No. There isn’t one perfect way to teach reading

By Martina Tassone, Helen Cozmescu, Bree Hurn and Linda Gawne

Learning to read is foundational. The importance of literacy in the first years of schooling is not in question. Students’ oral language interactions in the early years of schooling, their engagement with print and digital texts and experiences recording their ideas in writing are important for their lives in and out of school. The teaching of phonics and phonological awareness are fundamental and essential elements in learning to read and to write. Both elements form an integral part of the Victorian Curriculum: English, which guides Victorian educators in their planning and teaching. 

This post is in response to recent damaging reports that have re-ignited the age-old argument that there is a literacy crisis and the best and only way to attend to it is the use of a ‘phonics first’ approach which prioritises synthetic phonics.The intensity of the argument has increased of late, with blame landing squarely at the feet of early years’ teachers, with the residue reserved too for those who prepare teachers for their role.

Pieces published in The Age and other publications over recent weeks have added fuel to the ‘literacy wars’ fire. On February 16 it began in The Age with Results came really quickly: How one tiny Victorian school turned literacy around’ by Adam Carey. This was quickly followed on February 19 with ‘Follow Science in Teaching Kids to Read’ by Dr Nathaniel Swain and more recently on March 21, Dr. Tina Daniel echoing ideas presented by Swain and Carey, with her opinion piece,Dud teachers? In Victoria, it’s the lack of phonics that’s the problem’. There are commonalities across these articles – the implication that teachers do not know how to teach; the need for commercially-produced programs; and the view that literacy is merely a set of discrete skills. We disagree with each of these points. 

What we know is this – phonics and phonological awareness are integral components of writing, as well as reading and oral langauge. Students in the early stages of literacy learning draw on the reciprocity between reading and writing to assist the identification of sounds in words which can be matched to letters and written down. The teaching of phonics and phonological awareness should be undertaken in an explicit and systematic way. This is not disputed by researchers, or teachers, nor the wider education community. But the way in which phonics and phonological awareness are taught remains a contentious issue. And the loudest voices in the argument are often those who lack the experience of teaching in mainstream early-years classrooms. 

The term ‘science of reading’, based on research positioning reading in the cognitive realm, is increasingly used in these debates. Some states (currently SA and NSW) have aligned themselves to this science of reading approach. They have prioritised the use of decodable texts and commercially-produced phonics programs. Victoria has been criticised for failing to adopt the same prescriptive ‘phonics first’ stance. We feel The Age’s education editor Adam Carey feeds into the Victoria bashing narrative. He cites Fahey, from the Centre for Independent Studies, whose background is in economics and policy. Fahey suggests Victoria needs a ‘wakeup call’ because they have ‘dragged the chain on the national reform agenda around reading instruction.’ As education editor, Carey could have cited numerous experts, from Australia or overseas, who have researched in the field of reading comprehension and would have added value to the discussion. 

NAPLAN is often woven into discussions about phonics. So we point out that  Victoria, without a prescriptive phonics program have enjoyed great success. Victorian teachers should be celebrated. They are given agency to draw upon a range of well-researched strategies to teach literacy and create their own program to address their students’ diverse needs. Recent NAPLAN results have confirmed that Victoria has done exceptionally well in national results for reading. Victoria outperformed New South Wales on NAPLAN, for both the students who require extra support in literacy and for those achieving above the standard. Differentiated teaching is reflected in these NAPLAN results, because good literacy teachers know that every child has different learning needs. We know the variable in education is the child, the teaching of reading is not an exact science.

The approach taken at Melbourne Graduate School of Education in initial teacher education programs and in professional development of continuing teachers is based on a framework initially developed by Freebody and Luke (1990). This framework recognises the place of the systematic and explicit teaching of phonics within a comprehensive view of literacy, one which includes comprehension, knowledge of how different texts are organised and constructed and critical thinking about the content that is being read. It also recognises that the reader does not come to the text as a ‘tabula rasa’. Rather, they bring with them cultural, linguistic and textual knowledge, which help them to read the text.

Australian students are diverse. They bring varied but rich knowledge and skills to their literacy learning. In response, teachers need extensive knowledge of the way language works, they need knowledge of pedagogical practices, and they need to know what each student can do and what they need to do next. Teachers need to be afforded agency to use their knowledge to cater for the diverse learning needs. Teachers are professionals.

Public debates must acknowledge the complexity of early literacy, the successes experienced as well as the challenges encountered. The quest for comprehensive and effective literacy practices, which differentiate to meet the needs of all students, can only be addressed if the complexity of literacy is recognised. Teaching is more than science.  It is also a craft and an art. Fundamentally, it involves teachers’ intellect and criticality to be responsive to students’ needs. We applaud the teachers and the students who engage in these complex practices each day.

