Tuesday, 11 August 2020

“I now understand that for many Australian primary school students, learning to read is a game of luck”: Stories from the reading instruction front line.

I have learnt so much in recent years from my interactions on Twitter with colleagues, and nowhere is the more the case than with my engagement with teachers. Recently, I asked some early career primary school teachers who have “crossed over” to structured literacy instruction (sometimes referred to as the science of reading) about their journeys. I provided some question prompts, and gave them carte blanche on how to respond. I would have loved to have chatted for hours with them all in person, but COVID-19 meant we needed to do this a little differently. They have all been open and generous in sharing their stories, which are reproduced here in an unedited form. Where they name their schools, they have done so with their principal’s knowledge and consent.

There’s only four stories and they are simply presented here as a way of giving voice to teachers who want to know better and do better (with thanks to The Reading League for the use of their by-line) and are living that mantra every day in their work. I think you will agree, their stories are powerful and compelling. 

Here’s what they told me.




My name is David Morkunas, and I have been teaching full-time for four years.  Before studying my teaching degree, I completed a commerce degree and worked for a time as a financial auditor for one of the Big 4 accounting firms.  When I’m not teaching, I love playing and listening to music (I even played in a prog rock band when I was a long-haired 20-something bohemian).

Tell us about the school that you currently teach in.

This is my fourth year teaching Grade 4 at Bentleigh West Primary School, where I was fortunate enough to land a position after spending a term as a relief teacher in the south-east suburbs of Melbourne.

Bentleigh West Primary School (BWPS) is located in the south-east suburbs of Melbourne.  It is in an affluent area; our parents are largely educated, working professionals. 

BWPS prides itself on delivering evidence-based instruction.  We use Explicit Direct Instruction (EDI) as our pedagogical model in all subjects, and we have a robust Response to Intervention model in order to help students who require additional support for their learning.  We receive many enquiries from other educators about our approach to teaching and learning, and several of our staff (myself included) have delivered presentations, webinars and workshops about our methodology.

How would you characterise your understanding of reading instruction when you finished your teaching degree? Tell us about your early experiences of reading instruction. What seemed to work? What didn't? How did you come to these conclusions? Are there particular children or classes who stick in your mind regarding this process?

My understanding of reading instruction upon finishing my degree is best described as manifestly inadequate.  Throughout my course, I can recall a single, fleeting mention of the word “phoneme”, buried beneath long hours spent discussing the correct way to implement Running Records.

My early experiences trying to teach students to read are best characterised by strong feelings of hopelessness and frustration, both for me and my students.  I remember long days as a relief teacher watching in dismay as students in the upper years of primary school failed to decode even the simplest of words.  I had no tools up my sleeve to assist these students besides words of encouragement and demands that they “try again”, or “skip this word and come back to it”. 

It wasn’t until the latter stage of my time as a relief teacher that I managed to make some headway with reading instruction.  Despite my lack of phonics knowledge, I began asking students to identify each letter and their sounds, leading to them sounding through the entire word.  I didn’t know at the time that I had been encouraging students to blend phonemes, and obviously this approach wasn’t perfect (I had no idea what to do when given words containing tricky spelling or exceptions to the rules), but this small amount of success made me question why I wasn’t taught this strategy at university.

Did you have an "aha" light-bulb moment about reading instruction, or was it more a gradual awakening? Tell us how this happened.

My increased understanding of reading instruction was gradual and happened as I was exposed to the instructional program at BWPS.  I still remember watching my students recite the sound deck that we used during my first day at the school and being horrified that they knew their sounds better than I did!  The first couple of terms at BWPS were humbling, as I began to realise just how much I didn’t know about reading instruction.

I’m still fairly early in my career, and I’m yet to teach lower than Grade 3 as a full-time teacher.  As a result, I’m still not prepared to say that I have a solid understanding of reading instruction.  That being said, I am infinitely more comfortable teaching students to read than I ever was as a student or relief teacher.

What are the theories or texts that influence your current understanding of the reading process and how best to support it? How do you keep yourself up-to-date and constantly refine your knowledge and practice?

Rosenshine’s Principals of Instruction is the single most influential text I have read during my career.  It provides an excellent overview of the approach we have adopted at BWPS, and while it doesn’t mention reading instruction specifically, the ideas and methodology contained therein can be applied to any content area.

Other texts and resources that have influenced my current understanding of the reading process are Scarborough’s Reading Rope and Tumner and Gough’s Simple View of Reading.  These both provide an excellent analysis of the requisite parts of reading and helped me to develop an overall picture of how students become fluent readers.

