mixed methods for teaching reading (1)

Many issues in education are treated as either/or options and the Reading Wars have polarised opinion into synthetic phonics proponents on the one hand and those supporting the use of whole language (or ‘mixed methods’) on the other. I’ve been asked on Twitter what I think of ‘mixed methods’ for teaching reading. Apologies for the length of this reply, but I wanted to explain why I wouldn’t dismiss mixed methods outright and why I have some reservations about synthetic phonics. I wholeheartedly support the idea of using synthetic phonics (SP) to teach children to read. However, I have reservations about some of the assumptions made by SP proponents about the effectiveness of SP and about the quality of the evidence used to justify its use.

the history of mixed methods

As far as I’m aware, when education became compulsory in England in the late 19th century, reading was taught predominantly via letter-sound correspondence and analytic phonics – ‘the cat sat on the mat’ etc. A common assumption was that if people couldn’t read it was usually because they’d never been taught. What was found was that a proportion of children didn’t learn to read despite being taught in the same way as others in the class. The Warnock committee reported that teachers in England at the time were surprised by the numbers of children turning up for school with disabilities or learning difficulties. That resulted in special schools being set up for those with the most significant difficulties with learning. In France Alfred Binet was commissioned to devise a screening test to identify learning difficulties that evolved into the ‘intelligence test’. In Italy, Maria Montessori adapted methods to mainstream education that had been used to teach hearing-impaired children.

Research into acquired reading difficulties in adults generated an interest in developmental problems with learning to read, pioneered by James Hinshelwood and Samuel Orton in the early 20th century. The term developmental dyslexia began as a descriptive label for a range of problems with reading and gradually became reified into a ‘disorder’. Because using the alphabetic principle and analytic phonics clearly wasn’t an effective approach for teaching all children to read, and because of an increased interest in child development, researchers began to look at what adults and children actually did when reading and learning to read, rather than what it had been thought they should do.

What they found was that people use a range of cues (‘mixed methods’) to decode unfamiliar words; letter-sound correspondence, analytic phonics, recognising words by their shape, using key letters, grammar, context and pictures, for example. Educators reasoned that if some children hadn’t learned to read using alphabetic principles and/or analytic phonics, applying the strategies that people actually used when reading new words might be a more effective approach.

This idea, coinciding with an increased interest in child-led pedagogy and a belief that a species-specific genetic blueprint meant that children would follow the same developmental trajectory but at different rates, resulted in the concept of ‘reading-readiness’. The upshot was that no one panicked if children couldn’t read by 7, 9 or 11; they often did learn to read when they were ‘ready’. It’s impossible to compare the long-term outcomes of analytic phonics and mixed methods because the relevant data aren’t available. We don’t know for instance, whether children’s educational attainment suffered more if they got left behind by whole-class analytic phonics, or if they got left alone in schools that waited for them to become ‘reading-ready’.

Eventually, as is often the case, the descriptive observations about how people tackle unfamiliar words became prescriptive. Whole word recognition began to supersede analytic phonics after WW2, and in the 1960s Ken Goodman formalised mixed methods in a ‘whole language’ approach. Goodman was strongly influenced by Noam Chomsky, who believes that the structure underpinning language is essentially ‘hard-wired’ in humans. Goodman’s ideas chimed with the growing social constructivist approach to education that emphasises the importance of meaning mediated by language.

At the same time as whole language approaches were gaining ground, in England the national curriculum and standardised testing were introduced, which meant that children whose reading didn’t keep up with their peers were far more visible than they had been previously, and the complaints that had followed the introduction of whole language in the USA began to be heard here. In addition, the national curriculum appears to have focussed on the mechanics of understanding ‘texts’ rather than on reading books for enjoyment. What has also happened is that with the advent of multi-channel TV and electronic gadgets, reading has nowhere near the popularity it once had as a leisure activity amongst children, so children tend to get a lot less reading practice than they did in the past. These developments suggest that any decline in reading standards might have multiple causes, rather than ‘mixed methods’ being the only culprit.

what do I think about mixed methods?

