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The seven messages of highly effective reading teachers

In 1982, the late, great NZ reading researcher Marie Clay identified a group of children having difficulty learning to read as “tangled tots (with) reading knots”. She was referring to children who, despite…

Teaching kids to read isn’t just about learning the alphabet or “sounding out”, it’s about making sense of what’s on the page. Shutterstock

In 1982, the late, great NZ reading researcher Marie Clay identified a group of children having difficulty learning to read as “tangled tots (with) reading knots”.

She was referring to children who, despite having no condition that potentially affected their ability to learn, didn’t seem to benefit from reading instruction. She hypothesised that such children “had tangled the teaching in a web of distorted learning which blocked school progress”.

I’ve met many such children (and their teachers) during five decades of anthropological research in hundreds of classrooms. There were also classrooms which either didn’t have “tangled tots” or, if they did, had more success in untangling their “reading knots”.

When I looked more closely at these “non-tangling” classrooms I discovered they had something in common. Their teachers continuously (and subtly) embedded messages about “learning to be an effective reader” in the language they used when teaching reading.

So far I’ve identified the following seven messages.

1. A reader’s major focus should always be meaning

The dominant thematic message effective reading teachers give to students is “sensible, coherent meaning should be the end result of any reading encounter”.

Teachers communicated this in many ways. For example, if children were reading and came to something they didn’t know these teachers would say things like, “What would make sense here?“ or "That’s a really good guess because it makes sense. What else would make sense?”

Another teacher, when listening to a reader painfully violate the syntax of English by robotically reading “On (pause) one (pause) little (pause) there (pause) but (pause) some,” responded thus: “You just read ‘on one little there but some’. Does that sound like real language? If someone said that to you would it make sense? Why? Why not?"

2. Effective readers draw on all sources of information in the text

This was another dominant message in these classrooms. These teachers constantly asked questions or made comments that promoted this behaviour. Here are some examples:

  • Semantic information:

“Go back and read the title. Often that will give you a clue about what makes sense here.”

“Think about what you already know about the topic and ask, ‘What makes sense?’”

“Use the story line plus any pictures and ask, ‘What would make sense?’"

  • Syntactic information:

“Use your ‘feel’ for the way the English sounds and ask, ‘Does this sound right? Does this sound like English?'”

  • Graphophonic information (the relationship between letters and sound):

“If you think the word you’re stuck on is ‘horse’, use your knowledge of letter shapes and sounds and ask, ‘Does ‘horse’ look right?'”

3. Effective readers are always predicting

These teachers constantly encouraged young readers to predict from the title or any illustrations in the texts they were reading.

“What do you think might happen in this text? Does that make sense? Why? Why not?”

4. Effective readers self-correct

This a by-product of the first point. Here’s an example of how these teachers communicated this message.

Text: Father got up at seven o’clock.

Child: Feather got up at seven o’clock.

Teacher: “You just read ‘Feather got up at seven o’clock.’ Does that make sense? What would make sense and looks like ‘feather’?"

5. Effective readers have a range of strategies

My data show these teachers continually said things like:

“When I’m reading and I come to something I don’t know, I read ahead to see if I can get some clues about the bits that are troubling me."

“If that doesn’t work, I might leave it out all together, finish the text and then come back to it."

“Sometimes I go back to the beginning of the sentence I‘m having problems with and try again.”

“I ask somebody, ‘What does this say?‘ "

“If none of these work, I might try to sound it out. I don’t spend too much time sounding words out because it slows me down and I forget what I’ve read.”

6. Effective readers know how they read

My data shows that these teachers used every opportunity to draw their students’ attention to the meta-cognitive aspects of reading. For example:

  • A student is selected to try to read a message on the board. As the selected student focuses on the print the teacher comments, “I know what Emily’s doing — she’s reading the message silently to see what the words say inside her head.”

  • A student is reading the class calendar to work out when she’s supposed to present at “Show and Tell” and says, “It’s my turn next Thursday.” The teacher overhears this and comments, “What clever reading. Tell the class how you worked that out.”

