teaching reading

A Brief History of ‘The Reading Wars’

The so-called ‘Reading Wars’ have a long history within reading education. They began as a series of competing pedagogies, ‘Method A’ versus ‘Method B’ arguments, which were hotly defended and/or attacked by advocates and adversaries within the professional bodies representing reading education and resurface regularly, often fueled by media’s tendency to polarise the debate.

In the 1950s (when I began teaching) these debates involved a choice between two pedagogies, one based on a ‘look-and-say’ or ‘whole word’ based on visual-recognition-of-word-shapes principle, the other based on a transform-the-visual-signs-to-speech-sounds principle or ‘phonics’.

The debates about these two pedagogies can be traced back to a German educator, Professor Friederich Gedike.

who in 1779 wrote an essay in which he argued that reading instruction should go from whole words to the parts of these words, i.e. the letters. Since that time the debate between whole-to-part advocates and part-to-whole advocates has been a recurring feature of reading education. 

In the modern era this debate was re-ignited with the 1967 publication of Chall’s classic volume, Learning to Read: The great debate. Although Chall renamed the two approaches as ‘code-based’ versus ‘meaning-based’, reading pedagogy was still framed as an either/or choice between two theoretical options. By ‘code-based’ Chall meant the part-to-whole process of transforming the visual display to sounds and blending these sounds together to make words. By ‘meaning-based’ she meant the ‘whole-to-part’ process of accessing meaning directly from the visual display without first accessing sound.  Despite the renaming of the issue, it was essentially a continuation of the ‘look-say’ vs ‘phonics’ debate. By the seventies and eighties this code-based vs meaning based debate had morphed into a series of variant strains of the same dichotomy such as ‘literature-based’ versus ‘skills-based’, ‘implicit’ versus ‘explicit’, ‘holistic’ versus ‘fragmented’ and ‘top-down’ versus ‘bottom-up’. 

The term ‘whole-language’ as a variant of ‘meaning-based’ first appears in the literature in 1992 in a Canadian publication, Whole Language Evaluation for Classrooms by Oran Cochran. It quickly spread to the USA where ‘whole-language’ versus ‘phonics’ became the main way of describing the issue. However, the term ‘whole language’ doesn’t appear in the Australian reading community till around the mid-nineties.

Such a long history means that today’s teachers are heirs to a long tradition of (often acrimonious and unhelpful) debate about pedagogical methods, which are presented either as bi-polar opposites, or positions along a bi-polar continuum of some kind. It’s as if the field of reading has, for a long time, suffered from something analogous to serious bi-polar disorder.

From the late nineties to the present time these dichotomies seem to have coalesced into something more complex. They are no longer perceived as ‘debates’. Rather they seem to have assumed the stature of ‘wars’. 

Thus, we now have the so-called ‘reading (or literacy) wars’. Instead of debating the pros and cons of a simple bi-polar dichotomy, the profession seems to be immersed in an all-out ‘take-no-prisoners’ war often led by psychologists and other experts in related disciplines standing outside the classroom.

The use of this military metaphor first appeared in an article entitled, From a ‘Great Debate’ to a Full-Scale War: Dispute over teaching reading heats up,by Robert Rothman in the 1990 edition of the journal, Education Week. It was quickly picked up by a Californian grandmother named Marion Joseph. She claimed to be concerned that her grandchildren were being denied access to becoming literate because Chall’s research was being ignored by the Californian system. With the help of a Californian superintendent, Bill Honig, she mounted a relentless media campaign using the term ‘reading wars’ to force the Californian government to mandate a phonics first program in public schools. This notion of ‘reading wars’ began appearing in the Australian context in the mid to late 90s and has ebbed and flowed since then. Most recently in Australia the ‘wars’ have been characterised as ‘synthetic phonics’ versus ‘balanced literacy’ although ‘balanced literacy’ has often been erroneously conflated with ‘whole language’.

