Tuesday 6 June 2023

Learning to read is not child's play


In a recent post on the AARE Blog, Edith Cowan University academic Dr Pauline Roberts raises a  number of points about the importance of play in the early years of school and strongly pushes back on the role of formal assessment, such as NAPLAN. In fact, she goes so far as to refer to NAPLAN as an “oppressive test that is killing the magic of childhood”. That’s quite some hyperbole, and clearly doesn't stand up as an evidence-based claim.

I want to challenge the notion that our thinking needs to be polarised on devoting children’s time to play Vs explicit teaching of reading, writing, and spelling, especially in the first three years of school.  I also want to challenge the notion that play is enough, in its own right as a “pedagogy” to teach children how to read, write, and spell. For this reason, I posted a reply on the AARE site, offering some different perspectives for consideration and discussion.

My response is reproduced and, in some cases, slightly expanded here:

1.      Play is fundamentally important for all children, and we should never be talking about play and explicit teaching as an “either-or” in terms of how we allocate children’s instructional time. This is an unhelpful dichotomy. We need to make room for both, in a considered way.

For the record, play is important for the development of language skills, social cognition skills, turn-taking, empathy, self-regulation, perceptual skills, hand-eye coordination, gross motor skills, understanding cause-effect relationships, making and testing predictions, and so much more. I need no convincing of these things.

2.      Literacy (by which I mean reading, writing, and spelling) is a set of biologically secondary skills, where oral language is biologically primary. This distinction is critical to consideration of how children learn in the first three years of school and beyond. David Didau has written a succinct blogpost about the notion of biologically primary and secondary skills (drawing on the work of Professor David Geary). It can be accessed here.

As a speech-language pathologist, I am acutely aware that although oral language skills are biologically primary, that does not mean that all children acquire them at the same rate or are at the same level of proficiency on school entry. Oral language skills are not “set and forget”. Children benefit from intentional play experiences as well as explicit, teacher-led instruction to support ongoing development of language skills in the school years. I have written about this here.

3.      Play is biologically primary, but it is not necessarily the optimal way to learn biologically secondary skills, which in many cases, if not taught are also not “caught”, i.e., they go unlearnt.

We do not expect children to learn to play a musical instrument by listening to (immersing themselves in) recordings of Mozart sonatas. Why does this same logic not apply to the learning of other biologically secondary skills such as reading, writing, and spelling?

4.      Harvard cognitive psychologist Stephen Pinker has observed that humans have a language brain, but they don’t have a “reading brain”. A reading brain can be developed through explicit teaching of the ways in which speech and print map to each other. Developmentally, this is best achieved in the first three years of school. The work of French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene has shown that this “re-wiring” becomes harder to achieve, the more time that passes. It’s one of the reasons that low literacy skills in secondary students are harder to turn around than difficulties that are identified and responded to in the early years.

5.      When children are struggling with literacy in Year 3 (and often unfortunately beyond), what changes their trajectories is not more time spent playing, but time with tutors (if they are fortunate to be able to access them), who unlock for them the mysteries of how their writing system works.

6.      Being unable to read, write and spell is a major correlate of emotional and behavioural difficulties. I’ve been researching the school-to-prison pipeline for the last two decades and the link between low literacy, behaviour problems and school disengagement is one of the most robust and immovable findings. Again, it’s not play-based activities that youth offenders need to give them a chance at educational, vocational, and economic engagement. It’s having the mysteries of the English writing system unlocked for them – as efficiently and painlessly as possible. US APM reporter Emily Hanford has written about this here.

7.      Becoming a proficient reader (one who can efficiently and fluently lift words off the page and derive the meaning of connected text) is fun for children. They love being able to “crack the code” and apply their reading skills to printed books, screens, and environmental print. There seems to be an assumption in Dr Roberts’ post that explicit teaching and enjoyable, productive learning are mutually exclusive. They are not.

8.      Many schools are adopting a Multi-Tiered Systems of Support approach to early literacy, numeracy and positive behaviour support and are seeing pleasing shifts in both academic success and wellbeing. These schools still allow time for child-led, play-based learning, but not at the expense of explicit initial teaching of complex, biologically secondary knowledge and skills in the literacy and numeracy domains. Student success is also good for staff morale and self-efficacy on making all students proficient learners, not just some of them.

9.      We shouldn’t blame the bathroom scales if the diet isn't working. We have to go back and look at the quality of the diet and our fidelity to it. NAPLAN may be imperfect in all kinds of ways, but I am quite sure that if the data was trending upwards, calls for its demise would fade, and we would be asked to celebrate the work of teachers. We can’t have it both ways.

It’s NAPLAN data that tells us that 13.5% of Year 9 boys are not at the minimum national standard for reading. In an economy in which jobs for unskilled workers are being replaced by artificial intelligence, how are these young men going to be part of the social and economic mainstream after they (inevitably) exit school early? This, rather than the test itself, is what I think of as “high-stakes” for life-chances.

Enough with the false dichotomies and villainising of explicit teaching and progress monitoring. If anything might “save childhood”, I would put my money on supporting teachers to explicitly teach biologically secondary skills and allowing play to hold up its end in biologically primary domains in the early years. Children need both for strong personal and academic outcomes.

(C) Pamela Snow (2023)


  1. Wow! A very powerful reply.

  2. Bravo 👏👏👏

  3. A good article. Unskilled workers like cleaners, road maintenance workers, shop assistance etc won’t be replaced by artificial intelligence …just saying.

    1. Unfortunately shop assistants are already being replaced by technology - via online shopping and also via self-checkout points, most notably in supermarkets. Some unskilled roles will continue of course, but these opportunities will shrink with time.

  4. Brilliant!!

  5. I am so lucky to have acquired the secondary skill of reading to be able to benefit from such incredible blogs such as these.

  6. Really well articulated!

    I do like that you express a clear argument against either-or thinking, and that we must ideally combine play-based and explicit teacher-led learning.

    I recently had an experience (as a casual teacher) in a school that is a cheerleader for systematic explicit instruction. At first I was excited to see how this worked in practice, but in reality I was a little shocked by what was unfolding. Explicit instruction dominated all sessions - everything was scripted, kids sat in rows, there was no differentiation, and all tasks were "complete the sentence" style with very limited opportunity to explore content more deeply.

    By the third day it was quite clear that this approach was not working for several children, who were crying out for exploration and to be creative. Behaviour management was subsequently quite punitive (get back to your desk and do what you're told).

    We are early in this journey toward pushing toward more systematic instruction, but I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on school leaders that (correctly) absorb the views you hold on reading instruction but then take it to extremes across all areas of the curriculum. Is this conversation being had now that the tide has begun to turn (thanks in part to people like Emily Hanford for bringing it to a wider audience).