About Us

The Team

Fay Tran,

Dip T, B Ed, B Sp Ed., Literacy Consultant and teacher.

Molly de Lemos,

PhD, Psychologist, formerly educational researcher with The Australian Council for Educational Research

Peter Westwood,

T.Cert (Lond); LCP London); Dip Spec Ed Leeds; Grad Dip OE (Adelaide); M Ed (Manchester). Education consultant and freelance writer.

Angela Weeks,

teacher and psychologist, clinical director of SPELD SA

Elisabeth Somers,

B Ed, M Ed, Learning Support Teacher

Dick Weigall

BA(Ed) Cert Art, Teacher, Educational Writer and Artist.

Kristin Anthian,

Dip.T(EC), B.Ed(P), PGDip.Ed.St(ECI), M.Ed(SE.I&EI), Educational and Developmental Consultant

Myths and Misconceptions about literacy

By Fay Tran

1.     There is no need to worry if a child does not seem to ‘catch on’ to reading in the first three years of school because eventually it will ‘click’ and he/she will catch up to the other children.

            Not true.

            If this was true then all children would be able to read by the time they leave school. The fact is that about 50% of children leaving secondary school have inadequate literacy skills and between 10% and 20% have serious difficulties with reading and writing.

            Research has shown that of the children struggling with reading in year 1, 88% will still be struggling in year 3. Children who don’t make satisfactory progress, or completely fail, to learn to read in the first two years of school are likely to continue to struggle. They will gradually fall further and further behind the other students and, unless rescued by intensive intervention, will end up leaving primary school with very poor reading skills. These children are likely to be disadvantaged for the rest of their school careers and beyond. 

            There are a few reasons for some children struggling with developing reading skills in the early years, but none of them are overcome simply by waiting. In the early years, some children suffer from frequent ear infections, resulting in intermittent deafness, which can make most classroom learning difficult, but especially affects language development and the ability to isolate sounds in words. Others have language, attention or short term memory difficulties which can make the classroom a very frustrating learning environment. Unfortunately, the most common reason for early literacy problems is actually lack of appropriate instruction in the essential skills like phonemic awareness and phonics. These children are called ‘instructional casualties’ by learning difficulties academics.  Their difficulties have been created by the school teaching program.

            I have a new student who is in year 6 and has almost nonexistent reading and spelling skills. Joseph can read and write a few high frequency words and knows the sounds of the single consonants, but has no idea how to handle the vowels in words.  He writes every word with the vowel ‘e’, so ‘mud’ is ‘med’ and ‘sit’ is ‘set’.

            His history is a familiar story.  He had ear infections as a young child with undiagnosed intermittent deafness, which made learning phonics skills in the first 2 primary grades very difficult, if not impossible.  Unfortunately, or I should say disastrously, no one at his school made the effort to teach him the essential skills once his ear problems were overcome. He has tried to learn to read by whole word memory and guesswork, but this has not worked and now, unless his parents and I can rescue him, he has a bleak future.  Joseph has been seriously let down by the education system.  It is not the child who has failed but the school.

            The ideal time for children to learn basic literacy skills is in the first three years at school. During the prep/kindergarten year children should develop their phonemic awareness by learning to identify individual sounds in words like the ‘c’, ‘a’, ‘t’, in cat and to blend those sounds into words. Phonemic awareness is a necessary prerequisite to learning phonics skills, which involve linking each letter of the alphabet, or groups of letters, like ‘ar’ or ‘ch’, to one or more sounds, so that words can be read or written by blending the sounds into words. This enables children to read and write simple phonetically regular words like ‘bed’ and ‘stop’. During this first year of school, children should also learn to recognise about  40 high frequency words like ‘said’ and ‘they’ which are not easy to sound out. In Year 1 and Year 2 they can further develop their phonics skills and work on reading fluency and comprehension and spelling skills, so that by year 3 the basic skills are in place. At his stage children should be able to use their reading skills for the enjoyment of books and to further their learning across the curriculum.

