In the typical Australian school classroom of 24 students, eight can’t read well – and it’s a problem that’s costing the country $40bn over those students’ lifetimes.
That is according to a new Grattan Institute report, titled: ‘The Reading Guarantee: How to give every child the best chance of success’ that says this “preventable tragedy” is the result of decades of disagreement about how to teach reading.
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.
Instead, all schools should use the ‘structured literacy’ approach right through school, which includes a focus on phonics in the early years.
Below, The Educator speaks to Grattan Institute Education Program Director, Dr. Jordana Hunter about this approach, its benefits to students, and
TE: What do you consider to be the most unique and powerful benefits of the ‘structured literacy’ approach in terms of teaching reading, and how does it improve on the status-quo?
The power of a structured literacy approach is that it works for almost all students, not just for some. Almost all students can learn to read if they are taught well and get support when needed.
In the early years, this means that students should learn to sound out the letters of each word, and teachers should read aloud rich literature to their class. Once students have mastered decoding new words, they still need explicit teaching to build up their background knowledge and vocabulary, so they can comprehend what they read – the ultimate goal of reading. Screening and monitoring of student progress also allows schools to target additional catch-up support to students.
Taking this systematic approach will benefit all students, but particularly disadvantaged students who often fall further behind without rich learning opportunities outside of school.
TE: What are the anticipated challenges that principals might face in implementing this (structured literacy) approach in schools, particularly in diverse educational settings that include rural or under-resourced schools?
Implementing change on the ground in schools is hard work and it can come at great personal cost to principals. Too often we rely on ‘superhero’ principals to do it all alone. In particular, we need a system response that deals with the challenges that principals face in disadvantaged schools. In these schools, principal and staff turn-over are a big issue, as well as access to experts and training.
Governments need to take something off the plates of principals in these schools. We recommend that governments provide principals with specific guidelines on what effective reading instruction involves. This would be a ‘one-stop-shop’ for the practical tools schools need and which a harried or inexperienced school leader may struggle to find, such as recommended reading programs, curriculum materials, and assessments. This should be coupled with more intensive professional development and on-the-ground coaching support for teachers.
TE: How can schools support teachers in transitioning to this approach, especially those who have been teaching with different methodologies for years, and what professional development or resources will be essential for this transition?
This is a tricky challenge and we shouldn’t understate the effort required for teacher to change their practice. Some teachers will need to ‘unlearn’ teaching practices that they have been recommended by their education system. Others might find working with literacy instructional coaches or taking a stronger whole-school approach to teaching background knowledge and vocabulary a little challenging at first.
The first step is for governments to be clear about what evidence-informed practice is and is not. Governments need to get their own house in order too in terms of their advice to teachers, so it’s clear what they’re asking of teachers and school leaders.
On-the-ground training and tools will be key. To embed new practice in classrooms, teachers need a lot of support, including high-quality evidence-informed curriculum materials and robust assessments. There’s an important role for instructional coaches too, who can work shoulder-to-shoulder with teachers to help them fine-tune their practice and problem-solve strategies to help struggling students.
TE: Once the ‘Reading Guarantee’ is implemented, how should schools measure and assess its impact on reading proficiency, especially among disadvantaged students? (What key indicators should principals look for to ensure the program’s success?)
We think the proficiency benchmark is a worthy goal for all students, advantaged or disadvantaged, so are recommending governments commit to a long-term target of 90% of students achieving proficiency on NAPLAN.
At the school-level, we’re recommending schools use screening and monitoring data to check students’ progress across a range of key reading sub-skills that are not captured by NAPLAN. These kinds of granular data will give much more detailed information about how students are tracking, support required, and progress over time.
Principals should also be monitoring implementation too. Regular learning walks and observations help a principal keep an ear to the ground and can understand what further supports both teachers and students need.