Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Kevin Wheldall: very nearly all of our children can learn to read

The three-tier model will turn children into proficient readers
by Kevin Wheldall From: The Australian December 22, 2012 12:00AM

IF all children are to learn to read to a good level of proficiency in their first few years of schooling, we need a clear plan to ensure that no child falls through the net.

Such a plan must be both effective and cost-effective. It has become increasingly accepted in recent years that a three-tier, phased model of reading instruction, known as Response to Intervention (RtI), is the best means of achieving this.

The RtI model is predicated upon a first tier of exemplary initial instruction in reading for all students during their first year of schooling (kindergarten in NSW). This first tier of instruction should essentially comprise the best scientific evidence-based instruction.

To the layman this sounds obvious, but in many Australian schools a less effective implicit model of reading instruction has held sway for the past few decades. Much of this approach is highly desirable as a bedrock upon which to build, and it may even be enough for a minority of children, but most will need direct, explicit and systematic instruction in the five pillars of teaching reading: phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

What is often lacking in initial reading instruction, in particular, is effective, specific instruction in what is known as synthetic phonics; how to relate letters to sounds and to blend letter sounds into words.

Even when afforded such exemplary instruction, there will always be some children who take longer than others to catch on. It is important to identify these low-progress readers as early as possible so that they do not fall too far behind their peers as their difficulties compound.

Children who do not learn to read in the first few years of schooling are typically destined to a school career of educational failure, because reading underpins almost all subsequent learning. A safe strategy is to target students who fall into the bottom 25 per cent of the population for remedial reading intervention, as soon as their difficulties become apparent. Students' progress should be checked regularly, in order to provide intervention for those who need it from the beginning of Year 1, at the very latest.

The RtI model recommends that struggling readers, the low-progress readers who comprise the bottom 25 per cent, should be offered more intensive Tier-2 intervention in small groups of three to four students. Again the instruction provided to these students should be based on what the scientific research evidence has shown to be most effective: essentially the same five big ideas of reading instruction but more intensive and more individualised.

In small groups, teachers are able to be more responsive to the idiosyncratic needs of the students with whom they are working. Small group instruction can be just as effective as one-to-one instruction for children without severe reading difficulties.

Even with a solid Tier-2 small-group reading program in place, there will still be a very small number of students who "fail to thrive", perhaps about 3-5 per cent of all Year 1 students. These are the students for whom we should reserve Tier 3 one-to-one intensive reading instruction, preferably with a specialist reading teacher with a sound background in special education. The same five big ideas are still critical.

What is different, of course, is the intensity of instruction. Having successfully taught the vast majority of Year 1 students the basics of learning to read by Tier 1 and, where necessary, Tier 2 small-group teaching, it is a far more manageable proposition to provide these few remaining students with the individual reading support that they will need, for as long as they need it.

With this three-tier model in place, predicated upon scientific evidence-based reading instruction, almost all, if not all, children will become proficient readers. Of course, the RtI model does not stop at the end of Year 1; it is important to monitor reading progress closely for all students, especially for the first three years of schooling. But by employing these procedures rigorously and teaching scientifically, it is not too much to expect very nearly all of our children to learn to read.

Kevin Wheldall is chairman of MultiLit Pty Ltd and director of the MultiLit Research Unit.

  • MultiLit = Making Up Lost Time In Literacy
  • MUSEC = Macquarie University Special Education Centre

Some selected follow up links from MultiLit and MUSEC sites:

Media Publicity in 2012: Links to various hard hitting media articles on the perverse failure of our institutions to implement needed reforms, for example:

Welcome to MUSEC: Special Education research opportunities
MUSEC Briefings: a community service to inform educators and other professionals about the evidence base for a variety of educational practices, some of which may be regarded as controversial
Research Publications: Links to books, academic journal articles, instructional materials, conference papers (copies of most available on request from MultiLit Pty Ltd)

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