Monday, 6 August 2018

An open letter to student teachers

Dear Student Teachers
I’d like to have a chat with you. It’s about reading. Yes, I know you’re probably being told to think about literacy, and even about multiple literacies, but let’s get down to tin-tacks about the business of lifting meaning off a page of printed text, because all children need to be able to do that. It’s non-negotiable. Specifically, we need to talk about an unpalatable fact that you may not yet be aware of - the fact that too many children exit primary school with reading, writing, and spelling skills that are years below the level they will need to make the transition to secondary school and succeed academically and vocationally. I don’t know if you have spoken with any secondary teachers recently and asked them how satisfied they are with the reading, writing, and spelling skills of the Year 7 students they are enrolling? I have, and they are not happy.
We’ve known for at least a couple of decades now that certain factors and approaches promote the successful transition to literacy in the early years of school. For reasons that are puzzling to the rest of us, though, a large number of education academics don’t seem willing, able and/or interested in engaging with this evidence. The problem is that this impacts on what you, as student teachers are taught about reading in your pre-service education. You might be interested to know that many teachers, even recent graduates, bemoan the fact that they learnt precious little (if anything at all) about teaching reading, and much of what they did learn was inaccurate, out-dated (even at the time), and unhelpful to the most vulnerable students they meet in their classrooms.
So, it’s increasingly untenable for the rest of us to ignore this and look the other way.
Your lecturers are right to point out that one of the factors that influences reading success is children’s early oral language exposure. As a speech pathologist, I am right on board with the importance for reading of early expressive and receptive vocabulary, syntactic complexity and narrative production and comprehension. We know that children from more advantaged family backgrounds generally arrive at school better equipped to make the transition to literacy, and of course that makes teachers’ jobs easier. The more advanced the starting point for any learner, the easier it is for a teacher or instructor, on just about any skill. This applies to learning a musical instrument, acquiring a second language, and learning how to drive a car – something you may have done recently. Prior knowledge and skill can provide a great head-start.
But this does not mean that biology is destiny or that what you do in the classroom is irrelevant. On the contrary, it means that that what you do as the classroom teacher is critically important if the trajectories of children’s lives are to be changed. Education is meant to level the opportunity playing field, but children can’t be successful academically without strong reading, writing, and spelling skills.
Did you know that learning to read is not “biologically natural”? It’s actually a recent innovation in terms of human civilisation (only about 6,000 years old) and humans must adapt language and visual systems in the brain to accommodate this culturally, socially, academically, and economically important contrivance. We don’t fully understand why (a combination of genes and environment no doubt) some children seem to quite seamlessly make the transition to literacy, almost irrespective of the type of reading instruction they receive. A large proportion do not, however, and they need explicit instruction by highly knowledgeable teachers, right from the outset. If you start from behind, your progress has to be accelerated in the early years of school, so you can catch up with your more advantaged peers and keep up with the curriculum. But you don’t catch up unless you are being specifically taught the knowledge and skills that more able learners already have when they come to school.
This might sound like a strange proposition, but when you graduate, you will really be at the front line of our public health workforce. The literacy (and numeracy) skills that students exit primary school with play a large part in determining their health and wellbeing across the life-span. If you don’t have strong literacy skills, you will probably exit school early, and be unable to engage in further vocational training or higher education. This is an issue because in nations such as Australia, jobs for unskilled workers are rapidly disappearing. In a technology-based economy, students need to be able to stay at school and complete Year 12, so that their life chances (social, economic, mental health) are strong. Youth detention centres and adult prisons are full of people with low literacy skills, because of a “school-to-prison pipeline” phenomenon that sees an over representation of young people from complex, disadvantaged backgrounds exiting school early and unequipped for life. It does not need to be this way. If you don’t believe me about our economy becoming more technology-based, think about the self-checkout points at your local supermarket. What jobs do they take away? What jobs do they create?
You probably won’t hear terms like “Whole Language” in your pre-service training, but this is almost certainly a pervasive influence on what you are being told about how children learn to read, and what you should be doing in the classroom to support this. In fact, you’ll probably be told that the best approach is something with the reassuring name “Balanced Literacy”. But don’t be fooled. This is just Whole Language in a new dress. They both draw on a de-bunked set of ideas that originated in the 1970s and should have been completely retired by the 1980s, but sadly, they persist. Examples of such ideas and approaches include the so-called “Three Cueing” (or “Multi-Cueing”) strategy for beginning readers, remedial programs such as Reading Recovery, and the use of predictable, levelled readers in the early years (Vs using decodable texts for beginners). At some point, you may become so angry that you feel like asking the government to refund your university fees. After all, you assumed that by enrolling in an accredited primary education degree, you would be exposed to scientifically accurate and up-to-date information. This will not have been the case for many (maybe even most) of you.
Teacher knowledge of how phonemes, graphemes, digraphs, trigraphs, schwa vowels, syllables (stressed and unstressed), morphemes, words, and discourse-level text work in a linguistic sense is way too low. Do you know what all of these terms mean? It’s actually not OK if you don’t and you may find you need to spend a lot of your own time and money after you've graduated, trading in your already out-of-date pre-service education on knowledge that has been around for decades but wilfully and knowingly withheld from you while you were at university.