I think Chomsky has drawn the wrong conclusions about his linguistic theory, so I don’t subscribe to Goodman’s reading theory either. Although meaning is undoubtedly a social construction, it’s more than that. Social constructivists tend to emphasise the mind at the expense of the brain. The mind is such vague concept that you can say more or less what you like about it, but we’re very constrained by how our brains function. I think marginalising the brain is an oversight on the part of social constructivists, and I can’t see how a child can extract meaning from a text if they can’t read the words.

Patricia Kuhl’s work suggests that babies acquire language computationally, from the frequency of sound patterns within speech. This is an implicit process; the baby’s brain detects the sounds and learns the patterns, but the baby isn’t aware of the learning process, nor of phonemes. What synthetic phonics does is to make the speech sounds explicit, develop phonemic awareness and allow children to learn phoneme-grapheme correspondence and how words are constructed.

My reservations about SP are not about the approach per se, but rather about how it’s applied and the reasons assumed to be responsible for its effectiveness. In cognitive terms, SP has three main components;

• phonemic and graphemic discrimination
• grapheme-phoneme correspondence
• building up phonemes/graphemes into words – blending

How efficient children become at these tasks is a function of the frequency of their exposure to the tasks and how easy they find them. Most children pick up the skills with little effort, but anyone who has problems with any or all of the tasks could need considerably more rehearsals. Problems with the cognitive components of SP aren’t necessarily a consequence of ineffective teaching or the child not trying hard enough. Specialist SP teachers will usually be aware of this, but policy-makers, parents, or schools that simply adopt a proprietary SP course might not.

My son’s school taught reading using Jolly Phonics. Most of the children in his class learned to read reasonably quickly. He took 18 months over it. He had problems with each of the three elements of SP. He couldn’t tell the difference between similar-sounding phonemes – i/e or b/d, for example. He couldn’t tell the difference between similar-looking graphemes either – such as b/d, h/n or i/j. As a consequence, he struggled with some grapheme-phoneme correspondences. Even in words where his grapheme-phoneme correspondences were secure, he couldn’t blend more than three letters.

After 18 months of struggling and failing, he suddenly began to read using whole word recognition. I could tell he was doing this because of the errors he was making; he was using initial and final letters and word shape and length as cues. Recognising patterns is what the human brain does for a living and once it’s recognised a pattern it’s extremely difficult to get it to unrecognise it. Brains are so good at recognising patterns they often see patterns that aren’t what they think they are – as in pareidolia or the behaviourists’ ‘superstition’. Once my son could recognise word-patterns, he was reading and there was no way he was going to be persuaded to carry on with all that tedious sounding-out business. He just wanted to get on with reading, and that’s what he did.

[Edited to add: I should point out that the reason the apparent failure of an SP programme to teach my son to read led to me supporting SP rather than dismissing it, was because after conversations with specialist SP teachers, I realised that he hadn’t had enough training in phonemic and graphemic discrimination. His school essentially put the children through the course, without identifying any specific problems or providing additional training that might have made a significant difference for him.]

When I trained as a teacher ‘mixed methods’ included a substantial phonics component – albeit as analytic phonics. I get the impression that the phonics component has diminished over time so ‘mixed methods’ aren’t what they once were. Even if they included phonics, I wouldn’t recommend ‘mixed methods’ prescriptively as an approach to teaching reading. Having said that, I think mixed methods have some validity descriptively, because they reflect the way adults/children actually read. I would recommend the use of SP for teaching reading, but I think some proponents of SP underestimate the way the human brain tends to cobble together its responses to challenges, rather than to follow a neat, straight pathway.

Advocacy of mixed methods and opposition to SP is often based on accurate observations of the strategies children use to read, not on evidence of what teaching methods are most effective. Our own personal observations tend to be far more salient to us than schools we’ve never visited reporting stunning SATs results. That’s why I think SP proponents need to ensure that the evidence they refer to as supporting SP is of a high enough quality to be convincing to sceptics.

