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Does Australia have a child literacy problem?

By Marion de Lemos - posted Monday, 28 February 2005

The 7.30 Report on February 3, 2005 included a segment on the Inquiry into Literacy Teaching set up by Dr Brendan Nelson at the end of last year.

The segment included interviews with Dr Brendan Nelson, the Federal Education Minister, Professor Max Coltheart, from the Macquarie Centre for Cognitive Science and Professor of Educational Research at Macquarie University, Professor Geoff Masters, Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Council for Educational Research, Trevor Fletcher, from the NSW Education Department, Yvonne Meyer, the parent representative on Nelson’s Committee of Inquiry, and Noelle Michaelson, a private tutor who works with children with reading difficulties.

In answer to the query as to whether Australia has a child literacy problem, Professor Coltheart said yes, probably. Brendan Nelson said reading methods currently being used in Australian schools were failing too many children, and Trevor Fletcher said that he thought the problem was overstated.


Yvonne Meyer’s son Jake is an example of one of the children that the system failed. Jake got to the end of Grade 5 without being able to read. Serious as this was, what is even more disturbing is that his teachers did not know that he could not read. He had gone through Reading Recovery in Grade 1, had passed the Year 3 literacy benchmark test (so would not have been eligible for the $700 literacy bonus which has been promised for children who fail this test), and was generally described by his teachers as a “good” reader.

How can this happen?

The opening scene in the 7.30 Report on literacy provides the answer. It is the scene of a typical Australian class of beginning readers. The children are sitting around a table looking at a book, which they are reading together. The exchange between the teacher and one of the children who are “reading” the book goes as follows:

TEACHER: How did you know it said "garden"?
BOY: I guessed.
TEACHER: But did you look at the letters?
BOY: I looked at the picture.
TEACHER: That's excellent.

So who can blame Jake, a bright boy with a good memory, for assuming that “reading” was a process of guessing, using whatever cues he could get from pictures and context, and memorising a vocabulary of about 300 or so words that he could recognise by sight. After all, Kenneth Goodman, the father of whole language, has consistently described the reading process as a guessing game, where readers are expected to use a whole range of cues to get meaning from text. But eventually, 300 words is not enough. The vocabulary gets more complex, the books get longer, and the memory can no longer hold the number of words that are needed to be able to read effectively. Which is why the English language, as well as most other languages, has developed an alphabetic code that links letters, or groups of letters, with particular sounds, so that a child can use the letters in the word to work out how the word sounds, and so link the written word to a known word in his spoken vocabulary.

But more importantly, why was the fact that Jake could not read not detected by his teachers?


It was not detected because the assessment of reading in most schools, and in our national assessment programs, does not include any systematic assessment of the ability to decode words.

Reading depends on two processes: decoding skills, or the ability to convert the written text to the spoken word, and comprehension skills, which involve the ability to interpret the meaning of the words once they have been decoded. Both of these skills are required for effective reading. In order to read effectively, the child must first be able to convert the written text to the spoken word. It is only when this skill is achieved that the child is able to attach meaning to words and text, by applying what he already knows and can understand in his spoken language to the written form of language.

But if the assessment does not distinguish between these two skills, and if it is possible to guess the answer of a reading test item by relying on sight recognition of familiar words or other cues, a child may be able to pass a simple “reading test” without being able to decode text. Thus children who are having difficulty in reading because they do not understand the basic principles for decoding text are not recognised, and can get through the first few years of schooling without their difficulty being identified by the school system, or even the national testing program, particularly if they are bright children with a good memory, who have acquired a large vocabulary of words that they can recognise by sight.

Because their difficulties are not recognised by the school system, and because the systematic teaching of phonics is not given any recognised place in either the initial teaching of reading or in remedial programs such as Reading Recovery, these children have nowhere to go but to the private tutors, like Noelle Michaelson, who can provide them with a basic understanding of the alphabetic principle, and give them the code that will enable them to read new words and unfamiliar text without having to guess or memorise or rely on context. With this tool, they can move on to the next stage of reading, when instead of learning to read, they are reading to learn.

But most of the private tutors, like Noelle Michaelson, are retired teachers, who trained at a time when it was understood that children actually had to be taught to read, and that specific strategies were needed to teach them. So even if the Inquiry did come up with a recommendation that effective teaching of reading requires more specific instruction in the alphabetic code, or phonics, where are the teachers that could implement such a program?

Not among those who have been trained to believe that phonics is not necessary for teaching children how to read, and that children learn to read by being read to, or by being exposed to a rich language environment. Or even those who believe that guessing is a good enough strategy for learning to read, and as long as they get the meaning right, it does not matter if they can’t read the words.

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About the Author

Marion de Lemos is a retired psychologist and researcher who is a member of the Developmental Disorders of Language and Literacy Network Group.

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