Can't read in Australia? The article below echoes what we have been saying in I Can Read Centres for over a decade:

Australia ranks poorly in literacy when compared with other English-speaking nations. It's time to reform the way reading is taught in Australian schools, writes Deb Wilkinson.

Over the past two years debate about education policy has been dominated by reforms to school funding.

While important, these reforms have overshadowed systemic failures in reading instruction. Unless these failures are addressed, much of the increased funding now pledged by both major parties could be wasted.

In Australia today it is conservatively estimated that 20 per cent of Australian children are struggling with learning difficulties.

Some have a developmental learning disability like dyslexia; the rest are suffering from poor instruction. Reading academics call them 'instructional casualties'.

The Commonwealth Government has known of the systemic problems in reading instruction since the mid-2000s. In 2004, then Education Minister Brendan Nelson established a national inquiry into the teaching of reading at the behest of a group of reading academics.

The resulting report highlighted the importance of teaching phonological awareness  (the ability to understand, identify and manipulate the sounds of spoken words) and phonics (the relationship between a letter and its corresponding sound ) — as part of an integrated reading program that supports the development of oral language, vocabulary, reading fluency and comprehension.

It stated:  There is now a strong body of scientific evidence that children are greatly assisted in learning to become proficient readers if their reading tuition is grounded in direct, explicit and systematic phonics instruction.

Yet the inquiry found that most schools were not providing such instruction due to a lack of teacher training and the dominance of 'whole language' pedagogy.

In a typical Australian classroom, 'whole language'-dominant instruction involves exposure to a rich and meaningful oral and written language environment (which is necessary), a focus on comprehension and sight word recognition (also necessary), and, more recently, to what reading academics call analytical or implicit phonics.

Advocates of whole language say that this is the teaching of phonics 'in context’; from the top down.

They also say that this type of phonics can be taught explicitly and systematically but the reality is that in many classrooms it is not.

Lacking decoding skills, students are taught to guess at words using the first letter of a word or the pictures in a book and are expected to just 'get it' through constant exposure to oral and written language and some limited phonics instruction.

While some students do just get it others don't and they languish.

Sadly, the hope offered to struggling students through the Nelson inquiry did not come to fruition.

Two years after it was released in 2005, Max Coltheart and Margot Prior released a report for the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia which reported slow progress in the implementation of the inquiry’s recommendations.

The authors stated:
As far as we know … none of the Australian tertiary institutions which provide teacher training, nor any of the State Departments of Education except in Victoria, have yet acted in any way in response to the review and its recommendations. We know of no plans for the universities to improve the training of teachers in the science of reading, and in evidence-based methods for teaching reading and assisting children with difficulties in learning to read.

Six years on from this report, and again, not enough has changed.

While there are differences between jurisdictions and some progress has been made through Commonwealth and state and territory intervention, far too many schools have not yet integrated direct, explicit, systematic phonics instruction into their reading programs.

In some cases, the language of the policy documents has changed but the teaching in schools hasn't.

The situation in Australia contrasts with that of the United States and England where national reviews led to widespread changes in reading instruction. There is some evidence that these countries are now doing much better than Australia.

In the 2011 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) — which essentially examines reading comprehension amongst Grade 4 students — the United States came sixth out of 45 countries (in terms of mean scores) and England came eleventh.

By contrast, Australia, participating for the first time, came in at number 27 out of 45 countries, which was the lowest ranking out of all English-speaking nations.

The results for our weakest students were bleak. Australia had 17 per cent of students that met only the low benchmark and a further seven per cent that failed to meet even this minimum standard.

Irrespective of who wins the federal election, it is essential that the federal government, in collaboration with the states and territories and university teacher training providers, reforms the teaching of reading in Australian schools.

This should include that, by the end of the next term of government:
reading tuition in every primary school includes direct, explicit and systematic phonics instruction as part of an integrated reading program;
every primary teacher training degree includes a substantial component dedicated to training student teachers to provide such tuition;
all practising primary teachers are trained in the required teaching methods; and
all state and territory education departments are able to verify high quality reading instruction in every school.

By Deb Wilkinson
Posted Tue 3 Sep 2013, 3:02pm AEST. Deb Wilkinson is a writer and policy researcher. wilkinson-learning-to-read