Early literacy: Paradigm shift or pure common sense?

Jenni Connor, Tasmania, Australia.

Section 1: Context and debate: 'The literacy wars'

International data shows that Australian school students compare well in literacy with the performance of other OECD countries, but some are not achieving 'acceptable literacy standards. (National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy, 2004)

(Of course, as we will discuss later in this paper, it is particular groups and subgroups that currently do not reach 'acceptable literacy standards'.)

In the past year there has been a media feeding frenzy as wild claims are made both about 'the good old days' when (according to mythology) all children were literate and traditional teaching methods worked; and, about the 'appalling extremes of laissez faire methods' which 'leave children to learn to read unassisted'.

As a result, in November 2004, Minister Nelson announced a National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy. The Inquiry would 'focus on identifying ways in which research about approaches to teaching literacy, particularly approaches for assisting students with reading difficulties, can best inform teacher education and classroom teaching practice'. Submissions were called from December 2004 and the Inquiry's Report was handed down in December 2005.

A number of respondents pointed out immediately, that there were risks in the Inquiry's terms of reference. They suggested that it was potentially reductionist and could focus on symptoms, not causes; that it compartmentalised literacy, implying that there were entirely different methods of teaching 'for children with difficulties' and other, entirely different methods 'for children without difficulties'. Respondents feared that it could lead to the promotion of the worst of behaviourist pedagogy - decontextualised drill and practice - and that the rich practices and balanced programs of good teachers could be disvalued.

Part of the impetus for both the media furore and the Inquiry was the publication of the findings of 'the National Reading Panel' in the USA (NICHD, 2000).

Respondents to the Australian Inquiry were understandably critical of the Reading Panel's approach, biases and apparently simplistic findings.

For example, the Reading Panel had claimed that:

. scientific research . unequivocally showed that beginning readers needed phonemic awareness (the ability to hear and manipulate sounds in words) as a necessary prerequisite for learning to decode and that 'good readers' are fluent and automatic decoders, and that poor readers rely overly on context. (Australian Literacy Educators' Association (ALEA), 2004)

The ALEA submission goes on to say that the Reading Panel report refers to 'effective readers', 'good readers' etc., but gives no definition of either. These definitions are ever changing. For some people, 'effective reading' might mean the ability to pronounce nonsense words, for others, pronouncing real words in isolation, for others, reading aloud smoothly and rapidly. ALEA suggests that the Panel's report does not seem to recognise reading as 'comprehending text'. The Panel's study implies that 'if sound, letter and word processes could be solved, literacy problems could be solved. The report promotes a 1950s view of reading; a psycho-perceptual perspective that views reading as a set of skills and teaching as a process of transmitting and reinforcing those skills' (ALEA, 2004, p.5).

In the view of most Australian researchers, learning to read is a complex socio-cultural process. As Rowe and Rowe (1999, p.2) state:

. simplistic single-level, unidirectional models . have hitherto failed to account for the commonsense notion that students' behaviour and learning outcomes are mediated by complex, interrelated factors which operate over time and interact in dynamic context - the most crucial of which are homes, classrooms, schools and specific sociocultural milieu.

Theoretically, where are we now?

Shifts in theoretical orientation over the past 40 years, deriving from psycholinguistics, (Brown, 1970; Smith, 1971, 1994; Goodman, 1969) strongly suggest that reading is more a language process than it is a perceptual process. Later work by Bloome & Green (1985); Heath (1983); Gee (1989, established that:

. the understanding that all language and hence all literacy learning is grounded in the material motives of human interaction, with all its social, political and economic faces. (Pearson, 2004)

We are currently at a 'transactional view of reading and writing, which means that we see literacy as a meaning construction process .' (Whitemore et al., 2005).

Transactional theory is influenced by the work of John Dewey (1938) and informed by Kenneth Goodman's (1969) work in language development and Vygotsky's (1978) learning theories.

According to this view, language is generated by the child, but changed in transactions with others and their responses. All school learning must therefore be regarded as a continuation of a previous learning history.

  • Literacy is individual.
  • Literacy is social.
  • Literacy is a cultural practice.

Even children 'at risk' engage in reading and writing, listening and speaking. Even the most impoverished home environment surrounds children with print; they don't all do the same things with it.

Children in varied economic, language and cultural populations are aware that written language makes sense and strive to see how it works. All children form hypotheses about linguistic rules for writing down speech and try out patterns. Children refine their written language through experience. They use the three cuing systems - semantic, syntactic and graphophonic to infer, predict, confirm, disconfirm and correct; they don't always use the most efficient strategy unless guided to do so.

Literacy is social and children reveal their understandings about the functions of print through play and group talk. Talk is a powerful means of rehearsing for composing and clarifying meanings.

Literacy is a complex cultural practice that is part of children's identities and everyday lives in and out of school. It's the connections that matter. When children enter school the literacy environment can be as foreign as a new language. They are not always able to use their funds of knowledge (Moll, 1992). For example, in Tasmania, a suite of action research projects was undertaken by teachers and child care professionals. One of these investigated the home literacy practices of children from families considered 'at risk'. The practitioner researchers visited homes, observed and documented literacy events and interactions and analysed their data against expected literacy behaviours for four- and five-year-olds. They found, to their surprise that homes were rich sites for literacy learning, but that they, as educators, had not been using children's out-of-school experiences in the classroom and centre.

It is clear that many children must negotiate the culture of the mainstream, dominant society to succeed in school.

Teachers who work within the transactional frame are mediators who help children reach their individual academic potentials at school while maintaining the richness of their sociocultural positions in their homes and communities. (Whitemore et al., p.302)

As Judith Rivalland notes (2004), in the 1980s and 1990s a growing body of research demonstrated that literacy is a social practice - (Heath, 1983; Heath & Mangiola, 1991; Ogbu, 1987; Luke, 1993; Luke & Freebody, 1999). From this perspective, literacy development was seen to be shaped by the social practices of the cultural context in which learning takes place. This research suggested that:

The socialisation processes in which children are engaged have a strong influence on the ways in which they participate in the pedagogical routines of school classrooms (Baker, 1991; Comber, 1993; Dyson, 1993, 1997); and the social, cultural and linguistic backgrounds of children influence success in school literacy learning (Luke, 1997; Freebody, 1992; Purcell-Gates, 1989) (Rivalland, 2004, p.142).

Section 2: What we know about what effective literacy teachers do

Professor Peter Freebody (AJLL, 2005) draws attention to the fact that, recently, researchers have come to value and document teachers' work. This form of intensive observation-based research in classrooms, with 'real teaching going on' is often referred to as 'grounded theory' (Strauss & Corbin, 1998; Wharton-McDonald, Pressley & Hampston, 1998; Pressley et al., 2001).

These studies clearly demonstrate that 'effective' primary grade instruction is a complex balancing of:

  • teaching reading and writing skills;
  • students reading excellent literature and composing longer and more communicative texts;
  • teachers developing management plans that are so effective they appear 'seamless'; and
  • teachers' substantial and successful efforts to engage and motivate their students. (ALEA, 2004, pp.14-15)

A study by Bill Louden, Mary Rohl and colleagues from Edith Cowan University, called In Teachers' Hands (Barratt-Pugh, 2005) derives from grounded theory. It provides a fine grained and deep exploration of exactly what effective teaching practices look like.