From left to right: Dr. Martina Tassone, Dr. Helen Cozmescu, Bree Hurn and Dr. Linda Gawne are part of the Primary Language & Literacy Academic Teaching Team at Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne.

9 thoughts on “No. There isn’t one perfect way to teach reading

  1. Dianne says:

    I am an experienced classroom teacher, trained in the late 80’s, and the idea that children do no start school with a blank slate – “tabula rasa” concept was drummed into us. In the late 90’s my school was involved in the new “ Early Years Literacy and Numeracy” program, with running records, guided reading groups etc. I am definitely on the side of using a range of tools and methods for teaching reading, not a one size fits some approach.
    These days I go in to numerous schools every week as a Visiting Teacher, and I feel like I have no idea how reading is being taught anymore! I hear teachers getting students to chant about digraphs and diphthongs and yet the students don’t recognise their name in print and can’t hold a pencil, or remember where they put their hat!
    I am a Teacher of the Deaf, Special Education Teacher, and worked in Early Intervention for 10 years. I wonder how much thought or input into the teaching of reading – and teacher training – has come from Speech Therapists? Or any awareness of the fact that 30% of a classroom of prep/1/2 students on any given day might have a fluctuating conductive hearing loss which means they can’t hear or mis-hear speech sounds ( and this might have been ongoing since they were babies). Do schools screen for hearing in the first weeks of school? ( I know the School Nurses have such huge numbers it can take three terms to get to all schools on their caseload) Is the developmental age of speech sound development taken into account when teaching phonics?
    IF phonics is the “ one method to teach them all” then my question is always this – so how does a Deaf person learn to read? If you can’t hear the sounds, if you communicate with sign and not speech, if your world is a place of visual learning not auditory. And yet our Deaf and Hard of Hearing students do learn to read, they just aren’t using phonics. Because not all learners are the same, we all learn differently.
    And don’t get me started on using a teaching approach based on sound – phonics- yet school and classrooms are being build as such open plan, busy, noisy, reverberant open spaces where you can’t hear the teacher anyway, even with “ normal” hearing….

  2. Ian Perdrisat says:

    The problem with this type of discussion and assessment is that it is couched in a white middle class frame by people who have been successful in that system. It does not accurately represent my learning journey or the path other people who think differently. As an Aboriginal person who was labeled dyslexic for not being able to spell. I was logical and everything I heard or saw I remembered, I was tops in everything else that didn’t rely on literacy.

    Throughout my journey I developed the capacity to negotiate my way without doing well in reading and spelling. I find all of these ‘you beaut’ reading programs and discussions about them leave out the more critical element for some people to learn to read. And that is confidence. From my personal experience most teachers were not able to help me ’cause they just didn’t get it. When I got a good teacher that understood the issue, my spelling grades jumped e.g. in one year from 2/100 to 78/100. The next year they slipped again. It wasn’t until I got a computer (easy to change mistakes rather than typing and Tipp-Ex). And then later spell checker gave me the confidence to think fluidly. I now have 3 masters degrees and undertaking a PhD. Unfortunately this conveyer belt of competitive teaching theory seems to forget the fundamental principle of teaching – it’s not about you or any other system because you’re not teaching a class, rather you are teaching a classroom full of individuals.

  3. Helen Cozmescu says:

    Hi Ian, thank you for your response and for raising additional thoughts. The framework for literacy to which we refer recognises that the linguistic mode is one code. There are multiple modes for meaning-making. Intervention for some students, for some aspects of literacy, at some times may be needed. We are white, settler educators – agreed. But the framework is not a white, middle-class one. It is a responsive one, which takes into account the students’ experiences, knowledge and dispositions and can be used with all students.

  4. Bree Hurn says:

    Thanks Dianne for taking the time to respond to our article. You raise an interesting point and one that we’d certainly support in terms of the differentiated and targeted support that teachers must offer to children in the teaching of literacy.

  5. Melanie Weinberg says:

    As a parent and now a literacy specialist teacher I am so frustrated by the politics of reading. My son experienced first hand a lack of teaching knowledge by his school and teachers on how to teach him to read. We got a cognitive diagnosis with specialist reports on how to teach him to read using the 5 pillars of reading. While his teachers cared about him, they all said they didn’t know how to teach him to read because of his learning difficulties. They were all asking for help – both newly trained and experienced teachers. He eventually was taught to read using a speech pathologist who followed the 5 pillars of reading using decidable books and a properly sequenced synthetic phonics program. It was not magic or ‘special Ed’ that got him reading rather an intensive reading intervention that you would use with any student who is struggling to read. I have since trained as a teacher and as of 9 years ago my training did not adequately equip me to teach reading. I needed to undertake an additional masters degree specialising in literacy/numeracy to be able to understand what that speech therapist did for my son all those years ago. Teachers want to help their students, but they are not equipped and feel that specialist skills are required to teach any student below standard or who have a reading disorder. I truly believe that if we could align the reading science to classroom practice more easily – everyone would experience better outcomes.

