Fair criticism of SP practitioner theory by Elsiep?

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Fair criticism of SP practitioner theory by Elsiep?

Post by maizie » Mon May 18, 2015 3:16 pm

Elsiep, alias Logical Incrementalism, wrote this in response to an education blogger:
http://improvingteaching.co.uk/2015/05/ ... ould-know/
I’ve seen several examples in relation to synthetic phonics of teachers essentially making up explanations of how the brain works or how language develops. They’ve done so based not on what we (collectively) know about brains or language development, but on what they assume must happen because of their experience of SP, or because of a single theory developed in the 1950s that happens to fit their mental model. If you trace back some of the popular edumyths, you find that’s how they started.
I know that she has problems with the claim that SP is evidence/research based but it is always difficult to know what is the specific problem.

I wonder if she would be so kind as to go into detail about the claims she is making in the above paragraph? I am particularly intrigued by the 'single theory developed in the 1950s'.

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Re: Fair criticism of SP practitioner theory by Elsiep?

Post by volunteer » Tue May 19, 2015 1:28 pm

That's a very interesting blog.

I'm not Elsiep, or Logicalincrementalism, and I don't know what the reference to the 1950s is about but, I think that the statement she made on there about some SP practitioners is true in my experience. But it's not exclusive to SP practitioners. It's always tempting to assume we know what's going on up top. But we still know very little. There's evidence that seems to point in certain directions but that's about it.

Also, I think that some teachers do like to talk about the way the brain is functioning simply as quite a nice way of illustrating to a child how they can think things through. Maybe this then leads on to a natural tendency amongst teachers to make assumptions about brain function which would make the jaws of a neuro-psychologist drop wide open - when really they weren't meant to be cut and dried scientific explanations but more artistic impressions about what is going on up top.

I'm not sure that is necessary either to know exactly how the brain works in relation to reading etc to be able to come up with a jolly good method of teaching reading, which synthetic phonics is, and teaching people to learn to "read whole words" is a very poor one, if indeed it is even a method.

Haven't seen ElsieP or Toots on here for quite some while. I always found them both very interesting.

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Re: Fair criticism of SP practitioner theory by Elsiep?

Post by maizie » Thu May 21, 2015 9:44 pm

Thanks for your interesting reply, volunteer.

What I would really like to know from elsiep is what, specifically, she has a problem with. I know we have disagreeed over the history of reading instruction, the research base of Smith & Goodman's theories of reading, the possible constituentsof good reading skills and whether or not reading is a 'natural' skill. But the misuse of neuroscience and the perpetration of a single theory developed in the 1950s are new.

I do think that SP practitioners should have the opportunity to address these criticisms :?:

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Re: Fair criticism of SP practitioner theory by Elsiep?

Post by elsiep » Fri May 22, 2015 6:14 am

Hi Maizie

What I meant about how the brain works is explanations such as Diane McGuinness’s in “Why Children Can’t Read” about the development of phonemic awareness (pp.180-183). McGuinness conflates the ability to pre-consciously detect and discriminate between phonemes with the ability to do it consciously (phonemic awareness). The clue is in the word ‘awareness’. A good deal of sensory processing is pre-conscious. Our brains can detect, discriminate between and retain information but we remain largely unaware of the process involved - all we are aware of is the end product, being able to recognise language, objects etc. McGuinness is quite right that in order to acquire phonemic awareness most children have to be trained in it, but her account gives the impression that because babies discriminate between phonemes they must have had phonemic awareness. As far as I know, there’s no evidence that they do.

The ‘single theory developed in the 50s’ I was thinking of is Chomsky’s model of language processing. McGuinness agrees with it and seems to think it must be right because Steven Pinker agrees with it too. Chomsky’s theory is largely responsible for promoting the ‘speech is natural, reading isn’t’ idea. Chomsky’s theory is and always has been highly controversial amongst linguists, psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists because for decades the data was ambiguous. It wasn’t clear, one way or the other, whether he was right or not. Recently, the evidence has been stacking up that he’s mainly wrong, but that’s not the point of my original comment.

My point is that if people with expertise in field A are going to comment on field B, it might be worth their checking out field B before they do so. The fact that Diane McGuinness interpreted research findings in a particular way in 1997 and that her book is endorsed by Steven Pinker doesn’t mean that he or she are right, nor that brain research hasn’t moved on (considerably) since then.