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17 thoughts on “mixed methods for teaching reading (1)

  1. Thank you for replying to my question at length! The problem with your blog is that it is offensive to no one… I might take issue with some sections but for me it is fairly uncontroversial. It was also acceptable to people like Tim Taylor who was happy to reblog it on a site ‘Primary Blogging’ that was created by those strongly wedded to mixed methods and who never blog pro SSP blogs like my one.
    In actual classrooms teachers need to decide how they will teach their classes – with SSP or using mixed methods. As I explained in my own blog that started this debate you can’t do both when you set out with novice learners. Do you teach children to attend to the order of letters, left to right with decoding as their primary strategy OR do you teach them to spot contextual cues so their eyes dart around the page, decoding for these children is not their primary approach. A minority of children will find their own way but the vast majority respnd by reading in the way they are instructed.
    A choice must be made and that choice should be based on what will benefit the greatest number. That after this choice is made teachers need to remain sensitive to individual needs, is of course true. In my own blog I outline the reasons why mixed methods cause problems for many children. Given the discredited nature of the research that kicked of the popularity of ‘prediction’ (central to mixed methods) and given the way, by comparison, SSP, not mixed methods, has connectivity with the broad consensus of research (without even looking at the research directly on SSP) your unwillingness to engage with this research does not match your claims of interest in the evidence. Your position is also a fudge as you make no choice based on the evidence we have – but teachers have to.
    A choice must also be made between an approach that leaves a large minority with poor reading skills and one that doesn’t. That you choose to dismiss the quite large body of evidence showing the success of SSP while having none to offer for your (only?) partial support of mixed methods (including in this blog) seems to suggest a lack of objectivity on your part. Your only argument is from personal experience and while I am actually happy to listen to that argument (and think you have a point to make) you have dismissed as not scientific, the experiences shared on the RRF by numerous very experienced remedial reading teachers who have to pick up the pieces for children failed by mixed methods. Given the hard time you gave me on twitter last night for not linking to all the main peer reviewed research in my own blog (though I linked to enough to allow the open minded an easy route to find out more) that you should then on your own blog simply not mention any of the research relevant to the problems with mixed methods when making your own case – and rely on one personal experience- is rather surprising.
    How can I take seriously your professed concern over the quality of evidence in favour of SSP when it only seems to apply to dismissing as of low quality the evidence offered for an approach that you feel did not work for your son?

    • I think you and I frame this debate in different ways. You see it as SP vs ‘mixed methods’; I think it’s more complex than that. You see convergent evidence as convincing; I’m wary because I’ve seen too many examples of convergence that’s suddenly changed direction. You see self-published reports and experiences recounted on internet forums as forming part of the convergent body of scientific evidence; I don’t – not because I doubt their veracity, but because they don’t qualify as scientific evidence.

      You asked me to tell you what I thought about mixed methods and I did. Because you frame the debate in terms of two opposing sides, you see my lack of vociferous opposition to mixed methods (and its being reblogged elsewhere) as me as making a case for using mixed methods when I was simply telling you what I thought, as requested. You see me as not backing up my argument for the use of mixed methods with evidence when I wasn’t arguing for mixed methods. You say I’m not engaging with the evidence in support of SP when I’ve read extensively about reading mechanisms, had lengthy discussions with SP teachers over several years and checked every link in your blogpost; I’m not sure how much more engaged I could be, realistically. You claim I am relying on one personal experience when making my case for mixed methods, when I’ve said that I support the use of SP *despite* what happened to my son, (and I accept that I might not have made this clear originally).

      SP proponents frequently bemoan the fact that despite the body of evidence pointing to the efficacy of SP, opponents remain stubbornly unconvinced. In your post, you opened with a link to a self-published report by someone with a possible conflict of interest. I appreciate that you did so to make the point that a single study isn’t conclusive, but the fact that you would include it in the body of convergent evidence made me wonder about the quality of the rest of the evidence you linked to.

      I didn’t ‘give you a hard time on Twitter for not linking to all the main peer reviewed research’; I suggested that sceptics might be more persuaded by links to three or four key peer-reviewed studies demonstrating the efficacy of SP. People are often reluctant to follow up screeds of tangentially related references, not because they are not ‘open-minded’ or are ‘blinded by ideological bias, misinformation and habit’ but because they don’t have the time or energy to do so. Make it easy for them.

