Keep high academic standards

Raising academic acheivement is important for individuals. According to the OECD, the level of education you receive can have a significant impact on life outcomes. Education plays a key role in providing the knowledge and skills needed to fully participate in society and the economy.  You will find it easier to find a job and earn enough money to live a good life if you have a good level of education. What’s more, a person’s earning potential increases with the amount of education they receive, and educated individuals tend to live longer, actively participate more in society and commit fewer crimes.  It seems clear that without good academic qualifications, you are statistically less likely to live a good life.

The world is also changing rapidly, which is increasing the need for good academic qualifications. The days of working without academic qualifications are rapidly coming to an end as the world economy becomes knowledge-based. This will likely result in an unprecedented change in the rewards for skill (See Wiliam’s thoughts). We already know academic qualifications are important for positive life outcomes and this is only going to become even more important. The days of earning a living with your hands are closing. Making sure students reach the threshold of academic achievement required to participate in the future economy is high stakes for individuals. Statistically, their life outcomes depend on it.

The future knowledge-based economy has significant implications for educators. Strangely, the response from educators (influenced heavily by misguided gurus) has been to make schooling less knowledge-based in favour of a skills-based curriculum with a focus on soft skills. The rationale being that, as the world becomes more uncertain, students need not develop expertise, but should acquire a broad range of capabilities to deal with the unpredictable changing world we will face.

I believe this is a misguided approach. As noted, the rewards for expertise are only going to increase. It seems odd that the solution to a future where knowledge will be valued is to lower the amount of knowledge students receive. Not only does this idea fly in the face of research on expertise and skill development, it also, in my opinion, has the pernicious effect of lowering the academic rigour of schooling. This trade-off is considered fine because students need soft skills; academics may suffer but that is okay because the students are gaining the soft skills they need. Given what we know about how academic achievement supports an individual’s life outcomes, I very much doubt this approach is the right one for the future. Why lower academic rigour when academic achievement is so important?

The best teachers are probably not lowering academic rigour. As teachers hurry to embrace a skills-based focus to teaching and learning – particularly in primary science, history and geography – the best teachers are probably getting on with maintaining high standards of academic rigour. We have known since the famous pygmalion study that high expectations lead to high academic achievement, and this is because the teachers kept the academic rigour high for these so-called highly talented students. They did not lower the bar; they expected the students to achieve at a high academic standard. That is precisely what the best teachers are likely doing every day in their classrooms for every single one of their students while the rest focus on fluff like the 4Cs in the false hope that this will prepare them for an uncertain future (ironically an uncertain future where high academic achievement and highly specialised knowledge and skills will be heavily rewarded)

I love how Doug Lemov puts it in his book, “Champion teachers are always pushing to create an environment in which the maximum level of academic rigour is expected, practiced and valued.” Great teachers are actively engaged in create an academic ethos in their classroom, one that I do not think is possible if we focus less on academic content and more on ‘general’ skills. If you are a primary teacher, perhaps stop to ask yourself, is what I’m doing lowering the academic rigour in my classroom? It may well be that you unintentionally are. You are not supported by a rigorous curriculum or by quality resources. The Australian Curriculum is not rigorous and popular programs aren’t either.

Check yourself: how rigorous is your classroom? I advise not falling into the trap of lowering the bar because of the future. The best teachers are probably not doing it and your kids deserve the best you can give.


Teachers need explicit knowledge to teach reading, but they don’t have it

Once you become skilled at a task, explicit knowledge becomes implicit. In Australia, parents often teach their children how to drive. This coming-of-age experience often begins in a few heated arguments in which the child accuses the parent of being a poor teacher (likely in a subtle way), despite the fact most parents are highly experienced drivers. This is because, despite being experienced drivers, parents’ driving expertise has moved from being explicit to implicit; they know how to drive a car, and they’re very good at it, but they have lost explicit knowledge of all the processes a new learner needs to come to grips with to learn how to drive. This is why when my mother told me to “lift off the clutch slowly” I stalled the car – she didn’t tell me I needed to accelerate, nor which peddle to press in order to make this happen!

