What can we learn from the L3 debacle?

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From the outset, concerns were raised about a programme launched in New South Wales to teach early literacy known as “Language, Learning and Literacy” or simply “L3”.

In Winter 2015, Learning Difficulties Australia published a feature article in their magazine about the programme. According to this article:

“The L3 guidelines involve small group teaching within the whole classroom, with the classroom teacher focussing on groups of two or three children for short periods at a time in what is called the ‘engine room’, while the rest of the class are hopefully engaged in literacy-related self-directed activities.”

If we bear in mind that L3 covers the first year of schooling then these arrangements sound entirely impractical. Furthermore, L3 seems to be based upon dodgy ideas about reading instruction:

“The words, letters and sounds chosen for explicit lessons in Word Work are drawn from the language of the text. There is not a predetermined sequence to follow.”

So it is not a systematic approach then. Systematic approaches cycle students through grapheme (sets of letters) and phoneme (the sounds encoded by these letters) correspondences in a logical order rather than one dependent upon a particular text. In their groundbreaking 1999 review of the available research for the U.S. government, Catherine Snow and colleagues found that ’embedded phonics’ programmes of this kind were less effective than systematic ‘direct code’ programmes where texts were selected to practice the correspondences that had recently been learnt rather than the other way around.

L3 also seems to be teaching ‘multi-cuing’ strategies. These are where children are encouraged to guess words from context – such as the pictures in a picture book – rather than sound them out. In his 2005 review for the U.K. government, Jim Rose ended up devoting an entire appendix of the report to such strategies, highlighting that they do not represent the methods used by skill readers and are at odds with the science of reading. Teaching these strategies not only wastes time that could be spend on actual decoding but it also encourages students to rely on them, something that will work less and less effectively as text complexity increases.

It seems odd that a brand new programme in New South Wales would have such fundamental flaws.

You may have noticed that I have used the word ‘seems’ a great deal. This is because the actual L3 materials are shrouded in immense secrecy and so it is hard to make any definitive statements. So it was with interest that I recently found myself chatting to a few teachers with first-hand experience of L3. All had negative tales to tell. It was hard for them to get past the sheer classroom management madness of the ‘engine room’ approach in which most of the class are unproductively occupied for most of the L3 session. However, when they did talk about the theoretical basis, it was clear that this was not a scientifically sound phonics programme.

If you are a teacher in NSW who is starting to question L3 then I suggest completing some reading on scientifically-based literacy instruction. The Snow report above is a good place to start. The 2005 review of reading for the Australian government is also a good source.

L3 will undoubtedly collapse at some point and so NSW teachers might therefore decide to cut their losses sooner rather than later. If you are looking for an alternative to L3 then I can recommend the U.K. government’s Letters and Sounds programme. It is not perfect but it is based in better evidence and is free to use (the U.K. government obviously saw no reason to keep it secret). There are also a variety of strong commercial programmes available* and there are a number of people who are working on evidence-based alternatives to the kind of mixed methods approach typified by L3. So there are plenty of folks out there who can offer you a hand.

What this debacle proves is that state education ministers can proclaim a commitment to using evidence but unless they have control of their departments then such proclamations are empty.

*if you have a sound SSP programme to pitch then please feel free to do so in the comments


33 thoughts on “What can we learn from the L3 debacle?

  1. Little Learners Love Literacy is a very user friendly synthetic phonics program, the new InitialLit Kinder program was on display at the recent DSF Conference in Perth and looks great (I was in a school previously that adapted MiniLit to larger group sizes and taught to whole class as there was no InitialLit option a few years ago), Sounds Write is another Synthetic Phonics Program I’d like to train in, I work with a few schools who speak very highly of Jolly Phonics & there are some lovely resources to support Letters & Sounds available from Smart Kids.

  2. Hi Greg, Thank you for yet another excellent and important post, but also thanks for suggesting that people are welcome ‘to pitch’ specific systematic synthetic phonics programmes.

    Here is a list of programmes – ‘synthetic’ and ‘linguistic’ – that are well worth people investigating (I am the author of Phonics International and the phonics consultant for the Oxford Reading Tree Floppy’s Phonics Sounds and Letters programme – but I am very happy to recommend all content-rich phonics programmes). These programmes include those that were scrutinised and passed muster by the Department for Education in England for the match-funded phonics initiative:


    More recently, I’ve developed a series of hard copy pick-up-and-go material for the No Nonsense Phonics Skills programme published by Raintree which can be reviewed here:


