Latest Posts

Does phonics help or hinder comprehension?

A recent TES article headlined “Call for researchers to highlight negative ‘side effects’ of methods like phonics” drew a predictable response. Though the article supplied not one piece of evidence to support the assertion that phonics had “negative side effects”, and despite the academic quoted having zero background or expertise in reading science, tweets and comments celebrated this damning of the barbaric practice of phonics in schools.

Both the article and the responses illustrates the strong prejudices that have to be overcome before early reading instruction is universally of sufficient quality to ensure that we really are a literate society – i.e. one in which all school leavers have good, not just functional or non-functional, reading and writing skills. But – does phonics help or hinder comprehension? Is it merely, as Michael Rosen and his followers have characterised it, “barking at print”? It seems to me that this question is at the heart of much resistance to phonics. Many people seem to believe that phonics in reading means that other aspects of reading are not taught, or that phonics will actually interfere with students’ enthusiasm for reading, or that phonics will hinder students’ comprehension.

For the avoidance of doubt, the initial purpose of phonics is not comprehension but accurate decoding, i.e. accurately identifying the words on the page. According to the widely-accepted Simple View of Reading (Gough and Tunmer, 1986) it is reasonable to then expect that decoded words which fall within the child’s oral language abilities will be understood. So reading comprehension is, of necessity, going to be one or more steps removed from phonic knowledge. But does phonics hinder this process? Or does it support understanding? Here is a brief survey of some relevant findings from the literature on the links between phonics and reading comprehension.

An analysis of the longitudinal Clackmannanshire study by Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson, in which a synthetic phonics programme was introduced in Year 1, found that in the second year of primary the children had an average advantage in reading comprehension of seven months compared to the general population – a significant gain. Tellingly, there was still an advantage (though not so strong) at Year 7. Clearly, being taught using synthetic phonics did not disadvantage these children’s ability to understand text (Johnston & Watson, 2009).

In one of the largest educational studies in history, Project Follow Through, the clear winner out of nine main approaches was Direct Instruction, authored by Siegfried Engelmann and Carl Bereiter. Direct Instruction used a phonics-based approach to teach early reading. The study found that this method produced superior results not only in the domain of ‘basic skills’ but also in problem-solving and self-esteem (Barbash, 2012). Apparently, the thousands of children taught using an explicit phonics focus were cognitively and emotionally advantaged, not damaged, by the experience.

Professor John Hattie is well known for his meta-meta-analysis of educational research, Visible Learning. In his section on reading comprehension, he writes: “the support from this form of [synthetic] systematic phonics appeared to be strong: that is, the synthesis of separate sounds associated with letters appears to be superior to many other methods.” Hattie concludes: “Overall, phonics instruction is powerful in the process of learning to read – both for reading skills and for reading comprehension” (Hattie, 2009).

Professor Jean Stockard analysed the achievement of students across a US school district, where those taught to read by Direct Instruction were compared to students taught using other methods.

“At the outset of the study, the first grade students in the DI schools had lower vocabulary and comprehension scores than students in either of the two treatment groups. By fifth grade, however, the DI students had the highest vocabulary and comprehension averages – averages that exceeded the fifth grade national average” (Barbash, 2012).

Clearly, the use of a synthetic phonics approach, at least delivered through Direct Instruction, did not disadvantage these children with respect to comprehension; it appears that they were advantaged by it.

In her seminal paper, Teaching Reading is Rocket Science, Professor Louisa Moats summarises essential information for teachers to know about reading acquisition. With respect to the link between decoding and comprehension, she explains:

“Research has shown that good readers do not skim and sample the text when they scan a line in a book. They process the letters of each word in detail, although they do so very rapidly and unconsciously. Those who comprehend well accomplish letter-wise text scanning with relative ease and fluency. When word identification is fast and accurate, a reader has ample mental energy to think over the meaning of the text. Knowledge of sound-symbol mapping is crucial in developing word recognition: the ability to sound out and recognize words accounts for about 80 percent of the variance in first-grade reading comprehension and continues to be a major (albeit diminishing) factor in text comprehension as students progress through the grades” (Moats, 1999).

