Dr. Louise Mercer presents Fay Tran (right) with the 2011 Bruce Wicking Award for her contribution to the field of children’s learning difficulties
Last month, Fay Tran, author of Teaching Kids to read: basic skills for Australian and NZ parents and teachers, gave a passionate speech outlining the failure of Australian schools to teach basic literacy. Here’s an edited version of that speech, delivered on the occasion of her receiving Learning Difficulties Australia’s 2011 Bruce Wicking Award in recognition of Fay’s contribution to the field of children’s learning difficulties.
BEFORE THE mid-1980s, reading was taught by a balanced combination of phonics and whole word methods … This was before the age of computers and interactive white boards, so teachers used flashcards and the blackboard to teach decoding skills and build fluency and comprehension. For reading lessons the class was usually divided into three groups, so that children were taught at their individual level. The teacher also aimed to hear every child read from their graded reader every day.
And then Whole Language arrived, like a new religion that everyone had to follow … From 1985, all student teachers were taught the Whole Language method exclusively for teaching literacy, and all education lecturers were expected to be committed to the method.
I simply do not understand why every primary school cannot teach every child to read and spell to a functional level in the seven years of attendance.
Initially called ‘The Psycholinguistic Approach’, Whole Language is based on the belief that children can learn literacy skills the same way that they learn language, through plenty of exposure to, and interaction with text. Teachers are expected to work as facilitators rather than instructors and direct instruction of phonics and decoding skills is banned, as are controlled vocabulary readers. Children are encouraged to guess words from context, rather than use phonics skills to decode them, correction of errors is minimal and predictive text readers with supportive illustrations are used to make the guessing easier.
'Teaching Kids to Read' has made an immediate impact in the nation's classrooms
At the time I was fortunate to be working as a learning support teacher in a school that bucked the trend and continued to teach phonics for both reading and spelling. Knowing that children really needed direct instruction of phonics to develop reading skills, I thought reason would soon prevail and there would be a general return to the proven method, but here we are, more than 20 years later and the return to sanity has only just begun. For all of that time only half of my work involved the support of children at risk of reading or spelling failure because of learning difficulties. The other half was rescuing children who came from other schools with already established reading failure.
Only half of my work involved the support of children at risk of reading or spelling failure because of learning difficulties. The other half was rescuing children who came from other schools with already established reading failure.
Without exception, regardless of underlying learning difficulties, these children responded to direct instruction and practice in phonics skills and spelling rules, starting right from the basic level. Reminding a child to sound out a new word rather than guess from context is a very simple way of making a huge difference to the development of their reading and spelling. While it was very rewarding to put these children back on track and know that their futures would no longer be limited by illiteracy, I became increasingly concerned that what was happening at our school was quite unusual and that thousands of children across the country were being deprived of the opportunity to develop literacy skills.
I know I was not alone in these concerns. I attended almost every SPELD and AREA or LDA conference in Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane and every one reinforced my beliefs that the way I was teaching was the most effective and efficient way to ensure every child developed essential literacy skills, but somehow outside these organisations, a few schools and some private tutors, the rest of the world stayed in denial.
Let’s not beat about the bush here. Functional literacy is absolutely essential in today’s society and without it, people are at serious risk of a dismal future. If you don’t believe me, ask a social worker.
The problem is that children who don’t develop efficient literacy skills at school are not just disadvantaged but are seriously traumatized and often damaged for life, and this starts very early on. Let’s not beat about the bush here. Functional literacy is absolutely essential in today’s society and without it, people are at serious risk of a dismal future. If you don’t believe me, ask a social worker. Continue reading