Wednesday 28 July 2021

Reading instruction in the early years: A school leader’s sliding doors moment


Sue Knight, BA (Hons), BEd (Deakin).

Principal CLPS

Industry Partner, SOLAR Lab, La Trobe University


                                                                                                                                  Image source

I started on my science of reading journey more than six years ago. There is often an "ah ha" moment that teachers and leaders can recall in terms of their discovery of the world of research that exists outside schools. I had been frustrated by the fact I couldn’t get all children to read.

No matter how hard we worked, how much reading aloud students did, how many reading volunteers we had at school, how many celebrations of nights of home reading there were, how we tried to demystify the code while reading big books, or how many reading comprehension strategies we taught, there were still at least 25% of students leaving my classroom or school unable to manage the reading demands of Year 7.

Like so many schools, our main approach was engagement, reading stamina and ‘loving students to literacy’. If you asked us ‘how do children learn to read?’ we would have said ‘by being read to, surrounded by books, and by loving reading’.

There are two pivotal moments that started my journey.

The first was the day I stopped and REALLY thought about what we were doing. I stood in my school and looked in one direction and there was a Reading Recovery lesson happening in one room and I looked in the other direction and there was a MultiLit Reading Tutor session happening in another classroom. I knew these approaches were completely different, but I was trying everything to improve our reading results. I also knew intervention wasn’t the answer, as we had to get our classroom instruction right.

The second was the day the mother of a struggling reader, who knew her child couldn’t decode, asked me for a list of the sounds and the letter combinations that her child needed to know so she could just teach her. The message that came out of my mouth was along the lines of “Well reading is about meaning so that is what we focus on, and we want our children to use what would make sense to work out what words are, not just letters”. At the same time my brain was saying “Why don’t we just do that?”

I knew I didn’t actually have enough knowledge to get reading right in my school. So, I decided to fix that. I went into my office and googled “reading research” and I couldn’t believe what was out there.

My search led me to the three major panel reports, from the US, UK and Australia. I read them. While they are now 20 years old, at that time they were a solid starting point for anyone interested in the research into reading. There were many mixed feelingsshock that this information was out there but not in my hands given I had an education degree, devastation at the number of children who had moved through my classroom or school and I could have been doing so much more for them, and frustration that we were wasting precious time, as we were easily swayed to try different programs or approaches without the knowledge needed to understand their efficacy.

Fairly soon after this I moved schools. I knew I had to be at a school for a while to undertake this change and to build something. I wasn’t even sure at that stage what it was I wanted to build, I just knew it was going to be based on the research and experts I was discovering. I was incredibly lucky at my next school, the graduate in the F[1]/1 classroom had only been teaching for six months. When I said that I wanted to try some things that were different to how most schools I knew had been teaching reading she jumped at the opportunity.

Our situation at that school was different to what often happens. Usually Tier 1 instruction is “Balanced Literacy” and students who don’t learn to read go out for Tier 2 intervention that is often more aligned with the science of reading. I see this often. But we still had Reading Recovery in place. So, when we changed the classroom practice in the F/1 room we had Tier 1 aligned with the science of reading, but the intervention was not. The school community was very attached to Reading Recovery and this juxtaposition, which is common in the first stage of moving from Balanced Literacy to a more structured approach, taught me a lot about change management.

Change doesn’t happen across a school in one sweeping motion. But starting at F/1 is key. Get that right and the momentum flows through the school. There are many grating moments during fundamental change, as new approaches conflict with the old, as well as occasional heightened emotions. Listening, keeping calm and positive, and maintaining a laser focus on what is best for students got me through those challenging times. The same approaches still do.

We implemented a systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) program (budgets were tight, so it had to be free), moved from levelled readers to decodables, ditched the sight words, read all we could about reading research, learnt what phonemic awareness was, skilled up our parents, wound up Reading Recovery, moved to the MultiLit suite of interventions for our Tier 2 support…and the results happened.

It was extraordinary.

I talked about this out of school, asked questions and joined online groups, but it did often feel lonely professionally. Not many others seemed to feel the burning moral outrage I felt, that in a country as privileged as Australia and in a state that was booming like Victoria, how could it be acceptable for children to leave primary school not able to read well? Isn’t this our core business as a primary school?

I travelled to Bendigo to the Community of Practice that Professor Pam Snow started and sat with others interested in reading research and evidence informed practices. Ironically, the educators in the room where significantly outnumbered by speech-language pathologists (SLPs). That’s when I learnt how much value a SLP can be to a school and how much they know about reading development. Given reading is a sound to print process, of course that makes sense. Sounds are their area of expertise, as are vocabulary, sentence structure and other aspects of language.

Finding others in Ballarat as passionate as I was resulted in the formation of Read Ballarat. Our group now provides a professional learning or sharing session each term free of charge. We operate on goodwill at the moment, with experts happy to share their knowledge. Presenters have included Professor Pam Snow, Alison Clarke, Sarah Asome, Emina McLean and Joycelyn Seamer as well as local teachers sharing their implementation of evidence-informed practices in their classrooms.