            During the first year of school, all children are taught the recognition and writing of the letters of the alphabet using direct instruction and most also learn the recognition and writing of the high frequency words like ‘the’ and ‘they’ the same way. Teachers usually call these ‘golden words’ or ‘magic words’. Unfortunately, many schools then replace the direct instruction with immersion methods, which require children to develop their reading and spelling skills through experience, rather than through systematic explicit teaching of the skills. Children like Joseph, who start to flounder at this point, will effectively drown if their teachers continue to expect them to pick up the skills from classroom reading and writing activities.

   This disaster can and should be avoided with an ongoing phonics program for all and an intervention program for children at risk, or showing signs of difficulty. Individual or small group teaching, targeting the essential skills, can ensure that they master reading skills just like everyone else. This intervention should start as soon as difficulties are detected, or even earlier, if screening tests reveal risk factors such as attention, memory or language difficulties.

            Children like Joseph, struggling with hearing sounds in words and blending sounds to make words (phonemic awareness), must be helped to develop these skills so that they can use them for reading and writing. They must also be taught the letter-sound combinations (phonics) to the point that they are automatic, and words can be decoded at fluent reading speed. This takes time to learn and apply, but every child can do it, given appropriate instruction and guided practice. Some children do need daily small group or even individual teaching to master the skills and this may be required for a short or extended period, but for those that need it, the extra teaching and practice is vital and can make the difference between success and failure at school.

            It is very important that children at risk of literacy failure are not encouraged to rely on visual memory of whole words or guessing from context and pictures, as Joseph was, because these strategies do not lead to success in the long term. Even though progress might seem frustratingly slow, for eventual success, the phonics skills must be developed and sounding out words must be the first strategy for reading and writing unknown words. It is a pity that Joseph was not given this assistance any stage of his primary school career.

             Learning literacy skills requires a level of effort and practice similar to that naturally used by the child in learning a first language. Small children spend many hours a day practising language and building up their vocabulary and general knowledge. It is very important to encourage children to maintain this drive for learning, so that they can continue to be active learners and practise literacy skills beyond the formal lesson. The way to do this is to make learning personally rewarding and fun.  ‘Fun’ does not mean that exercises always have to be embedded in games, as quick paced exercises presented in a cheerful, non threatening way can also be fun. Nothing spurs children on to further effort more than seeing their own progress – and nothing discourages them more than repeated failure.

           Most of all, children struggling with reading skills for any reason should not be left until ‘it clicks’ and be expected to pick the skills up themselves when they are ready. It won’t happen.

2.    Children can learn to read the same way that they learn to talk, by immersion.

          Not true.

            Children learn to talk instinctively, as long they hear speech and have the opportunity to practise it by interaction with people.  Children learn language by working very hard at it, every waking moment from babyhood. They listen to the language of their family, copy it, make connections with meaning and grammatical patterns and, most of all, they practise and practise and practise. Little children depend heavily on their family members to provide the feedback that guides them in making language decisions.

           Unfortunately, while language is an essential base for the development of literacy, reading and writing are not acquired by instinct – they must be taught.

           There are other factors which make written language more difficult to learn than spoken language. Spoken language is obviously a verbal skill and thus uses different parts of the brain to written language, which has both visual and verbal elements, and spoken and written language also use different kinds of memory. Written language needs the integration of both visual and verbal information involving processing in several parts of the brain. Difficulties in any of these areas can make learning to read and write a challenge.

            It is only in recent history that everyone was expected to acquire literacy skills, but now every child must learn to read and write to a certain level to be able to participate in the modern world. People do tend to avoid activities that they are not naturally good at, like singing, public speaking and sport, but children cannot afford to opt out of learning to read and write. They must acquire the skills no matter how difficult it proves and they must receive the teaching that is needed even if it means small group or individual instruction for one or more years.

