The PIRLS Reading Result–Better than You May Realize

by Dan Willingham
December 17th, 2012

This was written by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of  “When Can You Trust The Experts? How to tell good science from bad in education.” This appeared on his Science and Education blog.

The PIRLS results are better than you may realize.

Last week, the results of the 2011 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) were published. This test compared reading ability in 4th grade children.

U.S. fourth-graders ranked 6th among 45 participating countries. Even better, US kids scored significantly better than the last time the test was administered in 2006.

There’s a small but decisive factor that is often forgotten in these discussions: differences in orthography across languages.

Lots of factors go into learning to read. The most obvious is learning to decode–learning the relationship between letters and (in most languages) sounds. Decode is an apt term. The correspondence of letters and sound is a code that must be cracked.

In some languages the correspondence is relatively straightforward, meaning that a given letter or combination of letters reliably corresponds to a given sound. Such languages are said to have a shallow orthography. Examples include Finnish, Italian, and Spanish.

In other languages, the correspondence is less consistent. English is one such language. Consider the letter sequence “ough.” How should that be pronounced? It depends on whether it’s part of the word “cough,” “through,” “although,” or “plough.” In these languages, there are more multi-letter sound units, more context-dependent rules and more out and out quirks.

Another factor is syllabic structure. Syllables in languages with simple structures typically (or exclusively) have the form CV (i.e., a consonant, then a vowel as in “ba”) or VC (as in “ab.”) Slightly more complex forms include CVC (“bat”) and CCV (“pla”). As the number of permissible combinations of vowels and consonants that may form a single syllable increases, so does the complexity. In English, it’s not uncommon to see forms like CCCVCC (.e.g., “splint.”)

Here’s a figure (Seymour et al., 2003) showing the relative orthographic depth of 13 languages, as well as the complexity of their syllabic structure.

From Seymour, et. al. (2003)

Orthographic depth correlates with incidence of dyslexia (e.g., Wolf et al, 1994) and with word and nonword reading in typically developing children (Seymour et al. 2003). Syllabic complexity correlates with word decoding (Seymour et al, 2003).

This highlights two points, in my mind.

First, when people trumpet the fact that Finland doesn’t begin reading instruction until age 7 we should bear in mind that the task confronting Finnish children is easier than that confronting English-speaking children. The late start might be just fine for Finnish children; it’s not obvious it would work well for English-speakers.

Of course, a shallow orthography doesn’t guarantee excellent reading performance, at least as measured by the PIRLS. Children in Greece, Italy, and Spain had mediocre scores, on average. Good instruction is obviously still important.

But good instruction is more difficult in languages with deep orthography, and that’s the second point. The conclusion from the PIRLS should not just be “Early elementary teachers in the US are doing a good job with reading.” It should be “Early elementary teachers in the US are doing a good job with reading despite teaching reading in a language that is difficult to learn.”

References

Seymour, P. H. K., Aro, M., & Erskine, J. M. (2003). Foundation literacy acquisition in European orthographies. British Journal of Psychology, 94, 143-174.

Wolf, M., Pfeil, C., Lotz, R., & Biddle, K. (1994). Towarsd a more universal understanding of the developmental dyslexias: The contribution of orthographic factors. In Berninger, V. W. (Ed), The varieties of orthographic knowledge, 1: Theoretical and developmental issues.Neuropsychology and cognition, Vol. 8., (pp. 137-171). New York, NY, US: Kluwer

Innovate or Imitate?

by Robert Pondiscio
December 6th, 2011

If education is a test, America might want to spend a little more time copying the answers the other countries are writing down on their papers.

Writing in at The Atlantic, Marc Tucker notes that despite spending “more per student on K-12 education than any other nation except Luxembourg” America continues to lag not just developed nations like Japan, Finland, Canada, “but developing countries and mega-cities such as South Korea, Hong Kong, and Shanghai.”

“You would think that, being far behind our competitors, we would be looking hard at how they are managing to outperform us. But many policymakers, business leaders, educators and advocates are not interested. Instead, they are confidently barreling down a path of American exceptionalism, insisting that America is so different from these other nations that we are better off embracing unique, unproven solutions that our foreign competitors find bizarre.”

Tucker’s list of “unproven solutions” includes charter schools, private school vouchers, entrepreneurial innovations, grade-by-grade testing, diminished teachers’ unions, and basing teachers’ pay on how their students do on standardized tests. These strategies are “nowhere to be found in the arsenal of strategies used by the top-performing nations,” he writes. “And almost everything these countries are doing to redesign their education systems, we’re not doing,” notes Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy.

