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Great NYT article about the teaching of reading.


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I haven’t really been blogging for a while. Our Reading for Meaning project has absorbed all of my time and I’m in the process of recruiting to help fill some of the gaps we have (more on that in a later post). The article below on the teaching of reading was first published by the New York Times on 26 October 2018 (thanks Jonathan for forwarding it on to me!).  It’s a great read and the accompanying podcast is also worth listening to. The article is summarising the new evidence-based consensus around how to teach children to read in alphabetic languages (which includes all the African languages). I don’t think it’s overstepping the mark to say that the ‘reading wars’ of old, which pitted Whole Language against Phonics are over. There is no empirical support for a Whole Language approach, and much of the earlier WL theories have now been debunked by neuroscience (See Seidenberg’s 2016 book). The best (and most recent) peer-reviewed article summarising the evidence is “Ending the Reading Wars: Reading Acquisition from Novice to Expert” by Castles et al. (2018) – well worth the read. If you want the more accessible explanation see the article below. In short, we need to do better when training Foundation Phase teachers (both current and prospective) and focus on scientifically-validated methods of instruction rather than theories or beliefs that have no empirical base. As Schleicher says “Without data you are just another person with an opinion.

Why are we still teaching reading the wrong way? – Emily Hanford

Our children aren’t being taught to read in ways that line up with what scientists have discovered about how people actually learn.

It’s a problem that has been hiding in plain sight for decades. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, more than six in 10 fourth graders aren’t proficient readers. It has been this way since testing began. A third of kids can’t read at a basic level.

How do we know that a big part of the problem is how children are being taught? Because reading researchers have done studies in classrooms and clinics, and they’ve shown over and over that virtually all kids can learn to read — if they’re taught with approaches that use what scientists have discovered about how the brain does the work of reading. But many teachers don’t know this science.

What have scientists figured out? First of all, while learning to talk is a natural process that occurs when children are surrounded by spoken language, learning to read is not. To become readers, kids need to learn how the words they know how to say connect to print on the page. They need explicit, systematic phonics instruction. There are hundreds of studies that back this up.


But talk to teachers and many will tell you they learned something different about how children learn to read in their teacher preparation programs. Jennifer Rigney-Carroll, who completed a master’s degree in special education in 2016, told me she was taught that children “read naturally if they have access to books.” Jessica Root, an intervention specialist in Ohio, said she learned “you want to get” children “excited about what they’re reading, find books that they’re interested in, and just read, read, read.” Kathy Bast, an elementary school principal in Pennsylvania, learned the same thing. “It was just: Put literature in front of the kids, teach the story, and the children will learn how to read through exposure,” she said.

These ideas are rooted in beliefs about reading that were once commonly called “whole language” and that gained a lot of traction in the 1980s. Whole-language proponents dismissed the need for phonics. Reading is “the most natural activity in the world,” Frank Smith, one of the intellectual leaders of the whole-language movement, wrote. It “is only through reading that children learn to read. Trying to teach children to read by teaching them the sounds of letters is literally a meaningless activity.”

These ideas had been debunked by the early 2000s. It may seem as if kids are learning to read when they’re exposed to books, and some kids do pick up sound-letter correspondences quickly and easily. But the science shows clearly that to become a good reader, you must learn to decode words. Many whole-language proponents added some phonics to their approach and rebranded it “balanced literacy.”

But they did not give up their core belief that learning to read is a natural process that occurs when parents and teachers expose children to good books. So, while you’re likely to find some phonics lessons in a balanced-literacy classroom, you’re also likely to find a lot of other practices rooted in the idea that children learn to read by reading rather than by direct instruction in the relationship between sounds and letters. For example, teachers will give young children books that contain words with letter patterns the children haven’t yet been taught. You’ll see alphabetical “word walls” that rest on the idea that learning to read is a visual memory process rather than a process of understanding how letters represent sounds. You’ll hear teachers telling kids to guess at words they don’t know based on context and pictures rather than systematically teaching children how to decode.

Many teachers learn these approaches in their teacher preparation programs. Publishers perpetuate these ideas, and school districts buy in. But colleges of education — which should be at the forefront of pushing the best research — have largely ignored the scientific evidence on reading.


