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  • Writer's pictureThe Dyslexia Initiative

The Skepticism of Change

by Ashley Roberts

Yesterday was an interesting day. Jennifer Serravallo and Heinemann announced the release of an updated chapter 3 of her The Reading Strategies Book. If you want to read the announcement please click here:

As when all Balanced Literacy proponents do anything science of reading based, the announcement was met with varied responses. What I'd like to do here is break the whole thing down.

First, let me start by saying, if Ms. Serravallo has truly seen the light and is a convert from BL to #SoR then I welcome her with open arms. Announcing a book however is not proof. The proof that the conversion has begun will be in the pending reviews by the experts within the Science of Reading community.

A few facts:

  • To receive the chapter update you must have already purchased the book, or go purchase the book, and you can receive the updated chapter 3, so while the chapter update is technically free, the book must already be purchased, and registered, meaning the registrant will then be subject to marketing by Heinemann, in order to access the materials.

  • The updated chapter is not available for download or printing. You have to read it in the delivered format. This means ripping out the existing chapter 3 and replacing it with the new chapter 3 is not a possibility. Color me crazy, but that makes it sound like the implementation will be difficult and clugy.

A few conclusions on these facts:

  • Ms. Serravallo may be the writer but Heinemann is the owner of the content. The publisher alone will decide the manner in which the material is released to the end user.

  • Heinemann is not known for releasing data for free, so of course there's a fee. I mean they are a business at the end of the day, so why wouldn't it be.

Having said that, let's talk about the enormous amount of gratitude that was laid at her feet for the release. I get it. People who have paid for and used her book and know about the Science of Reading want the update and are excited about using it. That's ok and it's no one's place to judge.

Let's just be realistic about a few things:

  1. Not everyone is going to jump up and down for joy about this announcement.

  2. The lack of jumping for joy does not make anyone unprofessional, because that was in fact said on social media.

  3. The lack of jumping for joy does not mean that #SoRAdvocates and #Parents are not giving Ms. Serravallo a chance to prove she's changed her ways.

Now, let's evaluate that from a pragmatic point of view.

Advocates and parents are going to be deeply skeptical when a balanced literacy proponent like Ms. Serravallo embraces #SoR. They just are. Facts. Why? Fantastic question.

We, parents and advocates, spend the majority of our time fighting the damage that has been done to not just our own children, but all children, dyslexic or not, by the balanced literacy pedagogy. For over thirty years, depending on the part of the country you lived in when Whole Language then Balanced Literacy rolled out, this philosophy of teaching has wrecked havoc on the education of our children. The evidence of this damage exists within the NAEP scores which prove American education has been in decline since the mid-1990's. Please also note that NAEP IS ACCOMMODATED! For informed parents and advocates who are aware of this damage, the conversion of a BL proponent to #SoR is going to be taken, not with just a grain, but with a bucket of salt.

That's not a dismissal that her conversion may be genuine, but it doesn't mean we're going to race out and buy it and encourage everyone we know to start using it tomorrow in their classrooms. What this means is that we want proof that the conversion is real. That proof will come in the form of reviews of her new content by #SoR experts who are willing to endorse the material. That doesn't happen at the point of press release via blog, that happens with time.

Now, some parents and advocates are not going to believe she's converted at all. The damage they've witnessed runs too deep, which in fact it does, and the willful desire to defend and hang onto the destructive force that is Balanced Literacy means anyone's conversion to #SoR isn't going to be received well. For anyone who wants to convert it didn't help their case with the fact that Lucy Calkins went first, and her so called conversion wasn't genuine, and that set a precedent to distrust anyone else who may choose to convert. After enough genuine conversions happen, this mass opinion may shift in a positive way, but until then, the precedent is poor.

Neither of these attitudes is unprofessional. Skepticism isn't unprofessional by design. It is just that - skepticism.

I said recently on an entirely unrelated topic that we are all adults and words are meaningless as the proof is in our actions. That being said, here are my immediate concerns:

  1. Why just one chapter? Changing one chapter isn't a full conversion to #SoR, I don't care how detailed that one chapter may be. A full scale rewrite is in order to be a full convert.

  2. Are more chapter revisions planned? That's unclear.

  3. While I understand that for liability purposes Heinemann is never going to allow Ms. Serravallo, or themselves for that matter, to come out and say "I'm sorry, I was wrong about Balanced Literacy and #SoR is the only way." This makes acceptance a bitter pill until reviews are in hand. Until that time, this lack of mea culpa is going to taint a lot of opinions on this new chapter.

    1. That doesn't mean that her conversion isn't genuine.

    2. That doesn't mean the desire for that mea culpa isn't undeserved.

  4. The community does need an olive branch of some kind because a mea culpa is warranted. It doesn't have to be a novel either, it simply needs to be an acknowledgement that #SoR is the only way, and it needs to be released to the masses. Period.

    1. That doesn't make the #SoR community heartless, cruel, abusive, exclusionary, hateful, superior, or any of the other adjectives that have been applied by the BL camp, and the portion of the #SoR camp that is desperate to believe this conversion is genuine. The shock and awe at the skepticism isn't warranted, so get over it.

    2. I'm one of the advocates attacked for my skepticism. Myself and others are not, and owe no one, an apology for our skepticism. For reasons why, see literally the entire article above.

  5. There are thirty strategies defined in chapter 3. That creates even more skepticism. Period. Again, the reviews will be telling.

And, I just have to address the defense of this change sweeping through social media. I've seen more postings than I care to saying we all need to "be kind to poor Jennifer." I've not been unkind and while I have seen a few cruel voices, and know that a great number of those were people speaking from incredible pain, the majority have not been unkind. Even if the book stopped publishing tomorrow, Ms. Serravallo will be just fine, I promise. She's a big girl, and she can handle it. Also, I'm willing to wager that she was / is emotionally prepared that people were going to be skeptical, if not then her publisher, if they had any sense, should have prepared her.

Here's one point that I did like that was raised by a teacher who has embraced #SoR. A lot of teachers have bought and used Ms. Serravallo's book. If the chapter 3 rewrite is genuine, this can go a long way to helping to convert teachers that so far have been unwilling or unable to embrace #SoR and thereby create a desire to learn more about it, and that helps the overall cause a great deal. Truly, I love this perspective and I hope it's true, but again, let's wait for the review of chapter 3 to see if the changes that may inspire more change are in fact genuine, or are they just more BL with an #SoR spin.

My final issue was the call out that this was based on new data. Sorry, but no. That stings of falsehood, and here's why. If she is a true convert, then she knows the data isn't new. There are papers by Jeanne Chall, David Share and Linnea Ehri that pre-date Ms. Serravallo's 2015 book, as well as data from Guinevere Eden, Louisa Moats, Maryanne Wolf, Mark Seidenberg and countless others, decades worth even. To say it's new research know, it just doesn't pass the gut test. Maybe I'm wrong and she is aware of the decades worth of research and was looking at the latest and greatest. That is a possibility, and it's also a possibility that someone other than Ms. Serravallo was shaping the message that went out and just really put their foot in it. Only a few people know for sure and they'll never confess openly.

All this having been said, I do hope we are seeing a conversion from BL to #SoR in Ms. Serravallo's work, but I'm not about to wager on it blindly. I need, we all need and deserve the evidence. We've built our advocacy and our belief systems on evidence so why would we accept anything less now? The answer is we won't.

To conclude I want to leave you with a quote from Dr. Louisa Moats which is circulating in the wake of yesterday's press release via blog. Know we will be following the reviews closely, and we do genuinely hope change is happening, but as we said, the proof will be in the reviews. #DyslexiaRevolution

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