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Australian schools constantly strive to improve the literacy outcomes of their students. Supporting literacy achievement for struggling readers is particularly important because these readers have their disadvantage compounded: capable students develop “richer” skills through continued exposure to reading, and the gap between them and struggling readers widens.
The number of Australian students deemed “low performers” in reading literacy proficiency has been rising over time. Our percentage of high performers is shrinking – nearly one in five adolescents are in the low performer category.
With school about to start for the year, we should consider how we can optimise support for struggling readers. Young people’s literacy attainment significantly shapes their academic, vocational and social potential. More than seven million adult Australians have their opportunities limited by their literacy level.
Research suggests the presence of qualified library staff in school libraries is associated with better student performance in literacy. But until now, little was known about what specifically they do to achieve this. My new research gives us insight into these key practices.
What do they do?
In 2018, I visited 30 schools in urban and rural sites as part of the Teacher Librarians as Australian Literature Advocates in Schools project. I interviewed teacher librarians to explore a range of questions, including the role they play as literacy educators.
There are 40 recurring literacy support strategies used by teacher librarians. But my recent paper focuses on ten strategies that have a particularly strong link to supporting struggling readers:
1. Identification of struggling readers. Teacher librarians support the timely identification of struggling readers through the data they collect on student performance. The sooner struggling readers are identified, the sooner the school can help them.
2. Providing age and skill-appropriate materials for struggling readers. Teacher librarians match students with age-appropriate materials they can manage and topics and genres they prefer. The more a student enjoys and is interested in reading, the more likely they are to keep it up.
3. Teaching students how to choose books they like. Both children in primary and secondary schools have suggested they would read more if it were easier to choose books that appeal to them. Teacher librarians teach students how to do this.
4. Support for students with special needs and readers at risk. For example, Hannah, a teacher librarian, described working with “a young boy who is dyslexic, and I was reading to him and made a dyslexic error, and went back and explained what I’d done and he said, ‘Yeah, I do that, too.’” She then connected him with age and skill-appropriate materials, and he went on to read “an enormous amount”.
5. Matching struggling readers to appropriate books for their skill level. Research suggests when struggling readers have texts matched appropriately with their ability and personal interest, they are more persistent, invested, and use more cognitive skills. Teacher librarians show expertise in making good matches.
6. Promoting access to books. Access to books is positively related to reading motivation, reading skills, reading frequency and positive attitudes toward reading. Teacher librarians make their books accessible. Francesca described regular use of a pop-up library:
We take [it] out into the wilds. And you know, kids will come up and go, ‘oh, what have you got, what have you got.’”
7. Making books and reading socially acceptable. Where young people believe books are socially acceptable, they’re more likely to read and have a positive attitude toward reading. Reading frequency is associated with literacy benefits, so this is ideal. Teacher librarians use a variety of strategies to enhance how books are viewed socially in their schools, including facilitating peer recommendations.
8. Reading to students beyond the early years. Reading aloud offers a range of benefits in the early years and beyond, including an increased enjoyment of reading and increased motivation. Libba described reading aloud to the teenage boys in her classes as a wonderful experience that was very well received. One boy even stated: “that was beautiful”.
9. Facilitating silent reading time. Though opportunities for silent reading at school may be limited, for some struggling readers, it’s the only book reading they do. Teacher librarians act as keen advocates for silent reading in their library and more broadly in the school. And something is better than nothing, especially for readers who struggle.
10. Preparing students for high stakes literacy testing. Achievement on high-stakes literacy tests is essential for graduation in Western Australia, a controversial move which has seen graduation rates slide. A similar initiative has been explored but rejected in NSW.
Teacher librarians supported struggling readers to achieve this essential academic goal through a range of initiatives. For example, teacher librarian Stephanie supported students to use practice online testing programs in her library, which gave students the practice they needed to sit both NAPLAN and online literacy and numeracy assessment (OLNA) tests.
Why does this matter?
Teacher librarians in Australian schools are a valuable resource often taken for granted. They have faced significant budgetary cuts in recent times, despite a 2011 government inquiry into school libraries. Teacher librarians noted they play an important educative role in our schools.
Recent findings suggest teacher librarians’ morale and related sense of job security may be low. If schools and policy-makers wish to improve students’ literacy outcomes, they should invest in school libraries and our dual-qualified teacher librarians.
Year 3 reading outcomes of 2017 NAPLAN testing once again demonstrate a gender gap, with boys underachieving compared to girls. A focus on teaching for the test has not closed the gender gap and only reduced student motivation and well-being.
