Reading is more than sounding out words and decoding. That’s why we use the whole language approach to teaching it



Words can say different things depending on their context.
Annie Spratt/Unsplash

Katina Zammit, Western Sydney University

When I was younger I decided to learn Greek. I learnt the letter-sound correspondences and could say the words – the sounds, that is. But although I could and still can decode these words, I can’t actually read Greek because I don’t know what the words mean.

Being able to make the connection between the letters, their combinations and the sounds that make up the words wasn’t all I needed to be able to read. It was an easy way to learn but it didn’t provide me with the whole picture.

As we read, and understand what we are reading, we don’t just use our knowledge of the letter-sound correspondences, which you may know as phonics or phonemic awareness, we also use other cues. These include our knowledge of the topic, the meaning of words in the context of the topic, and the flow and sequence of the words in a sentence.

Good readers use a full repertoire of skills, each dependent on the other. And a whole language approach to teaching reading is about arming new readers with this repertoire.

What is the whole language approach?

A whole language approach to teaching reading was introduced into primary schools in the late 1970s. There have been many developments in this area since, so the approach has been adapted and today looks quite different from 40 years ago.

To begin with, let’s dispel some myths about a whole language approach to teaching reading. It is not learning to read individual words by sight. Nor is it learning a list of vocabulary only.

A whole language approach to teaching reading is not opposed to teaching the correspondence of a letter or letters to sounds to help sound out unfamiliar words. Nor is it opposed to learning how to blend sounds together to decode a word by using the first letter/s of a word, the end of the word and the letter/s in the middle.




Read more:
Reading progress is falling between year 5 and 7, especially for advantaged students: 5 charts


But just knowing sounds is not the same as knowing how to read. In 2000, the US National Reading Panel’s analysis of scientific literature on teaching children to read found systematic phonics instruction (teaching sounds and blending them together) should be integrated with other reading instruction to create a balanced reading program.

The panel determined that phonics instruction should not be a total reading program, nor should it be a dominant component.

It’s all Greek to me if I don’t know what the words mean.
from shutterstock.com

In 2011, the UK introduced a mandatory phonics screening check, for year 1 students, to address the decline in literacy achievement in the middle years of school. Children were prepared for the test using a government-approved synthetic phonics program. But in 2019 around 25% of year 6 students failed to reach the minimum requirements in reading.




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The Coalition’s $10 million for Year 1 phonics checks would be wasted money


Australia’s own national inquiry into teaching literacy noted the same conclusions as the US national reading panel.

This view aligns with the whole language approach in the 21st century, which advocates a balanced way of teaching reading in the early years. This includes:

  • explicit teaching of decoding skills (how to break up a word to work out how it is pronounced)
  • connecting the decoding of word/s to their meaning
  • learning to read frequently used words that can’t be sounded out or broken up into different sounds (the, were)
  • learning the meaning of new words from the context they are in (looking at the words before and after and at what the sentence is about)
  • understanding what the text being read is about (literally and interpretively)
  • building a wide vocabulary
  • understanding how images and words work together
  • promoting a love of the English language and an interest in reading.

Let’s not put kids off reading

The whole language approach provides children learning to read with more than one way to work out unfamiliar words. They can begin with decoding – breaking the word into its parts and trying to sound them out and then blend them together. This may or may not work.

They can also look at where the word is in the sentence and consider what word most likely would come next based on what they have read so far. They can look beyond the word to see if the rest of the sentence can assist to decode the word and pronounce it.

We do not read texts one word at a time. We make best guesses as we read and learn to read. We learn from our errors. Sometimes these errors are not that significant – does it matter if I read Sydenham as “SID-EN-HAM” or “SID-N-AM”? Perhaps not.

Does it matter that I can decode the word “wind” but don’t pronounce the two differently in “the wind was too strong to wind the sail”? Yes, it probably does.

Teaching children to read or to see reading with a focus on phonics and phonemic awareness gives them the illusion “proper” reading is mere decoding and blending. In fact, it has been argued this can put children off reading when entering school. While some gain may occur in the first years, over time achievement deteriorates for children in high-performing and low-performing schools.




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Enjoyment of reading, not mechanics of reading, can improve literacy for boys


A whole language approach doesn’t argue against the importance of phonemic awareness. But it acknowledges it is not all that should be included in reading instruction.

It is important to assess children’s reading from the beginning of schooling and continually determine how they are progressing. Teachers can then select specific strategies to improve individual children’s reading competence and increase their skills to build fluent and confident readers.

A whole language approach to teaching reading advocates for teaching phonics and phonemic awareness in the context of real texts – that use the richness of the English language – not artificial, highly constructed texts. However, it also acknowledges this is not sufficient. Being able to decode the written word is essential, but it isn’t enough to set up a child to be a competent reader and to be successful during and after school.