      • I am really unclear what you are arguing for, not because I support simple dichotomies but because your assertions about what you support don’t match what you then argue. SSP by definition is opposed to mixed methods but you think things are ‘more complex than that’. Fine, I’m genuinely curious but I’m still just as unclear what your position is – but by definition it is not in support of SSP.
        I am sure you have engaged with the evidence for SSP, although why given the vast amount there is out there you are able to so casually tell me I should try and create the sort of document that requires weeks of work is beyond me. I did my best to provide some clear ways forward and that blog took about 14 hours to write. Some people said it was useful, so hopefully it was not time wasted. I wrote something that would help the curious on their way and given the time I invested I find it really hard that my efforts to provide some sense of ‘converging evidence’ are criticised by someone who didn’t bother to provide a single link to the research on mixed methods in a blog on this issue.
        If you really do support SSP and don’t like the sort of evidence put forward you must have other evidence you do find convincing. I’m looking forward to the blog!

      • Heather, you asked me what I thought about mixed methods. One thing I think is that they are valid descriptively, but not prescriptively. The methods that make up ‘mixed methods’ were not plucked out of thin air, but were derived from the strategies reading researchers have found people use when they read. It doesn’t follow that these methods are good ways to teach children to read because mimicking the strategies used by experts isn’t usually an effective way for novices to acquire expert skills.

        I also think that ‘mixed methods’ are, well, mixed. If you were to conduct a probably unethical experiment that allowed you to rank the effectiveness of each method in the mix, I’d be prepared to bet money that you’d end up with SP at one end, picture cues at the other, and the rest at different points in between. It wouldn’t be a case of SP at one extreme and ‘mixed methods’ at the other. I don’t see why I can’t construe mixed methods as a mixed bag but still advocate the use of SP.

        And I’m not asking you to put in weeks of work. In fact (a bit too late, obviously) I’m suggesting you to put in less work. For most research topics there are three or four key peer-reviewed journal papers with clear conclusions that can give an interested person a good overview of the field. You provided links to many papers, but it was by no means easy to see which papers showed what, what the competing hypotheses were or if there were methodological flaws to be taken into account, without doing an awful lot of reading.

        I didn’t include any links to research on mixed methods because – let me say it again – I don’t advocate the use of mixed methods. Or are you asking me to justify my claim that the strategies are used by expert readers? But I’d be happy to explain why I think SP is a good way to teach children to learn to read.

  2. Very fair analysis. The thing is, use of the terms “phonics” and viewing the English Alphabetic Code as a “principle,” fogs the matter. The history of the Code accounts for its complexity, and the structure of the Code is the basis for written English to convey the same communication as spoken English.

    It is indeed possible for a child to use syntax, morphology, context, and letter/word shape to generate words in reading. Children, and the rest of us, will use these cues whether taught to do so or not. However, to teach children to use anything other than the Alphabetic Code is to disregard the history of our language and its written structure. That’s a matter of logic that requires no “evidence.”

    The reason that “mixed methods”/”balanced literacy”/”whole language” instruction is hazardous is that some children learn to use faulty techniques (because they are taught to do so). The techniques enable them to “struggle” until later school years when the complexity of texts increases to the point where they can be labeled “dyslexic.” Some children, like your son, “figure it out” in spite of the unintended mal-instruction, but others don’t–hence the “reading problem.”

    The route for resolving “the problem” and the instructional fog lies in the Yr 1 Screening Check. Although labeled a “Phonics” Check, the measure constitutes a psychometrically-sound test of Alphabetic Code capability. The relevant “evidence” is that 31% of Yr 2 children who failed the Check in Yr 1 are unable to pass the rather low “bench mark” set for the test.
    https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/phonics-screening-check-2013-technical-report

    There is, of course, “more to reading” than the Screening Check, but anyone who “can read” should be able to read all 40 items on the Check. The fact that so many Yr 2 children cannot do so should be cause for concern throughout the English-speaking world.

    What has not yet been investigated is the instruction that these children are receiving. By all reports, it’s “mixed methods” rather than “Synthetic Phonics only.” The data to date also indicate that “it’s in the instruction, not in the kids.” Kids are learning what they are taught–that’s the “problem” as well as the road to resolution.

