This inaugural episode of SeeHearSpeak podcast tackles the 'Reading Wars' with accomplished scholars Anne Castles and Kate Nation, authors of a recent comprehensive mega-paper that is sure to be THE go-to seminal write-up on this critically important discussion of reading instruction.
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Episode 1 Transcript
Episode 1: The Reading Wars with Anne Castles and Kate Nation, 10.26.2018
[Balti Music plays]
Episode 1 Introduction
(0:11) Tiffany Hogan: Welcome to Episode 1 of SeeHearSpeak Podcast. In this inaugural episode, I speak with accomplished scholars Anne Castle and Kate Nation about their recent paper on The Reading Wars. Though Anne is in Australia and Kate is in England I had the good fortune of catching them together in Australia. During our conversation they define the reading wars and tell us how they do rage on. They share some insider information about how the paper was published and its impact so far. We talk also about differences in reading instruction and policy across the US, Australia, and England. So enjoy, and thank you for listening.
[segment opens with the sound of ephemeral, musical chimes]
SeeHearSpeak Podcast Conversation with Anne and Kate
Introduction of podcast guests
(1:04) Tiffany Hogan: First, I want to thank you for being on the inaugural podcast, SeeHearSpeak, and I thought it would be best if you introduced yourselves and tell me a little bit about your… uh, you know, what you’re interested in, your title, place of employment.
(1:20) Anne Castles: Um, so, I’ll go first. I’m Anne Castles, and I’m a professor of cognitive science here at Macquarie University here in Sydney, Australia. I have been doing research in reading and, and reading difficulties for, well, longer than I like to admit (laughs), actually, ‘cause it shows my age, and I’m not willing to share that with the podcast. (all laugh) But for at least twenty years, I’ve been trying to, I guess, untangle how it is that children learn to read, and what it is that gets in their way, why children struggle and the very different ways that children can struggle.
(2:02) Kate Nation: And I’m Kate Nation. I’m from the U.K., even though I’m sitting here at the moment at Macquarie University in Australia. My main home, most of the time, is at the University of Oxford in England, United Kingdom. And, like Anne, I’ve been working in, uh, reading research for some years now. I think Anne, it may be a bit more than twenty years. (all laugh) And I’m particularly interested in how children learn to read words, how they become expert at reading words, why some children struggle to become expert. And I’ve also got an interest in reading comprehension, as well, and how children, and all of us, um, uh, construct meaning from the texts that we read.
(2:44) Tiffany Hogan: Well, so, we do have three speakers, but I think it will be fairly obvious who’s speaking based on our accents, since I have the strong Midwest U.S. accent (laughs), Anne Australian, and Kate British, so hopefully the listeners will be able to tell who we are when we speak. So I’ve asked you to talk today because you wrote this mammoth, amazing paper, over 50 pages. I don’t want to discourage anyone from reading it, but it is long, and every word is amazing, and it goes from, as you said in the title “Reading Acquisition; Novice to Expert: Ending the Reading Wars,” and I do want to note that there is a third author, Kathleen Rastle. When I originally asked the first author, Anne, to speak, I was very happy and lucky that Kate was going to be in Australia with her so I could get both of you together—that was real luck there. So, I want to start out by just having you explain, you know, this term “reading wars.” It’s so dramatic. And of course the main premise of writing the article, so what are the reading wars and, really, is the war still raging on?
What are the “reading wars”?
(3:48) Anne Castles: Well, I’ll start with that. I guess, really broadly speaking, the reading wars is a debate about how children should be taught to read. And at its most general level, it’s a debate about whether that instruction should be very explicit and targeted on, um, showing children these sort of teaching children the alphabetic nature of our writing system versus allowing them to essentially figure those things out for themselves. So the phonics side of the debate argue that the English writing system is a code, it’s a code for sound, and at the very initial stages of reading, the very best thing you can do to get children started in reading is to teach them that code, so teach them the relationships between the sounds, so-called phonics. That might also be thinking of individual letters, it could be what we call graphemes—they’re sets of letters that make a single sound, such as double-o for ‘u,’ for example. Teach those to children so that when they see a word, they can sound it out for themselves. And if they have that word in their vocabulary, for example, then they can also understand that word. Now against that is something that rose up very much in the, I guess, the ‘70s and ‘80s, which was a reaction to what was seen as perhaps being very boring, skill and drill-type teaching, um, of phonics, and a view more that reading is a very natural act, a bit like learning to talk, and you don’t need to explicitly teach children these sorts of things—they’ll pick it up through their reading. So the focus is much more on exposing children to texts. Rich, meaningful texts. Allowing them to learn to read essentially as they go along in reading, picking up cues from the context, um, using visual types of cues, and just essentially figuring it out for themselves. So that’s the broad debate. Perhaps Kate would like to give her impressions on whether she thinks they’re over (laughs)
(6:05) Kate Nation: It’s interesting to think how to best answer that question. I guess if we look at the scientific literature, the science of reading, the science of reading acquisition research, from a cognitive psychology perspective, the war seems pretty much over in the sense that there’s broad consensus in the scientific literature. And yes, of course there are outstanding research questions and there’s refinements, and we need to do more work always. There’s always more questions to be addressed. But broadly, I think most reading scientists would accept that children need to acquire phonic knowledge about how the alphabet works and so on, and how written language works, and that to teach that directly and explicitly is a good thing. That’s not to say that that’s all there is to reading, of course, and I think that part of the fueling of the reading war has come from the focus on those very early stages of reading without really thinking about everything else that has to go on alongside and certainly afterwards to bring about successful reading in a more global sense as opposed to just acquiring that phonic knowledge. But yes, I think in the, in the scientific literature, the wars are not raging. Out there in classrooms and so on, I mean, I think some of the feedback we’ve had in response to the article suggests that there are still debates to be had. And that there are still different perspectives out there which are impacting how children should be taught—or not taught.