Key aspects of the study are captured in the Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, Vol. 28, No. 3, 2005. In the preface to the collection of articles, Professor Peter Freebody from the School of Education, the University of Queensland, notes that there was a time when the daily work of teachers was the last topic of any researcher, but there has been a shift to value and document the work of teachers. These 'naturalistic' and 'ethnographic' approaches need a mix of quantitative and qualitative data to be able to give attention both to the detail of practice, and patterns across practice.

He also points out that there has been a recent recognition of the critical importance of non-cognitive, social aspects of learning. Social and personal skills, such as flexibility, adaptability, confidence and collaboration, don't just facilitate cognitive learning, but they are key learnings in themselves that inform life pathways.

In educational research, especially into literacy teaching and learning, there is a new focus on breadth of teaching repertoire. It is clear that effective teachers make knowledge explicit so that it is portable, flexible and transferable. Such teachers are 'artfully dynamic'. In Teachers' Hands supports these emphases on repertoire and explicitness in teaching.

Context for the study

For at least 40 years, opinion on literacy teaching methods has been highly polarised. 'The Reading Wars' dichotomised advocates of a 'whole language' meaning-oriented approach and advocates of a phonics letter/sound and word-level approach. In the past two years in Australia, there has been a media furore over phonics versus whole language following the release of the findings of the National Reading Panel in the US (NICHD 2000).

In reality, effective teachers 'juggle' or 'orchestrate' both within the competing demands of the classroom.  The literacy research indicates that they develop a balanced literacy curriculum which:

  • is explicitly taught
  • includes word and text level knowledge
  • builds skills including phonemic awareness, phonics knowledge, fluency, comprehension and oral language.

This study analysed student outcomes to identify groups of children who learned more or less than expected during a year and then examined the literacy practices of their teachers.

The study describes six dimensions of literacy teaching:

  • participation
  • knowledge
  • orchestration
  • support
  • differentiation
  • respect

The study looked at 200 classes of first- and second-year students assessed using literacy assessment tasks developed for ACER's Longitudinal Literacy and Numeracy Study (LLANS, Meirs & Rowe, 2002) which include phonolological awareness, print concepts, children reading aloud, making meaning from text and writing in response to texts.

Three groups of teachers were studied in a small, but deep sample:

2 - 'more effective'

4 - 'effective'

4 - 'less effective'

An instrument - the Classroom Literacy Observation Schedule (CLOS) - was designed on two axes: 'Teaching Activity' and 'Teaching Practice'.

The study found that there was little variation in the activities employed, although effective teachers used more:

  • reading to children
  • interactive writing
  • independent writing
  • language experience.

Less effective teachers used more:

  • guided oral reading
  • isolated phonics
  • task board activities.

In terms of the teaching practices, however, more-effective teachers used a much wider variety of practices across the six dimensions of the CLOS, while less-effective teachers used a limited number of practices - it's about repertoire.


In the participation dimension, pleasure was the critical factor. The classroom fun factor has a vital motivating effect. (Noted early childhood expert, Lillian Katz refers to 'pleasurable intensity'.) This is particularly important when there is minimal intrinsic motivation - e.g. low-SES children are often less motivated to engage with school learning, and there may be less pressure and expectation from home. All children begin school motivated, but if not stimulated in the classroom, alienation often sets in, disruptive behaviour results and learning difficulties ensue.

***Pleasure was seldom observed in the classrooms of less effective teachers.

In terms of the knowledge dimension, teachers' deep understandings about literacy were important, but also their use of modelling with cognitive explanations and use of metalanguage - they let children in on the secret.

In terms of 'Orchestration', pace was important - there was a lot of energy evident and transitions were smooth and utilised, not dragged out.

In terms of 'Support', intelligent scaffolding was vital. Effective teachers assessed children's needs on the run and utilised grouping and group activities to model and correct target individuals.

In terms of 'Differentiation', effective teachers formed close connections between children's knowledge and interests from home and community and class learning.

In terms of 'Respect', effective teachers built children's independence better, supporting children to take responsibility for their own learning. This depended on children being clear about the Purpose of what they were doing and getting explicit and informative feedback.

**In effective classrooms, 'no child could escape from learning because of the teachers' drive for improved outcomes and their passion for their work' (AJLL, 2005, p.223).

The knowledge dimension

Effective teachers' knowledge bases derived from: variety of teaching experience, postgraduate study and professional development.

Effective teachers not only had a deep understanding about the processes of literacy learning, but a capacity to select and use this understanding to mediate the learning of particular children.

Most early lit classrooms are print-rich environments, but effective teachers engage children with it.

Similarly, most teachers use modelling, but effective teachers gave high quality metacognitive explanations that revealed their deep knowledge and they gave this language to children for their metacognitive purposes and future learning.

Less effective teachers often had lower level purposes and they left these implicit for children to guess (Indigenous students and low SES often don't realise what they're meant to pay attention to).


Effective teachers are 'masterful'. You can't just learn and apply a few generic teaching skills (cf. Hill & Crevola). It's not the methodology that varies, but how you orchestrate the performance of teaching. Effective teachers responded quickly to learning opportunities and gave a sense of urgency, as if every moment is precious.


Support depends very much on teachers' knowledge of literacy and literacy learning and their formal and informal ongoing assessments for learning. On the basis of assessment, they can scaffold and provide appropriate and explicit feedback. They need a fine grained knowledge of children's performance to make informed decisions.

Scaffolding (as explained later deriving from the work of Vygotsky & Bruner) through modelling and questioning is used to correct and extend children's understandings and is gradually withdrawn as children make the task their own.

Effective teachers provide TIME for students to practise with a partner or group, so that word identification becomes automatic and students can be free to focus on higher order operations.


Differentiation involves tailoring teaching to the unique cognitive and socio-cultural understandings of each child and assisting children to make connections between the known and the new.

It's the ways teachers match task to group needs, and then adjust support to individual needs, that determine the outcomes for individual students.

Effective differentiated teaching is 'beyond phonics'; learning literacy in these classrooms is more than decoding. These teachers help children to move beyond literal interpretation to more cognitively demanding interpretations, explanations and justifications. They focus on meaning while deconstructing and constructing. Effective teachers move beyond 'what' questions, to 'why and how' questions.

'Connection' in this dimension does not leave children with family and community literacy practices; it builds on the familiar and 'unlocks the unfamiliar, giving access to new forms, functions and rules of literacy' (MacNaughton, G., 2001).

***Research indicates that a mismatch between community and school knowledge contributes to low literacy performance for many children.


While all teachers were obviously caring, 'warmth' was less evident in less effective classrooms and independence was virtually absent. Less effective teachers organised the same activities, but they weren't conducted in the same climate.

Literacy activities

While shared book and independent writing appeared in both kinds of classrooms, effective teachers do a large amount of scaffolding before children begin writing. They make the features of the genre explicit and remind children about these features, using metalanguage: 'Remember, it needs first person, past tense for a recount'.


