In his 1955 book Why Johnny Can't Read, Rudolph Flesch explained that quality of instruction was the key to improving children's literacy. Almost 60 years later, children's names may have changed but the story remains the same.
Billions of dollars have been spent in the past decade on programs aimed at improving literacy, yet thousands of children still struggle with basic reading skills.
In the 2013 National Assessment Program for Literacy and Numeracy 11.5 per cent of Year 3 students achieved only the (very low) minimum standard for reading, or below it.
This means 32,000 cognitively-able children, the equivalent of 100 primary schools, are still poor readers after four years of school and 1200 hours of reading instruction. There are thousands more non-readers in the higher grades.
The problem of low literacy is not one of funding and it is not intractable. The problem is an entrenched gap between research and practice. Despite robust scientific research on how children acquire reading skills early and quickly, too many children are not receiving effective, evidence-based reading instruction. Five essential skills are necessary for proficient and engaged reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.
The so-called "reading wars" are portrayed as an academic debate over phonics, which teaches children the alphabetic code, versus a whole-language approach, which encourages development of higher-order literacy skills. This is a false dichotomy. Reading researchers do not claim phonics is a complete approach to reading instruction.
Phonics is one essential part of a high-quality comprehensive reading program. It has been the focus of particular attention because it is the component most often neglected or poorly taught. High-quality phonics instruction is explicit, systematic and structured. Pointing out letter sounds during shared reading activities is not phonics instruction.
Why are children not receiving effective evidence-based reading instruction, including phonics?
First, many teachers do not have the adequate literacy skills for teaching reading effectively. Studies of trainee and practising teachers in Australia (and in the US and Britain) have repeatedly shown a large proportion of teachers have insufficient knowledge of meta-linguistics-basic language constructs such as morphology and phonological awareness - to be able to use it in their teaching.
For example, only 38 per cent of pre-service teachers and 52 per cent of in-service teachers in a Victorian study knew the definition of "syllable".
Second, teacher education degrees have not adequately prepared teachers in effective reading instruction. The National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy in 2005 found less than 10 per cent of time in compulsory units of primary teaching degrees was devoted to reading instruction.
Subsequent surveys and inquiries indicate not much has changed. The little time that is spent on reading in teacher education courses is weighted towards theories of literacy, especially whole-language philosophies, rather than proven, effective practice.
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