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Expert calls for better literacy instruction for students and teachers

Qualified linguist Lyn Stone is an expert in what she does, but someday she hopes to be made "redundant". Until then, however, the founder of literacy consultancy group Lifelong Literacy believes there are far too many students and teachers in need of intense literacy instruction.

Lyn spoke to Education Review about her work, her views on teacher preparation courses and the necessity of explicit instruction in areas including reading, spelling and grammar. Her latest resource, Reading for Life Online covers a wide range of topics including what literacy is, dyslexia and the so-called Reading Wars. Useful tips for boosting reading and writing are also covered in the six-hour course aimed at teachers, parents and literacy professionals.

You can listen to the conversation above or read the transcription below.

ER: You've been invited as a guest speaker all over Australia, and the world, to help turn students' literacy levels around. What are you finding when you arrive at these schools?

LS: The first thing I find when I go to schools is that teachers are very keen to do the very best for their students, and they do that with the resources that they have. So, I absolutely love teachers and they, generally speaking, are trying to do the very best they can.

Unfortunately they often find that those resources aren't fit for purpose. As a result of that, what I see is teachers whose workload is unnecessarily heavy, and their job satisfaction, and their general wellbeing is negatively affected by that. So, that's the scene that I walk into.

Then my job is, and there's an increasing call for this, is to identify the structures and methodologies in the schools that could be brought into line with reading science. I also have to identify those that need to be pruned out. Then I help schools transition comfortably and more importantly, I help them transition successfully, towards higher quality models of instruction. And then that makes me redundant, which I like. I like schools being independent of me. So, that's what we need to work towards; that's when I challenge universities to make me redundant.

Having said that, teaching reading is something that's quite complex and it takes a lot of learning. So, at first it can be a little bit uncomfortable, but in the long run if you are across your subject, if you're across your instruction, you're giving a lot higher benefit to the children, and that gives you job satisfaction and lightens your workload.

Are there some memorable literacy success stories you can recall from across the country at schools where you've presented literacy instruction?

There's a few schools that I've had a long relationship with locally and also interstate. What I like most, especially about the local ones, is that none of their students have external tutoring for literacy. So I run also a practice here where I have several tutors working for me, all day, all week, getting children to catch up on their reading and their writing. And the schools that I consult to in the local area somehow never seem to have students that walk through my doors. I like that. I think that's great. And again that's another call to "make me redundant". Make it so that I don't have to have seven employees working to get children to catch up on things that they really could have been taught at school.

It's similar when I follow up on the interstate schools as well. So I look at their written output and I can tell at a glance which kids are new and which kids have been there for a few years. The majority of the new ones just lack quality, be it in spelling, or sentence formation, or grammar. It gives me glimpses into what it could be like if teachers had this sort of knowledge from the start.

What do you attribute to this decline in offering high quality literacy training over the years? And does it solely fall onto the universities? 

The decline in high quality literacy training is part of a larger decline in education standards in the English-speaking world really. If we're looking at the difference between traditional and highly successful models of education, and they've been slowly pushed out by more progressive or constructivist approaches, this trend has been embraced by teachers and by education faculties.

So it doesn't fall solely on the universities, but there's a big difference between teachers and education faculties in that, in most cases, teachers are willing to change their approach when they see it not working, whereas education faculties stand to lose face and stand to lose status if they admit they were wrong. So, they continue in error and they pass disproven theories and poor quality practice on to teachers whose job then it becomes to make those necessary changes at the teacher level, or they suffer the consequences.

It's no wonder that teachers burn out. Whereas people in silos, in education faculties, can carry on doing whatever it is they do and passing on information that's not in line with scientific consensus on the process of reading and learning.

Our international results in numeracy and literacy are far from where they were say 10 years ago. Do you think we can turn this around, and what would it require?

I certainly hope we can turn it around. It's not like we don't know what to do. It's not like there's a mystery and we're still fishing around in the dark, and putting lots of different theories out there.
Teaching of literacy and learning to read is something that's been studied. It's one of the most studied human behaviours in the entirety of cognitive science. So we do know an awful lot about how children learn to read and what's effective. Because that research isn't translating to practice we need teachers with better training to turn around the results that we're getting. We need school leaders taking an active role in building teacher capacity. That capacity isn't just in methodology but it is the capacity to sort the wheat from the chaff. What we need is not just well trained teachers but we need teachers who can be discerning, informed consumers of educational products, because there's a lot of noise out there. Teachers need to be able to sort the signal from the noise.

Explicit instruction has come right back into vogue. Are you a fan of that?

Well John Hattie wrote the foreword for my second book, so I like him obviously. But, in terms of his work, in terms of explicit instruction, well for me, look, I came from a background where there wasn't really any other way of doing things. And in terms of showing children explicitly, and in a sequence, the structure of language was a no-brainer for me. I never considered that could be contested in any way because of the background and the training that I have.

So, it was a huge shock to realise that the children that I started working with were not there because of processing deficits, which really should be the population that I work with, they were there because of teaching deficits.

You have linguists, and you have speech pathologists, and you have psychologists all trained in the structure of language, and teachers aren't. We scratch our heads thinking, gosh, it's obvious that you need to explain this, that you need to have explicit instruction and lots of practice. But, that's not what teachers are being told, and they're the population that miss out on this vital information.

Literacy skills have to be taught, not caught. They're biologically secondary processes, so they've got to be there. They've got to be bolted on. As Steven Pinker says, painstakingly bolted on from scratch, case by case. It just takes some children a lot longer and it takes some children very little time at all. Those children actually make any type of teaching look good because they pick it up no matter what you do to them. But, unfortunately there's a population that I'm very interested in, and those are the ones that come through my door, having not received the quality of instruction that they need to become readers.

Your work as a visiting literacy expert has been recorded, compiled and turned into an online resource, Reading for Life Online. What inspired you to create this resource? Are you seeing too much of a shortfall in literacy instruction and workbooks?

Rather than addressing a shortfall per se, the books I write are always in a response to questions asked of me by several groups, and within groups that I deal with. Mainly they're the teachers, and those are teachers who have questions about incorporating linguistic principles into their teaching. I get questions asked of me, of course, by my own students. They're the ones, and to a lesser extent their families, who need assistance to catch up with their peers. The books are always answers to those questions. How do you catch up, how do you teach the structure of language?
Then also increasingly now, of course, there are school leaders and they're interested, and I'm interested in answering questions about going from lower to higher quality communities of practice. And that's actually what the next book is going to be about. It's about transforming schools as well, and I'm currently in the research stages of that. So, it's always rather than addressing a shortfall, it's like a dialogue between these key stakeholders that I work with.

Do you think that having a good knowledge of linguistics, while not essential, is a really helpful way for teachers to learn about teaching literacy?

I've got to declare my bias obviously because I love linguistics. But linguistics, if you look at the definition, is the scientific, systematic study of the structure of language. Now philosophically that's very interesting for humans, not even if you're going to be scientific about it, if you're going to be philosophical, because we like to know about the inner workings of the human mind. Of course, language is the outward expression of that, so any study of the structure of that is necessarily, I think, engaging and interesting.

Also, children are driven, and humans are driven to learn their native language, and to become adept at it, and to ask questions and be curious about it. So, I think linguistics definitely could be focused on a little bit more. Despite my bias, I do believe that it's something that resonates with lots and lots of people. And it has this great use in that it also helps people to read and write, which is quite difficult if you look at it.

I'm a huge advocate for more linguistics at universities, for teachers, and more linguistics for students. And when I say linguistics, I am talking about grammar, parts of speech, sentence construction, all that sort of thing. They're interesting, and I think they're necessary.

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