Tread lightly: the cement is not quite dry

Dr Christine Braid, Tātai Angitu, Massey University – August 2023


Knowing how to best teach for literacy success is a careful walk of combining research and practice. As a practitioner, I want to know what to do. As a researcher, I want to find the next small step and the next big question.  As a practitioner based in research, I aim to guide teachers in what is best for their learners.  However, the conundrum is that research is ever evolving and it can be very hard to be definitive about what to do in practice. Research is cumulative and a scientific approach involves being open to not knowing and to keep on looking.

The experience of hearing researchers at the Society of the Scientific Studies of Reading conference (2023) made me think that following the research can sometimes be a walk along a newly cemented pathway. Researchers present tentative results and fledgling ideas. If we tread too boldly with too definitive an approach based on early results or one interpretation, we may become locked in a method that is later proved wanting. A narrow interpretation of the research puts us in danger of becoming stuck in the way previous methods are now accused of being stuck.

Taking a tentative approach does not mean we don’t change the way we teach. It is important we keep open in our practice in teaching literacy as we find the best way for our learners. My personal experience with changing how I understand the teaching of reading is a story of being open to change (eventually), an experience that I have referred to as unstitching some of my teaching DNA. But we also need to be cautious of our new knowledge and our excitement with it and beware of narrow interpretations that might result in getting stuck.

The notion that nobody knows everything is a helpful one. The fact we don’t know everything is not a hopeless cause nor an invitation to do whatever we like. There are some things we can know and do with confidence. There are other things we should approach more tentatively and with a light step. As much as we want a very clear pathway, following a narrow pathway can be counter to best practice that stands the test of time. We have seen this happen before.

The research to practice pathway has some cement already dry and other newer pathways that we need to approach tentatively. There are some non-negotiables. We must teach children to decode successfully and this involves explicit teaching. It is likely that a scope and sequence, and decodable texts help in establishing mastery of the early patterns for all learners and is an essential approach for those with any difficulty. We know handwriting and spelling have a vital role in writing outcomes and that handwriting affects both spelling and reading acquisition. We must give many opportunities for children to develop strong oral language, including vocabulary and sentence structure. We know background knowledge is important to understanding a wide range of texts.

But there are many ideas that are more tentative. The number of spelling patterns that need to be taught before self-teaching begins is unknown, but self-teaching must occur for efficient and sustained learning. How long we need to use decodable texts for is an under-researched area so we must tread carefully with guidelines. It is not clear the role that explicit teaching of syllables plays and whether this teaching is confusing for some learners. Some researchers advocate for phonological awareness tasks without letters, while others state that phonological is best taught with the letters. These are just a few of the ideas I have heard arguments about and loud voices can crowd out healthy discussion and make experienced and capable teachers feel they can no longer trust the teacher they have been.

For a successful change to literacy practice, we must be careful not to get locked into ideas that haven’t set yet. We can hold opinions gently to bring others along and to give ourselves the chance to continue growing. We need practitioners who try out resources and continue to watch and think and respond to their learners as they implement new practices. Teachers deserve to have their experience and expertise valued. They must have licence to question and they need support to keep on finding out. We all do.

The approach of not knowing may be uncomfortable for those of us who are more of the practitioner. For researchers, it is just one more step. We do know some things about how to teach reading and writing but we can’t know everything. No-one can. As practitioners, I hope we can remind ourselves to tread lightly on cement that might not be quite dry so that our practice can stand the test of time for the sake of our learners.

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