Sunday, 7 March 2021

Are we there yet? The long, steep, and winding road towards improved reading instruction.

All parents will be familiar with the pleading question from the back seat on long (or sometimes not so long) car journeys, normally delivered in the most whinging (whining for US readers) tone of voice possible: Are we there yet? As the youngest of four children, growing up in the 1960s and sitting unrestrained in the back of the family station-wagon, mine may have been the loudest voice in this chorus. I hope the advent of car air-conditioning, screens and wireless headphones makes for easier car journeys these days for parents. However, I have been reminded of the Are we there yet? plea this week in the context of recent media interest in the ongoing problem of how we teach children how to read (or in many cases do not).

If you’ve missed the recent media offerings, you can find Rebecca Urban’s piece in The Australian here and Jordan Baker’s Good Weekend feature article here (apologies if you strike a paywall).

The journey towards improved reading instruction has been made unnecessarily long and complicated as a result of those in the front seat accepting directions from people who may be well-intentioned, but don’t actually know what the destination looks like, or how to get there. It’s also been muddied by advice from people who thought we would be better off heading down a side road because the town down that way is pretty and everyone seems happy there. Some people don’t necessarily think there’s a destination at all; rather that wherever we are right now is just fine and there’s no need to move on to greener pastures.

I thought it might be timely to check the map, because there’s been some dead-ends and unnecessary detours that have made this journey longer and more painful than it ever needed to be.

So let’s see how we’re travelling and do some misdirection fact-checking along the way. 

Misdirection No. 1: Tensions in how to teach reading are a battle between Whole Language and “phonics”.

This is overly simplistic. The key tension, as I see it in 2021, is between instruction that is delivered explicitly by teachers who are highly knowledgeable about all aspects of the English language (spoken and written) and instruction that is delivered by teachers who have been presented with an extremely restricted lens on reading and are overly reliant on a limited and superficial repertoire of classroom materials and routines. Such materials often include expensive classroom sets of leveled (predictable) readers that do not follow a scope and sequence with respect to the teaching of phoneme-grapheme correspondences and sets of “sight” words which children do not have the tools to analyse at a sub-lexical level, so must over-burden their fragile visual memory systems by learning them as pictographs. Then there is the all-too-familiar Whole Language throwback, Multi-Cueing (Three Cueing) and some frankly bizarre advice, like telling children to “get your mouth ready” to read an unfamiliar word. 

None of this would matter of course, if we were successfully teaching 95% of children to read, as the cognitive psychology research indicates we should be*. We're not even close.
* If you cannot access this paper by Dr Kerry Hempenstall, the key quote (pp. 108-109) is this:

According to research, we should not be content until the reading difficulty rate falls to around 5%..... Until then, we are not teaching reading well enough, and many students do not have an inbuilt resistance to learning how to read, but should be considered as instructional casualties.

The wrong-turn here that has delayed our journey is that universities, by a process of steady erosion of teacher knowledge in initial teacher education (ITE) over recent decades, have over-simplified the reading process, for both teachers and children. That means that rather than needing faculty who are knowledgeable about the linguistic basis of reading, universities have reassured themselves that it's OK for this part of the ITE curriculum to be delivered by academics with backgrounds in anything from drama, art, and secondary English literature. This has resulted in a collective form of interpretative dance around such fundamental questions as the meaning of the word “literacy” (insert just about any meaning you like and it will get up; the more postmodern it sounds, the better).  I am yet to meet a primary school teacher who sees an opening for critical literacy, in their struggle to teach six-year olds how to spell; nor have I met a primary teacher who has asked for assistance in supporting students with multiliteracies. If you want to test these propositions, it is easy to do so:

  • Ask some recent graduates what theories of reading they learned about at university.
  • Ask them what they learned about the three national inquiries into the teaching of literacy that were held between 2000 and 2006.
  • Ask them whether reading is a biologically primary or secondary skill, and why this matters.
  • Ask them about the relationship between oral language abilities and learning to read.
  • Ask them to define phonemic awareness and morphological awareness.
  • Ask them about the difference between synthetic and analytic phonics. 
  • Ask them what they know about orthographic mapping
  • Ask them how they teach spelling.
  • Ask them whether they are confident identifying and supporting struggling readers.
  • Ask them whether they need professional learning on critical literacies, multiliteracies, and/or neoliberal praxis in the early years’ classroom. 
Why are students in related disciplines such as speech-language pathology and educational and developmental psychology learning about these fundamental concepts and yet teachers, in most cases, are not? Why have Education faculties given away the family china? If you give away the family china, you can't then complain that others find it useful in their work. I wrote about the issue of education discarding precious knowledge from its teacher education programs back in 2017. You can read that blog-post here.

