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Too many Australian kids can’t read properly — here’s what we need to do about it.

Around a million Australian children are at risk of reading failure. That’s roughly one in four students in our schools.

Concerned your child might be — or become — one of them? Rest assured, it’s not because there’s something wrong with the children. The number of children who have an actual learning disability that makes reading very difficult account for only about 20% of the million children with low reading ability.

Nor is the poor reading standard due to a lack of funding. Billions of dollars have been spent over the past decade trying — and failing — to improve literacy levels.

So what is the problem? Largely, it’s that children can’t read properly simply because they have not been taught properly.

Forty years’ worth of solid scientific research has shown that some ways of teaching reading are better than others. It would make sense for schools to use the teaching methods that are most likely to be effective for the greatest number of children — but this is not always happening.

Teaching degrees don’t always equip teachers with the most effective methods for teaching reading. A survey by the Australian Primary Principals Association found that 54% of new primary school teachers could not teaching reading to a reasonable level.

Little boy reading
Largely, it’s that children can’t read properly simply because they have not been taught properly. (Image via iStock)
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We all learn to read in basically the same way

Some ‘literacy experts’ claim that every child learns differently and needs a different teaching style. Of course, every child is different. But not every child’s brain is different. And there is no such thing as ‘learning styles’.

Neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene explains that we all learn to read in basically the same way— by stimulating and developing connections in the relevant parts of the brain. The most effective teaching methods are those that form those connections early and strongly.

Just as we expect surgeons to use the techniques that are proven to have the highest success rates, we should expect teachers to use teaching methods that have the highest success rates.

What is the most effective way to teach reading?

Reviews of studies of reading have found that children need strong skills in five key aspects of literacy to be good readers. They are:

  • Phonemic awareness: the ability to hear and say the individual sounds in words
  • Phonics: knowledge of the relationship between sounds and letters; the ability to ‘sound out’ words
  • Fluency: reading aloud quickly and expressively
  • Vocabulary: knowledge of the meanings of words
  • Comprehension: understanding the meaning of what is being read.

Research also found the best way to teach these skills is using a method called ‘explicit’ teaching. In this method, children are taught in a clear and systematic way. They are taught all the sounds in English spoken language and all the letters and letter combinations used to make words in written language. Nothing is left to chance. It is never assumed that children will work out the rules of reading and ‘crack the code’ just by looking at books and being read to.

Parents are their child’s first teacher

Parents should not be expected to teach their children to read. Learning to read is a complex process for most children, requiring specialist teaching.

But we can and should get our children ready to learn before they begin school. And we can and should encourage their reading at home when they start school, and seek extra help if our child is not making progress.

There are three things parents can do to help children with literacy.

  • Talk to them!

Conversation with adults develops speech and vocabulary. Answer your child’s questions and ask them some questions back. Speak clearly and encourage them to. It’s exhausting but hugely beneficial.

  • Read with them!

Reading books with children introduces them to words and language that they don’t encounter in day-to-day conversation. Talk about the words in the books, the letters of the alphabet, and how books ‘work’. Nursery rhymes are especially good.

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  • Tell them things!
A young mother reading to her children while relaxing at home
Read with them. (Image via iStock)

General knowledge is essential for comprehension. Once children know how to sound out the words they are reading, they need to have an understanding of the world they are reading about.

Literacy affects almost every aspect of life — achievement at school, physical and mental health, employment, income and general quality of life. The tragedy of low literacy is avoidable. Every child can be a reader.

Dr Jennifer Buckingham is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies, which has just launched the FIVEfromFIVE project to have all Australian children taught to read properly. (www.fivefromfive.org.au). She is the editor of the research report Read About It: Scientific evidence on effective teaching of reading published this week. A short video outlining the literacy problems in Australia can be found at https://vimeo.com/133404949

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