I am fortunate that the executive team at BWPS regularly send through articles and research papers to the teaching staff in order to keep our knowledge up-to-date.  My team and I also discuss research and pedagogy regularly; these conversations, along with regular observations, help me to refine and improve my understanding and practice.

What happens when a pre-service teacher is sent to your school on placement? How do you resolve the differences/tensions in what they are taught at university, and the way in which you practice?

Our pre-service teachers are onboarded by our principal during the first couple of days with us.  This process provides them with an overview of our teaching approach and philosophy. 

The pre-service teachers that I have mentored have all arrived in my classroom sporting ideas from their studies that have no supporting evidence, like learning styles and Reading Recovery. As a mentor it falls to me to teach them about explicit teaching and support them in the classroom.  Thankfully, my pre-service teachers have all been receptive to constructive criticism and willing to modify their approach, thus avoiding any awkward conversations.

What is the message you would like to convey to Deans of Education around Australia (and beyond) about how we prepare pre-service teachers for the task of teaching reading?

It is clear from Australia’s woeful literacy statistics that the current status quo simply isn’t working.  Universities have a wonderful opportunity to help drive positive change in this space by equipping their pre-service teachers to become effective practitioners in the reading space.

At a bare minimum, methods of instruction without evidence behind them should be scrapped from courses immediately.  Reading Recovery/Balanced Literacy should be the first on the chopping block. 

At this point, the evidence base in support of teaching the Big 6 is robust and well-accepted, and this should form the bedrock of literacy units in teaching degrees.




I am a Year 1 Teacher in a Government P-6 School in Melbourne’s south bayside region. We have currently have just over 400 students at our wonderful school, approximately 12 students enrolled as part of the Program of Students with Disabilities (PSD). Just over 15% of our students have a language background other than English. I am a father of two primary school aged children. I haven’t always been a teacher it is a second career for me in many ways. Prior to becoming an educator I spent much time in the corporate world in communications and marketing and also in my earliest days, I was involved in harness racing, at Harness Racing Victoria.

Upon graduation, my understanding of reading instruction, unfortunately, would be fairly typical to most I would say. Throughout the course there were five mandatory English units that covered oral language, writing and reading theory and instructional practices. The main themes of these practices were not crystallised to me at the time, but, looking out the rear vision mirror, I now see clearly. These theoretical approaches were based essentially on this idea of Balanced Literacy [BL]. I know that this approach [BL] can mean different things to different teachers. Balanced sounds wonderful, but sadly that’s where the good news ended, I am afraid. I now understand that for many Australian primary school students, learning to read is a game of luck.

Unfortunately, my Initial Teacher Education [ITE] Program failed to provide me with evidence-based practices including knowledge about the Science of Reading [SoR] and also how we learn through Cognitive Science. My initial studies never covered systematic synthetic phonics and how or why it is important apart from a sprinkling of analytic phonics reserved for special cases. I did not learn vital instruction or knowledge in areas such as morphology/etymology. To non-educators, reading this must sound quite far-fetched especially for a primary school trained teacher. How could a teaching degree not prepare a graduate teacher to adequately and effectively teach one of the most imperative skills a teacher needs? It’s unfathomable.

So what was I taught? Well, much of the theory that I was taught at university about reading was based around this idea of Balanced Literacy which I associate with a scatter gun. We were taught to scatter gun our instruction far and wide in hope of things sticking.

One example of this notion is that if we get students ‘doing’ things, such as memorising lists of words, immersing them in lots of books, in theory they will eventually pick it up. Children were often put in to levelled groups according to their Fountas and Pinnell benchmark level or running record assessment result. Predictable texts were commonly used for beginning readers, which when I look back, had phoneme-grapheme correspondences that the children had never encountered nor been taught. Decodable books were almost never on the menu and if considered, we reserved only for children that were deemed very special cases. If a student was not at the right level, it was explained that they just needed more of the same and reading for them would eventually ‘click’. When it didn’t ‘click’ which in my experience was for many, many students, it was almost always put down to the fact that the student needed more of the same. Instructional practice and or methods were never questioned.