  3. Thanks for this comment and I agree with you on most points.

    Whether or not the results of the screening check should be a cause for concern would depend on how the expected standard was arrived at, wouldn’t it? There’s been a great deal of discussion about all children being expected to be above average in SATs tests, and the screening check appears to be subject to the same provisos.

  4. Further to my last comment above – if you don’t have the time I am really happy to add the references that convinced you to support SSP to my own blog (fully attributed and linked of course).

  5. Could you perhaps enlarge on what you had mind when you said you had seen too many examples of convergence that had suddenly changed direction? (I have some familiarity with psychology as a discipline, so don’t need elaborate explanations, just point me in the right direction)

    • Thanks for commenting Chris.

      I can see what Stanovich is getting at with regard to convergence in psychological research, but to me, the history of psychology looks more like a series of swings from one direction to another, rather than gradual convergence. Far more like a punctuated equilibrium, or Kuhn’s paradigm shifts.

      The early psychologists placed a strong emphasis on biology and the modularity of the brain. That model was superseded by the strong environmentalism of Freud and Skinner. Following Hubel & Wiesel’s work it all swung back to a bio-cognitive model.

      Or at least some of it did. Specialism has increased alongside knowledge, and psychology has tended to diverge, so it’s possible to think there’s convergence in a particular sub-field, when that consensus diverges from findings in other fields. Work on child development or education, for example, appears to take little account of recent convergence in genetics, molecular biology, or cognitive neuroscience, apart from to support its own consensus.

      • Thanks for the reply. My own view is that our standards of what constitutes good science in the social sciences have improved so remarkably over the last 50 years that pointing to ideas in psychology pre 1960 really doesn’t prove much. After all, Popper critiqued Freudianism in his important contribution to philosophy of science. Have you read “Why Freud was wrong”? (t’s a real eye-opener) And Skinner’s dogmatism about the application of a simple animal model to all of human psychology was outrageous over-extension, which simply wouldn’t happen now. Both Freud and Skinner were critiqued by many at the time, but these men were dogmatic gurus, who by and large carried the research community (such as it was) along by force of personality and control of resources. I don’t think that is the case in psychology any longer.
        You also say “it’s possible to think there’s convergence in a particular sub-field, when that consensus diverges from findings in other fields.” But surely with so many people in influential university positions who are opposed to SSP, if such a divergence existed, we would know about it? After all, this issue has been prominent for the last 40 years.

      • I’m not sure the situation has changed that much, actually.

        And are people in influential university positions *opposed* to SSP or are they simply cautious or viewing it from a different conceptual framework?

        And a prominent issue for 40 years? Not in the UK, I think – research references don’t go back much more than a decade.

  6. ‘Without doing an awful lot of reading’, sums it up. I have read lots over time but I am not an expert and don’t hold everything in my memory. I would have to do that ‘awful lot of reading’ again myself to give the order to the reading so someone else doesn’t have to. I scraped the surface in the time I had available to give the curious a way in. I’m glad some people found that useful.

  7. I’d like to make another point: I don’t think you have understood the reason why Heather wanted to raise the issue of convergence. While there are undoubtedly some people who would be happy with the 3 or 4 peer reviewed studies you suggest (although perhaps less happy if they were behind a paywall, as many of them are), I don’t think those are the people that Heather had in mind when she was writing. I myself have been wishing for a while that someone would write a post about the convergent nature of the evidence for SSP, and here’s why.
    I have followed this debate closely for around 15 years. There are many, many people who resist the implementation of SSP either for ideological reasons (because it entails direct instruction) or because they feel their professional competence is being questioned. As soon as someone suggests that a particular study is good evidence for SSP, these opponents start picking it apart, pointing out that it is not perfect (and of course no studies are perfect, particularly in the field of educational research, with all its ethical and financial limitations). If you answer their specific criticisms by pointing to another study to which these criticisms don’t apply, they move on to picking that one apart, and so on and on. Then they come back the following week, having “pressed the reset button”, and start all over again making the same criticisms that have already been answered.
    What these people are doing is trying to distract attention away from the accumulated weight of the TOTALITY of the evidence. (As a biologist, you may have noticed the identical strategy being used on internet forums by creationists – not that I am suggesting SSP is as undeniable as evolution!!) These are the people I suspect Heather had in mind when she was writing, and that is the reason why it’s so important to point out the convergent nature of the accumulated evidence for SSP .