What was the impetus to write this paper?
(7:39) Tiffany Hogan: Mhm. This paper, as I said, is so comprehensive, and you talk about the reading wars but you recount it, again, not just with phonics but you go into comprehension and what’s required across the span. And I’m wondering just a bit, before I even delve into more details about that span, what was really the impetus for you to write this paper? How did you come to publish it? Were there any difficulties publishing it? What was the impetus?
(8:06) Anne Castles: So, Kathy, Kate, and I had all been working in aspects of reading development—different aspects but complementary aspects. And I guess, when we got talking, we felt as though, perhaps one of the impediments to resolving the reading wars, at least, sort of, um, more in the public domain, was the fact… Was two things, really. The first one was, we felt that perhaps some of the literature tended to just sort of talk about… Yes, here’s the evidence that phonics works. Things like large meta-analyses which of course are very important, but that didn’t necessarily so much explain the why’s--why does phonics work, and we felt that maybe if we explained that, um, very as clearly and accessibly as we could, that that might help to clarify, uh, some of the points of difference. And the second reason was, as Kate alluded to, we felt as though perhaps not enough attention had been given to those other aspects of learning to read and teaching reading, which are really important, and so we felt as though if we wrote one article where we essentially tried to give a very accessible review of all of those things, as you say… It was big! (laughs)
Tiffany Hogan: Yeah, definitely.
(9:21) Anne Castles: We regretted, um, the decision to embark on that. Uh, late nights. Um, but we also felt that if you had all of that evidence in the one place, in a public access forum, that, um, was readable to professionals and teachers, that that might just help to, um, move the debate forward.
(9:47) Kate Nation: Yeah, and I guess that was, um, the choice of journal that we, uh, sent our papers to, was, was, influenced by that desire to communicate more broadly, uh, beyond the scientific literature and the Psychological Science in Public Interest, by its very title, appealed to us, and they have a commitment to open access, to, um, uh, supporting, um, public engagement with the work through the, um, Association for Psychological Science, um, website and so on. And sending the paperwork to various, um, policy-related people. So we felt that that was a good journal to, to target. So it went off there, and we had really good advice and support, the editorial team, and expert readers.
(10:35) Anne Castles: Yes, so we got some excellent feedback, which definitely made, uh, made the paper better, so it was a very good experience all-around. It was definitely hard work. But I think, also, all three of us as academics have always very much had a focus on impact and on translation. We love doing our experiments and sitting, poring over our data, but we also quite like to think that we can change aspects of the world for the better, and so this was certainly an effort on our part to do that.
Behind the “boxes” in the reading wars paper
(11:07) Tiffany Hogan: Mhm. Yes, I particularly like the, what you call, boxes, where you give some key information. I feel like the article could be used as a, a syllabus of sorts in a course like Reading and Writing. I teach Reading and Writing in the Schools and I’m thinking, “This is material I want to cover,” and it’s such a nice synthesis, I really appreciate that. I wonder, so…
Anne Castles: Kate has to get the credit for those. It was her suggestion.
(11:27) Kate Nation: I was… Thank you. Well, that’s good to hear. We were keen on the boxes, but there’s sort of, uh, a funny story there, because we made boxes and then, uh, sent the paper off. The reviewers were happy with the boxes. In fact, I think they ended up adding an extra box or two to make the connection. And when it got to the copy-editing stage, the copy-editor didn’t like the boxes…
Tiffany Hogan: Oh, no! (laughs)
Kate Nation: The journal hadn’t used boxes before, and this seemed to be something that wasn’t a good idea, and he wished for them to go in the text themselves as opposed to in boxes. And, um, this is where Anne gets the credit, because she, um, um, uh, uh…
(12:07) Anne Castles: Well he seemed to want… It was okay if there were boxes as long as they were called tables and then we had to turn them into a table. But of course that didn’t fit because we’ve got lots of tables… er, lots of pictures in there and things. And so finally, at one point, late at night, I sent an email to the copy-editor saying, “What about if we just essentially take a photograph of them and call them figures?” And he went, “Oh, fine!”
Tiffany Hogan: That’s right. You have to get it into his box of thinking. You know?
(12:34) Anne Castles: Well, we called them figures for awhile, and then gradually they became boxes again.
What drives the reading wars debate?
(12:40) Tiffany Hogan: They’re almost like infographics a bit. You know, that’s what I first thought, was, because they have the graphic components as well as descriptors, and I think they’re very very clear, which is nice. Um, so scientists, I think, I mean, people could argue, right, that scientists are a pretty logical lot. So what do you think is driving this continued debate when there’s so much scientific evidence for phonics instruction, and even just beyond phonics instruction, evidence for the way that reading acquisition unfolds over time?