    Here in England, it is notable that Letters and Sounds has been translated/equipped in different ways in different schools and even in different classes. I would suggest that Letters and Sounds is more akin to a detailed framework than a fully-resourced programme. Some schools do very well stating that their programme ‘is’ Letters and Sounds – but other schools continue to struggle and yet they don’t know why this is the case as they consider that they are ‘doing’ Letters and Sounds and working very hard. I think this is worth noting for your Australian context. The English alphabetic code is very complex and a variety of fun games and activities will not cut it for some of the slower-to-learn children. Further, teachers need to address the needs of quicker learners but with the same letter/s-sound correspondence or it all gets very complicated. Letters and Sounds mentions ’20 minutes of phonics’ per day but this is not enough to complete a content-rich teaching and learning cycle to include the recommended elements of phonics provision – that is ‘revisit and review’, ‘teacher-led introduce the new or focus correspondence’, ‘pupils practise and apply – and extend to texts’. I have tried to exemplify the differences in phonics provision that I have observed first hand in a graphic here:

    The Simple View of Schools’ Phonics Provision:

    Click to access Simple%20View%20of%20Schools.pdf

    I hope this is helpful to at least some folk.

    Best wishes,


  3. While I agree with much of what you say (on most things!), Greg, I can’t agree at all with your recommendation of L&S.
    When L&S first came out in England, many schools which had been trained in Sounds-Write and were getting results that had been previously unheard of, were ‘persuaded’ by the literacy advisers working for Wigan LEA that L&S was the absolute greatest thing since sliced bread – and, of course, it was free. Many heads decided to believe the hype and to switch. Recently, I went in to one of those schools and talked with the head who was one of those who had previously got such great results with Sounds-Write and from which school we got such impressive data. Since the switch to L&S, the school’s performance in both reading and spelling has slowly bombed.
    The deterioration was slow at first, partly because S-W-trained teachers knew exactly how to teach high quality phonics, even when using L&S, and so could mitigate the very serious flaws in the programme. However, many of these teachers moved on over the years and, when I visited the school last year (at the head’s request, btw), the performance had fallen through the floor.
    I showed the head the school’s results, year by year from 2006-2009, and asked her why on earth she’d decided to go with L&S. All she could say, somewhat sheepishly, was that she’d been told that L&S was the latest thing, etc, etc. Unfortunately, heads who themselves have never taught early years are often at the mercy of the way in which dubious educational programmes are pitched.
    While some teachers will claim and with some justification, that L&S is superior to what came before – the Literacy Strategy, a dog’s breakfast of guessing, multi-cueing and whole word memorisation – it is vastly inferior to a number of very high quality alternatives. L&S has, by the way, now been archived by the DfE in England.
    What I would ask is – and I’m sure you’d be the first to agree – where’s the evidence for the success of L&S? Let’s see the results, particularly on spelling tests, which I strongly believe are a much more robust test of a child’s basic literacy. I ask as many schools as I can to give us results on spelling at the end of each year, which are in addition to tests of reading, SATs and the Phonics Screening Check.
    Here’s an example from St George’s C of E school in Wandsworth, where they do Sounds-Write with great fidelity: At the end of Y1, children are, on average 6 years and 4 months old. On Dennis Young’s Parallel Spelling Test, every single child scored above chronological age. The lowest score was five months ahead of CA. Twenty-two children scored more than fifteen months ahead of CA, Ten children scored above thirty months ahead of CA. And two children hit the ceiling (11 years) on the test. Moreover, every single child passed the Phonics Screening Check. This is a school in the most deprived area of south London, where many children do not speak English at home. If L&S can beat that, I’ll retire.
    Best wishes,

    • Michael pye says:

      How do you rule out implementation and the effect of highly trained staff from your conclusions? You said yourself experienced staff had left the first school? I am a maths teacher of 16-18 year old SEN and unfortunately fairly clueless about SSP but your argument seems biased.

      • Well, Michael, there’s no simple answer to your question but we did have the luxury of having an educational psychologist who was also trained as a mathematician and he collected all the data from the schools we had trained to use Sounds-Write. This wasn’t just one school, by the way. As you rightly imply, there is always likely to be a problem with implementation: as Jeanne Chall once claimed, in any cohort of people being trained in something, 25% will attempt to implement the new approach with a high degree of fidelity; 50% will implement it with some degree of fidelity but will also incorporate some practices that they ‘liked’/used formerly and which run counter to what the new programme is setting out; while 25% will implement the programme very poorly or fail to use it at all.
        Having said that, we collected a huge amount of data on children in YR, Y1 and Y2 and we followed through to be able to collect data on 1607 children who had been taught the programme all the way through Key Stage 1. You can view the results here: http://www.sounds-write.co.uk/sites/soundswrite/uploads/files/43-soundswrite_report_on_data_collection_2008.pdf
        What I would love to see is an independent RCT of the sort advocated by Greg: S-W v A.N.Other phonics prog v Control.
        We have trained 15,000 teachers and TAs mainly in UK, though increasing numbers are now being trained in (mainly) Western Australia. I’m hoping we’ll soon be getting data from schools in WAus that are implementing the programme whole class.

