Campaign to improve early reading instruction

One of Primary Focus’ most important campaigns is ensuring that all Australian children, regardless of postcode, get the right instruction to ensure they can read by the end of Year 2. We advocate for evidence-based early reading instruction to be delivered to all Australian children.  

Why this is important? 

Reading is the gateway to learning. One in six students in Australia start high school each year have poor reading skills.(1) Most of these children were identified as struggling readers in Year 3 and Year 5.(2) Australian children could become competent readers earlier with better reading instruction. Reducing the time it takes for all children to move from learning to read to reading to learn which can add years of learning on to their schooling. 

What needs to be done? 

We advocate for these strategies to turn this around: 

1. Evidence based early reading instruction should be provided to early primary teachers

South Australia have shown with their Literacy Guarantee programme that if you put the right professional learning in place to support K-2 teachers to deliver improved, evidence-based literacy instruction you can make great gains in reading performance relatively quickly. Since introducing the Year 1 Phonics Check in 2018, results in South Australia have increased each year, with 43% of students achieving the benchmark minimum score in 2018, to 52% in 2019, and 63% in 2020.(3) Achieving this outcome requires the right professional learning be provided to all teachers giving sufficient coverage of the five elements of good reading instruction (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension). NSW have now mandated evidence-based reading instruction (emphasising the teaching of systematic systematic phonics). 

2. High quality reading instruction given to all primary teachers in their initial teacher Education

Universities remain recalcitrant in implementing sufficient coverage and depth in reading instruction to equip all new teachers entering primary schools to be competent teachers of reading. Despite numerous reports and demands from their employers (including State and independent school systems) reading instruction delivered in 94% of our primary school education courses is inadequate. The government is currently undertaking a review of Initial Teacher Education and the need to teach our next generation of primary school teachers the best methods of reading instruction is an essential outcome of this review. 

3. More standardised and timely assessment of reading performance at school and system level

Standardised assessment allow teachers, principals and system leaders to measure and monitor progress in learning outcomes and intervene where required. At the classroom level, for example, reading assessment needs to be systematic, evidence-based and measure the right things at the right time. Without a standardised phonics check, teachers don’t know if a child is falling behind in their phonemic awareness or phonics.(4) This test designed for the end of Year 1 and now implemented in South Australia and NSW are showing, allows teachers to intervene in reading support at point of need. 

The science of reading demonstrates which methods work best for all children. The fact is that 95% of children can learn to read with good classroom instruction so the most important lever to improve reading outcomes is improving the knowledge and practice of all K-2 teachers. 

Currently in most states the choice of reading instruction method is left in the hands of principals and teachers. In systems where principal autonomy is encouraged now need to persuade their principals that the students in their care deserve better outcomes as those being achieved where evidence-based reading instruction has been implemented in all schools. 

Campaign to improve initial teacher education – improving the quality and coverage of initial teacher education

Most graduating teachers arrive at Australia’s primary schools underprepared in essential teaching skills and knowledge.Skills they should reliably possess on arrival include: 

  • evidence-based methods of teaching reading; 
  • effective classroom management;
  • knowledge of the science of learning and why explicit teaching is important to novice learners
  • a strong base of explicit teaching techniques
  • subject matter knowledge in spelling, writing, mathematics, science and humanities and social studies. 

Since 1987, researchers in cognitive science and psychology have discovered a great deal about how all children learn and which teaching strategies work most effectively for primary school students. This knowledge does not form a major component of any teacher education degree in Australia. Pre-service teachers need to know this information and then students deserve to benefit from it.  

We are hopeful the government’s current Initial Teacher Education review will chart a better way forward for our student teachers, which will benefit the students they teach throughout their careers. 

Primary School Improvement – the right model for primary school improvement

We will focus our efforts in the near term on campaigns to improve reading instruction nation-wide and the quality and coverage of initial teacher education. We are also convening a group of Australian educational experts to develop a model for primary school improvement based on those that are already working in Australian schools. This will be released later this year. Principles of this model are: 

  • Teachers are the most important learners and deserve the highest quality, most effective professional learning.
  • Having a clear and evidence-based definition of what learning is to guide educational philosophy and approaches to curriculum, pedagogy and assessment 
  • Ensuring schools adopt whole of school approaches so that students experience a consistent approach to learning between classrooms  
  • Teachers should be provided with quality curriculum resources and pedagogical strategies
  • Principal instructional and school leadership must be aligned to and coherent with the needs of the school, the evidence base of what works and the underlying science of learning 

(1) ACARA 2019. National Assessment Plan - Literacy and Numeracy. National Report 2019. ACARA
(2) Ibid
(4)  Stainthorp, R. 2020. A national intervention in teaching phonics: A case study from England. The Educational and Developmental Psychologist, 37(2) 2020, 114-122 & Buckingham, J, 2020. Does the Year 1 Phonics Check lead to improved reading outcomes? The Educator Australia.