Calls for a review of NAPLAN ten years on are timely. But as well as looking at how high-stakes testing is narrowing the curriculum and causing student stress, we need to consider the testing regime’s influence on boys’ attitudes towards reading.
Attitudes towards reading
Reports increasingly highlight how negative attitudes towards reading constrain experiences for some boys. In the United Kingdom, a National Literacy Trust survey of 21,000 children aged eight to 16 found boys were more likely than girls to believe someone who reads is boring and a geek.
This attitude is believed to be related to deep-seated cultural issues that lead many boys to believe reading is feminine and “uncool”. Reluctance to read then translates into less time reading and lower achievement.
There is now a call in the UK for schools to have a policy of promoting enjoyment of reading rather than just a focus on effective teaching of phonics skills.
We have known for a long time that positive attitudes towards reading influence boys’ engagement with reading. Engagement influences practice, resulting in the Matthew Effect as cumulative exposure to print accelerates development of reading processes and knowledge.
Attitudes towards reading are not innate; they are learned predispositions in response to favourable or unfavourable experiences. In this way, a boys’ attitude towards reading develops over time as the result of beliefs about reading and, importantly, specific reading experiences.
In Australia, the focus on NAPLAN has changed the landscape of teaching and literacy experiences for students.
As part of this change, didactic teaching of reading for NAPLAN can compound negative attitudes about the nature of reading at school. Reading is seen as a passive (feminine) endeavour associated with boring schoolwork (preparing for the test).
While teaching phonics is already embedded in good teaching practice, the introduction of the Year 1 phonics check will potentially further narrow the curriculum as teachers are pressured to teach for yet another test. This initiative could also impact on teaching practices for reading in the early years.
If we are interested in enhancing reading outcomes for underachieving boys, we need to foster positive attitudes towards reading that translate into practice. The change needs to be from a focus on teaching reading to helping boys become successful and satisfied readers.
Enjoyment correlates with NAPLAN outcomes
My recent survey of 320 Year 3 children from 14 schools in Queensland identified their self-reported enjoyment of story books, non-fiction books, magazines and comics, and self-reported reading frequency.
Students coloured in a box to reflect an emotive face on a Likert scale to indicate their level of enjoyment and their frequency of reading. Students’ Year 3 NAPLAN reading outcomes were also collected.
Findings from the Pearson test of correlation between survey variables indicated correlation between higher student NAPLAN reading scores and higher levels of enjoyment for reading story books/non-fiction books and higher reading frequency. There was a statistically significant positive correlation between reading scores and reading frequency, and reading scores and reading enjoyment.
Even when teachers are supporting specific learning difficulties (such as dyslexia), it’s important to expand boys’ repertoire of positive reading experiences. This requires a shift from the exclusive teaching of the mechanics of reading to teaching practices that contextualise experiences and encourage enjoyment of reading.
Some strategies for success for boys (and girls):
Expand school reading cultures. Directly challenge beliefs about reading being a feminine pursuit. Teachers can select and use texts that challenge what it means to be male and the power structures that exist in school and society.
Focus on the arts. Include artists-in-residence schemes, poetry weeks, dance sessions run by professional dancers, and drama productions that allocate lead roles to disengaged boys. Boys often enjoy working with “readers’ theatre” scripts, which allow them to feel like active participants in a story.
Leave reading choices up to students 50% of the time. Provide a wide range of texts to stimulate interest and build confidence through paired reading schemes and teacher decisions to give students space to talk about and reflect on what was enjoyable.
Promote male mentoring. Include parent-mentors and vertical mentoring with older boys mentoring younger boys in the school.
Let them talk! Boys who are reluctant readers need to have successful reading experiences. Use literature circles with mixed-ability grouping, providing boys with the support they need to focus on the “big ideas” in the story, as well as on the words and structure of the texts.
Include variety. Use interactive classroom activities fit for purpose so that both short, specific focused activities and more sustained, ongoing activities are used, as and when appropriate.
Risk-taking in teacher practice. Bring more creativity and variety. Expose students to new and novel reading experiences.
Implement teaching practices that encourage discussion. Based on Philosophy for Children, enhance reading comprehension as students explore different answers, examine the strengths and weaknesses for each, and critically reflect on assumptions along the way.
When the focus is on teaching for the test, direct instruction and an exclusive focus on phonics, there is a narrowing of curriculum and teaching practice. Strategies can be easily implemented in the classroom. We need to move from teaching reading for NAPLAN testing, to teaching boys to enjoy reading to ensure their success.
Minister Birmingham released a report today recommending that all Year 1 students in Australia complete a phonics test. The panel responsible for the report has recommended that Australia adopt the Year 1 phonics screening check that has been used in England since 2011.