(13:11) Anne Castles: Well, I think one of the things, and I’ve, I’ve certainly thought about this issue a lot… Certainly, I don’t think it helps when you get people on either side of the debate that are too black-and-white, um, because of course that just fuels division, but the other thing, um, is that, you know, there’s a lot of teachers out there who are extremely experienced and who’ve been teaching for a long time and who perhaps have been taught using particular methods that aren’t necessarily heavily phonics-based. There’s of course a lot of things called balanced literacy or multi-cueing or searchlight-type models which a lot of teachers were taught with. And we do know that there’s a significant proportion of children who will kind of learn to read no matter what the method. You know, there, there’s a lot of kids out there who sort of pick up phonics knowledge. They do pick it up, essentially, implicitly via their own reading experiences, or they don’t require extremely explicit instruction. Um, something a little bit less direct can work okay for them. So the point is that every teacher has experienced a significant degree of success. They’ve all seen kids learn to read perfectly well, um, whatever method they’ve been using. And so I can really understand it. It must be very hard, if you’re a teacher that’s been teaching for a long time and seen lots of children go on to become wonderful independent readers, when you haven’t necessarily taught phonics really explicitly, it can be very hard to accept a message that some scientist is telling you you should be doing it a different way. And so it’s all about being aware of the fact that we’re talking about, you know, on-balance and, particularly for struggling children, we know that a grounding in basic phonics is very important, but that’s not to say that, you know, every child would be illiterate. (laughs) Like, that wasn’t… I don’t know if you want to pick up on that, Kate.
(15:13) Kate Nation: Um, yeah I think that’s just to emphasize the point that you made at the start there, Anne, that sometimes people at the extremes are not helping their own positions, even, so for example, people who are, um, advocates for, um, synthetic phonics approaches, um, sometimes, you know, will say quite rightly and quite appropriately that phonics instruction is something like, you know, “necessary but not sufficient.” But then when there’s discussion of the things, you know the other things that are also necessary but not sufficient, that somehow waters down the phonics message. Um, and I can understand where that comes from, because of a desire and a, a, necessity, I guess, to point teachers to clarity, um, but in reality, it’s reading, it’s complex. It’s a big skill that takes time to develop. It’s variable, and as you know in your own work, Tiffany, it’s very multidimensional, multifaceted, and so on. So yes, we’ve all agreed phonics might be necessary, not sufficient. We also have to talk about the other bits without throwing out the baby with the bath water.
(16:22) Anne Castles: It’s interesting, isn’t it? It’s almost like in the attempt to provide clarity of message, there’s some loss of nuance. And that loss of nuance, of course, offsides a lot of people who know that nuance to be there, who therefore won’t accept the more direct message. So it’s an interesting question about communication, I think.
(16:44) Tiffany Hogan: I think that makes a lot of sense, and the way that you’ve covered it again broadly, from phonics to language, I think is important. As a speech language pathologist, I often encounter, you know, speech language pathologists saying, well language is so important, and like you said, Kate, that’s true. And language is important, but I always say that language is key, but that’s not what is going to teach word reading. Language is key for comprehension, and you have to have those two critical components. So it’s almost like you said, Anne, that nuance is difficult to get across, because you are saying yes, language is good, language is good, language is good, just not the way you teach word reading.
(17:22) Kate Nation: Exactly, at the start, that’s right, you know, there are some, you know, shared reading experiences that are really important in working with children and developing narrative and vocabulary and so on. But that, in and of itself, is not gonna allow children to work out how the alphabet works and how written language works. That’s not to say it’s not important, and it shouldn’t be going on at the same time in spoken language and in shared language, talking about books and stories and narratives and so on. But with all the, you know, will in the world, that is not going to teach children to learn to read words if they can’t even build their letters…you know, it’s just not gonna happen. Our remedy is for different aspects of the reading, um, and components of reading, and then likewise, all the alphabetic skills in the world are not gonna help you understand a complex text if you haven’t got those spoken language skills to drive your text comprehension.
(18:17) Anne Castles: I mean I think that’s right, and I think it is one of the reasons that the phonics side of things is so important, because teaching, as you’d well know, Tiffany, teaching language skills is extremely difficult and it’s something that happens over a… over the long term. There’s no quick fixes there, you know, it’s something that we really need to be working on, but how exactly to do that I think we have a lot still to learn. The thing about phonics is it’s a relatively constrained set of knowledge base, and you can teach it relatively quickly. You can get children on the path to reading, you know, many kids, most kids probably in six months or so, and so really, you kind of get bang for your buck with phonics, you know. You can get kids going. And that’s why it just makes so much sense to teach it in those initial months of reading. Because you can get children on path, and of course, as we well know, once children are reading for themselves, that’s a very, very big input to their language.
(19:20) Tiffany Hogan: Mhm, that makes sense. And I’m… I think you, I want to circle back to the point you made about how some children learn with whatever method and, that, but most children need this explicit instruction, especially those who would be… uh, struggle early on. And so, it does seem to be also a critical point that even though some children benefit from multiple methods, why not choose the method that you know will work for most children, especially those who might struggle, to mitigate some of those difficulties later on.
(19:54) Kate Nation: Yeah, um, I hear ya. I think I would say, though, that even for children who appear to develop good word reading skills without having explicit phonics instruction, you know, we have to ask questions about have they really got good word reading skills that generalize, what’s their spelling like, can they read unfamiliar, multisyllabic words? So is it the case that their phonic knowledge is really as secure as it would be had they have been taught by explicit, yes, much explicit methods. So you can get so far on implicit learning, and of course implicit learning in some ways is what it’s all about, because the alphabetic code’s very complex, very varied, and so on, but maybe that explicit learning and, and, and, and the co-aspects of developing your fluent knowledge is central for all children.
(20:46) Anne Castles: Yes, and I should clarify, I certainly wasn’t meaning to suggest from that that there’s a better way to teach those other children or that you shouldn’t worry about phonics with those children, or that they wouldn’t do better, again, if they had had explicit phonics. I was simply making the point that teachers see children who are reading fine, even when they perhaps haven’t engaged in really explicit phonics, and so they can have that perception. But, you know, we certainly know all children need to grasp the alphabetic principle to be good readers. And there’s work, interesting work with precocious readers, very young children, who do appear to pick up a lot of reading skill independently, you know, before they start school. But if you test those children, they’re all good decoders, they can all read nonwords. So they have picked up the alphabetic principle. They’ve just been able to do so with less explicit instruction than others. But their phonic knowledge is there, and we know that’s needed.