I knew things were not quite right but at the time I couldn’t pinpoint exactly. Initially, I learned this through observing my students’ actions. Two of the main areas of concern I witnessed were children guessing at words and skipping unknown words altogether. Often students would be taught to skip an unknown word and come back to it, to see what might make sense after attempting to read the rest of the sentence. My inclinations grew considerably as time went on, but none more so than on the day I witnessed a student who said, ‘goat’ for the word ‘lamb’ because he looked at the pictures. This is when I knew something was terribly wrong. These words are not close phonetically. This did not occur just once, it occurred a several times before I started to seriously question the strategies being used and the methods of instruction that had been widely promoted.

Then it hit home. I have two sons in primary school and the story was also the same for them. Their current school does not use evidence-based practices. My youngest son is in Year 1 and many of the above strategies I have witnessed in the classroom as a teacher I have also witnessed with him. I spend much of my downtime counteracting their work using systematic synthetic phonics to teach him the code. I also use decodable readers at home and send back the predictable readers that are sent home each week. I also send back the copious amounts of word lists that are sent home for him to memorise. These practices are not effective and the research is very clear on these things.

Ultimately this led me to doing a lot of reading and searching on the internet for reading practices. Fortunately, by absolute chance I stumbled across the SoR and also read many articles that Jennifer Buckingham and Kerry Hempenstall had written on reading instruction in Australia. It also led me to this debate that has being going on for decades called “The Reading Wars”. I was never exposed to this during my ITE Program.

This led me to discover a whole community of people that were advocating for best practices and essentially the SoR. At the time, it was like Christmas, I finally started to find out the truth about reading instruction and I have not stopped upskilling myself since. If you are reading this and my journey sounds familiar here are some key people that have helped me understand more about reading instruction: Louisa Moats, Mark Seidenberg, David Kilaptrick, Lorraine Hammond, Greg Ashman, Emina McLean, Reid Smith,  Sarah Asome, Learning Difficulties Australia, ResearchED and The Reading League, just to name a few!

Not long after, I made a commitment to some serious upskilling. I commenced a Master’s degree at Melbourne University with a focus on Specific Learning Difficulties at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. At the time of writing, I have almost completed my master’s course. The course specifically exposed me to evidence-based practices and how to implement effective learning interventions for students with a range of difficulties, such as Dyslexia.

What was pivotal in my development was seeing this in action. My Master’s degree required me to complete a professional placement and I was very fortunate to have been placed at Bentleigh West Primary School [BWPS] in Melbourne. This is when it all made sense. BWPS use Multisensory Structured Language and Orton-Gillingham approaches to Literacy instruction and they have implemented an Explicit Direct Instruction [EDI] model for learning. Another impressive feature of their program was their support team. A dedicated Learning Enhancement Centre with a team of truly remarkable staff to help support students that require additionally assistance.

All the staff are trained in structured literacy practices and they all preach from the one hymn book. There is no patchwork fixes or eclectic and counterproductive programs running simultaneously. They are all moving forward together as one. Their results, well, they speak for themselves. If I was setting up a school tomorrow, without fail I would be using them as a blueprint. EDI and evidence-base practices in every single learning area. I would also recommend systematic synthetic phonics instruction from day one of Foundation, including instruction in morphology and in later year’s etymology. These elements along with others, such as phonemic awareness, vocabulary and comprehension are all critical components of a structured literacy program. Teaching reading, writing and spelling is fundamentally at the heart of what it means to be literate and the best way to teach it is systematically and explicitly.

Another key point which dawned on me, was the fact that the number of students requiring intervention and extra support could be decreased dramatically, if the core classroom instruction for reading was aligned to what the research tells us about how children acquire the ability to read. So my advice, is to check what is occurring in the classroom, both the what and also the how. The how is key! Because if teachers are not teaching the essential components of reading, such as the ones mentioned above, then as an educator, I am not sure what it is they are actually teaching children.

In my downtime, which is rather scarce at the moment, I enjoy spending time with my boys, they are the reason I do what I do each day. I read a lot of books when I am not reading research papers. Most recently I have been enthralled with Katharine Birbalsingh, the founder of the Michaela Community School in the U.K. Their story is remarkable and their ethos of teaching the key fundamentals exceptionally well through the use of EDI has been an outstanding success. It is of particular interest because they deal with some of the UK’s most at-risk students. If it works so well with the most at-risk, imagine what the possibilities could be for every student. There are many lessons to be learned. As Mark Seidenberg states,

“The evidence that the phonological pathway is used in reading and especially important in beginning reading is about as close to conclusive as research on complex human behaviour can get”

(2017, p.124, para. 3).

Therefore, instructional practices must align with the SoR and Initial Teacher Education Programs surely owe this to all aspiring educators.

