Home Class Tech Evidence-based teaching drives stronger reading outcomes – research

Evidence-based teaching drives stronger reading outcomes – research


Evidence-based teaching drives stronger reading outcomes – research

A recent report by the Grattan Institute found one third of Australian children cannot read proficiently, calling for an overhaul in reading instruction and the need for “a systematic, evidence-based curriculum”.

The authors of the report say the ‘whole-language’ approach – which became popular in the 1970s and is based on the idea that learning to read is an easy, natural, unconscious process – does not work for all students and that its remnants should be banished from Australian schools.

What’s needed, say the experts, is a curriculum that focuses on phonemic awareness, phonics, and comprehension. They argue that reading, a critical skill for lifelong learning and empathy, requires explicit teaching, challenging the belief that children learn to read naturally.

Edith Cowan University’s (ECU) School of Education recently published a position paper emphasising the critical importance of learning to read as “a fundamental human right” and agreeing that the whole-language approach needs to be overhauled in favour of evidence-based teaching practices.

“By far, the most significant factor holding back young Australians is how reading is taught to children,” Associate Professor Lorraine Hammond from ECU’s School of Education told The Educator.

“Teaching is the most altruistic of professions and teachers want the best for their students, but sometimes they haven’t been given the right tools.”

Associate Professor Hammond insists teachers are not to blame for the decline in students’ reading outcomes.

“For many years they have not had access to research on the most effective way to teach reading. Instead, approaches such as ‘whole language’, and it’s more recent iteration, ‘balanced literacy’ have been the dominant approaches taught at universities and advocated by systems,” she said.

“Unlike learning to talk, that is natural, learning how to read depends on how children are taught.” 

Associate Professor Hammond says a “structured and systematic” approach to teaching the component skills of reading: phoneme awareness, letter-sound knowledge, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension is more effective than an approach that encourages children to look at the first letter and guess or look at the picture. 

“A child that learns how the sounds of speech are represented by letters, can read any word.  The more children practice, the better their brain gets at connecting the spoken language system in their brain to decoding print,” she said.

“Most people can’t remember learning how to read, they can just do it, and read virtually any word they see without any apparent effort at all. That’s not the case with unknown words – those you have to sound out.”

Associate Professor Hammond pointed to the remote communities in Western Australia, where children attending schools who are part of the Kimberley Schools Project are taught the precursors for reading explicitly and directly how to read.

“Our consistent approach means that children who may move between schools or have low attendance learn to read better than some of the peers in metropolitan areas because of how we teach,” she said. “This means a child who attends 60% of the time can still learn how to read.”

Associate Professor Hammond said this begs the question of how children with regular attendance are still failing.  

“Of course, oral language difficulties and other factors such as working memory contribute to reading difficulties, but it is more than reasonable to expect that those children will learn how to read, perhaps not as quickly and efficiently as peers.”

Ending the ‘cycle of failure’

In 2020, the NSW Government made the phonics screening check – a five to seven-minute assessment that tells teachers how their students are progressing in phonics – compulsory for all Year 1 students.

It is hoped that the check, which consists of 40 words which are delivered through a mixture of 20 real words and 20 pseudo-words, will provide effective early intervention against reading issues so that young people don’t fall behind in this critical area later on in their learning journey.

“The Year 1 Phonics check measures how well children can read short words they have never seen before,” Associate Professor Hammond said.

“To do well in this test children must have been taught he precursor skills for decoding words, in particular phoneme awareness, letter-sound knowledge and how to systematically blend sounds together to read words.”

Associate Professor Hammond says that for some children who do not pass the Phonics Screener, attention to teaching these skills “is not only essential but urgent”.

“The longer students use inefficient strategies such as guessing or predicting words based on the context of the sentence or a picture, the more ingrained these strategies become,” she said.

“From this point the children who can read get better at it, and those who do not, and a cycle of failure can begin.”

Associate Professor Hammond said that for other children, who may read accurately, but not understand what they read, greater attention to those factors that impact on comprehension such as teaching background knowledge, unknown vocabulary and strategies to apply while reading to support comprehension, such as finding the main idea, are essential and can also be taught directly.

“There is an art to the science of reading, and that is knowing what children need to progress and providing it.”

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