The battle for primary school reading: Part 2
By Kelvin Smythe
The battle for primary school reading – Is the phoneme on the wall?
A reading treasure reduced and reducing: Part 2
Some years ago – a conference at Auckland: Elements of the campaign for a phonics-focused future and against the balanced reading approach
Tom Nicholson’s paper was headed: ‘Do Children Read Words Better in Context? A Classic Study Revisited’. When it comes to ‘classic’, though, the real classic is the tactic referred to in Part 1 of these postings – that of identifying some publication (in this case a book by Kenneth Goodman) and implying that the ideas contained predominate in New Zealand junior reading practices. Attacking the book (which indeed overstates its case) then becomes a means of undermining the professional credibility of classroom teachers. (The details for this posting were drawn from an article I wrote – ‘An Academic in Never-never Land’ – in ‘Developmental Network Newsletter’, 1992, 3.)
In Part 1, I also referred to unreceptiveness of conference audiences to addresses by the phonics’ academics, especially Nicholson, who is point man for the group. It came as no surprise to experienced conference-attendees when Nicholson, in a defensive ploy, asked that there be no questions until the end. So much for the cut and thrust of academic debate.
The main argument was put early – New Zealand teachers were wrong in encouraging children: to predict while reading; to think ahead to what the next word or words might be; and to use initial letters to unlock words. And that is what New Zealand teachers do because that is what a book by an overseas writer said they should do.
This claim was reinforced in a radio interview I heard on the way to the conference.
‘New Zealand reading programmes aren’t working’, claimed Nicholson. ‘They aren’t working because children should be given lots of phonics through word lists, but they aren’t being given lots of phonics because of Goodman and a number of other writers.’
Nicholson continued, ‘What does it matter if children can’t understand words they are reading? Meaning can come later.’
‘New Zealand reading is being portrayed as a whole language success story, when it isn’t.’
‘We are still in the top group [in the recent IEA survey] in the 9-14 year age group, but look at the failure of our younger children.’
Nicholson gave evidence for this by pointing to the ‘large number of children going into reading recovery at six years of age.’
‘There’s the proof New Zealand reading is failing.’
These statements by Nicholson are a mixture truth and trickiness. In classrooms I visited at the time there was a significant amount of phonics’ work occurring, some in the context of general reading, and some in the form of word lists. For some children struggling with their reading there was greater attention to phonics using word lists, but there was always concern that these children were not excluded from the ‘I can read’ idea characteristic of New Zealand junior classrooms. For children who were forging ahead in their reading, the emphasis in phonics was contextual. There is, indeed, a tail of children in difficulty with their reading, and those children needed then, and need now, plenty of one-to-one supervision.
The idea, though, that the numbers of children going into reading recovery is an indicator of failure in reading is absurd. If reading recovery time is available there will always be children slotted in, irrespective of their ability (and reading recovery guidelines), to take advantage of that time. As well, the more reading recovery teachers there are, the more children there will be in the reading recovery. The reading recovery programme was not designed as a remedial programme for children who were failing, but as an intensive intervention programme for children who needed some help so they could participate in reading with their peers. Put another way, reading recovery is for the below average child which statistically there must always be. When, in Part 1, I said the academics weren’t above being partisan, this is an example. If academics can be tricky like this, how much faith can we have in their wider research?
What Nicholson is doing here is to establish an American-style debate about phonics. If the American experience is anything to go by, the only people to benefit from this will be the academics. Teachers are demeaned because they are talked about as if well-meaning but mainly misguided and passive third parties; while academics are aggrandised because they present themselves, and are seen, as the people who know, and amongst whom resides the answer. The irony of all this is that phonics dominates in American classrooms, and has dominated for decades; it has been the laboratory for phonics on a national scale. The results have been significantly unimpressive.
Nicholson is being disingenuous when he equates what Goodman writes as an accurate representation of what our group of women do in their reading programmes. New Zealand primary school teachers teach the way they do because of a number of influences – the most important being the primary school tradition of teachers making many curriculum decisions for themselves, particularly in the field of reading and language. The symbolism of Sylvia Ashton-Warner and Elwyn Richardson is still powerful.
New Zealand primary teachers appreciate that a wide variety of approaches is needed in reading because of the wide variety in children’s needs. Reading leadership advice has never been to dispense with letter-sound association; it has been to use it as one strategy, albeit an important one, amidst other strategies, and to use a range of language activities as a means of developing children’s understanding of letter-sound association. Having said that, there have been some swings of the pendulum, for instance, there was a period when rather too much weight was put on the big books’ approach which had some effect on the amount of time spent on systematic letter-sound association. It did not take long, though, for the correction to occur, perhaps partly spurred on by the phonics’ campaign by the academics.
A major point of difference between our group of women teachers and the academics is that the academics believe all children need a lot of intensive, systematic phonics’ teaching irrespective of children’s reading ability; while the women teachers put a greater emphasis on getting the children to act as readers from the very beginning and within this providing extra letter-sound association for the at-risk readers. Putting an emphasis on getting children (as a matter of course) to decode words in detail, to read words in lists, pulling in words for a detailed examination of what’s inside has the inevitable effect for most children of reducing their interest in reading, of reducing the likelihood of them becoming independent, self-motivated readers – which, surely, is the purpose of the exercise. As well, the academics do not seem to give recognition to the way letter-sound association is learnt in overall language programmes, for instance, the New Zealand practice of getting children to write from their early days at school. This is a powerful way for children to examine words – their structures, meanings, and various associations.
