Schools can’t tackle child literacy levels alone – it takes a village



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More than half of children under two and nearly half of children aged three to five are not being read to every day at home.
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Catherine Wade, Parenting Research Centre

The recently released NAPLAN 2017 results and findings from the latest Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) have got Australia talking again about how our children are faring when it comes to literacy.


Read more: NAPLAN 2017: results have largely flat-lined, and patterns of inequality continue


We know from PIRLS, while most Australian children are meeting international benchmarks for reading at year 4, nearly one in five are not meeting these benchmarks. Australia has one of the largest proportions of students who fall below the “intermediate” benchmark into the “low” or “below low” categories, compared to other English-speaking countries, including the US, Canada, and England.

Despite the range of steps that have been taken to address literacy levels across Australia, a large proportion of children are still not meeting international standards for reading. So what other approaches could we try?

Parents: an untapped resource

New research from the Parenting Research Centre highlights an area ripe for intervention: better supporting parents in reading to their children.

Our findings from a study of 2,600 parents showed more than half of children under two and nearly half of children aged three to five are not being read to every day.


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We found, while most children were being read to by an adult in the household four to five days a week, a concerning proportion were not being read to at all or very infrequently. Specifically, 13% of 0–2-year-olds and 4% of 3–5-year-olds were not read to at all by an adult at home in the previous week.

Our research also looked at how important parents’ educational values and aspirations for their children were and how they felt about their interactions with their children’s educators. The survey has national relevance, as most of the findings relate to broader parenting issues.

Why early reading is vital

We know from decades of international research that what parents do at home with their children has a profound effect on children’s learning outcomes. Children who experience enriched, cognitively stimulating home environments are at an advantage in the learning process because they have had exposure to many more words.

The evidence in support of providing a language-rich environment to children is vast. Children with language delays at school entry are at greater risk for academic difficulties. With flow-on effects to later academic and socio-emotional challenges, the imperative to tackle language and literacy problems early is paramount.

Sitting together, opening a book, and reading and pointing to words can be incredibly helpful in building the foundations of good literacy.
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A number of high-quality reviews of the scientific literature show good evidence for the benefits of parental shared reading for children’s literacy.

And while older children typically need less input from parents when it comes to actually looking at words on the page, that doesn’t mean the parents’ role in supporting reading diminishes. Creating a home environment that encourages time and space for books is key.


Read more: Research shows the importance of parents reading with children – even after children can read


If we know reading works, why don’t we do it?

The message that simply sitting together, opening a book, and reading and pointing to words can be incredibly helpful in building the foundations of good literacy has certainly cut through with many parents of young children.

But there are many reasons parents don’t read at home. As we know from sectors such as health, simply telling people what needs to be done – such as exercising more – does not take their personal context into consideration. Alone, it’s not enough to motivate people to adopt new patterns of behaviour.

Considering how best to support parents to read more often to their children is an important question and will depend on a thorough understanding of the barriers that are preventing them from doing so. Family and work pressures and parental confidence around reading books are some possible factors that could be further explored as barriers.

A shared concern

Children’s literacy is not the sole responsibility of parents, but it’s clearly an area where parents and schools can work together. This parent-educator partnership featured in our survey, which explored parents’ views about their interactions with kindergarten, child care and school teachers.


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Most parents (92%) felt comfortable communicating with their children’s teachers. Although 21% did not think or were unsure if their child’s teacher understood their child.


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Also, 20% did not agree they were able to participate in decisions that affected their child at kinder or school.

Of note, fathers tended to feel less comfortable talking with their child’s teachers than mothers did.

While 82% of parents felt their opinions were valued in discussions with their child’s educators, 11% had mixed feelings about this and 7% felt their opinions weren’t valued.


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Given what we know from research about the value of parents being connected with their children’s educational settings, it follows that parent-teacher partnerships are important for children’s educational outcomes.

Consequently, it’s important issues like literacy are looked at holistically. Literacy is not just as an education system issue, and not just a parenting issue. It’s a societal issue.

Parents are ready to engage

We found the vast majority of parents (93%) see their own contribution to their children’s learning in the early years as important. This supports the view that today’s parents are generally well placed for taking on information about how to improve their children’s literacy and educational outcomes.

It’s encouraging that most children are being read to at home – even if not every day. But in the context of concerns about Australia’s position in international literacy rankings there’s more to be done.

