In the most recent international assessment of primary school literacy achievement – the Progress in Reading Literacy Study 2011 – Australian and New Zealand students were at the bottom of the rankings for English-speaking countries. One in four Year 4 students in Australia and New Zealand failed to achieve the international benchmark for literacy that allows good progress through school.
This is not a new problem. Other international assessments and national testing programs like NAPLAN show an entrenched proportion of students with low reading levels after four or more years of formal schooling. Millions of words have been written and billions of dollars have been spent on government programs trying to fix this problem, to no avail.
The one thing that has not been tried is the one thing most likely to work – effective, evidence-based reading instruction in every classroom. A robust body of scientific evidence finds that effective reading instruction has five essential components – phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. For early success in reading, these skills must be taught explicitly and systematically.
Numerous reviews, surveys and inquiries have found that teaching degrees in Australian universities are not preparing teachers sufficiently well in these reading instruction strategies, based on scientific evidence of ‘what works.’ Education academics often argue that there are other kinds of evidence, such as case studies, qualitative research and action research. Such studies can provide useful information, but cannot be considered in the same league as studies using scientific methodology and which provide measurable and replicable results.
Reliance on poor quality evidence is not confined to university education faculties; it also plagues government policy development. Literacy policy has been routinely undermined by a failure to understand that reading research, especially as it applies to the early years and for struggling readers, is a highly scientific and specific discipline. Generalist educators and bureaucrats do not have the expertise required to guide policy in this area.
The new Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, plans to establish an advisory committee to guide policy development. The committee will have a strong document to work from – the report of the 2005 National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy. Hopefully some of Australia’s internationally-regarded reading experts will be called upon to finally put it into action.
Jennifer Buckingham is a research fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies and co-author of ‘Why Jaydon Can’t Read‘ in the Spring edition of Policy Magazine.
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