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I Can Read System

I recently came across this article, which appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 5th March 2021, with the alarming title;

Kids in the crossfire: ‘It’s not just that they can’t read – it affects every minute of their day’.

You can read the full article here, but as a literacy and reading acquisition expert and educational psychologist, I wanted to offer my interpretation of the piece. 

https://www.smh.com.au/national/kids-in-the-crossfire-it-s-not-just-that-they-can-t-read-it-affects-every-minute-of-their-day-20201203-p56kf6.html?btis

This article should not be taken too seriously, except that the subject of the article is Callum who is 17 years old and has reading difficulties. These difficulties are hampering his life. It is not uncommon for teachers to tell parents whose children are struggling, “They’ll catch up.”  But they don’t catch up! 

Our view is that if a child cannot read effortlessly by grade three, something is wrong. The article points out two home truths. By grade 3, Callum needed intensive intervention in all areas of literacy, which never happened, so he never received the intervention he needed to overcome his difficulties. Second, his mother spent what she could afford on private tutors but by then, the gap between Callum and his peers was too wide, which is code for he was not instructed properly.

In its simplistic fashion, the article identifies that Callum failed to receive ‘phonics training’ which would certainly been of benefit to him. And that would likely be correct, as phonics has only just been reintroduced to the curriculum this year for year 1 students.

But, as discussed in our previous article https://icanreadsystem.com/when-will-they-ever-learn/, while we are happy to see phonics return as a necessary adjunct in learning how to read, phonics, per se is not sufficient. Teaching children to read is a specialised skill, which unfortunately is not prioritised when training teachers. The renowned researcher Max Coltheart wrote a great article about ten years ago, where he pointed out that the solution was not at hand because there were few people in Australia who could train teachers how to instruct children in the reading acquisition process. 

The article hones in on ‘phonics’. It may be that children are not taught enough about phonics, but it is also as likely that those who are given ‘phonics training’ are misdirected and remain teachers of sight-based memory driven methods.

The tragedy is, as the article points out, that one in five 14-year-olds cannot read well enough, according to 2019 NAPLAN results, a figure that’s barely improved over a decade of national testing. Unfortunately, this article seems unaware that ‘Reading Recovery’ despite many teachers endorsing it, has little research to support that it is effective. Connie Juel wrote a penetrative report on Reading Recovery showing that its efficacy depended on children receiving one-on-one instruction and, in any event, the learning effects failed to sustain the child after about six weeks.

Teaching children to read using a word’s meaning as their guide is not balanced literacy. It’s rubbish!  But it’s true that ‘Balanced literacy has been favoured by most Australian primary schools and university education faculties for decades’, which may go some way to explaining why so many children have acquired reading difficulties. The article contains a plethora of half-truths and misinterpreted assertions, but is it well meaning?

The syllabic approach does not work, but the article cites a number of schools using it. Its references to synthetic phonics is on steadier ground. However, the 18th century did not favour whole language and if you fail to learn how to read at Oatley Public School you must have a learning difficulty. The deviations to Japanese kana systems are meaningless, though it is probably quite true to assert that, ‘A lot of the kids in year 3, who were being referred to learning support, were struggling with phonemic awareness.’ Many teachers mention phonemic awareness, having little idea how to apply it. However, from what we read, there does seems to be a genuine desire to fix up the mess and one section stands above all others: ‘Children who can decode and understand words will find reading easier, the research says. And the more they read, the more readily they will recognise words, allowing them to focus more on what the words mean. They can fall back on phonics to decode unfamiliar words, just as adults do.’

The politicisation of this debate has not helped. School principals and teachers, irrespective of their time in the system, are unlikely to know how to teach reading, although this lack of expertise does not stop many educators promoting what they consider to be a result of their lengthy time in the classroom.

This article appears to place ‘phonics training’ up against the ineffectiveness of alternative approaches. The research does support phonics instruction if it is taught properly as part of the pre-literacy acquisition process but most often, it is not taught correctly. 

Perhaps surprisingly, the ‘back to phonics brigade ‘does help. Many children who fail to appreciate that the spoken language consists of words and words consist of phonemes catch on when this simple fact is pointed out to them. The division between opposing groups as to the best instructional approach seems based more on beliefs rather than evidence. If the evidence was read closely and applied, our failures to teach children how to read would decrease significantly. The debate is not truly between ‘phonics’ and ‘whole word-whole language’ approaches any more than there is a debate between smoking or vaping. Both are bad for you. One might be less bad, so to speak.

With our passion for children’s literacy success, we created I Can Read, building a unique system, that has now taught over 300,000 children to read, and has never had a failure. 

If you have concerns about your child’s reading education and would like find out more, we are always happy to chat. Please feel free to contact us any time…

Tony Earnshaw PhD

I Can Read Co-founder and Educational and Cognitive Psychologist

Parents often approach us with concerns that their child may be dyslexic.

