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Episode 5: What’s changing with the teaching of reading in Australia (and why?)

This episode answers the common questions schools and parents have when changing from a whole-language or balanced literacy way of teaching to one supported by scientific evidence.

Watch episode 5 on YouTube

Show notes

  • “Why wasn’t my older one taught reading this way”
  • “Why have the take home readers changed and why do the new ones look so basic compared to the old ones?”
  • “Where have the levelled readers and Running Records gone?”
    “What’s this stuff about phonological awareness?”
  • “Why are the students and teachers doing activities that look like ‘rote learning’ and ‘drill’ in the classroom?”
  • “What happened to “chunky monkey” and “flippy dolphin” and why must we insist on kids sounding out words now”
  • “Why do parents now have to do a course before being able to volunteer to listen to kids read in the classroom?”
  • “Why didn’t my struggling 12-year-old get this type of intervention when they were in year one?”

These are the types of questions that schools who have begun changing how they teach reading (and spelling) face from parents who have noticed the differences. They’re excellent questions because when a school flicks the switch and starts to jettison a whole-language or balanced literacy way of teaching, there are highly noticeable changes. So as well as teaching the kids, schools are needing to also teach parents about what’s happening. Some of these questions are very awkward to answer because the ugly truth is that there are students at the end of primary school who have missed out on this higher quality instruction. It’s not fair, but it’s inevitable. This fact breaks the heart of educators and we all look back, with much sadness when we think about what we did before, and the students we could have done better for. If any of us could turn back the clock, of course, we would have taught this way all along.

Is this teaching just another trendy educational innovation that will soon pass? No! Phonics teaching dominated the landscape before whole language and its offspring, balanced literacy became the norm in schools. These ideologies were based on some understandable misconceptions. The popular thinking went like this:

Because (most) kids learn to speak by being immersed in their mother tongue (naturally – with no repetitive explicit teaching needed), then reading instruction should also involve a similar immersion in the printed word, and learning to read must also be a natural process.

This turned out to be a logical fallacy that gave us three decades of way too many struggling readers.

So what came next?

The U.S. published an inquiry into this situation in 2000, the U.K. did their own and then Australia also inquired into this in 2005. All three inquiries looked closely at current reading research. Some of this research was from brain imaging studies that were discovering that there are indeed, brain circuits (hardware) ready to go to learn spoken language. However, no such hardware had evolved in the brain that’s ready to learn to read and write. There was nothing innate or natural about learning to read. The skills of reading and writing have to be carefully and meticulously welded on, through highly explicit teaching, to neural circuits that are designed for other tasks. So, these inquiries from the U.S., U.K. and Australia found the same thing: the teaching of reading needs to be highly structured, highly explicit, sequential and heavily based in phonics to get the best results for the maximum number of students.

Following the release of the Australian inquiry’s findings (2005), not one recommendation was implemented. Blows your mind but also gives you an idea of how deeply embedded whole language approaches were in the DNA of reading instruction and how anti-science the educational policy makers and teacher training institutions really were. There was also significant push back from big corporations who had built very lucrative businesses based on selling whole language based programs to schools. So, the vast majority of Australian schools continued on their merry way, doing the same thing. This wasn’t malicious, it was just a failing of quality research to make its way into policy and classrooms and not at all uncommon in education. It was kind of like what’s happening with climate science!

Fast forward almost twenty years and only now are we seeing a groundswell of schools acting on the research in Australia. Listen to our previous podcast with Dr. Sandra Marshall and you’ll hear about what’s caused this tectonic shift.

We hope you enjoy(ed) this Dyscastia podcast and that it puts what is happening in schools into a helpful context.

Links from Episode

What are Michael and Bill talking about when they refer to ‘The Scouts’?

Early in the podcast, Bill refers to the classic book “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the main character Scout, who explains in the story how reading just seemed to come to her, without any effort, simply by just sitting on her father’s lap as he read. Scout becomes a metaphor for the 5-10% of students who will learn to read, without explicit, structured, phonics based instruction.

