Ideology trumps evidence at the Ministry of Education

Dr Michael Johnston
31 March, 2023

Once again, the Ministry of Education has shown that it prefers ideology to evidence. Last week, it published a Common Practice Model (CPM) – a model of teaching literacy and numeracy to be followed by teachers across the country.

For many years, scientific evidence has been mounting to show that structured literacy is the most effective approach to teaching children to read and write. But until very recently, the Ministry of Education has ignored this evidence, despite some of our best education academics trying to bring it to their attention. 

Faced with an ongoing decline in the literacy and numeracy achievement of our young people, last year the Ministry finally seemed to change its tune. It published a strategy in which structured literacy featured for the first time in one of its documents. The CPM was supposed to put this strategy into practice. Unfortunately, it won’t effectively do that.

But what is structured literacy? And why is it effective? To understand that we need to delve a little into what is often called the science of learning.

One of the key elements of the science of learning is working memory. It has important implications for education and teaching.

Working memory is a short-term memory system that stores information while we consciously manipulate and work with it.  We use working memory to help us solve problems, perform mental calculations and follow conversations, to give just a few examples.

As powerful as it is, working memory has limitations. It has a small capacity, and its contents fade rapidly unless we maintain them through rehearsal. For example, when someone tells you their cellphone number, it will be stored in working memory. But unless you repeat it to yourself, you will forget it within a few seconds.

The amount of strain a task puts on working memory is known as its cognitive load. When a task exceeds the capacity of working memory, we suffer from cognitive overload.

Working memory is centrally involved in learning to perform new tasks. It plays a crucial role when school children learn to read, write and do arithmetic. Every time a child is presented with a new aspect of one of these skills, working memory is loaded.

Consider, for example, a child who is learning to add, attempting to calculate four plus seven. The child must store the two numbers ‘four’ and ‘seven’ in working memory while carrying out a strategy to add them together. The steps in the strategy and, finally, the solution, must also be stored.

When a task has been sufficiently practiced, the procedures involved are transferred to long-term memory. Then, performing that task no longer imposes nearly the same cognitive load. While it is being learned, though, a child can easily suffer from cognitive overload.

Cognitive overload causes feelings of confusion. If it occurs too often, it causes frustration and demotivation. For this reason, when children are learning to read, write or perform mathematical tasks, their teachers must carefully manage the cognitive demands of the strategies they use.

Unfortunately, the ways in which literacy and numeracy have been taught in New Zealand for more than two decades are very likely to cause cognitive overload. For example, when learning to read, children are encouraged to attend to ‘multiple cues’ to read words that they don’t recognise.  Those cues include any pictures, the context of the sentence and the sounds associated with each letter.

Information about each of those cues must be stored in working memory. This strategy, then, is almost guaranteed to result in cognitive overload. It would be far better to attend just to the most effective cue – the sound associated with each letter. If children learn forty-or-so correspondences between spelling and sound, they will be able to access about 70% of their oral vocabulary through reading.

Even this strategy places a load on working memory at first, but when using the spelling-sound correspondences has been practiced enough, they are transferred to long-term memory, which frees working memory to concentrate on understanding the text.

Structured literacy is an approach to the teaching of reading and writing that takes cognitive load into account. That is why structured literacy favours teaching children letter-sound correspondences systematically, until they can be used fluently.

The CPM should have sent a strong signal that structured literacy was to be used in every primary school in New Zealand to teach reading and writing. If that happened, a large majority of our young people would enter secondary school with the literacy skills they need to tackle subjects like English, history, science and mathematics.

The CPM does mention structured literacy, but not prominently. It is buried beneath all kinds of distractions, including culturally responsive pedagogy, critical pedagogy, communication pedagogies, multiliteracies, and planned interactive learning. None of these other approaches is supported by science. They’re based much more on ideology than evidence.

Teachers trying to get their heads around all of the approaches described in the CPM will almost certainly suffer from cognitive overload themselves. Their students struggling to learn to read and write will have no show at all.

The CPM should include structured literacy and nothing else. Until the Ministry abandons ideology and embraces evidence, our tragic educational failure will persist.

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