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The Learning Success Blog

1 million Students Risk Reading Failure, says Dr Jennifer Buckingham

Posted by Colin Klupiec on May 10, 2016 at 5:02 PM

Jennifer_Buckingham.pngIt’s hard to believe, but 1 million Australian children are at risk of reading failure.

A research report released by the Centre for Independent Studies titled Read About It: Scientific Evidence for Effective Teaching of Reading suggests most children will need significant or intensive reading instruction.

Dr Jennifer Buckingham, editor of the report,  explained the problem in a discussion on the Learning Capacity Podcast, and the five keys to reading that can help address it.

Listen to the podcast.

Topics covered

  1. Teaching reading
  2. Explicit instruction
  3. Inquiry based methods of teaching
  4. Cognitive Load Theory
  5. The five keys to reading success
  6. Phonics
  7. Phonemic awareness
  8. Fluency
  9. Vocabulary
  10. Comprehension
  11. Sight words
  12. Working memory
  13. The Matthew Effect

People & organisations mentioned

  1. The Centre for Independent Studies
  2. Grattan Institute
  4. Professor John Hattie

Resources/books/articles mentioned

  1. Read About It: Scientific Evidence for Effective Teaching of Reading.
  2. Five from Five Project
  3. Australian National Inquiry into Teaching Literacy

Previous podcast episodes on SoundCloud

If you would like to read the complete podcast transcript, here it is:


 Episode 58 of The Learning Capacity Podcast

1 million Australian children at risk of reading failure. Dr Jennifer Buckingham explains.


Colin Klupiec: Jennifer, thanks for joining us.

Jennifer Buckingham: Thank you for inviting me.

Colin: Just to give our listeners a little bit of perspective, The Centre for Independent Studies released a research report in March 2016 titled, "Read About It: Scientific Evidence for Effective Teaching of Reading." I'd like to start by just taking some highlight stats from that report, if I may.

One million Australian children are at risk of reading failure. That's nearly 4% of the Australian population. In many cases, the difference in reading ability amongst children of the same age can be measured in years. One-third of 15 year olds aren't meeting national literacy standards. Would you call this a crisis?

Jennifer: It is a crisis in the sense that the potential and really real consequences for those particular people and also for the people around them and really for everybody are very serious.

It's not a crisis in the sense that it's sudden or new. This is something that has been evident and growing for quite some time. I wouldn't like to give the impression that this is something that has suddenly happened. We've known about it for at least two decades and been arguing for what are the solutions for at least as long.

Colin: So this is a little bit like a boiling frog syndrome where the frog is unaware of the fact that the water is heating up around it.

Effective reading instruction

Jennifer: I would like to think that there was a level of unawareness going on, but I think that we are all too aware, and most people are very aware of it. It's just that we seem to be stuck in a pattern of arguing over what are the solutions rather than pursuing those are most likely to work. By that I mean specifically, the debates over effective reading instruction particularly in the early years of school.

Colin: Oh, that's interesting. Look, I don't want to get bogged down into this too early in this discussion, but that suggests that it's either a political or an educational debate or perhaps a combination of both. What do you think that's driving?

Jennifer: It's absolutely both. I think while many of us would wish that it's not the case, education is inherently political. There are people who take various different positions in education debate, tend to become political about it largely because of the large amount of government influence over what happens in schools. Therefore whichever is the government of the day will be making fairly high stakes decisions about what happens in our schools, and therefore, you can't help but be political about it.

Our brains have no "reading part"

Colin: The report talks about the fact that studies indicate a majority of children need either significant or intensive reading instruction or intervention. I'm citing two U.S. studies from the report. Without getting too complicated, I won't name them, but they are available for people to read in the Report which I encourage them to download.

Now based on what you've just said with regards to education debate and political debate, this idea of significant intervention is mentioned in the context of improved instruction, particularly direct instruction. Do you think this indicates the fact that we've actually just taken reading ability for granted, as in the fact that somebody else will just instruct someone to read?

Jennifer: Yeah. I think that this is particularly a problem amongst adults who have learned to read…well in their own memories almost without effort. None of us really remember, or not none of us, few of us really remember how exactly we learned to read. It just seems to happen in an unforced, natural way. And then as we become proficient readers, we're no longer aware of the really complex, cognitive processes that are taking place as we're reading.