  6. Carina says:

    Of course there’s not one perfect way to teach reading but there certainly are far better ways than the so-called ‘balanced’ approaches that have utterly failed so many in recent decades and affected the potential outcomes of countless others. Thankfully NSW and SA Depts of Ed are finally shifting to head in the right direction.

    Victoria is indeed home to so many ‘loud’ and expert voices (and some of the loudest actually ARE experienced classroom teachers).

    Consider the impressive efforts and voices of Nathaniel Swain, Tina Daniel, Emina McLean, Sarah Asome, Greg Clement, Reid Smith, Ollie Lovell, Greg Ashman (all school teachers) plus Lyn Stone, Alison Clark, Pamela Snow (experts working with teachers) – and there are many more!

    As a teacher, I had to find my own ‘loud’ voice too.

  7. Kathleen says:

    I am a current secondary teacher, who was trained in primary and secondary practices, and have worked in both fields. When working in primary, having not had the explicit training through my education degree to understand the requirements of teaching reading, there was always something gnawing at me that wasn’t right. Something just didn’t sit right! Teaching whole language, 3 cuing systems etc,
    I saw first hand the students who were slipping through the cracks. I saw and heard the teachers in the staff rooms talking about how they can’t help this child or that child because they have all their other ‘capable’ students to focus on and they didn’t have the ‘time’ (or more so the knowledge or professional training) to support these kids. To me, none of what we were doing was making sense and I wanted to know why!

    I worked with a student in grade 3 who began to display avoidance techniques and disruptive behaviours. I was told by school leaders that there was nothing they could do despite this child not having progressed since primary school! I wasn’t having it! So I researched! And researched more!

    I began teaching him explicit and systematic phonic instruction and it all began to click for him. I worked with Indigenous students in upper primary who had the same struggles, so I did the same for them. The results spoke for themselves.

    What breaks my heart is, while now working in secondary, we are struggling with a huge number of secondary students who are unable to comprehend, with large numbers unable to even decode. I listen to them read and see them battle with unknown words, sounding the first letter and desperately trying to guess the rest, or other struggles of the failed 3 cuing method.
    I assess their abilities to decode and am blown away with the lack of phonetic knowledge. The impact this has on their secondary education, outside of their English classroom, is beyond heartbreaking. The inability to read subject specific vocabulary or comprehend complex texts makes progression through secondary incredibly challenging! Yes there is trauma and other things impacting students more and more these days, but a large portion of the behaviours and truancy in secondary is due to literacy challenges. The percentage of children in youth detention with severe literacy and oral language challenges is outrageous!

    Secondary teachers expect students to come in to year 7 being able to decode and comprehend, because that is what the curriculum tells them. More and more kids starting, are unable to do this and are expected to jump into text analysis and evaluations. Secondary teachers don’t have the training in primary literacy to know how to support these kids. Intervention programs can’t cater for the amount of students requiring support. We are having to go right back to the drawing board and teach explicit, systematic synthetic phonics to these students to support them to be able to engage in their secondary education!!

    If something isn’t done soon to change and eradicate whole language and balanced literacy approaches in the lower years, and this is not criticising teachers, but more so the teaching education systems who train teachers, then we are going to continue to have problems in literacy with our children!!

    If something isn’t working, then we need to look to the science to see what can! If we ignore it, then we are doing an absolute injustice to our kids!

  8. Brendan says:

    I was taught the Freebody and Luke theory when I studied teaching. I spent ten years letting students down, despite a will to learn and a strong work ethic. It was only after working with a speech pathologist, I discovered how badly my initial teacher education had failed me. I didn’t understand enough about English, let alone how to teach students to read. Whole language or balanced literacy arguments do seem to be changing though. In the past they knocked phonics on the head straight away, but now they affirm phonics whilst spending the rest of the time dismissing it. I agree that teaching reading is complex, or as Moats puts it ‘rocket science’. The problem is when it is all craft and no Science, which is unfortunately too often the case, especially if you follow the line of argument in articles like this one. I work in a school environment and I have seen first hand the damage this sort of argument causes. Unfortunately, it is often most clearly seen in our most disadvantaged students in the community, whom don’t always have the protective factors needed to overcome poor instruction. I recommend reading some Louisa Moats, Lyn Stone or Mark Seidenberg.

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