There is room for real doubt as to the propriety of statistical methodology used in the typical research paper examining phonological awareness and relating it to literacy acquisition. There is therefore room for real doubt as to the validity of conclusions reported in such papers (Paris 2005). Paris argues that phonemic awareness is a ‘constrained skill’ - a sub-skill which is circumscribed and discrete. Usually such sub-skills are rather easily learned. Students therefore pass swiftly from a state of almost no skill to one of almost perfect skill in a short time. Paris claims this invalidates the usual statistical approaches to assessment of these skills; that the usual statistical tests are not valid with those constrained skills which alter fundamentally over very short periods of time.
And Paris goes on to say some other, more philosophically important things: ‘Educators should be wary of policies that require repeated assessments of constrained skills as indicators of a) individual reading achievement or b) successful programs.’ (Paris 2005 pp. 200-201) He talks about a ‘minimum competency approach’ which ignores the ‘emerging use and control of literacy’. (ibid. p. 201). This leads directly to a studiously overlooked, but deeply important, aspect of our fixation with, and constant assessment of, ‘minimum competencies’ which is summed up in Paris’ use of the word ‘control’ above. One of the quintessentially fundamental questions for a literacy teacher is who is to be master? Is literacy to control the student or is the student to be master of literacy? Is the student to be intimidated by frequent, often negative, assessment of his minimum competences related to literacy or is he to be rendered capable of confidently using his own written language for his own purposes? Students easily learn to fear, and fail at, minimum competency assessments in a circular, self-fulfilling manner (as I have done with statistics, for example). Is the student to struggle to demonstrate mastery of a sub-skill or two, or become a fluent literate enjoying and deploying his own language, in his own voice and for his own ends? Is the student to remain cowed by uncertainty and potential humiliation, to keep his eyes timidly on the ground around his linguistic feet, or is he to learn to look confidently upwards, to reach for the stars and accept the occasional stumble?
And I have one final quibble for you in this regard and at this point. Focussing on a discrete and constrained skill, like phonological awareness, leads us, so painlessly we barely notice the descent, down a steep and slippery path to biology, thence declining inexorably into neurology, thence fading inevitably into pathology and finally sinking into the inescapable educational consequence which is to blame the victim, or at least his mind. This path is extraordinarily attractive (it exonerates us from all responsibility, and is enticingly laced with weighty neuro-jargon) but it is a thoroughly dubious one. It is paved with little more than linguistic tricks and shoddy logic. Consider the following: ‘It is well established that phonological processing skills play a key role in the acquisition of reading, and the corollary of this is that poor readers, and dyslexic children, have phonological deficits.’ (Clarke et al 2005) From a role to a deficit in a single stride. When a skill - say phonological awareness - supports literacy, it is easy to describe it as a ‘core skill’ and phonological awareness is widely thus described in the literature, in fact. Not having such a core skill is easily designated as a ‘core deficit’ and not having good phonological awareness is indeed widely thus described. And finally, a core deficit easily becomes the core deficit (e.g. Shaywitz 2005). We have, in a few easy steps, reached a ‘deficit theory’ of literacy failure and even ‘the core deficit’ itself. It didn’t hurt at all. We never noticed the transition from firm knowledge to shaky conjecture and may go on to use conjecture cheerfully hereafter as if it were knowledge. The literacy failure, we comfortingly say, is clearly the result of there being something wrong with the student. We need look no further. He has ‘the core deficit’ (and see chapter 8 for a more serious critique of ‘dyslexia’).
And there is the perennial ‘what are we really talking about?’ question; the problem of definitions and implied realities. What is the ‘reading ability’ that researchers correlate with phonological awareness skills? Usually it turns out to be solely word recognition ability - or even non-word ‘reading’. Often, testing either did not include any more than word or non-word recognition or found that more general skills, chief among them reading comprehension - the ability to get meaning from the written word, were not strongly predicted by phonological awareness. And where does phonological awareness stop and letter knowledge begin? How may we (and why should we) separate these? And, as we are about to explore, how well does the idea that we read primarily phonically - by sounding out - stand up in fact? The indisputable implication of our present fixation with phonological skills, after all, is that we primarily read by sound rather than visually, that we read straight to sound in the first instance - but do we really?