I had the privilege of travelling to England to speak with some of the world’s best researchers on how children learn to read, and to observe how high-performing schools use this research to get all children reading.
There is no longer any serious debate in England about the need for explicit phonics instruction in early reading instruction. In fact, it is mandatory for all English primary schools to teach synthetic phonics — a method of instruction that systematically shows children the connection between spoken and written language, and how to use the English alphabetic code to read and spell.
The quality of synthetic phonics instruction is still uneven. Not all teachers have sufficient depth of knowledge and expertise yet. Nonetheless, there is evidence via the Year 1 Phonics Screening Check (PSC) that instruction has improved. In the first year of the national PSC in 2012, 58% of Year 1 students achieved the expected standard. In 2016, 81% of students achieved the standard.
England’s progress in implementing effective early reading instruction was accelerated by the ‘Rose Review’ of early reading by Sir Jim Rose, published in 2006. It strongly endorsed the ‘Simple View of Reading’– a conceptual model which emphasises the importance of both decoding (word reading accuracy) and comprehension — and found that synthetic phonics was the most effective method of instruction, especially for children from disadvantaged backgrounds or with language difficulties.
The Simple View model is strongly supported by research from multiple disciplines. UK Schools Minister Nick Gibb was influenced by this research and has relentlessly pursued the adoption of effective reading instruction, firmly believing that reading is key to educational success and social mobility.
Australia had its own review of the teaching of reading — the National Inquiry into Teaching Literacy (NITL) — the report of which was published in 2005. Its findings were remarkably similar to the Rose Review.
Yet it has had very little impact on reading instruction in Australia. Instead of citing the recent scientific research of Professors Maggie Snowling, Kate Nation, Anne Castles, or Charles Hulme, our Australian literacy academics drag out the outdated, unsubstantiated socio-theoretical views of Ken Goodman and Stephen Krashen.
Australia has many outstanding teachers of reading, but they are too often swimming upstream against poor quality reading programs and policy. Australian teachers and students deserve better.