Effective teaching requires teachers who:

  • can stimulate high levels of student participation
  • are deeply knowledgeable about literacy learning
  • can simultaneously orchestrate a wide variety of classroom activities
  • can support and scaffold learners at word and text levels
  • can target and differentiate their instruction
  • can do all this in classrooms characterised by mutual respect.

While the study did not measure children's growth in the affective domain, effective teachers created a climate that fostered these aspects of growth.

All research in the area of literacy and learning pinpoints the quality of the individual teacher as the key to student success. This study unpacks what these teachers do that is different.

Clearly, the research points to 'a balanced approach' that includes learning about letter/sound correspondences and guided practice of skills. However, it also clearly indicates that a focus on the comprehension of texts at the same time and creating an enjoyable situation for learning are optimal contexts for literacy learning.

Section 3: Why doesn't it work for everyone then?

Because class matters?

Social class is contentious in Australia for cultural and historical reasons. It confronts the myth of an egalitarian society born of convicts and pioneers. Yet poverty, so strongly connected to social class, remains an enormously strong determinant of school success. Nationally and internationally, social class correlates with achievement and school retention within ethnic and racial groups.

Nick Davies, a journalist/activist in the UK, stridently and persuasively asserted the perpetuation of educational inequality based on class (The Guardian, 15 September, 1999). 'The single most important factor in a school's performance is its intake: bright children who perform well can lift the performance of others around them . Poor children are more inclined to fail, if you isolate them, you guarantee failure'. In Australia, the politic of 'parental choice' may well be having a similar effect on the resources - monetary, political and academic - of individual school sites?

Hampel (1993) suggested four beliefs underpinning Australia's reluctance to admit to and deal with social class:

  • 'All individuals have opportunities in this egalitarian society.'
  • 'Social class is beyond the control of the school.'
  • 'Talking about class is divisive - I treat all children the same.'

§ 'It's just how it is.'

While researchers agree that limitations on access to material resources - space, time, parental energy and confidence in dealing with the school - are factors contributing to educational disadvantage, they also point to aspects of school life that disadvantage 'working class' parents and students. They cite disjunctions in the discourses of the two settings, which lead to a lack of confidence in working-class parents engaging with the school and students engaging with formal Standard English.

While it is inappropriate to place the whole burden for social change on schools, practices within those precincts are crucial.

Some authors (Brown et al., 1996) suggest that working-class students make an assessment of the forces ranged against them and 'cool out' from 'dominant culture' learning experiences. (I would suggest that a similar process of self-exclusion frequently operates in relation to student perceived disjunctions located with race and gender identity.)

Connell et al. (1982) attributed student resistance to the ways in which they believe many teachers treat them. Students cite examples of teachers abusing authority, being hypocritical, stigmatising poor students and of 'boring lessons' in which learning problems are ignored. He claims that many teachers label working-class kids as 'deprived' and that 'resistance' is a relation to school that is generated by the interaction of the authority of the school with class and gender dynamics.

More positively, Haberman (1995) offers suggestions for what 'star teachers of children in poverty' do and don't do.

They don't:

  • overemphasise discipline;
  • use punishment as a primary means of control;
  • indulge in parent bashing - they recognise that most parents care and 'star' teachers find out as much as possible about the family so they know what kinds of support are realistic.

They are gentle in a violent society - they mediate, defuse, cooperate, respect . In essence, we must conclude: only decent people should be prepared to teach.

Because of race and intersecting factors?

Considerable progress has been made to improve Indigenous educational achievements, but the level of educational disadvantage that Indigenous peoples in Australia and overseas continue to experience is still too high.

The 1999 National Year 3 data showed that almost 87% of Indigenous students met the reading standard and 66% met the writing standard. Even allowing for some problems in comparability of data, this dramatic improvement indicates that the Commonwealth is beginning to get value for its (our) dollar, that many teachers deserve hearty congratulations and that Indigenous kids are gathering 'double power'. Obviously, there is no time for complacency - one-third of Australia's Indigenous students remain below the National standard and, in some States and Territories, the picture is far less encouraging. The question in part is: when does it 'start to go wrong' for Indigenous students? Trials of the IESIP Preschool Profile (Griffin & Raban, 2001) indicate that at age four there are few differences of statistical significance between the achievement of Indigenous and non-Indigenous students on basic literacy and numeracy criteria.

Yet at Year 3, differential achievement becomes much more marked. Clearly, there exists a multitude of possible explanations for this success/struggle phenomenon, including deteriorating child health, family mobility and/or increasing economic problems caused by changed family circumstances, but we may also be able to learn some lessons from the preschool. Perhaps preschools/kinders have a more 'home-like' atmosphere; perhaps, learning at home and at school is more similar; and perhaps there is closer contact between the first teacher and families.

Just as admitting class differences involves a challenge to the myth of an egalitarian society - unlike our British forebears we are all equal here - so acknowledging white privilege means giving up the myth of a meritocracy which asserts 'everyone can succeed if they try'.

Professor Paul Hughes from Flinders University was an experienced academic, researcher and manager of Indigenous programs. He nominated a set of conditions prerequisite to Indigenous students' learning:

  • a high degree of pastoral care and support from the school for Indigenous students;
  • awareness of and respect for culture; and
  • a strong focus on educational priorities.

He asserted that there are three key pillars for success:

  • Teacher skill - teachers must teach well, and incorporate Indigenous material in the mainstream curriculum;
  • Student participation - students must not only attend, but attend full time, on time and participate in school activity;
  • Parent support - parents must support their children's needs and support teachers.
  • Regular student attendance, with a swift, organised response to attendance issues.
  • A curriculum that starts from what students bring to the classroom, deliberately scaffolds student literacy learning, renders transparent the worlds of dominant cultures and affirms students' individual cultures.
  • Specific, organised assistance that responds as a team to issues of health, welfare and education. (Hughes, 2001)

The DETYA-funded Building Bridges Project showed a culturally respectful model of partnership, creating a dialogue between those in power and those silenced by it.

The project was based on the notion that ensuring culturally inclusive education should proceed from the voices of Indigenous Australians (Grant, 2001). In the project, Indigenous families were given video cameras and asked to film 'the things which make them proud of their children' (ibid.). They were then asked to advise on editing and to enlighten 'experts' in early literacy and Indigenous studies about the tapes, noting: 'the things everyone might see, the things only they as family members might see, and the things that are very important about the way children learn in their particular community, but which are taken for granted and not noticed any more' (AECA Director quoted in Grant, op. cit.) The project's rarity arises from the fact that, instead of insisting that Indigenous children need to be 'made more ready for schooling', it asserts that families' ways of being and learning are legitimate and should not have to change to facilitate schooling.

Because they are boys?

From Australian research into gender and literacy, two things are evident:

1. There is a relatively small, but systematic disadvantage shown by boys on some tests in early schooling.

2. Gender interacts with other demographic and individual indicators in the prediction of performance on literacy tests (Alloway et al., 2002).

