Introduction to SSP - Module 1 transcript

Let's dive into the research base of structured literacy.

This is the beautiful Louisa Moats. She has this amazing quote that I think lays it out so well. Essentially, the Science of Reading is the emerging consensus from many related disciplines based on literally thousands of studies. These studies have revealed what kind of instruction is most likely to work the best for the most students.

We can't go into our local university and find the Science of Reading Faculty, it's not a thing, but what we can do is understand that the research evidence comes from so many different areas and has been conducted for so long, that there are some things that we can be quite certain and comfortable are the best way to go in our instruction. 

Now as a teacher, we're not going to be able to find all that research and read it for ourselves, we don’t have to. We are incredibly lucky to have some reports that share the fundamental research findings with us.

The first one is the National Reading Panel report from the US and this one was released in 2000.

The second one is the Teaching Reading Report. It’s the reported recommendations from Australia and it’s from the National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy, this one is from 2005.

In 2006 England released their own report, often called the Rose Report, which is the Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading.

Now while the dates on these are getting on a little bit, we can be sure that the bulk of what we see in these reports is still very reliable. 

I was listening to a podcast today talking about the fact that the researchers think that there are not going to be major shifts. There will be tweaks and there will be new research that comes up and we need to be ready to respond, but we are not going to in five years all of a sudden discover “Oh! All this research is wrong, and we have to do things differently now.” So, rest assured that what you read about in these reports is reliable and you can have confidence that it will steer you in the right direction. 

Let’s have a little look at some of the findings of these different reports.

So, this first one is from the National Reading Panel. “Findings provide solid support for the conclusion that systematic phonics instruction makes a bigger contribution to children's growth in reading than alternative programs providing unsystematic or no phonics instruction.” And the National Reading Panel is very clear that systematic explicit teaching of phonics is the best way to help the most children to learn to read. 

From our own Australian report, “the committee recommends that teachers provide systematic direct and explicit phonics instruction so that children master the essential alphabetic code-breaking skills required for foundational reading proficiency. Equally, that teachers provide an integrated approach to reading that supports the development of oral language, vocabulary, grammar, reading fluency, comprehension, and the literacies of new technologies.” While we are going to hear a lot about phonics, phonics is not the whole box and dice, and we will be covering that in this course. 

And from the Rose Report, “…furthermore, it is generally accepted that it is harder to learn to read and write in English because the relationship between sounds and letters is more complex than in many other alphabetic languages. It is therefore crucial to teach phonics work systematically, regularly and explicitly because children are highly unlikely to work out this relationship for themselves.”

I think the key takeaway from these three reports is that explicit, systematic instruction is the preferred method for teaching decoding, and that’s the point of phonics. We will look at the way that automatic reading comes about in a future module.

Those reports are not the only source of information for us. We can see that here there are some fantastic books; there are many and these are just some that I myself and I know that others have found particularly useful.

Louisa Cooke Moats’ Speech to Print is in its third edition and a fantastic read.

Mark Seidenberg’s Language at the Speed of Sight is less a practical text and more an academic one, but a very good read and something that will really help strengthen your understandings of the foundations of the reading science.

David Kilpatrick’s Essentials, a fantastic read, as is Stanislas Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain.

So, you can see here that we have this range of people, a range of researchers from different backgrounds, all contributing to our understanding of how we learn to read. 

There are other areas of research that influence reading instruction and one of the biggies is cognitive load theory. So, you can find these papers freely available for you to download and have a read of what they say and then Stanislas Dehaene has another book called How We Learn. This book really talks about literally how we learn from when we are babies, and all the way through to four pillars that underpin all learning in the classroom. 

We are going to step away from that for a moment and switch back to cognitive load. Cognitive Load Theory is a game changer. It helps us understand how we process, and the considerations we have to provide when we are in the classroom. Cognitive load is, in essence, the amount of information that working memory can hold at one time, and you will have a different level of cognitive load capacity than the person next to you. It’s part of our individual difference and the diversity that exists within our population. 

Intrinsic load is the inherent complexity of the thing we are asking the child to learn compared with their prior knowledge. So, you can present one task to five children and each child will view that or experience that as having a different level of intrinsic load because of their processing capacity, the way that they hold things in memory and work with it, and also the background knowledge and skills that they possess. 

Extraneous load is any extra pressure that takes our attention away from the thing that we are trying to learn. So, if the vocabulary is really complex or if we've not provided enough support, that can put extraneous load on the child and make it harder for them to learn.

Then we get to the good stuff. This is the germane or generative load. This is the good load that actually makes learning happen. It’s where we are able to build connections and say “Oh! OK, I know how to do that, now I can build on it”.

