synthetic phonics, dyslexia and natural learning

Too intense a focus on the virtues of synthetic phonics (SP) can, it seems, result in related issues getting a bit blurred. I discovered that some whole language supporters do appear to have been ideologically motivated but that the whole language approach didn’t originate in ideology. And as far as I can tell we don’t know if SP can reduce adult functional illiteracy rates. But I wouldn’t have known either of those things from the way SP is framed by its supporters. SP proponents also make claims about how the brain is involved in reading. In this post I’ll look at two of them; dyslexia and natural learning.

Dyslexia

Dyslexia started life as a descriptive label for the reading difficulties adults can develop due to brain damage caused by a stroke or head injury. Some children were observed to have similar reading difficulties despite otherwise normal development. The adults’ dyslexia was acquired (they’d previously been able to read) but the children’s dyslexia was developmental (they’d never learned to read). The most obvious conclusion was that the children also had brain damage – but in the early 20th century when the research started in earnest there was no easy way to determine that.

Medically, developmental dyslexia is still only a descriptive label meaning ‘reading difficulties’ (causes unknown, might/might not be biological, might vary from child to child). However, dyslexia is now also used to denote a supposed medical condition that causes reading difficulties. This new usage is something that Diane McGuinness complains about in Why Children Don’t Learn to Read.

I completely agree with McGuinness that this use isn’t justified and has led to confusion and unintended and unwanted outcomes. But I think she muddies the water further by peppering her discussion of dyslexia (pp. 132-140) with debatable assertions such as:

“We call complex human traits ‘talents’”.

“Normal variation is on a continuum but people working from a medical or clinical model tend to think in dichotomies…”.

“Reading is definitely not a property of the human brain”.

“If reading is a biological property of the brain, transmitted genetically, then this must have occurred by Lamarckian evolution.”

Why debatable? Because complex human traits are not necessarily ‘talents’; clinicians tend to be more aware of normal variation than most people; reading must be a ‘property of the brain’ if we need a brain to read; and the research McGuinness refers to didn’t claim that ‘reading’ was transmitted genetically.

I can understand why McGuinness might be trying to move away from the idea that reading difficulties are caused by a biological impairment that we can’t fix. After all, the research suggests SP can improve the poor phonological awareness that’s strongly associated with reading difficulties. I get the distinct impression, however, that she’s uneasy with the whole idea of reading difficulties having biological causes. She concedes that phonological processing might be inherited (p.140) but then denies that a weakness in discriminating phonemes could be due to organic brain damage. She’s right that brain scans had revealed no structural brain differences between dyslexics and good readers. And in scans that show functional variations, the ability to read might be a cause, rather than an effect.

But as McGuinness herself points out reading is a complex skill involving many brain areas, and biological mechanisms tend to vary between individuals. In a complex biological process there’s a lot of scope for variation. Poor phonological awareness might be a significant factor, but it might not be the only factor. A child with poor phonological awareness plus visual processing impairments plus limited working memory capacity plus slow processing speed – all factors known to be associated with reading difficulties – would be unlikely to find those difficulties eliminated by SP alone. The risk in conceding that reading difficulties might have biological origins is that using teaching methods to remediate them might then called into question – just what McGuinness doesn’t want to happen, and for good reason.

Natural and unnatural abilities

McGuinness’s view of the role of biology in reading seems to be derived from her ideas about the origin of skills. She says;

It is the natural abilities of people that are transmitted genetically, not unnatural abilities that depend upon instruction and involve the integration of many subskills”. (p.140, emphasis McGuinness)

This is a distinction often made by SP proponents. I’ve been told that children don’t need to be taught to walk or talk because these abilities are natural and so develop instinctively and effortlessly. Written language, in contrast, is a recent man-made invention; there hasn’t been time to evolve a natural mechanism for reading, so we need to be taught how to do it and have to work hard to master it. Steven Pinker, who wrote the foreword to Why Children Can’t Read seems to agree. He says “More than a century ago, Charles Darwin got it right: language is a human instinct, but written language is not” (p.ix).

Although that’s a plausible model, what Pinker and McGuinness fail to mention is that it’s also a controversial one. The part played by nature and nurture in the development of language (and other abilities) has been the subject of heated debate for decades. The reason for the debate is that the relevant research findings can be interpreted in different ways. McGuinness is entitled to her interpretation but it’s disingenuous in a book aimed at a general readership not to tell readers that other researchers would disagree.

Research evidence suggests that the natural/unnatural skills model has got it wrong. The same natural/unnatural distinction was made recently in the case of part of the brain called the fusiform gyrus. In the fusiform gyrus, visual information about objects is categorised. Different types of objects, such as faces, places and small items like tools, have their own dedicated locations. Because those types of objects are naturally occurring, researchers initially thought their dedicated locations might be hard-wired.

But there’s also word recognition area. And in experts, the faces area is also used for cars, chess positions, and specially invented items called greebles. To become an expert in any of those things you require some instruction – you’d need to learn the rules of chess or the names of cars or greebles. But your visual system can still learn to accurately recognise, discriminate between and categorise many thousands of items simply through hours and hours of visual exposure.

Practice makes perfect

What claimants for ‘natural’ skills also tend to overlook is how much rehearsal goes into them. Most parents don’t actively teach children to talk, but babies hear and rehearse speech for many months before they can say recognisable words. Most parents don’t teach toddlers to walk, but it takes young children years to become fully stable on their feet despite hours of daily practice.

There’s no evidence that as far as the brain is concerned there’s any difference between ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ knowledge and skills. How much instruction and practice knowledge or skills require will depend on their transparency and complexity. Walking and bike-riding are pretty transparent; you can see what’s involved by watching other people. But they take a while to learn because of the complexity of the motor-co-ordination and balance involved. Speech and reading are less transparent and more complex than walking and bike-riding, so take much longer to master. But some children require intensive instruction in order to learn to speak, and many children learn to read with minimal input from adults. The natural/unnatural distinction is a false one and it’s as unhelpful as assuming that reading difficulties are caused by ‘dyslexia’.

Multiple causes

What underpins SP proponents’ reluctance to admit biological factors as causes for reading difficulties is, I suspect, an error often made when assessing cause and effect. It’s an easy one to make, but one that people advocating changes to public policy need to be aware of.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that we know, for sure, that reading difficulties have three major causes, A, B and C. The one that occurs most often is A. We can confidently predict that children showing A will have reading difficulties. What we can’t say, without further investigation, is whether a particular child’s reading difficulties are due to A. Or if A is involved, that it’s the only cause.

We know that poor phonological awareness is frequently associated with reading difficulties. Because SP trains children to be aware of phonological features in speech, and because that training improves word reading and spelling, it’s a safe bet that poor phonological awareness is also a cause of reading difficulties. But because reading is a complex skill, there are many possible causes for reading difficulties. We can’t assume that poor phonological awareness is the only cause, or that it’s a cause in all cases.

