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Dr Pamela Snow has authored or co-authored over 200 publications, comprising refereed papers, book chapters, monographs and research reports. In 2017, she was a member of the National Year 1 Literacy and Numeracy Panel, convened by the then Federal Minister for Education, the Hon. Simon Birmingham.
In 2020, she established the Science of Language and Reading (SOLAR) Lab in the School of Education at La Trobe University with her colleague, Professor Tanya Serry. The SOLAR Lab is a platform for research, teaching, advocacy and postgraduate supervision on a wide range of topics pertaining to developmental language and the transition to reading, writing and spelling in the school years.
Dystinct reporters Flynn and Ava Eldridge have a chat with Pamela about her work at the SOLAR Lab and her life.
Dystinct reporter Flynn & Ava Eldridge has a chat with Dr Pamela Snow.
Excerpts from the Interview
Excerpts from the Interview
What is the SOLAR lab, and where is it based?
SOLAR is an acronym. It stands for Science Of Language And Reading. We study the scientific research around human language systems - how we talk and understand language, words, and sentences. We also study how humans learn to read. It might surprise you to learn that we think of oral language as being something that is quite innate for humans. But it's something that humans have evolved to do over probably a couple of hundred thousand years that we've had language as a form of communication; Our brains have really specialised for that. Human brains are very specialised for language, more so than even our chimpanzee relatives. We're genetically quite similar to chimpanzees, but we're very different in terms of how we live our lives, and language is a big part of that. But reading, writing, and spelling are not things that our brains have evolved to do on their own. We call those biologically unnatural things for humans to do - things that we have to be taught how to do.
The Solar Lab is not a physical place. It's a virtual platform, a part of the School of Education at La Trobe University. I live and work in Bendigo. Professor Tanya Serry, who is the other director of the SOLAR Lab, lives in Melbourne, and we have other colleagues as well at the SOLAR Lab.
What is your position in the Solar Lab?
I'm one of the directors with Professor Tanya Serry. We established the SOLAR Lab back in 2020. I also have another title, Professor of Cognitive Psychology, which means that I study how humans think and how they learn.
Is the SOLAR Lab funded by anyone? If so, which companies support you?
We earn some of our income by running online short courses for teachers, psychologists, and speech pathologists. In that sense, we fund ourselves to some extent. We also do some work for different Departments of Education. They employ us to do projects for them that bring in money. We also have been very fortunate to receive a large philanthropic gift of money, 2. 5 million from the Bertelli Foundation. The foundation saw us as a good cause, and we've also had some government money for research. We don't have any commercial businesses that fund us. But we do bring in quite a lot of money to the university.
What are you currently researching at the SOLAR Lab?
We're researching ways to get good knowledge about reading and reading instruction into the hands of teachers and how to improve the knowledge that teachers have about this thing that we sort of take for granted a bit. Reading is such an everyday part of our life that it's easy to think that it's easy for everybody. But as you know, it's not. So, a lot of our research is about how to help teachers become more knowledgeable about the reading process, helping them to use teaching approaches in their classrooms that make it easier for most, if not all children to be successful with reading, writing and spelling. We are researching ways that teachers can spot the kids in the classroom who are struggling a bit, and we like those kids to be spotted early and given extra help early. Then we're looking at the kind of help kids get when teachers realise that they're struggling and falling a bit behind where they should be. We've also got somewhere around eight or ten graduate research students whom we supervise. But most of our work is about strengthening and improving what's going on in schools and also helping schools that want to change the way they teach reading.
We noticed you have researched low literacy rates in youth offenders. What are you finding about schooling and kids in prison?
I've done quite a lot of research over the last 20 years or so on young people who are in the youth justice system. Most of the young people who get in trouble with the law are sort of around the 14, 15, 16 age range. Some of them commit crimes that are so serious that they have to spend some time in a detention centre. And some of them commit crimes for which they have to be supervised in the community. They might have to meet with a parole officer once a week, and they're often given extra support as well. Often, these kids have really tricky stuff going on at home. The kids who get involved in breaking the law often come from families that are struggling a bit financially or families that are not very tight or emotionally bonded together, where there's a lot of stress.
When kids are breaking the law, that's usually a sign that things are not going well in their families. The research that I've done on that group of young people tells us that they often have difficulties with their language skills. They're not very good at sitting and listening and taking information in. And they're not very good at putting words together in sentences to get across their ideas and thoughts. This creates all kinds of problems for them in lots of ways, for example, when being interviewed by police.
I've also been very interested in their reading, writing, and spelling skills because the more time you're spending breaking the law, not being at school, and being suspended or expelled, the less time you're learning. And these are kids who are often very weak when it comes to reading and writing. One of my passions in this space is that we should be making sure that all children are learning, reading, writing, and spelling to a very high level of ability right from the start so that we're protecting the ones whose home lives are tricky and disorganised where they might be more likely to leave school early. We want everybody to have the chance to have good academic experiences at school. And as you know, it's hard to succeed with the academic side of school if you can't read, write and spell pretty well.
We have an international audience. Is this a unique Australian issue, or is it worldwide?
It's worldwide. A lot of research on the language and literacy skills of young people in the youth justice system has come out of Australia. Australia has contributed quite a lot of the research relative to our population and how many people are researching in this area.
There's also been a lot of research coming out of England on young people in the justice system and their language skills but less research out of America, which is interesting. I say that it's interesting because America locks up a remarkable number of young people. They take a much more hard-line approach to young people who break the law and commit crimes, and they're more likely to send them to detention centres and lock them up than we are here. We tend to take what we call a more therapeutic approach to young people who break the law. We try to remember that just punishing these young people might not be the best thing in terms of producing a good outcome. The research evidence tells us that just locking these kids up and punishing them doesn't actually turn them into good kids. Unfortunately, countries like America have taken a more punitive punishing approach, and they haven't done much research on the complex stuff that's going on in kids' lives in the way that we have in Australia.
