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The battle for primary school reading: Part 5

The battle for primary school reading – Is the phoneme on the wall?

A reading treasure reduced and reducing: Part 5


William Tunmer, Jane Prochnow, and James Chapman hunting as a pack


Tunmer, Prochnow, and Chapman (all of Massey University) did a commentary review (NZJES, (38) 1) of Stuart McNaughton’s book ‘Meeting of Minds’. This book focuses on the context of early literacy instruction, presenting arguments and support for meeting the needs of culturally diverse backgrounds in mainstream schools. The commentary of Tunmer et al. is scathing both of the substance of the book and the presentation. I am interested in the tone adopted by this phonics-focused group and the fairness of their criticisms. Readers of these postings will know that McNaughton is the researcher who comes up with literacy research results somewhat different from the phonics-focused group, and who presents the major academic challenge to them. To get a feel for the tone and substance for what the group says I am going to concentrate on McNaughton’s response. I am not, however, going to get deeply involved in the technical reading detail of some of that response.


The review by Tunmer et al. is not a review at all, it is a harsh and partisan attack on McNaughton in general, and one of the references he uses for evidence in particular. That reference is a report to the ministry of education, ‘Picking Up the Pace: Effective literacy interventions for accelerated progress over the transition into decile 1 schools’, by G. Phillips, S. McNaughton, and S. MacDonald. The curious thing about the Tunmer et al. ‘review’ is that it concentrates on this report, to the exclusion of the central propositions in the ‘Meeting of Minds’ book and to all the other supporting evidence McNaughton brings to bear on these propositions.    


Tunmer at al. say that ‘Meeting of Minds’ has ‘so many flaws in content’ and in presentation that they were reluctant to recommend it to ‘NZJES’ readers but in the circumstances feel ‘compelled to make an exception’. The flaws referred to are all to do with ‘The Picking Up the Pace’ report discussed immediately below. Tunmer et al. are clearly saying that the ministry of education was wrong in publishing this report. In future they suggest the ministry should put research findings to knowledgeable scholars in the area. McNaughton is clearly taken aback by this suggestion. (I am not, because I have tracked the behaviour of this group over two decades.) He points out that the report was thoroughly peer reviewed by ‘very highly regarded scholars from New Zealand and the United States.’ McNaughton even gets close to a display of passion, ‘My critics might reflect on the nature of robust scientific knowledge and where the fail-safe testing of our ideas takes place.’ He goes on to say that ‘I also value highly acceptability in the communities within which I work. If the ideas and outcomes do not make a difference to these communities – and the parents … and teachers are able to determine this – I worry.’ Many things I said about academics and knowledge, power and status in earlier postings pertain to the response of Tunmer et al. In particular, I want to draw attention to the effect such behaviour would have on young researchers whose findings might end up getting on the wrong side of this group. They are a powerful group and growing more powerful.


There were three main criticisms of the ‘Picking Up the Pace’ report:

First, say Tunmer et al., there was an absence of phonological elements in the tests used. McNaughton responded by saying that concentrating on alphabetic and sound knowledge meant they were attending to two aspects of reading that had good predictive validity and reliability for the New Zealand context and well known properties in relationship to progress over the first two years at school.


Second, there is criticism that the rates of progress without intervention have been misrepresented. I do not intend to go into McNaughton’s patient explanation of the design which enabled the writers to decide on the success or otherwise of the intervention. What I was looking for in McNaughton’s response was evidence of selectivity and partiality in Tunmer et al. response. Readers of these postings will know that there will be a high likelihood of success in finding what I was looking for. McNaughton also demonstrates his scepticism of the objectivity of Tunmer et al. Note the hint of exasperation in the parenthetical comments in the following quote, ‘Needless to say the statistical significance of these results was demonstrated (but not commented on by Tunmer et al.). The design (to which Tunmer et al. also do not refer) has complex cross-sectional and longitudinal features with multiple cohort comparisons and systematic replications across schools.’


Third, there is criticism that the baseline profiles are different from their own earlier study of Maori and Pakeha students. From the point-of-view of Tunmer et al. that is clearly game set and match. McNaughton’s reply was that this should not necessarily lead to a methodological criticism just something that should be investigated further. A redundant idea I’m sure for Tunmer et al. who, having established the truth of the matter, have decided to move on, as they intolerantly demand should others. McNaughton, who has the sweetest of natures, amiably suggests (perhaps with a tinge of irony) that as a result of recommendations and extra funding the improvement might have been because of schools adding programmes to their classrooms, some of which involved more explicit teaching on phonics advocated by Tunmer and his colleagues.


Maori and Pasifika deficiency theory

Tunmer et al. criticise McNaughton for not accepting fully the Mathew effect. McNaughton is clearly bemused by this because the significance of the Mathew effect is acknowledged several times in the book. McNaughton, however, while he accepts the outcomes of the Mathew effect, is more interested in explaining how the Mathew effect comes about and how teachers might respond in their daily interactions in classrooms. Tunmer et al. suggest that the literacy difficulties Maori and Pasifika face are because they are deficient in a number of ways (disparities in their backgrounds; not possessing sufficient knowledge; difficulties in their abilities; deficient in their skills). They go on to suggest that the best way to respond to this is by concentrating on the differing phonological skills of new entrants. McNaughton replies, saying, ‘A predisposition to see children as deficient has been shown in many studies here and elsewhere to be a barrier to effective teaching …’ I agree with McNaughton to a certain degree. At the classroom  level, the deficiency theory is, indeed, a hindrance to teacher  performance - teachers need to be enthusiastic and positive about being able to make a substantial difference to children's development; at the research and general level, however, the prevailing official and academic opposition to the theory  (better worded as how to respond to, and research, the education effects of social class and culture) is a hindrance to free and rational debate. In my view, both sides of this particular issue have a valid point. Where McNaughton is entirely correct, though, is in his advocacy for reading instruction that pays attention to both reading for meaning, and reading for phonological skills.