Learning to read is a similar experience. Explicit knowledge of the processes required to read become implicit over time. Most people (certainly not all) have reached a pretty high standard of reading proficiency, but ask any layman and they will likely tell you they have no idea how they do this. The best way to teach kids how to read is to make this implicit process extremely explicit, just like driving a car. The reading process is multi-faceted, but in the beginning, students need explicit knowledge of how letters represent sounds of spoken language. They need explicit knowledge of which letters represent which sounds and when. This is especially important because English is an opaque orthography and therefore highly complex. Children will have the best chance of learning how to read well if we give them explicit knowledge of how we read.

Learning to read is a more complex task than learning how to drive. Almost all people can get away with having a teacher with implicit knowledge of how to drive but this is not the case when it comes to reading. 1 in 5 kids fail to learn to read; it is extremely complex. The people teaching them how to read need explicit knowledge of how children come to read, what they need to know in order to read well, and how to communicate this information appropriately. That’s why it is concerning to find that too often newly graduated and soon to graduate primary teachers charged with teaching children how to read have very poor quality explicit knowledge of language and reading concepts (Fielding-Barnsley, 2010; Stark, Snow, Eadie & Goldfield, 2016; Meehan & Hammond, 2006; Tetly & Jones, 2014).

A new study by Meeks & Kemp (2017) makes this reality painfully clear. They surveyed final year preservice teachers’ knowledge of early reading concepts and found that on items where implicit knowledge was assessed, success rates were rather high, but on items assessing explicit knowledge, scores were rather low. For example, 70% of respondents were able to identify a word with soft ‘c’ in a selection of words, but only 29.4% were able to identify the correct spelling generalisation for the /k/ sound. Further, 91.8% were able to identify two words starting with the same sound (chef and shoe), but only 36.9% were able to identify deletion as the term for the task, ‘Say the word ‘cat’. Now say the word ‘cat’ without the /k/ sound.’ These examples demonstrate that most soon-to-graduate teachers have the implicit knowledge held by many, but lack the explicit knowledge needed to make learning to read an explicit process for students.

Meeks & Kemp report that only 6.9% of preservice teachers in their study reached the criterion for explicit early literacy knowledge and skills. These teachers will have little hope of making this knowledge explicit to the students they are going to teach in just 12 months or less. They go on to write that “If the techniques of explicit instruction are recommended in the research, then explicit knowledge of the components of early reading is equally important. As Washburn et al. emphasised ‘… teachers cannot rely on their implicit skill/ability alone to teach reading, explicit teaching requires explicit understanding’ (2011, p.38)”.

Who is to blame for the situation we have? Well, it is clear that the transition from reader with implicit knowledge to emerging expert teacher of reading with explicit knowledge should occur during teacher training. It is reasonable to assume new teachers will not have all the skills and knowledge needed to teach reading like an expert of 15 years, but it is completely reasonable to expect all new teachers to have the basics down upon entry into the profession. That currently is not happening. Meeks & Kemp note that the low response rate from deans of education is cause for concern (only 9/43 institutions took part in the study). What have they got to hide? I can only assume from my own experience that teacher education courses believe that an implicit knowledge is enough to teach children how to read and that they do not wish to expose the flaws in their courses. The research tells us that they are wrong and so does my experience. There are many kids who really struggle and will continue to if they do not come into contact with knowledgeable teachers because teaching reading is not like teaching someone how to drive – it is much more complex than that. We have little hope of improving as a profession if we cannot catch our new teachers early, and our most needy students will continue to flounder as a result.



Creating Cognitive Dissonance

After graduating from ITE, I landed a job as a year 6 teacher in an outer London school. Whereas my ITE was definitely of the progressive kind, my school prescribed to a much more ‘traditional’ view of teaching and learning. This included the explicit and systematic teaching of phonics. In ITE, phonics was considered (somewhat begrudgingly) a necessary part but was also very much sidelined. Like the awkward family member you cannot deny you have but try to keep hushed, it was spoken of very quickly and then hidden away from view.