  4. Glenys Trouncer says:

    Best way is to invite MSL Educators into the classroom to do the literacy😊 Many of us are classroom teachers. We ache for the 20% of students in each classroom who struggle with literacy. We want to help during school hours not just after school (when students are not at their best for learning)! We are skilled but not wanted in the schools.

    • Lena Dargan says:

      Yes!! Please research Multisensory Language Education. This is a direct explicit approach to Literacy which is based on scientific research and evidence. It should be in all schools – it’s not only the 20% of struggling readers who will benefit – everyone will gain from this approach. Unfortunately, the only people who seem to be training in this approach are concerned parents and professionals and then these people struggle to get school’s on board. I am a teacher who will now be following the path of a private tutor as this is the only way I can teach MSL – it breaks my heart that those that can’t afford it miss out.

  5. Can I just add that this seems to me to be a symptom of a larger problem. I struggle with the way educational programmes are sold under license and for profit. I mean, I get that these things will cost money to develop but it leads to these programmes that are sold as complete programmes to be run as is. Because of the large investments they also become unassailable as we feel the pressure to make it work. It stops us as educators from being able to pick and choose (either from top down systemic pressure OR because we’ve personally invested time and money leading to our biases).
    I get that for many companies education is a business but does it help as a whole? You see it everywhere – Spaulding, Visibile Learning, etc. None of these are completely awful and some are even great at points BUT we tend to fall into tribes that become exclusive and we lose the ability to be selective and critical. This is something that all ed subgroups fall prey to – PBL, flipped learning, maker spaces, hard line traditionalists, everyone.
    Great post Greg
    Do you mind if we discuss this post (excellent btw) on our podcast Teachers Talking Teaching? Obviously we’ll reference and direct people here.

    • Your point is spot on about licensing these programmes. I’d much prefer to see free and open source learning programmes that are contributed to by the public (i.e. researchers and educators)
      This type of licensing has been revolutionary in software, such as with the many distributions of the Linux kernel. It would still allow developers and contributors to make plenty of money by directly supporting schools.
      Some benefits are that these learning programmes would be transparent, testable, regularly improved, open to forking (development of independent versions) and available to everyone.

  6. Margaret says:

    Thanks for this article. As the parent of a child in year 3 in NSW who is struggling to read I have felt the the seemly ad hoc nature of how she was being taught was contributing to her struggle. Our school introduced words their way at the start of this year and I am watching my child improve in leaps and bounds

  7. Highly-trained staff (in a particular programme and/or with generic subject knowledge and skills) leaving a school is definitely problematic – but this is where the notion of the programme belonging to ‘the school’ can be important so that there is strong implementation across the school to support incoming staff. Or where a programme is no longer a novel initiative, staff may take too many liberties rather than using it advisedly in their delivery and circumstances.

    This is yet another reason, however, why the uptake of a national phonics check can be very helpful. I have been invited back to very big schools where it can be noted that staff in parallel classes don’t use or implement a specific programme equally well as indicated by the phonics check results (along with the knowledge that the particular staff member really isn’t on board with the programme). It could be that a new member of staff comes to the school and has not had the help to know about the programme and the most effective delivery, it could be that a member of staff just doesn’t like the programme so chooses not to use it or pays lip service to using it, it could be that the programme isn’t really good enough but initially a very capable teacher embellished it to make it appear better than it is – and so on.

    Further, there are circumstances where uptake of a new programme achieved great results for all the children – but then less so over time. Why is this? Such a circumstance warrants an investigation. Thus, the year one phonics check can be an indication of weaker teaching, washout of using the programme, or a weak programme in the first place that was perhaps delivered initially with huge enthusiasm and perhaps lots of embellishments to supplement. There are many different scenarios.

    Here are some comments about implementation of a phonics programme and the kind of features to think about:


    I think when it comes to foundational literacy, we know plenty about the type of features needed in a programme, or in-house body of work, and the issue of ‘commerciality’ really should not be an issue. What works best and what supports teaching and learning are the most important factors. Also, teachers should arguably be knowledgeable and trained enough to be able to evaluate and compare different programmes and practices. Of course, we are not there yet considering that even the teacher-trainers differ in their ‘knowledge and understanding’ and so continue to give mixed messages to teachers.

