Rowe inquiry spelled out how children can be taught to excel in reading

International comparisons of student reading levels released at the end of last year ranked Australia 27th of 50 countries.

It is a sad contrast with the 2008 Melbourne Declaration by state and federal ministers of education, which nominated literacy and numeracy as top priorities in which we should "excel" by international standards.

And it is poignant given Julia Gillard's goal, announced before the reading statistics, of being one of the OECD's top five school systems by 2025. Excel we do not.

The release of these disturbing findings provoked a reading authority, Macquarie University emeritus professor Max Coltheart, to remind us in The Weekend Australian that we had our chance, and it appears we have not delivered.

A decade ago, Coltheart wrote to then education minister Brendan Nelson about the parlous state of reading teaching. That letter galvanised the minister into establishing a national inquiry chaired by Ken Rowe of the Australian Council for Education Research. I was one of its nine members, a group representing a broad range of interests and views.

The 2005 inquiry identified how well teachers were using effective approaches to teaching reading and literacy. Had its recommendations been fully implemented, we may now be ranked much higher. My concern is unless they, in some updated form, are now implemented with urgency, we will find ourselves even further down the rankings.

The Rowe inquiry focused on both phonics and whole-language strategies in an attempt to resolve the teaching dilemma of the decade: which approach is more effective? It looked for answers in rigorous research rather than in ideology or assumption. Nor were vast extra resources expected: it was more a matter of how better to use those already in schools.

The inquiry found that "many teaching techniques and approaches used in schools were not informed by evidence-based research and teachers did not understand what strategies to use and at what time". It strongly recommended teachers use phonics explicitly sochildren could master code-breaking skills, and combine this with a range of strategies to support language development and communication. In this way it resolved - at least for the Inquiry - the destructive phonics versus whole-word debate. Concurrent with the phonics base, an integrated approach that supported language development and communication in all its forms was to be offered.

The inquiry saw effective school leadership by principals and others as critical to reading success. A pilot program, Principals as Literacy Leaders, funded by the federal government in 2009, is a good example of the profession taking the lead in addressing literacy issues in schools. But a pilot is not enough.

In the inquiry's view, literacy teaching must continue from kindergarten to Year 12 across the curriculum. I recall an aphorism from my teacher training: "A teacher in English is a teacher of English." Maths and science teachers and curriculum designers, please note. The inquiry favoured a whole-school approach to literacy planning, monitoring and review. It saw parents as having a key role in developing children's reading ability. Schools were to be provided with program guides and workshops to help teachers support parents.

Are parents now more involved with teaching reading than in 2005, the year of the inquiry? Possibly, but not by much. They need tools and support.

The inquiry wanted schools to have a highly trained specialist teacher to take responsibility for the whole-school literacy planning process, and to train other teachers. If extra resources cannot be found, very small increases in class sizes would make it possible to appoint such teachers within existing budgets. Smaller schools working together could achieve a similar result by sharing such a specialist. However achieved, specialist teachers in primary school should be first priority for the nation's teacher upgrading efforts.

The universities must bear some responsibility for the state of reading teaching and levels of literacy. They should clearly identify and demonstrate best practice, as happens in preparing people for other professions. Have they expanded the specialist postgraduate studies in literacy, and especially reading, as recommended by the inquiry? Consider the contrast with the medical profession and its specialists with the title professor working in teaching hospitals. How many professors are working as teachers and teacher educators in schools?

The inquiry recommended national standards for literacy teaching within the wider set of standards for teacher registration and professional advancement. The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership has taken on this responsibility from the pioneering work done in this area with professional bodies by Teaching Australia, but it is hard to know whether the focus on literacy is sufficient.

More important for universities, teacher preparation courses must have literacy and literacy strategy development as a basis for their accreditation, and the recently established Tertiary Education Quality Standards Assessment body should monitor this closely.

For primary teacher training, the key literacy objective is to prepare teachers to teach reading and writing using evidence-based findings on phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary knowledge and text comprehension. This is sophisticated material and requires the accompanying demonstration of specialist professional knowledge and skill. It also needs high-quality student teachers who are able to absorb and act on it. It should be the responsibility of specialist university research and teaching departments with standing and resources equal to those of any other subject area. Moreover, responsibility for training teachers in all subject areas taught in schools must lie with the university subject area as well as the education faculty.

Do we know of any universities in Australia preparing teachers that could be identified as world-class leaders in the field and proudly proclaim teacher training as their first teaching and research priority? The inquiry recommended national lighthouse projects in teacher preparation. The light from these, if they exist at all, is exceedingly dim.

The Rowe inquiry noted many practising teachers required refurbishment of their skills and ongoing professional learning. This is the responsibility of the profession, together with the universities, but teaching is professionally weak, with more than 30 separate national teaching-related professional bodies, while university education departments are not much stronger. Indeed teaching is strongly unionised, making change from the status quo hard to achieve. A strong union focuses on its members, in this case the teachers, which is admirable and understandable in itself, but a profession focuses on its clients, in this case the children to be taught and their parents.

The inquiry recommended a state-federal plan to develop a series of evidence-based teacher professional learning programs in both universities and schools. It also envisaged networks of specialist teachers and rigorous promotion of research into effective teaching and teacher preparation, as well as new resource materials and training programs.

There are now some grounds for hoping that such a national approach can be put in place. A National Partnership Agreement on Literacy and Numeracy with $540 million in funding was agreed in 2008. We have nationally consistent and publicly available data on students' reading and literacy attainments in every school and school system. And we have the rising pressure of international comparisons.

Whether these developments will prove sufficient to the task remains to be seen. Our school system is inordinately complex and lacks an agency or authority with the responsibility for co-ordinating the work of a large number of stakeholders. As the 2005 inquiry stated: "For all children, learning to read and write effectively requires effort and commitment from many stakeholders: education authorities, principals and their associations, teachers and their professional associations, deans of education (and I would add universities as a whole), health professionals, parents and parent organisations."

Most of all it requires the combined efforts of governments and regular reviews of progress.

The Rowe inquiry never suggested that it would be easy to have the vast majority of our students learning to read early and well, and to excel internationally, but it did show that it can and must be done.

Gregor Ramsey was chairman of the National Board of Employment Education and Training as well as the Higher Education Council, and the inaugural chairman of Teaching Australia.

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