            Because reading is a complex task with several component skills that need to be learnt separately and then co-ordinated, it must be taught directly and systematically. A few children pick up the skills easily, but most need explicit direct instruction with plenty of supervised practice. The major components of this instruction are phonemic awareness, phonics, sight word recognition, fluency and comprehension strategiesFor spelling there are rules to be learnt as well.

            Expecting children to acquire these skills through exposure to text in interesting books, lots of encouragement and a few helpful hints simply does not work. After 25 years of the whole language method dominating the teaching of literacy, Government statistics show that about 50% of children leaving school have poor reading skills and between 10% and 20% have serious difficulties. This clearly indicates that it is time to abandon this way of teaching and return to the scientifically proven method of direct instruction of basic skills, including phonics.


 If the whole language method works for some children and the phonics method for others, a combined approach should work for all children.

           Not true.

           Whole language and phonics based methods are diametrically opposed and cannot be effectively combined. According to educational theorists, ‘whole language’ is a so called ‘top down’ method and phonics based methods are ‘bottom up’ methods. ‘Top down’ means that the child is presented with the complex skill to be acquired in its whole form and is required to learn it by working out the component skills, through trial and error, gradually getting closer to the target skill, with effort and environmental feed-back.  ‘Bottom up’ means that the component skills are directly taught, starting at the simplest level and gradually developed and combined through guided practice, until the whole complex skill is mastered.

            Spoken language is learnt ‘top down’, assisted and motivated by instinct, but most other life skills including sports, music and literacy are best learnt by a ‘bottom up’ method.  Teaching reading by a ‘top down’ method requires children to work out the letter and word patterns and rules for themselves while ‘bottom up’ methods teach those patterns and rules. The main feature of whole language teaching is that children are taught to use guessing from pictures and context as the first strategy for reading an unknown word, while phonics methods teach children to sound out the word as the first strategy.

            Another feature of the ‘whole language’ method is the incidental introduction of letter sound relationships and spelling rules as they occur in reading material, such as in Big Book class reading activities. A few children learn, as the result of (or maybe in spite of) this informal style of teaching, but most need a more direct approach with structured practice following the explicit teaching of the component skills.

            The reading of small books for the practice of skills and the development of fluency and comprehension also differs. Whole language supporters recommend the use of small attractive books with plenty of pictures and context clues to support the guessing of unfamiliar words, but with no control of the complexity or phonetic regularity of the words. These books are sometimes described and ‘predictive text’ books. Children learning to read by a phonics and rule based method can enjoy these books and can often decode the words even if they are complex. However they get more benefit from books that are more vocabulary controlled to ensure that they can decode the words with their current skills. Phonetically difficult words in these books are usually limited to the high frequency words that are read automatically because of frequent exposure and spelling knowledge.

            A compromise between the two approaches is likely to result in compromised skills, particularly the phonics skills, which should be taught explicitly and systematically and not incidentally.  All children benefit from direct instruction in phonics skills, and it is vital for children at risk of difficulties with reading. Using ‘guessing from context strategies’ for word identification as taught by the whole language method, is actually a bad habit that is counterproductive for children developing their reading skills as it does not lead to long term success.

            I would actually challenge the statement ‘whole language works for some children’ as I believe that children who have apparently managed to read by this method have either figured out the phonics links for themselves or, more likely, have been taught the skills by a teacher (behind closed doors!), a private tutor, a parent or a grandparent. Since my book (Teaching Kids to Read) has been published I have been surprised by the number of teachers, parents and grandparents who have confessed to teaching their students, children and grandchildren phonics skills, knowing that it was not considered necessary or useful by the school.

            When people talk about a combined approach they usually mean adding a bit of phonics to a ‘whole language’ program, but while a little phonics is better than none, it does not compensate for the inadequacies of a method that has failed countless children in the last 25 years.

4.     Children should use strategies to learn to read according to their natural strengths and weaknesses.

            Not true.