7. Effective readers love reading

These teachers continually played the role of “Book Whisperers” by:

  • Sharing enthusiasms about books.

  • Sharing stories about their own learning-to-read journey.

  • Immersing children in worthwhile children’s literature by reading aloud to them every day.

These teachers seem to know intuitively that making meaning is the core business of learning how to read. In this they are like parents teaching children how to talk.

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47 Comments sorted by

  1. Ruth Lipscombe

    Retired teacher.

    Oh joy!Oh bliss!
    Thank you Bruce Cambourne for getting to the heart of teaching reading.
    Marie Clay's books are still as relevant as they were years ago.
    In its own way this article lends weight to teaching Aboriginal children,who are fortunate to still have their language, in their mother tongue.
    Please take note Christopher Pyne and Bruce Wilson (NT)

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  2. Brian Byrne
    Brian Byrne is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Chief Investigator, ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders, and Emeritus Professor, School of Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Sciences at University of New England

    Strong claims about effective instruction require strong evidence, just as strong claims about effective medical intervention do. Observation is a good start, but for education, as for medicine, there are well-established methods to evaluate hypotheses gained from classroom, or clinical, experience. As Professor Cambourne knows, the approach he champions is in important ways at odds with another approach, one that encourages a focus on the nuts and bolts of written language, letters and the sound structures they represent, during the early stages of literacy instruction. The available evidence favours this latter approach, as I read it, but in any case articles in The Conversation that advocate particular methods of education need to be backed by hard-nosed evidence, just as articles that advocate particular medical treatments would.

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    1. Dean Taylor

      Pharmacist

      In reply to Brian Byrne

      The evidence for a lot of medical treatments in children is not as strong as you would like to think, and as long as we are risk averse with children it will remain that way.

      What astounds me when it comes to education is that there seems to be a lot of research into proving that a particular method produces better results overall, but little into determining how to identify which students are most likely to benefit from which method.

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  3. Ian Porteous

    logged in via Facebook

    Thank you Mr C. Brian B read point 5. Your concerns are covered. Good teaching provides the nuts and bolts. Experience showed me that concentrating on nuts and bolts produced readers who didn't read. Keep up the great work Mr C.

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  4. Dennis Alexander

    logged in via LinkedIn

    When I read articles like this and comments like those of Prof. Byrne, I am reminded of the reasoning behind the creation of positive psychology. A lot of the phonics research has been carried out with children who have been suffering "phonological deficits", often, but not always, because of non-standard vernaculars as their first dialect. Prof. Byrne's research is an exception here because, as I understand it, is based on twin studies and positive reading acquisition. While there are some substantial…

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    1. Janice Russell

      retired

      In reply to Dennis Alexander

      I had 2 children with oral reading problems. The 2nd one got a place in an intensive remedial reading class where phonics was emphasised. The class operated for1 term every morning with normal class lessons in the afternoon. There were only 6 children in the IR class, as well as volunteers to work individually with children on their program in the class.
      It was a lot of hard work aimed mainly at students of above average IQ as they had to keep up with the normal class work as well. The first got…

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    2. Raine S Ferdinands

      Education at Education

      In reply to Janice Russell

      Thanks for sharing this information, Janice, and you are so right. Cost and or funding often is simply an excuse for human lathery, poor imagination and lack of dedication on the part of some school administrators and teaching staff.
      I have witnessed a number of schools that have risen above all sorts of student issues (both learning and behavioural) in creative ways. Some people are stuck on blaming 'funding' for all our failings in education and life in general.
      Cheers to all volunteers, parents and non-parents; they are a priceless lot.

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  5. Kerry Hempenstall

    Retired at RMIT University

    Just when it appeared that the philosophy of Whole Language finally had been swept away, we find Prof Cambourne lauding it once again, just as he has done for so many years. His written contributions on how we might improve the literacy outcomes for students appear to be entirely untouched by educational research. For example, he continues to assert that “highly effective” readers rely on the three cueing system in which attention to the structure of written words is a last resort (“If none of these…

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    1. Dan Fashaw

      Student

      In reply to Kerry Hempenstall

      Interesting. Going through pre-service teaching I never came across the points of view you raise, and have not found it in any prominent research or text book. We're taught about 4 cueing systems (pragmatic being the fourth), but I struggle to see a researched or proven alternative in your work.

