct, the first student (who couldn't answer) is respectfully asked if they agree with the student who answered and they repeat the answer. If the second student also can't answer the question, the teacher immediately re-teaches the content to the whole class. The pop sticks then go back into the pot with the rest. This checking for understanding using the pop sticks has uncovered that the last concept or skill probably wasn't taught well enough and needs immediate re-teaching. This real-time checking for student understanding is far more effective than the teacher ploughing through content and waiting for a test (often days later) to see whether the content has been understood and retained by students. By then it is too late to re-teach, as the teacher has to move onto the next part of the syllabus.
I use this checking for understanding approach more and more in my own trainings with teachers. It initially freaks them out to know I could call on them at any moment but boy, do they focus better! The additional benefit is that I get immediate feedback about how well I'm teaching. I'm surprised by how often I think I've explained something well only to find that nobody actually caught my drift. I've learned that what is taught is rarely what is caught!
Anyway, back to classrooms! This is all highly structured, tightly controlled and maintains a rigour and quality of student engagement I had not seen before in classrooms. Teachers who've done this for a while will often say that establishing these routines with students takes time and practice, but when up and running, student performance lifts significantly. What I've observed in schools teaching this way is that student performance tends to be similar, regardless of whether the classroom is in an affluent beachside suburb of Melbourne or a suburb in working class Northern Adelaide. I probably don't have to mention the positive impact this way of teaching has had on student behaviour (but I will). Predictability, routine and clearly stated high expectations of learning behaviour has always been critical to effective student behaviour management. I believe I'm in a good position to comment because the other part of my work is teaching behaviour management to teachers. Another area where pre-service teacher training fails our profession. The most settled, focused and successful classrooms I have seen are in schools who've employed explicit and direct teaching methods. When I was training to be a teacher, this explicit teaching was sometimes called the pedagogy of poverty - in other words, a dry, lifeless and highly teacher-controlled teaching approach that was usually used in complex and disadvantaged schools to just keep kids quiet and behaving (good luck). This mis-characterisation was pretty damaging. If you ask me, I've seen plenty of so called progressive teaching approaches create their own fair share of poverty as an unacceptable number of students leave school illiterate.
High-impact (quality) teaching transcends socio-economic barriers. The research says this consistently and I've seen it with my own eyes. The most exciting thing for the social justice warrior in me is that the quality of work produced by students, regardless of the postcode, can be the same, and boy are these schools' literacy results showing it. Even the blunt NAPLAN metrics clearly show that schools teaching to the Science of Reading in low socio-economic areas can produce results equal to, and in many cases above schools from wealthier suburbs.
It's important to note that highly structured (explicit) lessons make up part (emphasis on part) of the teaching day in these schools (not all of it). How explicit and direct teaching looks to an observer sits in stark contrast to bus stop and billboard marketing images from wealthy colleges, where children inhabit large, brightly furnished, highly shiny, glassed spaces with expensive devices in hand. I look forward to the first bus stops displaying images of students engaged in a grapheme-phoneme drill with the teacher at the front! I guess I'll need to wait for consumers (parents) to smarten up a little before this happens!
I believe that school marketing sells parents a myth about what quality education looks like - always innovative, always progressive and students highly entertained. These images make me wince! Schools teaching to the Science of Reading embrace a healthy scepticism of bright and shiny educational initiatives, instead, calmly saying 'show me the research', before they make any changes to practices or programs.
Teaching spaces in SoR schools end up being sensibly (practically) furnished so students can sit comfortably while they learn. The walls display material that is directly related to learning - cues and reminders of how to do certain things. Walls are not merely window dressed in a way that might impress some parents but creates a nightmare for kids who are easily distracted. Purposeful use of display space is one way that attention and cognitive load is managed.
Science of Reading schools are well aware of how schools are traditionally
notorious for adopting highly marketed programs, approaches and 'new thingies' that do not have a shred of evidence supporting them - but look great on the side of a bus.
The elements of this direct type of teaching I've explained runs a very large risk of being pigeonholed as a back to basics initiative. Indeed, when these schools are singled out by the media for their impressive results, the stories are often tarnished with these types of headlines. Boo to the mainstream media! You're notorious for stuffing up how you report on what happens in schools. It's time you lift your game thanks!