Masters and Forster (1997) report that:

Gender differences in literacy achievement are greater for Writing and Speaking (the expressive modes for literacy) than for Reading, Listening and Speaking (the receptive modes) . The differences for boys' and girls' levels of literacy achievement are greater among students from low socioeconomic backgrounds than among students from other socioeconomic groups.

A number of distinct hypotheses have emerged to account for the literacy 'performance deficit'. Each locates 'the problem' in a distinct place:

  • the biological/neurological makeup of boys;
  • the primary acculturation of boys;
  • the materials used in schooling, which are claimed to disadvantage boys;
  • the particular interests of boys, which may not connect to literacy learning in school;
  • the strategies used in literacy, which may systematically disadvantage boys; and
  • the literacy practices themselves, in our culture, which may be regarded as 'feminine' activities.

Nola Alloway, a researcher from James Cook University, offers an explanation that represents the complexity of the situation. Nola suggests that there may be 'an abrasive rub' between 'the literate self', 'the masculine self', and 'the schoolboy self' in a socio-cultural context. She and Pam Gilbert argued (Australian Journal of language and Literacy, Oct. 1998) 'that there is a potentially abrasive interaction between: the social and pedagogical production of students as literate subjects; institutional attempts at regulating students at school; and the ways that boys take themselves up as masculine subjects'.

What evidence do we have as to how boys construct their views on 'what is correct male behaviour'? What forms do these schoolboy constructs take?

And, as Wayne Martino (1995) discovered, binary oppositional gendered categories are often reinforced, as boys grow older. Fifteen- and 16-year-old boys, who were interviewed, regarded reading as 'unmasculine behaviour':

He's a defect, a loser, a square, a teacher's pet, a geek . By doing this at school, people would begin to call him names ... or make fun of him.

The boys Pam Gilbert interviewed in North Queensland came to the same conclusions about survival:

If you like school, people tease you that you're a little goody goody and everything so really you've got to hate school if you want people to like you. (Gilbert & Gilbert, 1998)

Now, of course, if we're not careful, we create a new 'mythology' - falling into the trap of overgeneralising and creating two simple categories of boys: those who are macho louts who need civilising and those who are so deficient they couldn't take advantage of a good education if you served it to them on toast.

'Masculinity' is not fixed or immutable, it is a social construction. We must avoid biological determinism . it expects, fosters and perpetuates uniformity. It ignores the power of individual and group agency, negotiation and resistance in shaping attitudes and action.

There are then, some 'lessons', some ways forward in gender 'literacy equality':

§ The 'Boys and Literacy' project (Alloway et al., op. cit.) supports the contention that 'no one size fits all': one of the teachers in the study, for example, says she expects boisterousness in her all male class, but insists on a positive and productive culture. She uses drama to engage the boys in a rich range of literacy practices within a negotiated curriculum. As she says 'We're all clowns, aren't we?'. She takes special care to develop high-level social skills and arranges mixed gender groups for many activities.

§ We have to re-examine our assessment practices and allow students to demonstrate their literacy competence and potential through the literacies they do well, not through the performances they resist.

§ We must remember that it is in Writing and Speaking that the greatest gender differences emerge and broaden our focus beyond reading, finding the ways in which communicational competence can more broadly be presented - including the communicational webs that some boys inhabit.

A closer look at inequitable outcomes for young children

We need to challenge 'commonsense understandings about development' and in particular, literacy development. Of course, there are observable changes in learners over time which educators can to some extent predict, cater for and build on. What is challenged is a notion of 'development' as a linear progression, because that is at odds with more complex accounts of real learning, and because it works against the interests of some learners, especially those whose learning doesn't seem to follow 'the normal' track.

'Readiness' has been challenged from across the theoretical and political spectrum.

Children's acquisition of literacy practices is contextualised and constantly renegotiated across different literacy learning sites (home/school). Depending on the social and pedagogical demands made on them, children will appear more or less 'developed' and be given correspondingly different opportunities.

Status is assigned to learners already advantaged by close home/school connections and high expectations all round. This ignores the crucial role of classrooms and curricular practices in producing children as 'differentially developed'.

Kylie was a child living with her mother when the de facto, but long-term partnership between mother and father ceased under acrimonious circumstances. Kylie seemed to be a bright, socially capable child, but fearful of new situations and totally lacking in confidence about her own abilities. When questioned about Kylie's obvious lack of literacy progress at age seven, her school replied: 'Well, she's not ready to learn. What can you expect? She's from a single parent family.' The school had ascribed class characteristics to Kylie, assigned her a lower status and relinquished any sense of responsibility for her learning progress 'because of her family circumstances'. They ignored the facts that a) she was in their care for 30 hours per week for educational purposes and b) that her parents, while separated, had Kylie's interests dear to their hearts and would have done anything reasonably requested to help. The school ignored the considerable 'fund of literacy knowledge' that Kylie brought to learning from her out-of-school experience.

Susan Nichols, from the University of South Australia (2004) suggests that:

  • Children learn literacies and ways of participating in literacy activities from their peers, not just their teachers.
  • Participation in literacy activities serves multiple purposes for children, including social membership or exclusion (especially for boys).
  • The social organisation of the classroom, including the gender mix in groups, impacts on children's participation in literacy activities.
  • There are gains and losses in producing self as a particular kind of literate subject.
  • If play and playful interactions are excluded from the official literacy curriculum, then children's competence in a range of literacies - narrative, procedural, dramatic - won't be recognised and built on.

Barbara Comber, also from the University of SA (AJLL, 2004) makes the following points about 'the boys' education problem':

  • Girls outperform boys in standardised forms of literacy.
  • Finer analysis suggests that it's particular kinds of boys who don't do well on the tests - low SES, Indigenous, ESL and rural.
  • Boys' progress in schooling and literacy in particular is affected by the ways in which teachers and boys understand masculinity.

Alloway et al. (2002) suggest three kinds of literacy intervention:

  • provide for boys to represent the self;
  • provide for them to relate to others;
  • provide for them to engage and negotiate culture.

That means altering classroom practices so there's more room for boys to move, more activity, more choice and more engaging with the real and the everyday. It also means using pop culture, electronic technologies and multimedia and muti-modal work.

It means making changes to the roles and structures of classroom operation to allow boys to be active, decisive, to follow their interests and be less regulated.

The 100 Children studies

From the mid-nineties until 2002, research teams from Edith Cowan University, Charles Sturt University and the University of South Australia were involved in three major longitudinal studies of children's literacy development. The 100 Children studies were located in five very different sites around Australia, including high poverty, affluent, remote, regional and metropolitan settings. The study followed 20 students within a wider cohort of peers - hence '100 children' - and examined the different cultural capital and dispositions each brought to school and what this meant for them over time. Three case studies - Campbell, Alan and Sean - illustrate particular lessons about 'boys':

Campbell might not have been progressing with literacy as hoped, but he had a number of protective factors:

  • a high achieving family with support and high expectations;
  • a supportive teacher with a strong belief in his ability;
  • material resources - a personal library and computer; and
  • social and cultural capital - affecting expectations, aspirations and provision. For example, Campbell's parents arranged a repeat year at a different school, to recreate his sense of self as a successful learner and to wipe out any sense of early failure.

