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THE BIG REVEAL: Which dyslexia and other organisations continue to promote seriously flawed methods and advice?

In this day and age, with a wealth of international research findings in reading instruction available to view on the internet, how can any intervention programme, or any guidance for parents of beginners or children with dyslexic tendencies, persist with multi-cueing reading strategies for lifting the words off the page? The weakest and slowest-to-learn are the very learners who will be most damaged by such practice and this is well-evidenced in the research literature.

This blog post is a biggie. What I am about to say really needs to be said (not just by me). It needs to be said over and again – and the message spread – and organisations promoting flawed methods, information and guidance for reading instruction should be held to account. It’s THAT serious. Whilesoever the world is flooded with wrong, flawed, inadequate and damaging misinformation, we shall never achieve the levels of literacy for all that can be achieved.

This includes all sorts of organisations including (some) intervention organisations, teacher-training organisations, governmental organisations, charitable organisations,  literacy organisations, educational organisations, research organisations, dyslexia advisory groups, publishing organisations, manufacturing organisations, advisors and schools.

I’ll jump in quickly here to say that many people ARE saying what I’m drawing attention to here, but sadly, the voices are mainly disconnected or ignored, even ridiculed by some (for example, being labelled as the ‘phonics police‘), and, actually, proving powerless and more often than not – falling on deaf ears. It can be enormously difficult or impossible to hold people and organisations to account to get flawed and potentially damaging advice changed despite urgent need and plenty of evidence. Everyone needs to get their act together and get on board with research-informed reading instruction – NOW! Here is my message – change if you need to. Do you need to? THEN DO IT!

The International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction is a group (of which I’m on the founding committee) that is trying through collective expertise and effort to address flawed training, practices, programmes and guidance based on the ‘whole language’ multi-cueing reading strategies (in England, known as searchlights reading strategies) amounting to the promotion of learners trying to lift unknown words off the page by a word-guessing route from cues such as pictures, context, initial letters, reading-on, word shape – with some phonics thrown into the mix. (Note that some guidance for parents and intervention guidance doesn’t even mention the word ‘phonics’ at all!)

Multi-cueing reading strategies are flawed and damaging to many children – especially those who most need leading-edge, research-informed reading instruction. Too often children are asked to read books they cannot read without resorting to guessing in order just to get through the books, and we still have a fudge regarding the design and sequence of school reading books for beginners – exemplified by the Reading Recovery Book Bands cataloguing system used in many countries and contexts.

Unfortunately, I know from considerable experience of trying to hold people and organisations with ‘authority’ to account, that it can be nigh on impossible – but that shouldn’t prevent us from at least trying – and sharing our experiences of success at holding them to account, or revealing where we are thwarted. Thanks to the internet, we at least have a way of relaying our experiences (blogs, message forums, twitter, social networks). We have partial success in England as current official guidance for reading instruction via the Department for Education is based on research and leading-edge practice – but there are many organisations even in England STILL wedded to multi-cueing reading strategies for reading unknown words – long since shown to be flawed by research.

In a recent blog post (January 2017), Mike Lloyd-Jones, author of Phonics and the Resistance to Reading, challenged the idea that teachers should be let off the hook for continuing to practise reading instruction methods that are shown by a body of research to be seriously flawed. He maintains that, nowadays, teachers are in a position to exercise individual responsibility regarding their personal professional development in this field – and with the internet, this is certainly possible. Please read Mike’s post which is very pertinent to the scenario in England where systematic synthetic phonics (which should not involve multi-cueing for lifting the words off the page) is now statutory.

But whilst in some ways Mike is not wrong, in defence of individual teachers I maintain that the picture is far more complicated than he suggests because teachers (in England and internationally) continue to get very contradictory messages about reading instruction. Indeed even initial teacher education and in-service training, via various people/organisations/programmes, is not consistent and not always in line with the findings of research.  I therefore maintain it is THIS muddle in the upper and wider echelons that needs to be fully addressed – with responsibility placed very squarely on shoulders other than individual teachers – or not just individual teachers.

Let me get more specific. For many years, the UK’s Reading Reform Foundation (of which I am a committee member and at one-time newsletter editor) challenged the prevailing official guidance for reading instruction and promoted the provision of explicit and systematic synthetic phonics (with no multi-cueing word-guessing). The RRF gained the attention of some politicians (from various parties) who were interested and supportive, and this led to a parliamentary inquiry and a world-renowned independent review led by Sir Jim Rose (Final Report, 2006).

Rose’s recommendations were accepted including the understanding that to be a reader in the ‘full sense’ is based on two main processes as illustrated by the Simple View of Reading and eventually we achieved statutory ‘Systematic Synthetic Phonics’ in England. This included instructions to apply all-through-the-word phonics decoding as the route to work out new words on the page, and not other strategies. [Note: Multi-cueing strategies, however, are necessary and not harmful for working out the meaning of new words. There’s a big difference between: ‘What IS the word? and, ‘What does the word MEAN? It could be that many teachers simply don’t understand these differences in the use of multi-cueing.]