The evidence that SP improves children’s decoding ability is persuasive. However, the evidence also suggests that 12% – 15% of children will still struggle to learn to decode using SP. And that around 15% of children will struggle with reading comprehension. Having a method of reading instruction that works for most children is great, but education should benefit all children, and since the minority of children who struggle are the ones people keep complaining about, we need to pay attention to what causes reading difficulties for those children – as individuals. In education, one size might fit most, but it doesn’t fit all.

Reference

McGuinness, D. (1998). Why Children Can’t Read and What We Can Do About It. Penguin.

synthetic phonics and functional literacy: the missing link

According to Diane McGuinness in Why Can’t Children Read, first published in 1997, California’s low 4th grade reading scores prompted it in 1996 to revert to using phonics rather than ‘real books’ for teaching reading. McGuinness, like the legislators in California, clearly expected phonics to make a difference to reading levels. It appears to have had little impact (NCES, 2013). McGuinness would doubtless point out that ‘phonics’ isn’t systematic synthetic phonics, and that might have made a big difference. Indeed it might. We don’t know.

Synthetic phonics and functional literacy

Synthetic phonics is important because it can break a link in a casual chain that leads to functional illiteracy:

• poor phonological awareness ->
• poor decoding ->
• poor reading comprehension ->
• functional illiteracy and low educational attainment

The association between phonological awareness and reading difficulties is well established. And obviously if you can’t decode text you won’t understand it and if you can’t understand text your educational attainment won’t be very high.

SP involves training children to detect, recognise and discriminate between phonemes, so we’d expect it to improve phonological awareness and decoding skills, and that’s exactly what studies have shown. But as far as I can tell, we don’t know what impact SP has on the rest of the causal chain; on functional literacy rates in school leavers or on overall educational attainment.

This is puzzling. The whole point of teaching children to read is so they can be functionally literate. The SP programmes McGuinness advocates have been available for at least a couple of decades, so there’s been plenty of time to assess their impact on functional literacy. One of them, Phono-graphix (developed by a former student of McGuinness’s, now her daughter-in-law), has been the focus of several peer-reviewed studies all of which report improvements, but none of which appears to have assessed the impact on functional literacy by school leaving age. SP proponents have pointed out that might be because they’ve had enough difficulty getting policy-makers to take SP seriously, let alone fund long-term pilot studies.

The Clackmannanshire study

One study that did involve SP and followed the development of literacy skills over time was carried out in Clackmannanshire in Scotland by Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson, then based at the University of Hull and the University of St Andrews respectively.

They compared three reading instruction approaches implemented in Primary 1 and tracked children’s performance in word reading, spelling and reading comprehension up to Primary 7. The study found very large gains in word reading (3y 6m; fig 1) and spelling (1y 9m; fig 2) for the group of children who’d had the SP intervention. The report describes reading comprehension as “significantly above chronological age throughout”. What it’s referring to is a 7-month advantage in P1 that had reduced to a 3.5-month advantage by P7.

A noticeable feature of the Clackmannanshire study is that scores were presented as group means, although boys’ and girls’ scores and those of advantaged and disadvantaged children were differentiated. One drawback of aggregating scores this way is that it can mask effects within the groups. So an intervention might be followed by a statistically significant average improvement that’s caused by some children performing much better than others.

This is exactly what we see in the data on ‘underachievers’ (fig 9). Despite large improvements at the group level, by P7 5% of children were more than two years behind their chronological age norm for word reading, 10% for spelling and 15% for reading comprehension. The improvements in group scores on word reading and spelling increased with age – but so did the proportion of children who were more than two years behind. This is an example of the ‘Matthew effect’ that Keith Stanovich refers to; children who can decode read more so their reading improves, whereas children who can’t decode don’t read so don’t improve. For the children in the Clackmannanshire study as a group, SP significantly improved word reading and spelling and slightly improved their comprehension, but it didn’t eliminate the Matthew effect.

The phonics check

There’s a similar within-group variation in the English KS1 phonics check, introduced in 2012. Ignoring the strange shape of the graph in 2012 and 2013 (though Dorothy Bishop’s observations are worth reading), the percentage of Year 2 children who scored below the expected standard was 15% in 2013 and 12% in 2014. The sharp increase at the cut-off point suggests that there are two populations of children – those who grasp phonics and those who don’t. Or that most children have been taught phonics properly but some haven’t. There’s also a spike at the end of the long tail of children who don’t quite ‘get’ phonics for whatever reason, representing the 5783 children who scored 0.

It’s clear that SP significantly improves children’s ability to decode and spell – at the group level. But we don’t appear to know whether that improvement is due to children who can already decode a bit getting much better at it, or to children who previously couldn’t decode learning to do it, or both, or if there are some children for whom SP has no impact.

And I have yet to find evidence showing that SP reduces the rates of functional illiteracy that McGuinness, politicians and the press complain about. The proportion of school leavers who have difficulty with reading comprehension has hovered around 17% for decades in the US (NCES, 2013) and in the UK (Rashid & Brooks, 2010). A similar proportion of children in the US and the UK populations have some kind of learning difficulty. And according to the Warnock report that figure appears to have been stable in the UK since mass education was introduced.

The magical number 17 plus or minus 2

There’s a likely explanation for that 17% (or thereabouts). In a large population, some features (such as height, weight, IQ or reading ability) are the outcome of what are essentially random variables. If you measure one of those features across the population and plot a graph of your measurements, they will form what’s commonly referred to as a normal distribution – with the familiar bell curve shape. The curve will be symmetrical around the mean (average) score. Not only does that tell you that 50% of your population will score above the mean and 50% below it, it also enables you to predict what proportion of the population will be significantly taller/shorter, lighter/heavier, more/less intelligent or better/worse at reading than average. Statistically, around 16% of the population will score more than one standard deviation below the mean. Those people will be significantly shorter/lighter/less intelligent or have more difficulties with reading than the rest of the population.

Bell curves tend to ring alarm bells so I need to make it clear what I am not saying. I’m not saying that problems with reading are due to a ‘reading gene’ or to biology or IQ and that we can’t do anything about them. What I am saying is that if reading ability in a large population is the outcome of not just one factor, but many factors that are to all intents and purposes random, then it’s a pretty safe bet that around 16% of children will have a significant problem with it. What’s important for that 16% is figuring out what factors are causing reading problems for individual children within that group. There are likely to be several different causes, as the NCES (1993) study found. So a child might have reading difficulties due to persistent glue ear as an infant, an undiagnosed developmental disorder, having a mother with mental health problems who hardly speaks to them, having no books at home or because their family dismisses reading as pointless. Or all of the above. SP might help, but is unlikely to address all of the obstacles to word reading, spelling and comprehension that child faces.

