I am reaching out about a subject that I know will be extremely important to you – the question of whether or not your child learns to read in the early years of school. Some of you might be alarmed at the thought that this would even be open to question. I can hear you now: “Surely, if my child is attending a local school, irrespective of education sector, they are going to learn to read?! Why would I even need to worry about this?” I know that many of you are concerned about this, though, because I regularly hear from parents via email. So I thought I would compile some information here about common concerns and frequently asked questions.
Unfortunately, all is not as it should be when it comes to how we teach our children to read, and parents need to be well-informed about this. Part of the problem in this space lies in how our universities prepare undergraduate teachers to teach reading. A recently released report shows enormous gaps with respect to how Australian universities go about preparing student teachers for the vital task of teaching reading, and there is no reason to believe that other first-world, English-speaking nations are doing any better.
We’ve known for a long time that teachers lack the critical knowledge of language and literacy that is needed to take a novice 5-year old on the amazing and life-changing journey towards becoming a reader. This is not the fault of teachers. Responsibility for this lies with their university lecturers, who, for decades, have ignored or shunned robust cognitive psychology research about what the reading process is and how best to approach reading instruction to ensure success for all. Government and other education jurisdictions have been complicit in this rejection of scientific knowledge, preferring in the main, to try to appease all sides by saying, in effect: “Schools can choose from a range of methods; we don’t mind how they go about this, as long as they can say they are addressing the curriculum”.
Imagine how you would feel if student doctors were not taught up-to-date science about human physiology, disease processes, and appropriate treatments. Imagine if state health departments said to hospitals “You do your own thing with infection control. We’re sure you’re on top of this”.
Let’s unpack some important issues that parents need to understand about reading and how it is (or isn’t) taught, and then have a look at a few parental FAQs.
Reading is not a biologically natural thing to do
This might sound like a strange statement, but let me explain. In the first five years, children’s lives have a big focus on learning to talk. Talking and understanding are what we humans have evolved to do as a matter of course. Consequently, this period sees the largest language explosion of your child’s entire life. By school entry, children know (i.e., use and understand) around 10,000 words and their vocabulary will continue to grow steadily through the school years – both through conversations with adults and peers, and importantly, through their own reading.
Spoken language is critical in its own right, because it is the way we humans connect with each other and so it gives us tools to form and maintain relationships. In turn, these are critical for our mental health and well-being.
Oral language skills are also the foundation that children build on when they start school in order to learn how to read. Printed text was invented only about 6,000 years ago to represent speech. It’s a social and cultural contrivance and it’s a code, and as such, it needs to be learnt over time by children. Some children acquire the code relatively seamlessly, but the vast majority require support in the form of explicit teaching in order to do so. Unfortunately, though, explicit teaching of the code has been unfashionable in education circles in recent decades, and some educators have been less than upfront about their views on this. Read on.
There are historically-rooted tensions about how reading should be taught
There’s two broad schools of thought about how children are “best” taught how to read. Whole Language, and its descendant Balanced Literacy sit on one side of the debate, and proponents argue that reading is a meaning-based activity that is best acquired through immersion, and teaching approaches that incidental. Phonics proponents, on the other hand, argue that the code-based nature of reading needs to be explicitly unpacked for the reading novice, so that we are not leaving reading to chance.
Importantly, however, no phonics advocates argue that phonics alone is enough, and nor do they overlook the importance of all of the Big Five elements identified by the US National Reading Panel back in 2005: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency. Some, such as Australian education academic, Dr Deslea Konza, have argued for a focus on the Big Six, with oral language receiving equal focus. Some argue too that writing, spelling, and morphology are equally important, and I agree.
“Balanced Literacy” sounds reassuring to teachers and to parents because it suggests the right mix of teaching ingredients are in play, in the right order. Unfortunately Balanced Literacy is a buffed-up version of Whole Language, designed to appear like a teaching approach that ticks all the boxes, while keeping students and teachers back in a 1970s time-warp. You can read more about this history here. The reading science has moved on since the 1970s and universities and classrooms need to catch up.
As parents, you buy a lottery ticket when your child starts school.