The ConversationThe message to parents is clearly “read early and read often”. The message for policy makers and professionals is “support parents to better engage with their children’s learning”. This could take many forms and is dependent on context. It could include strategies such as building literacy messages and materials into existing parenting support services and promoting online resources for parents, given our survey found 79% of parents look for answers online about parenting issues.

Catherine Wade, Principal Research Specialist, Parenting Research Centre

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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New phonics test will do nothing to improve Australian children’s literacy



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Research in England has found that the proposed test was no more accurate than the teacher’s judgement in identifying children with reading difficulties.
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Misty Adoniou, University of Canberra

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.

Learning lessons

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.

The ConversationThis may be an issue where Australia is able to overcome its intellectual cringe, and act on the research evidence rather than old colonial ties.

Misty Adoniou, Associate Professor in Language, Literacy and TESL, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How to encourage literacy in young children (and beyond)



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Ask your child what their toys did while they were out today or invite them to help you read the mail.
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Louise Phillips, The University of Queensland and Pauline Harris, University of South Australia

How can parents best help their children with their schooling without actually doing it for them? This article is part of our series on Parents’ Role in Education, focusing on how best to support learning from early childhood to Year 12.


Literacy involves meaning-making with materials that humans use to communicate – be they visual, written, spoken, sung, and/or drawn. Definitions vary according to culture, personal values and theories.

We look to a broad definition of literacy as guided by UNESCO to be inclusive for all families. Children learn to be literate in a variety of ways in their homes, communities and places of formal education.

What research tells us

New research in three-to-five-year-old children’s homes and communities in Fiji, has revealed that children’s regular engagement in literacy across many different media has supported good literacy outcomes.

There were ten main ways of engaging in literacy-building activities. These included print and information, communication and entertainment technologies, arts and crafts, making marks on paper, screens and other surfaces like sand and concrete, reading and creating images, and talking, telling and acting out stories that were real or imagined.

Children also engaged with reading, recording and talking about the environment, reading signs in the environment, engaging in music, dance, song and, lastly, with texts and icons of religions and cultures.

These activities were enjoyed and valued by children and their families as part of their everyday lives, and were further bolstered by creating books with children in their home languages and English.

Parents and communities include their children in daily activities, encouraging their literacy experiences.
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This research can be used to add to our discussions on how parents can help develop their children’s early literacy.

The Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research found daily reading to young children improves schooling outcomes, regardless of family background and home environment.

The OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results also indicate a strong correlation between parents reading and storytelling with children in the early years and reading achievement at age 15, with those students performing one to two years above their peers.

However, it is not just being read to that matters. The adult-child interactions are also very important.

These interactions need to be lively and engage children with the text-in-hand. Alphabet toys and phonics programs alone offer little to develop literacy, as they focus on a code without contextual meaning. Words, and their letters and sounds, are best understood when seen and applied in everyday experiences, driven by children’s motivations.

How to be a talking, reading, writing, viewing, and listening family

There are several practical things parents can do to encourage broad literacy and learning in early childhood years.

  1. Don’t wait. Read what you are reading aloud to your newborn. Children become attuned to the sound of your voice and the tones of the language you speak as their hearing develops.

  2. Share stories at mealtime. Provide prompts like: “Tell us what your teddy did today”. Alternatively, randomly select from ideas for characters, problems, and settings, for example: “Tell us about an inquisitive mouse lost in a library”. Oral storytelling provides a bridge to written stories.

  3. Record on your phone or write down your child’s stories. Turn them into a book, animation, or slide show (with an app). Children will see the transformation of their spoken words into written words. These stories can be revisited to reinforce learning of words, story structure and grammar.

  4. Talk about their experiences. For example, prompt them to describe something they have done, seen, read or heard about. Research shows children’s oral language supports their literacy development, and vice-versa.

  5. Guide literacy in your children’s play, following their lead. For example, help them follow instructions for making something, or use texts in pretend play, such as menus in play about a pizza place. Children will engage with various texts and the purposes they have in their lives.

  6. Books, books, books. For babies and toddlers, start with durable board books of faces, animals and everyday things with few words that invite interactivity (e.g., “Where is baby?”). Progress to more complex picture books with rhyming language. Talk about personal links with the stories and ask questions (such as “I wonder what will happen next or where they went to”) as these will support comprehension. Look to the Children’s Book Council for awarded quality children’s literature.