“I never deliberately learned to read, but somehow I had been wallowing illicitly in the daily papers. In the long hours of church–was it then I learned? I could not remember not being able to read hymns. Now that I was compelled to think about it, reading was something that just came to me, as learning to fasten the seat of my union suit without looking around, or achieving two bows from a snarl of shoelaces. I could not remember when the lines above Atticus’s moving finger separated into words. But I had stared at them all the evenings in my memory, listening to the news of the day, Bills to Be Enacted into Laws, the diaries of Lorenzo Dow – anything Atticus happened to be reading when I crawled into his lap every night.”

(To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee, Chapter 2)

Nancy Young’s Ladder of Reading

An elegant model that illustrates the proportions of learners who need particular types of reading instruction. Bill and Michael talk in this Dyscastia podcast about the proportion of students who require a highly structured, phonics based, intensive form of teaching.

Book: Language at The Speed of Sight – Mark Seidenberg

Bill mentioned this book in explaining how education has developed a reputation for being ideologically driven and not well informed by research. Mark Seidenberg is a professor in the department of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Video: What’s Wrong with Predictable or Repetitive Texts – Alison Clarke

This is a stunning explainer on the importance of decodable reading material for early readers:

The Three Cueing Systems (aka multi-cueing or searchlight model)

A discredited word attack strategy (never actually was credited) but still widely taught, that encourages readers to attack unfamiliar words using:

  1. semantic cues (can I guess the word from the meaning of the words around it?)
  2. syntactic cues (can I guess the word from its place in the sentence?) and
  3. grapho-phonic cues (can I work out sounds from some of the phonemes I already know?)

This is all good until you strike a word you’ve never seen (outside your sight word bank) or heard (outside your vocabulary) before. Old-school levelled readers are based on the 3-cueing strategy, therefore are a big reason Australian schools pump out a horrifying number of students who can’t read.

David Share’s Self Teaching Hypothesis

Mentioned by Bill when talking about the cohort of kids who get to point of reading development where the act of reading becomes ‘self-teaching’. The Five from Five website explains this very nicely:

Schools that teach Reading and Spelling in a Research Informed way: Picking a Winner

A recent blog written by Bill about schools who’ve adopted reading research into what they teach how they teach, the common elements to their teaching approaches and the rationale for this.

The whole-word based Dick and Jane series used in Australian primary schools in the 70s.



4 Responses

  1. Hi Bill and Michael

    I listened to this episode about the changes in teaching reading and I have to say it was an absolute light bulb moment for me. I feel like this has changed the way I look at reading forever. The cogs have been turning for me and at our school for a while now, but this has taken things to a new level of understanding and inspired me to really take action. At the moment our school is making the shift from the predictable text/whole language teaching of reading to synthetic phonics and decodable readers. We have started our training with Little Learners Love Literacy and so many points you made in the episode was reflected in our initial training. I have excitedly forwarded your episode to all of staff as an important tool to continue to develop understanding around how we teach reading. There were so many ideas that resonated with me, but most importantly was that this science to reading is built on solid research practices. Aside from bowing down to you both, I did have a question. In the episode you mentioned testing the progress of reading. We still use running records across the school. For our 3-6 students, we are finding this time consuming and not effective in giving us the data we need to inform our practice. You mentioned an assessment which give a percentile and reading age. Can I ask what assessment tool this is? At our school, I think in order for teachers to make this shift in understanding and teaching reading, we need to be able to assess students and use this data to drive practice and demonstrate growth.

    1. Dear Nicole,
      Thank you so much for your feedback. It is great to hear that the podcast has been helpful! It sounds like you are on your way to making a positive change for your students, parents and teachers. Unfortunately, running records is not an evidence-based assessment method. There are a number of assessment options available that give percentile scores or age equivalents. In South Australia, schools have started to replace Running Records with the Dibels testing suite We haven’t used this ourselves, but it has a good reputation, is free, and has online training modules available

    1. Hi Criss. Thanks for taking the time to comment! That’s a difficult question to answer without a bit more context. Are you able to elaborate?

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