Dyslexia SA would like to thank Education Minister, Susan Close for supporting the implementation of a phonics check at the end of year one. Likewise, Shadow Education Minister, John Gardner for developing the Literacy Guarantee Policy. It certainly is a step in the right direction in closing the research to practice gap in the acquisition of reading for all South Australian children.
However, to have a truly effective and evidence-based literacy practice in systematic, synthetic phonics we need the right resources in our schools. The most effective resource which allows developing readers to practice their decoding skills is decodable readers (also referred to as phonics books).
Currently South Australian schools invest huge amounts of money in buying PM readers, (most parents know these as the levelled ‘take home’ readers). Our strong view is that PM readers are an inadequate reading resource based on the discredited ‘whole language’ system of reading which relies heavily on looking at pictures, saying the first sound and making a guess on what word fits best and not sequential decoding skills required for the teaching of phonics. Schools invest in these resources largely due to the mandated Running Records method of assessing reading progress. Our view on why Running Records should be abolished can be found here. Both the investment in decodable readers and abolishing Running Records goes hand in hand.
With record amounts of investment in education in the coming years a provision for updating our reading resources needs to be made. Australia’s literacy rates are poor, and trending downwards (PISA 2015). The Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2011-2012 Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies demonstrated that nearly 44% of Australians aged 15-74 years are functionally illiterate – they cannot engage in activities in which literacy is required for effective functioning of their group and community and therefore can’t to use reading, writing and calculation for their own and the community’s development.
Needs based funding must be evidence-based funding. Would our state government continue to invest in infrastructure if it was built with faulty materials or continue to offer discredited medical intervention in our hospitals if it was doing harm? We cannot teach phonics if we do not have the right foundations; PM readers and Running Records are doing more harm than good.
Australia’s leading reading researchers agree regarding the use of decodable readers and their views are shared below. We want to see every child starting school in 2018 to have decodable readers in every reception classroom; to be built upon each year until we have decodable readers in all reception to Year 2 classes in the state.
A phonics check and literacy coaches are ineffectual if a teacher and child do not have the right phonics-based resources. DECD must no longer waste tax payers’ money on non-evidence-based reading instruction. To invest in phonics means to invest in evidence. Decodable readers are the best reading resources for our South Australian children. Together we can make it happen. Decodable readers in all schools must be a funded election promise for 2018!
Why SA needs decodable readers:
Dr Jennifer Buckingham – Centre for Independent Studies
Decodable books are carefully designed to align with explicit, systematic phonics instruction. They are simple stories constructed using almost exclusively words that are phonetically decodable, using letters and letter-groups that children have learned in phonics lessons. The variety of letters and letter-groups that are included in decodable books increases as phonics instruction progresses.
Decodable books do not replace children’s literature. Children should use decodable books for practice reading aloud until they have achieved a sufficient level of accuracy in decoding to be able to read children’s literature aloud without guessing. Until then, children’s literature should be used in shared reading to develop vocabulary and comprehension.
Decodable books support readers in word identification, facilitate application of phonics instruction in reading (ie. for practice, ‘direct readers’ attention to letters and sounds (rather than other ‘cues’), and show readers the function of phonics within connected texts.
A research review by Cheatham and Allor (2012) found that, “Collectively, the results indicate that decodability is a critical characteristic of early reading text as it increases the likelihood that students will use a decoding strategy and results in immediate benefits, particularly with regard to accuracy.”
Dr Bartek Rajkowski, PhD – Speech-Language Pathologist
Council member, Learning Difficulties Australia
Synthetic phonics, in which students are taught to use the speech sounds that letters and groups of letters represent to crack the code in written language, has been shown through research to be the most effective method of reading instruction (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000; Rose, 2009; Rowe, 2005). Synthetic phonics has been shown to facilitate visual word recognition skills because it strengthens decoding skills which are used for self-teaching when reading (Share, 1999). Consequently, decodable readers are an integral and compulsory component of evidence-based teaching of reading. They give students the opportunity to apply what they have learned during synthetic phonics instruction by practicing reading text that is carefully matched to their decoding skills.
Unfortunately, Australian schools typically use readers that are not decodable and thus not compatible with an evidence-based approach to the teaching of reading. Many of these readers are based on the discredited ‘whole language’ approach to the teaching of reading (see Moats, 2007). Readers such as the popular ‘PM Benchmark’ series are levelled based on word frequency and language complexity without taking into account the grapheme-phoneme structure of words. For example, ‘because’ is a very common word in beginning readers but it is very difficult to decode. While they may be appropriate for students who have already learned the word patterns they contain, such readers are not in the best interests of beginning students who have not been taught the skills required to read them (for a more detailed explanation, see Clarke, 2016).