The data show that SP enables 11 year-olds as a group to make huge gains in their word reading and spelling skills. That’s brilliant. Let’s use synthetic phonics.

The data also show that SP doesn’t eliminate reading comprehension problems for at least 15% of 11 year-olds – or the word reading problems of around 15% of 6-7 year-olds. That could be due to some SP programmes not being taught systematically enough, intensively enough or for long enough. But it could be due to other causes. If so, those causes need to be identified and addressed or the child’s functional literacy will remain at risk.

I can see why the Clackmannanshire study convinced the UK government to recommend then mandate the use of SP for reading instruction in English schools (things are different in Scotland), but I haven’t yet found a follow-up study that measured literacy levels at 16, or the later impact on educational attainment; and the children involved in the study would now be in their early 20s.

What concerns me is that if more is being implicitly claimed for SP than it can actually deliver or if it fails to deliver a substantial improvement in the functional literacy of school leavers in a decade’s time, then it’s likely to be seen as yet another educational ‘fad’ and abandoned, regardless of the gains it brings in decoding and spelling. Meanwhile, the many other factors involved in reading comprehension are at risk of being marginalised if policy-makers pin their hopes on SP alone. Which just goes to show why nationally mandated educational policies should be thoroughly piloted and evaluated before they are foisted on schools.


References

McGuinness, D. (1998). Why Children Can’t Read and What We Can Do About It. Penguin.
NCES (1993). Adult Literacy in America. National Center for Educational Statistics.
NCES (2013). Trends in Academic Progress. National Center for Educational Statistics.
Rashid, S & Brooks, G (2010). The levels of attainment in literacy and numeracy of 13- to 19-year-olds in England, 1948–2009. National Research and Development Centre for adult literacy and numeracy.

The nation’s report card: functional literacy

Synthetic phonics (SP) proponents make some bold claims about the impact SP has on children’s ability to decode text. Sceptics often point out that decoding isn’t reading – comprehension is essential as well. SP proponents retort that of course decoding isn’t all there is to reading, but if a child can’t decode, comprehension will be impossible. You can’t argue with that, and there’s good evidence for the efficacy of SP in facilitating decoding. But what impact has it had on reading? I feel as if I’ve missed something obvious here (maybe I have) but as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, the answer is that we don’t know.

Despite complaints about literacy from politicians, employers and the public focussing on the reading ability of school leavers, the focus of the English education system has been on early literacy and on decoding. I can understand why; not being able to decode can have major repercussions for individual children and for schools. But decoding and adult functional literacy seem to be linked only by an assumption that the primary cause of functional illiteracy is the inability to decode. This assumption doesn’t appear to be supported by the data. I should emphasise that I’ve never come across anyone who has claimed explicitly that SP will make a significant dent in functional illiteracy. But SP proponents often tut-tut about functional literacy levels and when Diane McGuinness discusses it in Why Children Can’t Read and What We Can Do About It, she makes the implication quite clear.

Armed with a first degree from Birkbeck College, a PhD from University College London and now Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of South Florida, McGuinness’ work has focussed on reading instruction. She’s a tireless advocate for SP and is widely cited by SP supporters. Her books are informative and readable, if rather idiosyncratic, and Why Children Can’t Read is no exception. In it, she explains how writing systems developed, takes us on a tour of reading research, points us to effective remedial programmes and tops it all off with detailed instructions for teachers and parents who want to use her approach to teaching decoding. But before moving on to what she says about functional literacy, it’s worth considering what she has to say about science.

This is doing science.

Her chapter ‘Science to the rescue’ consists largely of a summary of research into reading difficulties. However, McGuinness opens with a section called ‘What science is and isn’t’ in which she has a go at Ken Goodman. It’s not her criticism of Goodman’s work that bothers me, but the criteria she uses to do so. After listing various kinds of research carried out by journalists, academics doing literature reviews or observing children in classrooms, she says; “None of these activities qualify as scientific research. Science can only work when things can be measured and recorded in numbers” (p.127). This is an extraordinary claim. In one sentence, McGuinness dismisses operationalizing constructs, developing hypotheses, and qualitative research methods (that don’t measure things or put numbers on them) as not being scientific.

She uses this sweeping claim to discredit Goodman, who, as she points out elsewhere, wasn’t a ‘psycholinguist’ (p.55). (As I mentioned previously, McGuinness also ridicules quotes from Frank Smith – who was a ‘psycholinguist’ – but doesn’t mention him by name in the text; that’s tucked away in her Notes section.) She rightly points out that using the words ‘research’ and ‘scientific’ doesn’t make what Goodman is saying, science. And she rightly wonders about his references to his beliefs. But she then goes on to question the phonetics and linguistics on which Goodman bases his model;

There is no ‘science’ of how sounds and letters work together in an alphabet. This is strictly an issue of categorisation and mapping relationships… Goodman proceeds to discuss rudimentary phonetics and linguistics, leading the reader to believe that they are sciences. They are not. They are descriptive disciplines and depend upon other phoneticians and linguists agreeing with you. …Classifying things is not science. It is the first step to begin to do science.” (p.128)

McGuinness has a very narrow view of science. She reduces it to quantitative research methods and misunderstands the role of classification in scientific inquiry. Biology took an enormous leap forward when Linnaeus developed a classification system that worked for all living organisms. Similarly, Mendeleev’s periodic table enabled chemists to predict the properties of as yet undiscovered elements. Linguists’ categorisation of speech sounds is, ironically, what McGuinness used to develop her approach to reading instruction. What all these classification systems have in common is not just their reliability (level of agreement between the people doing the classification) but their validity (based on the physical structure of organisms, atoms and speech sounds).

McGuinness’s view of science explains why she seems most at home with data that are amenable to measurement, so it was instructive to see how she extracts information from data in her opening chapter ‘Reading report card’. She discusses the results of four large-scale surveys in the 1990s of ‘functional literacy’ (p.10). Two, published by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) compared adult and child literacy in the US, and two by the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (OECD) included the US, Canada and five non-English-speaking countries.

Functional literacy data

Functional literacy was assessed using a 5–level scale. Level 1 ranged from not being able to read at all to a reading task that “required only the minimum level of competence” – for example extracting information from a short newspaper article. Level 5 involved a fact sheet for potential jurors (NCES, 1993, pp.73-84).

In the NCES study, 21% of the US adult population performed at level 1 “indicating that they were functionally illiterate” (McGuinness, p.10) and 47% scored at levels 1 or 2. Despite the fact that level 2 was above the minimum level of competence, McGuinness describes the level 1+2 group as “barely literate”. Something she omits to tell us is what the NCES report has to say about the considerable heterogeneity of the level 1 group. 25% were born abroad. 35% had had fewer than 8 years of schooling. 33% were 65 or older. 26% reported a ‘physical, mental or health condition’ that affected their day-to-day functioning, and 19% a visual impairment that made it difficult for them to read print (NCES, 1993, pp.16-18).