The eminent reading researcher, Professor Keith Stanovich, explains how reading comprehension fails to develop in students with weaker decoding:

“ . . . less-skilled readers often find themselves in materials that are too difficult for them (Allington, 1977, 1983, 1984; Gambrell, Wilson, & Gantt, 1981). The combination of deficient decoding skills, lack of practice, and difficult materials results in unrewarding early reading experiences that lead to less involvement in reading-related activities. Lack of exposure and practice on the part of the less skilled reader delays the development of automaticity and speed at the word recognition level. Slow, capacity-draining word recognition processes require cognitive resources that should be allocated to comprehension. Thus, reading for meaning is hindered; unrewarding reading experiences multiply; and practice is avoided or merely tolerated without real cognitive involvement” (Stanovich, 1986).

Professor E D Hirsch, writing about the importance of developing reading comprehension, emphasises that it is built upon an early foundation of strong knowledge of letter-sound correspondences:

“Experiments show that a child who can sound out nonsense words quickly and accurately has mastered the decoding process and is on the road to freeing up her working memory to concentrate on comprehension of meaning. Decoding fluency is achieved through accurate initial instruction followed by lots of practice” (Hirsch, 2003).

Assistant Professor David Kilpatrick, in his recent book Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties, summarises large tracts of the most up-to-date research on reading. His central theme is that children become skilled (i.e. fluent, comprehending) readers when they develop facility with ‘orthographic mapping’, brought about through a complex combination of skills. One of these essential skills is letter-sound knowledge, including blending (the ‘synthetic’ part of synthetic phonics) (Kilpatrick, 2015, p.92).

Why is letter-sound knowledge so important? It forms a bridge between the language that we know from speech and the written code that represents it. In this recent post, Professor Mark Seidenberg, author of Reading at the Speed of Sight, comments on:

“ – studies of skilled readers showing they cannot inhibit using phonological information.  We can set up reading experiments in which the use of phonological information interferes with performance (such as the Van Orden and tongue-twister experiments).   The reader would do better if they could suppress phonology, but they can’t:  it’s not a switch that can be turned on or off.

“ – the brain evidence shows why:  orthography and phonology become integrated in the neural system that supports reading and spoken language.  The spelling area, for example, is thoroughly penetrated by knowledge of phonology.   The phonology we’ve learned from using spoken language gets changed by exposure to print.  (‘Phonemic awareness’ results from this.)”

In other words, phonological knowledge is so closely integrated with other reading skills that if you try to suppress the use of this knowledge, it makes reading more difficult.

Far from hindering comprehension, good phonic knowledge is essential to (though not sufficient for) becoming a skilled, comprehending reader. Becoming a successful reader is the single most powerful contribution that education can make to a child. So, why the opposition to phonics?

I would suggest that there are three main reasons:

The empirical evidence for phonics, and its insistence on a systematic body of knowledge, is at odds with romantic tenets of learning:

  • Truth is relative
  • We all construct our own meanings from experience (including text)
  • Learners are autonomous individuals
  • Self-actualisation is the aim of education
  • It is not really possible to teach, only to facilitate learning.

Secondly, in the face of the clear advantage that phonics provides over whole language approaches, it has become necessary for proponents of the latter to misrepresent phonics teaching practices. They are portrayed as robotic, mechanical, authoritarian, and soulless, killing the love of reading. The romantic view in the previous paragraph explains why systematic teaching will inevitably be viewed in this way; the resistance to matters of fact and reason appears to be a part of the phenomenon where we cling more tightly to our beliefs when they are challenged.

Thirdly, and I think crucially, many people’s understanding of phonics teaching is based on poor quality teaching. Where people observe a soulless, mechanical lesson, they generalise this to a judgement about phonics teaching in general. The quality of teaching of phonics is a matter of the utmost importance; done well, it is a powerful, cost-effective and time-efficient strategy for improving reading levels. As with any content, delivered badly, it is confusing, demotivating and more expensive in the long run. Given the necessity of good phonic knowledge, the need for systematic and explicit teaching amongst a significant proportion of children, and the access we have to well-designed phonics curricula, the teaching profession has an obligation to ensure that we deliver phonics well – as part of a rich, stimulating diet of language and literature.

Imagine the alternative. Imagine what it is like for a struggling reader to be told to look around the page, think about what they have read, guess from the first letter what word might fit in this sentence. The way in which the curriculum gradually moves further and further out of reach. The way the child learns to mimic the behaviours of other students who can read, to mask their own inability. The way they give up on themselves. The anti-phonics, whole language approach is a travesty that is crippling reading for thousands of children, and then excused by ‘disability’ labels, social disadvantage or the alleged poor character of the child (or their parents).