What is phonics?
Phonics is the process of matching sounds to letters. It is an important skill when learning to read and write in English. There are two main approaches to teaching children phonics – synthetic phonics and analytic phonics.
Analytic phonics starts with taking a word that children know the meaning of, and then analysing it to see how the sounds in the word match the letters we see within the word. So five-year-old Emma will learn that her name starts with the sound “e” which is represented by the capital letter E, followed by the sound “m” which is represented by the two letters “mm”, and ends with the sound “u”, which is represented by the letter a.
Synthetic phonics starts with letters which the children learn to match with sounds. The meaning of the words are irrelevant, and indeed, inconsequential. The theory is that the children should master letter/sound matches first before trying to attend to meaning.
Which phonics method is better?
There is no evidence that one phonics approach is better than the other. In England, the US and Australia, there have been major inquiries into reading and all have concluded that systematic and explicit phonics teaching is a crucial part of effective reading instruction. But none have found any evidence that synthetic phonics approaches are better than analytic phonics approaches, or vice versa.
All inquiries have concluded that whatever phonic instruction method is chosen, it should be one part of a suite of skills children should have when learning to read.
What is the phonics test?
The phonics test is based on synthetic phonics. The children are given 40 words on a computer screen, with no context. The words are not put in a sentence, or given any meaning. This is deliberate, and an important feature of a synthetic phonics approach, as the children must show they are not relying on meaning or prior experience with the word in order to successfully decode it.
To this end, 20 of the words the children are given are nonsense words, like “thrand”, “poth” and “froom”, to ensure they are not using meaning to decode the words.
Why are we introducing it?
Minister Birmingham is concerned about the numbers of students in Australia who are struggling with literacy. The decline in literacy standards of Year 9 students is very concerning, and he is right to be looking for solutions. But the solution will not be found in this phonics test for six-year-olds.
As the test has been has already been in use for six years in England we are fortunate to be able to learn from their experience. A major evaluation of the test conducted by the Department for Education in England found that the test is not delivering improvements in literacy capabilities, and in fact, is delivering some unwanted side effects, like class time being spent learning to read nonsense words rather than real words.
Numerous other recent studies of the implementation of the phonics test in England provide valuable information that allow us to test the claims for the test against research evidence.
What does the research say?
Claim: The phonics test has improved reading results in England since its introduction.
Evidence: Year 1 children in England are certainly getting better at passing the phonics test. Over the past six years, pass rates have increased by 23%. This means around 90% of Year 1 children in England can now successfully read nonsense words like “yune” and “thrand”.
However research has found that the ability to read nonsense words is an unreliable predictor of later reading success.
And so far, the phonics test in England has not improved reading comprehension scores.
As the test only tests single syllable words with regular phonic patterns, it is not possible to know how many English children can read words like “one”, “was”, “two”, “love”, “what”, “who”, or “because”, as such words are not included in the test. This is unfortunate because these are amongst the 100 most common words in the English language, which in turn make up 50% of the words we read everyday – whether in a novel, a newspaper article or a government form.
“Yune”, “thrand” and “poth”, on the other hand, make 0% of the words we read.
Claim: The phonics test will pick up children who are having reading difficulties. Birmingham has stated “the idea behind these checks is to ensure students don’t slip through the cracks”.
Evidence: Research in England has found that the test was no more accurate than the teacher’s judgement in identifying children with reading difficulties. Teachers already know which children struggle. As researchers, teachers and principals
have all said – teachers need more support in knowing how to support those struggling children.
Claim: The phonics test will provide detailed diagnostics to support teachers to make effective interventions. The chair of the panel recommending the test says that the phonics test will drill into the detail of phonics to establish what children know.
Evidence: A thorough analysis of the test’s components found it fails to test some of the most common sound/letter matches in English, and indeed screens for a very limited number of the hundreds of sound/letter matches in English. They found that children can achieve the pass grade of 32 from 40 with only limited phonic knowledge.
Other research found the test fails to give any information about what the specific phonic struggles of a child might be , or whether the struggles are indeed with phonics.
These limitations mean the check has negligible diagnostic or instructional use for classroom teachers.
Australia is in the fortunate position of being able to learn from the research that has been conducted since the implementation of the phonics test and mandatory synthetic phonics teaching in England. The lesson is clear. The test is unable to deliver what was hoped. Australia should look elsewhere for answers to its literacy challenges.
Already state Education Ministers have begun to let Birmingham know that they will not be taking up the offer of the national phonics test.
This may be an issue where Australia is able to overcome its intellectual cringe, and act on the research evidence rather than old colonial ties.
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