[The slide shows an illustration of a barrel shape divided into equal thirds. The bottom third is labelled intrinsic load; the middle third is labelled extraneous; and the top third is labelled germane.]

Let’s unpack some scenarios around cognitive load.

So, let’s take this example here, and this is one that we see often for our novice readers. [The slide is labelled ‘Maximising germane load’. It shows a similar illustration of a barrel shape, but now divided into unequal layers. The bottom third is labelled intrinsic load; the middle half is labelled extraneous; and the top smallest section is labelled germane.] We have that intrinsic load of the book. Now if we are presenting the child with a text that we are asking them to decode that is full of phoneme-grapheme correspondences – and we are going to get into that a little bit later – that’s full of phoneme-grapheme correspondences that they don’t know, so, lots of letter-sounds that they haven’t learned yet, then the intrinsic load of that task could very well be high. Then we ask them to do it on their own. We give them this book for home reading, and even though their parents are there, it’s still means essentially, we are asking them to do it by themselves. That leaves very little room for the good stuff, for the learning to happen.

Let’s look at how we can adjust practice to maximise the cognitive load capacity of the child.

So, we can see here automatically we have a smaller intrinsic load. [The slide shows a similar illustration of a barrel shape, but now divided into different unequal layers. The bottom quarter is labelled intrinsic load; the next quarter is labelled extraneous; and the top half is labelled germane.] This is what happens when we present a decodable text, for example, or one that contains the phonemes and graphemes that the child knows. The intrinsic load is still there. We never want to eliminate that because then there is no learning. There needs to be a certain level of challenge, but it needs to be manageable. Then if we provide the opportunity for the child to read this book, say in a partner opportunity or with you as a teacher guiding, now we are minimising the extraneous load. 

There is always going to be some extraneous load, we don’t exist in a bubble, but we can absolutely take steps to minimise it so that we can maximise that germane or generative load. Look at the difference there. So, when we are thinking about how we design instruction in our classrooms, this is what we are going for, this version on the right, we want to avoid the one on the left as much as possible.

Now, coming back now to Dehaene’s four pillars – and you can read about this more in this book and there is an audiobook also available – those four pillars are:

  • attention
  • active engagement
  • corrective feedback and

It’s really important to note that Dehaene talks about the fact that if any one of these pillars is missing learning could very well fall over.

So, let’s look at a little more about these pillars.

The first one is attention, and he talks about the fact that we can actually only pay attention to one thing at a time. Multitasking is a myth. If there is more than one thing to pay attention to, one of the things just has to wait its turn while we attend to the other.

Think about when we want children to write something, and they are still learning to think about the sounds, they are learning to encode. They are still a bit wobbly on “which letter do I write for which sound?” and then their handwriting is wobbly as well. Now we are putting potentially an extreme amount of cognitive load on them, and they don’t know which bit they are supposed to pay attention to. Are they paying attention to handwriting? Are they paying attention to the encoding? Are they paying attention to thinking about the words they are going to write? So, we need to be really clear about what we want children to pay attention to. Dehaene talks about the fact that directing student attention is one of the most important jobs that we have as a teacher.

The second pillar is active engagement. Children learn efficiently only if they are attentive, focused and active in generating mental models. That is, they both think about content and do something with it in the course of learning. Copying is the enemy of learning. It is one of the most passive things that we can ask children to do.

The third pillar is corrective feedback. Now this error signal is really crucial and it’s internal. It’s not saying everything you’ve ever done is wrong but that there is a difference between what the student was expecting and what they saw. So, for our little people particularly, expecting that they are going to just notice this correction (even if we give them a model) is not very realistic. So, we need an adult there, or as they become more skilled a partner, to help provide that corrective feedback.

Finally, consolidation. I talked back at that first pillar about that challenge of when we are asking children to write and they’re wobbly all over the place with a whole range of things we need them to actually consolidate. They have to become automatic. That word there, automaticity, is really crucial. So, we have to provide lots and lots and lots of practice and monitor skills development so that children have the time they need. Give yourself permission to give them time to develop strength and automaticity, otherwise we run the very real risk of overloading their working memory.

So, let’s recap that module.

  • The greatest asset we have in building strong literacy results is our own knowledge and expertise.
  • The Science of Reading is not a fad or a program, but the evidence-base of thousands of research studies across multiple disciplines. There are many aspects of this that are now considered settled science.
  • Teachers can access the findings of this research through several key reports and quality publications, including the freely available reports from the US National Reading Panel, the Australian National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy, and of course that Rose Report.
  • Other key research that informs the way we teach reading includes Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory, and Stanislas Dehaene’s Four Pillars of Learning Framework.

When we put all of that together, it may be shifting our thoughts around how we teach reading significantly and we are going to get into that in the coming modules. I'll see you there.