The OECD study showed that functional illiteracy (level 1) varied slightly across English-speaking countries – between 17% and 22%. McGuinness doesn’t tell us what the figures were for the five non-English speaking countries, apart from Sweden with a score of 7.5% at level 1 – half that of the English-speaking countries. The most likely explanation is the relative transparency of the orthographies – Swedish spelling was standardised as recently as 1906. But McGuinness doesn’t mention orthography as a factor in literacy results; instead “Sweden has set the benchmark for what school systems can achieve” (p.11). McGuinness then goes on to compare reading proficiency in different US States.

The Nation’s Report Card

McGuinness describes functional illiteracy levels in English-speaking countries as ‘dismal’, ‘sobering’, ‘shocking’ and ‘a literacy crisis’. She draws attention to the fact that after California mandated the use of the ‘real books’ (whole language) approach to reading instruction in 1987, it came low down the US national league tables for 4th grade reading in 1992, and then tied ‘for a dead last’ with Louisiana in 1994 (p.11). Although California’s score had decreased by only 5 points (from 202 to 197 – the entire range being 182-228) (NCES, 1996 p.47), there was perhaps a stigma attached to being tied ‘dead last with Louisiana’, as phonics was reintroduced into Californian classrooms together with more than a billion dollars for teacher training in 1996, the year before Why Children Can’t Read was first published.

What difference did it make? Not much, it seems. Although California’s 4th grade reading scores had recovered by 1998 (NCES,1999, p.113), and improved further by 2011 (NCES, 2013b), the increase wasn’t statistically significant.

Indeed, whatever method of reading instruction has been used in the US, it doesn’t appear to have had much overall impact on reading standards. At age 17, the proportion of ‘functionally illiterate’ US readers has fluctuated between 14% and 21% – an average of 17% – since 1971 (NCES, 2013b). And in the UK the figure has remained ‘stubbornly’ around 17% since WW2 (Rashid & Brooks, 2010).

Functional illiteracy levels in the English-speaking world are higher than in many non-English-speaking countries, and have remained stable for decades. Functional illiteracy is a long-standing problem and McGuinness, at least, implies that SP can crack it. In the next post I want to look at the evidence for that claim.

References

McGuinness, D. (1998). Why Children Can’t Read and What We Can Do About It. Penguin.
NCES (1993). Adult Literacy in America. National Center for Educational Statistics.
NCES (1996). NAEP 1994 Reading Report Card for the Nation and the States. National Center for Educational Statistics.
NCES (1999). NAEP 1998 Reading Report Card for the Nation and the States. National Center for Educational Statistics.
NCES (2013a). Mega-States: An Analysis of Student Performance in the Five Most Heavily Populated States in the Nation. National Center for Educational Statistics.
NCES (2013b). Trends in Academic Progress. National Center for Educational Statistics.
Rashid, S & Brooks, G (2010). The levels of attainment in literacy and numeracy of 13- to 19-year-olds in England, 1948–2009. National Research and Development Centre for adult literacy and numeracy.

Whole language and ideology

It took my son two years to learn to read. Despite his love of books and a lot of hard work, he just couldn’t manage it. Eventually he cracked it. Overnight. All by himself. Using whole word recognition. He’s the only member of our family who didn’t learn to read effortlessly – and he’s the only one who was taught to read using synthetic phonics (SP). SP was the bee’s knees at the time – his reading breakthrough happened a few months before the interim Rose Report was published. Baffled, I turned to the TES forum for insights and met the synthetic phonics teachers. They explained systematic synthetic phonics. They questioned whether my son had been taught SP systematically or intensively enough. (He hadn’t.) And they told me that SP was based on scientific evidence, whereas the whole language approach, which they opposed, was ideologically driven.

SP supporters are among the most vocal advocates for evidence-based education policies, so I checked out the evidence. What I could find, that is. Much of it predated the internet or was behind a paywall. What I did find convinced me that SP was the most effective way of teaching children to decode text. I’m still convinced. But the more I read, the more sceptical I became about some of the other claims made by SP proponents. In the next few posts, I want to look at three claims; about the whole language approach to learning to read, the impact of SP and reading and the brain.

Whole language: evidence and ideology

The once popular whole language approach to learning to read was challenged by research findings that emerged during the 1980s and 90s. The heated debate that ensued is often referred to as the Reading Wars. The villains of the piece for SP proponents seemed to be a couple of guys called Goodman and Smith. I was surprised to find that they are both academics. Frank Smith has a background in psycholinguistics, a PhD from Harvard and a co-authored book with his supervisor, George “the magical number seven” Miller. Ken Goodman had accumulated an array of educational awards. Given their credentials, ideology clearly wasn’t the whole story.

In 1971 Frank Smith published Understanding Reading: A Psycholinguistic Analysis of Reading and Learning to Read, which explains the whole language approach. It’s a solid but still readable and still relevant summary of how research from cognitive science and linguistics relates to reading. So how did Smith end up fostering the much maligned – and many would say discredited – whole language approach?

Bottom-up vs top-down

By 1971 it was well established that brains process sensory information in a ‘bottom-up’ fashion. Cognitive research showed that complex visual and auditory input from the environment is broken down into simple fragments by the sense organs. The fragments are then reconstituted in the brain, step-by-step, into the whole visual images or patterns of sound that we perceive. This process is automatic and pre-conscious and gets faster and more efficient the more familiar we are with a particular item.

But this step-by-step sequential model of cognitive processing didn’t explain what readers did. Research showed that people read words faster than non-words, can identify words from only a few key features, and that the meaning of the beginning of a sentence influences the way they pronounce words at the end of it (as in ‘her eyes were full of tears’).

According to the sequential model of cognition, this is impossible; you can’t determine the meaning of a word before you’ve decoded it. The only explanation that made sense was that a ‘top-down’ processing system was also in operation. What wasn’t clear at the time was how the two systems interacted. A common view was that the top-down process controlled the bottom-up one.

For Smith, the top-down model had some important implications such as:

• Young children wouldn’t be able to detect the components of language (syllables, phonemes, nouns, verbs etc) so teaching reading using components wouldn’t be effective.
• If children had enough experience of language, spoken and written, they would learn to read as easily as they learned to speak.
• Skilled readers readers would use contextual cues to identify words; poorer readers would rely more heavily on visual features.