The National Council on Teacher Quality reviewed the syllabuses of teacher preparation programs nationwide and found that fewer than four in 10 taught the components of effective reading instruction identified by research. A study of early-literacy instruction in teacher preparation programs across the University of North Carolina system found that instructional strategies based on research were mentioned “in a cursory way, if at all, on most syllabuses.” (Some instructors required students to write their “personal philosophies” about how to teach reading.) Kelly Butler of the Barksdale Reading Institute in Mississippi interviewed more than 100 deans and faculty members of schools of education as part of a study of teacher preparation programs in the state and found that most of them could not explain basic scientific principles about how children learn to read.

It’s not just ignorance. There’s active resistance to the science, too. I interviewed a professor of literacy in Mississippi who told me she was “philosophically opposed” to phonics instruction. One of her colleagues told me she didn’t agree with the findings of reading scientists because “it’s their science.”

There is no excuse for this. Colleges of education have to start requiring that their faculties teach the science of reading. Children’s futures depend on it.

Emily Hanford (@ehanford) is a senior education correspondent for APM Reports and the producer of the audio documentary “Hard Words: Why Aren’t Kids Being Taught to Read?” This article is based on her reporting for that project.

The Emperor’s New Clothes – (reading and the 4th Industrial Revolution in SA)


(This article of mine was first published by the Daily Maverick on the 10th of September 2018).

In 1837 Hans Christian Andersen wrote a story about a vain emperor who appoints two weavers (who turn out to be con-men) to make him a fabulous new garment. As the story goes, the weavers promise to make it from “wonderful cloth” that “would be invisible to everyone who was unfit for the job he held, or who was very simple in character.” Slightly afraid that he would not be able to see the cloth himself, the Emperor sends his wisest men to first observe the weavers at work and report back to him what they find. One after the next, the wise men and courtiers go to the see the con-men diligently working at empty looms and sewing imaginary cloth with their needles, but the wise men proclaim their admiration out of fear that they will be exposed as stupid or incompetent, each praising the work more loudly than the next; “What a splendid design! What glorious colours! Magnificent! Charming! Excellent!” Eventually the Emperor himself goes to see the finished works and, although seeing no clothes at all, he hears the praise of everyone else and fears being called out. The story ends with the Emperor parading through the town in his new clothes, where in reality he is prancing in his underwear. While everyone pretends to see the beautiful clothes, and look on with approval and announce their admiration, a child shouts “But the Emperor has nothing at all on!” at which point the public realise the whole thing was a farce. The story ends thus: “The Emperor was upset, for he knew that the people were right. However, he thought the procession must go on now! The lords of the bedchamber took greater pains than ever, to appear holding up a train, although, in reality, there was no train to hold, and the Emperor walked on in his underwear.

So, what does this fairy-tale have to do with literacy in South Africa? It turns out quite a lot. Over the last two years, more and more otherwise sensible commentators have been starting to talk about terms like “The Fourth Industrial Revolution”, “Artificial Intelligence” and “21st Century Skills.” There are long presentations about the need for children to learn coding in primary schools and for more explicit teaching of the 4 C’s (collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, communication). We are repeatedly exposed to Alvin Toffler’s quote that “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those that cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” And that we are “preparing children for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented in order to solve problems that we don’t even know are problems yet” (Richard Riley). All of this is obviously true. The world of work in the future will be radically different to what it is today. The premium on non-cognitive skills is rising as more and more advanced computers do what we used to do, only faster, cheaper and more reliably. But it is also true that 78% of South African Grade 4’s cannot read for meaning in any language in 2016 (according to PIRLS 2016). These statistics are from a reliable internationally-set assessment that 50 countries participate in. Interestingly, in the UK (where they are introducing coding in primary schools) the percentage of children that cannot read is a mere 3%. In the U.S. it is 4%, in Chile 13%, in Iran it is 35% (note Iran has the same GDP per capita as South Africa). If we were having this conversation in the U.K I would have a different opinion.

In South Africa about 80% of children can’t read properly after four years of full time schooling and we are told that we must be devoting more time and resources to teaching them to collaborate? Or think critically? Or to code? “In the future, they will need to know how to work with artificial intelligence.” They. Can’t. Read. This sentence that you’re reading now – they can’t. This is our Emperor and these are our fantastical clothes. Children that do not learn to read for meaning after three years of schooling are never going to learn these other skills or be employed in the 21st century. Yes, children of the future will need more and different skills, but you cannot leap-frog literacy. Learning to work collaboratively is not more important than learning to read. Learning to code is not more important than learning to read. That’s because you can’t do any of these other things properly if you don’t learn to read first. Some might say we can do both, together, reinforcing each other, but this neglects the fact that there are real trade-offs. I have yet to see any practical plans for how time and resources given to these other areas aren’t time and resources taken away from teaching reading – a skill that clearly the majority of children are not getting.