The evidence is in. Give children effective, systematic, explicit instruction in the letter-sound code early on and prevent a myriad of problems later – problems which can persist throughout the lifetime of a person with low literacy: problems like poorer health, lower earnings, higher risk of unemployment, higher risk of criminality, alienation, low self-esteem and mental health problems (see p.14 onwards in this report). Teaching reading effectively is one of the cheapest, most useful things we can do as a society. It is central to social justice.

You may also be interested in:

No Excuses Left

Looking Past the Masks

Seven Steps to Improving Reading Comprehension

Code-Teaching or Code-Breaking?

References

Barbash, S. (2012) Clear Teaching. Education Consumers Foundation.

Gough, P. B., & Tunmer, W. E. (1986) Decoding, Reading, and Reading Disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7 (1) 6-10.

Hattie, J. (2009) Visible Learning. OX: Routledge.

Hirsch, E. D. (2003) Reading Comprehension Requires Knowledge – of Words and the World. American Educator, Spring.

Johnston, R. & Watson, J. (2005) A Seven Year Study of the Effects of Synthetic Phonics Teaching on Reading and Spelling Attainment. Insight, Scottish Executive Education Department.

Kilpatrick, D. (2015) Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties. NJ: Wiley.

Moats, L. (1999) Teaching Reading is Rocket Science. American Federation of Teachers.

Stanovich, K. E. Romance and Reality. The Reading Teacher 47 (4) Dec 1993/Jan 1994.

Intelligence-ism

Horatio Speaks

O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown! Ophelia, Hamlet.

It should not be surprising that a recent report by the Social Mobility Commission found that educational inequality is increasing. Schools tend to reflect, rather than direct, their communities, so in a society of increasing inequality, it should come as no surprise that that inequality is replicated in its schools.

This replication is not, however, a foregone conclusion. The mechanism by which inequality is reproduced is well embedded in the system, but there is also evidence to show that it can be changed, and that when this happens there are remarkable results for the children concerned. The mechanism in question is not funding, governance, leadership structures or even curriculum. It is not even the class system itself. Rather, it is the beliefs that educators, parents and policy-makers hold about intelligence – beliefs which are barely recognised, let alone discussed…

View original post 1,206 more words

The Practitioners: Alison Clarke

This is the first in an occasional series highlighting the work of people doing good things in the world of reading, language development, and research.

alison-clarke

Alison Clarke, Melbourne, Australia

Alison has been a Speech Pathologist since 1988, has a Masters in Applied Linguistics and an ESL teaching certificate. She has been in private practice since 2000, addressing school-aged children’s reading/spelling and speech, language and/or social interaction difficulties.

spelfabet

Website and blog: Spelfabet

I am a great fan of Alison’s blog and always look forward to receiving email notifications of her new posts. Her posts bridge the gap between research and practice in clear, accessible language. She writes succinctly and with compassion, demonstrating her thorough grasp of the knowledge and methodology around language, reading and writing using well-chosen examples. Alison is a strong supporter of evidence-based practice, but I also appreciate the respectful and positive approach she takes to debate.

Alison has a wide range of useful resources available on her website, some of them for free.

Here is a selection of her blogposts – I could have chosen many others. Do take a look:

Filling the gaps in teacher knowledge and skills. The title of this talk makes it sound like teacher knowledge and skills are like a neat jigsaw puzzle with just a few pieces missing. All we have to do is find the missing bits, put them in to create a Beautiful Picture in which everyone learns to read and spell to the best of their ability, and the average age of diagnosis of dyslexia is five or six, not nine. Read more . . .

Dr Louisa Moats: We need to be outraged about the remarkable persistence of bad ideas, like the ‘three-cueing system’, in education. Read more . . . 

DIY Disorders such as optilexia, which I prefer to call dyspedagogia. Read more …

Helping children hear sound differences. Children starting school often have immature articulation, and still can’t get their little mouths around sounds like “z”, “r”, “v” and “th”. Many children still can’t produce the difference between “fin” and “thin” or “vat” and “that” at age eight or even later. Read more . . .

What kind of knowledge is needed for good spelling? A lot has been written by philosophers and in Dilbert cartoons about different types of knowledge. Often these are described using terms like “explicit” versus “tacit” or “declarative” versus “procedural” knowledge. What matters most for spelling? Read more . . .