Therefore, I think we tend to think that reading is a natural thing that just everyone will eventually learn to read, and it's definitely not the case. There are plenty of scientists who have explained that the brain has no reading part, that we haven't evolved to naturally learn how to make sense of written code and translate that into oral language. That this is a relatively new skill in evolutionary terms, and so a lot of people have to actually be carefully taught how to do that.

Colin: So how do we bring this into the national conscience? I mean if there is a science behind it that we need to be aware of, how do we do that? Do we just talk about that more, or do we print out leaflets? Do we hammer our politicians? Is it a combination of those things?

5 elements of effective reading instruction

Jennifer: It will require a fairly concerted approach across a variety of areas. So we have, at The Centre for Independent Studies, developed a project called Five from Five. It's called Five from Five because we're talking about the five key elements of an effective reading instruction program. And that those elements should be in reading instruction from the first year of school when most children are about the age of five.

The Five from Five project is designed to try and get this information out to as many people as possible. I'm talking there about teachers, principals, parents, policymakers, and teacher educators. This pulling together all of the research and synthesizing it in an accessible way so that busy teachers and busy parents who want to access up-to-date information are able to do that and also in a way that's relevant to them in an Australian classroom and in an Australian home.

Colin: Just staying with the idea of improved instruction, teacher quality is also talked about in the report quite a bit. This also relates to recent research which has been published by the Grattan Institute. They recently released a report on widening achievement gaps in NAPLAN and academics such as John Hattie from Melbourne.

If we're talking about teacher quality and direct instruction, are we potentially opening up a very, very sensitive issue here?

Explicit (direct) instruction

Jennifer: Well, direct instruction as a term tends to be a bit loaded. I think it's useful here to discuss the different sorts of direct instruction. There's Direct Instruction with capital D, capital I and that is a commercially developed program, which is very specific, which is developed in America. It is designed in such a way that it's scripted essentially. Teachers read from the scripts. They follow the lesson plan. There's very little room for teachers to deviate from the lesson even just in terms of the way that they explain things and set things up.

Whereas there is also DI with a direction instruction with lower case letters and that is a more general kind of teaching strategy which sometimes is called explicit instruction. What direct instruction or explicit instruction does is it is a technique of teaching which breaks down information into fairly small units and delivers them in a really sequential way. There's lots of monitoring, lots of assessment, lots of teacher/student interaction.

But it's a highly planned sequence of teaching that isn't...I guess in order to...sometimes it can be best described by contrasting it with a different approach. And that is it's in contrast to the sort of approach where you allow students to pursue their own knowledge within an inquiry-based classroom. It's very much teacher directed and very much planned.

Explicit instruction vs inquiry based learning

Teachers tend to fall into various camps in regard to the sort of instruction they do, whether it's explicit instruction or inquiry based. Many sit somewhere in the middle, but there is a tendency in Australian classrooms to be moving towards the inquiry based methods of teaching, not just in reading but in all areas of the curriculum.

Unfortunately, research has shown quite clearly that inquiry based methods are not as effective as explicit instruction. Their effectiveness depends a little bit on where students are in the trajectory of their learning. If they've already learned competencies in particular areas, then there can be some usefulness in inquiry based lessons.

However, when they're new learners, when they're learning a new concept or something that's really complex, then explicit instruction is by far the most effective strategy.

Colin: I noticed that the report talks about that quite a bit towards the end. In particular, it mentions the concept of Cognitive Load Theory which I would like to come to at the end of our discussion.

Let's talk about reading and codes because I don't think people often think about reading as a code. I think this comes back to what you said earlier in that people generally don't remember or perhaps don't remember very well how they learned to read. So they might just take for granted that they are actually very good code breakers or code interpreters.

A 2005 Australian National Inquiry into Teaching Literacy suggested that we turn towards science for inspiration. I just like the sound of that. But the report also states that there's a large body of local and international evidence to suggest that children make the connection with oral and written language or that they need to make connection between oral and written language in order to be able to decipher alphabetic code.

How do we make people more aware of the importance of the code nature of language?

The English written code is not transparent

Jennifer: I think really it's about providing accurate information. There are a lot of people in academia particularly who seem to be of the opinion that because the English language is a particularly complicated language that it's not a phonetic language. By phonetic, I mean that you can work out what words are using rules about letters and sounds, and their combinations, and how you put them together.

