Barriers to Teaching and Learning
How can I hope to engage in literacy
without precise knowledge about the acquisition of skills
in the area of teaching how to read and write?
Paulo Freire (1998) Pedagogy of Freedom, p.76*.
The inspirational educator and social activist, Paulo Freire is probably best known for his ideas on the banking model of education is which he sets out his belief that teachers can oppress students by filling them with facts rather than inspiring them to think critically. Freire's theories have been championed by educators the world over but they have rarely been brought to bear on the teaching of early reading.
It might be assumed that the banking model equates to the 'drill and kill' perception of teaching phonics; that teaching phonics explicitly and cumulatively is somehow like Freire's banking model in which students' ability to think critically is stifled and oppressed.
But Freire himself disagrees. He understands that teachers need 'precise knowledge about the acquisition of skills' in order to teach children how to read and write. This precise knowledge is specifically what is termed early reading, the phase when children to learn to read that precedes efforts to critically examine ideas.
This may seem obvious to many of us, yet we are today faced with a situation in which teachers aren't commonly provided with the explicit knowledge they need to teach a wide range of children to read (Buckingham, J., & Meeks, L. (2019).
This means that sending a child to primary school today is no guarantee that your child will be taught to read to an adequate standard. This somewhat shocking truth leaves many children remediated for reading difficulties that might be avoided if the appropriate instruction had been offered in the first three years of school.
Translating the best available scientific evidence into teacher practice has always been fraught with challenge. From medical breakthroughs to climate change, many of us find new knowledge (or new ways of approaching our work) difficult to accept. Educational traditions are notoriously resistant to change, particularly when teachers today are managing increasing administrative burden, stress and expectation.
One of the issues is that Initial Teacher Education (ITE) has often provided substantially theoretical knowledge of teaching children to read rather than specific knowledge of the science or the cognitive factors that enable reading (Hoover & Tunmer 2020). Instead of offering the current scientific knowledge of how children learn to read, many teachers have been informed they only require a theoretical understanding as each school will have its own methods of teaching reading (!). Such beliefs are not only damaging to teacher knowledge but have potential on-going consequences for students in their care. We know that it is critical to teach students to read in the first three years of formal schooling and failure to do so can lead to loss of confidence and difficulties keeping up with their peers. Stanovich (1986) also found that the disparity in academic achievement between children who do and do not learn to read in those critical first three years grows exponentially over time (Stanovich 1986).
While all teachers aim to provide the best possible opportunities for their students, the influence of ideology and beliefs can be powerful. Sim (2019) suggests that when a group of people hold strong beliefs, the need for scientific evidence becomes less and less important over time as those beliefs grow in stature. He relates this to what we today recognise as 'Post Truth' (Sim 2019).
Educational injustice related to the teaching of reading is becoming an increasingly important topic around the world. Parents in Detroit, USA filed a case against the city because students reported they were, '...receiving an education so inadequate that they can't realistically exercise established constitutional rights, such as the right to vote and to participate in their nation's democracy' (Einhorn 2019, p.1). In Ontario, Canada, schools are now being audited for effective, evidence-based reading instructional practices under the Human Rights Commission (Rezai-Rashti & Martino 2017).
What's happening in Australia:
The Australian Government has recently moved to mandate a minimum of two units devoted to early reading instruction with a specific focus on phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, comprehension and fluency in undergraduate teaching degrees.
An on-line phonics check has been made available to all Australian grade one teachers
The South Australian Government implemented a trial of the the year 1 phonics check in 2018 and has since widened this to all schools.
The New South Wales State Government has implemented the phonics check for all grade one students from 2021.
The organisation FivefromFive, in collaboration with Learning Difficulties Australia and AUSPELD have launched The Primary Reading Pledge, To reduce to near zero the number of children who finish primary school unable to read by providing primary schools with the resources and training to provide effective assessment and intervention.
While these represent positive moves in changing teacher education and practice, it is still unclear how well they will be implemented and whether all teachers will be provided with sufficient training and preparation. It is important to understand that changing deeply-held beliefs is challenging for all of us, and more research is needed to fully understand the implications of introducing new practices and assessments that may not align with what teachers strongly believe.
*Paulo Freire (1921-1997) was a Brazilian educator, philosopher and social justice advocate who believed teachers had the opportunity to change children's lives through education.
'Yes, the majority of children who enter kindergarten and elementary school at-risk for reading failure can learn to read at average or above levels, but only if they are identified early and provided with systematic, explicit, and intensive instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension strategies. Substantial research supported by NICHD shows clearly that without systematic, focused, and intensive interventions, the majority of children rarely “catch up.” Failure to develop basic reading skills by age nine predicts a lifetime of illiteracy. Unless these children receive the appropriate instruction, more than 74% of the children entering first grade who are at-risk for reading failure will continue to have reading problems into adulthood. On the other hand, the early identification of children at-risk for reading failure coupled with the provision of comprehensive early reading interventions can reduce the percentage of children reading below the basic level in the fourth grade (i.e., 38%) to six percent or less.'
Lyon, G. R. (2003).
'...Despite the science and the evidence', writes one recent primary teaching graduate, 'the power of ideology maintains a stronghold on reading instruction, and as a result the scientifically grounded concepts of reading acquisition have largely been ignored in teacher preparation' (Hiatt 2019).