Alan had:

  • a mother suspicious of the school system and against testing;
  • siblings previously in trouble with it;
  • a mother who passionately wanted him to succeed and spent hours helping him; and
  • a teacher who utilised his sense of humour, interests and skills.

Sean had:

  • a self-destructive sense of humour;
  • an ability and desire to play to his peers for group acceptance;
  • an overt masculine bravado that prevented him asking for help and led to inappropriate repertoire in class;
  • conflict with the behavioural norms of school;
  • a mismatch between gendered identity and school identity; and
  • a lack of engagement with school literacies.

In other words, a slow start to school literacy combined with difficult home circumstance is difficult to overcome. The different and particular histories of children and, therefore, the contrasting cultural resources and repertoires of practice, drastically affect what children can gain from schooling as it currently is done. Most parents begin by caring, but schooling often has to compete with other priorities and major crises in the life of a child and a family. Poverty, conflict and neglect are impediments to, if not determinants of, school success. Teachers who believe in children and who can gain the trust and support of parents, can make a difference despite the odds.

A growing body of knowledge demonstrates the important interplay between oral language use and the ways in which children access school literacies.

The 100 children go to school project and 100 children turn 10 longitudinal studies (Hill et al., 1998a, 1998b) made explicit the important relationship between the oral language and routines that children brought to school with them and how they were able to take up what was on offer in the school context.

Judith Rivalland, Associate Professor at Edith Cowan University, undertook a project Questioning development in literacy (Australian Research Council, in AJLL, 2004) in which she examined the types of oral language interactions in which different children engaged and how they related to what children learn as they move into becoming literate around Year 1 of school. The study was based in a school with significant diversity in culture and socioeconomic status, and included a multicultural and an Indigenous community. Detailed ethnographic data collection ensued and children's oral language development was analysed using the Time for Talk assessment (Education Department of WA) and the Albany District Oral Language Focus.

This explication focuses on two of the children in the study - Ashley and Milo.

Ashley had apparent competence in oral language. She used talk very effectively for social purposes, organising dramatic play and social interactions and assuming a dominant social role with her peers. She was good at rhyming, word and sentence segmentation and had phonological and print awareness. However, careful assessment and questioning by her teacher revealed that Ashley had little control over semantics and the reasoning required to engage with complex texts - as she progressed through school and more demanding texts were central to her learning and success, Ashley would strike trouble.

Milo, on the other hand had obvious difficulty with interpersonal communication. He was referred for speech therapy and his teacher had to work hard to get him to express complete, intelligible sentences. On the other hand, Milo had plenty of books read to him at home and he was strong on receptive language. He was not advanced in phonic awareness or word or sentence segmentation, but he had high level semantic knowledge and, once his utterances became intelligible, he could respond to the demands of a range of texts.

He had 'an interest in exploring and understanding the world of school'. In the process he had learned to use language for the purposes of asking questions, describing, reasoning and predicting. Milo has a valuable platform for literacy development, if his metalinguistics skills can be developed, and if he is given time in his Year 1 classroom to communicate.

If these conditions aren't present, Milo is likely to become frustrated, lose interest in school literacy and engage in disruptive and avoidance behaviours.

Susan Hill, Associate Professor at the University of South Australia (AJLL, 2004), addresses the question of the relationship between social and economic resources and the academic achievement of children. 'Privilege' has to do with the advantage of a particular group and it can be based on one or more of social, economic, psychological and national factors (Mindell, 1995). This case study of an early childhood centre draws on Bernstein's work on elaborated codes (Bernstein, 1973) and Bourdieu's sociological concepts about dominant social capital and 'habitus' or dispositions and aspirations (Bourdieu, 1986).

The author refers to the findings of McCain and Mustard (1999) about cognitive and social development from infancy and the value of investment in the years 0-4. She highlights research undertaken by Snow, Burns and Griffin (1998) and more recently by Fleer and Udy (2002), which indicates that quality preschool education makes a difference to children's cognitive attainment and subsequent social outcomes. Especially, research suggests (Dickinson & Tabors, 2002), exposure to rich vocabulary and stimulating discussion in preschool year predicts strong literacy development in the first year of school and even literacy achievement in fourth and seventh grades.

Dr Hill's study was undertaken in a 'private' (privileged) preschool which inevitably refected the values, skills, language codes, dispositions, tastes and knowledge of the parents who were from the 'dominant culture'. The preschool used a Reggio Emilia approach , which starts with children's interests and builds on the knowledge and cultural capital of the children.

In this early childhood centre, teachers took up children's interests and experience to support children in three major projects - the Castle, the Concert and the Cafe. In the Castle, Jack's experience overseas with his family was used by teachers as a platform for children to plan, collaborate, problem solve and communicate in discussion and with arts materials. In the Concert, children's fun with pop songs led to a full-scale musical production through which children made stage props, backdrop and lighting and recorded and presented songs, dances and drama. Children helped prepare food, wrote and illustrated menus and compiled a list of program events; they showed parents the visual documentation, written and photographic, of their planning for the breakfast show - they had been doing literacy. In 'the Café', children had been role playing 'meeting for coffee' in the dramatic play corner, so their teacher decided to take them to 'a real café'. She wrote children a letter about it on the whiteboard. In the café, teachers discussed the written menu, the work of staff and the preparation of food and drink. Back at the centre, the teacher wrote down children's remembrances in lists of 'what we saw' and 'what we did'. They transformed the classroom into a supermarket with a coffee shop. There were menus on table, magazines in racks and 'waiters' were taking 'written' orders.

In all three examples, teachers and children documented real experiences using print-based literacy, drawing and other graphic arts including digital photographs. In so doing, children were engaged in literacy richly embedded in contextual meaning and strongly linked to children's out-of-school experiences.

While these were privileged children in a privileged setting, these principles can be applied to and benefit all children.

The features of provision for early literacy in these examples are:

  • Psychological and emotional support - parents and teachers cared about children's well being and worked together.
  • Availability of books at home - including information and fiction, building vocabulary and semantic knowledge and capacity to sustain interest and gain meaning and pleasure.
  • High expectations and love of learning - while these children were privileged in terms of parental interest and support for learning, all children are entitled to teachers' high expectations.
  • Complex patterns of language use - the family discourse involved articulating choices and encouraging decision-making and the same forms of being, talking, acting and valuing as at the education centre.
  • These synchronicities cannot be engineered for all children, but teachers can connect with and build on children's and families' funds of knowledge and experience.
  • Child-centred pedagogy and explicit teaching - there is some debate about whether child-centred pedagogy is beneficial to all children; there is no debate about the value of explicit teaching in a context that is meaningful to children.