Inspired by Smith’s model of reading, Keith Stanovich and Richard West, then graduate students at the University of Michigan, decided to test the third hypothesis. To their surprise, they found exactly the opposite of Smith’s prediction. The better readers were, the more they relied on visual recognition. The poorer readers relied more on context. It wasn’t that the skilled readers weren’t using contextual cues, but their visual recognition process was simply faster – they defaulted to using context if visual recognition failed.

As Stanovich explains (Stanovich, 2000, pp.21-23) the flaw in most top-down models of reading was that they assumed top-down controlled bottom-up processing. What Stanovich and West’s finding implied (and later research supported) was that the two systems interacted at several levels. Although some aspects of Smith’s model were wrong it was based on robust evidence. So why did SP proponents think it was ideologically driven? One clue is in Ken Goodman’s work.

A psycholinguistic guessing game

Smith completed his PhD in 1967, the year that Goodman, then an Associate Professor at Wayne State University, Detroit, published his (in)famous article in the Journal of the Reading Specialist “Reading: A psycholinguistic guessing game”. The title is derived from a key concept in contemporary reading models – that skilled readers used rapid, pre-conscious hypothesis testing to identify words. It’s an eye-catching title, but open to misunderstanding; the skilled ‘guessing game’ that Goodman was referring to is very different from getting a beginner reader to have a wild stab at an unfamiliar word. Which was why Goodman and Smith recommended extensive experience of language.

Goodman’s background was in education rather than psycholinguistics. According to Diane McGuinness, (McGuinness, 1998, p.129) Goodman does have some peer-reviewed publications, but the most academic text I could find was his introduction to The Psycholinguistic Nature of the Reading Process published in 1968. In contrast to the technical content of the rest of the book, Goodman’s chapter provides only a brief overview of reading from a psycholinguistic perspective and in the four-sentence chapter summary he refers to his ‘beliefs’ twice – a tendency McGuinness uses as evidence against him. (Interestingly, although she also ridicules some quotes from Smith, his name is tucked away in her Notes section.)

Although Goodman doesn’t come across as a heavyweight academic, the whole language model he enthusiastically supports is nonetheless derived from the same body of evidence used by Smith and Stanovich. And the miscue analysis technique Goodman developed is now widely used to identify the strategies adopted by individual readers. So where does ideology come in?

Keith Stanovich sheds some light on this question in Progress in Understanding Reading. Published in 2000, it’s a collection of Stanovich’s key papers spanning a 25-year career. In the final section he reflects on his work and the part it played in the whole language debate. Interestingly, Stanovich emphasises what the two sides had in common. Here’s his take on best practice in the classroom;

Fortunately the best teachers have often been wise enough to incorporate the most effective practices from the two different approaches into their instructional programs.” (p.361)

and on the way research findings have been used in the debate;

Whole language proponents link [a model of the reading process at variance with the scientific data] with the aspects of whole language philosophy that are legitimately good and upon which virtually no researchers disagree.” (p.362)

Correspondence and coherence

For Stanovich the heat in the debate didn’t come from disagreements between reading researchers, but from the clash between two conflicting theories about the nature of truth; correspondence vs coherence. Correspondence theory assumes that there is a real world out there, independent of our perceptions of it. In contrast the coherence theory assumes that our “knowledge is internally constructed – that our evolving knowledge is not tracking an independently existing world, but that internally constructed knowledge literally is the world” (p.371, emphasis Stanovich’s). The whole language model fits nicely into the coherence theory of truth, so research findings that challenged whole language also challenged what Stanovich describes as the “extreme constructivism” of some whole language proponents.

Stanovich also complains that whole language proponents often fail to provide evidence for their claims, cherry-pick supporting evidence only, ignore contradictory evidence and are prone to the use of straw men and ad hominem attacks. He doesn’t mention that synthetic phonics proponents are capable of doing exactly the same. I don’t think this is due to bias on his part; what’s more likely is that when his book was published in 2000 the whole language model had had plenty of time to filter through to classrooms, policy makers’ offices and university education and philosophy departments. The consensus on synthetic phonics was relatively new and hadn’t gathered so much popular support. Fifteen years on, that situation has changed. In my experience, some SP proponents are equally capable of making sweeping claims, citing any supporting evidence regardless of its quality, and being dismissive towards anyone who disagrees with anything they believe. Which brings me to the subject of my next post; claims about what SP can achieve.

References

Goodman, K (Ed). 1998. The Psycholinguistic Nature of the Reading Process. Wayne State University Press.
McGuinness, D. (1998). Why Children Can’t Read and What We Can Do About It. Penguin.
Smith, F. (1971). Understanding Reading: A Psycholinguistic Analysis of Reading and Learning to Read. Lawrence Erlbaum. (My copy is 4th edition, published 1988).
Stanovich, K (2000). Progress in Understanding Reading. Guilford Press.

When is a word not a word? The ‘dog debate’.

A post appeared recently on the TES Reading Theory and Practice blog about the relationship between synthetic phonics and comprehension. Its focus is the UK’s statutory phonics screening check taken annually by all eligible children in Years 1 and 2.

The post, written by thumbshrew (aka Tweeter @MarianRuthie) seemed to me well-reasoned, informative and remarkably uncontroversial considering the heated debate that has polarised around decoding and comprehension. But it wasn’t long before the controversy got under way. Another blogger, @oldandrewuk, took issue not with the post as a whole, but with one comment about the categorisation of words. This is the sentence he questioned;

The check is made up of nonwords and real words (although, whether any ‘word’ presented like this, in isolation, is genuinely a word is a debatable point).”

@oldandrewuk observed, on Twitter;

Phonics denialist claims it’s “debatable” whether a word presented in isolation is actually a word: Beyond satire.

A lively discussion ensued, which @MarianRuthie referred to as the ‘dog debate’. @oldandrewuk attempted to refute thumbshrew’s claim using the letter string ‘d-o-g’. His reasoning was that if ‘d-o-g’ is indisputably a word, then the claim “whether any ‘word’ presented like this, in isolation, is genuinely a word is a debatable point” is invalid.

For everyday purposes, I think @oldandrewuk’s argument carries some weight. To the best of my knowledge, the reasonable people on the Clapham omnibus don’t spend time debating whether or not ‘dog’, or ‘cat’ or ‘bus’ are words – they take that for granted and get on and use them as such. But thumbshrew’s post wasn’t discussing the status of words for everyday purposes, but their status in an assessment of children’s facility with phonemes and graphemes. @oldandrewuk was questioning the criteria she used to determine whether a letter string was a word or not. And words are notoriously slippery customers.

When is a word not a word?