(21:49) Tiffany Hogan: I think that’s a really critical point that you’re making because if you use an approach that’s implicit, like let’s say the guessing from context, and you have a child who picks up on these patterns and maybe is just more readily and rapidly picks up on them, but they have more shallow understanding. So… And also, how far can that strategy get you, ultimately, for the depth of reading that’s required to comprehend in the later grades. So I think that’s a very important point, that it’s a depth.
(22:19) Anne Castles: And Kate touched on the, the connection with spelling’s a really important one too. Because spelling’s a really, I think, understudied area, but I think it’s… there’s a lot, at least some evidence that suggests it’s quite a key pathway to good word reading, you know. So teaching children new words via having to spell them is very effective. And to the extent that phonics supports spelling skills, I think even well past the initial stages of reading, um, that can be an important avenue to assisting reading.
(22:52) Tiffany Hogan: I think this is a, you know, I admit this is a bit of a simplification, but to me it seems that reading is more of the receptive portion, so you’re taking it in, versus, you know, spelling being that expressive portion. You want to have both of those, uh, faculties, well underway to be a literate person. And it’s bidirectional, like you said [Anne Castles interjects, saying ‘yeah’] and I think that’s critical as well.
So how did you--
(23:18) Anne Castles: That’s right, I mean, a bit of a perception that spelling, well, you know, doesn’t matter so much, you can just use the spell checker, but to the extent that it’s interacting with your reading ability, it does matter.
How are these debates different across nations?
(23:28) Tiffany Hogan: Yes, and it’s almost a task in and of itself to create better word reading, and I think you’re right, it’s underestimated in that way. [Pause] How do you think these… these debates are different across our nations? So how’s that playing out in Australia and the UK? And I can speak to the US perspective.
(23:46) Anne Castles: [laughs] Well I think the UK is certainly further progressed than Australia in terms of phonics actually having been, sort of incorporated in national policy. Kate, you can probably say something about that.
(23:59) Kate Nation: Yeah, well I should say it’s England, it’s a slightly different [multiple voices talking over] situation in Scotland is not the same as England and in Wales, again different. But in England, um, systematic phonics instruction, structured phonics instruction, has been part of the national curriculum for quite a number of years now, um, and in addition to it being part of the curriculum and the expectation that all children, when they enter school, which in England, children enter just before their fifth birthday, so four and a half…so they’re very young when they start to have formal instruction in reading, which is phonics…um…so in addition to that being in the national curriculum, it’s also, um, tested formally at the end of year 1. So after… after their first full year of primary education. And there’s a national assessment called the, um, “phonics screening check.” And to the extent that schools have to report children’s performance on, on, on phonics screening test has become known as a bit of a high-stakes test… Not high stakes for children, of course, because they’re just doing some reading with their teacher, but because of that reporting and so on, it has high stakes. Since the phonics screen’s been introduced, that’s really emphasized, and kind of solidified, the, the statutory element of having phonics instruction from the outset in, in, in English schools. And, if we take the metric… you know, if you look at the number of children who are achieving what’s considered to be the pass rate, uh, an acceptable level of performance by their age on the phonics screen, that’s gone up with each cohort that we… over the last five years or so, so children are getting better at doing whatever it is they have to do to achieve well on the phonics test. And I guess the inference from that is teachers are getting better at teaching what the national curriculum is asking them to.
Tiffany Hogan: That’s great.
(25:56) Kate Nation: What… What I guess in England because it’s a lot of people in England but it’s a small country and we don’t… Maybe this is what’s different to some extent with the U.S. and Australia whereby it’s more of a federal system…
(26:08) Anne Castles: That’s right… So that is one of the complexities in Australia, as you say, to be, there are also those differences in… Children start school about a year later in Australia than they do in England. I’m not sure how exactly that relates to the U.S.—you can probably fill us in on that—um, and certainly, there’ve been various national inquiries within Australia coming to the same conclusions as the National Reading Panel and the Rose Report proposing, um, systematic phonics should be taught. It is embedded in the curriculum, but there… until, um, recently, there has been no push for something like a phonics screen. That’s just come up in the last year or so to be, um, more of a push, so I think… It’s a bit of a joke in Australia that we tend to adopt whatever England does about five years later, so… [all laugh] we’re headed… we’re headed that way. But we will… be a very good thing, especially seeing the kind of effect that it has had, yes, probably downstream effect on the quality of reading instruction. I think the main thing in Australia is education is state-based. Um, uh, it’s run at a state level, and there’s just enormous amount of variability, um, across states and across individual schools within states. And so some are doing outstanding, excellent phonics instruction and some are hardly doing anything at all. So we haven’t got that sort of, um, more, uh, you know, national, um, sort of mandate or management of that.
(27:48) Tiffany Hogan: I would say that’s…
(27:50) Anne Castles: What’s it like in…
(27:51) Tiffany Hogan: Very similar in the U.S. Uh, quite similar, so it’s a federal system but states make the decisions, and it’s based on political party who’s leading those and making those decisions, and those winds can change quite dramatically, um, every four years or so. So it’s been hard, I think, to pin down, uh, a systematic curriculum. I don’t know how this it plays out… in the… I’m particularly interested in the U.K. I think here, we have different… Quite a bit of differences in teacher training. So if you, teachers come from, you know, a, a background where they’re taught very explicit phonics and they have that scientific basis, then you see that translate to the classroom. And if you see that they don’t come from that basis, which is more often than not, um, you know, you just don’t see that in the classroom. So still, it’s still a very strong foothold here. We also have a strong foothold… uh, Reading Recovery has a strong foothold here, and um, as you know, that’s using more of the whole-language approach. And so I think that, uh, you know, to the extent that Reading Recovery has been a mainstay for many schools, we don’t see that explicit phonics approach taken in those districts. Um, and I think that we…
(29:06) Anne Castles: That’s… true in Australia as well, um, Reading Recovery has been very, uh, strong here.