My further education journey has provided so much rich information that I was not previously privileged to. I am so thankful that I have made these connections and I hope also that the community of people I mentioned earlier can be of benefit to other educators out there who may have felt like I did many years ago. I know the students I teach are receiving the most effective practice possible and that makes me feel so proud.

Unfortunately, teachers are still being sold many mistruths during their ITE programs about how children learn to read and acquire Literacy. A scatter gun approach to Literacy instruction leaves almost all essential components to chance. Not learning to read has life changing consequences, which is why it is malpractice to leave it to chance.  I call on educators of all levels to dig and keep digging until you find the truth about reading instruction, because all students and all educators deserve nothing less than evidence-based practices, anything else is leaving it to disastrous game of luck.






I grew up in West and South West Sydney. I lived at Seven Hills until I was six and then moved to Narellan Vale, where I lived until moving out of home. I finished school in 2003 and enrolled in a Bachelor of Science. After finding out university science was not for me, I was unsure of what to do with myself.

It was a chat with my grandfather that made me consider teaching. I looked up to my grandfather; he was a navy war veteran and I always wanted to be like him. After explaining that science was not for me, we talked about things I was good at and careers that would be rewarding. It was a long, drawn out discussion but all I remember is him saying “You’re good with kids. You should be a teacher.” And that was the first step on my way into a teaching career.

I graduated from university in 2008 and moved to London to teach and travel in 2009. I spent my time teaching mainly year 1 children in West London, where I learnt all about phonics. After two years, I moved back to Australia in 2011 and I’ve been teaching in South West Sydney ever since.

I spent about a year and a half teaching in Campbelltown before gaining a permanent teaching position at Marsden Road Public School in 2013. Since gaining permanency at Marsden Road, I’ve taught kindergarten all the way through to year 6. For the last four years I have been lucky enough to hold the role of Instructional Leader: Literacy and Numeracy.

In my free-time I like to do a variety of things that keep me busy. What wouldn’t surprise most is I love to read. Along with reading about reading, I cannot live without my Kindle. I read all types of novels, from classics to Star Wars, but the main books I’m reading right now are the Pulitzer Prize fiction winners – so far, I’ve read twenty-three.

One other pass-time is sport. My favourite sports are basketball, football and AFL. While I don’t play as often as I use to, I follow my favourite teams – the Chicago Bulls, Fulham FC and Sydney Swans. They often keep me up late at night and see me waking up at the crack of dawn to watch them play.

To destress and keep fit, I regularly attend a hybrid impact training gym where boxing is one of my favourite classes. I also walk my dog, a Boston Terrier, most days. We only miss out when it rains – he doesn’t like getting his fur wet!

My guilty pleasure is collecting sneakers, which grew from my interest in sport. To date I own 20 pairs of sneakers - two have never been worn! They come in a range of colours, I’m forever cleaning them, and I sometimes spend too long trying to choose which pair to wear. While I can only wear one pair at a time, it’s important to have options!

Tell us about the school that you currently teach in.

I currently teach at Marsden Road Public School (MRPS), Liverpool. It is a NSW Department of Education school that was established in 1962 and is built on the traditional lands of the Cabrogal of the Darug Nation. MRPS has an enrolment of 700 students and the school serves a diverse community, 89% of whom come from a language background other than English. The school is proud of its varied multicultural population, with 57 cultural backgrounds represented. 1% of students identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and 18% of the total student enrolment is made up of people who have been through the refugee experience. The Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) of MRPS is 970, placing it in the 31st percentile. The Distribution of Socio-Educational Advantage places 46% of families in the bottom quartile and 9% in the top quartile.

Approximately 46% of students have been speaking English for 3 years or less. To support newly arrived students with an inclusive learning environment, a New Arrivals Program (NAP) class operates for Years 1–6. These classes provided targeted support for students who were in their first year of Australian schooling and spoke a language or dialect other than English. NAP allows students to settle in and adjust to a new learning environment in a small supportive setting. The purpose of NAP is to empower the students with Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills – (BICS), which includes survival and basic academic language. By providing a specialised leaning experience, NAP students are better able to move into a mainstream classroom, where they are then assisted by support teachers and teaching aids.