In Tasmania, Bev is a kindergarten teacher in a 'lower middle-class' setting. Parents of children at the kinder are mainly in employment, but some are struggling to make ends meet on a single, relatively low wage. Bev, like the teachers in the privileged setting just described, closely observes children's dramatic play, on the watch for literacy opportunities. Several children came to kinder with new sneakers after Christmas, so Bev asked children what they knew about 'buying shoes'. Based on this and with input from a visit to a shoe shop, the children created a shop in 'home corner'. They made signs, labels, and price tags and discussed 'how people will know if the shop is shut' and 'what would they do in case of a fire?' Understandings and words for 'Open' and 'Closed', 'Exit', 'Toilet' and 'Fire Escape' as well as shoe size and type ensued.

Amanda works in a 'disadvantaged school'. She is deeply committed to her students and has excellent relations with families. Parents (mainly mothers) often stay after dropping children off, ostensibly 'to help', but often for the company. Amanda realised that few of the children had ever travelled on a bus, so she organised with children and families a sequence of activities involving planning a trip, locating streets on a map, labelling streets and houses where families lived, getting on the local bus (with 30 children, each with fare in hand!), going to the shopping centre and documenting in drawings, photographs and notes, the titles of stores and the functions they serve. At the end, they too had a rich literacy record, children's local environment was connected to school, and children learned functional literacy and numeracy for everyday living.

Section 4: Is it just about teaching?

Lessons from neuroscience

The Early Years Study of McCain and Mustard (1999) has clearly been one of the most influential reports in our lifetimes. In its synthesis of new knowledge from neuroscience, developmental psychology, human development, sociology and paediatrics, the report identified key determinants of health, learning and economic growth. Its authors took the following key findings from contemporary wisdom:

  • Brain development in utero and before age one is more rapid and extensive than previously realised.
  • There appear to be critical periods for the development of particular functions.
  • Nature and nurture interplay in brain development.
  • The environment affects not only the number of brain cells and connections between them, but also the way these connections are 'wired'.
  • The influence of early environment on brain development is long lasting.
  • Negative influences, including stress, can have decisive and sustained effects on brain functioning.

So, what can we, as educators conclude from all this? We should learn that 'Risk is not destiny'. There are numerous cases of children and adults overcoming extraordinary odds to lead successful lives and we have a part to play. We are a major part of the 'supportive community' that every child needs. We can become one of the key figures in a child's life; one who believes in them and does everything possible to enhance their growth and achievement. We can advocate preventive and primary health care, inform parents and the community about responsible parenthood and young children's needs, and build strong, genuine partnerships between care, school, home and community. Most pertinently, given our particular 'mission', we can either 'grow dendrites' in the educational setting, or we can let them wither and die (Lambert & Clyde, 2000). We can create a 'rich learning environment', one that:

  • promotes meaning making and helps children to make sense of what they're learning;
  • is integrated and addresses aspects of development simultaneously;
  • promotes connections between what the learner already knew and new knowledge; and
  • provides opportunities for collaborative thinking and working and talking out loud.

We can make sure our educational intentions are crystal clear to us, to parents and to children and seize the teachable moment to maximise growth.

In summary, results . confirm the importance and complexity of forces shaping child development before children get to school . the pattern of results highlights the critical importance of the preschool years in shaping the profile of cognitive and social skills that children manifest when they reach school. (NICHD, 2004)

Lessons from educational theory

Educators have also begun to struggle to reconcile competing theoretical traditions about learning and learners. Most of us were trained within the essentially Piagetian framework which is known as Symbolic Cognition. This described children's development as progressing through a hierarchy of naturally occurring stages which 'cannot be hurried'. In this model, the individual child is in charge of their own learning, the adult's role is to create a learning environment to stimulate discovery, problem solving and cognitive growth. While much of this remains 'true' for us today, the risks are obvious:

  • Immersion in a rich learning environment alone may not be sufficient to promote learning across all domains for all children.
  • Solitary learning may not be the best way to learn all things.
  • The elements of the learning context that might foster or impede learning may be ignored.
  • A child's potential to learn new things may be underestimated 'because s/he's not in that stage yet'.
  • Piaget's time and context may have limited or misinterpreted the experimental basis of his theories.

What we take from Piaget and his followers are recognition that a young child is actively constructing meaning, some clues to how these meanings may be formulated and processed cognitively and the understanding that cognitive activity is largely a search for equilibrium.

However, from the 1980s, scholars have questioned traditional age- and stage-based assumptions about children's learning. They have asked 'whose development is being privileged?'(Cavanaugh et al., 2000) and begun to consider how learning varies between cultures (Dockett & Perry, 2003).  Consequently, models of Situated Cognition, deriving from the work of Vygotsky (1978) have had considerable appeal. Such models emphasise the significance of the socio-cultural context in which a child is learning and the power of interaction with more experienced learners to promote new understandings.

'Scaffolding' in fact, was not a term used by Vygotsky (1978) , but by Wood and Bruner (in Lambert & Clyde, 2000) to describe a form of contingent instruction in which an adult controls those elements of a task initially beyond a learner's capacity to allow them to concentrate on elements within their range of competence. More contemporary interpretations (Brickhard, 1992) suggest forms of 'reciprocal scaffolding', a process of co-construction of meaning in which the child is the main player, but the adult or peer provides emotional, material and social support.

Literacy in home practices

Literacy is, indeed, 'all around us' and it is important that we validate and utilise the 'home literacy practices' of all children to give them access to the capacity to 'read the word' and 'read the world'.

This means that, as parents and grandparents, we take every opportunity to draw children's attention to print; we model reading for a range of purposes - cooking, gardening, locating our TV programs, planning a trip - and reading for pleasure and information.

This means that, as carers and teachers, we invite the 'funds of knowledge' that children bring from their homes and communities into our centres and use them as sites for literacy events. We talk about sports matches, and family events and the 'specials' at the supermarket and we demonstrate how useful literacy is in our everyday lives.

So, 'literacy is more than about books' and yet, I have to yield to the evidence that a) book sharing in the home is THE most valuable form of adult-child interaction; and, b) the experience of the book, is fundamentally different to any other form of literacy experience.

Research in many different settings and over a long period of time provides strong evidence that book sharing plays a central role in laying the foundations for literacy.

For example, the Book Start project in the UK in 1992 (Wade & Moore, 1998) set about giving a gift of books through health professionals to families with six- to nine-month-old infants.

Intensive follow up studies found that these babies showed much higher levels than comparison groups of:

  • interest in books
  • concentration; and
  • active participation with the text and pictures.

As the study followed the group over time, they found that these children:

  • made more predictions;
  • joined in more in making the story with the adult; and
  • asked and answered more questions about the story.

Interestingly, at school entry, these children showed strong positive effects in both literacy and numeracy. They had:

  • higher results for speaking and listening;
  • better results in reading and writing;
  • more understanding about number, shape, space and measurement; and
  • greater skill in applying the ideas of mathematics to everyday numeracy situations.

Why might these effects come from sharing books?

Because book sharing provides:

  • reciprocal interactions between adults and children;*
  • opportunities for experimentation and risk-taking in a secure environment;
  • motivated practice with skills; and
  • modelling by adults about how books work.

* Reciprocal interactions means just that: not 'teaching', but taking turns, asking and answering questions with reference to the book and everyday life.

