Do children learn to read by being read to, or do they need specific instruction to understand the relationship between the letters and words they see in print and the spoken words they hear?
In Australia, the dominant view is that children learn to read by being read to, and by being encouraged to focus on the meaning of print rather than the mechanics of reading (what is often somewhat derogatorily referred to as low-level decoding skills). This view forms the basis of current approaches to the teaching of reading in our schools, with the emphasis on shared and guided reading, and an incidental rather than a systematic approach to the teaching of phonics.
It is also the driving force behind the Australian Labor Party’s policy of improving literacy levels by providing free books to parents to encourage them to read to their children from infancy.
Of course, it is a good thing for parents to read to their children: some 96 per cent do anyway. It is entertaining, stimulating and enjoyable. And it develops children’s vocabulary and oral language skills, as well as their conceptual understanding and capacity to recall and connect ideas. It also encourages a positive attitude to books and reading, and may lead to a life long passion.
But it does not, in itself, teach children to read. For this, something more is required.
To achieve independent reading, children need to understand the connection between the marks on the page and the sounds they hear. For some this comes very easily, without any apparent teaching, but for others it does not, and so when they get to school and are expected to learn to read independently, they struggle. And if the school does not provide them with the building blocks they need to develop reading skills, they get frustrated, bored and angry. They will get further behind in their reading, and gradually start to lose interest and turn to other seemingly more stimulating and rewarding activities.
The research evidence is strongly opposed to the view that children learn to read naturally by being exposed to reading and print. There is now a consensus among reading researchers that the skills underlying the facility to read are the ability to break up words into sounds (phonemic awareness), and the ability to connect these sounds to letters or clusters of letters by a process of blending and segmentation (phonics). Without specific teaching, many children fail to develop these skills.
There has been a series of reports in the United States documenting the research evidence relating to effective strategies for the teaching of reading. In California, a whole language approach to reading instruction was adopted in the 1980s; however, this approach was dropped when their state reading scores showed a massive decline when compared to other states. They have now introduced a completely new curriculum with a strong emphasis on initial and intensive teaching of phonics.
In 2002, one billion dollars was allocated to Reading First, a programme designed to improve reading achievement through the adoption of effective teaching practices based on scientific research, as documented in the 2000 report of the National Reading Panel. The implementation of this programme has involved significant changes to school curricula and teaching practices, in addition to extensive retraining of teachers to implement the new evidence-based teaching programmes. While the United States looks to the research evidence as the basis for the implementation of effective programmes to teach reading, Australia seems to place more weight on discredited theory, or the views of writers expounding popular myths about how children learn to read.
The call from a group of leading Australian reading researchers and educators for an independent review of approaches to the teaching of initial reading in our schools has gone unheeded. The educational bureaucracy seems reluctant to acknowledge any need for a critical examination of curricula, teaching practices, or teacher training.
If children in our schools were learning to read, this would not be a problem. But as we know, some 20 to 30 per cent of children have difficulties, and by the end of their first or second year of school are in need of extra help. This assistance is currently provided by the extremely expensive, and ineffective, Reading Recovery programme.
But even that is not enough. We now have a $700 literacy bonus to fund private tuition for children in Year 3 who are still failing to read, despite the claimed effectiveness of current teaching programmes.
Perhaps it would make sense to start looking at where the origin of the problem lies - in the initial teaching of reading.