      The bulk of your references from this article http://nifdi.org/news/hempenstall-blog/402-the-three-cueing-system-in-reading-will-it-ever-go-away
      are over 1 - 2 decades old (many even older) and I have…

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    2. Dennis Alexander

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Dan Fashaw

      Hi Dan, Not defending Kerry, but the linguists involved in the eagleforum are all quite well qualified in their fields - most of the linguists in the list don't actually work in language acquisition or teaching reading, they're relying on the research they read (see my comment above). A similar letter was put together by a number of cognitive scientists here in Australia around 2007-8. Those arguing against the cueing tools use the label "guess": in language acquisition the corresponding term is…

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    3. Stephen Krashen

      Professor Emeritus

      In reply to Kerry Hempenstall

      Please have a look at my chapter on eye movement in my book Three Arguments About Whole Language and Why They are Wrong (Heinemann, 1999).

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    4. Kerry Hempenstall

      Retired at RMIT University

      In reply to Dan Fashaw

      It may be surprising to some teachers that their teacher training failed to mention that there was debate about the merits of the 3 cueing system. That the concern is seen in the research literature less often these days is because the issue is considered resolved. However, the results of research are beginning to have an impact on education policy:

      In the UK, the Education Department’s approach (Primary National Strategy, 2006) now rejects the formerly recommended stategy - the multiple cueing…

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    5. Dan Fashaw

      Student

      In reply to Kerry Hempenstall

      Thanks for the reply Kerry. I think your right about readers needing to be able to decode the letters and sounds in words. But do you think perhaps readers also draw on more than this? My reading of modern text books advocate the use of 5 cuing systems, not 3. They are:
      Phonological
      Syntactic
      Semantic
      Pragmatic
      Paralinguistic

      When teaching students on how read we give them:
      Phonics instruction
      Phonemic awareness
      Phonological awareness

      A balanced approach to literacy which came out…

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  6. Evelyn Haskins

    retired

    I dunno. But I'm very glad that I wasn't taught reading this way!

    It sounds condescending and min-bogglingly boring!

    What is wrong with just helping the child with the 'difficult word' so that he/she can read the piece fluently to get the meaning?

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  7. Helen Holland

    Educator

    I'm amazed by some of the negative comments to this article. Brian Cranbourne isn't advocating a move away from the nuts and bolts of reading instruction, nor is he pushing for 'whole language' instruction. He's making observations about the messages that teachers give to promote effective reading. A a secondary school English teacher, what Brian is saying makes complete sense and does tie in with extensive research, such as that of Professor John Munro. I dont't think his article is about how to teach reading, but rather, how to get students into the habit of thinking about texts and meta cognition in the ways that effective readers do and how to promote a love of reading. If I had more students arriving in Year 7 with those kinds of strategies and 'self talk', my job would be a piece of cake.

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    1. Raine S Ferdinands

      Education at Education

      In reply to Helen Holland

      It's all about diversity of approaches and choices. What works for one child many not work for another. Personally I am glad to see such diverse research, teaching-learning methodologies and views. Good source of valuable information with choices, too. Well done all.

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  8. Patrick Maher

    Retired Doctor of Psychology and Academic

    It is refreshing to read Prof Cambourne's views in light of a rather dark period of about twenty years when the Whole Language and cueing approach got rather bad press. Excellent indeed.

    President Bush's initiatives after the early 2000's give much more credence to the seven principles set out here.

    I found one area, one chink in a student's resistance to reading that finally enabled reading was to find their interest and then locate reading material (appropriate to their readiness) that tapped…

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    1. Raine S Ferdinands

      Education at Education

      In reply to Patrick Maher

      A very smart and imaginative teacher, indeed. Perhaps there was no Gonski and funding reports then; for this teacher to be laid-back and blame lack of funding.