“They develop world-class academic standards for their students, a curriculum to match the standards, and high-quality exams and instructional materials based on that curriculum. In the U.S., most states have recently adopted Common Core State Standards in English and math, which is a good start. But we still have a long way to go to build a coherent, powerful instructional system that all teachers can use throughout the whole curriculum.”

The top performers also raise entry standards for the teaching profession and insist that all teachers have in-depth knowledge of the subjects they will teach” and generally make teaching a high-status profession.

“The result is a virtuous cycle: teaching ranks as one of the most attractive professions, which means no teacher shortages and no need to waive high licensing standards. That translates into top-notch teaching forces and the world’s highest student achievement. All of this makes the teaching profession even more attractive, leading to higher salaries, even greater prestige, and even more professional autonomy. The end results are even better teachers and even higher student performance.”

The cycle in the U.S., Tucker notes, is the opposite of virtuous.  Teaching is a low-status profession, lacking in prestige and colleges of education set a low bar for admissions.  Salaries are low.  Teachers also have weak knowledge of their assigned subjects “and increasingly, they’re allowed to become teachers after only weeks of training,” he notes. “When we are short on teachers, we waive our already-low standards, something the high-performing countries would never dream of doing.”

The inevitable result is ever lower student achievement, which drives more attacks on teaching and stricter accountability, which Tucker wisely observes, makes it “even less likely that our best and brightest will become teachers.”

But hey, we can innovate and disrupt with the best of them!

The problem, Tucker concludes, is not a lack of innovation but a simple lack of what successful countries have: “a coherent, well-designed state systems of education that would allow us to scale up our many pockets of innovation and deliver a high-quality education to all our students.”

Paper Tigers

by Robert Pondiscio
January 24th, 2011

“How is it that the richest country in the world can’t teach kids to read or to multiply fractions? Taken as a parable, Chua’s cartoonish narrative about browbeating her daughters acquires a certain disquieting force. Americans have been told always to encourage their kids. This, the theory goes, will improve their self-esteem, and this, in turn, will help them learn.

“After a generation or so of applying this theory, we have the results. Just about the only category in which American students outperform the competition is self-regard. Researchers at the Brookings Institution, in one of their frequent studies of education policy, compared students’ assessments of their abilities in math with their scores on a standardized test. Nearly forty per cent of American eighth graders agreed “a lot” with the statement “I usually do well in mathematics,” even though only seven per cent of American students actually got enough correct answers on the test to qualify as advanced. Among Singaporean students, eighteen per cent said they usually did well in math; forty-four per cent qualified as advanced. As the Brookings researchers pointed out, even the least self-confident Singaporean students, on average, outscored the most self-confident Americans. You can say it’s sad that kids in Singapore are so beaten down that they can’t appreciate their own accomplishments. But you’ve got to give them this: at least they get the math right.”

From “America’s Top Parent,” Elizabeth Kolbert’s review of Amy Chua’s new book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” in the current issue of The New Yorke

(h/t Bill Evers)

Less School, Higher Scores in Finland

by Robert Pondiscio
April 9th, 2010

Children in Finland spend fewer hours in school than any other country in the developed world so how do they consistently turn in top international scores in reading, science and math?  A BBC report focuses on the relaxed atmosphere of the nation’s schools, lack of political interference, as well as the country’s approach to schooling.

“The Finnish philosophy with education is that everyone has something to contribute and those who struggle in certain subjects should not be left behind.  A tactic used in virtually every lesson is the provision of an additional teacher who helps those who struggle in a particular subject. But the pupils are all kept in the same classroom, regardless of their ability in that particular subject.”

The report makes much of the contributions of Finnish home life to student achievement.  “There is a culture of reading with the kids at home and families have regular contact with their children’s teachers,” notes the BBC’s Tom Burridge, who also points out that teaching is a prestigious career in Finland. “Teachers are highly valued and teaching standards are high,” he says.

Education Minister Henna Virkkunen is now looking to boost the performance of Finland’s brightest pupils.  ”The Finnish system supports very much those pupils who have learning difficulties but we have to pay more attention also to those pupils who are very talented. Now we have started a pilot project about how to support those pupils who are very gifted in certain areas,” she says.

In Case of Accidental Overdose

by Robert Pondiscio
September 28th, 2009

…administer more poison. 

Please explain to me how doing more of what’s not working will make it work better.