Despite the, then, UK government’s acceptance of Rose’s recommendations, and the very damning conclusions of the 2009 Science and Technology select committee regarding the government’s roll out of the whole language, multi-cueing Reading Recovery intervention programme under the Every Child a Reader umbrella (in the same  year, 2006), multi-cueing is still alive and kicking in many mainstream practices and in various intervention practices in England. How can this be acceptable? We don’t even know how, or whether, Reading Recovery has changed its training and guidance subsequent to the official acceptance of Rose’s recommendations and we should know – transparently (and has it really changed at root?).

The crux of this blog post is to suggest it is high time we identified WHICH organisations continue to promote multi-cueing reading strategies to lift the words off the page for beginners, and learners requiring intervention, and WHY do they persist – in effect, ignoring the findings of a body of international research of reading instruction?

The catalyst for this particular post was a series of tweets. A 2016 guidance document for parents published by the Driver Youth Trust was circulated via Twitter and its guidance was soon challenged – also via Twitter. The leaflet link was then quickly deleted by someone – presumably in the DYT organisation – who stated that the leaflet was an ‘old resource’ (although it was dated 2016). I wonder if there is a replacement, then, and if so, where is it and what guidance does it give to parents? You can look at the 2016 Driver Youth Trust guidance leaflet for parents (above), however, to see an example of a description of reading strategies that are certainly not based on research findings and which send children off on the wrong trajectory for how to read unknown words. With this type of guidance in mind, you can look for it in the following documents, easily found on the internet if you put in the search engines: ‘Pause, Prompt, Praise‘. [It’s not that there is anything wrong with ‘pause, prompt, praise’ as a procedure when hearing children read aloud, it’s that these words are commonly associated with multi-cueing guidance amounting to guessing unknown printed words.] We can use this blog collectively to highlight ANY published guidance that amounts to multi-cueing reading strategies from any organisation – and then consider whether the responsibility of individual teachers as to whether they are informed well enough and supported sufficiently enough in understanding and delivering the research findings. Exactly who is culpable for what with so much misinformation and misguiding guidance around coming from weighty organisations?

Here is a start:

From Victoria, Australia: An official example of ‘Pause, Prompt, Praise’ – this looks nothing like the recommendations of research findings for how to read ‘unknown’ words by applying alphabetic code knowledge (the letter/s-sound correspondences) and the phonics skill of sounding out and blending (synthesising).

Here is a primary school’s guidance for parents – certainly not in line with the statutory guidance in England! Leaflets like this are very common – in fact they often include a rather ‘defiant’ flavour promoting multi-cueing reading strategies despite developments in England. Should Ofsted (the inspectorate) not follow up school leaflets such as this?

And here is another (well-meaning, but seriously misguided) leaflet from a primary school – keep scrolling until you reach the ‘Pause, Prompt, Praise’ bit. You won’t find anything anywhere about sounding out and blending all-through-the-printed-word which is what ‘synthesising’ (‘synthetic’ phonics) is all about. Certainly, any mention of phonics is just a small contribution  amongst other strategies – and actually using some phonics as yet another ‘cue’ or ‘clue’ rather than applying code knowledge and the blending, or synthesising, skill.

This guidance via a Helen Arkell publication is shocking and yet this is one of the most well-known intervention organisations! Dearie me. Nowhere do we see anything like the research-informed systematic synthetic phonics teaching principles – no references at all to teaching/learning the English alphabetic code knowledge and the phonics skills. It is dated 2015.

Here is an 18 page glossy leaflet for parents by the Springboard organisation with lots of comforting ideas for how to provide some quality time and attention when listening to reading or sharing a book with their children. On page 18, however, up pops the guesswork stuff – and nowhere at all is there any reference to the letter/s-sound correspondences of the alphabetic code and the sounding out and blending skill. Just think how much information could have been packed into an 18 page leaflet to truly inform parents instead of just patronising them!

Of course we should emphasise to parents the importance of talking with their children and sharing books with them – developing their language comprehension, their knowledge and understanding of the world, their knowledge of how books work – and so on. But it is also important to inform them about how best to teach reading and support reading. We need to work in true partnership with parents and carers as much as we can. I promote telling parents about the Simple View of Reading, about the English alphabetic code and its complexities and how it is the most complex alphabetic code in the world and about the phonics skills required for reading and spelling (so no wonder many children struggle to learn to read and spell – and that is precisely why teachers should be applying research-informed practices!). The programmes and resources I have designed are all based on informing parents as a minimum and working with them in partnership as an aspiration.

Here are some short leaflets that I have written with parents in mind:

Simple guidance for teaching phonics ‘incidentally’ – any word!

Simple guidance for the three core phonics skills and their sub-skills.

Simple guidance for book reading.

Simple explanation of the roles of phonics and language comprehension for reading and spelling.

Features of phonics for reading and spelling (this was written for a Trutex leaflet for parents).

And, of course, I provide my free Alphabetic Code Charts as much to inform parents as anyone else.

If this post strikes a chord with you, please do get in touch either direct to this post or email me at debbie@phonicsinternational.com – and help me, and others, to hold people and organisations to account for the worrying continuation of multi-cueing reading strategies.