Schools get to choose their own adventure with respect to how they teach reading. Some will align strongly with the scientific evidence indicating that all children need to learn to decode, and the most efficient instructional approaches to ensure success in the early years. Lucky you, if that’s the kind of school your child is attending. Others, however, use a mixed-bag of approaches, most commonly referred to as Balanced Literacy, as noted above.
Let me now address some questions that are frequently asked by parents:
Don’t some children learn to read without explicit phonics instruction?
Yes, they do. The problem is, there is no way for a teacher of five-year olds to know at the start of their first year of school, who’s who in terms of the level of ease with which children will learn to read. For this reason, effective explicit phonics instruction is like fluoride in the teaching water; it protects every child against the decay of low reading achievement. It won’t prevent every academic difficulty that children might encounter in the future, but it will ensure that at a population level, every child is better off. Professor Catherine Snow (no relation) of Harvard University and her colleague Professor Connie Juel of Stanford University observed in 2005 that
Explicit teaching of alphabetic decoding skills is helpful for all children, harmful for none, and crucial for some
Can’t struggling readers just catch up later on?
Not easily, no. The best time for struggling readers to catch up is in the first year of school. After that, it’s a law of diminishing returns and it takes more and more resources to try to bring these children up to speed. All the while, of course, they are missing out on academic content, and often developing mental health problems such as anxiety as a result of their reading problems and the embarrassment attached to these. Effective early intervention is like building better fences at the top of the cliff, rather than parking ambulances at the bottom. The best early intervention is effective instruction.
Isn’t English too irregular for phonics instruction to be the focus of early years instruction?
English certainly has its quirks and idiosyncrasies, but overall this is a furphy. English is a rule-governed language, but there just happen to be rather a lot of rules. As with teaching your child anything complex (getting dressed, tying their shoe-laces, riding a bike, playing the piano), the logical learning principle is to start simple, practise and consolidate, and build up to more complexity.
Children don’t begin their piano playing by banging out a Beethoven sonata. We all accept the importance of starting with very simple pieces, such as Baa Baa Black Sheep, and explicitly teaching the connections between musical notation and the keys on the piano. Later on, they will learn about complexities such as sharps and flats, different keys and time signatures, and notes of different beat lengths. In the same way, in early reading instruction, it makes sense to start with some clear 1:1 correspondences between sounds (phonemes) and letters/letter combinations (graphemes), and build up from there.
Does it matter what kind of phonics instruction children receive?
Yes, it does. This is a game of playing the odds, and for my money, the odds favour approaches that are systematic, rather than incidental, and have a focus on synthesising (blending and segmenting sounds), rather than just focusing on initial letters or sounds in words.
Initial letters can be tricky for novice readers, because English requires us to produce and represent 44 speech sounds, but we only have 26 letters to do so. So if the child is trying to read the word “shoe”, asking her to focus on the initial letter will not be helpful. She needs to develop an understanding that the letter combination s + h is a grapheme that represents the phoneme /ʃ/ (“sh”).
If you would like to learn more about different approaches to phonics instruction, there’s a brief explainer here.
Are predictable readers a good idea in the early years?
Many schools have invested thousands of dollars in sets of levelled, predictable readers. A predictable reader is one in which there is an easily identifiable pattern in the content and structure of the text, to promote (apparent) early success through recitation rather than actual reading. If a child knows that only one word changes on each page, and that word corresponds to the different picture on the page, it’s not hard to see what habit is going to be established in the novice reader’s mind – one of guessing from pictures and predictability.
Unfortunately, this approach produces what is sometimes referred to as the year four slump – what seems like a sudden drop in a child’s performance in the middle primary years, when the scaffold of predictability is removed and they have to use their own decoding skills to lift new words off the page. If children have not been taught the skill of decoding, they have nowhere to go, except to become instructional casualties who now appear to have a “reading disorder”.
