Leading the charge this year in the swing towards evidence-based reading instruction in schools across the country, Snow says a clawing sense of social justice fuels her intensifying quest to make the science of reading part of every teacher’s expertise.
“I just became very frustrated, I suppose, that we were not pulling every lever that is available to us in [students’] first three years of school, based on decades of cognitive psychology research about what is most likely to work for the vast majority of children,” the professor of cognitive psychology from La Trobe University says.
“There’s no guarantees in this world about anything, really, so for me it’s about playing the probabilities and asking ‘well, what are the approaches that are going to get most children across the bridge?’”
Snow knows well the gravity of her mission. If reading instruction continues to be left to chance, we’ll only see more kids left to fall off the literacy cliff, she warns.
“You can’t succeed academically when you have weak reading, writing and spelling skills. It’s game over,” she says.
“As a wealthy, first world, industrialised nation, we should be acing it. We should be off the charts in terms of the opportunities that we have here … and we’re not – there’s a lot of variability state by state.”
Having built on her campaign against balanced literacy approaches this year, Snow says the “eclectic buffet” of approaches to reading instruction used across schools is problematic.
“I’m sitting here in Bendigo … and schools three kilometres from each other are doing vastly different things in relation to early reading instruction. Now, they can’t all align with the best evidence if they’re doing vastly different things, that’s just a logical inconsistency.
“So why are we allowing this [irregular] approach to something as important as reading instruction? We don’t see [intensive care workers] that are looking after COVID patients [told] ‘look, you just do your own thing and we’ll just explain away your data at the other end’. There’s an expectation of uniformity and compliance with evidence,” Snow says.
Professor Pamela Snow says the “eclectic buffet” of approaches to reading instruction used across schools is problematic.
To this end, last year the expert – alongside colleague Associate Professor Tanya Serry – launched The Science of Language and Reading (SOLAR) Lab at La Trobe, offering a suite of short courses for those keen to extend their knowledge of the linguistic basis of reading, how the English writing system works and what evidence-informed structured literacy practices entail.
Serry, who comes from a background in speech pathology, agrees with Snow: while pockets of best practice and success do exist, sector-wide change is not yet upon us.
“…there are some schools doing the most outstanding job, they're punching well above their weight in terms of the outcomes that they get, and another school down the road [could be] still stuck in methods that are fine for 60-70 per cent of children, but still leave too many children and young people just struggling," Serry tells LeadershipEd.
To date, SOLAR courses have received 4000 registrations, and with escalating demand. While the impact of the initiative is yet to be solidified on paper, Snow and Serry say the response has been profound.
“We’ve got masses of evaluation data from our short courses, which has been overwhelmingly positive,” Snow reflects.
“We’ve also had a lot of emails from people with various [journeys], some saying that what they’re doing in their school is absolutely transformational, others saying ‘I was teaching balanced literacy for 20 years, and I could see there were students year after year failing, and now we’re doing it differently and seeing so much success’…
“There are some saying, ‘I’m doing what I can, but school leadership doesn’t support us making a change’, so they’re saying ‘we are almost operating in secret in some cases in our classrooms’ – there is a whole gamut really.
“But what we can see is that there is a strong appetite for accessible, high-quality information about what the reading process is and how best to approach it.”
Serry says the thirst for the information was intensifying well before the SOLAR Lab came into the picture.
“I actually see it as we literally tapped a vein that was ready to be tapped, in terms of the content that we offered.
“We would have been thrilled if we had 50 participants in our first course – we needed 30 to be financially viable for the university – we wanted 50, and we got 800."
Serry maintains it’s not about working as an educational crusader.
“Our driving mission, or one of the principles in our SOLAR Lab, is that we're not missionaries; we are so willing to work with schools and educators in the various things that we do, who initiate contact or want to come to a course or want to know more and build their knowledge.
“But we don't go out there knocking on doors and saying, ‘there's another way that you should be doing things'.”
Associate Professor Tanya Serry says it will take "generational change" at the ITE level for the science of reading to take hold in all schools.
This year has been dotted with highlights, Snow says.
After hearing anecdotally from secondary teachers of a brewing frustration over the number of children entering Year 7 with weak literacy skills, Snow and Serry ventured in to help.
“The appetite on the part of the secondary teachers just blew us away. We entered that space with a degree of trepidation, I think it’s fair to say…
“Their commitment and creativity and resourcefulness was just off the charts, so that’s been a real highlight.”
Despite this, Snow can see the bitter edge to the whole situation.
“That’s an example of us doing work in the ambulances down at the bottom of the cliff … we should be working with [secondary teachers] on how to enhance ongoing language development and how to enhance literacy skills, but instead we’re working with them on what do you do when you’ve got all these struggling readers in your class, and how do you keep up with the curriculum as well as supporting them.”
Snow and Serry’s agenda to call out programs and pedagogy hinged on balanced literacy approaches looks set to continue well past 2021.
“We’ve got the most complex writing system in the world – academic scholars have been tinkering with it for centuries and continue to tinker with it, yet we give five-year-olds 36 months to get their heads around it, and we can expect them to intuit that from immersion,” Snow says.
“It’s a really unnatural thing, in any language, to learn to read and write and spell, but when we’ve got this denser orthography that we’ve got in English … why wouldn’t we be using teaching approaches that are more fail-safe?”
Recently, Education Minister Alan Tudge indicated the Government will, if necessary, use the “full leverage” of $760 million in funding for teacher education to ensure phonics and explicit teaching are taught at university. Are the wheels of change in motion at the preservice level? Serry believes so.
“I think we are slowly, slowly making progress, but I think it's almost a generational change.
“And to be honest, the way that I can see change happening is when all of the university training programs are on board, so they're just graduating cohorts and cohorts and cohorts of what I would say are ‘better informed’ teachers.”