Once the basics were in place in our school in terms of alignment with the science of reading, we then started to look at best practice. We should all aspire to the very best professional learning, so two teachers were booked in for Multi-Sensory Structured Language (MSL) training at Bentleigh West PS. Following the trailblazers and learning from those who have gone before you, is again something that works. Teachers gave up a week of their school holidays for five days of PD. That was mid-2019. Just before they left to do the training, I moved schools again.

This time I had the knowledge. I knew how to improve reading results. I understood the reading research, although never as an expert, always as a learner myself. I knew about the Big Six and that they needed to be explicitly implemented. I knew about the Simple View of Reading and the Simple View of Writing and The Reading Rope. This time, it was about change management on a larger scale. My challenge was how to bring a team of teachers with me.

While MSL is regarded as gold standard, it is expensive (the cost of the program and CRT coverage) and five days of PD for a teacher is a huge time commitment. I also knew to get widespread buy-in, teachers needed to train together and get the same message at the same time. Free SSP programs need a committed teacher already on board to implement them with fidelity.

A group of schools in southern Victoria was getting really strong results with a commercial phonics program. I spoke to one of the principals involved and with a small group of other educators met the trainer. The two Foundation teachers trained first. They had no idea what they were going to, just that their principal had offered them some PD. Their reactions when they returned are another pivotal moment for me. One walked up the corridor with her hands on her hips, angry that she didn’t know all about this before now. The other was teary. Those responses are really common as teachers find the knowledge empowering once they learn it.

We can skim over the top of this but when you stop and think about it, what we do in our literacy block in primary school impacts a child for the rest of their life. Being literate or not impacts children for the rest of their life. Our literacy blocks are the key to literacy and life outcomes for our children. We need to ask ourselves the question “What do we need to do in our classrooms to give these children the very best chance of getting across the bridge to literacy?” It’s about them. Not us.

In terms of change management, it is a go-slow approach to get buy in. But it’s a relentless moving forward. Dropping nuggets when staff are ready and pointing them in a direction when they ask questions.

The literacy leader and I went to hear Dr. David Kilpatrick on his speaking tour. I had a phonological awareness program ready in my office, but staff weren’t quite ready yet. Although separate sound-only programs are now a hot topic of discussion, we are using one. There is a saying I heard somewhere – “strong beliefs, loosely held”. We have to believe in something strongly so it drives us to action but not hold it so tightly that we can’t let new research or knowledge in and therefore change our actions. So, we will let that program go when and if needed. At the moment I am reading and listening to the arguments on both sides. Within the science of reading community there are differing opinions. Research doesn’t yet have all the answers. But it provides us with a pathway.

Our Literacy Leader and I did systematic synthetic phonics training in the 2019/2020 summer school holidays. Then we hosted training at our school so that all F-6 teachers learnt to teach children about how the code of their language works. We purchased decodable texts, moved away from lists of sight words, learnt about explicit teaching of vocabulary, what impacts fluency, how to develop and monitor it, and the importance of background knowledge in reading comprehension. We completely changed our assessment schedule.

This is hard for teachers. It is hard to let go of things that you believed with all your heart would teach children to read. Many students become literate with a Balanced Literacy approach. Those who are from highly literate homes, with background knowledge and who are read to, will often learn to read no matter what. My own four children did. We also know children who arrive at school already reading. If something doesn’t work at all it is simple to let it go. But when it works for some children, it is harder. This is about not accepting as teachers that some children will fall by the wayside in primary school. It is about not accepting that some children are just “not good readers”. What children need is for us to teach them. This is our moral responsibility.

Last year we completed some amazing PD online, for example The La Trobe University SOLAR Lab Introduction to the Science of Reading online short course and The Writing Revolution online PD from the US, the latter at 7 o’clock in the morning over several weeks. The explosion of podcasts and webinars was extraordinary.  One Saturday morning I had the joy of seeing one of my teacher’s names pop up as she typed a question in during a presentation by Nancy Young on the Ladder of Reading, who was presenting on a Friday afternoon from the east coast of the US.

Teachers text me photos of books on the science of reading and ask if I have them. They call into my office to borrow them. Sometimes they order their own. Being a leader is about being a co-learner as I certainly don’t have all the answers. But my job is to think ahead and have a course mapped out and a relentless focus on evidence and research. When you start to see how explicit teaching of reading works, you become interested in this approach across the curriculum.

We had a short presentation from Dr. Lorraine Hammond on direct instruction. Again, we are looking towards the experts. Some staff are ready to move that way, others not yet. It might be 2022. We are currently completing Lyn Stone’s Language Arts online course together which is 18 hours of professional learning with allocated meeting time for reflection and discussion. Our literacy leader and I are part-way through LETRS training (Language Essentials of Reading and Spelling), the course developed by Dr. Louisa Moats and Dr. Carole Tolman via SPELD WA. Our tutoring program is fully aligned with the science of reading.