In addition to the above, we should not be introducing a third African language in schools where most children have not learned to read properly in their home language. Notwithstanding the above, this is now the policy, the “Incremental Introduction of African Languages”. If this were restricted to the 20% of schools where most children do learn to read, that would be fine, but it isn’t. For various political reasons, even struggling no-fee schools are now told that they must teach three languages, when they currently cannot even teach one. “What a splendid idea! How inclusive! How multicultural!”

I was at a high-level government workshop recently where the topic of implementing Swahili in pilot schools was discussed in a serious way – presumably because of a pan-African workshop that was held where the idea came up and was thought to be a good one by the President or a Minister. Where are the children saying: “But the Emperor has nothing at all on!” and helping to break us out of the spell of magical thinking. These “good ideas” are harmful distractions. We need to call a spade a spade and get back to basics. We need to be hard-nosed and shut down the 42 other priorities and programmes and “good ideas” that litter our primary schools and distract us from the one goal we can’t afford not to achieve: ensuring that all children learn to read for meaning by age 10. If I had to bet the farm on one skill that children will definitely still need in the 21st century, it would be high levels of literacy. Other things, yes, but literacy first.

We’re hiring :)

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HSRC vacancies in education (deadline 31 July 2018)


The HSRC has a new Education and Skills Development (ESD) director, Prof Sharlene Swartz who takes over from Dr Vijay Reddy. They are currently recruiting for a number of vacant positions. Info below…

“The seven funded vacancies we have are as follows:

  1. Research Director
  2. Chief/Senior Research Specialist (2 positions)
  3. Senior Research Specialist
  4. African Research Fellow
  5. Post-Doctoral Fellow (with two more to follow in 2019)
  6. Masters Intern (2 positions)

ESD has become well known for its work in skills development and assessment, including conducting the Trends in Intentional Maths and Science Study (TIMSS), and more recently the Labour Market Intelligence Project (LMIP). As we think about the coming 5 years as a research programme, there are tremendous societal challenges, and opportunities for research in the educational arena. Key questions we want to ask across our four focus areas include:

  1. Improving schooling outcomes: How do we improve the outcomes of children and young people in our schools? What are the implications of Grade R becoming compulsory? What, from existing research, do we already know should characterise the first 1,000 days of schooling? What are the implications of making history mandatory until matric? How could social justice best be promoted through the school curriculum for children and young people?
  2. Young people and the future of work: In a world of accelerating technological change, researchers are engaging with evidence of skills mismatches, un- and under-employment, and growing talk of a fourth industrial revolution. This prompts the question: what is the future of work? How can we understand the meaning and implications of rapid changes in the domains of automation, digitalisation, and biotechnology? How do we grasp the opportunities presented by these changes, and how do we mitigate the threats? Furthermore, what meaning do the current generation of young people attribute to work, and how do they see the future? How should the further and post-school education system change to respond? How might we better help young people face a world of fast-paced technological advancement, and help them to make a successful transition into a new world of work?
  3. Higher education and development: What role is there for higher education institutions (HEIs) in economic development and social transformation, including the development of new theory from the South? How best should teaching and learning, curricula, research and institutional cultures in HEIs be transformed or ‘decolonised’? What role is there for TVET colleges, and why are young people not attracted to these institutions? What can we learn from student activism over the past years, and how might this energy best be harnessed to bring about equality and justice for the future?
  4. Education for social justice: There is a growing call for ‘education for social transformation’ in the sustainable development goals, and an urgent need for anti-racism and citizenship education in South Africa. What should this look like in schools and higher education institutions that are already struggling to deliver basic content and ensure equitable pass rates? What can be learned from moral and human right’s education approaches? How can education about past injustices, social cohesion and education for equality best be achieved? What role is there for dialogue in education for social justice, and how might university students contribute to helping learners at schools navigate the terrain of anti-racism, transformation and equality?

The closing date for application is 31 July 2018, and the application should be done through the HSRC skills map website – which also contains a detailed set of requirements for each position. While the level of appointment offered will depend on a mix of qualifications, relevant experience and the number of peer-reviewed publications (articles, chapters and books), the following table provides an indicative guide regarding criteria for each position.

