Sorry, all kids deserve the gold standard

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The excellent Lorraine Hammond, President of Learning Difficulties Australia, was on Radio National’s Life Matters program this morning, with the unenviable task of explaining how children learn to read in ten minutes.

You can listen to what she said here.

The program was a follow-up to last week’s much longer discussion about the research showing that the widely-used literacy intervention Reading Recovery is not effective.

Many people contacted the show afterwards to defend teaching literacy using a bit of everything – a bit of rote-memorising “sight words”, a few alphabet lessons, a bit of guessing etc. This is what currently happens in most schools.

Lorraine pointed out that this still leaves us with many children who can’t sound out words, and thus struggle in school and fall further and further behind. One upper primary school child she met had had 10,000 hours of instruction, and was still looking at the first letter and guessing words. Unbelievable.

This child should have been taught in the way Lorraine (very briefly) described in the program, learning a small handful of sound-letter correspondences in the first week (maybe A, I, M, S, T, so that it’s possible to immediately write a few little words like “am”, “it”, “at” “Sam”, “mat” and “Tim”, and read books like “Tim, Tam and Sam” from Sounds~Write). Then adding a sound-letter correspondence a day till they’ve covered the main patterns of the whole spelling code. Books children are given to read should contain the spellings they’ve been taught, not spellings they have not yet been taught. This approach is called Synthetic Phonics, and is based on an understanding that reading is not a natural thing for humans to do, and is difficult for many.

The “a bit of everything” approach (widely known as “Balanced Literacy” but I call it “A Dog’s Breakfast”) and Reading Recovery are based on the underlying belief that learning to read is natural, and children will pick it up via exposure to print and a bit of lip service to phonics (A is for aeroplane etc).

Reading scientists tell us this is wrong, that when we learn to read we hijack parts of the brain evolution intended for other things, and that learning to read will always be very hard for a substantial number of children.

Yes, cobbling together a program from a bit of this and a bit of that will allow MOST children to succeed. We don’t need MOST children to succeed, we need ALL children to succeed. In our society, not learning to read is horrible on so many levels. Horrible for the kids, horrible for the teachers, horrible for the parents, horrible for society. Learning has to be not negotiable.

To get ALL children learning to read, we need a Response To Intervention approach:

  1. Provide gold standard, explicit, systematic teaching in how the sounds in our speech are represented by letters on the page to all children from Day 1 of school. Show me one five-year-old who you think doesn’t deserve the best teaching. We can’t know which children walking in the door on their first day of school are going to struggle with literacy, though early screening can give us a pretty good idea, but we know it will be about one in every five children if we use a Dog’s Breakfast approach, and many fewer with the gold standard.
  2. As soon as any child seems to be struggling, provide more intensive teaching in a small group, with lots of extra practice and feedback. Do it well before the end of the first year of schooling, preferably starting in the second term. Catch them as soon as they look like falling behind, and pull them up.
  3. Intensive, one-to-one, personalised instruction for the perhaps 3-5% of children who still have difficulties despite gold standard classroom teaching and small group intervention. These are the kids with underlying neurological/language difficulties – problems discriminating sounds, with auditory memory, with naming skills and perhaps other things – who are likely to end up with a diagnosis of Specific Learning Disability or dyslexia. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be helped to achieve to their potential, like everyone else, through a combination of good intervention and then compensation for any remaining problems.

I was a little bit astonished to hear Ellen Fanning from Radio National suggest that “some kids don’t need the gold standard”, which to me means the same thing as “some kids can have second-rate teaching”.

Imagine if anyone said “some kids can have second-rate health care”. Everyone would be appalled. Learning to read and spell is so important that a second-rate approach based on a false idea (reading as natural) is really not acceptable. We must insist on the gold standard for all kids.

Gold standard literacy-teaching doesn’t have to cost a bomb, and will save us a lot in the long run, in both money and human misery. We already have the teachers, we already have the schools. We need clearer, higher expectations based on better evidence and modelling, better teacher training about how our speech sounds are represented by letters/spellings, and better books and other resources for beginners and strugglers in our schools and libraries.


7 thoughts on “Sorry, all kids deserve the gold standard

  1. Pingback: All children deserve the golden standard |

  2. Aimee

    I wonder if Ellen meant that some children learn to read without issues with less than gold standard teaching. This is certainly true, I learnt the whole language way and even as a kid was a voracious reader. I do wish I was taught the synthetic phonics way though as I suspect my spelling would be better!

    1. Aimee

      And of course, just because some or most children are okay with less than gold standard, that doesn’t mean it’s okay for the other 20%!

    2. alison Post author

      Yes, a small number of kids do seem to almost teach themselves to read and write, and the majority end up learning via the mix of methods approach, but they’re a disaster for a large minority of kids. It would be better if schools acted as though all children were difficult to teach, and letting themselves be pleasantly surprised by those who were not, instead of acting as though most kids can crack our spelling code without it being explicitly taught, and getting a nasty shock when a sizeable minority cannot. And thereafter having to do a heck of a lot of work to remediate and differentiate and compensate for these children’s literacy problems.

      1. Mary Gladstone

        Great reply Alison. There are some children that would learn to read without us, but the majority need teaching ‘to learn to read’.


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