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RRF Newsletter 53 back to contents
Teaching teachers to teACH READING: rocket science? Mona McNee

In November 2003, David Boulton, co-producer and creator of a project called ‘Children of the Code’, had two telephone conversations with Dr Louisa Moats, who ‘specializes in the implementation of schoolwide interventions for improving literacy’. These conversations were then published on the internet. David Boulton and Louisa Moats are based in the USA , and the Children of the Code project was undertaken with a view to programmes being broadcast on national television there, starting in September 2004. It is planned to issue a companion book and DVD series early in 2005.  

Both Mr Boulton and Dr Moats are very much aware of the flaws in the current teaching of reading and of the cost of such flawed teaching. What drives Dr Moats? ‘It is the whole realization of the difference between what is and what could be for kids’ lives, and then on the other end of things, seeing at every level what is not happening that could happen to prepare teachers to address the needs of so many individuals who could benefit from informed instruction and who don’t get it because our whole educational system from start to finish is simply not set up to ensure that people do learn to read’.  

David Boulton said that he had ‘recently interviewed a leader of a reading organization and was flabbergasted at the suggestion that the problem was not really about children learning their way through the code, that children should be relying on other kinds of guessing strategies. My jaw dropped’ – yet he and Dr Moats agree that that is the most commonly held belief. Mr Boulton said that ‘According to Reid Lyon and James Wendorf, 95% of the children that are struggling with reading are instructional casualties’.  

Mr Boulton says that reading failure is ‘costing us [the USA ] more than all the wars we are engaged in, combined’. He knows that ‘there’s almost an actual active inertia resistance on the part of the entrenched systems’, and both he and Dr Moats are passionate about this and the extent of the failure and its origin.  

Dr Moats has spent most of the last 40 years in academia. She worked for four years with schools in Washington DC , but has spent a lot of time outside schools and is currently working on the training of teachers. Having spent so much time at higher levels of study, she is aware of a ‘whole repertoire of behaviours involved in teaching that are very easy to mess up’. She feels that once teachers are on the right track, ‘for the good ones who really get good at this, it takes several years or more. That is what I mean by rocket science’. This would mean ‘study of linguistics, reading psychology and cognitive psychology, which would include simple and complex syntax, phonemes and phonology and orthography’. She has found many teachers who confuse sounds and letters, who would say that in the word ‘know’ there are four sounds, instead of two, the same as in ‘no’. She is now also working in schools. Even now, is she working with strugglers? I think that a year or two of teaching real beginners would help Moats to simplify her ideas for everyday work with infants.  

We ought to learn to read as infants, and at that level it need not be rocket science. Indeed, the simpler the better. Teachers need little or no training, once they walk away from Goodman and the idea that reading is a ‘psycholinguistic guessing-game’. Many parents have taught their children with no training at all. It is noteworthy that Moats speaks always of speech-sound processing, in contrast to David Boulton who speaks (as I do) of letter-sound relationships and ‘processing this code into...speech’. Because the written code was invented to represent spoken words, and the spoken words came first, Moats thinks you should start with sounds and how to spell them. I would like her to find a few schools that teach the other way round (letters and how to sound them out – decoding) and then compare the results objectively.  

Moats writes, of trainee-teachers, ‘If you don’t understand language processing and code acquisition, then you’re going to be easy prey for people who come along with whole language theories because they seem to make intuitive sense and you won’t really know why they don’t make sense’. Many of us share her belief that student teachers have been beguiled by plausible ideas because they lack the solid facts to refute them.  

There is some discussion of basic and proficient reading. I would like some definition of these terms: e.g. the level (perhaps of reading age) at which children move on from basic to proficient. We would all agree that phonics is necessary but not sufficient for real proficiency. Surely, though, students who are training to teach infants would benefit from being led into teaching reading in simple terms, so that they know that the full complexity comes only later, at the ‘proficient’ level. Moats has written many articles and books. Perhaps I would have to look there for data on the Improvement Ratio she expects when working with strugglers, and her estimation of how far below potential the average child is in America after one or two school years.  

Several times during the interview, David Boulton raises the point that it is one thing for adults to see the logic in the English alphabetic code once they have progressed to understanding such things as etymology and morphology, but it is quite another thing for the beginner or the struggler to find a way into the system. He uses the vivid and down-to-earth image of an ‘on-ramp’*, evoking the idea of a gentle gradient which provides access for those who cannot manage steep steps. Mr Boulton’s last comments before the final formalities ending the interview with Dr Moats are ‘But the point isn’t what we can understand on the other side of it, it’s what are the confusions the children are experiencing before they get through it. The closer we get to that the better bridge we can build’. This surely gets to the heart of the matter: there are times when I feel that the experts in linguistics, phonetics and the history of English are steering us into waters which are far too deep for beginners and strugglers. Trainee-teachers may benefit from learning more technicalities about the way that speech sounds are represented by written symbols, but they also need to know how much of this knowledge to put aside in reducing teaching for beginners and strugglers to the simplest possible level. At this level, teaching is not rocket science.


Mona McNee instituted the UK RRF Newsletter and was its first editor..


*Editor’s comment: It is interesting that Keith Stanovich, on page 416 of his book Progress in Understanding Reading (Guilford Press, 2000), quotes his wife, Paula, a special education teacher, as using exactly the same ‘ramp’ image in 1997 as David Boulton used in 2003. Those who teach beginners and strugglers know how important a gentle gradient is at first.




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