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    2. Berys Dixon-Scheirich

      Author , Teacher

      In reply to Patrick Maher

      I wonder how many of those students ignored the text and just used the RICH illustrations to guide them in fixing their punctures?

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    3. Allan Gardiner

      Dr

      In reply to Berys Dixon-Scheirich

      Indeed! Although the students may have read the text in 'patches' here and there, they may well have thought that it just wasn't a 'patch' on the rich illustrations.

      I'm wondering if Patrick inflated the numbers when he said that they all got home safely with mended punctures.

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  9. Stephen Krashen

    Professor Emeritus

    In response to Prof. Byrne:
    There is plenty of solid evidence against the "nuts and bolts" view of literacy development and plenty of evidence demonstrating that the "comprehension hypothesis" is correct (we learn to read by reading, and reading is source of much our competence in literacy). Plenty of evidence that Kenneth Goodman and Frank Smith have been right all along. Here is just some of it.

    1. Showing that phonemic awareness is not the foundation of learning to read: eg: Krashen, S…

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    1. Brian Byrne
      Brian Byrne is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Chief Investigator, ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders, and Emeritus Professor, School of Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Sciences at University of New England

      In reply to Stephen Krashen

      In responding to Professor Cambourne’s article I didn’t want to get into a detailed debate about reading instruction. I was just making the point that claims about highly effective teaching need to be supported by evidence, just as claims about highly effective medical treatment need to be. But for the record I agree that most progress in reading comes about as an incidental product of reading itself once a child has developed the resources to read independently, which, the best evidence tells us…

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  10. Berys Dixon-Scheirich

    Author , Teacher

    To all you fans of Cranbourne’s reading philosophies:
    Where is the common sense in his argument?
    Consider this statement:
    “For example, if children were reading and came to something they didn’t know..”
    What does he mean? By “something they didn’t know” does he mean a word they have never seen before?
    How frustrating for children to have to sit there with their limited vocabularies and make “guesses”.
    Why would you demoralize children by giving them reading material that was beyond their skill…

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    1. Evelyn Haskins

      retired

      In reply to Berys Dixon-Scheirich

      I see a problem here -- nearly everybody is considering 'teaching reading' ie from the teacher's perspective, rather than 'learning reading' from the student's perspective.

      I'm sorry for kids who reach secondary school as non-functional readers, but I cannot see the method as outlined by Crambourne as helping.

      Here are the suggested teacher interruptions:
      “What would make sense here?“
      "That’s a really good guess because it makes sense. What else would make sense?”
      “Go back and read the…

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  11. Berys Dixon-Scheirich

    Author , Teacher

    5. Effective readers have a range of strategies

    Little Johnny is reading… (His “reading strategy” processes are in brackets)
    “Quack, quack” went a ….(he’s come to a word he doesn’t know).
    (“What did Mr Cambourne tell me to do? Oh yes, "read ahead and see if I can get some clues about the bits that are troubling me"…)
    “…Pip! Quick! Come here!” said Tim.
    (Hmm. That doesn’t help me… What will I do now?
    I know I’ll "leave it out altogether, finish the text and then come back to it.)
    “Quack…

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  12. Evelyn Haskins

    retired

    >A student is selected to try to read a message on the board. As the selected student focuses on the print the teacher comments, “I know what Emily’s doing — she’s reading the message silently to see what the words say inside her head.”>

    >A student is reading the class calendar to work out when she’s supposed to present at “Show and Tell” and says, “It’s my turn next Thursday.” The teacher overhears this and comments, “What clever reading. Tell the class how you worked that out.”>

    Would you REALLY call this good teaching????
    Sounds horrible to me.
    It also sounds quite contrary to good instruction. Making the child self-conscious and possibly turning the other kids against her. (Teachers PET!!).

    I wonder how much bullying teachers who 'use' such methods instigate in their classes?