When we're talking about a code, we're talking about the relationship between the black marks on the page and the sounds that you hear in words. In English, the written code is not as transparent or as easy to learn as other languages. Spanish and Finnish for example are very straightforward.

There's only one letter for each letter sound and vice versa. Whereas in English, we have 26 letters and 44 or 45 letter sounds depending on the person's accent, because accent can change slightly the sounds of various phoneme and grapheme correspondences.

What that means is not that you can't teach English in a code breaking way using phonics techniques. But really what it means is that it's even more important that we do that because it's going to be less likely that a child is going to work that out on their own.

In Finland for example, children have pretty much learned how to decode words. They're reading at a fairly functional level after the first year at school, unless they have some sort of learning difficulty in which case it might take a little bit longer. But most have already done that because it's a fairly simple language to learn.

Colin: What age are we talking about after that first year of school in Finland?

Jennifer: Well, they start formal schooling a little bit later than our students. They will usually be around about seven. So they will have been in preschool, but formal preschool often full-time up until the first year at school, and then with one year of quite systematic reading instruction, they'll have got that within a year and then moving on to more complex areas of the curriculum.

They can move on to the reading to learn aspects of schooling much more quickly than students in English speaking countries can do. Because we're still learning some of the code aspects of our language through until year two and year three even when it comes down to some of the more unusual sorts of spellings. So it does make the English language harder to learn, and what that means is that we have to be even more careful and more methodical about how it's taught.

Colin: So what are your thoughts on sight words?

Jennifer: Sight words definitely have a place. There are some very common words that don't fit the normal phonic patterns. I'm thinking there of a word like was. If you're reading that phonetically, you would read it as wăs.

Colin: Yes.

Jennifer: So there are words like that that they are very frequent words in simple books. And so it's much easier to teach children those words just as a whole unit. Said is another one. So it's very difficult to come across or to create a simple text that is interesting to read without using some of those high frequency words.

It's not that those words never did conform to the normal phonetic rules of language. It's just that over time humans being sometimes quite lazy creatures have taken to pronouncing things in a way that is easier in the context of conversations. So the way we pronounce words has changed significantly over time.

It's a matter of teaching children that's how we pronounce these words for various historical reasons. But it's much easier just to learn those as sight words initially. If you don't learn those words as sight words, it's very difficult to get into reading actual books rather than just reading lists of words.

Colin: I guess that's why you suggested before that there might be one or two extra letter sounds or phonemes depending on your accent. When you use the word was as an example, the first thing I thought of was Steve Wozniak as in a person. But then if you think about it, was is also a fairly popular way of saying that the name Warren.

So I think you are quite observant there in the fact that we have become, well I'd say, a little bit lazy in the way we use words. That could be adding to the problem, don't you think?

Jennifer: Yeah, definitely. There's nothing we can really do about that. There are of course exceptions to the normal phonetic rules. I was just thinking about another word such as cupboard. So initially that word would have been pronounced cup-board, but over time we just got lazy and now the conventional way of pronouncing that is cub-board.

A child who reads that and sounds it out using the phonetic rules won't exactly be wrong in terms of the way that they have decoded that word. It's just that our speaking conventions have become a little bit different to our writing conventions in some cases 

The 5 keys to reading success

Colin: Let's talk a little bit about the five keys to reading that the report mentions as the keys for reading success. The first ones I'd like to mention are phonics and phonemic awareness. In themselves, they sound like scary words because you don't hear those words used all the time in everyday language. I've been in classrooms and staff rooms in schools since 1999, mainly in secondary. Is this just a primary school thing? How do I know when to stop talking about phonics and phonemes?

Jennifer: Well phonemic awareness is something that is really important very early. You would really hope that phonemic awareness wouldn't be an issue by the time you get to secondary school. It's a precursor, I guess, to phonics in particular and has a really good strong role in learning to decode and also learning to encode, so learning to spell.

The reason that it's important is because phonemic awareness is the ability to hear the discrete sounds in a word. The knowledge and awareness that speech is not just a stream of indecipherable sounds that can't be broken up into individual units. Speech is made up of words obviously, and then those words themselves can be broken up into individual sounds. When children can identify the individual sounds and words, it makes it much easier for them to make the connection between those sounds and the letters they see on the page.

Poor phonemic awareness contributes to reading difficulties

Phonemic awareness needs to be taught in the context of phonics because it makes that knowledge much more concrete. Children who have poor phonemic or phonological awareness will struggle with learning to read. For some children that's a genetic problem that is something they will struggle with and need support with for quite a long period of time. But for most students, that's a skill that once they have acquired it, it doesn't need to be continually reinforced.

