Monday, 4 February 2019

An open letter to faculties of education

In 2018, I wrote an open letter to student teachers, which I published on this blog. With over 32K views so far, this has been one of my most-accessed blogposts, and I was contacted by a number of student teachers and recent graduates, who told me that my letter precisely encapsulated the way they were "socialised" at university about what reading is, and how best to teach it. 

The following letter was penned by Eleanor, a new-graduate from an Australian university. Eleanor has asked me to share her letter on my blog so that the voices of emerging teachers may be heard in the ongoing debate about how best to prepare teachers to do their life-changing work of teaching children to read. Eleanor's letter is the subject of a piece by West Australian journalist, Bethany Hiatt, published today.

"Eleanor" is the chosen pseudonym of this newly-minted teacher. Her views come from the coalface and contribute a vital perspective on this most important of public discourses. We are all stakeholders in how teachers are prepared for their workplaces, in the same way that we are all stakeholders in how doctors, nurses, engineers, psychologists, and lawyers are prepared for theirs. Professional autonomy is, after all,  little more than highly-constrained public accountability, and this applies to university academics as much as it does to practitioners in schools and elsewhere. 

Over to Eleanor......
There is concern spreading among educators about the quality of training that teachers are receiving throughout their initial teacher education (ITE); as a new graduate teacher, I can say that the concern is justified.

I am one of nearly 190 graduates to have just completed their ITE at a major West Australian university. Of these 190, only about 50 of us have been exposed to the science of reading and the importance of explicit phonics instruction. That’s nearly 140 graduate teachers who will be going into schools this year without the appropriate training to effectively teach all children to read. 

In September 2018, Emily Hanford of American Public Media published a radio documentary, “Hard Words”, that has taken education networks by storm. Hard Words aligned with just how little training in reading instruction I had received during my four-year primary teaching degree, and the potential this had to negatively affect my future students. In fact, the only training I received that covered the science of reading was through two elective units I completed in my final semester. These units turned everything I thought I knew about reading instruction on its head. It became very clear, very quickly, that I knew very little about the importance of explicit phonics instruction and how to effectively teach reading. This is not unique to our university, indeed most across the country do not touch on this in their compulsory units. The elective units that I completed should not be a point of difference between my peers and me, rather their content should be at the core of teacher education, instead of the antiquated and ineffective approaches that continue to be promoted by our faculties of education. 

Despite the science and the evidence, the power of ideology maintains a stronghold on reading instruction, and as a result the scientifically grounded concepts of reading acquisition have largely been ignored in teacher preparation. It has become increasingly clear to me that faculties of education, and indeed those who develop ITE, are very much guided by ideology. They place stock in a student-centred approach to teaching, and emphasis ideas like play-based learning and learning styles. As a result, this is what my four-year degree was full of, and this is what our pre-service teachers are going to continue to be fed if something doesn't change.

It may sound dramatic to say that the absence of the science of reading in teacher preparation is a miscarriage of justice, but when all the evidence indicates that this is how we can develop successful readers, why isn't it being taught to pre-service teachers? What gives a university the right to deny children teachers who have been trained in the very best evidence-based practice? Emily Hanford says in her publication "scientific research has shown how children learn to read and how they should be taught. But many educators don't know the science and. in some cases, actively resist it". Pre-service teachers and their future students are being disadvantaged because ego and ideology are alive and well among education faculty. 

So, when Emily Hanford asks, "Why aren't kids being taught to read?" this is my reply: the question should be Why aren't our teachers being trained to teach reading? This is why kids aren't being taught to read. It's not that teachers don't want to apply the science, it's that too many simply don't know it. The problem starts with the training and education we receive, and the biased curriculum we have to plough through before we can up-skill independently where necessary. And yet, many beginning teachers will not even be aware that they need to up-skill. How can they be, when they've not been exposed to the importance of these instructional tools and their benefits? Instead, they will continue to apply the approaches and practices, many of which are untenable, passed on to them by their initial teacher training. And too many children will never become literate as a result. 

The faculties of education need shaking up, and those who have been disadvantaged by them need to rise up and demand change.  

(C) Anon & Pamela Snow (2019)




  1. Thx Eleanor, great letter. I hope it generates mountains of concern and pressure for change. I hope Early Childhood ITE is also included in the change! Our mandated English curriculum is also big concern for practising teachers who believe in reading science.

  2. Great letter from ‘Eleanor’, who asks the most important question “What gives a University the right to deny children teachers who have been trained in the very best evidence-based practices?” Student teachers should also be outraged that their hard-earned degrees, which they’ll be paying off for decades to come, are based on ideological approaches to teaching reading rather than on what the evidence clearly states as the most effective approaches.

  3. Yes, indeed, a great letter. I would go further to KC's comment re universities denying 'children teachers who have been trained in the very best evidence-based practices', and call the results of this situation CHILD ABUSE.

  4. Of course, this issue is compounded because the majority of primary schools don't use evidence-based strategies for initial literacy instruction or to support struggling readers. It is exceptionally difficult for informed graduates to change the status quo in schools that use approaches that are not supported by research. The dearth of decodable readers is just the tip of the iceberg.

  5. This has been my feeling for some time.....our student teachers are not being suitably equipped for the task ahead of them.

  6. Hi, perhaps you are interested to read my long article on How to Learn How to Read. Thanks, Scott, former teacher.

  7. Scott I cannot access the link you have pasted. Can you check it please? Thank you, Pam.