(29:12) Tiffany Hogan: Uh-huh. Yes, and I think, too, I, I… what I see is test scores, even though they’re not where they should be, there’s often a, a sense of… well, these chil… you know, “We need to focus on poverty,” for instance. Or “We need to focus on… uh, childhood trauma.” Or “We need to focus on multilingualism.” And those are the targets as opposed to saying, “What if we had systematic, explicit phonics?” What would that do for decoding that would then, you know… maybe truly even the playing field, as it’s thought, so I think sometimes we focus on the wrong aspects. Although those, it’s good to focus on, you know, making sure that children have food and that we’re focusing on poverty, we’re focusing on trauma and social-emotional support, I think that the idea that it has to be at the exclusion of… and it can’t… of, of systematic phonics, like one or the other, that’s what’s difficult for me to understand.
(30:10) Anne Castles and Kate Nation: Yeah.
(30:12) Tiffany Hogan: And you’re seeing that there, too, a bit?
Kate Nation: Um…
(30:21) Anne Castles: Well possibly not quite as much. I think another issue is that it, it, at least in Australia, sort of echoing that idea, I mean the curriculum itself is very crowded, in primary school. Uh, they do all sorts of, um, you know… Nothing wrong with any of the things that they do. It’s just, um, that there’s only so much time, um, and I think it can be extremely hard, uh, for teachers to try and fit into their day all the various things that they have to check off in order to, um, you know, meet the requirements of the current curriculum and that’s certainly something that’s been a bit of a subject of discussion in Australia as to whether the curriculum should perhaps be, uh, streamlined a little bit more to focus on those… the, what we see as the really core basic literacy and numeracy skills that children need.
[all begin talking.]
(32:01) Kate Nation: In England, we have… In England as well, this discussion point that the, uh… alongside the phonics curriculum is a lot of other stuff that’s in there, and things keep changing. You know, we have a lot of tests a lot of, um, national tests for children even in the primary school years and the... It’s almost as if the goalposts keep moving and what teachers are required to do… keeps changing. And, and, and really feel that loses some sense of stability here, so that teachers aren’t constantly having to rework things and rework things. And if I could wave a magic wand and think, can we support teachers at the point of initial teacher training…
Tiffany Hogan: Yes, yes.
(32:01) Kate Nation: So then, you know, it all feeds in from the bottom up and feeds its way into schools that way.
(32:07) Anne Castles: Yes. And then freedom to teach properly without [all speakers speaking at once, in agreement] interference, yes.
Is the England ‘phonics check’ approach ideal?
(32:15) Tiffany Hogan: Yeah, that’s what I was wondering. It seems like ideal… like what you have implemented now in England is fairly ideal, but I’m wondering, you know, is that actually affecting the college curriculum, or not? And what do you think about me thinking it’s ideal?
(32:31) Kate Nation: I think, um, uh, practitioners and teachers in England wouldn’t think it was ideal yet, um, um, in the sense that there’s still a lot of variation, you know? There’s still a lot of different ways you can train to be a teacher in England. You can do, um, an undergraduate Bachelor of Education degree for four years, you can do a degree in, um, some of the subject, geography, and then do a one-year sort of training course to enable you to become a teacher. There’s now more, um, sort of, in-service training as well, where you, you, you learn to be a teacher in posts in school with college-type, um, arrangements. And, things are different in different places. And although broadly, there is the curriculum, different institutions might emphasize different parts of it. And people tell me… I mean, this is not work I’m involved in directly but… tell me that, that the quality of provision varies enormously between different training, um, providers. And I still hear that some, um, training courses, the amount of time dedicated to how children learn to read and how one can teach reading is really, really limited. So I think we’re a far way from ideal. (laughs) We’re still so far from ideal in England, perhaps moving in the right direction.
Does phonics strip children of rich language experience?
(33:54) Tiffany Hogan: Have you received… What do… Okay, so you had a section in the paper that was about misperceptions about phonics. And one of them related to language. So, what do you say to teachers who say, you know, phonics is stripping children of rich language experiences; it’s so void of what a child needs to learn at those ages. What, what do you say to that? ‘Cause I think that’s a core argument.
(34:24) Kate Nation: Yeah. Well I, I, I think it’s wrong, you know, that argument, in the sense that what robs children of rich language experiences is not being able to read, and, um, you know, how… I can’t really understand that argument in that it just seems to be upside down. It’s a humpty dumpty-type argument.
Tiffany Hogan: I agree.
(34:46) Kate Nation: And of course, at the outset, if a child is, you know, five years of age and only just beginning to learn about letters and start to make, you know, links and mappings between graphemes and phonemes and so on, anything they read themselves in a sort of independent way will of course be limited, because they only know a little bit, you know? But that, you know, that’s the starting point. It’s not the end point. And… but with that starting point, we can now, with time, with practice, they can develop the skills that they can read anything, you know? Um, the rich exposure to literature and to the wonders of language and creativity and firing the imagination and so on, of course is absolutely vital. There’s, there’s no disagreement there, either. But that’s not how you’re teaching them reading; that’s the way that you experience language through texts, through talking about books, talking about ideas in books and so on. And then when the children’s reading skills themselves are at a level that they can cope with those sorts of more challenging texts, of course they have to be provided with challenging texts. And challenged on those texts, you know, in a more interactive way, and discussion with the teacher, with other… with peers and adults and so on about, you know, not just reading a book but talking about the book, and the ideas and things. But that doesn’t work if you can’t read the words in the first place. So I really struggle to understand why that argument continues to have currency.