A number of teachers I’ve encountered via social media subscribe to the ‘speech is natural, reading isn’t’ model based on the flimsiest of evidence. They usually overlook the amount of teaching that goes into learning to speak (even if parents don’t think of motherese and word games as ‘teaching’) and the fact that many children learn to read efficiently on the basis of very little teaching indeed. From a cognitive perspective, the only difference between speaking and reading is that reading is a lot more complex, which explains why most children need to be taught to read, especially if they are expected to learn to read by a particular age.

Thanks to Geraldine for asking me to respond to this thread.

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Re: Fair criticism of SP practitioner theory by Elsiep?

Post by elsiep » Fri May 22, 2015 6:22 am

volunteer wrote:That's a very interesting blog.


I'm not sure that is necessary either to know exactly how the brain works in relation to reading etc to be able to come up with a jolly good method of teaching reading, which synthetic phonics is, and teaching people to learn to "read whole words" is a very poor one, if indeed it is even a method.
Exactly. Practices based on incomplete knowledge of how the brain works have generally had limited success, ranging from blanket whole language methods through brain gym to frontal lobotomies.
Haven't seen ElsieP or Toots on here for quite some while. I always found them both very interesting.
:smile:

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Re: Fair criticism of SP practitioner theory by Elsiep?

Post by kenm » Fri May 22, 2015 8:49 am

elsiep wrote:From a cognitive perspective, the only difference between speaking and reading is that reading is a lot more complex,
What evidence do you have for that? A comparison of the development of computer programs for optical character recognition and for spoken language recognition suggest that understanding spoken languge is inherently very complicated. OCR of printed material was working pretty well in 1970, of hand-written material rather later; I have yet to hear of a program that can understand different voices without training, let alone cope in the cocktail party situation.
Last edited by kenm on Fri May 22, 2015 11:44 am, edited 1 time in total.
"... the innovator has as enemies all those who have done well under the old regime, and only lukewarm allies among those who may do well under the new." Niccolo Macchiavelli, "The Prince", Chapter 6

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Re: Fair criticism of SP practitioner theory by Elsiep?

Post by elsiep » Fri May 22, 2015 9:04 am

kenm wrote:
elsiep wrote:From a cognitive perspective, the only difference between speaking and reading is that reading is a lot more complex,
What evidence do you have for that? A comparison of the developmenrt of computer programs for optical character recognition and for spoken language recognition suggest that understanding spoken languge is inherently very complicated. OCR of printed material was working pretty well in 1970, of hand-written material rather later; I have yet to hear of a program that can understand different voices without training, let alone cope in the cocktail party situation.
Cognitive science got a huge boost from attempts to mimic human cognition via artificial intelligence (AI) because AI could mimic it only up to a point. That focussed research on the areas of AI failure, which highlighted the importance of parallel in addition to sequential processing, for example. But there's a limit to the conclusions you can draw about human cognition from information about attempts to mimic it using computers.

I'm not saying that spoken language is simple; I'm saying it's not as complex as written language. That's pretty obvious if you think about it; spoken language doesn't need to involve the visual system, but written language does, therefore it must be more complex.

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Re: Fair criticism of SP practitioner theory by Elsiep?

Post by kenm » Fri May 22, 2015 12:08 pm

elsiep wrote:Cognitive science got a huge boost from attempts to mimic human cognition via artificial intelligence (AI) because AI could mimic it only up to a point. That focussed research on the areas of AI failure, which highlighted the importance of parallel in addition to sequential processing, for example.
Parallel processing is important quantitively, to explain why brain cells could outperform computer chips that worked much more rapidly, but any parallel process can be simulated by a serial computer. Parallel processing computers were a response to the inability of serial ones to produce answers to large problems (e.g. aerodynamics of whole aircraft, weather forecasting) soon enough to be useful.
But there's a limit to the conclusions you can draw about human cognition from information about attempts to mimic it using computers.
I agree it doesn't tell you how the brain works in detail, but in the early days AI researchers and programmers were surprised by the difficulty of mimicking processes that introspection had suggested were easy. The converse turned out to be the case in some fields (Simon's checkers [= draughts] program [1959] was an early example).
I'm not saying that spoken language is simple; I'm saying it's not as complex as written language. That's pretty obvious if you think about it; spoken language doesn't need to involve the visual system, but written language does, therefore it must be more complex.
Computer programs for turning character sequences into intelligible spoken language are well developed and not particularly difficult. The process of turning the sounds into meaning is much more complicated, but is common to both reading and spoken communication.
"... the innovator has as enemies all those who have done well under the old regime, and only lukewarm allies among those who may do well under the new." Niccolo Macchiavelli, "The Prince", Chapter 6

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Re: Fair criticism of SP practitioner theory by Elsiep?

