Research, Training
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Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science

How many phonemes are there in the English language?

How many different ways are there to represent these sounds in written English?

What is the difference between a phoneme and a blend?

What is a morpheme?

How many of these questions could you answer? How many could your colleagues answer? These basic facts about the study of language – and the English language in particular – should be known and understood by all teachers, not just those who teach language as a subject. For teachers of English, and especially those who deliver reading interventions, extensive knowledge of language and its relationship to print is essential. For an overview of what is needed, we recommend the excellent short book by Professor Louisa Moats whose title we have appropriated for this post.

Why do so many students struggle to succeed at secondary school despite their obvious ability? One fundamental reason is slow, effortful or weak reading. Moats asserts that “the difficulty of teaching reading has been underestimated” and that teacher preparation courses have not equipped teachers adequately to ensure students succeed in this most essential academic skill. She argues: “The knowledge base for teaching reading is hidden, extensive and complex,” requiring linguistic knowledge of spoken and written English, the characteristics of good reading at different age levels, and the most effective methods of explicit, systematic instruction.

That it was necessary to write such a book tells us something about the alarming problem of children passing through school without learning to read well. Given the very large amount of time children spend in education (about 11,000 hours), and the high proportion of children reading well below their age (about 20%), the quality of teaching reading in our schools must be questioned. This is a hard thing to do, but we owe it to our students.

Moats asserts that while many children will learn to read regardless of the teaching method used, a significant proportion need systematic, explicit instruction. Measures of reading achievement at the end of primary school suggest that about 20% do not receive such instruction, or not enough of it. The systemic acceptance of this level of failure is the single greatest barrier to all children becoming literate. It is only when school leaders commit to eliminating poor reading in their school, through upskilling staff and delivering targeted help to the students who need it, that we will see a change.

Icarus

The issues go far beyond scores on reading tests and academic achievement. When students reach adolescence with unresolved reading problems, the situation has been complicated by their systematic experience of failure. Poor readers have much smaller vocabularies than their more literate peers. Weak guessing strategies need to be unlearned; those decoding skills that students do have are not yet fluent enough for the demands of the curriculum. Feeling less able than their peers, and at risk of humiliation in every lesson that might involve reading, these students often develop patterns of avoidant and escape behaviour. Anxiety about reading can provoke withdrawal into stubborn silence, or outbursts of anger. Lessons are disrupted and other students’ learning also suffers. Teachers and schools respond much more quickly to poor behaviour than to poor reading, and the downward slide has begun: the vast majority of students excluded from secondary school have serious literacy problems.

Students facing these issues need much more than punishment,  sympathy or a disability label. They need sharply focused intervention to address the legacy of an education built with limited expertise on weak strategies – a legacy which is entirely avoidable. The key to successful intervention is to build teachers’ knowledge of what to teach, and how to teach it, in the minimum of time. There is indeed an element of ‘rocket science’ to such a complex endeavour, but, as Moats says, there is no alternative.

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6 Comments

  1. Nice post and thanks for the mention!
    Moats is absolutely right on this question and what amazes me is that many of the people we see discussing the ideas of John Sweller, Paul Kirschner, John Hatte, Ericsson, Stanovich and so on do so only in the context of, say, secondary mathematics or science. They don’t seem to appreciate the complexity of the task of teaching reading and spelling to young children; yet this ability underpins everything children do in school and in life.
    As your post suggests, teaching children to read and write is a highly skilled professional competence in which teachers need to know the elements of cognitive understanding children must learn, as well as the specific skills and code knowledge they must become proficient in.
    All of this involves knowing what not to teach – all the extraneous stuff that people add in but that make learning more difficult (because more fuzzy and the focus of the learning is lost) – as much as knowing what to teach, in what combinations and for how long.
    Anyway, I hope your readers enjoy Moats’s little book.
    Best wishes,
    John

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    • Thank you, John. Your point about knowing what not to teach is particularly salient. When we become competent readers, it’s difficult to remember the intricacies that took so long to master!

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