(36:11) Anne Castles: Um, Rebecca Treiman, in her commentary on our paper, touches on this as well, I think it’s a really important point, that perhaps the misunderstanding, from the, sort of broadly speaking, whole-language side is very much this entrenched idea that reading, shared reading, reading to children, reading with children, helps them learn to read. Um, now, reading to children and reading with children is absolutely wonderful and, you know, we all want to do that with children as early as possible, as soon as they can understand language. But there are numerous studies to show that although it’s very important for things like vocabulary development, um, broader language development, it doesn’t teach children to read. When you, when parents sit and read with children, children don’t look at the words. Um, they look at their parent or they look at the pictures. And so, we know that those activities are wonderful from the language side of things, but not from the learning to read side of things, which is… the learning to read words side of things. Um, those skills that we need children to have, so… this is why you can’t set those things up against each other. You have to have the teaching of reading, and then separately from that, you have to have these, these wonderful reading experiences. And then as Kate says, once children are able to read independently, then they come together.
(37:38) Tiffany Hogan: I think that another point that I hear… I think that’s great, and makes a lot of sense. Another point I hear is that people say, “Phonics is so boring. The children seem so bored, and they’re just becoming robots,” and I think to myself, “Have you been in the classroom looking at explicit phonics lately? It’s actually quite active and engaging, and children are enjoying this. They’re cracking the code. It’s a mystery and they’re learning about it. So I think that sometimes, teachers are basing it on, uh, the weakest level of phonics or something, or you know, the weakest approach they’ve seen. What they think, or envision it could be, and I wish that we’d have a better sense of, um, you know, from that view, “Well, it’s not like that in classrooms.” It really is not. It’s not stripping them of their soul. [Laughs] They’re, you know, they’re not just, oh, just becoming, just robots. It, it doesn’t happen that way. It’s actually quite the opposite.
(38:36) Anne Castles: You’re absolutely right. And, and of course the other thing is, too, there’s nothing that kids love more than succeeding in something, you know? Most kids I know… You can never let them lose a game, you know?
Tiffany Hogan: Yes!
Anne Castles: And so when kids are… You know, the look on their faces… So many parents say this to me, you know, after their children have, perhaps, had some intervention, you know the look on their child’s face when they successfully read a little book for themselves, you know, it’s, it’s absolutely priceless. And they, they love it. You know, and as you say, so many of the activities are loads of fun as well. And they’re learning something that they can apply immediately. That’s really rewarding for children.
Feedback on the reading wars paper
(39:16) Tiffany Hogan: I agree. I think that makes a lot of sense. Well, as we start to think about wrapping up, I’m wondering… You mentioned about the fallout… Not fallout… That you think the, the reading wars are raging on because of some of the feedback you’ve received on the paper. So what has been some of that feedback? And how are you feeling about that feedback? How has it shaped your continued thinking about the reading wars?
(39:39) Kate Nation: Um, I guess maybe the phonics debates that you’re involved in, Anne, there’s a sense of …
Tiffany Hogan: That was my next question, actually.
Kate Nation: It’s a philosophical debate, really, I guess, between, um, a phonics first-type approach…
Anne Castles: Yes.
Kate Nation: and something that’s more whole-language-like.
(40:01) Anne Castles: Yes. I mean in general, I think we’ve been very happy with the feedback from the point of view that, um, most people seem to feel that it did find some balance, and, and, you know, kind of tried and successfully represented, um, you know, the various perspectives on the way you look at this. Um, there were sort of people who were perhaps more on the extreme side at both ends who were unhappy with things that we said. And in a way we saw that as kind of a good thing. (Laughs.)
Kate Nation: Exactly.
Anne Castles: It sort of suggests that we, we, we found something that was, that was sort of an accurate, or not accurate but a, a reasonable, um, not compromise, but, a reasonable reflection, um, of, of what we see as being the reality of the evidence. Um, yes. And I suppose the difficult thing is, or perhaps slightly the mistake from our point of view, is I suspect that writing a paper called “Ending the Reading Wars” (All laugh) may not necessarily… it may just spark them right back up again. (All laugh.) The phonics debate that I participated in… that many people watched… Um, I mean, you could just see from that debate just how, how divided, uh, the views are, particularly represented by those coming more from a, uh, a reading science, psychological science side versus the education science side, which is just a very different perspective and a complete philosophical difference in how you approach the whole idea of learning to read. And it’s when you see that divide that you realize just how much work there is still to be done.
What is the expected outcome for the paper?
(41:51) Tiffany Hogan: I thought that… I was very dis… I was disheartened by the debate a bit, um, so I, I thought that… I wasn’t, I was surprised that it was so wide of a gap. I think, you know, we become so insular to the people that we speak with, and we, we see the progress that we want to see. So I was a little surprised, so… I do, I was going to ask you what you thought the best outcome for your paper would be, but I thought, well the title kind of says it all! (Laughs) What you expect…
Anne Castles: Yeah, uh, I mean I think what we would have really, ideally hoped for was to get to a point where educators, practitioners, and researchers could have by all means debate and discussion, but productive, fruitful debate and discussion that was around the evidence. Um, which is not to say of course there can be wonderful input that you can get from teachers on their experiences, which then cycle back to the kinds of research that, that reading scientists might do, but we would love to see it become a point where, this is not seen as being something where you have to choose a side, but something… And I think what we’d also love to see is more talk between academics and practitioners, ‘cause we’re very aware of the limits of what we know, sort of in terms of, um, practice in the classroom. It’s obviously extremely important, and we want to, we, we want that feedback and that information, but because of the way this debate often plays out, the kinds of conversations we need to have aren’t having… aren’t being had, so we would love for that to happen.
