Why are so many people not learning to read?

Updated: Nov 16, 2019

Australian Bureau of Statistics data show that at least 20 per cent of Australian adults

do not have the literacy skills needed to manage daily life.

Why? It’s all about the teaching

In the 1960s, phonics teaching was abandoned in favour of immersing students in literature (a method called the ‘whole language approach’), assuming they would learn to read the same way as they learn to speak. This has been conclusively proven to be incorrect and has directly led to severely falling literacy rates.

How do we need to teach so everyone learns?

Evidence clearly shows that systematic phonics teaching is crucial – as is strong, explicit phonological awareness training (training the ability to hear and manipulate sounds in words to proficiency), vocabulary development, comprehension and fluency work.

We need to systematically teach that the sounds of our language can be written down as a code and to teach that code, right through to the complex. At higher levels, we need to add morphology teaching – looking at meaning chunks. Reading and spelling must be taught together – decoding to read and encoding sounds on to paper to spell.

What is the evidence? How do we know this?

We have a vast evidence base in literacy teaching –the strongest in all of the social sciences. Thousands of studies in multiple countries have reached the same conclusions.

  • National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy (Aust, 2005) – ‘direct systematic instruction in phonics during the early years of schooling is an essential foundation for teaching children to read.’

  • US National Reading Panel (USA, 2000) The meta-analysis revealed that systematic phonics instruction produces significant benefits for students in kindergarten through 6th grade and for children having difficulty learning to read.

  • The National Literacy Strategy (UK,1998) required all primary schools to abandon their whole language approach to reading. ‘Explicit phonics is to be introduced from the earliest stages of reading.’

  • California State Task Force (USA, 1999) ‘Research has shown that a significant number of children labelled “learning disabled or dyslexic” could become successful readers if they received systematic, explicit instruction and intervention early in their education.’

  • Reading by Six – how the best schools do it (UK, 2010) ‘Rigorous, intensive and systematic phonics teaching underpins reading, spelling and writing.’

  • High Performing Primary Schools – What do they have in common (WA, 2015) – ‘…and reading programs based on the explicit teaching of phonics’.

  • Scientific Evidence for the Effective Teaching of Reading (Aust, 2016) – ‘explicit teaching of the five keys to reading benefits all and can significantly reduce literacy gaps.’

  • David Kilpatrick – meta-analysis of literacy interventions (US, 2018). All interventions with ‘highly successful’ outcomes (12-25 standard score gains) included a combination of advanced phonological awareness training; systematic, synthetic phonics and reading practice with connected text.

Phonics Phobic to Phonics Fanatic (Anne Glennie, literacy specialist UK, NATE 2017)

‘People say there are no silver bullets in education, but I think systematic phonics comes pretty close. A method of teaching reading that has scientific backing and is proven to be effective for all children… is one worth fighting for.’

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