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    1. John Perry

      Teacher

      In reply to Evelyn Haskins

      It is evident you haven't been in a classroom in quite some time, Evelyn. Most of my feedback to children is of a positive nature, looking for and highlighting good role models within the classroom, rather than feeding the attention-seekers. Those examples you quoted are both good teaching.

      "Teacher's pet"? A little outdated, I think.

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    2. Evelyn Haskins

      retired

      In reply to John Perry

      Some years since I was in primary school.

      But I still have Grandkids in primary school

      On the other hand, I don't think humans have changed all that much over three generations.

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  13. Evelyn Haskins

    retired

    > Another teacher, when listening to a reader painfully violate the syntax of English by robotically reading “On (pause) one (pause) little (pause) there (pause) but (pause) some,” responded thus: “You just read ‘on one little there but some’. Does that sound like real language? If someone said that to you would it make sense? >

    What on earth woud teh text have been for a child to get this list of unrelated words out?

    It would seem to me that any child that read anything other than a list of…

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    1. Berys Dixon-Scheirich

      Author , Teacher

      In reply to Evelyn Haskins

      I'd say the child who was "violating the syntax" was just following strategy number 5: leaving the troublesome words out and reading on.
      So how do we eradicate this ridiculousness? It's rife in schools in Victoria and probably the rest of the country too. Teachers have been brainwashed! As a remedial reading teacher I'm running around trying to fix the whole language mess in which many unfortunate children have found themselves.

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    2. Debbie Hepplewhite

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Berys Dixon-Scheirich

      Marie Clay's books are no longer relevant nowadays. They are outdated. We (or many people) have moved on in our understanding of the full range of requirements to lead to the best reading outcomes for lifetime reading and language acquisition.

      What is very difficult is persuading people who have been trained, or persuaded, during the whole language era that there is indeed a better way to reach all learners for their lifelong reading ability.

      Of course this is understandable when so many people have based their whole careers on certain ideas that they have promoted or been led to believe.

      It is tragic, however, that educationalists to get stuck in the past with flawed ideas - as children's life chances are at stake here.

      It does not matter how large-scale and entrenched are Marie Clay's ideas - it does not mean they are right.

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  14. Debbie Hepplewhite

    logged in via Twitter

    The advice given in this piece is not about teaching children to lift the words off the page, but about predicting and guessing their way through the text. Of course readers need to make sense of the texts they read - not by guessing their way through the texts but by being able to read the words accurately in the first place. When children make a guess at a word, or 'predict' if people think that sounds better, they can only ever call upon words at the level of their oral language. In any event…

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  15. Allan Gardiner

    Dr

    Teaching a child to read can sometimes be very simple. When the child reads aloud slowly at whatever level, and falters occasionally with new and/or difficult words, if you immediately start to sound-out the word[s] one or two syllables behind their effort then it will lift their game for them. Usually they know what the word/s is/are but their apprehension retards smooth progress. Try to look upon it as being just like when you're teaching a child to ride a two-wheeled bicycle. You still hold onto…

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    1. Mary Alderson

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Allan Gardiner

      Oral reading can be difficult for adults which is why actors are paid for voice overs and for TV commercials. Smooth oral reading is a complex skill requiring the ability to read silently at least one or two words ahead of what is being read aloud. Children are expected to read aloud for the convenience of the teacher, to show the teacher how well they can perform a highly skilled task at the very beginning of their learning. The old, make things as hard as possible approach which permeates education…

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  16. Molly de Lemos

    Educational researcher (retired)

    I think that we would all agree that the purpose of reading is to gain meaning from text, that reading comprehension is dependent on background knowledge as well as the understanding of the meaning of the specific words read, and that it is important to encourage enjoyment of reading through encouragement and exposure to interesting books at the level at which children are able to read. Where there seems to be disagreement is in terms of how children actually read, and how best to teach them. To…

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    1. Evelyn Haskins

      retired

      In reply to Molly de Lemos

      > hence the high rate of reading difficulties and reading failure in later years. >

      But DOES Australia have a high rate of reading difficulties?