Approximately 24% of students receive supplementary learning adjustments and 6% receive substantial adjustments. All teachers implement school policies that support the engagement and full participation of students with additional learning needs. Parents/carers and their children are encouraged to be an active stakeholder in the development and application of an Individual Education Plan (IEP). All teachers promote a culture of high expectations for all students, including those with additional learning needs. Experienced teachers, in consultation with the Learning and Support Team, ensure compliance with legislative and system policies. MRPS also engages Occupational Therapists and Speech Therapists to screen students and provide strategies to support individual students. They also collaborate with teachers to provide professional development specific to the learning needs of their students.

My current role is Instructional Leader: Literacy and Numeracy. I lead the professional learning of teachers in effective literacy and numeracy teaching practices and contribute to organisational management in planning appropriate support and resources for students to become literate and numerate. I also work with the school executive to determine the professional learning needs of staff and strategically plan appropriate interventions in literacy and numeracy.

How would you characterise your understanding of reading instruction when you finished your teaching degree? Tell us about your early experiences of reading instruction. What seemed to work? What didn't? How did you come to these conclusions? Are there particular children or classes who stick in your mind regarding this process?

My initial teacher education left me with a poor understanding of reading instruction. Of the thirty-two subjects I studied, only three of them were about reading. I was taught about the wholistic view of language and literacy learning in sociocultural contexts. The main model of reading that was recommended was put forward by Alan Luke and Peter Freebody; a model which portrays reading as a set of social practices. The main message was that the optimal conditions for reading involved learners being in an active role, learned in a similar fashion to the way in which children learn to speak. I was also taught about the three cuing-systems of language that encourage readers to break through to meaning by using semantic, syntactic and graphophonic cues.

After achieving my teaching degree, I was left with more questions than answers. These questions included: How do I teach novice readers to read? How do novice readers learn the alphabetic code? How does guessing a word using the first phoneme help a reader? What happens when there are no pictures to help guess a word? How can a reader make meaning if they cannot decode the words?

As I made my way into the classroom, my early teaching of reading didn’t make sense. The children were taught to use the three cuing-system to predict words if they didn’t know them: look at the picture, check if it made sense, reread with a substitute word and guess using the initial sound. Many struggled with these multiple strategies being taught to them. While I persisted with these strategies, student understanding and skill development was inconsistent. Students could read levelled texts but found it difficult once texts did not follow predictable structures or were complex.

Of my early teacher experience, there are two classes that stick in my mind regarding the teaching of reading. A year 1-2 class and a kindergarten. For both classes, I used a mixed approach of phonics and balanced literacy. I would spend 20 minutes each day explicitly teaching decoding skills using a synthetic phonics approach. The students responded well to these lessons and data showed they were learning to identify Grapheme-Phoneme Correspondences (GPCs) and use them to read. Most of these skills would all go out the window when it came to guided reading. I would promote the use of the 3-cueing system and encourage students to look at the picture use the initial sound to guess the word when reading. At the time, I could not understand why my students were not transferring the skills they demonstrated in phonics lessons to reading lessons. They could recognise GPCs and decode words but when reading a book, they didn’t use the knowledge of the alphabetic code.

Did you have an "aha" light-bulb moment about reading instruction, or was it more a gradual awakening? Tell us how this happened.

My understanding of the science of reading was a gradual awakening; a bit like a dimmer light. It started with a little bit of light shining through and, over seven years, the dimmer switch was slowly turned up to maximum brightness.

My understanding of reading science started by chance. I finished university with a wholistic view of reading and moved to London in 2009 to live and work. At that time, the British government was determined to raise the standard of reading in the first years of primary school so that children could master the basic decoding skills of reading early and then spend the rest of primary school reading to learn. They had looked at the science of reading and found that while there is more to reading than phonics - there was a weight of evidence that systematic synthetic phonics, taught in the first years of a child’s education, gave children key building blocks they need to read words.

I spent two years learning about graphemes and phonemes, how crucial GPCs are when learning the alphabetic code and slowly learnt how to teach synthetic phonics. The students in my class could use the GPCs they knew to decode texts and all students showed an ability to blend. Despite the students showing an ability to decode most texts they read, comprehension was inconsistent. I could not understand why this was happening.

In 2011 I returned to Australia and I was shocked to find schools did not explicit teach any type of phonics. Many schools I taught at used a program called L3: Language, Learning & Literacy. This program perscribed the use of the 3-cueing system. I felt rogue at times teaching explicit phonics lessons in L3 schools.

Only in 2016 did my understanding of reading instruction reach maximum brightness. My school began working with a reading consultant, Jo-Anne Dooner. She taught the staff about the science for reading. We learnt about the simple view of reading and the five components of effective reading instruction: Phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Since then, I’ve gradually built up a solid understanding of the science of reading and how to effectively use it to teach children how to read.