We’re all familiar with variability in the meaning of words, but whether something is a word or not isn’t always clear either. Take words presented in isolation. When we speak, the way we say a particular word is affected by the words that precede and follow it. If I say aloud “the dog barked” the ‘g’ in ‘dog’ is barely audible, whereas if I say “the bark of the dog” the ‘g’ in ‘dog’ is much clearer. If ‘dog’ were to be excised from the first phrase, presented in isolation and people asked to say what word it was, they’d be just as likely to respond with ‘dot’ or ‘doll’ as ‘dog’. Or, if given the option, they might say it isn’t a word at all, since ‘d’ followed only by a short ‘o’ isn’t used in English.

Written English poses other challenges. Because English spelling is largely standardised and because we leave a space fore and aft when writing words, ‘dog’ looks pretty much the same in isolation as it does in a sentence, so people don’t have the same difficulty in identifying written words taken from sentences as they do with spoken English. But not all five year-olds (or adults unfamiliar with the Roman alphabet) perceive ‘dog’ in a sans serif font as being the same as ‘dog’ in a font with serifs – and could consider ‘dog’ in a gothic typeface not to be a word at all.

Then there are heteronyms (words that have the same spelling but different meanings and pronunciation) where context determines what meaning and pronunciation should be used – ‘wind’ as in whistling or ‘wind’ as in bobbin. I once found myself having an argument with my mother, then in her 50s, about the word ‘digest’. For the noun, the stress is on the first syllable. For the verb it’s on the second. My mum insisted they were both pronounced like the verb and claimed she couldn’t hear any difference. I thought she was just being difficult until it emerged that my son had a very similar problem differentiating between similar speech sounds.

Words are an integral part of spoken and written English. They are relatively rarely encountered in isolation, and the context in which they occur can be crucial in determining their meaning and pronunciation. You could, as thumbshrew implies, define ‘word’ in terms of the role a sound or letter string plays in spoken or written language and argue that by definition any letter string presented in isolation isn’t a word.

But individuals’ perceptions of spoken and written English don’t determine whether a letter string is a genuine word or not. Unlike French, English doesn’t have an official body to make such decisions. Scrabble players might appeal to the OED, but then use words in the course of conversation that aren’t yet in the dictionary. How we treat novel words highlights the criteria we use to determine whether a sound or letter string is a word or not.

A new word coined by an academic might gain immediate acceptance as a genuine word due to the academic’s expertise and the need to label a newly discovered phenomenon. A street slang term, in contrast, might have only a brief period of usage in within a small community. Would the slang term qualify as a word? Or what about ‘prolly’, a contraction of ‘probably’ used in social media. Does ‘prolly’ qualify as a genuine word or not? Is ‘digest’ used as a noun but with the stress on the second syllable a genuine word? Or how about a toddler who calls a fridge a ‘sputich’? If her family understand and use the word ‘sputich’ in conversation does that make it a genuine word?

Prototype theory

During the course of the ‘dog debate’ I attempted to shed some light on what makes a sound or letter string a word by appealing to prototype theory. In the 1970s Eleanor Rosch showed that people use the features of items to categorise them. Frequently occurring features are highly prototypical for particular categories; features that occur less frequently are less prototypical. For example, birds typically have beaks, wings, feathers, lay eggs and fly, but some birds can’t fly, so flight isn’t as highly prototypical a feature as the others. In a Venn diagram illustrating prototypicality in birds, robins would be near the middle of the circle because they show all prototypical features. Ostriches and penguins would be nearer the edge of the circle. The circle wouldn’t have a clear boundary because it would blur into feathered reptiles.

Words are also things that can be categorised. One prototypical feature of words is frequency of usage. Another is the degree of agreement on whether it’s a word or not. If a word is used very frequently by all and sundry, it’s highly prototypical. ‘Dog’, @oldandrewuk’s example, would be near the centre of a Venn diagram representing the category ‘word’. Chances are ‘sputich’ would fall outside it. As for ‘prolly’, there would likely be differences of opinion over whether or not it was a word, indicating that the category ‘word’ also has fuzzy rather than crisp boundaries.

Because the criteria for whether or not something is a genuine word or not – usage and agreement – are on a scale that could range from 0% to 100%, deciding whether or not a letter string is a word isn’t a straightforward task. And, as @ded6ajd pointed out in the Twitter debate, a word isn’t necessarily a letter string. Words can take the form of sequences of speech sounds, patterns of marks, and gestures, implying that a word is an actually an abstract construct.

So where does all that leave the ‘dog debate’?

Back to the ‘dog debate’

As I said, I think @oldandrewuk’s argument carries some weight for everyday purposes. However, in relation to the point he took issue with, I think there are two flaws in his challenge. If I’ve understood correctly, he’s saying that if a letter string exists whose status as a word is undisputed, that invalidates thumbshrew’s claim that it’s debatable whether any ‘word’ presented in isolation is genuinely a word. To demonstrate he needs only to cite one example, and chooses ‘dog’. If no one is debating the status of ‘dog’, then the status of ‘dog’ isn’t debatable, therefore the claim that the status of ‘any’ word is debatable is false.

But @oldandrewuk’s challenge rests on an implicit assumption that not finding anyone who disputes the status of ‘dog’ is the same as the status of ‘dog’ being undisputed. It isn’t. That’s equivalent to claiming that if no one has ever seen a crow whose plumage isn’t black, we can safely conclude all crows must be black. Of course that conclusion isn’t safe since we cannot possibly gather data on all crows.

The second flaw is this: Even if we were able to interrogate every living English speaker about their opinions on the status of ‘dog’ and we found universal agreement that ‘dog’ was a word, we still wouldn’t know whether all those people were using the same criterion for whether a letter string was a word or not, or what their views might be about other words. On the face of it there might appear to be no debate about the status of ‘dog’, but put a random sample of those in agreement about its status in a room together and get them to talk about their criteria for what constitutes a word, and it’s likely that a debate would start pretty quickly.

There is no universal standard for what constitutes a genuine word. If it were easy to establish one, the French, with their historic penchant for standardisation, would have come up with one by now. Words aren’t like weights or measures, where in principle you could cut a piece of metal to an arbitrary length, put it in a glass case and agree that it’s the international standard for a cubit. Words are more like populations of organisms, with new ones arising and old ones falling out of use and being forgotten continually. One person’s word might be another person’s non-word.

And that’s the nub of the problem. For @oldandrewuk near-as-dammit universal agreement about a letter string’s status as a genuine word, in isolation or not, is good enough. For thumbshrew, it isn’t; she’s aware of the different criteria people use for ‘word’ and concludes that the status of letter strings presented in isolation is debatable.

Personally, I think thumbshrew is right – that it is debatable whether any ‘word’ presented in isolation is genuinely a word and that @oldandrewuk’s challenge is flawed. But because research shows that people identify written words in isolation as words more readily than they do spoken words, frankly I don’t think it would be much of a debate.