So is dyslexia growing at an alarming rate, or is there another explanation? We believe the later.

You may not be aware that research into reading acquisition shows that, irrespective of the instructional methods used by teachers, some 60% of children will learn how to read. So this means, that irrespective of the teaching methods utilised by their teacher, around 60% of students work out for themselves the nature of the alphabetic principle, how to access phonemes, how to process a sequence of phonemes into co-articulated utterances, and more.

This 60% statistic enables schools to claim a majority success in teaching children to read, and the remaining 40% are noted as having some kind of learning difficulty. This is simply not true, and the failure rate of children learning to read at school can be attributed to the instructional inadequacy of the teaching method.

Dyslexia has become an easy label to assign to any child struggling with reading acquisition, while ignoring the root cause.

Some years ago, I worked for the Ministry of Education in Singapore as a Senior Educational Psychologist. Our work creating the I Can Read System had been completed, but we had not yet released the product into the educational market. Many children in Singapore attending elementary or primary school could not read. It was a puzzle, given that most non-readers were of at least average intelligence, and there was no apparent culprit that stood out as the cause of these poor levels of literacy.  It was the time of my doctoral studies and my supervisor Professor Brian Byrne was visiting from the University of New England. Professor Byrne wrote The Alphabetic Principle and was right up to speed on the bottom-up approach to reading acquisition, starting with phonemic awareness.

We were both quite surprised at the extent of poor literacy in the local schools. I knew that it was unlikely that more than 3-5% of these students would be dyslexic, so it was a puzzle as to why so many had not learned how to read properly.

First a word about dyslexia.

TRUE DYSLEXIA IS QUITE RARE!

True developmental dyslexia is quite rare. A ‘truly’ dyslexic child resists even the best reading instructional attempts to remediate the condition and the condition has been shown to have strong organic associations both genetically and within the operations of the brain. The current estimate is that up to 5% of children may be in this category. The truth is that no one really knows. 

Although we identified 20-40% of children in Singapore schools presenting with reading weaknesses, the fact is that most were not developmentally dyslexic and could respond positively to correct reading instruction. Herein lies the key to the problem of acquired reading difficulties: poor, ineffective teaching methodologies.

Singapore aside, acquired reading difficulties exist in nearly every English-speaking country where children are expected to know how to read, including Australia, and the cause is simply poor, ineffective teaching methodologies. Traditionally, children acquire the skill of learning how to read by passing through a pre-school process such as kindergarten, or they may be home-schooled in their early years and receive misguided instructions from parents or care givers.

We can list a number of such instructional approaches but most of them have a few things in common. These variables are the hidden culprits. What they have in common is that rather than rely on cognitive processing, they are memory-dependent. Teachers commonly start their instructions by drawing attention to the alphabet. They write the letters on a board, a,b,c… and the child often learns the names of the letters before anything else. Later the child may be shown a picture of a cat. The child may say the word /cat/ and be told that the word /cat/ starts with the letter c /see/. Overall, the child is taught the alphabet and is expected to memorise it. This is very common. We have all heard teachers say, “Ay for apple!”

However, there is no relationship between the first sound in the word /cat/, and the letter /see/. What this boils down to is that the child learns a whole language-based recall of previously sighted words.  Just take flash cards which juxtapose a picture with a word. The child sees these enough times, and should the child have a strong visual memory, he or she will, in all likelihood, acquire a sight vocabulary of up to 2000 words. If a memory-dependent methodology is utilised by the child successfully, it is highly likely that the child may end up with no way of decoding unfamiliar words, words previously unseen and therefore un-memorised.

A child may look at the word ‘cat’ and say, “See, ay, tee” over and over, but sadly will never be able to produce the word ‘cat’ from this combination of letter names. Or another child (who may have memorised ‘cat’ as a sight word) may look at a nonsense word such as ‘dap’, and by saying “Dee, ay, pee,” will never be able to coarticulate the letters in the word to pronounce the word correctly, without knowing that the word is a combination of sounds (represented by letters) rather than letter names.

Some twenty years ago, most western education systems woke up to the effectiveness of ‘phonics training’, although sadly many failed to understand how phonics training should work.  Instead of showing the child a picture of a /cat/ (example) and telling the child that the scribble below ‘says’ cat, teachers showed the child a picture of a cat and told the child that cat has three sounds /cuh-ah-tuh/ so don’t forget that (i.e., remember).  Teachers have been famously caught starting ‘phonics training’ by writing the letter ‘a’ on a board and telling the child that this letter says the sound /ah/ and so on, except that it isn’t true. Letters do not make or say sounds. Letters represent sounds (are pictures or drawings of sounds). We make the sounds! 

By now you might have gathered that the traditional method for learning to read was and is in many places, based on the ability to remember (for example) that the letter ‘a’ says the sound /ah/. It doesn’t! 