Regardless of how you want to spin it, teaching with the SoR in mind ends up being based on well proven fundamentals about human cognitive architecture and cognitive load theory - how human attention works and how brains best store new information. Decades long research from fields like Developmental and Educational Psychology, Cognitive Psychology, Cognitive Neuroscience, Linguistics (the list goes on and is long) have helped us nail down a few important understandings that guide how we can all teach more effectively. Again, the critics will slam me for oversimplifying learning, but there are some fairly reliable truths about human cognition and memory that just don't need to be overcomplicated.
Let me break it down for you:
Human brains are poor multitaskers - if you want a student to attend to something and store it in memory, you'd best make sure that something is the only thing going on in that environment. Otherwise, little brains look elsewhere for stimulation - or just don't know where to look. This has implications for not only how we teach, but the environments we teach in. Open space learning areas with 60 students? More to come shortly.
Human brains can only hold and work with a limited number of pieces of information at a time - we're talking about short term and working memory. Cognitive Load theory explains this nicely. For an excellent read on this, check out 'Understanding How We Learn' by Weinstein, Sumeracki and Caviglioli.
Repetition is the only way to tell your brain that a piece of new information is important enough to be stored in long term memory - teachers in Science of Reading schools will tell you the most important change to their teaching was the addition of drill and daily review - the deliberate going over the same information with students again and again.
The English writing system comprises 26 letters that combine in varying combinations (about 240 of them) to represent 44 speech sounds. Teaching a system like this takes an expert teacher, special kind of student focus, a well organised curricular framework and lots of practice of taught material - we call this multiple exposures in our game!
For kids with difficulties, like dyslexia, many, many more exposures and opportunities to practice are needed. Paired-Associate Learning is the only way our brains connect and store associations between unrelated stimuli and this is the form of learning that helps us remember that the letter 'a' makes (about) five different sounds depending on where in a word it sits and what letters it sits next to. The below video shows multiple exposures (review drills) at work in classrooms and intervention settings. You'll see teaching from Angle Vale Primary School, where Amy works with her year 1 class, Salisbury Primary School, where Anthea works with her Year 5s and Tara works in intervention with two students. There's also me at work with students in my room at Fullarton House.
As I mentioned earlier, some lucky kids store this information quickly and permanently from just a pinch of phonics teaching and then reading lots of words with the letter 'a' in it. Many others will need more targeted, explicit and direct teaching of this. They'll need many exposures and scaffolded practice for their brains to permanently store this for rapid, effortless retrieval. Teaching this way is beneficial to all students and harmful to none. That also needs repeating - say it aloud (I dare you). Teaching this way is beneficial to all students and harmful to none. Now look away and say it from memory! Now write it down (from memory). There you go, repeated exposure (also multisensory)!
So, the question begs. Do kids have to learn in this highly structured, teacher led way all day long? Is Inquiry Based Learning dead in these schools? How on earth will these poor children learn to think, analyse, synthesise, criticise...? Don't panic! This also is not a zero sum game! Higher order thinking skills are not dead in these schools and nor should they be. On a personal note, some of the best teaching I've done has included a strong inquiry element.
Schools who've embraced explicit and structured teaching methods for literacy (and more recently mathematics) often comment that learning through inquiry is one way we learn and still has a place. Unfortunately, the pendulum always swings, and the scope of inquiry has been allowed to creep too widely into areas of the curriculum that aren't at all conducive to it. This has left too many students alone to inadvertently reinforce the wrong ways to do things (learning misconceptions), and to eventually flounder. Inquiry Based learning has become more fashionable than evidence based in Australian schools. The tide is, however, turning, and it has started in schools who've embraced the Science of Reading.
Open plan learning spaces?
I touched on this earlier when talking about how human brains are poor multitaskers. There is evidence to suggest that open plan learning has some benefits for student learning because it develops a stronger sense of community. Through my work and writing on Restorative Practices in schools, I like to think I understand the benefits of connected classrooms as well as most. Like all things, however, moderation is the key, and with education being so susceptible to trends, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater when classroom walls were torn down in an attempt to revolutionise learning. This probably started around the 1970s when phonics was thrown out and branded old hat!
