Reading failure? What reading failure?

“Yes, A level history is all about READING!”

I say it brightly as I dole out extracts from a towering pile of photocopying taken from different texts that will help the class get going with their coursework. I try and ooze reassurance. I cheerily talk about the sense of achievement my students will feel when they have worked their way through these carefully selected texts, chosen to transfer the maximum knowledge in the minimum reading time. I explain this sort of reading is what university study will be all about, while dropping in comforting anecdotes to illustrate it is much more manageable than they think. I make this effort because I NEED them to read lots. The quality of their historical thinking and thus their coursework is utterly dependent upon it.

Who am I kidding? This wad of material is the north face of the Eiger to most of my students. Some have just never read much and haven’t built up the stamina. The vocabulary in those texts (chosen by their teacher for their readability) is challenging and the process will be effortful. For a significant minority in EVERY class the challenge is greater. They don’t read well. Unfamiliar words can’t be guessed and their ability to decode is weak. To read even one of my short texts will take an inordinate time. Such students are bright enough, most students in my class will get an A after all, with some Bs and the odd C. They all read well enough to get through GCSE with good results and not one of them would have been counted in government measures for weak literacy. According to the statistics the biggest problem I face day in, day out as I teach A level history simply doesn’t exist. Believe me it exists and there is a real human cost to this hidden reading failure.

Take Hannah. She loves history, watches documentaries and beams with pleasure as we discuss Elizabeth I. She even reads historical novels. However, she really struggles to read at any pace and unfamiliar words are a brick wall. She briefly considered studying history at university but the reading demands make it impracticable. Her favourite subject can never be her degree choice because her reading is just not good enough. She is not unusual, her story is everywhere.

At this point I am going to hand over my explanation to Kerry Hempenstall, senior lecturer in psychology at RMIT. I include just a few edited highlights from his survey of the VAST research literature on older students’ literacy problems that you can consider for yourself by following the link. He says:

These struggling adolescents readers generally belong to one of two categories, those provided with little or poor early reading instruction or those possibly provided with good early reading instruction, yet for unknown reasons were unable to acquire reading skills (Roberts, Torgesen, Boardman, & Sammacca, 2008)…

Hempenstall outlines the problems with the ways reading is currently taught:

…Under the meaning centred approach to reading development, there is no systematic attention to ensuring children develop the alphabetic principle. Decoding is viewed as only one of several means of ascertaining the identity of a word – and it is denigrated as being the least effective identification method (behind contextual cues). In the early school years, books usually employ highly predictable language and usually offer pictures to aid word identification. This combination can provide an appearance of early literacy progress. The hope in this approach is that this form of multi-cue reading will beget skilled reading.

However, the problem of decoding unfamiliar words is merely postponed by such attractive crutches. It is anticipated in the meaning centred approach that a self-directed attention to word similarities will provide a generative strategy for these students. However, such expectations are all too frequently dashed – for many at-risk children progress comes to an abrupt halt around Year 3 or 4 when an overwhelming number of unfamiliar (in written form) words are rapidly introduced…

  1. a) New content-area vocabulary words do not pre-exist in their listening vocabularies. They can guess ‘wagon’. But they can’t guess’ circumnavigation’ or ‘chlorophyll’ based on context (semantics, syntax, or schema); these words are not in their listening vocabularies.
  2. b) When all of the words readers never learned to decode in grades one to four are added to all the textbook vocabulary words that don’t pre-exist in readers’ listening vocabularies, the percentage of unknown words teeters over the brink; the text now contains so many unknown words that there’s no way to get the sense of the sentence.
  3. c) Text becomes more syntactically embedded, and comprehension disintegrates. Simple English sentences can be stuffed full of prepositional phrases, dependent clauses, and compoundings. Eventually, there’s so much language woven into a sentence that readers lose meaning. When syntactically embedded sentences crop up in science and social studies texts, many can’t comprehend.” (Greene, J.F. 1998)

…In a study of 3000 Australian students, 30% of 9 year olds still hadn’t mastered letter sounds, arguably the most basic phonic skill. A similar proportion of children entering high school continue to display confusion between names and sounds. Over 72% of children entering high school were unable to read phonetically regular 3 and 4 syllabic words. Contrast with official figures: In 2001 the Australian public was assured that ‘only’ about 19% of grade 3 (age 9) children failed to meet the national standards. (Harrison, B. 2002) [Follow the link if you want to read all the research listed.]