Once you graduate, I recommend that you seek out other professionals (e.g., speech pathologists and educational psychologists) whose pre-service education has probably taught them quite well about the structure of language and how reading works (this can be variable though, to be fair). These professionals will be happy to work and learn with you to support your knowledge and skills, and to promote the interdisciplinary teamwork that can be a most satisfying part of life in schools. I think teachers should be the most knowledge practitioners in schools about all aspects of reading, but unfortunately over recent decades, education academics have collectively discarded and/or rejected a large body of specialised knowledge that rightly belongs to you as a future education graduate. Perhaps you could ask some of your lecturers about how they have allowed this situation to develop. 
If you’re nearing the end of your pre-service education to become a primary school teacher and have not yet heard about the fact that in the last two decades, there’s been three international inquiries into the teaching of reading (USA, UK, and Australia), then this is very worrying. Wouldn’t you think this is core knowledge, that (again) belongs to you as a teaching professional? Most importantly, you need to know what those inquiries concluded and recommended for you, the classroom teacher, so that your students achieve strong academic outcomes, regardless of their starting point. Another one for you to ask your lecturers about (but I predict some fairly dismissive responses).
Perhaps you’ve been told by your lecturers that teachers are professionals and as such are in a position (and have the “right” in fact) to choose approaches that they think best for their students. Well this is all well and good but being a professional does not mean “choosing your own adventure” in the classroom. It means working from the best available scientifically-derived evidence and modifying your practices as new research findings come to hand and pass through a “quality filter” in terms of their strength and relevance to your practice. Would you prefer to go to a medical practitioner who did his or her own thing, according to personal preference, or to one whose practice reflects robust and recent evidence? Similarly, when you get on an aeroplane, do you want the pilot to try out a few ideas of his or her own, or do you expect that a pre-determined protocol will be adhered to, and evidence-informed judgement will be applied if something unexpected occurs? Unfortunately, you and your colleagues won’t be accorded true professional status in the eyes of the community until all education academics take scientific rigour seriously. Simply demanding professional autonomy and respect doesn’t cut it.
There’s a science to teaching reading, but you are probably told that it is really all about your relationship with your students, exposing them to beautiful children’s literature, and some incidental, embedded instruction, ideally with not too much emphasis on phonics. Your relationship with your students is important, as is their exposure to quality children’s literature. This may even be enough for some students, but you are bound to feel perplexed, frustrated and even saddened by the lack of progress that some students make in the face of well-intentioned low-impact teaching strategies. A particularly pernicious message you may have been “sold” by education lecturers is that reading failure reflects children’s home environments, i.e., a failure of parents to talk to and read to their children enough in the pre-school years. This is inaccurate and is an unforgivable dereliction of responsibility on the part of education academics for what goes on in the classroom. Make no mistake, your knowledge of language and literacy, and what you do in the classroom matters enormously and you can make a large and satisfying difference to students’ futures.
Another argument that is sometimes entertained by teacher unions, education academics, and some teachers is that all that is needed to lift the performance of struggling readers is more money. Think about it though. It costs the same dollar amount to have a teacher in front of a class, regardless of what they are doing instruction-wise. More money is unlikely to be forthcoming in the near future, and even if it was, it’s teachers’ knowledge and instructional practices that make a difference, not politicians opening their treasure-chests at election time. The fact that many schools in disadvantaged areas punch above their weight on academic achievement is proof of this. So, this is actually good news for you – you are entering a profession in which you can make a difference to the arc of children’s lives, provided you are knowledgeable and skilled as a professional.
Your own language and literacy skills are important. You can’t teach what you do not know. As noted above, you’ll need to prepare for some serious up-skilling early on in your career if you are going to have an explicit (as opposed to only an implicit) knowledge of how language works, in both spoken and written forms. This will be particularly important when you are teaching students who don’t seem to immediately “get” reading. At the moment, though, we create way too many instructional casualties – children who do not have an intrinsic learning disability, but can end up appearing this way, as a result of inadequate or misguided early instruction. It’s not easy to catch these kids up – much better to teach them properly the first-time round and avoid the added complication of behavioural and emotional difficulties that often accompany reading problems.
I know what I am saying here may be depressing and alarming, but it is not information that should be sugar-coated. If you are committed to teaching because you believe it is a way of being a positive influence in the lives of children, then don’t let go of your aspirations and motivations for becoming a teacher. Connect with teachers who have had their own epiphanies about reading instruction and adopt a sceptical stance when your pre-service education and your classroom observations and experiences don’t align.
Hopefully, over the course of your career, things will change substantially, and beginning teachers will be equipped with current evidence about how reading works, how to teach reading, and how to best identify and support struggling readers early on in their journeys.
There’s plenty of people and resources out there to help you, but also plenty of distracting edu-fads and pseudo-science, as well as some out-dated notions that are very difficult to dislodge. In spite of all of this, though, you can make a difference and can elevate the standing of the teaching profession for those who come after you.
Good luck! 