      What COUNTS as reading difficulties?
      Very few children actually come through school 'functionally illiterate' ,though many come through as people who do not read for pleasure.
      Not everbody actually enjoys novels. Not everyone enjoys politics and political commentary.

      Then many 'good readers' still need help with their income tax, and many many more 'good readers' van be conned by clever and misleading avertising.

      What percentage of the popuation? Remember that we have university education. In many countries the children who have 'reading difficulties; in Australia, whould not even BE in school.

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  17. Michael Leonard Furtado

    Doctor at University of Queensland

    Profuse appreciation, Brian, after a spate of exclusively rule-based grammar and syntax fervorinos commissioned by The Conversation off so-called experts who are really purists with no practical experience of the complexity of supports and strategies required to sustain effective reading.

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    1. Evelyn Haskins

      retired

      In reply to Michael Leonard Furtado

      OK, Michael.

      You too.

      HOW do you define 'effective reading'?

      And then there is the consideration that not all people have the ability to become functional readers. Is this the faulty of the teaching method? Or are teachers wasting their time, trying to bring these people's reading levels up to 'average'?

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    2. Michael Leonard Furtado

      Doctor at University of Queensland

      In reply to Berys Dixon-Scheirich

      Berys, I'm sorry I came across that way. My direction was influenced by a couple of other blogs that I've alluded to and which may not reflect the variety of opinions here, some of them dissenting but interesting.

      I am involved with several schools in a consultancy project on inclusive teaching and learning. In the main we assist classroom practitioners with learners who don't respond well to conventional teaching methods in reading and who are now referred to special educators for diagnostic…

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    3. Berys Dixon-Scheirich

      Author , Teacher

      In reply to Michael Leonard Furtado

      Thanks, Michael for your attempts to enlighten me, but I see there is a big problem with Cambourne's argument.
      If you take his 7 strategies to be the way effective readers make MEANING from the text, then most of these strategies are useful. As effective readers, we certainly do read back or on, and think about the title or content to discern the meaning of an unfamiliar word and then, if all else fails, probably ask someone or consult a dictionary. But if you applied these lengthy strategies…

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  18. Molly de Lemos

    Educational researcher (retired)

    To quote from the LDA Bulletin (in reply to Evelyn Haskins):
    'Information from the results of international surveys such as the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) point to the relatively low level of reading achievement of Australian students as compared with students in other countries, as well as a relative decline in reading standards compared to other countries, while the results of the NAPLAN testing indicate an increase in the number and percentage of students from Year 3 to Year 9 who are at or below the minimum standard for reading (from 13.4 per cent at Year 3 to 23.3 per cent at Year 9). This failure at the school level is continued into the workforce, as indicated by reports such as that of the Australian Industry Group’s report into workplace literacy and numeracy, which concludes that inadequate skill level in these basic areas is now a defining feature of the Australian workforce.'

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    1. Evelyn Haskins

      retired

      In reply to Molly de Lemos

      OK I am not familiar with the NAPLAN test, but I do wonder if it really tests for functional reading skills.

      Then there is also the problem of which students are being tested.
      Especially when you condsider that for a number of countries who were probably included in these 'tests' not every student goes on to year 9 level.

      Having been at school mself when teacher promotions depended on student testing, I am totally aware that many results wre skewed by simply telling certain children to not…

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    2. Mary Alderson

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Evelyn Haskins

      I agree that too much credence is given to the results of testing - any testing at ANY level!

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  19. Shauna Murray

    Associate Professor; ARC Future Fellow, Plant Functional Biology and Climate Change Cluster at University of Technology, Sydney

    Thanks for the interesting article. It sounds like those teachers are promoting a set of skills, ie helping kids to think for themselves and to work things out based on prior knowledge and logical deduction. Could this work in some way by helping kids to build confidence in their abilities? Could it be the strengthening of the relationship between teacher and pupil which contributes to learning? It would be interesting to tease out the different effects that might be contributing.

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