  7. Talk about words children notice. Be sure the words make sense to children. Talk about what words look like, what patterns, letters and sounds they make. This builds children’s word recognition and attack skills, and understanding of what words in context mean.

  8. Involve your children in activities where you use literacy. For example, if you make shopping lists or send e-cards, your children could help create these with you. Explain what you are doing and invite children’s participation (e.g., “I’m looking at a map to see how to get to your friend’s house”). Children can meaningfully engage with and create texts and see the place these texts have in their lives.

  9. Use community and state libraries. Most offer interactive family literacy programs. Early Years Counts and The Australian Literacy Educators Association has a range of resources for families.

The ConversationAbove all, be sure the experience is enjoyable, playful, and encourages children’s active involvement. Literacy should be engaging for your children, not a chore.

Louise Phillips, Lecturer, School of Education, The University of Queensland and Pauline Harris, Research Chair in Early Childhood, University of South Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How to teach literacy so no child is left behind


Kevin Wheldall, Macquarie University

Children who do not learn to read in the first few years of schooling are typically destined to a school career of educational failure, because reading underpins almost all subsequent learning.

Even when exemplary reading instruction is available, there will always be some children who take longer than others to catch on to what reading is all about. It is important to identify these low-progress readers as early as possible so that they do not fall too far behind their peers.

We need a clear plan in place to ensure that no child falls through the net. Such a plan needs to be both effective and cost-effective.

A three tier model of reading instruction, known as Response to Intervention (or RtI) has become known in recent years as the best way of achieving this.

Kindergarten

The three tier RtI model is based on the first tier of exemplary, quality initial instruction in reading for all students during their first year of schooling.

The instruction offered to all children beginning school should be based on what internationally conducted scientific research has shown to be most effective.

To the layman, this sounds patently obvious but this is not what is currently the case in many Australian schools. For the last few decades an implicit model of reading instruction has held sway.

Most of this implicit approach to reading instruction makes a good bedrock to build effective reading instruction on. But it is not enough for every child to learn to read.

The majority of children will need direct, explicit and systematic instruction in the five pillars or “five big ideas” of reading instruction: phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

What is often lacking in initial reading instruction, in particular, is effective instruction in what is known as synthetic phonics: specific instruction in how to relate letters to sounds and to blend letter sounds into words.

In New South Wales and some other states, many schools typically screen students at the beginning of year one for possible placement in Reading Recovery, one of the most well known and most widely utilised remedial reading program in the world.

Whatever the debate about the efficacy of Reading Recovery, it is necessarily very expensive. It is based on a daily, half hour, one-to-one session with a highly trained Reading Recovery teacher, for two or more terms.

The bottom 25 per cent

The RtI model recommends that struggling readers should be offered more intensive Tier 2 intervention in small groups of three to four students.

Again the instruction provided to these students is based on what the scientific research evidence has shown to be most effective.

In effect, this is essentially the same emphasis on the same five big ideas of reading instruction but it is both more intensive and more individualised. Teachers also need to be more responsive to the specific idiosyncratic needs of the students with whom they are working.

Research suggests that good small group instruction can be just as effective as one-to-one instruction.

However, even with a solid Tier 2 small group reading intervention in place for young low-progress readers, there will still be a very small number of students who “fail to thrive”, perhaps about 3 to 5 per cent of the total population of Year 1 students.

Intensive instruction

The small number of students whose reading problems seem to be more entrenched and who are resistant even to specialised intensive small group instruction are the ones who should receive Tier 3 one-to-one intensive reading instruction.

By now it will come as no surprise that the general nature of the instruction provided in a one-to-one Tier 3 intervention is exactly the same as offered at Tier 1 and Tier 2.

What is different is the intensity of instruction provided to this very small minority of students.

Because we have successfully taught the vast majority of Year 1 students the basics of learning to read by Tier 1 and where necessary, Tier 2 teaching, we can afford to provide these remaining students with the individual support they need.

Some of these students may need this support for some time, but this is a far more manageable proposition with a smaller number of students.

Monitoring progress

With this three tier Response to Intervention model in place, most, if not all, children will learn to read, given the necessary time and resources.

The RtI model does not stop at the end of Year 1. It’s important to monitor all students’ reading progress closely, especially for the first three years of schooling.

By following these models, it’s not too much to ask to expect all of our children to learn to read.

The Conversation

Kevin Wheldall, Emeritus Professor of Education, Macquarie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.