We have noticed you have a blog. What is your blog called? Is it popular?
My blog is called The Snow Report. That was an easy decision for me to make, given my surname. But I do tell people if they go looking for it, that they need to put my name and Snow report into a Google search because if they just search for the snow report, they're going to find out where it's snowing in Australia. My blog is a place where I sometimes write opinion pieces about things that are going on in education. I sometimes write about issues that people are talking about a lot. Sometimes, I write about something that I think is pretty complex, where I know teachers are not going to be able to get access to scientific journals. What I like to do is to pull together some recent research and write about it for teachers so that they do not have to be disadvantaged by the fact that they can't go to those journal websites and, download the journal articles and read the research for themselves. There is also a comment section down the bottom where people can disagree or agree with me or have a bit of a debate with each other. It's really just a communication platform, I suppose. I just like to see it as an information source for teachers, in particular, parents, psychologists, and speech pathologists.
Why do you do what you do?
There's a lot of hot debate in this space. How we go about teaching children to read is something that researchers from a number of different fields have very big, sometimes not very polite arguments about. I suppose why I do what I do is because I believe in the importance of good scientific evidence. I believe in every child's right to learn how to read, write and spell and not have to struggle with that. I believe in the right of parents to be able to trust their schools to teach their children to read, write, and spell. But I know that it's a bit of a lucky dip at the moment for kids when they go to school. Some kids go to schools where there's really good reading, writing, spelling, and maths instruction on offer. And other kids go to schools where it's well-intentioned, but the way that those things are being taught is not really up to date with the best scientific evidence. So why I do what I do, I guess, is because I care about children. I care about having a strong, healthy, literate community. I want to live in a literate community where people can read information for themselves, think critically about information, and participate fully in all aspects of life as adults, get jobs, buy houses, have choices, and live healthy lives. We know that adult literacy levels are very strongly connected to levels of health. So, adults who don't have strong literacy levels are more likely to have poor physical health and poor mental health. They're more likely to have substance abuse problems and unstable housing. So, literacy, for me, is a public health issue. I want to see all children from all communities, regardless of what kind of family they come from and what kind of community they live in, benefiting from strong literacy instruction.
What is something fun about your job?
Most of it's really enjoyable. I really do love almost everything about what I do. I get to interact with fantastic colleagues inside and outside the university: teachers, psychologists, and speech pathologists. I get to interact with other researchers in Australia and all around the world. Sometimes, I get to travel to conferences in interesting places around the world. I do get to do some really fun and enjoyable things. I get a bit busy sometimes and I work quite long hours, but I'm happy to do that because I believe in what we're doing in the SOLAR Lab, and I really am incredibly fortunate to work with a great team.
What is your favourite place in Australia?
I live in Bendigo in central Victoria, and I really love living here. I love the town. I love the surrounding countryside. But probably most of all, I love the fact that my two adult daughters live nearby. They both have two children. So I have four grandchildren who range in age from eight down to nearly six months. Because we all live close together, my husband and I get to spend a lot of time with our daughters and their husbands and their children. Now, there are lots and lots of other places in Australia that I love visiting, but I'm very happy in my home in Bendigo. I am a bit of a homebody.
What is your favourite place on Earth?
Favourite place on Earth, that's a tough one. I've been fortunate to travel to some beautiful places in the world. I would still say Bendigo because it's home. But in terms of other places, there are beautiful places that I've visited, like Florence and Venice in Italy. They were both beautiful. I've been fortunate to visit the Great Pyramids in Egypt. I have lots of places that I've been to that are very memorable, so naming a favourite would be really hard, but Florence and Venice would be up there, I think, as favourites because they're very special, beautiful cities.
What's a fact fun fact about you?
I don't know whether there are too many fun facts about me. I'm a bit of an open book, I think. Something that people might not know about me is that when I was in secondary school, I was trying to decide for many years whether I was going to study music or law. My decision to study speech pathology was quite a late one that I made about halfway through year 11. Until then, I'd been tossing up between music and law and music was a very big part of my life at that time. I played the flute, and I did music as a year 12 subject. I used to play in something called the Melbourne Youth Symphonic Wind Band, which is like an orchestra, but instead of string instruments, it just has more woodwind instruments, and that's how I met my husband. He played in the Melbourne Youth Symphonic Wind Band as well. Neither of us, unfortunately, plays music anymore. But we met when we did a concert tour of Japan when we were in year 12, and we've been together ever since. So, I keep saying when I retire, I'm going to start playing music again. We'll see.
Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, and ADHD inattentive
Regional NSW, Australia
Flynn started homeschooling in 2020 as the result of the COVID-19 lockdown. Flynn homeschools because of school bullying, claustrophobia from the small space in the classroom, and anxiety from his dyslexia and dysgraphia. Flynn finds reporting fun, sometimes scary, and ultra exciting. Flynn likes to dress up as an old-time reporter and ask a range of questions, as that is his style. Flynn builds loads of different lego creations, such as the rainbow spinning-top microphone he uses in the interview. Flynn loves homeschooling because he can be finished by 2 pm and have more playtime. He learns more, his work is better quality, and Flynn is doing better than his dad at math!
Regional NSW, Australia
Ava loves art, animals, cooking, her family, playing the piano and she really enjoys reading! Her newfound love of aerial acrobatics keeps her busy. Ava had early intervention for her dyslexia. This intervention helped her be one of the best readers and writers in her class when she was in the early years of school. Ava decided to homeschool with her siblings when the pressure of 'tests' (everyday 'tests'/national testing) started to make her incredibly anxious. Ava embraces her dyslexia strengths such as her amazing long term memory and the empathy she has towards others.