Misdirection No. 2: Calling for improved reading instruction means advocating for a “phonics only” approach.

This straw man would be laughable if it were not so disappointing and exhausting; this is reading instruction's flat tyre that results in a collective moan from the back seat, as everyone piles out to stand by the side of the road while even more time is wasted.

As per Misdirection No. 1, the debate needs to be much more nuanced than this. Advocates of improved reading instruction spend just as much time talking about the role of vocabulary, comprehension, fluency, syntax, and discourse, and so on, as they do about how speech and print map to each other in English. Related to this, it is inaccurate to suggest that systematic and explicit phonics instruction (whether synthetic or not) by definition, by-passes vocabulary development. It does not. Its prime function is to automatise children’s mastery of the code, but if teachers are teaching decoding without incidentally talking about meanings of words, putting them in sentences and drawing children’s attention to morphological markers (e.g., plural -s, present progressive -ing) then there’s some low-hanging fruit they can access to enrich their teaching as of Monday morning.

You can decode something you can’t understand particularly well (like me reading in my rusty school-girl French), but you can’t understand something at all that you can’t decode (like me being presented with a page of text written in Arabic). If you don’t a) know that there is a code and b) know how to decipher the code, then you cannot "read for meaning" and reading will remain an opaque mystery and your academic success will be jeopardised accordingly.

If we can’t get past this road-block in the reading debate, we cannot get on to the pressing and important matters of strengthening vocabulary, getting students over David Corson’s “lexical bar”, and improving their writing skills (to name a few imperatives).

Misdirection No. 3 The real culprits here are parents. They are either too poor, too non-English speaking, or too busy to teach their children to read themselves.

This is a pernicious but transparent attempt to shift responsibility for reading instruction from schools (whose job it is) to parents (whose job it is not).

Does anyone remember this bumper sticker from the 1980s?


I wonder why we don’t see it anymore? Could it be that the inverse is also true – if you can’t read it, did something go wrong in your early reading instruction? 

The myth that parents reading to their children will rid the world of illiteracy has been promulgated by children's author Mem Fox and resoundingly rebuffed by Distinguished Professor Anne Castles, of Macquarie University. This particular misdirection is related to the notion of reading being "natural", as discussed further below (see Misdirection No. 5).

Misdirection No. 4. Teachers are professionals and the rest of the community should just trust them to know what’s best for children in their class.

I have written about the issue of professionalism previously – see here. This idea is so out of step with community standards and expectations, it’s hard to know where to start. Doctors, nurses, psychologists, physiotherapists, engineers, speech pathologists, lawyers etc are not afforded the freedom to do their own thing. Professionalism is a highly constrained form of accountability. Members of other disciplines are held to account by professional bodies when (not if, when) they do not do their jobs properly, through errors of either omission or commission. 

When was the last time a teacher was held to account by a professional body for not teaching reading well enough? I don’t know either. But this scary reality is what true professionalism entails and perhaps if education academics had to factor that possibility into their pre-service curricula there would be some better attention to detail in what is taught. Academics in medicine, nursing, psychology and a raft of allied health disciplines know that this is the kind of community accountability they are preparing their graduates for.  

Misdirection No. 5 Reading is a natural thing for children to do. Explicit instruction in phonics kills their enjoyment of text. We should foster the ability to read through immersion in high-quality children’s literature.

As you can see, there’s a few inter-connected pieces of mis-information here. If you are unconvinced about the notion that humans have evolved for spontaneous development of spoken language but not for written language, I refer you to the work of Diane McGuinness, Stanislas Dehaene and David Geary. Unfortunately, the late Kenneth Goodman gave education the fanciful but empirically unsupported notion that reading is “natural”, like oral language. This became something of a meme in early years education and has been hard to budge. 

What teachers who have adopted a structured literacy approach to early reading instruction consistently report is the joy that children display when they can crack the code and lift words off the page. All of which does not mean of course that children should not be exposed to beautiful children’s books on a daily basis: books that expand their vocabularies, their comprehension of complex sentences, their imaginations, and their knowledge of the world. That’s a no-brainer.

We need to remember though, that listening to adults read beautiful books does no more to teach children how to read than listening to adults play Mozart sonatas teaches them how to play the piano. There’s several concepts and skills that children need to master in order to do both and instruction delivered by knowledgeable teachers is what makes the difference. Would parents knowingly pay for piano lessons taught by someone who does not understand musical notation and the logic behind it? No, and they should not have to buy into a lottery of hoping that classroom teachers have received adequate preparation for the specialised knowledge and skills required to support children’s early reading success.