What are the theories or texts that influence your current understanding of the reading process and how best to support it? How do you keep yourself up-to-date and constantly refine your knowledge and practice?

The basis for my current understanding of the reading process, and its final goal of comprehension, is Gough & Tunmer’s Simple View of Reading and Scarborough’s Reading Rope. These two theories give a simple explanation of what it takes to be a successful reader: word recognition/decoding and language comprehension. By understanding these two theories, I have read a range of texts that support (and some that don’t) the idea that comprehension requires automatic word recognition and a wide range of schema.

To further understand the development of word recognition, the main texts I’ve read and continue to go back to are:

·        Why Our Children Can’t Read: And What We Can Do About It. (1997). Dianne McGuiness, Ph.D.

·        Proust and the Squid. (2007). Maryanne Wolf

·        Language at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many Can’t, and What Can be Done About It. (2017). Mark Seidenberg

·        The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads. (2017). Daniel T. Willingham.

·        Ending the Reading Wars: Reading Acquisition From Novice to Expert. (2018). Anne Castles, Kathleen Rastle, and Kate Nation

To further understand the development of language comprehension, the main texts I’ve read and continue to go back to are:

·        Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. (1987). E.D. Hirsch, Jr.

·        The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children. (2006). E.D. Hirsch, Jr.

·        Language at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many Can’t, and What Can be Done About It. (2017). Mark Seidenberg

·        Ending the Reading Wars: Reading Acquisition From Novice to Expert. (2018). Anne Castles, Kathleen Rastle, and Kate Nation

While the above texts helped developed my understanding of the reading process, I’ve also gained a deeper understanding of what it means to best support learning to read. The following reviews of reading are very important:

·        Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction. (2000). National Reading Panel

·        Teaching Reading: Literature Review - A review of the evidence-based research literature on approaches to the teaching of literacy, particularly those that are effective in assisting students with reading difficulties. (2005). Commonwealth of Australia.

·        Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading. (2006). Jim Rose.

From these three reviews, I understand successful reading instruction requires the teaching of the five following components:

1.      Phonological Awareness

2.      Phonics

3.      Fluency

4.      Vocabulary

5.      Comprehension

Knowing all of this, I do my best to keep up-to-date and constantly refine my knowledge and practice in a variety of ways. The easiest way I do this is through education networks. The main one is Twitter. There are so many helpful people in “EduTwitter” that share their knowledge about learning to read. I find it helpful to follow researchers, authors, associations, educators and reporters in the field of reading; I even have notifications turned on for some of the more prominent people!

Another network is through schools that share a similar understanding of teaching reading. My school has managed to develop strong connections with schools all over Australia. Through these school networks, we can share best practice discuss planning and programming, and open classrooms for each other to view teachers in action.

I also find many education departments are developing reviews and professional learning opportunities for the teaching of reading. The Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (CESE), within the NSW Department of Education, has developed some great resources to improve teacher understanding of effective reading. Their paper ‘Effective Reading Instruction in the Early Years of School’ is an excellent literature review for novices to gain an understanding of effective reading.

Finally, I keep an eye out for new books or research papers from well-known authors and follow their recommendations. Twitter is helpful for this. I’m currently reading ‘How Learning Happens’ by Paul A. Kirschner and Carl Hendrick. There’s some great information about the need for schema to help learning. I’m also looking forward to Doug Lemov’s new book ‘The Coach’s Guide to Teaching’. A previous book of his, ‘Reading Reconsidered’, provided great ideas for improving comprehension for upper primary aged students.

What happens when a pre-service teacher is sent to your school on placement? How do you resolve the differences/tensions in what they are taught at university, and the way in which you practice?

For all pre-service teachers we hold an induction into the ‘Marsden Way’ of teaching. This involves spending time briefly explaining the evidence-informed pedagogies we use at MRPS. For reading, we explain the Simple View of Reading and the five components of effective reading instruction. We keep this as brief as possible and send them off with CESE’s paper ‘Effective Reading Instruction in the Early Years of School’.

Once they’ve had the induction, we pair them with an experienced teacher. All our teachers know the importance of teaching the five components of effective reading instruction and can support pre-service teachers in developing their teaching of reading. Throughout their time in the classroom, pre-service teachers can see how we implement reading and are given plenty of opportunity to develop their understanding of effective teaching of reading.

