One in five students has literacy difficulties and efforts to remedy this in our school system seem to have failed. However, there is one very important and politically charged factor that, if changed, could drastically improve outcomes for Australian students, according to speech-language pathologist, Dr Bartek Rajkowski. He told F2L that pre-service and ongoing teacher education has neglected to equip many teachers and teaching students with the knowledge and practical skills required to teach children to read.
“Many of Australia’s leading researchers, psychologists and speech-language pathologists have spent years unsuccessfully urging our education system to align itself with research recommendations,” he said. “Despite the serious consequences for those affected and their families, Australia is failing to provide the best possible help for students with literacy difficulties. The strong relationship between low levels of language and literacy skills and criminal activity is thoroughly documented as is the relationship with social disadvantage  . Furthermore, there is a strong link between literacy outcomes and mental health” .
In 2013 Australian reading researchers Jennifer Buckingham, Kevin Wheldall and Robyn Beaman-Wheldall, argued in an article ‘Why Jaydon Can’t Read’, that the unacceptable rate of illiteracy in Australian children is due to teachers and government following ideological theories rather than implementing evidence-based teaching programs. The researchers found that, “the highly robust scientific evidence on reading instruction has yet to influence classroom teaching in Australia” .
Dr Rajkowski said this is not the first time there have been urgent requests for change. In March 2004, some of Australia’s leading researchers, psychologists and speech-language pathologists wrote to the then Minister of Education, Dr Brendan Nelson, calling for an inquiry into the teaching of literacy in Australia due to the: “…continuing discrepancy between the model of reading development that forms the basis for most of our current school curricula and teaching methods, and the model of reading development that is emerging as a result of the research into reading that has been undertaken over the past 20 to 30 years.”
The National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy was the most extensive study to investigate best-practice in literacy instruction and how it compared with current teaching methods in Australia. It resulted in 20 key recommendations many of which related directly to the need for comprehensive pre-service and ongoing teacher training .
Among the recommendations were:
- That teachers be equipped with teaching strategies based on findings from rigorous, evidence-based research that are shown to be effective in enhancing the literacy development of all children
- That teachers provide systematic, direct and explicit phonics instruction so that children master the essential alphabetic code-breaking skills required for foundational reading proficiency
- That teachers provide an integrated approach to reading that supports the development of oral language, vocabulary, grammar, reading fluency, comprehension and the literacies of new technologies
- That the key objective of primary teacher education courses be to prepare student teachers to teach reading and that the content of course work in primary literacy education focus on contemporary understanding of:
- evidence-based findings and an integrated approach to the teaching of reading, including instruction on how to teach phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary knowledge and text comprehension; child and adolescent development; and inclusive approaches to literacy teaching.
“Incredibly, none of the 20 recommendations made in the National Inquiry have been implemented,” Dr Rajkowski said.
In 2007, leading Australian researchers Max Coltheart and Margot Prior summarised the lack of research-based reading instruction and remediation in Australian schools in their article,’ Learning to Read in Australia’. The authors concluded that it was: “…possible for Australia’s future teachers to complete a Bachelor of Education course in Australia with less than 2 percent of total credit points devoted to instruction in the teaching of reading.”
A Dyslexia Working Party was formed following the National Inquiry which consisted of some of Australia’s leading authorities on reading difficulties. The working party released a report and list of recommendations entitled ‘Helping People with Dyslexia: A National Action Agenda’. Go to: https://www.dropbox.com/s/unja8iccgpt2dwk/Helping%20people%20with%20dyslexia%20-%20a%20national%20action%20agenda.pdf?dl=0)
The report made a number of recommendations with regard to teacher training, including that pre-service teacher-training syllabi should include:
- Training in evidence-based reading instruction, shown through rigorous research to minimise the impact of dyslexia;
- Training in early screening / identification of students at risk of long term literacy problems, including dyslexia; and,
- Training in effective, research-based strategies that support students with dyslexia including: resilience development, use of non-print mediums, and presence of whole school dyslexia policies.
- It should be ensured that appropriate teaching strategies, shown through rigorous, evidence-based research to be effective in developing strong literacy skills, are used in all Australian Junior Primary classrooms. This will assist in reducing the impact of dyslexia significantly.
- All schools should ensure that the three waves of literacy provision are in place, are of a high quality, and are well-coordinated. In order to achieve this, schools should have access to the expertise of teachers with specialist skills in addressing dyslexic difficulties
- Provision should be made for close monitoring of students at risk of dyslexia as well as those diagnosed with dyslexia
- Learning support should be provided for those diagnosed with dyslexia through a written support plan that incorporates individual literacy teaching, resilience teaching, and classroom accommodations:
- Professional development programs should to be developed for all practising classroom teachers to assist them to identify and support students at risk of dyslexia
- Existing in-service training courses provided by approved organizations should be officially recognized and funded
The response indicated that the government was not willing to take action on any of the recommendations and led to another open letter from reading scientists, clinicians and educators in the field that gave a comprehensive summary of the current situation with regard to teaching literacy in Australia. To download go to: http://resources.news.com.au/files/2012/12/21/1226541/996513-aus–news–file–open–letter–to–education–ministers.pdf
Dr Rajkowski said it was incredible that, in 2012, a group of leading researchers and clinicians stated that:“…the results from the Progress in Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) showing that so many Australian children are now very poor readers, though certainly disappointing, are not surprising to anyone who examines what happens in schools, and compares it to what research has clearly shown to be effective in promoting successful reading development”.
“Implementing the recommendations of the National Inquiry as well as those of the Dyslexia Working Party would provide an incredible opportunity to improve the literacy skills of our students. Empowering children with literacy, especially those suffering disadvantage, should be core teaching business”, Dr Rajkowski said.
“Almost every teacher I have met who is aware of the research recommendations is crying out for training and willing to adjust their teaching. There are schools who are taking the initiative to implement research recommendations but they are the exception rather than the rule. The problem seems to be that very few teachers are aware of the research and even fewer have received training in evidence-based teaching of literacy.
“We need to equip teachers with the knowledge and skills to provide research-based, explicit instruction in reading and spelling, and that should be the main focus of pre-service and ongoing teacher training courses in Australia,” he said.
He concluded that the consequences of inaction are devastating and, according to research, potentially avoidable. “Can you imagine a situation in which leading medical researchers were ignored regarding fundamental flaws in Australian healthcare? Ignoring research on literacy acquisition should not be an option. The stakes are just as high.”
 Lincoln, Alisa. ‘Literacy In The Lives Of People With Serious Mental Illness’. Annual Health Literacy Research Conference. 2011. Web. 7 Dec. 2015.
 Buckingham, J., Wheldall, K., & Beaman-Wheldall, R. (2013). Why Jaydon can’t read: The triumph of ideology over evidence in teaching reading. Retrieved February 15, 2015, from http://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=738091813029033;res=IELHSS
 National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy (Australia)(2005) http://nla.gov.au/anbd.aut-an40031432