    This issue of teachers getting mixed messages/guidance is a big one, though, brought up in Australia during the recent CIS event where Nick Gibb was invited to speak – which brings us back to Greg’s post about the L3 guidance! I heard from a number of teachers from Australia when I wrote this post:


    Best wishes,


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  16. In response to your invitation to pitch a course, here’s my offering:
    It’s my free, online Udemy course ‘How to help your child to read and write’. It’s aimed at parents and carers who want to put their child on the first steps to literacy.
    The course contains a rationale for how I believe reading and writing should be taught from the start, guidance on how to teach it and how to correct the kinds of common errors children make, as well as all the materials needed to teach it.
    I also believe that the course is based on the basic principles of direct instruction.
    Parents and carers can find the course at:

  17. Jacky Stehr says:

    As a Reading Recovery and L3 trained teacher with over 20 years experience all I can say is that you are a moron. This pedagogy works! All of my students achieve on this program and its uneducated twits that misinform our community about what our hard working public school teachers are doing.

    • Kirsten says:

      Hi Jacky, a fellow ‘hard working public school teacher’ here (high school, Visual Arts).

      I saw first hand how RR operates when I viewed the (passionate, patient, dedicated, hardworking) RR teacher at his public primary school attempt to remediate my (dyslexic) son. During the sessions he was so good at ‘guessing from context’ as he was encouraged to do that she pronounced he ‘didn’t have a problem’ and sent him back to mainstream class. In hindsight, she did us a favour.

      Almost all students should make some gains with one-on-one tuition 5x a week. However, research shows that with RR these gains are often short-lived, as they are not systematically and explicitly taught to ‘decode’ text. With good, well-taught SSP programs, gains for low-progress readers are shown to continue long after the SSP program has ceased.

      The fact that my son had extreme trouble ‘sounding out’ so many words seemed completely lost on his lovely RR teacher. I’m sure she could have written your post word-for-word. She has retired now, and to be honest I’m not sure I would want her to know how wrong she was – to think she’s spent 30 years teaching a flawed and essentially ineffective reading remediation method would be incredibly confronting. Although potentially, cognitive dissonance might prevent her from accessing this important truth anyway.

      Going forward, I have some faith that Australian education is at an important turning point. Teaching kids to guess from pictures and context is *not* teaching them to decode text. Kids who can’t decode, can’t sound out words, and can’t read. (Decoding text is, of course, necessary but not sufficient in and of itself. No one is arguing otherwise).

      Most kids who learn to read relatively easily in today’s teaching climate do show in spite of, not because of, our instruction.

      My son is doing well and making excellent progress. I have attended SPELD training sessions in programs such as Sounds-Write and Cracking the ABC Code, and teach him after school 5 days/week. Unfortunately, I have no idea where he would be now if I left his (lovely, well-meaning, hard-working) teachers to teach him to be *actually* literate.

  18. Ian Penrose says:

    From reading this article, it seems to me that many teachers are searching for THE programme to tell them how to teach literacy. I have taught in schools in NSW and abroad and often hear the same cry “What programme or scheme does this school follow?” As an educator with 25 years experience and having taught all grades K-6, I can tell you that there is no one programme that will tell you how to teach literacy effectively. As I am sure everyone would agree, an effective literacy programme, indeed any effective literacy programme first assesses where students are when they come in and what is needed to move them to the next stage or stages. In my experience, this means multiple initial assessments to create a clear picture of the student, then tailoring a programme according to the student needs. I can’t comment on the L3 as I have not been trained in that area yet, but as a trained Reading Recovery teacher, I can vouch for the programme that allows students to make personalised, relevant and powerful connections to their current knowledge. As an experienced PYP teacher, I can also vouch for the importance of the constructivist approach in learning and as such, no one programme, regardless of the hype its authors create, can ever really match an effective, balanced, personalised literacy teaching and learning strategy. Just a thought.

  19. Chris says:

    Hi Greg,

    Just came across your article. I’m a Kindy teacher who just started L3 training this year. Interesting reading your article because at my previous school we had just started to implement a synthetic (and systematic) phonics programme and decodable readers (Decodable Readers Australia). Firstly, my L3 experience has been positive. I feel more confident as a teacher of early literacy and, I believe, have a greater understanding of what’s required for students to become effective/efficient readers and writers. My students have also made good gains. I believe you’re right in saying students need systematic teaching of phonics but I’d like to expand on this and a few more ideas.