A Time To Think, A Time To Act

Time out for planning can have a big impact on good decision-making. 

reinga-light-with-signposts-pixabay

For secondary school leaders, it can be hard to know where to start when addressing literacy problems. Should we focus on what will give small gains to as many students as possible? Should we use one-to-one tuition or small groups? Will a focus on quality-first teaching in the classroom be enough? How do we intervene with the most stubborn learning problems, and how can we equip our staff with the skills they need to resolve the complexities of reading difficulties at this level?

We encounter these questions often. In response, we have designed a one-day workshop aimed at senior leaders with a whole-school role in improving literacy and, by implication, student outcomes. We will be focusing on what works in the classroom, when and how to run small group instruction, and how to decide on an effective strategy for the poorest readers. We know that one of the most valuable aspects of such events is to spend time comparing notes with leaders from other schools; another is to have some space to think, reflect and plan so that what emerges is a coherent action plan rather than a lot of possibly good ideas. Both of these opportunities are built in to the programme.

Teenage male on chair with pile of books (Shutterstock)

If this sounds like something you are interested in, you can find a registration form here. You can also send us your questions via the website and we will aim to reply within 24 hours.

We hope to see you there!

You may also be interested in:

A Towering Issue

Literacy Leadership Part 1: Clear Vision

The Graduates

What happens when we teach explicitly, systematically and optimistically.

We heard this week that Meols Cop High School had held their first Literacy Centre graduation ceremony. Lisa, the Literacy Lead, tweeted a photo of eight Year 11 students and their tutors. What they have achieved is amazing.

To ‘graduate’ means that the student can read graded unseen material at their chronological age – that is, they have caught up completely, and are now reading within the average range for their age group. Given that all students started out reading at least three years behind, this is impressive – especially when it has happened in a matter of months.

mchs-y10-graduation-feb-17

Making rapid progress also improved the students’ confidence, self-esteem, and motivation. Lisa has been struck by the development of  a ‘growth mindset’ – not through focusing on growth mindset, but by teaching in a systematic, explicit way so that students gain success every step of the way. This success begins to make them believe in themselves and their power to learn.  The impact is evident to teachers around the school, who regularly comment on changes in students’ attitudes and motivation. Crucially, they also comment on improved reading and comprehension across subjects. “All of our students have enjoyed it,” she added,  “even a couple of ‘cool’ ones.” Now that all Year 10 students with reading problems have been identified and are being helped, Year 9 are being tested to ensure that none of them is left behind either.

Not all Year 10s have graduated yet. One student, who began reading at a six-year-old level, is now reading at twelve years – with three times the fluency she had, and with 100% accuracy. She is likely to catch up to her age completely in the next month or so.

It’s absolutely the right thing to do to recognise and celebrate such success. Each one of these students has a story, and that story now has a new chapter – a chapter that couldn’t have been written before. As Lisa says, becoming a capable reader really is “life-changing”.

It hasn’t been a simple path. What has been achieved has come through systematic, explicit teaching, and communicating optimism, enthusiasm and determination to the students. It has needed clear vision and strong leadership support. It has required training, practice, and organisation. But as a result, the students have exceeded all prior expectations of their ability. That is the lesson that these graduates can teach us.

mortarboards-shutterstock

If the estimate of Henry Levin at Columbia University is correct, and preventing one high school dropout is worth a net saving to society of $209,000 (£166,782 according to today’s exchange rate) then there is reason to believe that this school has just contributed over £1.3 million to the community, with much more to come. Now that really is a community school!

References

Levin, H.M., and Belfield, C.R. (2007). Educational Interventions to Raise High School Graduation Rates. In C.R. Belfield and H.M. Levin (Eds.), The Price We Pay: Economic and Social Consequences of Inadequate Education (pp. 177–199). Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

You may also be interested in:

Literacy Leadership Part 1: Clear Vision

Literacy Leadership Part 2: Building With Care

Literacy Leadership Part 3: Return on Investment

Looking for Impact? Structure Matters

Addicted to Denial

 

Looking Past the Masks

It’s easy to mistake symptoms for causes.

I have been thinking recently about how reading problems become more and more disguised as children get older. Instead of seeing a reading problem, we see all sorts of other problems.

young-boy-looking-back-to-camera-shutterstock

At first, Richard is excited to be attending Tree Tops School. He is looking forward to learning about maths and science, and he enjoys stories. He is a bit slow to pick up reading in the way many others are, so the teacher talks to his mother about making sure he reads the books at home that he struggled with during the school day. Mum does her best, but with three other children it’s not easy to help Richard, who is already trying to avoid books as they cause him frustration. Besides, if the teacher can’t sort it, she reasons, how can I? At this stage, Richard’s reading problem is acknowledged, but it is not seen as urgent; he will read when he is ready.