Along with the induction and time with an experienced teacher, all pre-service teachers at MRPS engage with our ongoing professional development. We hold weekly professional learning for all staff. This ranges from presentations, to workshops, coaching, teacher data meetings, and even a book club – our current book is Daniel T. Willingham’s ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’.

We have been lucky to date and have not encountered major tensions from what pre-service teachers are taught at university, and the way in which we practice the teaching of reading. When differences do occur, we usually have evidence that informs our practice to present to the pre-service teacher. We always aim to show the them what the research demonstrates, how their current view stands when compared to the research and leave them with a better understanding of the research and its implication in the classroom. In the past, we’ve used CESE’s paper ‘Effective Reading Instruction in the Early Years of School’, Daniel Willingham’s ‘Knowledge & Practice: The Real Keys to Critical Thinking’, Hart & Risley’s ‘The Early Catastrophe: The 30 million word gap by age 3’, E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s ‘Reading Comprehension Requires Knowledge - of words and the world’, and many more articles and papers to enlighten a pre-service teacher.

What is the message you would like to convey to Deans of Education around Australia (and beyond) about how we prepare pre-service teachers for the task of teaching reading?

My message: Stop leaving reading to chance.

Deans of Education, around Australia and beyond, need to ensure they utilise the valuable research into the science of learning. Daniel T. Willingham said it perfectly in ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’:

‘It would be a shame indeed if we did not use the accumulated wisdom of science to inform the methods by which we educate children’

This is especially important when it comes to preparing pre-service teachers for the monumental task of teaching reading. Ideologies must not take precedence over evidence-informed practices. I endured subjects on the social practices of reading, the four jobs of a reader and the 3-cueing system. I hope all future pre-service teachers do not endure a university degree that lacks the evidence of reading instruction.

Maryanne Wolf, in her 2007 book ‘Proust and the Squid’, stated:

‘The sheer amount of evidence showing the efficacy of phoneme awareness and the explicit instruction in decoding for early reading skills could fill a library wall.’

If there is a plethora of evidence, it needs to make its way into the universities. Teaching degrees need to spend time developing an understanding of the Simple View of Reading, Scarborough’s Reading Rope and the five components of effective reading instruction. Pre-service teachers will then take this knowledge into the education sector and help children become successful readers.

Finally, one quote that has stayed with me is from Mark Seidenberg, in Reading at the Speed of Sight. He hit it out of the park when he said:

‘The absence of a strong commitment to basic science as a source of evidence within the culture of education has had detrimental effects on reading education.’ 

Deans of Education need to keep this in mind when making decisions that affect pre-service teachers. Don’t leave it to chance that a pre-service teacher will learn about the science of reading. We know how important it is for every child to learn to read. Don’t leave it to chance that a child wins the education lottery and has a teacher that knows about the science of reading.




Tell us about the school that you currently teach in

I teach in a public primary school in inner Sydney. The teaching and leadership staff are very young compared to the average with almost all teachers and leaders having less than 10 years’ experience. We have around 450 students. Most come from high-income backgrounds, but we do have a significant population of kids that are amongst the most vulnerable in the state. The school has seen a huge influx of students. In 2010, less than 50 students attended the school. This has meant that the school's culture and identity have had the opportunity to grow and evolve with its current staff. The school has a particular focus on the Arts and we care deeply about the wellbeing of our kids. It's a great place to work. 

How would you characterise your understanding of reading instruction when you finished your teaching degree? Tell us about your early experiences in reading instruction. What seemed to work? What didn't? How did you come to these conclusions? Are there particular children or classes who stick in your mind regarding this process?

My understanding of reading instruction was limited when I left university, but I did not understand that at the time. Having finished my studies, I assumed I knew enough to get started. That simply was not the case. A lot of the kids I taught found it really difficult to read passages of text fluently. There was a lot of stumbling and stopping. I remember one time we needed the kids to fill out a survey about what they thought of the school (a bit like the Tell Them From Me survey for those NSW readers), and a boy simply looked at me, huffed, and said, "Sir, what you want me to do? I CAN'T READ!" The thing is, he was not wrong. He really could not read. It was confronting for me as a new teacher to realise that many kids struggle like that. 

Did you have an "aha" light-bulb moment about reading instruction, or was it more a gradual awakening? Tell us how this happened.