Post by maizie » Fri May 22, 2015 10:44 pm

Thanks for your repy, elsiep.

Can I ask, have you read Diane McGuinness's more recent books, Language Development and Learning to Read (2005) and Early Literacy Instruction (2004)?
elsiep wrote:What I meant about how the brain works is explanations such as Diane McGuinness’s in “Why Children Can’t Read” about the development of phonemic awareness (pp.180-183). McGuinness conflates the ability to pre-consciously detect and discriminate between phonemes with the ability to do it consciously (phonemic awareness). The clue is in the word ‘awareness’. A good deal of sensory processing is pre-conscious. Our brains can detect, discriminate between and retain information but we remain largely unaware of the process involved - all we are aware of is the end product, being able to recognise language, objects etc. McGuinness is quite right that in order to acquire phonemic awareness most children have to be trained in it, but her account gives the impression that because babies discriminate between phonemes they must have had phonemic awareness. As far as I know, there’s no evidence that they do.
I think we are quibbling about semantics here, i.e the precise meaning of 'aware'. Checking through the chapters on speech perception in Language Development I note that she talks mostly about 'discrimination'. 'Awareness' only seems to come into the picture once it has been demonstrated that children can isolate single phonemes in words at about age 3 (Fox & Routh). She is also clear that infant phoneme discrimination is an unconscious process (as I recall she was in her first book, but perhaps you are reading it differently) and that it does have to be 'trained' in initial phonics based reading instruction because it is unconscious.
elsiep wrote:A number of teachers I’ve encountered via social media subscribe to the ‘speech is natural, reading isn’t’ model based on the flimsiest of evidence. They usually overlook the amount of teaching that goes into learning to speak (even if parents don’t think of motherese and word games as ‘teaching’) and the fact that many children learn to read efficiently on the basis of very little teaching indeed.
We've been over this one before, too!

Correct me if I am wrong but it seems to me that the imperative to communicate, (in which spoken language ultimately plays a significant role) is innate. My 11 month old grandson is able to communicate a great deal without any spoken language. Yes, children have to be taught their home language but the drive to communicate is innate. Even without adult input children would learn to communicate in some way. Yet if you were to merely surround a child with books without any explanation, modelling of their use/purpose etc. I suggest that the child would not have any innate urge to do anything with them apart from indulge their infant desire to thoroughly explore any object they encounter.

I perfectly appreciate that humans are cognitively capable of learning to read; they are capable of an enormous variety of processes which are at a huge remove from the processes they originally needed to perform for basic survival. Of course anything a human does is a 'natural' process in that they exploit the capabilities of their neurological and physical makeup in order to perform them but it still seems to me to be perfectly legitimate to separate the instinctive & largely unconscious behaviours from the 'learned' behaviours and to label them 'natural' or 'unnatural' as a layperson's 'shorthand'.

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Re: Fair criticism of SP practitioner theory by Elsiep?