Nicholson completed the radio interview by misrepresenting whole language. He boiled it down to the matter of how phonics was treated. While that might be whole language in America, it isn’t in New Zealand. In New Zealand, whole language is just another restatement of the long-established child-centred language tradition. Whole language in New Zealand refers to all parts of language, and language being affectively as well as cognitively significant to children. An important point, though, is that while teachers might talk of whole language in reference to the total language school experience of children and even how it can contribute to reading as part of language, they do not talk a lot of a whole language approach to reading. There is no reference to whole language as a reading approach in ‘Reading in Junior Classes’, there is no index reference to whole language (there is a brief reference to the importance to meaning, of learning in wholes); there is, however, a whole chapter on ‘A Balanced Reading Programme’. New Zealand teachers accept no responsibility for what ‘whole language’ means to academics like Nicholson, or means in the United States of America, or is done in the name of whole language by teachers in that country. (Teachers, writers, and publishers do sometimes refer to a whole language in talking about reading, but it is well understood amongst teachers that whole language is a philosophy rather than a reference to the practicalities of how the parts of language are taught; the important point, though, is that its interpretation is particular to New Zealand.)
Now back to the conference in which Nicholson discussed his latest research. In Nicholson’s study, the children read the words in lists before they read them in context; as well as in context before they read them in lists. The ‘results’ showed the poor readers always improved their word recognition in context, but the good readers only did so if they read the lists first, indeed, they actually did better with word recognition in the lists.
The point Nicholson was wanting to make was that the poor readers read better in context because they are using linguistic clues as a crutch, which, to Nicholson is not good – instead they should learn to decode words in lists using phonics. There is some disentangling to do here. First, it needs to be remembered that Nicholson’s presentation was made in the aggressive context that New Zealand teachers were wrong, and the academics were right. This is important because New Zealand teachers also happen to believe that poor readers need more letter-word association study – so what is Nicholson’s problem? However, New Zealand teachers also want as many children, as early as possible, to act like readers, to be readers, to feel they are readers. For this to happen, poor readers are, indeed, going to need to use linguistic clues more. As for good readers being better at words in lists than in context, that is no surprise at all, because good readers are usually fast readers who have developed the confidence to scoot through sentences, often making mistakes in word recognition, though not in overall meaning, in the process. The point that Nicholson is really drawing attention to, is that good readers are good at decoding words in lists, the question is: What came first, the chicken or the egg? I struggle to see any significant implications for reading, one way or another.
Of all the Tunmer, Nicholson et al. research findings I put to teachers, the ones they found most at odds with their experience, and the most laughable, were to do with good readers being good readers because they were good at phonics. The teachers said good readers usually end up being good at phonics, but many of them have an extended period when their reading is quite good and their phonics only marginal.
At last the meandering address came to an end. My feeling was, and I think shared by a number in the audience, that you’re not entirely wrong, but you’re going about it in the wrong way. You have locked yourself into a silly, emotively-based argument with a substantial number of New Zealand teachers, leading yourself into overstatement and misrepresentation, and to a lack of good sense in the direction and interpretation of your research. The last thing teachers need, at any time, is an academic lording it over them, telling them they are failing, and whipping up unjustified anxiety.
Anyway, it was time for questions. They didn’t come. The address, it seemed to me, was so poor, and the argument so unconvincing, that few had the heart to say anything, or the inclination to prolong such a dismal affair. Almost out of pity I asked if he had considered sufficiently the difference between reading in sentences and decoding in lists, and the effect of too much of the latter on the former. I can’t remember what the reply was, but I can remember Warwick Elley’s, ‘Plausible – plausible’ resounding in the stillness, in response to whatever it was that he did say. And that was it, all over quarter-of-an-hour before its scheduled completion. This was a pussy cat delivery to a radio introduction tiger.
William Tunmer’s address followed, blessed or was it encumbered? with the unexpected extra quarter-of-an-hour. He had not been long in the country. Of the phonics’ academics, Tunmer was to prove the jargon-overdrive expert.
‘We first describe a model of proximal causes of reading performance differences’, he began.
He went on to develop his theme with: ‘Developmental differences in initial processing ability are thought to produce differences in the development of the metalinguistic abilities necessary for acquiring basic decoding and comprehension monitoring skills.’
In other words: Children with an early aptitude for reading learn to read better and better.
The main point in his argument derived from this is that children who don’t develop an early aptitude need special help early on or they will get further and further behind. On the whole, New Zealand teachers wouldn’t have much difficulty agreeing with that.
In question time the key question came when he was asked: ‘What are the implications of what you say for classroom practice in New Zealand?’
‘Pretty much keep as you are. I like the way, in particular, that your early encouragement for children to be writers helps them in their letter-sound association work.’
The year of the conference, by the way, was 1992.
In the light of what was to follow from Tunmer, I think we are entitled to ask: ‘What happened on the way to Massey?’