If reading was as natural as acquiring oral language, why is it taught in schools at all? And if it’s so easy for everyone to acquire, why are there so many illiterate people in the world (who have completed primary school)?


Perhaps it’s time for education faculties to claim reading, and all aspects of how children are best taught how to do it, as their own. This would entail fully embracing the fact that reading is a complex skill that requires teachers to be knowledgeable experts, not guides on the side. 

It would entail acknowledging that the English writing system is an imperfect representation of spoken language and teachers need to understand these imperfections so they are not glossed over with an awkward “because English” wave of the hand. 

It would entail some humility in the face of the fact that knowledgeable language scholars have been tinkering with the English writing system for hundreds of years, yet we ask children at the tender age of five to start mastering it and give then approximately 36 months to do so. 

These are only some of the unfortunate misdirections that reading policy makers and university academics have provided to schools in recent decades. They have made the journey unnecessarily long (never-ending some might say), treacherous, and time-wasting for teachers, parents, and students of all backgrounds and education sectors.

As with real-life journeys, adults can generally cope better with distance, detours, and delays, but children will be the ones who experience the pain of an unnecessarily long drive and the seemingly non-existent destination.

So dear reader, no, we are not there yet, but we are not abandoning the journey either.

(C) Pamela Snow (2021) 


  1. Thank-you!

    It is incredibly frustrating to continually hear arguments against explicit reading and spelling instruction based on these misconceptions, especially as they have been corrected time and time again.

    1. Yes I agree. We seem to be doing what we in Australia call "blockies" - driving around and around the same block of roads.

  2. Believe it or not there are piano teachers that don't read notation, stds copy and memorise. Great article, thanks.

    1. Hhhm interesting but I would think they don't account for the majority of piano teachers. A big part of musical instruction is understanding the notation ("writing")system.
      Thanks for the affirming feedback.

  3. In addition to always making simple sense of complex issues, you are the master of the metaphor! Thank you!

  4. Great to read and nails the problems. It needs to be so much widely shared as it still not really being acknowledged at the highest levels of educational policy.

    1. Thank you and I agree. some policy makers are listening and displaying openness to change, but others are not. It's interesting isn't it, that schools say they want their students to be critical thinkers, but that's the very attribute that is not always on display by the adults.

    2. I could not agree more; critical thinking about what we are doing is taken quite personally by some and therefore avoided altogether. If you don't try to explore further than the old "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" is easy to disappear into.

  5. If parents can educate themselves about the science, best practice, and laws, educators and administrators can as well. The information isn't locked away in a tall tower being guarded by a fiery dragon. Being the most, or only, informed person at an IEP meeting while reminding the LEA that one is an equal IEP team member is unacceptable. If reading was taught scientifically, those IEP meetings wouldn't be needed for the vast majority of dyslexic students. Meanwhile, I advocate for science so no more students are tossed aside.

    1. Renee you've summed things up so well here and I heartily agree - though as someone pointed out on Twitter today when I shared your words, being well-informed doesn't always allow parents to exert much influence over what happens for their children instruction-wise. We must keep advocating for all students at all ability levels.

  6. There is indeed a lot of linguistic ignorance knocking around.

    Most advocates of high intensity GPC drilling (I refuse to use the 'p' word, it's too confusing) that I have come across show no understanding whatsoever of the phoneme-phone distinction. This ignorance - manifest in the persistently muddled claim that a phoneme is a 'sound' - leads to many problems in spelling further down the line. Most advocates of 'phonics' also seem unware of just how marginal the evidence in favor of high intensity GPC drilling actually is. The result is often wildly inflated claims about how much impact adopting high intensity GPC drilling is likely to have (and correspondingly inflated guilt-tripping of teachers who don't use it).

    Also, given the fact that even the 'simple view of reading' attributes a lot of reading success to language comprehension, and given that language comprehension is by your own admission biologically primary, your own logic demands that you acknowledge that reading is at least in part biologically primary, no? Or are you suggesting that reading is is in fact just decoding??

    1. Hello Anonymous
      Yes, there is much work to do on lifting the language knowledge of the teaching workforce, a problem that is traceable to pre-service teacher education in English-speaking countries in recent decades. While you’re no doubt right about the confusion between phonemes and phones, that is so far down in the linguistic weeds as to be a luxury topic in my part of the world. Perhaps things are further advanced in the USA, but that's not my impression.