Kate Nation: Yeah, Anne, I agree. I think, um, I certainly feel very grateful for some of the links with teachers and education professionals that I have where I challenge thinking and, and say, “Okay, explain these things on the basis of, okay, with a laboratory experiment. How about in the context of my classroom, where children have… wider different levels of language, you have different levels of parental support, and you might be learning English in the context of a different first language in the home.” All these sorts of complexities, you know. And we, you know, we have to listen to that and appreciate that, and that closer engagement drives knowledge forward, and, and would lead to much better impact of our research, so I think with all work in our country, you have Tiffany as well, and I know Anne has, and I certainly have with my colleagues back home, it can work and everybody can benefit from that closer engagement, that means the respectful, evidencing-informed, and keeping question in mind, at or the, the, the, uh, the goal in mind, which is to figure this out. So I think it can happen, and I guess what would be lovely to see is that happening, uh, at scale. So it, yes, it, it scales up so that all practitioners, all research scientists, can appreciate and benefit from this sort of virtuous circle between practice, research, theory, practice, and so on.
(45:10) Tiffany Hogan: Mhm. I think you’re right. It’s, it’s… We’re up against human nature, but the more open we are to understand different perspectives and the more shared purpose we have, then we will get to the goal, which is to get all children read… to learn to read in the best way possible.
Kate Nation: We talked about links between, um, sort of researchers or scientists and, and practitioners, but also, you know, we talked about teachers. We haven’t yet really talked about speech pathologists, the amazing skills and knowledge that a speech therapist, speech pathologist has, and how we can think about bringing others into the teaching of reading, and practice more centrally. And I’m not saying that speech therapists should be doing that teaching, but knowledge that you have and that you, your students have is so relevant for what someone who’s been teaching reading needs to know.
(46:00) Tiffany Hogan: Yeah, thank you for saying that. I think it’s also very important, but I do see that same kind of resistance and feeling… Well it’s not really resistance, I think it’s just confidence and training… Because the speech pathologists I encounter will often say, “I feel really good about what I can contribute to comprehension, processes.” But when it comes to word reading, there’s a bit more insecurity. Um, I’m actually working a special issue of Language, Speech [and] Hearing Services in Schools that’s coming out next month that’s for speech pathologists focused on dyslexia, in particular, but also just thinking about word reading. And so I think that, um, my message is to think about, yes, comprehension processes are something that we maybe feel more comfortable with, but we should try to be more comfortable with our role in word reading as well, because we have so much to offer in terms of phonetics, phonology, semantic processes, everything…
Kate Nation: Something to offer with all children, not just the children who are struggling.
Tiffany Hogan: Yes. Absolutely.
Kate Nation: The same language for all children… It’s the same language for all children. And it’s the same knowledge base of how language works, and how written language works that’s relevant to teaching all children, not just those with a, a label or a special educational need.
(47:11) Tiffany Hogan: Yes. And I’m really pushing for the training programs, ‘cause I think it starts there. So, in speech pathology, you know, it’s only been a couple decades in our field that we’ve even had this clear roles and responsibilities in literacy. And so programs have since tried to offer courses and offer that material, but it’s only to the extent that they can offer that material confidently themselves that then new speech pathologists can say, “Oh, yeah, I get my role in this area.” So I think that’s important, too, um, for how we work together. Absolutely.
What are you working on that you are most excited about right now?
(47:46) Tiffany Hogan: Well that is a great conversation. I have two questions that I always want to ask at the end of my podcast. And that is, first, what are you each working on that you’re most excited about right now? I know you’ve been really talking a lot about this particular article, but you have such diverse research interests just across the board. What are you most excited about right now?
Anne Castles: Who wants to go first?
(48:12) Anne Castles: It’s always fun to start first. [Tiffany agrees “yes”] I’m doing lots of things. Probably the thing that I’m finding really exciting in the moment is actually some work we’re doing really looking at children’s, sort of, dynamic processing when they’re seeing new words for the first time. So we’re taking advantage—I’m a bit of a technology nut—I don’t necessarily embrace this sort of thing but we’re taking advantage of new mobile facilities that allow you to monitor children’s eye movements as they’re reading. Which means that you can really get, sort of, literally, a window into what’s happening, you know, in the child’s mind at the moment that reading unfolds. And so we’re doing some experimental work there where we often teach and manipulate things, like we teach children the oral form of words, or it’s meanings, and then we present these new words in written form for the very first time and we just look at what happens. How long do they look at the words as a function of the things they know about it or the things they don’t know about it? And I think it’s got real potential for, um, application as well, because we’ll be able to get a really, much more fine grained idea, about what’s the sort of, how can you set children up, so that when they do see words in written form, they’re best able to make, you know, to learn those words and link them with what they know about meaning and about their pronunciation. Or start to figure out that information for themselves. So…I suppose I should let Kate speak, she’s--
Tiffany Hogan: Well that’s just cool work, Anne, I think that sounds amazing.