Hempenstall outlines the research showing that the effects of weak reading become magnified with time:

“Stanovich (1986) uses the label Matthew Effects (after the Gospel according to St. Matthew) to describe how, in reading, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Children with a good understanding of how words are composed of sounds (phonemic awareness) are well placed to make sense of our alphabetic system. Their rapid development of spelling-to-sound correspondences allows the development of independent reading, high levels of practice, and the subsequent fluency which is critical for comprehension and enjoyment of reading. There is evidence (Stanovich, 1988) that vocabulary development from about Year 3 is largely a function of volume of reading. Nagy and Anderson (1984) estimate that, in school, struggling readers may read around 100,000 words per year while for keen mid-primary students the figure may be closer to 10,000,000, that is, a 100 fold difference. For out of school reading, Fielding, Wilson and Anderson (1986) suggested a similar ratio in indicating that children at the 10th percentile of reading ability in their Year 5 sample read about 50,000 words per year out of school, while those at the 90th percentile read about 4,500,000 words per year”…

Hempenstall explains just why it is crucial to spot problems with phonics in year 1:

The probability that a child who was initially a poor reader in first grade would be classified as a poor reader in the fourth grade was a depressingly high +0.88.Juel, C. (1988

If children have not grasped the basics of reading and writing, listening and speaking by Year Three, they will probably be disadvantaged for the rest of their lives. Australian Government House of Representatives Enquiry. (1993).The Literacy Challenge. Canberra: Australian Printing Office.

“Unless these children receive the appropriate instruction, over 70 percent of the children entering first grade who are at risk for reading failure will continue to have reading problems into adulthood”. Lyon, G.R. (2001).

[The research literature for this finding is enormous – do follow link if interested]

A study by Schiffman provides support for monitoring programs for reading disabilities in the first and second grades. In a large scale study of reading disabilities (n = 10,000),

82% of those diagnosed in Grades 1 or 2 were brought up to grade level.

46%     in Grade 3 were brought up to grade level.

42%     in Grade 4 were brought up to grade level.

10-15% in Grades 5-7 were brought up to grade level.

Berninger, V.W, Thalberg, S.P., DeBruyn, I., & Smith, R. (1987). Preventing reading disabilities by assessing and remediating phonemic skills. School Psychology Review, 16, 554-565.

Hempenstall lists research on what it is that causes such problems for struggling readers:

“The vast majority of school-age struggling readers experience word-level reading difficulties (Fletcher et al., 2002; Torgesen, 2002). This “bottleneck” at the word level is thought to be particularly disruptive because it not only impacts word identification but also other aspects of reading, including fluency and comprehension (LaBerge & Samuels, 1974). According to Torgesen (2002), one of the most important discoveries about reading difficulties over the past 20 years is the relationship found between phonological processing and word-level reading. Most students with reading problems, both those who are diagnosed with dyslexia and those who are characterized as “garden variety” poor readers, have phonological processing difficulties that underlie their word reading problems (Stanovich, 1988)” (p.179). [Do follow link for more]

To debate just how many children are functionally illiterate and condemn Nicky Morgan for apparent exaggeration entirely misses the point. Reading failure is endemic. I would estimate that about a third of my A level students have noticeable issues with word level reading that significantly impact upon their progress in history at A level. Reading failure is one of the biggest obstacles I have face in my teaching and I have every reason to comment on the issue. I don’t even deal with all those students who chose not to even attempt A level history because they knew it meant lots of reading.  At secondary school we should be giving students more complex texts to build their vocabularies and reading stamina. However, the research is pretty clear about when difficulties need to be identified if children are to overcome them – way back in year 1. The research is also pretty clear about what it is that struggling readers lack – a grasp of the alphabetic principle that they are able to apply fluently when reading. Given this, the opposition to the year 1 phonics check is hard to justify. We know so much now about effective reading instruction but it can only be used to help children if teachers are willing to adjust their practices. While around 90% of primary schools continue to focus on ‘mixed methods’ (guessing from cues rather than sounding out) that limit children’s chances of acquiring the alphabetic principle essential for successful reading, nothing will change.