      Language and reading are both things that humans do so we have an evolutionary advantage for them over members of other species. Having oral language gives us the capacity to learn to read provided we receive adequate and appropriate instruction. It also confers the ability to learn a second language, provided again, we are exposed to and “taught” in some way. To take your logic to extremes though, would be to say that playing a musical instrument is partly biologically primary, because we can all move our arms. To that extent, all learning is “biological” because it involves the body and the brain, but I don’t think such hair-splitting helps classroom teachers.

    2. Thanks for your time and thoughts.

      re phone-phonemes, I'd say it's actually quite important. My son does not say 'train' - like his parents, he says 'chrain'.This is not because we or he are sub-standard speakers, and the example word is pretty important for him. A teacher who does not understand this is in danger of leaving him confused, or even ashamed, about his sub-standard speech.

      Likewise, the biological primary thing is not splitting hairs. On the premise that much learning occurs through play and informal interaction, progressive teachers have concentrated for years on building atmospheres and activities in classroom which encourage and foster the kind of play and informal interaction which build language skills. Some of the arguments for explicit instruction which are now circulating imply - or state outright - that this is all an awful mistake. The question absolutely has implications for the classroom.

    3. Hello again and thanks for your further response too. I'm a bit confused about your example of "chrain" for "train" in relation to your earlier point about phoneme-phone distinctions though. There's a wide range of reasons (many developmental) that such a substitution might occur in a child's speech and yes I agree it's important that teachers have a sufficient grasp of phonetics in order to be able to help children map speech to print, even when they are still making speech sound errors on school entry (which many are). To my mind, this puts us in furious agreement - teachers need to exit university being more knowledgeable about how the language system works and phonology is of course part of the language system. Apologies if I have misunderstood you.

      On the question of play, that is important for all children at all ages and stages and should be a particular focus of the pre-school years. I am not aware, however, of play-based pedagogies that are efficient for early reading instruction. That said, I see many instances of classrooms where children are being taught explicitly from a young age with engaging materials and by engaged teachers and they are clearly enjoying the experience. So, is that any more or less valuable than play? I don't think we should pit explicit teaching and play against each other. They both have a place in young children's daily routines.

  7. For a more balanced view from a phonics advocate on the evidence for the high intensity drilling of GPCs (here, 'systematic phonics'), see the blog-post linked to below.

    The takeaway is that more research is needed before we can say for certain that systematic phonics is clearly better than the alternatives (none of which are as effective as any of us would like), but that schools which already teach phonics may as well persist, given that it's unlikely to be much worse that what else is out there.

  8. I have worked as a teacher for many years and am now an SLT so I can see this problem from both sides. I think a more realistic and effective solution would be if teachers were allowed to teach reading when each child is developmentally ready for it. The pressure put on teachers to somehow get ALL children in reception to reach specific reading targets by the end of the year is frankly soul destroying. We know as SLTs that many children this age are still trying to sort out their phonological processes. It doesn't matter which approach you use to teach them reading. Theyrey not going to get it!
    There are developmentally appropriate goals that those who design these targets seem totally oblivious of.
    We start forcing reading on our children in the UK far too early, to the detriment of all of the other skills that our children should be learning through play.
    I don't disagree that better quality education and training teaching reading is needed. But I take issue with your argument that teachers are not being held to account. What you have misunderstood is that it's actually the accountability measures that are driving the curriculum,not the stage and needs of the individual child. Teachers are leaving the profession in droves because the targets they are being told to reach for children are unrealistic and cruel. If you are working with teachers, it's really helpful to understand that.
    Let's start with providing proper education and training for those sitting in the ivory tower of target setting. These are the people who should be highly knowledgeable in how and when children acquire and comprehend language. Maybe then our four year olds can experience the joy of just being four.

    1. Hi Anonymous thanks for your thoughtful contribution - an interesting perspective for sure. I am aware that reading instruction begins very early in the UK (or at least compared to Australia it does) and as an SLP I have often said that it would be preferable in many ways if we could spend a year consolidating oral language skills and print concepts before moving into formal reading instruction. That said though, there are some children who are ready - there's no easy answer of course. You are probably aware of Courtenay Norbury's SCALES study in the UK that shows particular vulnerability language-wise for the youngest children in a reception class.