Our children are being explicitly taught how their spoken and written language works. What a great thing to give them. They are learning to hear and manipulate sounds and what graphemes represent each phoneme. When they write, they are representing every sound in words. We also did PD in explicitly teaching handwriting as we want children to have this as an automatic skill, so their cognition is freed up for ideas.

We are explicitly teaching Tier 2 vocabulary words every week. We have begun to implement a Reading Spine, a list of high-quality books that children will have read to them over their time at primary school. We have started to explicitly teach content, so children have knowledge to think with. We are learning all the time and our instruction will get better as our knowledge increases.

The research to classroom gap is real and a huge challenge. Sometimes there aren’t clear answers to questions teachers have but what I do know is that with a deep understanding of how reading develops, teachers can nuance and respond to their individual students rather than feeling helpless and looking to justify poor literacy as a result of factors outside school. Teachers feel empowered with this increased knowledge. From everything I have read, listened to, watched and learnt, there is increasing agreement about the teaching practices that have the biggest impact in ensuring a child becomes literate. But this knowledge is not in the hands of every classroom teacher.

Measuring the impact of these changes does take time. At my previous school, it wasn’t really until the Foundation students who had structured literacy right from the start of school did NAPLAN (the National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy) in Year 3, that we felt we had hard data. Sustained impact on results is distinct from movement up and down based on the strength of cohorts. So that measurement is yet to come. But we are on the journey together and our students will reap the benefits. 

And it still feels extraordinary.

[1] Foundation is the first year of school in Victoria (formerly called “Prep” or Preparatory. It corresponds to Reception in South Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland; pre-primary in Western Australia; Prep in Tasmania, and Kindergarten in the Australian Capital Territory. 


(C) Sue Knight; Pamela Snow (2021)




  1. Thank you this is so relatable. I am on this journey. I am a teacher so I feel like I am pushing up hill. That angry teacher is me 20yrs as a librarian back on class for 6. I am loud I am writing letters making a difference in my class. Finding SoR means I now can teach reading well. For that I am thankful. It also takes a huge amount of honesty to say we are doing it wrong. I am studying MSL in September self funded.

  2. Thank you Pamela for publishing this very accurate and poignant account of what it really is like for teachers.
    While the journey is hard, many feeling embarrassed or outraged they never knew the right way to teach reading, the end point is so worth it. The results speak for themselves; children will read!

  3. Sue's journey of discovery fits mine- to a tee! Mine was 13 long years ago and it makes my heart sing to see the wonderful people out there who are continuing to build the momentum . We must keep pushing until every child is given the best instruction in learning to read and spell, as is their right.

  4. Thanks Sue. I found your piece so clear and readable. Well done. I think I know how much work that has all been...but so worth it.

  5. To clarify, you ended Reading Recovery in your school. Was it because it lacked evidence from current studies?

    Related, is Multi-Sensory Structured Language approach similar to Orton-Gillingham? I ask as the current research on O-G is concerning (

    1. See this thread in response to your cited study.

  6. Do you mind if I quote a couple of your posts as long as I provide credit and sources back to your blog? My blog site is in the exact same niche as yours and my users would certainly benefit from some of the information you provide here. Please let me know if this ok with you. Thanks! receptive language Duluth GA

  7. Thank you so much, I am on this journey and so often nodded my head as I read . I don't have all the answers and am slowly guiding and encouraging other colleagues to come on the journey. It is great to have so much research and colleagues on this journey together and being able to access information so easily to guide us on the journey. Thank you again.

  8. Thank you for your summary of your leadership in this critical space. This has been most helpful. I knew nothing of the science of reading until my masters study. The shock was palpable; I too, (like one of your teachers in your article) cried for the missed opportunities to efficiently gift children the skill of reading. Initial Teacher Education programs have much to answer for. Thank you for your efforts to bust through the fog of ideology that permeates this space. A fire has been lit.

  9. Thank you for your sharing your leadership journey. I knew nothing of the science of reading until my masters. The shock was palpable; I too, (like one of your teachers in your article) cried for the missed opportunities to efficiently gift children the skill of reading. Initial Teacher Education programs have much to answer for. Thank you for busting through the fog of ideology that permeates this space. A fire has been lit!

  10. Reading is a print to sound process. It is an extremely common misunderstanding to state Reading is sound to print and that reading is best taught starting with a sound to print process. Phonics provision and programmes can be organised based on the ‘sounds’ and their spelling alternatives. Then the provision should be on a balance of children’s activities of reading print-to-sound, and spelling sound-to-print. Even if the preferred approach is to reach reading via a spelling route (that is, starting with a known spoken word), the act of reading is nevertheless print to sound.

  11. I have just purchased a gorgeous snow globe, a Christmas present to myself this year, in honour of the wonderful work Pam Snow does communicating best practices for the good of all . ♡
    Thank you Pam and Sue. I heard you this morning on ABC RN Life Matters.

  12. How lovely! I hope it sparkles and inspires :-)