           Susan was a bright girl, keen to be a good reader, who decided some time in year 1 that she was so good at remembering words that she didn’t have to bother with phonics for either reading or spelling. Fortunately in Year 2 her faulty strategies were picked up in a routine screening test and she was assigned to a learning support group to practise phonics skills and their application in reading. Without this intervention, Susan would almost certainly have faltered in her apparently normal progress in reading by Year 3. She would most likely have lost interest in reading for pleasure, and started to avoid reading tasks because it had become too hard to visually remember every word, which was the only skill she had developed. Fortunately this crisis was avoided for Susan by good teaching.

            Heather was not so lucky. She had happily relied on whole word recognition and guessing from context as her only strategies for reading and when she moved to a new school in Year 4, it was found that both her reading and spelling accuracy were very poor. Heather was not actually aware of her inadequate skills, but her parents were, and they were very worried. She was placed in a learning support group for intensive practise of reading and spelling skills one lesson a day and, with the help of her parents, was back on track to become a successful reader and writer by the end of the year.

           Joseph found phonics extremely difficult in the early years because of intermittent deafness, so he was encouraged to use only whole word recognition as his reading strategy. Unfortunately no-one made the effort to teaching him phonics skills, even when his ear problems were overcome and he was left to stay a virtual non-reader right through primary school.

            In a team sport like cricket, people develop their strengths and can sometimes avoid having to work on their weaknesses.  So someone who is very good at bowling specializes in that skill, and as long as others in the team are good batsmen, does not have to feel he/she is letting the team down if they rarely make high score with the bat. However all members of the team are required to develop their fielding skills, even if they do not come naturally because every cricketer needs that skill. In the various football codes, there are specialists, but most of the team must have the basic ball skills and are required to work on all skills, particularly their weaknesses, to hold their place in the team.

            Some activities like music and art rely on talents, which are natural strengths, coupled with skills practised under the guidance of a teacher, for excellence. Even the highly talented in artistic fields must practise the component skills to perfect them.

            Reading is a complex task consisting of several sub-skills which have to be coordinated automatically at the speed of fluent reading. Recent developments in brain science have shown that everyone uses the same skills, in the same order, for accurate and fluent reading. The first step is letter shape recognition, which is then linked to the letter sound, which is followed by phonetic synthesis of the word, which results in word recognition. This is then linked to a meaning for the word which is confirmed from context.

            Some high frequency words and groups of letters like digraphs and suffixes are recognised instantly as if they were single letters, but most words are phonetically analysed for recognition. There are two significant facts here. The first is that phonics is an essential component skill used by every fluent reader whether they are aware of it or not. The second is that in the reading process, the attachment of meaning to a word comes last, so advising children to guess a word from its probable meaning is teaching them to go about the process the wrong way, even if they are initially good at it.

            It is clear that all children need to develop and use phonemic awareness and phonics skills even if they are not naturally good at them. Those who initially find the learning of these skills difficult can master them with extra help, usually involving more practice, smaller steps, and more time. Children who use only visual skills for reading by the whole word method seem to succeed at first, but fall behind by about year three because they can no longer rely on memory to recognise the vast numbers of words and they have not developed decoding skills to identify unknown words. By not teaching children the basic skills that are need for mastering of reading, or by advising children to concentrate on visual recognition of words and guessing from context, well meaning teachers are encouraging them to bypass the development of phonics skills with disastrous results.

5.     The main determinant of a child’s success with reading is the home environment.

            Not true.

           The main determinant of a child’s success at school is the quality of the teaching the child receives.

            It is true that children with low vocabularies and general knowledge, and who have had limited experience with books and rhymes, are at a disadvantage when they start school, but skilled teaching can and should overcome this.  Remember that children spend 6 hours a day, 200 days a year for 7 years at primary school, which should surely be enough time to teach any child the basic skills that schools are required and expected to teach.

            Most children, even those from low social economic backgrounds attend preschool where they can develop their language and phonemic awareness skills. All children can learn phonemic awareness in the first year of school and develop the required phonics skills for reading and writing with systematic direct instruction and plenty of practice.  Some may need extra practice and one to one teaching regardless of their home background, but all should be able to master the basic reading and writing skills. 