A consequence of these ‘reading wars’ was the demand that only pedagogies, which are ‘evidence-based’, or ‘scientifically derived’ should be applied in the nation’s literacy classrooms. However, invoking ‘science’ and ‘evidence-based research’ as a way to reduce the theoretical confusion surrounding literacy education doesn’t seem to have helped much.There are quite distinct views of ‘good science’ and ‘good evidence’ held within the education research community. All that seems to have happened is that a new round of argument and debate about whose science and whose evidence should be considered, has begun

Such a state of affairs begs the following question: Why is reading education so pedagogically confused? The answer to this question lies in history as well as in different understandings about what reading is.

My research and the hundreds of research papers written on this topic have led me to believe that the notion of ‘teaching phonics effectively’ is contingent on how one defines, thinks, and talks about such concepts as ‘effective reading’ and ‘effective learning’. Until the community comes to some agreement on what these terms actually entail in the 2020s and beyond, the same theoretical squabbles will continue to plague education. Such theoretical arguments are not helpful for the teaching profession or the teaching of reading. To date, not enough attention has been paid to educators’ experiences and their evidence in helping children learn to read in classroom contexts.

Brian Cambourne is principal honorary fellow at the University of Wollongong and foundation patron of the Foundation for Learning and Literacy. He is a lifelong researcher of literacy and learning. He completed his PhD at James Cook University, was a post-doctoral Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Fulbright Scholar.

References

Australian Literacy Educators Association, Summary of the ALEA Submission to the National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy. Accessed at: www.alea.edu.au/ 

Chall, J. (1967). Learning to read: the great debate. New York: McGraw Hill.

Cochran, O. (1992). Whole language evaluation for classrooms. Accessed at:

https://www.loot.co.za/index/html/index2784.html

Ewing, R. (ed). (2006) Beyond the reading wars. A balanced approach to helping children learn to read. Primary English Teaching Association Australia, Newton.

Paisey, D. Learning to read: Professor Friederich Gedike. Primer of 1791. Accessed at: https://www.bl.uk/eblj/1978articles/pdf/article11.pdf

Rothman, R. (1990). From a ‘Great Debate’ to a Full-Scale War: Dispute over teaching reading heats up,Education Week. Accessed at: https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/from-a-great-debate-to-a-full-scale-war-dispute-over-teaching-reading-heats-up/1990/03

Snyder, I. (2008) The literacy wars: why teaching children to read is a battleground in Australia. Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

The Reading wars are over: Whole language vs. Phonics Accessed at: https://supermemo.guru/wiki/Reading_wars_are_over:_Whole_language_vs._Phonics 

To cite this paper: Cambourne, B. (2021) A brief history of the ‘reading wars’ https://foundationforlearningandliteracy.info 

The cover image: George Hodan has released this “Child And Books” image under Public Domain license.

The terrible truth about reading rates in Australia (and how to fix them)

One in five of all our students fail to achieve minimum levels of reading or maths. That’s shocking. What’s even more shocking is that if you look at the pool of disadvantaged students, that figure skyrockets to one in three, compared to one in ten among advantaged students.

But some disadvantaged students beat the odds and succeed – and that’s we call academic resilience.

These figures are straight from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).  The good news is we can fix this but there is a long way to go. One key difference between the resilient and non-resilient is the growth mindset,  a belief that one’s ability can increase over time, that intelligence is not fixed but changeable. Encouraging students to believe that will be a key driver in any changes and any improvement. 

In addition to scoring lower on tests such as PISA, research has shown that students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds have poorer educational outcomes than their more affluent peers on a range of measures, including school completion

Yet, despite this association between socioeconomic disadvantage and poorer educational outcomes, a small number of students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds do excel at school. Just over 13 per cent of socioeconomically disadvantaged Australian students, and 11 per cent of students across the OECD on average, show what PISA terms ‘academically resilience’ by scoring in the highest quartile of reading literacy performance. 