A more important point, which @oldandrewuk doesn’t take up, is why there are ‘genuine words’ in the phonics check at all. It would make far more sense for all the letter strings to be pseudo-words. This would give a more accurate picture of children’s phonemic and graphemic awareness, would reduce the impact of confounding factors such as word recognition and avoid the need to have a debate about what constitutes a genuine word.

the evidence: NSPCC briefing on home education

When I first read the NSPCC briefing Home education: learning from case reviews I thought the NSPCC had merely got hold of the wrong end of the stick about the legislation relevant to home education. That’s not unusual – many people do just that. But a closer examination showed there was much more to it than a simple misunderstanding.

The briefing claims to consist of ‘learning about child protection pulled from the published versions’ of seven serious case reviews (SCRs) involving children educated at home. But the claims and recommendations made by the briefing aren’t an accurate reflection of what the SCRs tell us – about home education or child protection. The briefing also calls into question the current legislation relevant to home education, but makes no attempt to explain the legislation or the principles on which it’s based. So what ‘learning’ can we ‘pull’ from the NSPCC briefing?

legislation

The legislation and guidance relevant to home education isn’t explained or even cited, so anyone relying on the briefing for information would be aware only of the NSPCC’s view of the law, not what the law actually says or why it says it. Since the NSPCC doesn’t appear to understand the legislation, its view of the law creates a problem for unwitting readers.

claims

I noted 13 claims made by the briefing about the risks to children educated at home. Only one – that children could become isolated – was supported by the evidence in the SCRs, and that indicated only that some of the children involved could have been considered isolated at some times. In other words the risks to home-educated children that the NSPCC is concerned about are hypothetical risks rather than real ones. Laws aren’t and shouldn’t be based on hypothetical risks only, but this important distinction isn’t mentioned.

recommendations

The briefing cites only the 15 recommendations from the SCRs relating directly to home education – and overlooks the other 64. Over 30 of the others involved procedural issues and more than 20 involved healthcare. Two of the healthcare recommendations that the briefing does highlight relate to organisations that were defunct before the briefing was published.

opinion

Although it cites evidence from the SCRs, the briefing isn’t what I’d call evidence-based, that is, derived from a careful evaluation of all relevant, available evidence. It looks more like an opinion backed up by the selection of supporting evidence only.

NSPCC publications

The home education briefing isn’t typical of NSPCC publications. The research report on disabled children, for example, is exactly what you’d expect from a research report. It’s well written, well evidenced and well referenced. Most of the briefings that summarise straightforward legislation, guidance and procedures are what you’d expect to see too. It’s when a topic needs to be thought through from first principles that the charity seems to flounder. A couple of examples:

An earlier version of Checkpoints for Schools discussed at length bullying by children, but failed to mention how teacher behaviour or the way the education system is designed contributed to the problem. But I guess those omissions are understandable; after all most people think of bullying in schools as involving only other children.

The oversights in the briefing about Fabricated or Induced Illness (FII) (which I can no longer find on the NSPCC website but is available here) are more serious. A framework drawn up by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has been amended so that simple parental anxiety and genuine and unrecognised medical problems both come under the umbrella of FII, which not only renders the concept of FII meaningless, it puts the children of anxious parents and children with undiagnosed medical conditions at risk. Also, despite referring to ‘genuine and unrecognised medical problems’ the briefing fails to alert healthcare professionals to medical conditions known to be under-diagnosed that have a significantly higher prevalence than FII.

I contacted the NSPCC about both documents, but rather than discuss the points I’d raised, the charity simply re-stated its position on bullying and FII. Communication with one of the authors of the FII briefing was more fruitful. Slides from a presentation by the authors are online and paint a rather different picture to the one presented in the briefing.

NSPCC and evidence

The NSPCC is entitled to express its opinion about these issues of course, but the steps that need to be taken to reduce bullying, improve doctors’ diagnostic skills or prevent children coming to serious harm are much more likely to be effective if they’re based on a thorough evaluation of the evidence about what actually happens.

In the UK legislation isn’t based on opinion, either, but again, on evidence. It has to be. Changing the law is a time-consuming and expensive process that can have serious unintended and unwanted consequences if you don’t get it right. And you’re quite likely not to get it right if you base it on people’s opinion about what they think happens instead of evidence about what actually happens.

If the NSPCC were a member of the public passing comment on children’s behaviour, medical diagnosis or an esoteric aspect of education legislation, their failure to evaluate the evidence properly wouldn’t matter so much. But the NSPCC is a major national charity funded by many millions of pounds from the public – and direct from government. It’s also the only organisation other than local authorities and the police that has statutory child protection powers.

The briefing on home education is out of date, sloppily written, poorly presented and pays only lip-service to the evaluation of evidence. It’s pretty clear that the NSPCC doesn’t like the idea of home education, an opinion it’s entitled to hold. But I also got the impression it doesn’t actually value home educating families very highly. Neither the few home-educated children who came to harm, nor the vast majority who won’t, appear to be worth the effort of producing a well written, well presented booklet that contains sound information and a proper evaluation of the evidence.

The NSPCC has no business cherry-picking evidence. Nor does it have any business using its high-profile status to publish advice or recommendations based only on evidence that supports its opinion. It doesn’t always do that so why do it at all?

help: NSPCC briefing on home education

The NSPCC briefing Home education: learning from case reviews highlights recommendations from seven serious case reviews (SCRs) published between 2008 and 2013 involving home-educated children.

In the previous post I mentioned that the primary purpose of legislation is to protect the liberty of the individual. Historically the primary purpose of national government has been to protect liberty by defending the nation from attack from abroad, and of local government to do so by maintaining law and order.

But you’re unlikely to enjoy your liberty very much if you’re starving, sick or homeless. The massive increase in urban populations following the industrial revolution eventually resulted in the UK government, national and local, turning its attention to people’s quality of life. Over the last century or so national education, health and social care systems have been developed. Currently, education and healthcare are universal services, available to all. Significantly, social care isn’t.

social care for children and families

The parent of any child ‘in need’ according to the criteria set out in s.17 of the Children Act 1989 can request a social care assessment. The definition of a child ‘in need’ can be summarised as;

• unlikely to achieve or maintain a reasonable standard of health or development without the provision of services by a local authority
• health or development is likely to be significantly impaired, or further impaired, without the provision of such services; or
• disabled.

But there appear to be a number of hoops to jump through before a child ‘in need’ can hope to access support.

The first hoop is meeting the eligibility criteria for an initial assessment. Here, for example, are those of the Royal Borough of Greenwich. I’m not knocking the Royal Borough. Their criteria are explicit and specific. At least you know where you stand.

The second hoop is an initial assessment that determines whether or not the child is sufficiently ‘in need’ to be eligible for a core assessment. For many local authorities, the criterion for a core assessment is not so much about the child’s needs as about whether they are at risk.