In my first week at my new English school, I underwent training. This included training in phonic work and explicit teaching. I was very sceptical. Why are they focussing on such a narrow aspect of teaching? Why are they engaging students in ‘kill and drill’? Don’t they know it will kill a love of learning and a love of reading? Don’t they know that’s what makes the difference? This was my attitude and it stayed this way for many months, yet over the course of the year, my scepticism began to waver. I was in a very challenging school – the kind where progress is hard-won. I could see the effect my explicit instruction was having, particularly on my students’ reading and writing skills. The more explicit I became, the better things seemed to go for my students, and outcomes of a reasonable kind ensued.

The moment I believe my scepticism changed to a feeling of cognitive dissonance came during a writing moderation. Although almost always a waste of time, we teachers would gather together to try and assess the writing ability of a set of students. It was late in the year so the year 2 teacher attended to present some of their writing, too. His students had obviously undergone intensive phonic work during their R and 1 years.  Some of the writing was truly amazing and so too was the spelling. In many ways, it was clear the students in year 2 had grasped concepts my year 6s were still grappling with. In that moment, I began to doubt myself. Perhaps they were on to something. I decided to investigate.

Cognitive dissonance is the state of having inconsistent views, beliefs or attitudes. Teachers want to raise academic achievement and I am no different. I was imagining a world of romantic possibilities for raising achievement; of students in love with books, writing beyond their years and passionately pursuing their dreams. This progressive ideal was being challenged by the approach reaping some serious results: explicit instruction and phonic work. I wanted to raise academic achievement but I was beginning to realise the way to achieve this did not suit my ideals. It was painful, but after much thought and reading (including papers like this), I decided to change my mind. It was clear the systematic and explicit approach to teaching reading through phonics was best.

Phonics is still extremely unpopular. This is because many Australian educators still think the way I used to think; they still have romantic ideals about how students should come to learn to read. But the more I learn about the subject the more I realise there is little time to waste indulging to romantic ideals: many children still fail to learn to read, and this does not need to be so. That’s why I am thankful for the coming of Initialit. An Australian-based phonics program from an organisation with a track record of success has the potential to shake things up. And this is important, because the more programs we have of this nature, the more cognitive dissonance it will impose on teachers. It is one thing to read about it, quite another to see the results for yourself. They will notice the difference, just like I did, and will begin to doubt their own beliefs about how children come to learn to read.

There is no time to waste on flawed approaches to teaching reading when so many fail. Sticking to ideals is self-indulgent and needs to stop because learning how to read is a one-shot deal for children:

“Schooling is a one-shot deal for kids and if we are wasting time playing around with ideas that have no impact on student achievement… then we are frankly wasting time and wasting the students chances of success.” – Dylan Wiliam

We must draw on the evidence and stop wasting time on worse ideas. It is vital we do whatever we can to ensure students learn how to read and learn it well. We teachers are in control of whether or not that happens. Great, evidence-based programs have the potential to impose cognitive dissonance in the minds of the gate-keepers: teachers. With the tide beginning to turn, it is time we saw some minds changed.


If you are a teacher and are curious about the evidence for phonics and early reading instruction in general, then this report and this report are good places to start.

Development of Phonological Awareness

Phonological awareness is the ability to manipulate units of oral language – onset and rime, syllables and phonemes. Phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness. It is the ability to notice, think about and work with individual sounds in words. It is a target skill foundational for reading achievement as it supports the ability to map sounds to letters – phonics. I tweeted out about the sort of phonological skills I am seeing in my classroom and my general understanding of what this indicates at this time of year.


I did this because I wasn’t sure about how exactly students should be performing late in kindergarten. You can get a general sense as a teacher, but it is hard to ascertain exactly where they are at. Twitter responded and directed me to this page on Reading Rockets, a website held in high regard. Below is an adapted, more succinct version of a table on the website describing milestones and at what age they occur. The progression in synthesised from a range of studies.