This apparent success despite the odds is the focus of a new ACER report that examines what, if any, characteristics these academically resilient students share, why this might be, and what we can learn from this small group that might assist in improving outcomes for all students.

Enjoyment of reading helps

Learning to read is a challenging task that requires persistence and motivation. It has been suggested that enjoyment of reading and motivation to master tasks may be two manifestations of academic resilience. Similarly, Dweck suggests goal-oriented students tend to be academically resilient and exhibit higher levels of confidence than others, and they are likely to seek challenges and be persistent. 

In Australia, and across the OECD on average, academically resilient students tended to enjoy reading more, were willing to work hard to master tasks, and indicated more of an inclination to set and pursue goals than did non-academically resilient students.  

Figure 1.  Differences between resilient and non-resilient students in attitudes and dispositions

While these findings may be as one would expect, there is interesting variation across other participating countries in students’ enjoyment of reading. In Japan and the participating Chinese jurisdictions, both academically resilient and non-academically resilient students scored at or above the OECD average on the enjoyment of reading index. In Denmark, Norway and Sweden neither group appeared to really enjoy reading, although non-resilient students enjoyed it less than resilient students. 

Figure 2. Average scores on Enjoyment of reading index, resilient and non-resilient students, Australia and comparison countries

Gender differences at play

Given that females outperform males in PISA reading literacy in every country, gender is likely to be a major factor in whether a student is academically resilient. Interestingly, while a larger proportion of Australian female students than male students were academically resilient, there was no statistically significant difference between their reading literacy scores. This suggests the resilient males are even more resilient than their female peers.

Table 1. Mean scores PISA 2018 Reading Literacy, by gender

Australian femalesMean (Standard Error)Australian malesMean (Standard Error)
Whole cohort 519 (2.0)487 (2.2)
Non-resilient students373 (4.1)352 (3.5)
Resilient students613 (6.0)617 (7.3)

Whole school influences

Prior research has found that the average socioeconomic profile of a students’ school is strongly associated with their performance on PISA.

While a substantial proportion of academically resilient Australian students attend schools in the lowest socioeconomic group, far more resilient students than non-resilient students attended schools in the highest two quarters of aggregated socioeconomic background, suggesting that attending schools with more advantaged peers may play a role in a student’s chance of being academically resilient. 

Table 2. Distribution of resilient and non-resilient students by school socioeconomic background

School aggregated Socioeconomic backgroundResilient students (%)Non-resilient students (%)
Lowest quarter3957
Second quarter3028
Third quarter2012
Highest quarter114

There are a number of reasons attending schools with more advantaged peers may play a role in a student’s chance of being academically resilient. It may be the influence of peers on students’ motivation for learning, or because the more advantaged schools themselves have better access to resources than less disadvantaged schools, that students attending more advantaged schools receive stronger support from parents or teachers, or perhaps that they were selected to attend these schools on scholarship.

The importance of a growth mindset 

Research has shown that holding a ‘growth mindset’ – a belief that your ability can increase over time – is linked to better academic achievement and can even temper the effects of socioeconomic disadvantage.

Data from PISA supports this theory, as Australia’s academically resilient students were more likely than non-academically resilient students to hold a growth mindset. Eighty per cent of academically resilient students disagreed with the statement ‘your intelligence is something about you that you can’t change very much’, compared to just 41 per cent of non-resilient students and 70 per cent of Australian students on average.

Growth mindset, along with enjoyment of reading, motivation and goal setting, stand out against gender and school profile as areas related to academic resilience that can be readily targeted by education systems to help address socioeconomic disadvantage. By directly addressing these issues in the classroom, we may be able to improve outcomes for the 87 per cent of Australian students who have not overcome their disadvantage.

Dr Sue Thomson is Deputy CEO (Research) at the Australian Council for Educational Research, and the National Manager of the PISA project.