            While it is true that Government testing results appear to support this theory and schools often blame the parents for low scores on these tests, there have been plenty of examples, both in Australia and overseas, of schools that have succeeded in producing high performing students in spite of social or economic disadvantage.  

           At Bellfields Primary in Victoria,one of the most socio-economically disadvantaged schools in Australia, whose students were failing in literacy and numeracy according to NAPLAN results, principal John Fleming transformed the school into one of the highest performing schools in the state.   It took him nine years, but he proved that regardless of their background, all children respond to a strong curriculum, well taught by teachers who set high standards for themselves and their students.  The outstanding results were achieved, not by massive funding and flash buildings, but by hard working and well trained teachers, using research based teaching methods, performance based accountability and a school culture conducive to learning. In the US, the Charter Schools program has produced some outstanding of examples of schools which have closed or sometimes reversed the achievement gap for disadvantaged students.

            Fleming thinks teachers are institutionalised by their school and have low expectations of disadvantaged students.  Fleming  had to retrain his teachers to use systematic direct instruction of basic skills and ensure that they taught in such a way that every child benefited from every lesson.  He proved that educational failure does not have to be expected as the inevitable product of social disadvantage.

            I like the American model of ‘No excuses’ and consider that schools that do not manage to teach their students the basic literacy skills, no matter what their background, are seriously neglecting their duty and doing immense harm to the children they are supposed to be educating.  Schools are quick to blame the parents for a child’s lack of progress, but I would place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the school. In fact by neglecting the educational needs of their charges they are causing life-long damage that should be classified as abuse.

     6.   When faced with an unknown word a child should note the first letter of the word and then look at the picture or the rest of the sentence to decide what the word says.

           Not true

            Guessing from context is an extremely haphazard way to read unknown words and tends to compound mistakes, resulting in highly inaccurate reading. Children trained to use this strategy, coupled with trying to recognise whole words, often appear to make reasonable progress for the first two years of school when the take home readers have highly predictive text. They then start falling behind and experiencing real difficulties in their third year. This is because the strategies they have been using no longer work with less helpful text and the huge number of words to be memorised.  Because they have not been taught the more effective reading strategies of using phonics and other words analysis skills, they have no effective way of identifying new words and their reading accuracy and fluency stagnates. I have seen many children in this situation in my teaching career.

            Children should be taught that the first strategy to use is to sound the word out using their phonics knowledge. If that technique produces a word that does not make sense in context,   the child should then check his sounding out or think of a word that is almost the same but would make sense. Guessing from context without first sounding out the whole word is a habit that leads to inaccurate reading in the early stages and ultimately, to reading failure.

            At first sounding out words is slow and makes fluency difficult, but gradually, as children acquire the ability to do this quickly, without saying the sounds aloud, fluency improves until the process is automatic.  Assisting the development of fluency is the automatic recognition of parts of words, such as the ‘ack’ in ‘pack’ as well as suffixes and prefixes.  Automatic recognition of high frequency words such as ‘the’ and ‘said’ also contributes to the development of fluency. While progress using this method can be slow at first, the long term gains make it well worth the effort in the early stages. In fact some of my learning difficulty students have become superior readers, maybe because they had such intensive phonics programs to get them started, that their skills were more highly developed than other students who did not struggle in the early years.

    7.    There will always be a percentage of children who don’t learn to read regardless of the teaching methods used.

           Not true

            Given systematic direct instruction in phonics and other skills in the classroom, all children who can talk can also learn to read.  Some will need some extra teaching and practice in the classroom and a few will need some one- to-one teaching outside the classroom, but all children should be able master the necessary skills during their primary school years.  All that is needed is good teaching.

