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First, become a good reader

By Jennifer Buckingham - posted Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Hundreds of thousands of children struggle with reading at even the most basic level, even after spending years at school. This distressing situation is not because of a lack of funding for literacy programs and it is not because too little time is spent on literacy in the classroom.

It has nothing to do with ''culture wars'' or cross-curriculum priorities. The explanation is a fairly simple one: most of these children would be better readers if they just had been taught ­properly.

On Sunday, the review of the Australian curriculum was released. One of its main recommendations is that reading instruction in the early years of school should be guided by the best research evidence on how children learn to read. This may sound glaringly obvious, but it is far from a widely accepted view, especially in university education faculties.


Based on submissions and advice from reading researchers, the review authors, Ken Wiltshire and Kevin Donnelly, recommend that in "the Australian curriculum, English should be revised to place greater emphasis on a more structured and systematic phonics and phonemic awareness ­approach during the early years of reading."

The curriculum review's findings and recommendations on reading do not tell us anything new. Almost a decade ago, in 2005, the National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy made a strong and convincing case for more explicit, systematic and structured teaching of reading, much of which is still relevant today. The NITL report also singled out phonics as being particularly weak in most school literacy programs, not because teachers didn't want to teach phonics but because their teaching degrees had not properly prepared them to do so.

Several studies of teacher education students in Australian universities have found that many prospective and beginning teachers have a poor understanding of the structure of language. That includes a lack of proper understanding of phonemic awareness and phonics - respectively, the ability to hear the distinct sounds that make up spoken words; and the knowledge of how speech sounds are connected to the ­printed word.

Written English is a code. Once children learn the code, they can read almost any word. Some children learn to read without much formal teaching in phonics; these children are the minority. Most children need to be taught the code through phonics. Children who have not needed much phonics instruction to read well often need phonics to spell correctly. Children from all socio-economic backgrounds benefit from good phonics instruction, but especially children who have not had the benefit of preschool or a literacy-rich early home life.

Phonemic awareness and phonics are essential but are only part of an effective reading program. Despite what has been written in the context of the ''reading wars'', no serious reading expert has ever suggested that phonics alone is sufficient to be a good reader. Children also need to be able to get meaning from what they are reading.

Numerous reviews of reading research during the past 15 years have found that five elements are necessary for children to become good readers: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.


The research also shows children are most likely to acquire these skills when taught in a particular way - explicit, systematic, and structured teaching. What this means in practice is a well-designed program that leads children carefully through the steps of reading; from easy to hard, from simple to complex, and in a methodical way that does not leave any gaps in their knowledge.

The curriculum review is a new opportunity to get reading instruction right. The NSW Board of Studies, Teaching and Educational Standards is leading the charge at the moment, putting in place new standards for education degrees in a bid to ensure all children have a teacher who knows the best way to teach reading. Hopefully, an overhaul of the national curriculum that includes effective reading instruction will encourage other states to follow suit.

It is difficult to think of an educational goal more important than improving literacy. Everything else depends on it. Unlike many other educational goals, there is a clear evidence-based strategy to achieve it. There can be no more excuses.

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This article was first published in The Australian.

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About the Author

Jennifer Buckingham is a research fellow with The Centre for Independent Studies.

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