Cover Image by Bruce Matsunaga / Flickr

Here’s what Australian parents think about teaching phonics to pre-schoolers

Phonics remains one of the most controversial literacy instruction topics debated in Australian education. Early childhood prior-to-school settings have not been immune to the phonics debate, usually centered on the first years of formal schooling. Media, policy makers, academics and teachers views often dominate the phonics debate, but parents and carers of young children also want to have their voice heard on this highly contentious topic.

Explicit systematic phonics instruction, including commercially produced phonics program use, is occurring in the prior-to-school years; in some cases with children as young as 2 years of age. This formal approach to phonics does not always fit within the play-based pedagogies advocated by early childhood literacy researchers and teachers in the prior-to-school years.

As a former preschool teacher I was aware of the value of parent-teacher partnerships in supporting children’s literacy education. This motivated my investigation of parents’ perceptions of phonics in prior-to-school settings. In previous research I revealed perceived parental pressure reported by early childhood educators as a reason for including more formalised phonics lessons and commercial phonics program use, with very young children before they start school.

My research project

My survey research investigated the literacy beliefs of parents whose children attended prior-to-school settings including early learning centres attached to schools, community based kindergartens and long day care centres. The survey focused on parental beliefs about phonics in preschools and their expectations of literacy learning in early childhood.

Parental beliefs about phonics

The increase in formalisation of narrow literacy practices continues to create tension between those who favour either adult-led phonics practice or child-initiated play. Just as researchers, politicians and teachers are divided on their views about appropriate phonics instruction, parents also report different views about the level of importance placed on phonics and how phonics should be taught. Overwhelmingly, nearly all parents reported that phonics was important and wanted phonics taught in the prior-to-school years, but not necessarily through explicit, systematic, synthetic methods.

I found many parents expressed concern about task-orientated, narrow teaching approaches and a synthetic phonics first and fast method. These are is similar findings to a previous UK study.

Over 90% of parents in my study reported the belief that the best way for children to develop alphabet letter and sound knowledge is through play-based learning, as the following parents described:

Clair: I truly believe that children attending kindergarten* should be playing…the idea of a kindergarten implementing a literacy program is absurd.

Tamara: I believe that phonics instruction has no place in a pre-prep* context…I’m incredibly concerned by the pressure applied to children to learn phonics.

Dana: My child is so happy at kindy* and I’m not sure he would be if it was too structured and literacy based. If he shows an interest though of course I would have no problem with this (structured phonics).

*Kindergartens, kindy and pre-prep are Queensland’s terms for the years prior to formal schooling. Pseudonyms have been used.

Phonics in early childhood

Parents agreed with research that a child’s alphabetic knowledge is one of the precursors for later reading success. Children’s experiences with alphabet letters and sound learning can vary as phonics can be taught in different ways.

The most common phonics methods are synthetics, (a specific method of teaching sounds and building up to reading words) analytic (breaking down a word into parts if you don’t know the word) and ‘blended’ methods (a mix of synthetic and analytic approaches depending on the teachers’ literacy lesson intensions). Commercial phonics programs often follow synthetic phonics methods with explicit teaching of isolated letter-sound relationships, which are then blended to form words.

The use of commercial phonics programs and synthetic phonics teaching methods are on the rise in Australia. However, an over-reliance on one method for teaching phonics has been critiqued in the research literature.

The issue with synthetic phonics and commercial phonics program use in the prior-to-school years, with children aged five years and younger, is that academic literacy learning should not be separated from play. In other words, with children aged birth-to-five, phonics should be supported, but through contextualised and play-based learning. Contextualised learning occurs when a child’s immediate interests are taken into consideration. For example, when talking about letters in the child’s own name, or the name of the child’s family and friends.

Nearly all parents in my research did not want 2, 3 and 4 year old children sitting down as a whole group, in front of a teacher, responding to flash cards or rote chanting songs.

What do parents want?

