For the past two days I have attended workshops conducted by the international expert, Dr. Louisa Moats. Yesterday the focus was on reading comprehension, today it was on dyslexia. Towards the conclusion of yesterday she made a brief comment along the lines that "there is no evidence of changing someone's reading competence in a short period of time. It is only after 2 to 3 years of teaching (based on what we know from science) that change (learning) occurs." It left me wondering whether school administrators and teachers really understand this very simple but powerful point. Schools need to be doing the same thing over several years to have an impact on reading acquisition - it's as simple as that.
In today's workshop Dr Moats skilfully demonstrated how much we now know about what we have to do to impose reading on the brain. The brain does not have reading functions inbuilt in its design. Other areas within the brain have to fire and coordinate to built neural pathways in quite separate areas of the brain in order for a child to read. In a hundred years of mandated education (in the US) we have come a long way in knowing from research and science what is behind efficient coordination of inbuilt brain functions and what we need to do, as much as possible, to make that coordination happen.
So when we say that it is only after 2 to 3 years of good instruction to build reading in the brain, we are saying that it is only after 2 to 3 years of the very best of what we know from science that will build reading in the brain - not just a dabble here, a nice idea there, or some fun activities later on. We are talking about very explicit practices, grounded in linguistics and our knowledge of linguistics, provided in a very systematic and cumulative way.
The implications of the very simple statement about there being no evidence showing that we can change someone's reading competence via a brief, short intervention, is that if a school is to effectively teach its students to read then it must be via a whole school, systematic, evidence based approach. It means that all teachers must be thoroughly trained in the evidence based approach; and it means that all teachers must implement it with fidelity. Then students would get the 2 to 3 years of evidence based instruction we know they need.
Louisa finished today's session with a comment about some of the teaching practices (taught in some Universities) that occur in many of our schools. Some of these practices direct our children's attention away from the discrete elements in words (the letters) and the sounds they represent. When this is done children's neurological phonological processor is not engaged. Learning to read requires the interaction and coordination of the phonological processor and the orthographic (letter) processor. Distracting children's attention away from what they need to attend to is not a benign practice, it is not harmless. If this type of conduct occurred in medicine it would rightfully be labelled malpractice.