The alternative to predictable texts for beginning readers is decodable texts. These are books whose simple narratives are made up mainly of words that contain phoneme-grapheme (letter-sound) combinations that children have already been taught, so that they experience the meaning-making associated with decoding text. These books are instructional scaffolds for use in the early stages of reading. In the beginning stages of reading instruction, adults should not confuse books that children read, with books that are read by others to children. The latter should contain words and sentences of all kinds of richness and complexity, so that oral language skills are being promoted at every turn.
You can learn more about the rationale behind using decodable texts here.
Unfortunately, some schools see the wisdom of teaching decoding skills systematically, but are loath to let go of the apparent security of predictable, levelled readers. This can be confusing for children, as it gives them a mixed message about what the reading process is all about. On the one hand, it’s about decoding through the word, and on the other, it’s about guessing and using picture cues; however, the latter approaches divert the child’s attention away from the text on the page - which contains all of the information they need in order to read.
Remember: written text was devised as a code for spoken language, so in order to derive meaning from it, children need to be able to decipher the code.
If parents read to them in the pre-school years, won’t children automatically become good readers?
Reading to children in the pre-school years (and well beyond) is important for a number of reasons. It exposes children to rich, complex vocabulary and sentence structure, and assists with their understanding of the structure of narrative - a text genre they will learn more about at school. Time spent by parents and children reading together is usually enjoyable too for the physical proximity and cuddles, and can be a soothing, down-regulating activity at the end of the day, ahead of sleep-time.
All of these are important reasons to maximise parent-child reading time, but don’t be fooled. In and of itself, reading to your child will not guarantee that he will be come a reader. Reading needs to be taught by classroom teachers on school entry. The corollary of this is that if your child has difficulties with reading at school, it cannot be attributed to a lack of home reading time in the pre-school years. This is called parent-blame and is not OK.
Is it OK to check children’s phonic decoding skills in the early years?
It is not only OK, it is essential, in the same way that we check children’s hearing and vision in the early years of life. In fact, population screening begins at the moment of birth, when your baby has a heel-prick test (you were probably barely aware of this at the time, amidst the myriad of emotions and distractions present in the birth suite).
There has been a lot of noisy debate in recent times about whether Australia should introduce a Year 1 Phonics Screening Check, along the lines of what has been used in England since 2012. Sadly, much of the opposition to this in Australia comes from teacher unions – bodies whose remit is industrial conditions, not the science of instruction. Teacher unions need to stay in their lane on this one. Otherwise, it will be clear to others that they are more concerned with misguided attempts to protect the reputation of teaching as a profession than they are with the welfare of students. If they are genuinely interested in teacher well-being, however, they will lobby universities for better pre-service education about the teaching of reading, and education sectors for clearer policy positions on this.
Many in education claim that “we already check decoding skills” and no doubt some, possibly many, do. The problem is that this is not done in a consistent manner. Some schools use high-quality screening tools to monitor children’s progress, while others use a bit of this and a bit of that, including some tools that are less well-suited to screening than others. This means risking inaccurate assessment along the way.
You might be interested to know that the South Australian Department for Education ran a trial of the Phonics Screening Check in 2018, and they were quite open about sharing their dismay and disappointment about how few children were able to demonstrate the necessary skills it measures.
If you start reading about the Phonics Screening Check, you’ll almost certainly come across tensions about its inclusion of so-called pseudo-words (also called nonsense words and non-words). These are simply there to assess whether your child has the essential code-breaking skills needed to map the relationships between sounds and letters. Nonsense words are not the enemy of meaning-making in reading. Think about how many wonderful and delightful children’s books contain them – e.g. books by Lewis Carroll, Dr Seuss, JK Rowling, and Roald Dahl, to name a few.
Why is all of this important?
It is important for the simple reason that either every child matters, or no child matters.
No child should be deprived of the life-changing opportunity to learn to read. We know too much to be able to make excuses for failures to translate knowledge into action in universities and schools. Parents may be the most powerful voice of all in effecting change on this.
Where can you go for reliable information about reading and reading instruction?
There’s list of what I consider to be trustworthy resources at this link.
I hope this information has been of some value to you in your journey to understanding what is an unnecessarily complex and contested space for parents and teachers alike.Do please feel free to make comments and share your experiences.
(C) Pamela Snow (2019)