Not using decodable readers with children learning to read is like using unfamiliar mathematical symbols with children learning maths. Nobody would expect a student to solve a math problem containing concepts that had not yet been taught. Yet, this is what happens every time we give a beginner reader a text containing word patterns with which they are unfamiliar. Such an approach sets students up for failure.
Decodable readers enable students to improve their decoding and word recognition skills rather than developing desperate and unhelpful strategies such as guessing or looking at the pictures to figure out what the difficult words could be.
For many students, there is a discrepancy between language comprehension and word recognition skills. For example, most (but not all) beginning readers can describe what they did on the weekend even though they are still learning to crack the written code and decode simple words. For this reason, I suggest that Australian schools adopt a system in which beginning readers are given two readers to take home: one decodable reader matched to the student’s decoding ability for the student to read to their parent, and a second reader matched to the student’s listening comprehension skills that the parent reads to the student. Once students develop the ability to read the words on the page independently, they can transition to books chosen based on language complexity.
Prof Kevin Wheldall, Special Education Unit, Macquarie University
When we teach children to read using systematic, synthetic phonics (SSP), we introduce letter sound correspondences in a clearly defined sequence, one step at a time. For example, we might initially teach children the most common sounds associated with the letters a, s, t, i, l, n and m. We then show them how to blend (or synthesise) these sounds to read words like sat, mat, tin, and lit, etc. In order to provide as much practice as possible, so that children can generalize their newly acquired letter-sound knowledge and blending skills, we provide them with simple books specifically designed and sequenced to focus only on the letter sounds that they have learned. Regular books are not suitable for this purpose because they will typically contain many words containing letter sounds and blends that the children have not yet learned and which are likely to confuse them. We call these specially written and sequenced books decodable readers or ‘decodables’. The set of decodable readers will typically closely follow the sequence of letter sounds taught in a systematic, synthetic phonics program.
Dr Kerry Hempenstall, RMIT University, Retired
There is general agreement that phonics skills enhance reading progress for all students. However, beginners require encouragement to make use of these nascent phonic skills in their early attempts at decoding, because it is easier to guess than to decode. We know the guessing strategy is a dead end approach, but students do not understand this outcome. So, they need our support by providing them with considerate text. With just a few letter-sound relationships and the capacity to blend – the beginners can reliably decode words when the structure of the words requires only the skills they have to date.
The purpose of decodable text is to supply the scaffolded environment that enables students to successfully decode print. This has proved the best way of enhancing their progress. As they become fluent at using this limited range of skills while employing decodable text, then more challenging skills are introduced and the sophistication of the decodable text increases in concert. The alternative of using graded readers for this beginning group is that the texts lack the association between word structure and current phonics skills. The texts are graded on other criteria, and encourage guessing because many of the words will not be consonant with the students’ phonic skill level. Some teachers may express concern that such text is almost inevitably less sophisticated than students’ current language skills and therefore doesn’t challenge their comprehension. This is true, but in the early stages it is beneficial to overall student progress to separate the decoding demands of text from the comprehension demands. The well-accepted model of early reading progress “The Simple View of Reading” argues strongly for this separation. In this early stage, student comprehension is best developed through teachers’ reading text designed for the students’ current language skills.
- Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) – 2015 Key Findings. Australian Council for Educational Research | ACER. Web. 7 Apr. 2017. https://www.acer.org/ozpisa/key-findings
- Programme For The International Assessment Of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), Australia, 2011-2012. Abs.gov.au. Web. 7 Apr. 2017. http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/4228.0~2011-2012~Main%20Features~In%20this%20issue~2
- Clarke, A. (2016, February 18). Levelled books for guided reading. Retrieved June 5, 2017, from https://spelfabet.com.au/2016/02/levelled-books-for-guided- reading/
- Moats, L. (2007). Whole-Language High Jinks. Thomas B. Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED498005
- National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of
- Rose, J. (2009). Identifying and teaching children and young people with dyslexia and literacy difficulties: an independent report from Sir Jim Rose to the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families.
- Rowe, K. (2005). Teaching reading: Report and recommendations. Report of the Committee for the National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy. Canberra, ACT: Australian Government Department of Education, Science and Training. Available for Download at Http://Www. Gov. Au/Nitl/Report. Htm.
- Share, D. L. (1999). Phonological Recoding and Orthographic Learning: A Direct Test of the Self-Teaching Hypothesis. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 72(2), 95–129.