(C) Pamela Snow (2018)


  1. Good luck indeed - this should be handed out at the appropriate gatherings like a broadsheet

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Teacher knowledge of how phonemes, graphemes, digraphs, trigraphs, schwa vowels, syllables (stressed and unstressed), morphemes, words, and discourse-level text work in a linguistic sense is way too low. Do you know what all of these terms mean? It’s actually not OK if you don’t

    Can you direct me to an online resource that will give me a solid, scientifically grounded, knowledge and understanding of the above?


    1. Hi Paul
      I'd suggest you start with the Five from Five website: and also Reading Rockets:
      I can also recommend Alison Clarke's wonderful website: and there's lots of really helpful information for teachers in this 1999 paper by Louisa Moats:

      all the best

  4. It's increasingly obvious that some teaching degrees are not fit for purpose. As consumers, you wonder if any teachers have ever asked for their money back or argued the course description was misleading? That might make a few teacher training establishments sit up & take notice.

  5. It would certainly be interesting to see a test case Yvette.
    Thanks for your comment.


  6. "It’s actually a recent innovation in terms of human civilisation (only about 6,000 years old) and humans must adapt language and visual systems in the brain to accommodate this culturally, socially, academically, and economically important contrivance."

    Mmmm this again ... I fear that this argument which is commonly bandied about is not really based on evolutionary science. Evolution consists of increments rather than wholesale adaptations, and evolutionary science would argue that for writing to emerge in the first place, the affordances were already there for hominins to actually do it. A latent skill, if you like, that never manifested as writing previously (but developed through other activities) because there was no need.

    It's the other way around to the received way of thinking, which amounts to: humans discovered a thing to do, and now they have to evolve so that they can do it naturally as part of their DNA. Yes, I have heard people argue this.

    1. Janita Cunnington13 August 2019 at 12:21

      “. . . this argument which is commonly bandied about is not really based on evolutionary science. Evolution consists of increments rather than wholesale adaptations, and evolutionary science would argue that for writing to emerge in the first place, the affordances were already there for hominins to actually do it.”

      I’m having trouble following your reasoning. Certainly, as you say, the affordances were already there for hominins to actually do it (that is, invent writing). But whereas spoken language has had hundreds of thousands of years or possibly millions of years to evolve and become a defining characteristic of our species, written language is a novelty, an artifice, a social invention, relying on both the ingenuity of our large, generalist brain and the deliberate transmission of knowledge, not only from person to person but also from generation to generation.

      The ability to read is no doubt rooted in an evolved capacity to understand symbols: a fallen feather means a bird has been here; spore mean game or predators ahead; dark clouds mean rain is likely; a rainbow means the storm has passed. For individuals who don’t have others to educate them about these things, experience will teach them.

      But writing is different. It is at another remove of abstraction altogether. No amount of experience will teach you what sound an a stands for. Somebody, one way or another, has to tell you.

      Which leads us to what I think is probably another defining characteristic of our species -- the inborn urge to teach, and to follow instruction.

  7. Brilliant! Will share widely and hopefully it will spur on honest discussion. Thank you for this post.

  8. Ms. Pamela Snow, Thank you for this post. I will have to read it a few more times.
    I teach children who have attended kindergarten and primary one or two and who cannot read in English. Many of them cannot even read a simple sentence.
    However, they are able to read in Malay and Han Yu Pinyin which use the same alphabets used in the English language.
    Could we please discuss as to why they cannot read in English and are wrongly classified as dyslexic, please?
    Wish you well.
    Email will be ideal for this discussion. Please write to me at my address

  9. "Did you know that learning to read is not “biologically natural”?
    I have read similar sentences many times. My question would then be; Is reading in Malay, Tamil and Chinese natural? I am asking this question as almost all my students can read in languages other than English. After having observed my students, who I teach on a one on one basis, and having 'interviewed' them, over more than 14 years even after they have left my tuition, I now know the reason why they cannot read in English and are wrongly classified as dyslexic.