  • A large number of parents want early childhood teachers in the prior-to-school years to begin teaching phonics, but insist instruction should occur through meaningful play-based experiences, rather than teachers supplying worksheets and using commercial phonics programs. Only a small number of parents agreed commercial phonics programs should be used in the prior-to-school years.
  • There was disagreement between parent responses over whether learning all or some alphabet letters and sounds in preschool were important. Around to-thirds of parents believed if children knew their alphabet letters and sound in preschool, they will read more easily when they start school.
  • I further found over one-third of parents wanted early childhood teachers to focus more on reading and writing with children, ensuring children could name all 26-alphabet letters before starting school. However, there were also a third of parents who did not share this view, and were against preschool teachers focusing on learning to name, or label, all alphabet letters in the prior-to-school years.
  • There were also differences in some responses between parents who chose to send their children to school-based early learning centres, long day care centres, and community based kindergartens. Parents whose children attended school-based early learning centres were more likely to place a higher importance on phonics and name writing, than parents in stand-alone long day care centres and community based kindergartens. Parents of children in school-based early learning centres were also more likely to want teachers to use commercial phonics programs.
  • Many parents wanted teachers to support children in learning to write their name. This view is consistent with research on children’s name writing as a way of supporting early phonics learning in preschools.
  • Parents also supported their child’s phonics learning at home. Over 70% of parents reported they engaged in shared reading of alphabet books with their children. Half of the parents reported providing their children with access to TV shows and technology that specifically supported alphabet learning, such as Sesame Street and alphabet apps. They also purchased alphabet colouring in books for their children as a way of encouraging familiarity with the English alphabet letters.

A parent-teacher shared view on phonics

Positive relationships between early childhood literacy rich play environments and explicit phonics learning can occur when appropriate adult support and literacy materials are made available for children in meaningful contexts, such as adults drawing attention to letters and sounds in children’s own name and shared picture book reading.

Policy makers, academics and teachers are not the only big players in the phonics debate. Parents want their views heard – ultimately this debate is about their children. Parents are the children’s first and primary teachers so it is important that we understand parental views on phonics, because beliefs impact on the types of literacy practices children experience.

Parents want phonics in preschools, but emphasise the importance of play. A shared parent-teacher understanding and positive partnerships can ultimately support children’s literacy development.

 

Dr Stacey Campbell is a lecturer in early childhood at Queensland University of Technology. Her research focuses on early childhood literacy, phonics, teacher and parent beliefs and practices. Stacey completed a mixed-methods PhD in code-related literacy and phonics whilst working as an early childhood lecturer at Macquarie University. In addition to her PhD, she has a Masters degree in children’s literature and two teaching degrees, one in early childhood birth-to-eight and another in primary school education. Stacey also has over 10 years experience as an early childhood teacher in both the prior-to-school years and early years of school.

 

Stacey presented her paper on parental perceptions of phonics at the 2018 AARE conference this week.

 

Teaching literacy is more than teaching simple reading skills: it can’t be done in five easy steps

If we truly care about all Australian children and young people becoming literate I believe it is vital we understand and define the complexity of literacy.

The conflation of different terms like reading instruction and literacy is not very useful. While reading is part of literacy, literacy is a much bigger concept which is continually changing due to the ever-increasing forms of literacy that are developing.

Educators who specialise in literacy are currently working with the Australian Curriculum definition (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority) which defines literacy as encompassing:

…listening to, reading, viewing, speaking, writing and creating oral, print, visual and digital texts, and using and modifying language for different purposes in a range of contexts.

Literacy encompasses the knowledge and skills students need to access, understand, analyse and evaluate information, make meaning, express thoughts and emotions, present ideas and opinions, interact with others and participate in activities at school and in their lives beyond school….

Becoming literate is not simply about knowledge and skills. Certain behaviours and dispositions assist students to become effective learners who are confident and motivated to use their literacy skills broadly.

For example, the Australian curriculum’s definition of literacy thus far exceeds the ‘key skills’ addressed in the recently launched FIVE from FIVE project proposed by the Centre for Independent Studies. FIVE from FIVE is being touted, with much fanfare, as some all-encompassing way of teaching children to read. Evidence-based methods of how to teach reading differ markedly from such simplistic ‘solutions’.