After a couple of years, Richard’s problems are more pronounced and much more obvious. He has decided that reading is not for him. He doesn’t take reading activities seriously, is restless and sometimes disruptive, and won’t go near a book at home. He is disengaged from most academic learning, even in science and maths. Mum has asked the school for extra help but they say that Richard is just not developmentally ready and it will all come together in a year or so. Reading is still acknowledged as an issue, but it has been overshadowed by a developmental explanation.

annoyed-boy-against-wall-shutterstock

In a year so it has not all come together, at least not in the way the school predicted. The developmental explanation has failed. Richard is now struggling in lots of areas because he can’t keep up with the work. He is clearly at the lower end of the class in nearly every subject, and his motivation is low across the range of subjects. His mother asks for help again and the school says that they will have him assessed.

An assessment is carried out and concludes that Richard is a little below average intelligence and that he may have a specific learning difficulty. His restlessness and fidgeting mean that ADHD is a possible reason for his learning difficulties. Further testing is recommended, but the school is out of funding, and time, and so he goes into the next year. Because of the compounding effects of reading failure, his problem is now seen as a cognitive one. Various deficits within Richard are now being offered as the explanation for why he is struggling. No one questions the teaching.

labels-pixabay

By the time he reaches secondary school Richard is labelled as SEN, with moderate learning difficulties and emotional / mental health needs including possible ADHD. The SENDCO allocates him to a literacy intervention and the teacher explains to Richard that he has dyslexia, dyspraxia, and a hyperactivity disorder. This means that Richard is always going to have difficulty with learning but that the school will give him every support to cope with his education.

Richard now has a number of clear messages:

  • The problems he has had with reading and other schoolwork are caused by something that is wrong with him.
  • There is nothing anyone can do to fix what is wrong with him.
  • There is no hope of real success: his time at school is now to be endured rather than enjoyed.

At this stage of his education, Richard is one of those students who seem to take up a lot of teacher time with very little result. There are after-school detentions for poor behaviour, catch-up detentions for missed homework, long talks with his form tutor about taking school more seriously, phone calls home to his weary mother. Richard’s behaviour, low motivation and low scores in specific subjects are the areas of greatest concern. No one would deny he is a poor reader, but then he has SEN, so this is to be expected.

teenager-in-hoodie-close-up-shutterstock

By the time Richard leaves school, he has joined the ranks of 17% of the school population with a clutch of sub-C GCSEs (DfE 2015 citing PISA, 2012), a patchy behaviour record and a highly developed set of skills for masking the fact that he can’t read or write at a functional level. How will he cope now?

According to the National Literacy Trust, there are over six million adults in the UK who are functionally illiterate. If we had six million people with any other problem it would be regarded as a massive epidemic. But we are so well-trained to conceal illiteracy, to dismiss it, to ascribe it to various syndromes, disorders and social problems, that this epidemic rages in silence around us. And when someone does raise a voice to say there’s a problem, there is a great deal of frowning and tut-tutting, because this shows that the person is not ‘kind’ and they do not ‘understand about disabilities’.

three-monkeys-pixabay

‘Kindness’ in the sense of well-meaning sympathy is a key reason for this epidemic. Richard, no doubt, received a great deal of sympathy throughout his unhappy education. Unfortunately, this didn’t do him any good, because what he needed was practical help: a teaching approach that would break down what he needed to know and ensure that he learned it, even if this took time and considerable effort. Instead, the focus was on home circumstances, development, specific learning difficulties, behaviour, motivation – none of which changed his situation.

We become distracted by these issues, which effectively mask the real problem. Our students will wear the masks we give them, because they are children, and incredibly susceptible to the narratives we create for them. Tell a boy he is naughty, and he will wear that mask. Tell a girl she is so sweet, but that she has a learning condition, and she will wear that mask.  We don’t even have to tell them – we signal our expectations in all kinds of subtle ways, from the behaviours we tolerate as “his ADHD”  to surprise when a student does well.

mask-shutterstock

I’m not suggesting that poor reading is the only problem students face, or that it’s the only one that schools need to worry about. I am suggesting it is the single most powerful issue that schools can address, with the biggest return for the investment of time and money it would take to fix. Obviously, best scenario is to get it right in the early years, but even in later secondary, it can still be fixed.