Read the accompanying article on teaching to read using explicit phonics instruction here.The Conversation

Katina Zammit, Deputy Dean, School of Education, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Reading progress is falling between year 5 and 7, especially for advantaged students: 5 charts



Are we failing to challenge the reading
skills in advantaged students?
from shutterstock.com

Peter Goss, Grattan Institute

There is a hidden problem with reading in Australian schools. Ten years’ worth of NAPLAN data show improvements in years 3, 5 and 9. But reading progress has slowed dramatically between years 5 and 7.

And, somewhat surprisingly, the downward trend is strongest for the most advantaged students.

Years 5-7 typically include the transition from primary to secondary school. Yet the reading slowdown can’t just be blamed on this transition, because numeracy progress between the years has improved. So, what is going wrong with reading?

Reading base camp is higher each year

Progress in reading is like climbing a mountain. The better your reading skills, the higher you are. The higher you are, the further you can see. And the further you can see, the more sense you can make of the world.

Like a real mountain, the reading mountain must be tackled in stages. NAPLAN – the National Assessment Program, Literacy and Numeracy – provides insight into those stages, by measuring reading skills at years 3, 5, 7 and 9.

The good news is that the average level of reading skills of year 3 students – reading base camp – is getting higher.

To make the results easier to interpret, I’ve converted the NAPLAN data into the equivalent year level of reading achievement. For instance, in 2010, children in year 3 were reading at equivalent year level 2.6 when they sat NAPLAN. This means they were four-and-a-half months behind a benchmark set at the long-run average for metropolitan non-Indigenous students.

By 2019, the mean reading achievement among all year 3 children was equivalent to year 3.0, meeting this benchmark.

Over ten years, the improvement has been worth about five months of extra learning.



Reading progress improved in years 7-9

There is more good news in secondary school. Recent cohorts have made better progress between years 7 and 9 than earlier cohorts. My best estimate is that learning progress has increased by almost three months of learning over this two-year stage of schooling.



Students in years 3-5 haven’t made the same gains. But (if anything) they are heading in the right direction.



But progress in years 5-7 has fallen

Something is going wrong between year 5 and 7. Students are making six months less progress than they used to. It’s not that they are getting worse at reading; they just aren’t climbing as fast as previous cohorts.



This drop in reading progress can’t simply be attributed to the transition from primary to secondary. Among other things, numeracy progress during this stage of schooling has increased by about six months since 2010.

It’s as if students have started skipping a term in each of their final two years of primary school, but only in English, not in maths. And not all groups of students are affected equally.

Advantaged students are affected the most

Reading progress has slowed the most for students from advantaged backgrounds. For instance, students whose parents are senior managers make ten months less progress from year 5 to 7 than earlier cohorts.



Interestingly, the student groups with the biggest slowdown in years 5-7 have also shown the most improvement in year 5 reading.

This pattern – big gains in year 5 that evaporate by year 7 – rules out poor early reading instruction as a cause. This reading problem isn’t about phonics, but a failure to stretch students in upper primary school.

My analysis also shows:

  • the years 5-7 reading slump is happening in every state and territory
  • Queensland and Western Australia had big drops in years 5-7 reading progress in 2015, the year those two states moved year 7 from primary to secondary
  • students from English-speaking backgrounds are affected more than those who don’t speak English at home
  • neither gender nor Indigenous status affects the strength of the slowdown.

So, what is going on?

Maybe some primary school teachers focus more on helping students reach a good minimum standard of reading, and not on how far they go. This fits with the trend in year 5; no need to push hard if students are already doing well.

But it doesn’t explain the large drop in progress in Queensland and WA the year they shifted year 7 to secondary school.

Maybe schools push hard on literacy and numeracy until students have done their last NAPLAN test in that school. This would help explain the 2015 drop in reading progress for Queensland and WA, but not the divergent picture for reading and numeracy progress, including in the Queensland/WA change-over year.

Maybe students are reading less as technology becomes ubiquitous. This could explain the difference between reading and numeracy. But why would it reduce progress between years 5 and 7 but not between years 3 and 5 or 7 and 9?

Increased use of technology also fails to explain the sudden slump in Queensland and WA in 2015.

Other potential explanations need to explain the complex pattern of outcomes, including the fact the reading slowdown is so widespread even while numeracy progress is going the other way.

My best guess is that some advantaged primary schools focus on literacy and numeracy until the year 5 NAPLAN tests are done, but then switch to project-based learning, leadership or year 6 graduation projects. These “gap year” activities don’t displace maths hour (which drives numeracy progress) but may disrupt reading hour or other activities that build reading skills.

Meanwhile, disadvantaged primary schools are very aware of the need to keep building their students’ reading levels to set them up for success in secondary school.

This story is speculative, but it fits the data.

What next?