Reading fluency, vocabulary & comprehension

The other three are fluency, and vocabulary, and comprehension. Fluency is really making all of the knowledge that you've learned in phonics, making that automatic, so that when a child or a person who is learning to read is reading, they're not doing it laboriously. They're doing it in a smooth kind of way that allows them to focus on comprehension rather than working out what the words are.

If you're laboring over every word, then by the time you get to the sentence, you've forgotten what was at the beginning. So you're not really thinking about what the words mean, what the sentence means, let alone any kind of reading between the lines and making inferences and all those sorts of things that good readers do. Fluency is a really essential aspect in moving from decoding into comprehension.

Colin: Is there a difference between reading fluently out aloud and reading fluently to yourself?

Jennifer: Generally not. You know most people who can read fluently in one domain can read fluently in the other. It would be fairly rare to find a child who reads slowly out loud who reads quickly silently because they're going through the same process.

Colin: I'm just wondering from a practical perspective for teachers in a classroom, and I'm thinking subjects other than English right now, would it be plausible therefore to use reading out loud as a way to diagnose potential reading problems? For example, let's say you've got to do a presentation or an assignment, rather than just reading from palm cards or trying to recall from memory, would it actually be helpful to give students a script or something to read just to detect how they actually read and if there's fluency? And if there isn't, that there might be some other underlying issue?

High correlation between fluency & comprehension

Jennifer: Yeah, I think that would be very useful if the teacher is concerned about how well a student is understanding the text that they have been given to read.

There's a very high level of correlation between fluency and comprehension. There's some fairly simple tests of words read correctly per minute which are really good predictors of comprehension levels of students. So that would be a really useful piece of information for teachers in all disciplines. 

Colin: I found the section on vocabulary in the report fascinating. I'm thinking about this in the context of shared reading and listening to words and in fact just the number of words. It's perhaps a little known or little considered fact from research that children from the lower socioeconomic backgrounds actually hear millions of words less than their more advanced peers by age three.

I have heard different numbers, but your report suggests up to 30 million words less which is a staggering number because I don't think many people, or many of us actually think about how many words we say in our life, some more than others.

Is this a wakeup call for all parents to be extremely mindful of the words that they use and speak often?

Jennifer: Absolutely. Speak often, and clearly, and use lots of different words. Vocabulary is embedded by hearing words repeatedly, and in different contexts, and by discussing what that word means in various different contexts. This is something that it's not difficult for parents to do. It's not expensive. It can be quite taxing in terms of energy. We all know what it's like to have toddlers who are constantly asking questions and constantly asking the same questions, but there's a reason for that, and that is that you learn by repetition.

They're seeking knowledge all the time, and parents can be the source of a great deal of that knowledge. Vocabulary is really incredibly important for comprehension. So while phonemic awareness and phonics is a great predictor of early reading in terms of basic decoding and just simply working out what words are and being able to read at that sort of functional level, vocabulary is the great predictor of how well reading will progress after that point.

The Matthew Effect

It allows children to expand the sorts of things that they read. It feeds into what's called a reciprocal feedback loop which then creates what's called the Matthew Effect. The Matthew Effect is that children who start off as good readers will read a lot and they will gain a lot more knowledge. They'll become more skilled readers. So the more they read, the more they read and the better they get at it.

Whereas children who struggle with reading, either because of poor decoding skills, or because they have low vocabulary won't enjoy reading and they'll read less. Therefore the knowledge gap grows, and its' very difficult over time to close the gap as it widens. The best time to focus on that is to try to stop the gap from appearing in the first place.

Colin: So improving vocabulary can actually be a more beneficial way of improving reading comprehension, is that what I'm hearing?

Jennifer: Yes. It's both. So obviously if you can't read the words on the page, if you can't' work out what the word is, then you won't know what word it is that you're trying to work out the meaning of, and the other way around. You can know a lot of words in spoken vocabulary, but if you can't work out what the word is, then it's no good to you.

Those two things are really the key aspects of early literacy development. They're things that both parents and teachers can work on. But vocabulary, the thing is it's infinite to some extent, whereas decoding is a skill which has a ceiling. Once children know how to do that, then they know how to do it. Whereas the vocabulary gap can grow almost forever. It means that if the gap exists in the first place, it's just going to grow and grow over time which is the Matthew Effect. It's almost impossible to catch up because the accumulation of words of children with a rich vocabulary is just going to grow exponentially compared to students who have started off at a low base.