    L3 is not a systematic phonics programme. It is also not the entire phonics programme in the classroom. The ‘phonics’ aspect in L3 that you referred to, Word Work, has a specific purpose – that is to discover how words ‘work’. The intention is to help students realise that they can think about letters and letter clusters flexibly to efficiently solve new words. For example, substituting phonemes/graphemes to make new words (e.g. in – it – if), using a known word or ‘part/chunk’ to solve new words (e.g. cat to solve h-at, f-at, m-at) or making generalisations about suffixes (e.g. ing – looking, fishing, running). Something to keep in mind is that the larger the cluster of letters, the more consistent the sounds. Think for example how inconsistent ‘o’ is in the words ‘some, hot, mouse, bought’. However, take the chunk ‘ought’ and you have something more consistent (and usable) e.g. bought, sought, thought, fought. I explicitly teach phonics systematically in my classroom, however, this does not fall under L3 as such.

    I understand your concerns about students using multiple cuing systems. I certainly wouldn’t want to see a student in Year 3 making guesses based on meaning and structure cues while ignoring the visual information (i.e. the letters) on the page. However, I believe good readers use all of these cuing systems simultaneously, flexibly strategically when making meaning of texts. This is what we call ‘processing’ – the ability to draw on Meaning, Structure and Visual cues efficiently. As much as we’d like to believe otherwise, early readers just don’t use visual information that much. Instead, they mostly rely on Structure (i.e. grammar) or the language patterns they possess in their oral language. As teachers, we perhaps focus on phonics because it’s easier in a way to teach. The letters are right there on the page while meaning and structure are in the student’s head. Think of the sentence starter “I am…” – what words could come next? This is a common sentence starter we see in level 1 books. Students rarely make mistakes like “I am in dog” without stopping. Their oral language experience tells them that it does not ‘sound’ right. However, cross-checking both structural and meaning cues (i.e. picture of a child dressed as a dog) the student reads “I am a dog” correctly. When students move off level 2 readers it is because they have 1-1 correspondence and can return sweep. Once on level 3, they are required to start to pay more attention to the visual information on the page i.e. use letter clues to confirm or reject what they have just read. As they progress through reading levels, students obviously need to pay more attention to visual information and require more phonic knowledge.

    I am concerned that we sometimes emphasise phonics too much. It is absolutely vital I agree, however, robust phonics knowledge alone does not make for a good reader who creates and infers meaning from texts. To make my point, try reading the following passage:

    “It causes damage to the dendrites, the branched out antennas of the neurons that receive inputs. It dilates the channels in the brain structures that carry calcium. This promotes excessive flow of calcium in the brain. The increased calcium in these channels causes a surge in activity. In some inexplicable way, this charging up causes damage to the receiving ends of neurons, disrupting normal brain functions.”

    Unless you are a doctor who has sufficient background knowledge (Meaning), you probably wouldn’t have guessed that it is about how alcohol might effect the brain. On the other hand, you can probably read and understand:

    “A vheclie epxledod at a plocie cehckipont near the UN haduqertares in Bagahdd on Mnoday kilinlg the bmober and an Irqai polcie offceir”.

    This is because you have used Meaning, Structure and Visual cues efficiently. If we focus too heavily on phonics, we risk creating readers who ‘recode’ letters into sounds efficiently while ignoring the fundamental goal (and reward) of reading – to make meaning of what they read.

    I also understand your hesitations about the majority of students being left to their own devices while the teacher sits at the ‘engine room’ conferencing with a small group. At the start of the year, I had my own reservations about this arrangement. And to be clear, different L3 teachers have different setups e.g. students rotate through assigned activities or ‘free-roam’. Reflecting on the quote you have used on your blog reminded me that it is our job as teachers to foster engaged and independent lifelong learners (pretty tricky really). In truth, this arrangement was very messy at the start of the year but whose Kindy class isn’t! It’s tricky to let go sometimes and give students more independence. I believe my students are engaged though. I know them well enough to set tasks that will promote and consolidate learning. During this independent learning time, my students have 2 simple rules: they are learning or teaching. This means they are engaged in a task themselves learning or they are helping their friends by taking on the role of the ‘teacher’. Also, at this point in the year only 45-60 mins are spent on this aspect of L3 each day. There is plenty of whole class explicit and guided teaching and learning going on.

    L3 training has been a steep learning curve for me. I’m still learning everyday which is exciting. Reflecting back on my first year of teaching (on kindergarten) I can say I didn’t know what I was doing. Or more accurately, I only knew a fraction of what I should be doing. My teaching and prompting during guided reading only related to phonics. By the time I’d gotten a student laboriously through a word the story had been lost. I ‘knew’ students used Meaning and Structure too but I don’t think I really believed it to my core. I believe L3 is grounded in good research. Hopefully I’ve given a little bit of insight into what L3 is all about 🙂

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