Principals have a lot of competing priorities, but lifting school NAPLAN performance is almost always on the list.

Primary schools

For primary school principals improving NAPLAN performance means making sure each new cohort of Foundation students gets off to a flying start in reading and spelling, that strugglers are rapidly identified and given the most effective and cost-effective help available, and that children with underlying cognitive, language or other neurological difficulties such as dyslexia is helped to achieve and participate as well as possible.

If you take a look at John Hattie’s research on what’s effective in education, it’s not hard to see that Whole Language literacy-teaching approaches are not effective (ES 0.06, where any ES under 0.4 means “don’t bother”), and Phonics approaches are much more effective (ES 0.52). Direct instruction (ES 0.60) and the teaching of spelling (0.58) also get the nod as effective approaches.

Yet many schools are still using teaching strategies straight from the Whole Language playbook:

  • Repetitive/predictable texts, for example early level Reading Recovery/PM/LLI type books, and multicueing/the three cueing system. The most successful phonics approaches instead use decodable books and require children to sound the words out, not guess them.
  • Rote memorisation of high-frequency wordlists. The most successful phonics approaches incorporate regularly-spelt high-frequency words into their phonics sequence, or introduce them as “tricky“, “heart” or “camera” words if needed earlier.
  • Look-cover-write-check spelling: This encourages students to focus on the appearance of words but doesn’t help them with how the letters represent the sounds.
  • Student-selected spelling lists: This can seem very child-centred, but in fact teaches very little about spelling because the words don’t follow a pattern. If your school doesn’t already have an established spelling teaching sequence, you are most welcome to use the free one on this website till you find one that suits you better.

All schools nowadays use phonics, but sometimes this only amounts to teaching “the sounds of letters”, plus a few digraphs like sh, ch, th, wh, ai, oa and ee. The focus is often on letter-sound relationships at word beginnings, not right through the word.

Our language has 44 sounds, not 26, and children have been using spoken language since they were infants, so the sounds that they already use are a better place to start than letters. Teaching about each sound and the main letter or spelling that represents it makes sure no sounds are forgotten, and then teachers can present additional ways to spell each sound in a systematic way. Click here for a video about this approach.

Secondary schools

Apart from their impact on school NAPLAN results, teachers really struggle to cope with students with poor literacy skills, and aren’t really equipped to help them.

Many of these kids can be quite disruptive and defiant, as bad behaviour distracts everyone from their literacy problem, and they’d rather be considered badly behaved than dumb. All kids with poor behaviour should be referred for language and literacy assessment, as our juvenile justice centres are full of kids with language and literacy problems.

There are many good programs to boost teenagers’ decoding and spelling skills, click here for a page of the ones I know about. For years I worked in a secondary school helping kids with their language and literacy skills, but much of the hands-on, day-to-day work was done by aides. I visited once a week for a joint session with the students and their aides, and provided work for them to complete in the coming week, as well as doing assessments.

If you are implementing such a program, be sure to insist on standardised pre- and post-testing each year so that you can get a measure of progress and thus whether you’re getting a good return on your investment. Some of our students made two, three or four years progress on their reading and spelling in a single year.

You might also be interested in this 2015 blog post about helping teenagers with literacy.



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