Too many schools across Queensland are still not using the best approach for teaching children how to read. And children are paying the price.
Fortunately, this is set to change.
Last month, the Queensland government announced a new Reading Commitment to make sure all government schools teach children how to read according to the best evidence on effective instruction.
The announcement comes after decades of disagreement about the best approach to teach students to read, which has resulted in leaving schools to figure it out own their own.
The research evidence shows that systematically teaching students to decode the letter-sound relationships in words (i.e. phonics) in the early years of primary school ensures all students have the best chance to learn to read.
From there, students should develop strong vocabulary, fluency and background knowledge all through primary and secondary school so they can comprehend the meaning of text — the ultimate purpose of reading.
Though the evidence on early reading has largely been settled for some time, the Queensland government’s new Reading Position Statement closes the chapter on the so-called reading wars and sets out a clear path forward for the state.
This is welcome news. But while the promised reforms are a good start, more work will be needed to shift the dial on Queensland’s poor reading performance.
Children’s reading ability affects our society as a whole
According to 2023 NAPLAN results, about a third of Australian students are not meeting grade-level expectations in reading, including in Queensland.
Some groups of students are particularly struggling with reading.
Two in every three Queensland students whose parents don’t have a university degree, and one in every two students living in regional and remote areas, are not at the level they should be.
Queensland’s Indigenous students are also twice as likely to be behind in reading compared to their non-Indigenous peers.
But poor reading ability is not only a problem for disadvantaged students. Nearly one in every five Queensland students from well-off families are struggling too.
When children do not learn to read fluently and efficiently at school, it can undermine their future learning, harm their self-esteem and limit their life chances. It also imposes huge costs on families, the education system, the economy and society as a whole.
Queensland is taking a staged approach, initially focusing on Prep to Year 2. It is investing $35 million to provide schools with a suite of comprehensive reading materials, such as guidelines and resources, and to fund professional development for teachers, including setting up demonstration schools to share best practice.
It is expected the policy will also strengthen screening of students’ reading skills and help to identify those struggling with reading early on.
These reforms should help lift the quality and consistency of reading instruction across the state, and so help Queensland begin to catch up to others leading policy reform in reading in recent years, such as New South Wales and South Australia.
There are barriers to changing the way reading is taught, but they can be overcome
Ensuring that every one of the 1,200 government schools across Queensland teaches reading according to the evidence will not be easy.
The new reforms will require many teachers to stop using less effective teaching methods they’re familiar with and adopt new, more-effective, ones.
Most school leaders and teachers have not been trained in the reading science, so there is often resistance to change, particularly given the lack of clear accountability for poor reading performance when it arises from teaching methods that are now known to be less effective.
That’s why the Queensland government should take three further steps to overcome the barriers to changing how children are taught to read.
First, to ensure that students stay on track with their learning, the government should require all schools to screen their students’ reading skills at least twice a year, from Prep to Year 2, using evidence-informed assessment tools.
If a child fails to learn to read in the first few years of school, they will struggle to make the important switch from “learning to read” to “reading to learn”, and they are likely to fall further behind.
If students are struggling, they should be provided with additional tutoring to help them catch up.
The Queensland government should also require the Year 1 Phonics Screening Check for all schools — government and non-government — and publish the aggregate data so the Queensland community knows whether the reforms are working.
Second, to help teachers hone their skills in the teaching of reading, the government should recruit and train literacy-focused instructional specialists and embed them in all primary and secondary schools, along with literacy master teachers who work across multiple schools.
These expert teachers should have an up-to-date understanding of the evidence of effective practice, as well as the coaching skills to spread best practice among their colleagues.
Third, the government should make school reviews more rigorous, so that they include a close examination of instructional approaches to reading and the quality of the curriculum materials, which are both related to student achievement.
Every effort must be made to ensure reading is taught well in every classroom in the state. The future prosperity of Queensland and the future life chances of every Queensland child depend on it.
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