Some schools have recently gone to lengths to open up learning areas to house fifty plus students, by removing walls. It's not just the walls going! Desks and seats have also been discarded in many learning settings and tragically replaced with all sorts of colourful bits and pieces in an attempt to adhere to all manner of dubious educational philosophies. In my private practice I see many students with poor writing posture and poor pencil grip (that needs correcting) due to leaning, lying or reclining at school when writing.
These open space learning areas are extremely attractive and would make fabulous cafes, but to my knowledge, have limited evidence to support their efficacy. When viewing these learning settings through a lens of cognitive load, attention span, distraction, and the types of learning environment conducive to focused work on literacy, these barn-style arrangements fail more than just the pub test. Unless these environments are led by skilful teachers who are excellent classroom and behaviour managers, and work well with the teacher on the other end of the space, they are invariably too noisy and too conducive to cognitive overload. The majority of teachers I've spoken to find large open spaces hard to teach in. I have seen open areas work when they have movable, sound-proof partitions that can be used when teachers need a focused, quiet environment for their own class. Saint Catherine's School in Toorak, Victoria have an interesting blog titled 'The Problem With Open Space Classrooms' that is worth a read. Just Google the search term 'research on open plan learning areas' and you will see that the eager adoption of barn-style learning areas has rightly been brought into question by many. If you work in an open office space, how well do you focus when there's noisy chatter coming from the water cooler? Is it hard to work? Well you've got a brain that is much better at blocking out background noise (and movement) than your child, so imagine what it's like for them!
Schools who place an emphasis on the development of Phonological Awareness (all schools should be doing this as PA is one of the big 6 of reading and a non-negotiable component of becoming a good reader and speller), have spotted the obvious difficulty that noisy open-learning spaces pose for fifty or more students. Training brains to clearly hear, discriminate between and manipulate the 44 speech sounds that make up spoken words requires optimal listening conditions, which are impossible to achieve and maintain in large open areas. Although some will maintain that open-space learning areas have clear benefits, schools who have adopted the Science of Reading have run their own cost-benefit analyses and have found that having nothing but open space learning spaces to be too costly to student achievement.
Well parents (if you're still with me) and educators, what I hope I've done here (hopefully without sounding too evangelistic), is paint a picture of what's happening in schools who have wholeheartedly committed to teaching reading and spelling (and literacy more broadly, in line with research evidence). If I have tipped over into evangelism, please forgive me for I have sinned. I do have to admit my bias. I spend three days a week in my room with students who are the collateral damage of teaching practices based on ideology, not research. Most of these students live with dyslexia, and /or developmental disorders of inhibition and attention (like AD(H)D). Although the dyslexia (or other conditions that impact their functioning) are not the fault of their school, they are certainly made worse by poor teaching and poor learning environments. When these students come to me from schools (or have a lone teacher) who've embraced the Science of Reading, I see a very big difference. My task of remediating them is made so much easier because they are retaining more of what has been taught at school. Even though they have fallen behind (because that's what dyslexia does, no matter how good your classroom teacher is), they haven't fallen as far behind as students I get from schools who are yet to align their teaching with the Science of Reading. I see - in my own office the impact of evidence-based classroom teaching.
The other reason for my (at times) evangelistic tone is the fact that what I have seen at Bentleigh West, Salisbury, Angle Vale, Saint David's and Saint Peter's Woodlands has excited me. It's hard to excite a mid-to-late career teacher, but it's happened. Most of this excitement I've caught from other mid-late career teachers who have witnessed a complete transformation in student outcomes and their enjoyment of their work as teachers. The early- career teachers in these schools don't quite know how lucky there are to be in these schools (although I tell them every chance I get), but they do have an inkling. They also tell me that the part of the day they most enjoy is during explicit literacy teaching time. They know exactly what to teach (they have the knowledge and a scope and sequence to work to), they've been shown how to teach it and they see their students learn faster and behave better. They also have excellent curriculum leadership from leaders who have made sure that they have the necessary knowledge as well. Their leaders focus their time and energy on facilitating and modelling good teaching - above all else.
We are on the cusp of a wave in Australian schools and it's well past due. Roughly a quarter of Year 9 students in Australia are at, or below minimum reading standards. This is more than a canary in the coal mine for how we've been teaching literacy in Australia. Schools like those mentioned in this blog are only becoming more common.