Most of my students are working at a pretty high level considering the table above so I can only conclude that the phonic work we are doing is strongly influencing their PA, which makes sense to me because kids do better when PA tasks are tied to print. In saying that, many are still working at a more limited capacity and need extra support. I spend a lot of time working to build PA skills with the most needy; however, like most areas, I am still learning and accumulating knowledge. I have found that this website has a variety of friendly games to mix in with more direct drills and quizzing techniques. Reading Rockets also has a variety of activities to help build PA skills.

Knowledge for Primary Teachers: Phonetics 101

This post is intended to provide some information to teachers at primary level (it is also part self-indulgent too, as it strengthens my own knowledge). Please note this post is written by a blogger and not an expert and is not intended to be comprehensive. Research gives me reason to believe knowledge in this area amongst teacher is low. I only wish to share vital information with colleagues in the hope it may strengthen their knowledge and understanding in an area that is quite heavily neglected yet extremely relevant to what we do in classrooms.

Why primary teachers need to learn about phonetics

The primary goal of primary schooling is to teach children how to read. In the simple view of reading, decoding skill multiplied by language comprehension is reading comprehension (D x LC = RC). English has an alphabetic orthography which represents the sounds of spoken language with letters and letter clusters. The fact letters of the alphabet represent sounds of spoken language is called the alphabetic principle. Teachers must assist students to make sense of the alphabetic principle and begin to match speech sounds to corresponding letters and letter clusters. Matching sounds to letters and letter clusters will help students learn to decode text.  Teachers who understand how our speech sound system works will be better placed to assist students to map these sounds to corresponding letters.

Phones and phonetics

Phones are the smallest distinguishable speech units that can be isolated in a stream of speech. Phonetics is the study of phones. The process of isolating phones is not so simple because words and sentences are spoken in a continuous stream: words and sentences are not made up of separate blocks of sounds separated by pauses. The idea that you can divide the speech stream into separate phones is only a reasonable approximation. That is, whenever we isolate a phone, we can never be exactly sure when that phone begins and when it ends, we can only make a reasonable approximation of where it begins and ends.

The International Phonetic Alphabet is a set of symbols used to represent phones.

Types of phones

Speech sounds are divided into two main types, consonants and vowels. 

Consonants are produced with an obstruction of airflow. The airstream from the lungs is impeded in some way on its way outside of the body. /b/ as in bat and /th/ as in then are consonants because the airflow is obstructed by the lips and teeth and tongue respectively.

Vowels are produced with no significant obstruction of airflow. It leaves the mouth unimpeded. /a/ as in apple and /ee/ as in feet are both vowels because there is no obstruction of airflow to these phones.


Consonants are described by their place of articulation (where the airstream is obstructed)  and manner of articulation (how the airstream is obstructed). It is possible for some sounds to have the same place of articulation but differ in the manner in which they are articulated. /t/ and /n/ are both made with the tongue touching the alveolar ridge but differ in how they are made – one is a stop and one is a nasal. Similarly, it is possible for some sounds to have the same manner of articulation but differ in place. /t/ and /k/ both involve a short stop before a burst of airflow but are articulated in different places in the mouth – the alveolar ridge and the velum.

 Places of articulation in Standard English.

Image result for place of articulation

Labial – Sounds made with the lips. /b/ in bat, /p/ in pat and /m/ in map are called bilabials because they are formed with both lips. /f/ as in fish and /v/ as in van are called labiodentals because they bring the lower lip in contact with the upper teeth.

Dental – Sounds made with the tongue and upper teeth. /th/ in three and /th/ in this are both dental sounds.

Young students who mix spellings of /th/ with /v/ or /f/ (e.g. wif for with) are having trouble articulating dentals. Encourage mouth awareness and practise describing how these feel different in the mouth.

Alveolar – Sounds made with the front of the tongue and the alveolar ridge (part of the mouth directly behind the front teeth). /t/ in top, /d/ in dog, /l/ in log, /n/ in nag, /r/ in rag and /s/ in sag are alveolars.

Palatal – Sounds made between the hard palate and the tongue. The hard palate extends from the alveolar ridge to the soft palate at the top of the mouth. Alveolo-palatals occur when articulation is made just behind the alveolar ridge. /sh/ in shingle, /j/ in jungle and /ch/ in child are all alveolo-palatals.