So instead of teaching Richard and his peers a dozen ways to mask the problem, how about we cast aside the camouflage, roll our sleeves up, teach reading explicitly, systematically and ambitiously, and solve the real problem?

book-on-beach-shutterstock

For practical insights into ways of helping your struggling readers at secondary school, consider joining our upcoming SLT workshop.

You may also be interested in:

No Excuses Left

Addicted to Denial?

The Natural Home for Reading Interventions

Te Wero – The Challenge

Code-Teaching or Code-Breaking?

 

Reading is Knowledge

We shouldn’t confuse skills with knowledge 

One of the most discussed topics in education today is that of the so-called ‘knowledge curriculum’. Its most famous proponent is E D Hirsch, who has written extensively on the subject. Hirsch argues that depriving students – especially poorer students – of the ‘cultural capital’ that middle and upper class children have access to perpetuates inequality and injustice. Instead, he believes that the curriculum should reflect ‘powerful knowledge’ that enables students to gain the same access to higher education and working opportunities that those in better-off circumstances tend to have.

male-student-face-to-camera-shutterstock

Hirsch, and many others, recognise that reading is an essential tool in this approach. The amount of knowledge that students need to consume in order to be well-equipped by the end of secondary school is vast. It is not possible to cover it all in lessons alone; nor is this desirable. Developing independence in learning is surely one of the major goals of education, and while we may debate how we achieve this, it is obvious that those with access to reading have a much greater chance of success. Conversely, students’ ability to access knowledge is greatly reduced by weak reading.

One of the seminal papers in this field is by Cunningham and Stanovich (2003) entitled “What Reading Does For the Mind”. Amongst the authors’ findings are that students encounter vastly more rare and subject-specific vocabulary in print than they do in speech, and that better readers develop better domain-specific knowledge which further helps their comprehension.

glowing-brain-man-shutterstock

What is perhaps less obvious is that learning to read is itself an exercise in acquiring knowledge. We tend to think of reading as a skill, or a set of skills, when in fact it is the application of knowledge. The fact that this knowledge is usually applied (by educated adults like teachers) at lightning speed, so that it seems effortless, the words almost disappearing while we contemplate their meaning, is on the one hand a remarkable tribute to the ability of the human mind, and on the other quite deceptive. In fact, Stanovich (and others) argue that what is really happening is that every letter-sound combination is being quickly and effortlessly decoded by the reader. In fluent readers, it is the auditory part of the brain that shows activity in scans. How can this be? Surely reading is a visual process?

The answer is to do with the fact that writing is, not language per se, but a representation of spoken language. As a result, any gaps in our understanding of spoken language will have an impact on our reading. This is why children who are very good readers will sometimes mispronounce an unusual word – they have come across the term in reading and often have worked out a sense of the meaning from context, but because it’s not part of their spoken vocabulary they aren’t sure which way to sound it out.

male-student-on-step-reading-shutterstock

Likewise, gaps in students’ appreciation of different sounds – their ability to distinguish between phonemes, or ‘phonemic awareness’ – will lead to complications in them learning to decode the relationship between printed and spoken language. This process in English is already complex because of the history of the language, but it is much more difficult if a student cannot, for example, hear the difference between /n/ and /ng/. So gaps in knowledge at the phoneme level, grapheme level, and word level can all make a major difference to how well readers are able to apply the code. Often we focus on the application level – how students use the knowledge – when the problem is that students simply don’t know enough, or know it well enough. For example, we worry about their comprehension strategies, when the issue is vocabulary, background knowledge or perhaps even decoding some of the text. They may be able to decode, but so laboriously and slowly that there is no room left in working memory for them to remember or analyse what they are reading. (This is sometimes used to argue against phonics, in the same way that being unfit is an argument against exercise.) The way to respond is not to try to get the student to superficially emulate a good reader (‘predicting’, ‘using context clues’, ‘using visual cues’) but to teach them what they don’t know, or to practice that knowledge until they can recall it effortlessly and fluently.

Understanding the problem in this way is liberating for teachers. Once we conceptualise reading problems as a matter of how clearly we have communicated knowledge, we are free to set to work to find a solution. We can stop looking for reasons within the child as to why they were ‘unteachable’ and instead, work out the missing knowledge and the most effective ways to teach it.

That is why, when it comes to reading, knowledge really is power.

You may also be interested in:

Why We Can’t Remember How We Learned

No Excuses Left

Seven Steps to Improving Reading Comprehension

7 Misconceptions About Teaching Adolescents to Read