University education departments need to do better at teaching reading instruction

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We all know the interests and enthusiasms of the education departments of Australian universities. If in any doubt, take a look at the programme for upcoming AARE conference and you will find lots to do with the politics of identity, gender and equity and relatively little on reading*. All these issue are important, of course, but our education system is not really designed to effectively address them. Reading, on the other hand, is at the core of education and so we might hope for a little more interest. Yet in our schools of education, reading has largely morphed into ‘literacy’, a word that acts as a vessel to contain pretty much anything you like.

If someone criticises this focus, they are likely to be told that they don’t know anything about what happens in early reading classrooms. They are likely to be asked for evidence that reading is not being adequately taught.

It would be hard to survey enough Australian classrooms to generate evidence of this kind and that’s one of the reasons why I favour a phonics check like the one that exists in England. Even without reporting individual school result, which I think would be unnecessary, the broad figures would tell us something about the state of systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) teaching.

Until such a check takes place, it is worth looking at some proxies. One of these is the knowledge teachers possess around reading instruction. If a teacher knows the difference between a grapheme and a morpheme then that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are teaching SSP and teaching it well. However, if they don’t know the difference between a grapheme and a morpheme then it doesn’t seem plausible that they could be teaching SSP at all.

A new paper seeks to answer this and other questions by surveying the confidence and knowledge of final year education students at a range of Australian universities. It makes for pretty grim reading. Students highly rated their ability to teach reading while also displaying huge gaps in the required knowledge.

“As a group, preservice teachers demonstrated a substantial discrepancy between their general confidence to teach early reading and spelling, and their content knowledge of this area, leading to the conclusion that few preservice teachers had sufficient expertise to be effective teachers of early reading and spelling”

Despite a low return rate for the surveys, these findings are in line with previous, less ambitious studies (e.g. here).

I think it is reaching the point where universities need to start offering some proof of efficacy. For too long they have been relying on an absence of direct evidence in this area as evidence that they are doing a good job.

*The small number of references to reading are interesting. One session on the ‘simple view of reading’ looks quite good but a different session seems to be anti-phonics. There is also the launch of an anti-SSP book that was taken apart by Alison Clarke here.

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13 thoughts on “University education departments need to do better at teaching reading instruction

  1. Thanks Greg – as usual you hit the nail on the head. I talk to literally thousands of teachers each year about teaching phonics and yes, many do not know the difference between a letter and a sound. I’d say the percentage who don’t know this is around 95%!! Many experienced teachers say to me “Why didn’t someone tell me this before?” and leave feeling mortified that they have been teaching for so long without this knowledge. I’m continually baffled by it – although I have experienced it as well, not knowing anything about SSP myself when I started teaching in Junior Primary. Thanks for your efforts to redress this – on behalf of both the teachers and students!

  2. Hi Greg,
    Earlier this year I decided to do some investigating of what universities are offering our future teachers and discovered that ‘Developing Early Literacy’ by Susan Hill is a prescribed text for Melbourne University students studying primary teaching..

    I managed to borrow a copy and as I delved through the pages, I found myself getting increasingly angry and astounded by the fact that this is what they are feeding our new teachers…

    There is lip service paid to the National Inquiries into the teaching of literacy and the role of synthetic phonics. There is no reference to the neurological advances in discovering how the brain learns to read or the latest evidence-based research and there is no mention of how to cater for children with reading difficulties such as dyslexia.

    But far worse is that it churns out the Marie Clay idea of teaching reading-“the reading process does not involve reading every single letter” which not only makes no sense but is detrimental to many children.
    What is going on???

    If this outdated, unsubstantiated harmful information was in a medical context surely there would be a great uproar?

    It’s no wonder we have so many bewildered and frustrated teachers and so many children functionally illiterate…

    Yes, as you say, this is very damning for universities and it’s high time they were called to account.

    1. This was the prescribed text when I was at Monash from 2014-15. I remember reading it and thinking that it all seemed reasonable, as a uni student why would you think differently? Universities have a lot to answer for.

  3. Whatever Happened To Chris Nugent’s Report?

    I have heard of this book: Planned illiteracy in Australia? by Chris Nugent. I can’t seem to ever find it or buy it. I would like to know how to get more information about his findings.

    Is his book similar to other books I’ve seen that talk about programmed illiteracy or sponsored reading failure? If so, then someone should write about the “conspiracy” to silence these brave souls who dare try to expose deliberate plans to prevent good teaching of reading via the phonics method.

    Take care, Greg!

  4. About Jeanne Chall

    Good, brave Greg — opening up this old, sore wound that needs serious attention.

    Here is an anecdote about Jeanne Chall:

    In the forward to the paperback edition of Chall’s book, “The Academic Achievement Challenge” (2002) the foreword by Marilyn Jager Adams has this to say:

    “ . . . reviewing the research on phonics, Chall told me that if I wrote the truth, I would lose old friends and make new enemies. She warned me that I would never again be fully accepted by my academic colleagues . . . Sadly, however, as the evidence in favor of systematic, explicit phonics instruction for beginners increased, so too did the vehemence and nastiness of the backlash. The goal became one of discrediting not just the research, but the integrity and character of those who had conducted it. Chall was treated most shabbily . . . “

  5. You would also have to ask why the participation of the universities was so low – perhaps only students from unis that thought they were doing OK in preparing students to teach reading were prepared to circulate the survey?

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