Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Cause and effect

Two postings ago I wrote that English literacy teaching practices seem to be based on belief systems rather than high quality evidence-based research. This assertion deserves further clarification. One overarching belief that needs tackling is that the achievement of basic literacy skills happens as a result of what is taught in schools. Curiously, out of the thousands of research papers written on the subject of literacy, I am not aware of a single one that demonstrates causality, i.e. that the literacy tuition that pupils receive actually causes them to learn to read and spell. The evidence from large scale studies indicates that around 50% of those speaking English as a first language learn to read quite fluently, with about half of them also learning to spell accurately. There is also considerable evidence that this outcome can be reached from diametrically opposed teaching practices, e.g. whole word or traditional phonics. Furthermore, we know that many children learn to read before actually arriving at school by just attending to the text of stories read to them by parents, siblings, etc. These children would appear to have brains that can visually match text with what is being spoken and thereby deduce the English alphabet code. It could be that this is the process followed by all of this 50% of pupils who end up being able to read properly, even though, for some, the amount of exposure to written text needs to be much greater than it is for others. The longer pupils spend in school, the more opportunities they have to hear words and sentences read accurately whilst they are actually looking at them, and it may purely be this that leads to them learning to read rather than any other activities that are going on.
In the absence of any quality research that demonstrates a causative link between the achievement of reading and spelling skills, a hypothesis worth investigating further is that: English speaking children have NOT become able to read and spell as a direct result of the way in which they are taught in school.
In scientific thinking, the usefulness of any idea is the extent to which it helps us to understand things that previously we didn't. So, what are the implications of the idea that traditional teaching practices don’t actually teach literacy? I suggest this merits some careful consideration and reflection., so I will be posting again about it shortly.

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