Each one of the ‘five key skills’ (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension) listed by the FIVE from FIVE project is indeed an important skill. This is why they are already embedded in most teachers’ reading programs. In my experience there are few literacy educators who would deny the importance of phonics and phonemic awareness (identifying, thinking about, and working with the individual sounds in words) as needed when becoming literate.

However, these are not the only skills needed in helping a child learn to read. Any child being taught to read in a way that focuses solely on these skills will be short-changed. I believe that asserting that such a program is sufficient could be damaging to many children as it could lead to them disengaging from the literacy learning process.

Stop telling teachers there is a simplistic way to teach reading

Like many educators, I am fed up with the suggestion that teachers and principals, parents and policymakers are unaware of the importance of teaching these skills. Competent, experienced readers sample just enough visual information to feel satisfied that they have grasped the meaning so far of whatever text they are reading. They also bring their past experiences and knowledge of language to the information in a specific text and use prediction and questioning strategies to test and re‐test that they have understood the author’s purpose in a particular context. An over‐emphasis on letter‐sound relationships can be very confusing for children learning to read.

Australian teachers, principals, parents and policymakers already have a deep understanding of the repertoire of strategies and approaches that need to be chosen to suit the intellectual and learning needs of individual children. They know how important it is to make sure that all children learn to read for meaning and to enjoy the process.

Let’s talk about what is important

I agree with eminent Australian literacy educators and educational researchers Emmitt, Hornsby and Wilson who explain that the:

Three important sources of information in text are meaning, grammar and letter‐sound relationships – often referred to as semantics, syntax and graphophonic relationships respectively. Emmitt, Hornsby and Wilson (2013, p.3)

These sources, or cueing systems, work together simultaneously. Over‐emphasis on any one cueing system when learning to read is not effective.

Also, as teachers know, a rich vocabulary and fluency are significant but children need to be able to go beyond simple literal ‘comprehension’ of a text. They need to be able to make inferences and evaluate the importance of words within a text.

Teachers of reading today share rich authentic literary texts with their students. They know extensive research has demonstrated the importance of prediction and questioning strategies in learning to be literate.

One of the best ways for children to excel in reading comprehension tasks is for them to have the opportunity to interact widely with a wide range of books, selected by them, for enjoyment.

Children not only need to learn how to make meaning from text to carefully analyse the arguments or assertions in a text, to evaluate texts, but also how to create their own with confidence and creative flair.

There is no single recipe for literacy learning. The FIVE from FIVE project is yet another implicit criticism of the Australian teaching profession; and a good example of what we should not be doing by reducing the teaching of reading to five skills.

Instead we should be investing in more teachers to work with the children who need more intensive support. Our public schools should be appropriately funded to provide rich authentic resources and ongoing teacher professional learning. These are the things that will make a difference.

 

EwingRobyn Ewing is Professor of Teacher Education and the Arts at the University of Sydney. She teaches in the areas of curriculum, English and drama, language and early literacy development. She works with both undergraduate and postgraduate pre-service and inservice teachers. Robyn’s research has particularly focused on the use of educational or process drama with authentic literary texts to develop students’ imaginations and critical literacies. She has been published widely in this area. Her current research interests also include teacher education, especially the experiences of early-career teachers and the role of mentoring; sustaining curriculum innovation; and evaluation, inquiry and case-based learning.

 Robyn was president of the Primary English Teachers Association from 2001-2006 and is immediate past president of the Australian Literacy Educators Association (ALEA) and former vice president of Sydney Story Factory.  She is also a council member of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS), an Honorary Associate with Sydney Theatre Company, Board member of West Words and Visiting Scholar at Barking Gecko Children’s Theatre. She enjoys working collaboratively with classroom teachers interested in innovative curriculum practices.