Literacy Experts Group (1999)

The three Massey critics’ review of McNaughton’s book takes a more personal turn when they criticise McNaughton for advocating ‘more of the same’. What seems to have occurred is a repeat of that phenomenon of Tunmer being unrelenting in his writing, but apparently soft-soaping when face-to-face with people (see Part 2 and Part 4). McNaughton is surprised with the claim he is simply for ‘more of the same’. He points out that the Literacy Experts Group, of which Tunmer was member, came to a unanimous decision for the need to ‘focus attention on the developmental of word-level skills and strategies …’ He goes on to say that this was linked with the general position that the ‘recommended changes do not require a radical shift in what has been established as good teaching practice …’


The Massey critics also label McNaughton a ‘whole language/constructivist’ as though that in itself is a self-determining criticism. McNaughton first answers this in an academic way, then more transparently. The book, McNaughton says ‘argues that teaching and learning need to be understood in relation to the activities that constitute the literary practices of school.’


The way the label ‘whole language’ is used as a slur by the phonics’ academics is discussed in other postings; I want here to discuss the way they use the label ‘constructivist’ as a slur, as well. The matter is important because these academics are playing dirty pool here, and they know they are; and if they can behave in such a shifty way in this kind of false interpretation, how shiftily, it seems fair to ask, are they behaving in other parts of their academic work?


The phonics’ academics have made a hero of an Australian academic, Michael Mathews, who was sponsored by the Education Forum to analyse the state of New Zealand education, especially the status of knowledge within it. Mathews wrote a book about constructivism, and the place of knowledge in science. I happen to agree with Mathews about the tenuous position of knowledge in primary education, indeed, wrote an article saying so. But Mathews has a wider agenda, in particular, against liberal and progressive trends in education. Mathews is a clever writer with a penchant for getting ideas across in an accessible manner. He is also a prolix, partisan, fantasist. What he does is to bring post-modernist ideas about the relativism of knowledge, ethics, and philosophy under the constructivist umbrella and then tags most within New Zealand education with this wider post-modern label.  


In effect, McNaughton and Mrs. Jones, junior teacher of reading, are charged with being post-modern constructivists because they encourage children to ‘guess’ words. Once teachers (and McNaughton) are labelled constructivist and the label sticks, by implication they are not interested in children reading words accurately; are not interested in children getting the meaning intended by the writer; and are content for the children to construct any meaning they like from words.


Constructivism is not a word much bandied about in junior parts of schools. Teachers want children to read words accurately, but they occasionally let a word slide by that makes sense in the sentence in the wider interests of children’s reading. Allowing children to occasionally substitute a word that makes sense, is not because teachers believe that there is ‘no direct or unmediated knowledge of any external or objective reality’ (which is the kind of language Mathews uses); it is just because, in the circumstances, it would be better for Billy’s reading if they came back to it later.


If cognitive constructivism is explained to teachers – that is, that any idea received by children will always understood by them differently – they will all agree they are constructivists. If a child reads the word ‘aeroplane’ in a story, that word will have a different effect on children according to their prior experiences, but it doesn’t mean a child will be unchallenged if he explains it as a bird (unless it is being explained metaphorically). It doesn’t mean a child will be unchallenged (in the longer term) if he pronounces it as ‘aerosol’. Mathews, however, leaps on teachers’ agreement (more implied agreement) about how children receive information, and extends matters fantastically. The sly use by the phonics’ academics of Mathews’s interpretation and application of constructivism is deplorable.


McNaughton’s telling insight

In our search for the truth of the matter McNaughton provides a marvellously powerful paragraph, one that should resonate through the halls of academia, and the corridors of schools, and of power. What McNaughton says, our treasured group has said for decades, and so have all primary teachers (we expressed it, for instance, as reading needing to be much more than barking at print).


McNaughton says, ‘I agree with the general need to ensure children to develop the phonological skills to which they refer, because the research literature is clear. But the problem with a simple implication, such as adding some instruction that provides explicit teaching for children in South Auckland schools, is that we found that children’s alphabetic knowledge and phonological knowledge were learned rapidly and at or near national levels after a year of instruction. Clearly, it was not more explicit instruction in this item knowledge in isolation that was needed; rather, it was explicit instruction in how to deploy and integrate that knowledge into the reading and writing of texts.’


This is why McNaughton is dangerous to the Massey group. He brings academic weight to our primary school long-held understandings about the nature of early reading. In the introduction to these postings I referred to the activities of two New Zealand-style strategies for helping early readers, they worked on phonological skills as well as the reading context. They are right, McNaughton is right, our treasured group is right, and we in primary education are right.


The Massey group’s final little condescending slash

Tunmer et al. say that McNaughton’s book has ‘major shortcomings (that) include inappropriate use of subheadings, the inclusion of too many footnotes [the point being made was that some of the footnote information should have been in the body of the text], and the poor integration of ideas.’ They add further on that ‘The use of well-constructed topic sentences in paragraphs with appropriate transitions between paragraphs would have been much kinder to the reader.’


McNaughton responded mildly. ‘With my editor’s help I was trying to increase the degree to which the reader’s mind and the writer’s mind could meet. Clearly I failed with Bill Tunmer, Jane Prochnow and James Chapman.’


What Professor McNaughton would have recognised was that the ill-founded and cheeky criticisms of the presentation were really a stalking horse for undermining the message.




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