Australia’s poor results in the latest international assessments of reading, maths and science should be of serious concern to parents. The proportion of children who were classed as ‘low performers’ by international standards grew substantially over the past decade. A large number of students did not achieve the National Proficiency Standard — 39% in reading and science, and 45% in maths.
A small percentage of children have disabilities that make learning difficult throughout school, such as dyslexia and dysgraphia. A larger proportion of children have learning difficulties that can largely be overcome through good teaching and special education support. But there are also children who struggle at school because they have gaps in their learning.
It is crucial to identify these gaps as soon as possible, before children get so far behind it is almost impossible for them to catch up.
Things to look for in reading
Reading underpins achievement across the curriculum. Children who read accurately and confidently in the early years of school tend to have higher achievement in all areas. There are some key indicators that children have not acquired the necessary skills for reading, and there are some actions parents can take. (For more information, see the FIVE from FIVE website www.fivefromfive.org.au)
- Sounding out unfamiliar words when reading and spelling
Children who have been taught phonics well in the early years of school know which letters go with which sounds in written language — and are able to sound out or ‘decode’ unfamiliar words when they are reading. Similarly, they are able to spell words using their knowledge of letter combinations and sounds, as well as drawing on a bank of irregular common words. If a child cannot sound out words and does not know how to pronounce single and combination letter sounds (for example, ‘sh’ or ‘igh’), or if they still pronounce many words incorrectly, this will affect their ability to read the increasingly complex texts they will be expected to read in the upper years of primary school and beyond.
- Robotic reading
Children who read in a robotic way — slowly and without expression — are often demonstrating a lack of understanding of what they are reading. Lack of fluency in reading can be caused by slow decoding or word recognition and can lead to low comprehension. If decoding is difficult, this should be addressed as soon as possible with phonics instruction. If decoding is not the problem, slow, expressionless reading can be helped by strategies such as repeated reading practice and modelled reading.
- Answering simple questions about what they have read
There are several possible reasons that children who appear to be reading well cannot answer questions about what they have read. One is low vocabulary―children who are accurate and fluent readers but do not have a sufficient store of word meanings will not be able to understand what they are reading. Building vocabulary requires repeated exposure to a wide variety of words and expressions in a variety of contexts. Similarly, poor comprehension can be due to low general knowledge about the world. Some words and expressions only make sense when you know the context in which they are used. Another reason for low comprehension is that the child is not paying attention and thinking about what they are reading. This can be helped with ‘meta-cognitive’ strategies such as self-questioning and summarising.
- Reluctance to read
It is important to determine whether a child’s reluctance to read is because they find it difficult or boring. If it is because reading is difficult, identifying and addressing the source of the difficulty is essential. If it is that reading is boring for them, there are a number of ways to encourage the development of language and comprehension skills and foster reading enjoyment. Providing reading material in subjects they are interested in can help — whether it is motorbikes, dinosaurs, or fairies. But it is also important to keep exposing all children to a wide variety of books to develop their vocabulary and their knowledge of literature, by reading good, challenging books with them and to them that they may not read themselves. Recorded audio books are also useful. This can continue as long as possible, through primary school and into high school.
Things to look for in maths/numeracy and science
Mathematics achievement has been a matter of increasing concern with a general consensus emerging that a growing proportion of new jobs will be in Science, Technology, Engineering and Science (STEM) careers. One possible solution is for more specialist maths and science teaching in primary schools. Again, there are some key indicators that parents can look for.
- Multiplication tables
The idea of learning the ‘times tables’ is unfashionable. People argue that maths is about more than the rote recall of facts. That’s true, however, it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Cognitive science suggests that our brains can only attend to processing a few different ideas at any one time. Higher level maths is therefore much easier if you simply know that 7 x 8 = 56 rather than having to work it out in the middle of completing a complex problem. It is important that children are quizzed on multiplication facts in different orders rather than only ever chanting them in sequence. The latter approach can leave students needing to go through a whole chant to get to the answer that they need.
- Standard procedures
In order to build understanding, many teachers ask children to use, or even invent, a range of different ways of solving simple problems such as subtracting 25 from 42. This can add to the flexibility of students’ thinking but these should not be the approaches they continue to rely on. The standard methods for solving these kinds of problems — such as column subtraction — have become standard because they are powerful and efficient. There is no reason children cannot comprehend these procedures, providing they have a clear understanding of ‘place value’. This means that, for instance, they know the 3 in 234 represents 3 tens.
Research in the learning sciences has demonstrated few results more clearly than the fact that, once a concept has been understood, repeated quizzing is an extremely powerful way to make sure it is secure in long-term memory. Ideally, quizzing should take place frequently and should not be restricted to concepts that are currently being taught. For instance, children should regularly be quizzed in maths on a range of number, shape and data concepts. There is no reason for this kind of quizzing to be stressful for children and teachers should make efforts to ensure children feel comfortable with it. If your child comes home stressed about tests then it is probably worth making contact with the teacher.
There has been increased interest in the idea of mathematics ‘mastery’ following the success of countries such as Singapore and China in international assessments. This approach involves sticking with a topic until students have demonstrated that they have mastered it rather than moving on quickly to the next topic. Students are generally taught as a whole class with a lot of teacher explanation and questioning, working this way for perhaps 70% of the lesson. This contrasts to the more conventional approach where students work on different tasks on different tables while a teacher circulates to offer support. Mastery is increasingly popular around the world, but it is unclear how much impact is has had on Australia so far.
- Science Inquiry
The science strand of the Australian Curriculum is vague and open to interpretation. It highlights the importance of scientific ‘inquiry’ skills. In short, these are the practices involved in designing, conducting and discussing experiments. It is quite possible to be involved in the processes of scientific inquiry without actually learning many science facts and concepts. Inquiry certainly has a place within any science course but it should not dominate. Try to establish which science facts and concepts are being taught, whether they are being taught directly or solely through investigations and if and how they are being tested. The implications go beyond science performance because scientific knowledge is the kind of knowledge that helps to improve reading comprehension.
It is great if your child comes home and is enthusiastic about maths and science. Many teachers work hard to make lessons engaging. However, it is still worth probing the actual content that is being learnt because it is possible that the lesson is fun but light on content. A recent study from Canada found that a child’s level of motivation in maths did not predict their later performance. However, their level of performance did predict their later motivation.
Dr Jennifer Buckingham is a senior research fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies and director of the FIVE from FIVE reading project.
Greg Ashman is a researcher and maths and science teacher in Victoria.