The third hoop, the core assessment, presumably identifies what sort of support the child needs. Or not.

Despite s.17 of the Children Act 1989 saying

It shall be the general duty of every local authority…
(a) to safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their area who are in need; and
(b) so far as is consistent with that duty, to promote the upbringing of such children by their families,
by providing a range and level of services appropriate to those children’s needs.

the current focus of social care services appears to be on the safeguarding element of their general duties, not on the promotion of welfare element. The initial assessment prioritises safeguarding children already ‘in need’, not on preventing them from becoming ‘in need’ in the first place. This looks rather like locking the stable door after the horse has bolted.

In practice, it means you could be the parent of three children, each with complex disabilities and Statements of Special Educational Needs and repeatedly excluded from school, have a broken marriage and be estranged from your extended family as a consequence, be seriously sleep deprived, suffering from a bunch of mental and physical health problems and be unable to hold down a job because of your caring responsibilities, but if your children are not deemed to be at risk of harm or of harming others, you can still not be eligible for a core assessment.

Local authorities justify rationing support in this way by saying they must prioritise children who are most in need. On the face of it, this looks like a responsible use of taxpayers’ money. It isn’t of course. Low-level social problems don’t just resolve themselves because services are rationed; the costs are simply shifted elsewhere. Parents and children absorb many of the costs – financial and in terms of quality of life. Schools are expected to patch together the children’s lives and parents and children pitch up at GP practices with recurrent health problems. And in many cases social services end up having to support families anyway once their problems have escalated to the point where the children are deemed to be at risk of harm.

safeguarding

The task of safeguarding as presented in the seven SCRs involving home-educated children has three main features;

• identifying children already at risk
• monitoring their welfare
• intervening before they can come to harm

The focus of politicians, the media and the SCRs themselves has been on the failure to intervene in time to stop the children being harmed. The focus of those advocating increased regulation of home education is on monitoring the children’s welfare. The focus of social care assessments is on identifying children already at risk. It’s clear from the SCRs that none of the three features provide any guarantee that a child will stay safe – almost 30% of all children who were the subject of a SCR have had current or discontinued child protection plans. So why the focus on identifying, monitoring and intervention?

promoting welfare

The purpose of the seven SCRs was to examine the specific circumstances that led to a child coming to serious harm, not to catalogue all the support families received, so there’s little mention of what help parents asked for and what help they got. Most home educating families don’t want or need help, but in all seven cases cited by the NSPCC briefing parents had approached the authorities voluntarily at some point. That might simply have been impression management on their part, but let’s assume for the moment the approach was a request for help. What did they ask for? The evidence suggests that in six cases it involved specialist expertise; about developmental disorders, complex health problems, special educational needs, mental health and adoption. Specialist expertise isn’t always easy to access. Parents with children not deemed to be at risk have long reported difficulties getting it.

But not all the help needed was so highly specialised. In two cases, there were problems with housing. Child 3’s mother had sold all her furniture in an attempt to avoid the house being repossessed; it was during repossession that her daughter’s body was discovered. The chaos and tragedy into which Child 4’s family was precipitated appears to have been triggered by the mother’s attempts to improve their circumstances; she went on a diet, her partner moved in and she planned to relocate the family to a better neighbourhood. But her ‘healthy eating’ regime deprived her children of food, her partner had a troubled history, and she couldn’t get a tenancy transfer until she had ‘tidied up’ the house – the children had scribbled on the walls. Mrs Justice King, hearing the application for a care order for the surviving children, noted the chaos that the family descended into as a result of the mother’s partner attempting to lay laminate flooring throughout the house. Without wishing to trivialise the tragedy that followed, the outcome might have been very different if a lone parent with six children, some of whom had significant learning difficulties, had had access to old-fashioned services like meals on wheels and home help.

In some cases, the help the families did get appears to have made things worse. One parent experienced frustrating delays getting responses from the EOTAS service. Health interventions included two cases of over-prescription of medication, no conclusive diagnosis, being removed from a GP list and a suspicion of Fabricated or Induced Illness. Parents did get appointments with professionals – 130 in a year in one case, but the focus of social care appeared to be on assessing the risk to the children, rather than providing the support the family needed to lessen the risk. This might go some way to explaining the ‘combative’ and ‘aggressive’ attitude of parents.

Social workers, understandably, point out that a focus on high profile cases where they have failed to prevent children coming to harm doesn’t take into account the thousands of children that they help. That’s undoubtedly true, although I’ve never heard social workers elaborating on what sort of help families get; a recent interview on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour (from 33m 40s) is a case in point. But I don’t think it’s the social workers who are responsible for the difficulty families have in getting help; the way social care services are designed makes this situation inevitable.

it’s the system

Most of us, at some times in our life, are faced with challenges we can’t cope with on our own. Some people have robust social networks they can call on for help. For others, their social networks are part of the problem. That’s what public sector services are for; to help people cope with those challenges.

In the early 1900s, the first social worker training course offered by the University of Birmingham included topics like British constitution, industrial history, economic analysis, statistics, law, and sanitation and hygiene. The emphasis was on understanding the wider context for the problems families faced. In the intervening decades, the focus has shifted from designing systems that improve people’s lives, to resolving individuals’ specific problems, to, more recently, a preoccupation with procedures.

For example, the 2013 statutory guidance Working Together to Safeguard Children reads less like statutory guidance than a handbook consisting of 97 pages of advice. Some of the advice is probably useful – there are flow charts for different types of cases, for example. But is it really necessary to tell experienced professionals planning a strategy discussion that it “might take the form of a multi-agency meeting or phone calls and more than one discussion may be necessary” (p.33)? It’s not surprising, with this level of micromanagement and the dire consequences of not paying attention to it, that local authorities’ focus is on following the procedures related to safeguarding rather than on promoting children’s welfare.

failure demand

If people don’t get the help they need when they need it, their problems don’t just go away. Services then have to deal with repeat referrals, complaints and worsening problems. This is what John Seddon calls ‘failure demand’ – demand caused solely by a failure to do the job properly in the first place. Successive governments have believed that the obvious way to deal with shortcomings is to use carrots and sticks to get services back on the strait and narrow. Unfortunately, the obvious way isn’t always the most effective. The focus of those working in the public sector has gradually shifted away from serving the public towards collecting the carrots and avoiding the sticks.

Increasing regulation in response to service failures, which is how government has responded and what the SCRs and the NSPCC recommend, won’t help. It will simply add to the services’ workload and make it even more difficult for them to help the people who need it. Counter-intuitively, what would reduce demand and service failures is making social care universally accessible and ensuring that front line professionals have the expertise, resources and flexibility to help prevent minor problems escalating into major ones. Not only is that likely to reduce overall demand but it could also make people’s lives better.