Post by elsiep » Sat May 23, 2015 6:05 am

maizie wrote:Thanks for your repy, elsiep.
Can I ask, have you read Diane McGuinness's more recent books, Language Development and Learning to Read (2005) and Early Literacy Instruction (2004)?
I've read Growing a Reader from Birth, which didn't appear to change the message from 1997.
elsiep wrote:What I meant about how the brain works is explanations such as Diane McGuinness’s in “Why Children Can’t Read” about the development of phonemic awareness (pp.180-183). McGuinness conflates the ability to pre-consciously detect and discriminate between phonemes with the ability to do it consciously (phonemic awareness). The clue is in the word ‘awareness’. A good deal of sensory processing is pre-conscious. Our brains can detect, discriminate between and retain information but we remain largely unaware of the process involved - all we are aware of is the end product, being able to recognise language, objects etc. McGuinness is quite right that in order to acquire phonemic awareness most children have to be trained in it, but her account gives the impression that because babies discriminate between phonemes they must have had phonemic awareness. As far as I know, there’s no evidence that they do.
maizie wrote:I think we are quibbling about semantics here, i.e the precise meaning of 'aware'.
Cognition research is about precise meanings. Whether a process is conscious (you can introspect about it) or subconscious (you can't) or pre-conscious (you can introspect with a bit of practice) is quite important if you're talking about how people process information.
Checking through the chapters on speech perception in Language Development I note that she talks mostly about 'discrimination'. 'Awareness' only seems to come into the picture once it has been demonstrated that children can isolate single phonemes in words at about age 3 (Fox & Routh). She is also clear that infant phoneme discrimination is an unconscious process (as I recall she was in her first book, but perhaps you are reading it differently) and that it does have to be 'trained' in initial phonics based reading instruction because it is unconscious.
It's not unconscious, it's pre-conscious, that's the point. An unconscious process is one you're totally unaware of and can't be aware of, like hormone levels or blood pressure. If a process is pre-conscious, you are not normally aware of it happening but you can become aware of it; like artists looking at what they actually perceive not what they think they perceive, or children becoming aware of phonemes.

In Why Children Can't Read, McGuinness says (pp.180-181)

"Infants' ability to discriminate (tell apart) speech sounds which are absent in their native language starts to disappear during the first year of life." In the next paragraph she tells us that an experiment by Tees & Werker showed it hasn't 'disappeared' at all and that "this shows the awareness of the phonemes in one's native language is permanently stored in the brain. Even if these sounds have never been heard since early childhood, they can be recovered with relative ease provided they are taught. This means that everyone can be trained to become aware of the individual phonemes in his or her language." (emphasis McGuinness).

This isn't a coherent account of the research.
  • -Either the discriminatory ability disappears or it doesn't.
    -In the Tees & Werker experiments, native English speakers also developed the discriminatory ability in Hindi if they learned it for long enough.
    -The experiments show that the discriminatory ability emerges if you learn the language, not just if you are taught it or taught the discriminations.
    -None of this means that everyone can be trained to become aware of the individual phonemes in his or her language.
McGuinness says "Once the infant has learned which sounds of her language to notice..."(p.181)

To me, her account reads as if she thinks there are active processes involved throughout; in the infants' discriminatory ability and in the recovery of it after it has 'disappeared'. McGuinness might have revised her account since, but teachers are still using her 1997 version. Susan Godsland did this in her article about dyslexia in SEN Magazine. It was her article that first prompted me to read McGuinness.
elsiep wrote:A number of teachers I’ve encountered via social media subscribe to the ‘speech is natural, reading isn’t’ model based on the flimsiest of evidence. They usually overlook the amount of teaching that goes into learning to speak (even if parents don’t think of motherese and word games as ‘teaching’) and the fact that many children learn to read efficiently on the basis of very little teaching indeed.
maizie wrote:We've been over this one before, too!
Yes indeed. That doesn't make my observation any less true.
maizie wrote:Correct me if I am wrong but it seems to me that the imperative to communicate, (in which spoken language ultimately plays a significant role) is innate. My 11 month old grandson is able to communicate a great deal without any spoken language. Yes, children have to be taught their home language but the drive to communicate is innate. Even without adult input children would learn to communicate in some way.
We have no idea. Children generally want to communicate. We know that. It would be interesting to find out if it's an innate desire or whether it's one that develops. But I can't see why that distinction is important enough to justify speculating about it.
maizie wrote:Yet if you were to merely surround a child with books without any explanation, modelling of their use/purpose etc. I suggest that the child would not have any innate urge to do anything with them apart from indulge their infant desire to thoroughly explore any object they encounter.
There's been a lot of concern in education recently about the speech development of pre-schoolers. Parents stick their kids in front of the tv and don't talk with them enough, that sort of thing. It's widely accepted that good speech development requires the active input of parents and carers. We know speech doesn't happen if children don't hear speech. In effect, teachers are agreeing that speech isn't simply 'natural'. Speech, like most other skills emerges from an interaction between the child and their environment.