      On the issue of accountability, I agree that there's a lot of top-down activity in the UK (and to a lesser extent here in Australia) but I would argue that if education as a discipline had a similar approach to professionalism and accountability as some of the other disciplines I mentioned in the blog, then some of these "bolted on" approaches would not be necessary. When groups don't apply practice parameters for themselves, eventually they will be externally imposed. Again, I can only speak for Australia here, but there is a general flavour of "choose your own adventure" as a teacher when it comes to reading instruction and it defies common sense, let alone empirical evidence that they are all equally efficacious.

  9. I strongly recommend a careful review of the three latest issues of Reading Research Quarterly, in which educators and researchers from multiple perspectives provide a broad and comprehensive look at the many facets of reading and reading instruction. All of us who claim to want what’s best in the name of children’s reading should also desire to know all we can across the broad range of the sciences of reading. I assume we are in agreement that knowledge is power and that we should aim to avoid advocating for reading instruction based on a narrow interpretation of a limited band of research.

    1. I agree that the September science of reading issue of RRQ is must reading, particularly Mark Seidenberg's piece, "Lost in Translation? Challenges in Connecting Reading Science and Educational Practice", which cautions us all to tread carefully. However, reader beware! Not all of these pieces are convincing. For example, the article A "Confluence of Complexity: Intersections Among Reading Theory, Neuroscience, and Observations of Young Readers" has some internal inconsistencies that are deeply troubling. This is frustrating for us practitioners who are trying to rely on peer-reviewed research and oftentimes just come away confused.

    2. We need to be critical readers, for sure. No single article or perspective will provide the answers we seek. That’s why we need to read it all, to make informed decisions.

  10. Wonderful article.

    One question from an admitted neophyte ... isn't there more to be gained from listening to adults read than your analogy states? I know it is not "natural" in the sense that students who are being read to do not make speech/print connections ... but doesn't read-aloud expand their phonological lexicon, which will help them later when they have to make a lexical decision? Doesn't the increased word/background knowledge enhance their lexical quality?

  11. Hi Unknown
    Thanks for your question. There is an enormous amount to be gained from reading to children, as I noted in the blog post, adults reading to children expands "....their vocabularies, their comprehension of complex sentences, their imaginations, and their knowledge of the world". It is also (as you rightly note) one way in which we develop phonological awareness, e.g. through reading rhyming books. So reading aloud to children is profoundly important, but on its own, it will not turn them into readers. What turns children into readers is *being taught how to read*, and most children (especially those who start from behind for a range of reasons)need specific instruction on this.

  12. “We have to continue the shift. We can’t be upset by the hard conversations. We can’t have kids in year 7 reading like they’re in year 3.” This quote from Samantha Donnan – a primary school teacher interviewed for the Jordan Baker Good Weekend article you also contributed to Pamela – really drives the point home for me. This is what I'm faced with as a Learning Support teacher who is responsible for years 7&8 LS coordination. I've just administered the Best Start tests for year 7 and my intention is to provide targeted support to those few students whose scores in reading comprehension are well below that of their peers. When I say well below, I mean getting a number of Stage 2 content questions incorrect, and even more Stage 3 questions incorrect. What I'm now desperately trying to find is an evidence-based structured literacy intervention I can run in a small group for these students. What's becoming increasingly demoralising is the inconclusive evidence for the efficacy of stand-alone literacy intervention programs at the secondary/middle school level; the debate and hard-nosed resistance from the top down to the withdrawal of students from regular classroom teaching and learning (presumably because inclusivity); and my resulting inability to say with confidence to my line manager and prinicipal: "please let me try this program to help these students that desperately need it: the evidence strongly suggests this will work." I'm now left with the maddening question... ok, I have the data that identifies significant comprehension weaknesses in students that will render them incapable of accessing the secondary curriculum if not rectified, but HOW DO I BEST HELP THEM?

  13. I am also interested in this area Dave Fletcher. I have just looked at the Tier 2 Interventions Review put out by the Catholic Education Office Melbourne and there is very little, if anything, in the way evidence-based interventions with reliable evidence for helping with comprehension above a Year 6 level.

    1. Maybe I have Holden Caulfield syndrome... probably, I don't know. I just see these kids as being so close to that cliff where, once over, they just free-fall into adult illiteracy. They get to years 9 and 10 completely disengaged from learning, are often seen by their teachers as merely classroom management burdens (particularly for exasperated English teachers that 'just want to teach literature'), and are then forced to endure the ultimate humiliation: the HSC National Minimum Standards test. By this point, NO ONE cares about tending their literacy wound, much less the students themselves. This is the grim reality for many of Dr Hempenstall's 'instructional casualties' trapped in a public education system that has not only failed them, but can't wait to be rid of them. It's infuriating.