(49:54) Kate Nation: Yeah, well, I’m also really excited by that work. For some time now, I’ve been interested in dynamics of comprehension processes as they unfold in real time as children read text and all the work taking that approach and applying it to word reading problems is really exciting, and I agree very much. The other thing I’m beginning to work on at the moment is, um, we’ve got a new project starting in January and we’re looking for the post-doc researcher…so if any of you are tuning in and interested in a couple of years in the UK you know what to do. Um, so this is a project that we’re really trying to do about shared reading, a little bit more, and think about what is it about written language, about text, that’s different to spoken language. So we know from decades of research that spoken language sets the scene for children’s reading development, broadly speaking. Children who have good language and it’s spoken to then go on to have poorer language, generally speaking. So we know spoken language feeds into written language. But we also know that written language is different to spoken language in important ways, so even books that are written for preschoolers contain vocabulary that’s much more complicated and much more varied than the vocabulary that happens in every day conversations. We also know that books written for preschoolers tend to use syntax which is more complicated than the sorts of syntactic structures children hear in their everyday conversations. So what follows in this, as children are hearing, as children are encountering written text by hearing it, by shared reading, they’re already getting an introduction to the language of the book. And that’s what’s really critical for driving reading comprehension processes, you know. Spoken language gets you going, but if reading comprehension relied just on spoken language experience, it would be very impoverished compared to the sort of syntax, the sort of vocabulary, the sort of content that is in written languages, which is why there are situations why written language is different to spoken language, which I don’t want to ??? Anyways, our project is trying to make that handle on what is it about book language that is different to conversational language in the early years…how can we help children experience book language if they haven’t experience it naturally via having lots of shared reading experience in the home, and how can we do things in that initial period of school to promote book language in a way that’s sort of optimal so that the kids who haven’t can experience it…perhaps because they have an English as an additional language or they’re growing up and disadvantaged can catch up a little bit more than just leaving than to hope for the best. Very exciting.
Tiffany Hogan: That sounds awesome! That sounds really great too, because it also speaks to this idea of how to balance—and I like—you said in the paper that balanced literacy has been kind of hijacked for whole language but I like how you said that balanced instruction, I believe, you said in the paper, and I think that really speaks to it, Kate, because you’re saying you can teach the systematic, explicit phonics, but then you’re thinking how do we get this complex language through books, um, and we know that children obviously can’t read, you know, they’re limited by their word reading early on, but they can listen to complex text
(52:22) Kate Nation: They can listen and they can talk.
What are your favorite children’s books?
(52:25) Tiffany Hogan: Yeah, they can talk and listen! So that’s really quite fantastic! Well, that’s a nice segue to ask you the next question, which is what is your favorite children’s book? And it’s either from your childhood or one published more recently.
Anne Castles: [laughs] I think Kate should go first because I already know what her answer is here.
Kate Nation: Yeah, it’s a little bit embarrassing really, but it’s What Katie Did.
Kate Nation: I’m known by everyone as Kate, but my official name is Katie--
Tiffany Hogan: Oh, I love it.
Anne Castles: You’ve outed yourself!
Kate Nation: Yeah, I’ve outed myself--
Tiffany Hogan: Love it!
(53:59) Kate Nation: And so you know I loved to read as a child and so on. And it has special memories for me, as well as it being my name, but I remember receiving a book token as a present one Christmas and going to the shop to choose this book. And I decided to buy—I already had a What Katie Did--but I liked it so much I saw this, sort of, hardback edition that wasn’t leather but sort looked like pseudo leather with gold letter in the front, and I could just get it with my book token and it was one of the most exciting things. And, uh, I still have it.
Tiffany Hogan: Oh, you do!
Kate Nation: I still have it. So you know, so many other books I could choose now, and children’s books are utterly amazing--
Tiffany Hogan: Oh, they are.
(54:43) Kate Nation: …getting into Twitter is following some teachers who are really passionate about children’s books and picture books for children and the glory of children’s books and just seeing them all come up on Twitter, I just want to open a children’s book shop and be sitting in it all day long.
Tiffany Hogan: Absolutely, I completely agree! That’s fantastic.
Anne Castles: And while Kate and I give away what nerdy little girls we obviously were, my favorite of all time was probably Heidi. And it’s funny, I think about it in the context of, you know, this sort of Harry Potter era that we’ve been in for so long because I was never at all interested in magic, or fantasy, or anything like that—I wanted books that were about everyday people in everyday situations. I loved stories like Heidi, where, you know, the simple pleasures of life in the mountains and fresh air and good cheese—and ideally, of course, what would have to happen by the end is that some child in a wheelchair would stand up and walk thanks to the benefits of the fresh air.
Tiffany Hogan: The miracle!
(55:52) Anne Castles: I think we need miracles! And Heidi was my favorite but there were several in that genre. I mean, I loved The Secret Garden as well. It was very similar in that sort of way. And all of the Little House on the Prairie books, of course, were also, I think, a favorite, so you know (laughs), there was a definite theme there.
Tiffany Hogan: Well I loved Nancy Drew books so--
Anne Castles: Oh, I loved them too.
Kate Nation: Yeah!
Tiffany Hogan: So I always laugh and say, well it’s not surprising I’m a scientist, because I love a good mystery, you know. Let’s get down to the clues—I just read ‘em all. The Hardy Boys, all of them. I just loved those books and the mystery behind them. I think science is a bit of a mystery, too, so…I can tap into my inner Nancy Drew.
[segment closes with the sound of ephemeral, musical chimes]
Episode 1 Wrap-up
Tiffany Hogan: Check out www.seehearspeakpodcast.com for helpful resources associated with this podcast, including, for example, the podcast transcript, open access articles, and speaker bios. Thank you for listening, and good luck to you, making the world a better place by helping one child at a time.