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“You’ll put them off”

How easy is it to put someone off something they would otherwise enjoy? How able are we to prevent our children finding pleasure in an experience because of negative associations?

I’d really like to know because my three children have, respectively, Minecraft/Crossy Road/Sims Addictive Disorder. This, along with a deep-set addiction to teeth rotting sweets and junk food and a compulsion to take pleasure from causing each other distress are the root cause of most of the familial disharmony in the Fearn household.

You might be forgiven for thinking it is pretty easy to put children off these pleasures. The fear of ‘putting children off’ from learning seems to haunt teachers and even parents to such an extent that they will go to great lengths to avoid their children developing even the merest association between a desired good and pain, boredom or even a mild sense of ennui. Using such logic all I needed to do to stop a predilection to chocolate fudge cake was to give it as a punishment. I should have replaced five minutes on the naughty step with a session on the ‘naughty ipad’ and all desire to fritter time on Clash of Clans would disappear.

There are always exceptions but such tactics wouldn’t work or parents would be using them. I think it would take some pretty full on and scarily warped conditioning techniques to create the sort of negative associations that would put most children off such obvious pleasures. On twitter today I admitted that when my children are naughty I have sometimes given them lines from Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. I pointed out, only half- jokingly, that while the lines were the punishment, the fact they were able to copy them from Jane Austen was a privilege. It means they now know those beautifully crafted first lines virtually by heart and funnily enough they continue to read avidly – because they find reading fun. It is an obvious pleasure. My husband once gave my girls the Hobbit to do lines from. It worked a treat in terms of provoking a desire to read more of the book and our daughters took great pleasure in pointing out what a failure that punishment was. If you fear that the merest association with negativity would put your student off just what does that say about the actual confidence you have in the pleasure that can be gained from the subject matter?

I have been told all of the following:

  • Teaching my child to read before school would put them off learning as they would be bored.
  • Making my child practice reading when they did not want to would put them off books.
  • Making my child do extended practice to automaticity in maths would make them hate maths.
  • Boring testing and essay practice would put my own students off history
  • Lessons that did not involve snazzy and exciting activities would put my students off history.

None of this has proved to be true. In the case of reading there is a confusion. The motivation to read comes from interest in the subject matter in the book not whether you enjoyed the mechanics of reading acquisition. How many children don’t get enough practice to be able to read fluently (and thus enjoy books) because parents or teachers feared compulsion would ‘put them off’? It is tragically counter-productive.

I think it is very much harder than is assumed to persuade anyone that they do enjoy what they don’t or don’t enjoy what they do (whatever the positive or negative associations)! The idea you can create innate enjoyment in a  school subject from sugar coating activities is pretty questionable. I suppose doing so can act as a successful bribe. A child might grow to love an activity once they get into it and that might need bribery or coercion!

However, I can think of nothing more pointless than trying to persuade a child that will not read for pleasure that reading is fun. For them it clearly isn’t. If it was fun for them they would read.

Rather than trying to psychologically manipulate the child you could insist a child reads so they get the practice needed to read more fluently. You could give a child subject matter they find more interesting or take away more instant forms of gratification so they persist with a book. However, no matter how many posters you stick up you won’t convince people to enjoy what they find boring.

It is possible to put children off. For example:

  • If they can’t see that they are making progress with what they are learning it can be disheartening.
  • Sometimes the subject matter IS genuinely less interesting for many students, for whatever reason. The problem isn’t that students have negative associations with otherwise interesting subject matter.
  • You can put students off by teaching them material they have no access to. A child might avoid exposure to such material in the future as they assume they will find it boring when in fact they will grow to like it.
  • The pleasure may be so marginal that bribery is enough to destroy intrinsic motivation to pursue it.

However, the idea that generally negative associations can put children off what they would otherwise find interesting needs challenging.

Testing – a double edged sword.

As teachers we’ve all had those moments when, eyes shining, tongue loosed by the excitement of the moment, we share a fascinating nugget of detail with our class. We’ve all also experienced the dull deflation of that enthusiasm when our students respond “But is this in the exam? Do we actually need to know this?” It seems our focus on testing has created a generation of students who view their studies purely as a means to an end and have lost the ability to enjoy learning for its own sake. Such responses from my classes normally trigger an agony of soul searching on my part. I question whether my desire to get my students good results means these sorts of responses are my own fault, a just retribution for my desire to show off my teaching prowess through a healthy end of year results spreadsheet. The same problem is seen with primary children asking what they need to do to get to the next level rather than enquiring further into a subject. We see the same problem with GCSE English courses in which the easiest books are chosen and only read in extract form, to optimize exam results. I also despise (yes it is that strong) the nonsensical hoop jumping drill that consumes hours of teaching time and is only to ensure student responses conform to exam rubrics so they can get the marks they deserve.

