Address our teachers’ knowledge crisis

Who would want to teach these days? Discontent centres on workload, lack of support, and pay.

Workforce attrition is high, particularly in the first five years after graduating, and the pipeline of new teachers is threatened by initial teacher education’s high dropout rates – the highest of any degree except hospitality.

As Education Minister Jason Clare grapples with these issues, he and his state and territory colleagues can’t overlook another crisis – the teacher knowledge crisis. Too few teachers graduate from their degrees with an evidence-based understanding of the linguistic and cognitive processes in play when the human brain learns to read, and how best to teach this essential life skill.

The dire consequence of this critical knowledge shortfall was well-illustrated by an article published by Time magazine this month that shed light on the perplexing issue of why so many children – in the US but equally relevant to Australia – fail to learn to read.

According to the article, Inside the Massive Effort to Change the Way Kids are Taught to Read, some teachers have been shunning structured phonics-focused programs when teaching young children to read. Even though they work.

“We hated it,” said Kareem Weaver, a Californian teacher whose school district was high-performing for reading at the time.

“So, we fought tooth and nail as a teacher group to throw that out. Those who wanted to fight for social justice, they figured that (a) new progressive way of teaching reading was the way.”

Sadly, the impact was disastrous, especially for disadvantaged students, and Weaver and several colleagues are now petitioning to have systematic and consistent instruction in phonics reinstated.

Shifts towards more explicit teaching are challenging but worthwhile, as anyone familiar with the science of reading would know.

While public discussions around reading instruction are often unhelpfully reduced to phonics (are you for or against?), an extensive body of research has accumulated over the past 50 years from the disciplines of education, special education, psychology, and cognitive science, that explains how we learn to read, what skills are involved, and how reading is best taught.

Research indicates that we should be successfully teaching 95 per cent of children to read.

Yet, in reality, high rates of reading failure are common in Western, industrialised nations, including Australia. This is inexcusable.

According to the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment tests, 20 per cent of Australian 15-year-olds lack sufficient literacy skills to participate effectively in everyday life activities requiring reading and writing.

In large part, this reflects a failure to translate into practice, the knowledge derived from the scientific study of reading and reading instruction and, indeed, to the rejection in some circles, of the notion that there even is a science of reading.

Unfortunately, much of this resistance comes from the very places that are supposed to be ­bastions of critical thinking and scholarly inquiry – our universities. We now have an Australian curriculum that has returned phonics to its rightful place in the classroom and disendorsed the use of predictable readers and empirically-baseless approaches to helping children read unfamiliar words.

But a new curriculum does not slay the seemingly indestructible legacies of the whole language-balanced literacy philosophy that haunt the teaching of reading.

Apart from our own institution, La Trobe University, we see no indications that Australian education faculties intend to promote evidence-backed approaches that support optimal reading instruction for all.

Consider the common refrains from academics who eschew the use of explicit and systematic reading instruction to teach children the relationships between letters and sounds so they can successfully decode the words that they encounter. They say: “Of course we teach phonics. Phonics is in the mix. We teach a range of strategies.”

On face value, these may seem plausible. But dig deeper: what are these “strategies”, and do they have robust evidence behind them? In the case of “multi­cueing”, where children are encouraged to guess, predict, and otherwise “intuit” unfamiliar words using contextual or picture cues, not only is there no evidence to support its use but it runs ­counter to our best available evidence as it encourages novice readers to take their eyes away from the text, interfering with the critical process of connecting letter-sound correspondences into long-term memory.

It is this mapping process that underpins reading fluency and reading comprehension. It needs to be taught to novices, in the same way that the logic of musical notation needs to be explained to children learning to read music.

It is unfortunate that an issue as important as literacy has been diminished to a debate about phonics versus balanced literacy, and any attempts to embed the science of reading into initial teacher education is waved away with the glib dismissal, “back to basics”.

There is nothing basic about wanting a deep knowledge of linguistics and the English writing system to underpin what is taught via the literacy block across the primary school years.

English has the most complex alphabetic writing system in the world. Why would we leave its mastery by young children to chance?

We now have national guidelines, introduced in 2019, that require initial teacher education providers to ensure they teach evidence-based practice in early-reading instruction across the essential elements of phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and oral language. Will other institutions follow La Trobe University’s lead in making substantial changes to ensure this condition of course accreditation is met?

Consider this: universities, which receive significant taxpayer support, are in fact, withholding critical knowledge from pre-service teachers, the bulk of whom will go on to teach children in publicly funded schools, grossly underprepared to do so.

For the past two years, we have run short courses at La Trobe’s Science of Language and Reading Lab – one of the few offerings available helping schools to adopt well-established, scientific approaches to improve how they teach children to read – and the strongest single theme in feedback from the 6000 participants (almost all teachers) has been:

This is amazingly useful information that I can apply straight away. I am ashamed when I think of all the children whose reading instruction I failed and angry that I did not learn this at university.

As Ben Jensen and Mailie Ross argued in The Weekend Australian on August 12, student learning will not improve “unless you change what happens in classrooms”.

While there has long been a tendency to lump the education system with the additional task of fixing the ills of society – be it poverty and child neglect, drugs and alcohol misuse, mental health problems, bullying or sexual assault – there are simply some things that are outside a teacher’s control.

However, what takes place between 9am and 3.30pm on weekdays, the curriculum and resources that are used, teaching methods employed, is very much inside the control of schools and teachers with respect to reading, writing, and spelling instruction.

Universities (and by extension, schools) have a moral imperative to provide high-quality, evidence-based teaching instruction to ensure that all students, regardless of their circumstances at home, have the best possible chance of learning to read.

Fortunately, there is a revolution occurring from the ground up in schools across Australia, as educators keen to be effective evidence-informed professionals take matters into their own hands.

Dedicated Facebook groups and online communities, with names like Reading Science in Schools, Reading Teachers Australia, Think Forward Educators or Sharing Best Practice, have sprung up allowing the dissemination of knowledge to be distributed to thousands of teachers.

The so-called reading wars are over at an evidence level, but practice problems persist.

In the US, one of the commercial success stories of balanced litera­cy, Lucy Calkins, has rewritten her popular curriculum to include a fuller embrace of the science of reading in general, and explicit phonics teaching in particular.

Thirty American states have now introduced policies to ensure schools promote evidence-based literacy instruction, and many more are expected to follow.

Resisters in Australia have a choice: doggedly hold on to faded, non-evidence-based beliefs, or humbly step up and consider what happens to those 20 per cent of Australians who don’t develop proficient reading skills by the time they leave primary school.

If education is about social justice, high-quality reading instruction must have a front-row seat.

History will not judge kindly.

Pamela Snow and Tanya Serry are co-founders and directors of La Trobe University’s Science of Language and Reading Lab.

This article was first published in The Australian under the headline Our teachers’ knowledge crisis has to be addressed