Ken Rowe (1995), in recent Australian studies, suggests that this and the broader effects of book sharing occur because:

  • books often focus on counting in interesting and interactive ways;
  • they offer opportunities for repeated practise; and
  • the book experience encourages attention and concentration..

'Attentiveness in the classroom is a strong predictor of literacy and school success.'

Why do 'books' do this?

The storybook experience is different from the pleasures of film and multi media. In hearing and reading a story, children:

  • have to 'earn the meaning'; it's not laid out in front of them;
  • can enter other worlds and other experiences, taking the time to contemplate;
  • learn their cultures' ways of saying; and
  • learn that crafted story form is different from everyday language.

Books have an intimacy and mutual engagement that other media can't emulate. It isn't just that we can't 'curl up with a computer'; it's that we wouldn't want to!

It's the 'slow train, not fast train experience'. We can stop, discuss, ponder, reflect, question, imagine, predict.

Through the vast body of medical, paediatric and cognitive research, we have learned that:

  • brain wiring is happening from at least the moment of birth;
  • infants gain cognitively from interaction and stimulation; and
  • positive experiences have an affective and cognitive effect that is extremely lasting.

Why wouldn't we give our children the 'pleasurable intensity' that a book sharing experience offers?

There is an immense power in Story. Every culture has its own versions of 'Once upon a time'. Every culture works from the oral tradition and encapsulates its key messages for its children in story. In reading with Australian children, we should ensure that our book choices reflect the cultural diversity that makes Australia such a rich and varied place.

From the story book experience

Children are learning:

  • the joy of story
  • its memorability
  • the pattern of stories
  • different genres and their features
  • concepts about the book
  • concepts about print
  • imaginative capacity.

Preschoolers know a lot about story and the written word and they ask a lot of questions:

  • They begin to predict.
  • They begin to map letters to sounds - phonemic awareness is one of the strongest predictors of later literacy success.
  • They begin to have favourites.
  • They begin to remember, imitate and role play story reading.

So we choose books with bright images, rollicking rhythms, hysterical rhymes, repeated refrains and predictable, cumulative story lines.

And we draw attention to:

  • familiar stories, authors and illustrators
  • familiar words and letters
  • familiar tales and twists
  • the relationship between the picture text and the story text
  • the permanence of meaning
  • the transportability of the symbol system
  • the de-contextualised nature of written texts
  • connections between stories and experience
  • how the language works
  • the form of stories.

Kirra, just turned three, has had favourite stories for some time now - when I arrive, she shouts 'Here's Nana Jen with a bear book' (and I'm running out of bear titles!). Now she listens closely to the actual story. She remembers and recites repeated refrains, she makes connections between 'storybook experience' and 'real life' and she recognises some familiar letters and words.

These are literacy concepts for everyday learning.

Section 5: And in conclusion - issues, debates and recommendations

The Submission to the Literacy Inquiry from the Australian Literacy Educators' Association (ALEA, 2004) summarises the combined 'scientific' and 'ethnographic' data around 'literacy' into the following recommendations:

  • Children need rich linguistic and conceptual experiences in infancy.
  • Even quality TV needs to be accompanied by experiences with quality literature.
  • Explicit and systematic teaching of skills needs to be contextualised.
  • Teachers need diverse repertoires of practice to engage and teach students.
  • Elements of phonemic awareness and phonics makes sense in the teaching and learning mix, as does guided and repeated reading.
  • In the 'best classrooms' children experience authentic books and writing everyday.


The role of phonics in learning to read

Debates often deteriorate into artificial, adversarial dichotomies such as 'code-based vs. meaning-based; whole language vs. phonics'.

The Inquiry, in its terms of reference, set up a dichotomy between 'phonics' and 'whole language' that reflects 'commonsense' and media-fuelled beliefs about 'opposing' theoretical and pedagogical positions. And yet, for at least 10 years, research and refereed papers have demonstrated that such a dichotomy does not exist in the Australian literacy field. As well, it's a fallacy as is implied that something called 'whole language' precludes the systematic and explicit teaching of phonics.

Where theorists and practitioners might disagree, is around the volume and breadth of knowledge that students might need to decode text.

'Extreme phonics' (Ehri, 2004) asserts that 'all of the major letter-sound correspondences should be taught and covered in a clearly defined sequence'.

Whereas 'Basic Phonics' (Krashen, 2001) suggests that it is helpful to teach some of the straightforward rules of phonics, but detailed knowledge is not essential. Proponents of Basic Phonics see sustained engagement in reading as a knowledge-and-skill-generating process, wherein learners practice and reinforce what they know through applying this knowledge to reading.

Those who advocate Intensive Systemic Phonics (including much reported in the press) regularly accuse teachers and school systems of supporting a third position - 'Zero Phonics'. They suggest that some teachers and those who train them believe that all phonics can be learned by reading and that direct teaching of phonics rules is unnecessary. While some children do seem to be 'natural' readers and writers (particularly if they have literacy-rich experiences before school), it would not be wise to apply this belief in a classroom and I do not know of any teachers in our government system who would approach their teaching in this way (there are some 'alternative' school settings and some home educators who would term their approach 'natural learning').

Rather than any view that 'Phonics Alone' is the lynchpin of reading success, a model such as Luke and Freebody's Four Resources offers a more useful framework for examining practices and approaches in teaching and learning reading. The model designers believe (Prospect, Vol. 5, No. 3, 1990, p.7) that 'a successful reader in our society needs to develop and sustain the resources to adopt four related roles: code breaker ('how do I crack this?'), text participant ('what does this mean?'), text user ('what do I do with this, here and now?'), and text analyst ('what does all this do to me?'). These provide a heuristic guide for literacy educators to consider what 'literacies' are offered in various instructional programs. No single resource, they claim (such as being able to decode) will enable students to use texts effectively, in their own and collective interests, across a range of discourses, texts and tasks.

Luke and Freebody noted at the time, and, I think it remains true today, that the profession is divided on two crucial points: (a) the sequencing of instruction in the four roles; and (b) the necessary explication in instruction of these roles. I would argue that the roles are inseparable and that it is nearly impossible, as well as counterproductive to teach, for example decoding, in the absence of a search for meaning.

My own work with early childhood practitioners and with young children clearly indicates that the roles are interrelated and brought to bear according to the text and the task, irrespective of age. Teachers engaged in my critical literacy course, for example, have been amazed at the higher order thinking and literacy functioning children demonstrate when acting as 'text analysts' and when genre features have been modelled for them to use in their reading and writing.

Assessment of literacy is another area of some contention

The Australian Government believes that regular, standardised testing of literacy levels is essential to improving literacy outcomes. Indeed for many years now, such testing has been conducted with children in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 and the results compared between schools and systems. Such testing undoubtedly informs governments and systems about children's achievement in normative terms and is useful to inform provision and the targeting of resources. However, it is seldom useful diagnostically. It can tell you about who is not learning well, but not why.

Formative and on-going, in-class assessment is more helpful for teaching and learning purposes. Such assessment provides the teacher with snapshots of each child's knowledge and skills and helps teachers select strategies and students to set goals for future learning.