Education system leaders need to figure out what is happening in reading between years 5 and 7, and quickly. They should look closely at upper primary years, as well as the transition to secondary school. This is much more subtle than a traditional back-to-basics narrative.

In the meantime, teachers in years 5, 6 and 7 should be aware their students are making less progress than previous cohorts, and focus on extending reading capabilities for students who are already doing well. All students deserve to climb higher on their reading mountain.The Conversation

Peter Goss, School Education Program Director, Grattan Institute

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

10 ways to get the most out of silent reading in schools



Children need time and space to enjoy the books they choose to read in schools.
Shutterstock/wavebreakmedia

Margaret Kristin Merga, Edith Cowan University

Reading aloud can help young children learn about new words and how to sound them. There’s great value too in providing opportunities for children to enjoy regular silent reading, which is sustained reading of materials they select for pleasure.

But not all schools consistently offer this opportunity for all of their students. We regularly hear from teachers and teacher librarians who are concerned about the state of silent reading in schools.




Read more:
Read aloud to your children to boost their vocabulary


They’re worried students don’t have enough opportunity to enjoy sustained reading in school. This is important, as many children do not read at home.

For some young people, silent reading at school is the only reading for pleasure they experience.

Silent reading silenced

Research suggests silent reading opportunities at school are often cancelled and may dwindle as students move through the years of schooling.

Where silent reading opportunities still exist, we’re often told that the way it is being implemented is not reflective of best practice. This can make the experience less useful for students and even unpleasant.

Yet regular reading can improve a student’s reading achievement. Reading books, and fiction books in particular, can improve their reading and literacy skills.

Opportunity matters too, as the amount we read determines the benefits we get from reading. Regular reading can help with other subjects, such as maths.

So, what should silent reading look like?

Silent reading in school should be fun.
Shutterstock/wavebreakmedia

Here are ten important things we need to do to make the most of silent reading in our schools.

1. Enjoyment is the focus

Enjoyment of reading is associated with both reading achievement and regular reading.

If we want young people to choose to read more to experience the benefits of reading, then silent reading needs to be about pleasure and not just testing.

2. Students choose the books

Young people should not be prevented from choosing popular or high-interest books that are deemed too challenging. Books that are a bit too hard could motivate students to higher levels of achievement.

Students have reported enjoying and even being inspired by reading books that were challenging for them, such as J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings.

Silent reading of text books or required course materials should not be confused with silent reading for pleasure.

3. The space is right

Like adults, children may struggle to read in a noisy or uncomfortable space.

Schools need to provide space that is comfortable for students to enjoy their silent reading.

Children need space to enjoy silent reading.
Shutterstock/weedezign

4. Opportunities to chat (before or after)

Discussion about books can give students recommendations about other books and even enhance reading comprehension.

But silent reading should be silent so all students can focus on reading.

5. Inspired by keen readers

If students see their teachers and teacher librarians as keen readers this can play a powerful role in encouraging avid and sustained reading.

School principals can also be powerful reading models, with their support of silent reading shaping school culture.

6. Students have access to a library

Even when schools have libraries the research shows students may be given less access to them during class time as they move through the years of schooling.

Not all students are given class time to select reading materials from the library.

All students should be encouraged to access the school library.
Shutterstock/mattomedia Werbeagentur

7. It happens often

This is particularly important for struggling readers who may find it hard to remember what they are reading if opportunities for silent reading are infrequent.

These students may also find it difficult to get absorbed in a book if time to read is too brief.

8. Paper books are available

Reading comprehension is typically stronger when reading on paper rather than a screen.

Screen-based book reading is not preferred by most young people, and can be associated with infrequent reading. Students can find reading on devices distracting.

9. There is a school library and a teacher librarian

Teacher librarians can be particularly important in engaging struggling readers beyond the early years of schooling. They may find it hard to find a book that interests them but which is also not too hard to read.

Librarians are also good at matching students with books based on movies they like, or computer games they enjoy.

10. We need to make the school culture a reading culture

Reading engagement is typically neglected in plans to foster reading achievement in Australian schools.

Practices such as silent reading should feature in the literacy planning documents of all schools.

Allowing students to read for pleasure at school is a big step toward turning our school cultures into reading cultures. Students need opportunities to read, as regular reading can both build and sustain literacy skills.

Reading should be part of the culture of a school.
Shutterstock/wavebreakmedia



Read more:
There’s a reason your child wants to read the same book over and over again


Unfortunately, literacy skills can begin to slide if reading is not maintained.

We need people to continue to read beyond the point of learning to read independently, though research suggests this message may not be received by all young people.

Where children do understand reading is important, they may be nearly twice as likely to read every day. So silent reading is important enough to be a regular part of our school day.


This article was co-authored by Claire Gibson, a librarian who’s studying a master in education by research at Edith Cowan University.The Conversation

Margaret Kristin Merga, Senior Lecturer in Education, Edith Cowan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.