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An unsound approach to teaching

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Wednesday, 30 November 2005

Teachers are accustomed to perennial debates about education. Teachers are also used to reviews, reports, government and departmental inquiries on a host of issues, ranging from teacher training to school effectiveness and whether falling standards in literacy and numeracy are leading to a crisis in education.

Beginning with the Whitlam Government’s Karmel Report, the NSW based Carrick Report, the Blackburn Report in Victoria and ongoing curriculum reviews across Australia, it’s obvious that education, over the past 30 years or so, has been subject to continual pressure to change.

As acknowledged by Professor Peter Cuttance in a paper delivered earlier this year, the danger, though, is that much of the research and subsequent recommendations adopt a top-down approach, far removed from the reality of the classroom and the needs of hard-pressed teachers.


The result? After the initial news headlines, public comment and responses from governments and education bureaucrats, programs are introduced, resources are committed to materials and professional development, as bemused teachers wait for the caravan to move on and the next wave of school reform to wash over their schools.

The national inquiry into teaching literacy, chaired by Ken Rowe from the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), is due to release its report, Teaching Reading, early December and the question has to be asked, as a result of the inquiry, whether anything will change at the classroom level.

Australia’s adoption of the whole language approach, where children are asked to look and guess, instead of being taught the relationship between letters and sounds, is criticised in the report.

An argument is also put that the reason many teachers are unable to teach literacy is because of inadequate teacher training and professional development. The report recommends, before being registered to teach, that teachers are tested for literacy skills and their knowledge of the research about successful literacy teaching.

While acknowledging the report’s value in highlighting poor literacy standards as a significant issue, a weakness in the report is that it spends a good deal of time stating the obvious, as evidenced by the 1992 Commonwealth House of Representatives report, The Literacy Challenge, the 1996 national literacy survey, where 29 per cent of Year 5 children failed and last year’s open letter written by 26 experts, there is nothing new about expressing concerns about literacy standards.

Those familiar with the reading wars that have been ongoing for the past 20 years in the USA, the UK and Australia, will also recognise that much of the Rowe report simply restates conclusions reached by already widely known research into successful reading.


Previous inquiries such as Teaching Children to Read, carried out by the US National Reading Panel in 2000, the New Zealand Parliament’s 2001 report Let’s All Read and the House of Common’s 2005 report Teaching Children to Read (pdf file 336KB), as does the Rowe report, all argue that the whole language approach is flawed.

Within Australia, critics of whole language, such as Byron Harrison in Tasmania and Chris Nugent in Victoria, have been ringing the alarm bells about the failure of the whole language since the late 1980s, meanwhile thousands of young children continue to be placed at risk.

It is not enough to ask beginning readers to look and guess, to memorise whole words and to use illustrations to decipher the meaning of what is being read. To read, children must be taught the relationship between individual letters and sounds and how words can be divided into combinations of letters and sounds.

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First published in The Australian on November 19, 2005.

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About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at

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