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Education research…


This week was the 2018 AEDE conference in Barcelona and Prof Lorraine Dearden gave the keynote address: “Higher Education Funding, Access and Returns: Policy Lessons from England” which was so relevant for South Africa given all the recent decisions about free higher education for poor and working class students. I include some slides from her presentation:
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Some other great papers (and abstracts) from the conference:
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Video of panel discussion: Teaching reading in African languages (13 June 2018)

For those of you that couldn’t be at the panel discussion on “What do we know about teaching early grade reading in African languages?“, the video of the event is now on YouTube here.


Links I liked…


These are some things I’ve been reading and listening to over the last while. Sharing is caring 🙂 Post yours in the comments below…

  • “Bread and roses” – political slogan and poem – sung by The Radcliffe Pitches  (thanks Brett!). The phrase “Give us bread but give us roses too” resonated with me as the most succinct way of expressing that the fight for dignity is about more than meeting basic needs.
  • Linked to the above poem, I really enjoyed Joel Modiri’s article “The Law’s Poverty” and the clash between an a-historical human-rights approach to the law and a historically-situated “justice” approach to the law.
  • To be or not to be” – Masha Gessen on choice, Jewishness, identity, emigration and America (thanks again Brett!)
  • STARI – Excellent resources on reading in Middle School (Grade 6-8). The STARI project run by Catherine Snow –
  • WordGen – More resources on developing vocabulary through a 72-week discussion program (Catherine Snow’s baby)
  • Huapango – a Mexican folklore ballet showcasing the incredible cultural variety and richness of the Mexican peoples. Each part of the song was created with a one group in mind and the ballet showcases their traditional dances and outfits. I’ve been listening to this on repeat for about a month (Thanks Victor!)
  • Jonathan Jansen’s address to the Stanford Senate: “The case for the Academic Senate” – I include an excerpt from that address below:

“What does this say about the role of the Senate? Quite simply, the question of knowledge is at its root a question of agenda-setting in any Senate. This points to leadership, of the President and in particular of the Senate executive. A university Senate has a choice. It can be primarily a place of administrative regulations, rules and procedures but it can also be an arena in which the “big questions” of academy and society come to enjoy prominence on the Agenda.  I wish to suggest five such big questions (the first already referenced earlier) that should constitute a major part of the agenda of Academic Senates concerned with the purposes of a university in the 21st century:

(1) The representational contents of the curriculum (what we teach)

It matters enormously that Senates step back on a regular basis and ask questions about knowledge, identity and curriculum. What knowledge matters in the 21st century? Whose knowledge “makes it” into the curriculum? And is the Stanford graduate in any field of study equipped to encounter and act on a complex (integrated and divided) world?

(2) The complexion of the professoriate (who teaches)

It does matter that a Senate asks questions of who teaches. The strength of the best universities in the world depends crucially on the recruitment of the best talent across contexts, cultures and countries. It also conveys to students (and faculty) a crucial point that advanced knowledge is not locked up in one race, gender or culture.

(3) The diversity of the undergraduate (and also graduate) enrolments (whom we teach)

It matters that a Senate keeps returning to the question of who the student is we are privileged to teach. All students benefit from the knowledge that comes with learning from and alongside students from different class, race and ethnic backgrounds but also from other countries. (It always puzzles me that a university can boast, for the purposes of improved rankings, about the exclusivity of its entering first year class). It is also true that the strength of Stanford’s academic programs has always depended on the recruitment of the most talented graduate students on the planet.

(4) The methods of teaching (how we teach)

It is difficult to imagine a Senate in the heart of the Silicon Valley not returning to the agenda the question of the best technologies (in the broadest sense of the word) for teaching in this century. I know Stanford does this well. And yet efficacious teaching is about much more than technology-led instruction or teaching innovations in the classroom; it is about powerful teaching that engages student minds, develops criticality, stirs social and intellectual discomfort, and prepares those who seek learning to become comfortable with uncertainty. In short, how does the Stanford Senate account for teaching in this large and complex institution?

(5) The impacts on learning (whether teaching matters)

An academic Senate agenda should be concerned with the question whether what we teach matters in the lives of students. Powerful teaching is only evident in powerful learning. But this has to be assessed beyond the limiting confines of passing or failing in modules, courses or even degrees. Such assessment asks questions about the enduring effects of the educational experience beyond marketing anecdotes or even “feedback loops” from the corporate environment. Do graduates from this great university do much more than earn a living on a well-paid job? That surely must be among the broader purposes of a Stanford education and, therefore, a concern of the Senate.”