  10. Thank You Pamela for sharing your wisdom and knowledge within the area of teaching. As a pre-service teacher myself, I am currently studying my undergraduate Bachelor of Early Childhood and Primary Education at the LaTrobe campus in Bendigo. I am wondering if you have any resources that you could recommend for Kindergarten, lower-primary age group? As my passion is within the early years, I would really like to find some more programs/resources for teaching reading and literacy concepts throughout these lower levels of schooling.

  11. Hi there, I wonder if you would feel comfortable dropping me a note and having a chat one day? That will be a far easier way for me to respond to your questions, and I'm always keen to get to know emerging educators in my own community. My email address is In the meantime, check out the BELLCoP resources page - as you should find some useful resources there. Cheers, Pam

  12. Thank you for an honest and informative view on such an important topic in our education system, Pam. Your view has opened my eyes to the complexity of literature as an essential part of our culture and society, nonetheless it is clear that not all children have a fair chance at excelling at such a task. I appreciate your time to educate others, alike myself, of whom will soon be working alongside students with all kinds of literary abilities.
    Thank you,
    Ayla Pearson, La Trobe University, Bendigo

  13. Wow. What an interesting, informative (and somewhat confronting!) read. Thank you Pamela for such an eye-opening view on the teaching of reading within today's education. In particular, the aspects that we are not necessarily taught at university. As a pre-service teacher who is currently completing the final months of a four year degree, I have found this blog post extremely valuable and have taken away a number of points to research further.

    Chloe Adams
    La Trobe University Bendigo

  14. Hi Pamela, I love what you put forward in this article. You're right, we are told so much that students lack of knowledge comes entirely from the home environment. It is indeed a big contributor, but sometimes I forget what ability and control I have over knowledge and resources in my own classroom. Because of reading your blog I've gone on to read many more articles about how children truly learn literacy skills and it's really opened my eyes. Thank you!

  15. I have to be honest reading this has scared me completely. What you have written has reminded me of just how important literacy is in life and how one's literacy capabilities can either set them up or hold them back. It has made me reflect on my literacy skills and on how we are being taught to teach reading and writing in my education course. I believe what we are being taught in regard to literacy is extremely important for our future as educators such as differentiation and catering to the individual learning styles of students. However, I feel that our university could and should focus more on teaching us the actual 'what' and 'how' of teaching literacy. At this moment though I believe that I will have to begin, as you pointed out, familiarizing myself with “knowledge that has been around for decades but willfully and knowingly withheld from” me.
    Lachlan McNair
    La Trobe University Shepparton

  16. Thank you Ayla, Chloe, and Lachlan - I really appreciate your insights, and your willingness to engage with what I know must be some unsettling ideas. I hope we get to meet in or around Bendigo one day!

    If you haven't already done so, have a listen to the fabulous new podcast on reading instruction, by American broadcaster Emily Hanford:

    I think you will agree that it's sensational.

    Cheers :-) Pam

  17. I found your site after a talk about speech pathology in schools and, whilst exploring, was excited to come across the term ‘schwa’. Homeschooling mid-pandemic taught me that some of my year 6 son’s spelling issues stem from this little sound concept. I could not recall the term from the 1st year of my BEd, both somewhat hindering my progress and just plain bugging me. Thank you!

  18. So glad you've discovered this helpful little linguistic critter :-)

    Have a look at Louisa Moats' book, Speech to Print too, for a really deep dive on some of this territory. Good luck!

  19. Thank you for sharing such an informative and eye-opening open letter. Although some points are quite confronting, it definitely is up to us as teachers to do all we can for our students to give them the skills for a better future. While we cannot control the disadvantaged backgrounds of students, we can control what we do in the classroom, by using the current most up to date practices to support student’s literacy development.

    La Trobe University

  20. Candice McPherson11 April 2021 at 17:56

    Wow Pamela, thank you for creating such an informative and honest blog! As I was reading your post, I felt quite confronted as I began to realise the responsibility that we all have as teachers. Your words made me think about my own literacy journey during Primary school, it reminded me of the struggles I faced and the frustration I felt when I could not get the words right. I remember praying that the teacher would not pick me to read aloud or answer any questions about the story we had just read; your blog has reminded me that the anxiety students feel towards literacy (and numeracy) is real and needs to be recognised by all teachers. As a pre-service teacher nearing the end of my course, I want to thank you for providing us with the information that we are not often told about during our studies. Your post has been extremely valuable to me and has reminded me about the powerful impact that we can make in our students lives.

    Candice McPherson,
    La Trobe University Shepparton.

  21. I really enjoyed this blog post!
    I really appreciate your tip on contacting and seeking out other professionals to gain their knowledge on the structure of language and how reading works. Building up a repertoire of knowledge for this particular area of literacy comprehension is very important to me as a preservice teacher and educator, and your knowledge on this topic is very insightful and mildly confronting.