New research shows what makes a difference in teaching literacy and why ‘evidence-based’ is not enough

By Debra Hayes

Public discourse about schooling generally assumes that it’s in crisis. The script goes something like this: There’s a problem and it’s big – really big! Test results show us Australia is going downhill and teachers need to be accountable. There are ‘evidence-based’ solutions but teachers are not using them. If they did, literacy standards would improve, test results would improve, and Australia would be among the best in the world again.

Well we have some good news and bad news for you.

The good news is our research, a long-term study of schools in communities in Australia experiencing high-levels of disadvantage, funded by the Australian Research Council, shows that teachers are indeed now implementing the ‘evidence-based’ local literacy agreements that they have been asked to implement and that their work includes a diverse range of research-informed approaches to literacy learning.

The bad news is despite the highly professional and caring use of evidence based methods by the teachers in the four schools in our study, the literacy levels for children from the most disadvantaged families remain persistently low.

The majority of teachers in our study were implementing their schools’ well-developed literacy agreements. They were not loyal to methods of the past or inadequately trained. They adopted recommended methods of evaluation and regularly assessed their students’ progress.

We used ‘fly on the wall’ type of research, which included regular and constant visits to the classrooms of the teachers involved, to study what was happening and try to work out why it was happening. I want to share with you some of our findings.

Use of common pedagogies

Teachers used what we call common pedagogical approaches. These often took the form of tightly scripted lessons, in which teachers, operating in good faith, implemented a range of literacy programs.
The cost of such cooperation is well documented in the research literature: teachers’ pedagogical choices (choice of teaching methods) are narrowed, and their professional autonomy is weakened. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as curriculum narrowing, and in the case of literacy, ‘fickle literacies’.

We observed numerous missed opportunities for learning due to:
• too much emphasis on only the kinds of skills that can be easily tested;
• narrow views of literacy constraining the purpose of literacy teaching and learning;
• a prevalence of models of teaching that assume students need to have mastered particular basic skills, or sets of skills, before they can move on to other more demanding tasks (which is not the case for many children). These models, called normative developmental models, can be rigid, repetitive and disengaging, however highly qualified, experienced teachers were expected to adopt them because they were part of the school literacy plan or agreement.
• deficit views about the capabilities of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. These are views that lead teachers to expect less of some children and make it less likely those children will be offered more intellectually challenging literacy learning activities.

These missed opportunities were an unintended effect of teachers trying to do what they believed was expected of them.

Use of uncommon pedagogies

We also encountered a smaller number of teachers who adopted uncommon pedagogical approaches. Their practices stood out from the more common practices of their peers because they were palpably different. These teachers incorporated the requirements of their school’s literacy agreements into an already rich repertoire of teaching practice.

We observed numerous ways in which these teachers supported literacy learning by:
• recognising the knowledge and experiences that students have, and connecting these to school learning;
• actively and positively connecting classroom practice to families and communities;
• designing learning tasks that were open ended and that demanded complex thinking and language;
• providing opportunities for students to think about significant personal and social issues, such as loneliness, hope and relationships, by engaging with relevant texts.

These uncommon pedagogical approaches led to much higher levels of engagement and success by students. They built on relationships, especially with families and helped to develop trust that in turn can contribute to learning at home and at school.

The importance of a teacher’s body of work

Barbara Comber, one of Australia’s foremost literacy researchers, has argued that we do not usually think of teachers’ practices as demonstrating a body of work, perhaps because it is so ephemeral and of the moment. Instead, teachers are assumed to translate theory into practice or implement policy. However, the uncommon pedagogies of the teachers we observed illustrated complex designs, that demonstrated their intention to keep learning about how to improve their work. These rich banks of knowledge and experience could well be considered their ‘oeuvre’ or body of work, in the sense of what they create across a career.

How might we support teachers to develop their oeuvre? What might the public discourse of schooling look like if it were to be based upon a deep respect for teachers, their knowledge and their understanding of the local conditions of teaching and learning?

Peter Freebody and Allan Luke, two other highly respected Australian literacy researchers, reminded us some time ago that:

‘it is not that some literacy teaching methods work and others do not. They all work to shape and construct different literate repertoires in classrooms…What do particular combinations and blends of families of practices work to produce? In which combinations and emphases do they work with specific communities of students? For what practices, places, times, and occasions do they prepare students? And for what political and ideological configurations?’

Understanding teachers’ work is vital to improving literacy in Australia

We need to change the script that blames teachers for low literacy levels by telling them how to do their job. Our observation of uncommon pedagogies is an indication of how doing a teacher’s job can’t be simplified into a set of ‘evidence-based’ methods.

Well-intentioned efforts to improve literacy in Australia should be built upon the understanding that the work of teachers is complex, situated in particular classroom with particular children, and dependent upon a range of factors including a teacher’s own body of work, relationships with students and their families, the local context, and the availability of opportunities for sustained professional development and dialogue.

The prevalence of common pedagogies is a sign that educational policy is working, it’s just not working in ways that address the problem it is intended to solve.