The beginning of my career was unique in that I started it in London, England; in fact, I did not work a paid day teaching in NSW before I left for the UK. The school I worked in was in one of the most deprived areas in southern England. It was a very tough place to work, and the leaders at the school were trying desperately to turn around the life chances of the kids in our care. I remember vividly sitting in a workshop on phonics and direct instruction during my first training day and thinking, "this is ridiculous, don't they know this is all wrong? No wonder things are so bad." But that attitude didn't last long. Students in my Year 6 class proved to have difficulty decoding even the most basic of words. Meanwhile, the younger classes were getting some amazing results teaching the phonics program I brushed on day 1. 

My experiences teaching reading started to clash with what I had learnt about reading at university, and this led to a lot of cognitive dissonance. Naturally, I wanted to believe that the time I spent learning to be a teacher was valuable. I wanted to feel like I was becoming a professional, yet I felt incompetent. One evening, I took the 'plunge'. I decided to go digging for answers and discovered an article by Jennifer Buckingham, Robyn Wheldall and Kevin Wheldall titled Why Jaydon Can't Read. It was so hard to read because I had to face the fact that I did not know anything, but it changed everything for me. From that point on, I've basically self-taught myself how to teach reading. I'm still learning, naturally, but I know enough now to feel comfortable teaching it across the grades. 

What are the theories or texts that influence your current understanding of the reading process and how best to support it? How do you keep yourself up-to-date and constantly refine your knowledge and practice?

After my year in England, I came back to Australia and won a spot at my current school on a kindergarten class. At this point, I knew I did not know how to teach these kids to read, so I went on a bit of manic reading frenzy to figure out how to do it well. I really wanted to do the best for the kids in my care, so I really did go all in learning as much as I could. My greatest source of information was and still is Twitter. Everything I read and learnt stemmed from there. Having read Why Jaydon Can't Read, I got really interested in what Jennifer Buckingham had written herself and what she was promoting online. Her leadership and advocacy in this area helped me so much.

 I've read a lot, but texts and articles that stick out as giving the most clarity include Language at the Speed of Sight by Mark Seidenberg, Speech to Print by Lousia Moats, Bringing Words to Life by Beck, Kucan and Mckeon,  Reading Comprehension Requires Knowledge by E.D Hirsch and Read About It, a paper by Kerry Hempenstall on evidence-based reading instruction. The list goes on, but the aforementioned reads are seminal. I am constantly going back to them.

What happens when a pre-service teacher is sent to your school on placement? How do you resolve the differences/tensions in what they are taught at university, and the way in which you practice?

This question isn't really relevant. I can't give an answer because I'm not involved in placements (never had one myself, and I'm not a school leader so therefore not involved in the process) and my school isn't as far along the evidence-based journey like Bentleigh West et al. We are getting there, but the leadership group isn't as interested in evidence-based instruction as I would like. 

What is the message you would like to convey to Deans of Education around Australia (and beyond) about how we prepare pre-service teachers for the task of teaching reading?

When I first started writing about and discussing reading instruction, I was very critical of universities. Upon engaging in dialogue with people within teacher training, I now know that it is not as simple as it may seem to ensure every teacher learns everything they need to be 'classroom ready'. However, we do need to do much better than what we are doing now. Even if it can't be perfect, it can be so much better. New teachers are leaving university with very little theoretical or practical knowledge on how to teach reading effectively, and that needs to change. I fully understand that fixing the training courses won't fix the problems in schools. Complex problems are never fixed so simply. But I believe that new teachers deserve to be taught the very latest evidence-based practices. It's the right thing to do, and it's not happening. There are many reasons why it is not happening but one key reason is that teacher educators have an ideological bent that stands in opposition to what actually works. It's not acceptable in my opinion and I would like to see that change.

Any other thoughts?

My message to new teachers is that they shouldn't be worried about asking good questions about how we do things. I've been quite vocal about my own journey and what I think and believe about how we do things in schools. I have only benefited from putting my ideas out there and I encourage any teacher to do the same. Your engagement with the discussion on reading instruction will only benefit everyone in the long run - teachers and students alike - so don't be intimidated by sharing your questions, thoughts and ideas. 


(C) Pamela Snow (2020)




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  2. Troy's University experience sounds identical to mine: months wasted on learning multi cueing and those darn running records (I recall a whole assignment being devoted to RR's and the related leveled readers). I have been lucky to be exposed to EI, DI and the science of reading through a training experience external to my university studies. I'm hopeful that future pre service teachers won't have to go outside their core units to find out how to actually teach reading based on science and cognitive research.