Velar – Sounds made between the soft palate and the tongue. The velum (soft palate) is the soft area at the back of the mouth. /k/ as in kill and /g/ as in gate are velars.

Glottal – Sounds made by restricting the opening behind the vocal folds. /h/ as in hot is a glottal.

Manner of articulation

Stops – A phone that begins with complete blockage of the airstream followed by a release of air is known as a stop. They can be made at almost any place of articulation. /b/ /p/ /g/ /k/ are examples of stops. Consonants that occur in the same place and manner of articulation can be distinguished by their voicing. /b/ and /p/ are both stops and are both bilabials. /b/ is considered voiced as it engages vibration of the vocal folds while /p/ is considered voiceless as it does not engage the vocal folds.

Nasals – A phone where airflow is released through the nasal cavity is called a nasal. /m/ /n/ and /ng/ in sing are all nasals.

Fricatives – Sounds produced with incomplete closure at the point of articulation are called fricatives. There is some restriction, but a narrow passage through which airflow is released is maintained. Fricatives are voiced and voiceless. /v/ /f/ /th/ /s/ /z/ are all fricatives.

Affricate – Phones that combine a stop and a fricative are called affricates. /ch/ is an affricate because it begins as a stop and releases airflow following the stop in a restricted manner, just like a fricative. /j/ as in jungle is another example.

Laterals – /l/ as in love is called a lateral because the sides of the tongue are lowered to allow airflow to pass by a closure in the centre.

Rhotic – This term is used to describe the /r/ as in round. Rhotics are much more interesting in other European languages;)

Glides – Sometimes called semi-vowels. They are phones that are vowel-like. /w/ as in wand and /y/ as in yes are the two English glides.


All vowels are voiced sounds and are produced using the position of the tongue. The position of the tongue on two dimensions determines which vowel sound is produced – front to back and high to low. The chart below shows how each vowel is produced in the mouth. The /ee/ as in beet is considered a high-front vowel because the position of the tongue is high in the mouth and at the front of the mouth. In contrast, the /o/ as in bomb is considered a low-back vowel as the position of the tongue is low and at the back of the mouth. Students who have decoding difficulties often have a hard time discriminating vowels.

Image result for vowel chart


Some have asked what I’ve read in this area:

Speech to Print by Louisa Moats

Linguistics: An Introduction by William McGregor

Teach knowledge early

Great minds in the world of education are coming to a consensus on the foundational role knowledge must play in schooling. Dylan Wiliam has said that, “the purpose of schooling is to develop long-term memory in children for content that we value.” Our whole focus on skills is misguided. The common line of thinking – that skills are what we should focus on at the expense of knowledge – is starting to buckle under pressure from research on human cognitive architecture and domain expertise.

What distinguishes the novice from the expert in any field is the content retained in long-term memory. A novice and an expert’s working memories are just as highly limited, but there is no known limit to long-term memory. We’ve known for many years that there is a vast store of knowledge in an experts long-term memory which they can use to execute complex tasks. Expert skill is the ability to use the content of working memory to execute the desired skill. There is no skill independent of the content of the long-term memory. It is as E.D Hirsch says, “skill is content and content is skill”.

It is often thought that teaching facts will get in the way of developing skill but that is a nonsense. It is in fact knowledge which enables skill, as is confirmed by the research on expertise. We must stop focussing on developing skills and instead focus on cultivating expertise by building up student schemata through much knowledge learning and deliberate practise. This will better ensure they are able to execute the skills we want them to have.

So we are coming to realise that knowledge is much more important than we thought. Even if we accept that knowledge plays a crucial role, and that it definitely does not inhibit skills, many will resist an emphasis on knowledge anyway. This is largely because of romantic ideas about how children should learn – that they are special beings that need to run their own course. From a romantic point-of-view, teaching knowledge will corrupt the innate instincts, interests and curiosity of the child. Education reeks of this view. ‘Education isn’t about stuffing the head with facts but cultivating a love of learning’ is a romantic catchphrase used to deflect conversations on the importance of knowledge and Ken Robinson’s thoughts are a prime example of this line of thinking.