Deb Hayes is Professor of Equity and Education at the Sydney School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney. She is co-author of the book, Literacy, Leading and Learning (Routledge, 2017) with Robert Hattam, Barbara Comber, Lyn Kerkham, Ruth Lupton and Pat Thomson. Follow Deb on Twitter @DrDebHayes

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

16 thoughts on “New research shows what makes a difference in teaching literacy and why ‘evidence-based’ is not enough

  1. Brett Youd says:

    i would concur with much of what you have written. I do though have a couple of concerns and queries? how low in icsea terms were the schools you reviewed?
    Not all schools that work in low ses areas have a a whole school literacy agreements that require scripted lessons. But they do have agreeements on things such as using the gradual release of responsibility as a whole school framework. Did you look at classrooms where uncommon pedagogies were implemented by unskilled teachers and what the impact on student learning was in these classrooms?

  2. Deb Hayes says:

    Thanks for your comment. The schools were among the most disadvantaged in the nation. Importantly, the whole school agreements did not require scripted lessons but that’s what it tended to look i.e., common pedagogies that have been reported in other research as pedagogies of poverty or default modes of teaching.. All the teachers were highly skilled (as are most teachers in Australia) and implementing in good faith what they thought they were expected to do. We need to ask, what are the conditions that suggest to teachers that this is what is expected of them? We argue that this is an unintended effect of increasing standardisation, marketisation, residualistaion, etc

  3. Brett says:

    My experience of low ses schools in my state is that scripted lessons are not used as part of the whole school literacy program. All professions have a range of talent, teachers are not exceptional in this. my experience and that of colleagues i talk to is that low ses have challenges keeping staff let alone skilled staff as it is so much harder to teach in these skills, and thus staff turnover is very high. Thus this is a reason why they often have more common teaching expectations of their staff.

  4. Deb Hayes says:

    Hi Brett, thanks for your further comment. The ‘scripted lessons’ were not part of the agreements in these schools either. The agreements were packed with a range of literacy strategies that did not need to be implemented in tightly scripted ways but that’s what we tended to see. You are right to point out that there certainly are particular challenges in teaching in low-SES settings, and you name some of these. The literacy agreements were indeed intended to support common or shared approaches across each school but not the reduced opportunities for learning, the narrow views of what counts as literacy or the deficit views of what young people in these schools are capable of achieving that we saw in some classrooms.

  5. Jen says:

    You refer to scripted lessons, which suggests that the literacy lessons were conducted using evidence-based scripted programs. Is this correct? If so, I would be interested to know which scripted programs were being implemented in these 4 schools. Were all teachers provided with specific training in these programs by registered trainers? I would also appreciate your thoughts on whether the results may have been different had the research been conducted using a larger sample size. Also not mentioned is how the teachers using uncommon pedagogies made accommodations or supported the students that continued to lag behind their peers with their literacy. For example, how does a student think about significant personal and social issues, such as loneliness, hope and relationships, by engaging with relevant texts if they still struggle to read?

  6. Deb Hayes says:

    Hello Jen and thank you for you thoughtful question. All the approaches to literacy that were incorporated into the literacy agreements were evidence-based, and most of the teachers had completed related professional development. This was ongoing. As new teachers were appointed they were provided with necessary professional support. Teachers were implementing Accelerated Literacy, conducting regular assessment of each student’s progress, there were spelling agreements, a Literacy Block and all the basic literacy skills were being taught e.g., phonemic awareness, phonics, comprehension etc… For the purposes of a long-term ethnographic study, four schools provided us with a wealth of information about the conditions in these schools operating in challenging contexts. We chose schools that had strong leadership, and a good track record of engaging with their communities. So we believe that they were well chosen cases. The information we were able to gather by adopting this approach is simply not accessible through some large sample size studies that require different kinds of methods, such as surveys and structured observations. It’s interesting that you use the examples of thinking about loneliness, hope and relationships in the last part of your comment. We describe a wonderful lesson in the book where the teacher was able to engage students with a range of literacy skills to think about just these issues. I do hope you read the book for more details, and that wasn’t meant to be a plug, but there’s just not space to elaborate here, except to say that teachers who demonstrated uncommon pedagogies linked their lessons to their students’ experiences beyond school, and indeed used these experiences to develop reading and broader literacy skills.

  7. Brett says:


    I am still confused by what you refer to as scripted lessons. Can you outline further what you mean by this? I had not previously SEN anything on accelerated literacy. Is this what you are referring to as scripted practice? When I looked at their website though it does not refer to scripts – that I could find.

  8. Deb Hayes says:

    Hi again Brett, and thank you for seeking clarification about the term ‘scripted’. I acknowledge that it can have multiple meanings when referring to classroom practices. We use the term to describe what we saw – a narrow range of teaching strategies that varied little, and were generally unresponsive to students. In these classrooms, teachers were invoking the rhetoric of literacy practices designed in the name of differentiation, genre pedagogy, explicit teaching, etc, but there was a stark difference between the espoused pedagogy and how it was implemented.