I'm just trying to think of an analogy. I guess it would be like trying to make up for, in the space of six months, what another child might have taken three years to learn. During the six months where you try and catch that child up in what the other child knows, their knowledge is still growing. They have not stopped while you've been trying to catch up the child who started at a lower base. This is the difficulty with schools with vocabulary, that it can be taught, but it's really difficult to close the gap. Whereas the decoding gap can be closed with really good instruction.

Colin: That's fascinating because I've only ever really thought of students as having either more or less vocabulary or being more or less gifted in that area. But the identification of the Matthew Effect or the widening gap, I think that sounds quite alarming.

Decoding is necessary for basic literacy

Jennifer: It is, and that is why this problem has been so hard to rectify. You know, the decoding aspect is critical because that allows all children to achieve at least a basic level of literacy. There is no reason why almost every child cannot be at least functionally literate. However, it would take a much more concerted effort, particularly in the early years of school, to develop that broader language capacity that is so much harder for schools to remedy.

Colin: Let me just segue back to discovery, versus minimally guided, versus explicit instruction. I can't imagine young children who have a vocabulary deficit picking up a dictionary saying, "Oh, I don't know too many words, I think I'll look through this dictionary and pick out some nice ones today and see if I can learn those." If we are heading more towards a minimally guided or a discovery based learning model, are we flirting with danger here a bit?

Jennifer: Very much because it assumes a level of knowledge that a lot of students don't have. It potentially widens the gap because students who already have some knowledge and have some sort of vocabulary, they can handle these sorts of inquiry based lessons and will learn something from them. Students who start with very little in terms of knowledge and skill will flounder and sometimes learn the wrong thing or just free ride on their peers if it's group work. 

So even something like students who got asked to do some research perhaps on the solar system, unless they know what a planet is...you know so their vocabulary is really key to this. In order to do that kind of task, the vocabulary level is already quite high. Understanding about what planets are, what a sun is, what stars are, what space is, these are all sorts of concepts that need to be understood before a child can go off and make any sense of a research project where they're cut loose to work independently.

Explicit instruction is powerful for disadvantaged children

This is where explicit instruction is so powerful for children particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds is that it doesn't assume a lot. It starts from scratch. It can move rapidly, as rapidly as a child can learn, so it doesn't have to be boring, but it doesn't leave gaps. It makes sure, it checks for understanding. Makes sure that that that knowledge is embedded before moving on to the next step.

Cognitive Load Theory

Colin: We were talking before about the fact that there might be a range of opinion or some people who might be leaning more towards this or that particularly when it comes to things like direct instruction versus inquiry based learning. I would have to say that my bias, I should say, leans towards direct instruction. I guess one of the reasons why I like that idea is because of the relationship with Cognitive Load Theory.

I was just wondering whether you could help us understand the idea that if someone is helping you to understand the concepts, that actually reduces cognitive load and perhaps takes pressure off our working memory because someone else has been through it before we have.

Jennifer: I only have a fairly basic understanding of Cognitive Load Theory. It's a theory that's still in development in a lot of ways. But essentially, it works on the idea that if you can make simple concepts automatic, so you're not having to completely go back to square one each time you're learning a new concept. That certain things are already embedded to the point of almost being like second nature. When you are learning about a new concept or a new skill, then you can build that new knowledge on top of what is already really well embedded in your memory.

I'm thinking for example about fractions. It's very difficult to learn about adding, and subtracting, and reducing fractions if you don't know times tables.

Colin: Yeah. 

Jennifer: You can understand the process of times tables and multiplication, but if that's not an automatic thing in your mind. If you don't automatically know by looking at a number what are the factors of that number so that you can create your lowest common denominator or find the lowest common denominator and do the next step, then every time you go to do something with fractions, you're going back to square one and trying to work out which of the multiples and so on. It's just the effort that's involved in doing that sort of task is so much greater if basic concepts aren't stored in memory and no longer having to be in the front of mind so to speak. 

Colin: Well, it's a great report. I commend all of our listeners to download it from your website and read it. Jennifer, it's been full of insight. Thanks so much for your time.

Jennifer: Thank you for talking to me.


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