Anthony et al. (1991, pp.30-31 in ALEA Submission to the Inquiry, 2004) developed a framework for data collection that they called 'the quad'. This framework outlines four categories of data collection:

  • observation of process (classroom observations, interviews with students, records of student responses to reading);
  • observation of product (work samples, reading logs, running records etc.);
  • Classroom measures (scored activities, tasks and tests); and decontextualised measures (cross-grade tests, district, state and national tests).

The findings of the Inquiry

The report by the Committee for the National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy (National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy, 2005) underscores the significance of reading competence, not just for school learning, but also for children's behavioural and psychosocial well-being, further education and training, occupational success, productive and fulfilling participation in social and economic activity, and for the nation's social and economic future.

The Inquiry concludes that:

The evidence is clear . direct, systematic instruction in phonics during the early years of school is an essential foundation for teaching children to read. Findings from the research evidence indicate that all students learn best when teachers adopt an integrated approach to reading that explicitly teaches phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary knowledge and comprehension. This approach, coupled with effective support from the child's home, is critical to success.

Note: the report supports an integrated approach to teaching and acknowledges the importance of home support.

Further, on the contentious matter of phonics, the report is crystal clear and its response very sane:

The attention of the Inquiry was drawn to a dichotomy between phonics and whole language approaches to the teaching of reading. This dichotomy is false. Teachers have to be able to draw on techniques most suited to the learning needs and abilities of the child . Members of the Committee found it a moment of awe to observe an effective teacher, with a full range of skills to teach reading, working with the whole class and having each child productively develop their literacy skills.

The report was critical of what it described as 'an educational philosophy of constructivism', which the Committee recognised as 'a theory of knowing and learning', and yet which, it concluded, has nothing to do with learning to read (p.12).

The report's comment on the significance of 'children's backgrounds' in school success, on the face of it seems naïve: the report states that too often emphasis is given to the nature of a child's environment or background rather than on how a teacher should teach (p.12).

If by that the committee meant that there is always an obligation to teach all children, irrespective of background and that low teacher expectations become self-fulfilling prophesies, whereas high expectations enhance student achievement, then that is fine. However, it is also essential that teachers connect with a child's family and gain their support, and essential that they connect home and community knowledges to school learning.

Interestingly, while the Minister's Press Release (8/12/05) spoke about the need for 'explicit teaching of phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary and text comprehension', The Australian newspaper of the same day, expressed the findings thus:

The report will demand the reintroduction of phonics . as the centrepiece of teaching literacy. It will also recommend 'a radical shake-up of teacher training.

If there was ever a case for teaching critical literacy, this mischievous misrepresentation of the facts, makes it powerfully.

On assessment:

'The Inquiry Committee came to a view that the assessment of all children by their teachers at school entry and regularly during the early years of school is of critical importance to the teaching of reading, and in particular, to identify children who are at risk of not making adequate progress. (Report, p.13)

Fortunately, they also recognised the immense value of close monitoring of individual children's progress through ongoing assessment.

There is a proposal that children's individual results on national testing should be available for diagnostic and intervention purposes. While the tests are not currently designed for such purposes, and there is a risk of a detrimental emphasis on comparative ranking, such a move could prove beneficial to inform school and teacher strategies.

Finally, the Committee brought down 20 recommendations. Many of these relate to teacher training in tertiary institutions. For my purposes, recommendations one to six are most relevant.

  • Recommendation 1: . that all teachers be equipped with teaching strategies .
  • Recommendation2: . that teachers provide direct and explicit phonics teaching . and an integrated approach to reading that supports the development of oral language, vocabulary, grammar, reading fluency, comprehension and the literacies of new technologies.
  • Recommendation 3: . that literacy teaching continue throughout schooling (K-12) in all areas of the curriculum.
  • Recommendation 4: . that programs, guides and workshops be provided for parents and carers to support their children's literacy development. These should acknowledge and build on the language and literacy that children learn in their homes and communities (my italics).
  • Recommendation 5: . that school leaders examine their approaches to the teaching of literacy and put in place an explicit, whole-school literacy planning, monitoring and reviewing process in collaboration with school communities and parents.
  • Recommendation 6: . that all schools identify a highly trained specialist literacy teacher with specialised skills in teaching reading, to be responsible for linking the whole-school literacy planning process with classroom teaching and learning .

These recommendations would appear to be sound, sensible and to place the responsibility and decision-making where it belongs - with schools and their communities.

Where to from here?

It's a difficult time in which to be a literacy educator. Educators, especially in the early years of school, have been inundated with reforms, models, frameworks and requirements. Some, who have been poorly trained, or not received professional support for some time, might need more and current information and collegial conversation. Most of them, however, need the opportunity to stop, reflect, identify the skills they already possess, recognise the obstacles that interfere with the success of their work and get ongoing support to continue on their professional learning and teaching journey.

Dr Leonie Rowan (2005) suggests that there are four core skills for teachers to stay the distance:

  • A commitment to acknowledging the limits of common literacy measures - 'not everything that counts can be counted' - and to learn to value those things that are harder to measure - critical thinking, cultural understanding, empathy, compassion.
  • A parallel commitment to acknowledging the silenced and the forgotten in our common literacy practices.
  • The ability to evaluate the potential of 'new' ideas and to distinguish cosmetic and token activities from those that matter.
  • A robust understanding about literacy and an equally robust understanding of difference and its problematic relationship with the mainstream.

And Richard Allington (2002) explains:

In other words, creating and supporting exemplary teaching of the sort we observed is complicated. It really seems unfortunate that so many of the exemplary teachers we studied were forced to go against the organisational grain . These teachers seemed to understand that professional responsibility meant choosing how to teach, what to teach, and with what sorts of curricular materials and tasks: they rejected the low-autonomy/high-accountability models that seem increasingly popular with advocates of "proven programs". (p.746)

So, what are our conclusions about 'paradigm shifts' and commonsense'?

In my experience, there was a major 'paradigm shift' in the 1980s when people like Frank Smith and Ken Goodman pointed out that there were lessons to be learned from successful literacy learners that could be applied to all learners - that reading is a meaning-making activity, for example, and that psychology is at least as important in learning literacy, as is linguistics. I hold those truths to be self evident to this day. And yes, every teacher, parent and even politician knows that there are some 'commonsense' aspects to learning literacy. You can't do it without an adequate literacy environment and support, for example, and children need alphabetic knowledge and a sense of the letter-sound relationships to 'crack the code'. As noted at the beginning of this paper, commonsense and experience tell us that:

. students' behaviour and learning outcomes are mediated by complex, interrelated factors which operate over time and interact in dynamic context - the most crucial of which are homes, classrooms, schools and specific sociocultural milieu  (Rowe & Rowe, 1999).

But 'common or garden sense' has also fuelled rather silly debates and divisions, and a sense of nostalgia for the 'perfect practices of the past' is no basis for a literacy strategy for the 21st century. We know enough from sound, rigorous, robust research to help teachers and schools and systems to move beyond 'commonsense' and to avoid 'paradigm shifts' and simply to engender and celebrate the professional commitment of teachers and to support them on a journey that is continually changing and challenging.


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