The word /have/ does have the sound /ah/ but the word /gate/ does not. Nor do the words /was/, /path/, /any/, /ago/ (and there are more). This is where it all starts to go wrong for the child endowed with a weaker visual memory who applies the memory-dependent lessons into his approach to reading.  Cumulatively, children taught to read through a memory-dependent sight-based methodology may work out for themselves the relationship between the spoken word and the ear’s ability to access its sounds and then attach the sound to its common visual representation. If they have (innate) phonemic awareness, the brain – having learned the language/words – they may be able to separate and access the sounds making up a word. Having accessed the sounds without being told the sounds, the next step required is the ability to process the sequence making up the word. It might sound a bit technical, and our opinion is that many children with acquired reading weaknesses are likely to have been taught by teachers who themselves, through no fault of their own, are poorly trained in teaching reading. Thus, these children may be experiencing what we call ‘acquired dyslexia’.

Enrolling your child with a specialist reading centre, such as I Can Read in preparation for starting school, will give them the best chance of reading success and equip them with skills they need to overcome the current ineffective teaching methods they will encounter. However, it is important to continue with their specialist reading education if possible, once they do start school to avoid losing the advantage they have gained.

Having established their child’s early learning, parents often fall into the trap of ceasing this specialist education at the start of Kindergarten. It is their reasonable belief that this external education it is no longer required, but in reality, find their child succumbing to ‘acquired dyslexia’ as a result of having to adapt to the education system’s memory-based learning. 

Parents choosing to cease specialist learning at school age may find it useful to return to their reading centre periodically for an assessment to ensure their child is not falling behind.

Some children are better able to adapt than others, but at least being aware will be helpful in monitoring their progress.

The I Can Read system has taught over 300,000 children to read, including those with learning difficulties and some with dyslexia. In our experience, every child can learn to read with the right methodology, and any difficulties you do encounter, is likely not due to dyslexia.

Tony Earnshaw | Co-founder and Educational Psychologist, I CAN READ

If you would like more information on reading acquisition, are concerned about your child’s reading progress, or would like to book a FREE assessment, please contact the I Can Read head office at Dee Why on 02 9972 1419 or

BOOK AN ASSESSMENT ONLINE. 

A response to the Department of Education’s latest innovation!

NSW Education authorities are now making an assessment for phonics compulsory for 2021 Grade 1 students. It’s about 20 years late!

Frankly it’s ridiculous. The evidence cited by Sarah Mitchell (State Minister for Education) has been available since the 1970s. Clearly an assessment for phonics sensitivity is required but most so-called education experts do not appreciate that, while phonics awareness is a necessity, it is NOT sufficient for the beginning reader. One wonders how it is possible that a government isn’t up to speed on the research.

The reason is that the Department of Education doesn’t follow the research. Remember how it wasted $450 million on the failed system called ‘Reading Recovery’ which didn’t recover many participants even though a plethora of vocal teachers lauded it. It was applied because of political pressure from a minority of interested parties without the benefit of any supportive data.

This new ‘initiative’ from the NSW Dept of Education won’t hurt. It will mislead parents and teachers into believing that, by returning to a phonics inclusive approach, the solution will be found.  The Department is playing catch up, again!

Phonics alone is NOT an effective way to teach reading.

Applying phonics as part of the learning process is clearly an improvement on whatever failed systems the Department currently applies, but it does not teach children how to read. Why the Department continues to trot out simplistic non-existent solutions beats us. Do they think that parents will blindly accept their poorly thought-out approaches?

Research has identified a number of necessary variables required as part of the English language acquisition process and phonics is clearly one of them. Phonics is basically the ability to associate a sound with a written letter. There is also the assumption that those tested will somehow have no difficulties processing the sequences of sounds/letters. This is false because many children will easily follow this approach innately without appreciating their actual cognitive activities.

We have no aim to be inflammatory, or political here – we are simply driven by our passion for the subject and our work of more than 20 years, built on solid research that the Department of Education chooses to ignore. This passion led us to create the unique I Can Read system, a proven and complete bottom-up based system which has taught nearly half a million children to read since 2003 and has never had a failure with its core programme. The I Can Read methodology is completely driven by research and was created by Australian registered educational psychologists.

Created here in Australia, our system was accepted by the Singapore Ministry of Education and made available in schools in that country. I Can Read was instrumental in Singapore becoming one of the most literate countries in the world, and has since spread across Asia.

Australian education leaders declined to embrace our system, and meanwhile, Australia has slipped in literacy from 4th in the world to 17th. For this reason, we created our own I Can Read total literacy learning centres for parents who are simply not satisfied with their childrens’ literacy progress in school.

Stick with those who actually know what they are doing in the application of reading instruction and have the data to back up their claims.

If you’d like more information, check out the following pages of our website, and if you would like to talk to someone to find out more, please call us on 02 9972 1419.