These drawbacks of testing are explained in a blog post by Daisy Christodoulou who took part in a debate recently with Toby Young, Tristram Hunt and Tony Little on the subject of testing. Daisy explains that the proposition of the debate was that tests were ‘essentially a necessary evil…in many ways inimical to good education…Tony Little said that our focus should not be on exams, but on ensuring a love of learning.’ In her post Daisy argues coherently that testing is nonetheless very useful for the reliable feedback it provides and the way the ‘testing effect’ aids memory. I agree but would go further than arguing for teacher set tests. I question the assumption that external exams such as GCSEs and A levels are just a necessary evil, inimical to good education. I’ll explain further.

A week ago my school had their year 13 parent’s evening. The talk was all of university applications and predicted grades. Students had been investigating universities and realisation had dawned that they were not going to get to the prestigious institutions their ambitions desired without those crucial A grades. Every year students that had never quite been able to take their studies seriously wise up to reality, you can see a new purpose in their demeanour as they ‘set aside childish things’ and get down to some serious study. External exams are essential for good education because without them too many students would never summon up that motivation to learn, or to learn enough, in enough detail and never reach a standard they would otherwise be capable of. Witness what happens when teachers are told their subject will still be taught but no longer examined at GCSE or A level. You may have noticed the campaigns to stop A levels being scrapped in languages such as Polish. Teachers know perfectly well that what is examined generally IS what is taken seriously. Where exams aren’t used other forms of competition tend to arise to serve the same purpose.

The assumption that motivation in education should be intrinsic goes pretty unquestioned but while most teachers would profess to believe this, their behaviour would suggest otherwise. Why is it that every year children are under so much stress from SATs? The children have no reason to take these seriously. It is the teachers that explain the importance of these tests to the pupils – to ensure they take the tests seriously, that they pay attention and work hard. Researchers expect a significant diminution in performance on tests when the stakes are low and have to factor this into their analysis.

Eric Kalenze said in his talk at ResearchEd that extrinsic motivation is seriously underrated in education and I agree with him. On the one hand we must avoid bribing children when they would or could work happily with no reward, this is clearly counterproductive. We also want to skilfully withdraw extrinsic rewards as we can see the children are becoming capable of appreciating the content for its own sake. We want to stimulate our students’ curiosity, help them to appreciate what they are learning. However, human motivation is complex. Just how many children ever would learn to their full potential with only intrinsic motivators? I’ve certainly heard of some but even then enthusiasms tend to be selective. I can’t help thinking that if avoidance of extrinsic motivators was an educational panacea Steiner Schools would have taken off in a way they never have.

Just how many students would be sitting in our secondary schools or our A level classes if it were not compulsory and they didn’t need proof of their learning for success later in life? Could it be that external exams rather than being harmful to deeper learning are actually the very REASON why children end up learning lots? If, at 16, it had made no difference to my future whether I understood maths GCSE I might just have spent more time following my enthusiasm for 19thC novels and neglected mathematics entirely. I have also known countless students fall in love with a subject as they study but the initial impetus for that study was the desire for exam success. To really excel in a subject takes serious hard work and discipline. Often the rewards of study are only really appreciated after much toil. Even as an adult can I really say that my motivation to learn things I find interesting is purely for its own sake? So often that genuine curiosity is mixed with a wish for acknowledgment of our erudition or a desire to bolster our own self esteem through feeling learned.

Exams are a double edged sword. True, that focus on exam success over the subject matter taught for its own sake is undoubtedly harmful. We must work to limit that harm while acknowledging that exam certificates are often the very reason our students choose to study. The idea most children would learn more without exams is untested idealism and ignores lived reality.

Every September I ask my new year 12 politics students why they are studying A levels. Every year they tell me it is so they can go to university and get a good career. At the end of every year I ask them if they are pleased they now understand so much more about politics – and they are. Job done!