           The assumption that there will always be some children who don’t learn to read, regardless of the method used, has led to the neglect of children with learning difficulties.  This attitude absolves teachers and schools from what should be their primary objective – to teach every child to read.  When a child does not learn to read at primary school it is not the child that has failed but the school. Whether it is the classroom teaching method or the failure to provide extra help as needed, there is no excuse for a school to fail to teach a child to read. Remember that children compulsorily attend primary school for 6 hours a day, 200 days a year for 7 years and one would expect that they should be helped to master the most important skill for their future in that time. 

            It is true that significant intellectual disability coupled with language difficulties may prevent some children from learning to read, but many children with mild intellectual disability, for example Down’s Syndrome children,  can master the basic skills. These children respond to a slower paced program with direct instruction and plenty of practice to ensure mastery at each stage.

           The essential elements of a reading program that delivers success to every child are explicit direct instruction, a school wide systematic program, individual progression and individual instruction if needed. Every child must have the opportunity to learn and practise the components skills until they are mastered and can be applied to reading and understanding text.  Another essential element is that a child who needs extra practice and a slower paced program with individual support, must be allowed to a continue with that program and support until he/she masters the skills, regardless of how long it takes. Current school programs often provide some support for a year or so and then abandon the child.

   8.     Failure to learn to read is associated with low intelligence.

           Not true.

Highly intelligence children can have difficulties with learning to read. Often it is the very bright children with good visual memories who struggle in their third or fourth year, because they are not taught, or do not feel that they need the essential phonics skills. On the other hand, children who struggle with reading usually think they must be stupid and this can have profound effects on their attitude to learning and their self esteem.

            Word recognition skills are not closely associated with intelligence and even mildly intellectually disabled children can learn to read. Failure to learn to read is actually associated with poor teaching. This does not infer that teachers are lazy or bad teachers but that teachers are required by their schools to use ineffective programs and teaching methods.

           There are factors apart from inadequate teaching that can make learning to read difficult for some children. Most common are difficulties with short term memory, attention and speed of processing language but these children respond very well to individual or small group tuition that enables them to master the essential skills. 

9.   Practising phonograms and sight words is boring

            Not true.

           All skills need practice, initially to be learnt and then to become automatic. Children enjoy rote learning exercises especially when they can see how it helps them learn. Of course practice exercises should be short, never more than 5 minutes for each exercise and restricted to skills that do need the practice. A good teacher can make the practice enjoyable by varying the pace and the task.

            However it is important that children engage in individual practice of skills and knowledge such as number facts and phonograms, as well as mass practice, as some children become adept at copying others rather than recalling the item from memory themselves. It is also important that the children are made aware of and congratulated on their progress with both the learning and application of skills

10.  Reading books that are decode-able or vocabulary controlled is boring.

            Not true.

            Children enjoy reading decode-able books because they give them a sense of mastery of the reading task. Of course the books must contain words within their current phonics skill level and be short so that they are not too tiring. Vocabulary controlled graded readers are extremely valuable in providing text reading experience for beginner readers and also providing practice with identifying high frequency words such as ‘the’ and ‘said’ which are usually introduced gradually in these books. The Dr Seuss books are examples of vocabulary controlled reading books and they could hardly be classified as boring.

            The whole language method of teaching reading advocated providing children with experience of reading in attractive little books containing uncontrolled vocabulary of the kind normally found in children’s books designed to be read to them. Unfortunately what has happened is that these books have evolved to become highly predictive, either through illustrations or repetition so that, with a little help to get started, the children can read them by guesswork.  This does not help the children to develop their word identification skills and encourages them to rely on guessing from context or illustrations as their main reading strategy. All it does is give them a false sense of achievement which does not last

    11.  Reading to children at home can stop once the child is learning to read.

            Not true.

            Sharing a book, story or poem with a child can and should continue as long as it is an enjoyable experience for the participants. Children develop their vocabulary and a love of literature from these experiences. Listening to stories and poetry is most important for children who are learning to read slowly because of an underlying learning difficulty, so that they do not miss out on the literature that they would otherwise be reading for themselves.


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