  9. Hello Deb and thank you for your piece. What you are emphasising is a dilemma often apparent in the lives of teachers whom we visit and work with in schools. The demands placed on teachers to adopt approaches and programs also occur within complex policy environments (both local and global) and these, by their nature, constrain a diversity of interpretations and responses. This places significant demands on teachers. I appreciate the way that you are highlighting the subtle ways in which this complexity impacts on teachers’ adoption of common pedagogical practices in place of unique and uncommon responses that develop throughout a career (and in the subsequent ways that the requirement for common responses leads practitioners away from evaluating and emphasising the contributions that their expert perspectives and responses provide). The tension is related to how we can generate enough dialogue within the profession and the community to reinvigorate confidence within and in teachers, to value the varied interpretations and responses of teachers to their experiences, and, to value expertise in teaching in ways that can feed back into policy setting for momentum. Our broad education community has a job to do here in emphasising these points and it is wonderful to witness you leading some of this dialogue through this piece. Regards, Chad.

  10. Deb Hayes says:

    Thank you for your comment Chad and for elaborating on many important points. I agree with the tension you describe so clearly. During our research, we observed many remarkable teachers and educational leaders. There is so much to be learnt by listening to them, talking with them, and supporting them to do their job.

  11. Brett Youd says:


    i forgot to ask for context what ages were you looking at in this research.

  12. Deb Hayes says:

    Hi Brett, thanks for the question, we were looking at the first seven years of schooling, so children aged from about 5-12.

  13. Hello Deb,
    Thank you for voicing what I and many teachers with whom I have worked over the years are saying. I have always maintained that education is a “fad industry” and unfortunately since the 1960’s we have lurched from one method or programme to another in the search for the magic wand that will fix all of our literacy problems. The latest is “evidence-based” pedagogy, and throughout Australia teachers are being asked to demonstrate that they are using specific methods and programmes whether or not the teachers are trained in their use or they are suitable for the students. Those of us who have been around a long time, however, know that there is no “magic wand” and there is no one or even several evidence-based methods that will fit every student in every classroom in every community. We old hands know that you cannot even make what you did last year fit the new group of children you have this year, because they have different needs, are at different levels of development and progress at different rates. I am appalled at the amount of control over what is taught, how it should be taught, when it should be taught and how it should be assessed from Departments of Education throughout Australia. Teachers are being asked implement policies and guidelines about literacy learning which have to be applied to all students, but at the same time demonstrate how they are differentiating for individual students! Some students are bored and others haven’t a clue about what is being asked of them. Some teachers measure progress only in scores, numbers and levels without any real understanding of what they mean for student learning.
    Until we get back to concentrating on what individual students need to learn rather than on what programmes and methods work best according to academic research, we will not change literacy standards. The more we, as teachers, know about our students and what they need to learn, the more likely it is that we will choose the best methods and programmes because we will make sure there is a match that will be successful.

  14. Deb Hayes says:

    Hello Barbara, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. It is important to hear how policies are experienced by those expected to implement them. I think the phrase ‘evidence-based’ has been put to so many different uses that it can only be understood within the context in which it is applied. Sometimes it’s used to refer to a very narrow set of research practices, such as randomised-control tests or large-scale quantitative studies, which rules out the contribution of educational research such as my own. Educational research is a rich and diverse field and experienced teachers, such as yourself, know how to draw upon it to inform your practice. You’ve nicely articulated the problems that arise when you are required to adopt particular practices, and implement policies that you believe limit your professional capacity, and indeed may be harmful to your students. Thank you for reminding us that we need to support and resource you and your colleagues to make educational choices that are well matched to students’ learning needs, and informed by appropriate research.

  15. Hello Deb. Thank you for your article. I was encouraged to notice that the teachers in your study who implemented the ‘evidence based practices’ in uncommon ways provided intellectually challenging literacy learning that was relevant to social issues. This approach to teaching literacy moves students from just completing writing activities to actually being able to apply these literary skills in a real world setting. This is ultimately our goal as educators. I was also interested to see that the more successful literacy learning in the study was achieved by teachers who recognised the knowledge and experiences of the students in their class and designed learning tasks that were open ended. This is important as it allows for differentiation. Literacy strategies cannot be an add on. They must become part of the already rich learning environment.

  16. Deb Hayes says:

    Hello Annette and thank you for taking the time to elaborate on the kinds of literacy practices that create rich learning environments.
    My colleagues and I were inspired by the teachers we observed who found ways to integrate children’s experiences outside school in their classrooms. They had good relationships with the adults in their students’ lives (not only parents), and found ways to welcome them into the classroom. Interestingly, to the untrained eye, what these teachers were doing might look similar to what was happening in nearby classrooms. However, as I described in the blog post, it was ‘palpably different’. For me, this reinforces that it’s not so much what teachers do but how they do it. Any expectation that a particular kind of practice can be ‘rolled out’ in schools misses this very important point.
    Thanks again for extending the discussion and providing me with an opportunity to elaborate further on our research.

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