    • Science advances by eliminating hypotheses. As Stanovich points out, a single experiment rarely conclusively eliminates all competing hypotheses bar one. Collectively however, a body of research can, for most intents and purposes, do just that. He says that each of dozens of experiments might be flawed, but an evaluation of the flaws would tell us about the reliability of the overall conclusions.

      What that doesn’t mean is that the quality of the experiments doesn’t matter. Dozens of experiments all showing the same weak effect because of a range of minor design problems are one thing; dozens of experiments all with the same fundamental major design flaw (it happens) all showing a strong but wrong effect are quite another.

      What it also doesn’t mean is that a large body of supporting evidence is conclusive but contradictory evidence hasn’t been taken into account.

      Nor does it mean that any evidence is scientific evidence. I appreciate that Heather cited Marlynne Grant’s work as an example of a single study not being conclusive, but I got the distinct impression she sees it as part of the body of converging evidence Stanovich refers to. But Stanovich is referring to peer-reviewed, methodologically sound experimental work that might have minor flaws. Dr Grant’s study is persuasive, but with all due respect to her work, it remains a self-published demonstration of concept by someone with a potential conflict of interest in the outcome.

      If there are people resisting SSP for ideological reasons or because it calls their professional competence into question, they are not going be persuaded by any amount of evidence – because they have a belief, not a problem with the evidence. If however, there are people interested in the accumulated weight of the totality of the evidence, they are, like me, going to wonder about how robust the evidence is if it includes studies like Dr Grant’s.

  8. I’m running out of time, but would just like to address a few of the points you’ve made:

    “And are people in influential university positions *opposed* to SSP or are they simply cautious or viewing it from a different conceptual framework?”

    Does it have to be either/or? Surely not. The people I was referring to are the ones who are opposed to SP because they are committed to promoting other methods – usually Whole Language. They are vociferous critics of SSP while carefully avoiding addressing the lack of evidence for their own preferred methods. There is a good overview of the Whole Language issue at
    http://nifdi.org/news/hempenstall-blog/441-part-1-whole-language-what-was-that-all-about

    For the extremes to which some of these people can go, have a look at the leaked email at the end, where the author writes: “In 2009 in New South Wales, Australia, the state government announced a plan involving a direct comparison of phonics-based reading methods with other techniques. One of the longtime WL luminaries, Brian Cambourne, responded with a cloak and dagger plot hoping to prevent the study proceeding.”

    “And a prominent issue for 40 years? Not in the UK, I think – research references don’t go back much more than a decade.”

    Why limit ourselves to the UK? The first significant piece of work in this area was by Jean Chall in the U.S., and was published in – I think – 1967. Stanovich & West’s’s eye movement research disproving an important underpinning theory of Whole Language, which prompted them to start thinking about phonics, was published in the late 70s/early 80s.

    “What that doesn’t mean is that the quality of the experiments doesn’t matter.”

    I think you are making too much of Heather’s use of the Grant study to introduce her piece. It was probably an error on her part, since it provoked the response you have made, but surely few people would conclude from a single blog post that the whole body of SSP research is likely to be seriously flawed?

    “If there are people resisting SSP for ideological reasons or because it calls their professional competence into question, they are not going be persuaded by any amount of evidence”

    But this is missing the point: the intended audience for pieces like Heather’s isn’t the ideologues, who as you rightly say are unlikely to change their minds. Rather, it is the fence-sitters who read blogs but never comment (and there are many, many more of them than there are bloggers and commenters). These are the people whose minds are open to evidence, but who may well be misled by the tactics I described in an earlier post. That’s why those tactics need to be countered, and why I think simply referencing 3 or 4 key studies, as you suggest Heather should have done instead, is not the only appropriate way to approach this issue.

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