I can't see any reason to think that reading is any different. Yes, if you were to carry out your interesting but unethical experiment, children might never figure out by themselves what the books were for, but they wouldn't learn to speak by themselves either.

I don't understand why the 'speech is natural, reading isn't' distinction is considered valid or necessary, especially if it involves speculation about what's 'innate' or not. As for the idea of communication being an innate 'drive', that's a Freudian idea long since superseded. To give Freud credit, he was well aware that his ideas were speculative and were waiting for biology to confirm or disconfirm them.
I perfectly appreciate that humans are cognitively capable of learning to read; they are capable of an enormous variety of processes which are at a huge remove from the processes they originally needed to perform for basic survival. Of course anything a human does is a 'natural' process in that they exploit the capabilities of their neurological and physical makeup in order to perform them but it still seems to me to be perfectly legitimate to separate the instinctive & largely unconscious behaviours from the 'learned' behaviours and to label them 'natural' or 'unnatural' as a layperson's 'shorthand'.
Because the distinction is speculative. You're guessing which is which. If you want to do that as a layperson, that's up to you. But we're not talking about 'laypersons' here; we're talking about teachers using this distinction to frame their pedagogy and national educational policy. Once we venture into that territory we have an obligation to base the theory and practice on evidence, not guesswork.


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Re: Fair criticism of SP practitioner theory by Elsiep?

Post by maizie » Sat May 23, 2015 9:28 am

elsiep wrote:Because the distinction is speculative. You're guessing which is which. If you want to do that as a layperson, that's up to you. But we're not talking about 'laypersons' here; we're talking about teachers using this distinction to frame their pedagogy and national educational policy. Once we venture into that territory we have an obligation to base the theory and practice on evidence, not guesswork.
As far as neuroscience and cognitive psychology is concerned most teachers are laypersons...


I think we are actually talking about things which are peripheral to the process of teaching children to read; they are just things which people like to use to raise objections to synthetic phonics instruction. If you had critiqued the actual instruction process it would have been more worrying.

But perhaps you do have something up your sleeve :mrgreen:

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Re: Fair criticism of SP practitioner theory by Elsiep?

Post by elsiep » Sat May 23, 2015 6:27 pm

maizie wrote:
elsiep wrote:Because the distinction is speculative. You're guessing which is which. If you want to do that as a layperson, that's up to you. But we're not talking about 'laypersons' here; we're talking about teachers using this distinction to frame their pedagogy and national educational policy. Once we venture into that territory we have an obligation to base the theory and practice on evidence, not guesswork.
As far as neuroscience and cognitive psychology is concerned most teachers are laypersons...
So maybe teachers shouldn't be using speculation about these fields to justify their practice?
I think we are actually talking about things which are peripheral to the process of teaching children to read; they are just things which people like to use to raise objections to synthetic phonics instruction. If you had critiqued the actual instruction process it would have been more worrying.
No. We're talking about things that teachers are guessing about in an attempt to add weight to what they believe about their practice. What we need is robust evidence about teaching methods, not attempts to shore up what evidence there is by inventing theories.
maizie wrote:But perhaps you do have something up your sleeve :mrgreen:
All I had up my sleeve was a note of caution about extending a principle too far. Harry took my point.

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Re: Fair criticism of SP practitioner theory by Elsiep?

Post by FEtutor » Sun May 24, 2015 12:17 am

Harry?

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Re: Fair criticism of SP practitioner theory by Elsiep?

Post by elsiep » Sun May 24, 2015 3:35 am

FEtutor wrote:Harry?
I was commenting on Harry Fletcher-Wood's blogpost http://improvingteaching.co.uk/2015/05/ ... ould-know/


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Re: Fair criticism of SP practitioner theory by Elsiep?

Post by maizie » Sun May 24, 2015 10:38 am

elsiep wrote:We have no idea. Children generally want to communicate. We know that. It would be interesting to find out if it's an innate desire or whether it's one that develops. But I can't see why that distinction is important enough to justify speculating about it.
The distinction is important in this context because you are claiming that the innate/learned distinction is wrong. I don't see that you you can, on the one hand, castigate people for suggesting that there is a distinction, and then, on the other hand, say that the distinction is not important. It clearly is important in your eyes else you would not be making an issue of it.

I also think that you are conflating speech, language and communication. I would suggest that the only one of those three which is likely to be 'innate' is communication.

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