Science education has probably been the worst affected area. A focus on skills and a neglect of knowledge is characteristic of Australian primary students’ science education evident through popular and very knowledge-poor inquiry-based learning programs. The subject is knowledge rich but it is thought that to acquire the mind of a scientist we must have students act like scientists. This is flawed thinking because we know that it is knowledge that distinguishes the expert from the novice. If we wish for students to act like scientists, we’re better off giving students the vast store of knowledge a scientist has.

The neglect of scientific knowledge in favour of skills is a prime example of flawed thinking in education. It is knowledge that distinguished an expert from a novice, not the skills. We already have students acting like scientists in kindergarten. That a focus on skills starts so early is especially concerning because we also know that knowledge builds knowledge (also see schema theory) – it makes learning easier because what you already know assists your ability to acquire more knowledge. By not teaching lots of scientific knowledge at primary level, we make it harder for students to acquire complex scientific knowledge later on, and therefore make it harder for them to become experts.

Scrapping the focus on skills (and the folly of having children act like experts) to make way for a new approach is desirable. How exactly should we approach building scientific knowledge? I think embedding read-alouds in all subject areas is a good way to approach knowledge building in the early years. This is the approach taken by Hirsch and Core Knowledge and it makes a lot of sense. The read-alouds are no more than 20 minutes and are very rich in vocabulary and domain knowledge a student needs. If science lessons were centred around materials like these, students would acquire knowledge at a more rapid rate than having them engage in projects or investigations.

The argument for teaching knowledge is strong. There is and always will be resistance to this due to the romantic feelings noted above, but systematically building knowledge can only benefit a child. This is especially so for the disadvantaged who do not benefit from the enriched knowledge building environment enjoyed by their more affluent peers. Using read-alouds may be the way to help students acquire the knowledge they need. No doubt there will be resistance, but the evidence is stacked against those who wish to disagree.


A book to help you teach writing

My ITE literacy units were definitely of the more implicit variety. The only thing I remember being taught explicitly to do was a running record (which, in my opinion, isn’t a very useful assessment tool). What’s more, reading was definitely emphasised over writing, and this is probably justified. If a student does not learn to read then they have very little hope of learning how to write. Teaching children how to write is still important, even if it is a little less important than teaching children how to read. I did not learn how to teach writing.


Nothing will expose the quality of your teaching more than teaching kindergarten. The kids come to school not being able to read or write and it is very obvious how the quality of your teaching impacts their writing ability. Forming a simple sentence is a tougher task than many foresee and I did not have a clue how to teach it well. I would get sentences like this:

Bob is a man who is. big and I like Bob because. he is big.

Admittedly, some teachers figure out how to teach sentence structure. They are creative enough to work out how to communicate it well (following a few hits and misses). I am not that teacher. How many others are like me? I’d posit there are more teachers than not who, upon reflection, would probably tell you they don’t really know how to teach writing. They don’t really know what to teach, when to teach it and how to teach it well. They, like me, are probably growing increasingly frustrated by it – or worse: they’ve given up trying to get better, allowing children to learn writing by osmosis. If NAPLAN results are anything to go by, I’m probably right.

The solution to my sentence teaching problem came through the post in a book called The Writing Revolution. The Writing Revolution is a guide to writing that is unashamedly about content driven explicit instruction of writing skills, especially sentences. The content drives the rigour of the writing tasks. there is no need to have a separate writing lesson because writing can be embedded across all curriculum areas using this approach. The first technique Hochman and Wexler teach their readers is how to teach students to distinguish a sentence from a sentence fragment. “They need to spend time hearing and reading complete sentences alongside sentence fragments and distinguishing between the two.” This then will help students understand what a sentence is but also, crucially, it will help them recognise when their sentence is not a sentence, so they can fix it themselves.

“Say you’ve been teaching your students about early settlement in the American colonies, and you’re not too sure of their grasp of the material. You might give them this sentence:

settled near rivers

Your students could then draw on the content they’ve learned to turn the fragment into a sentence, such as the following:

Early Americans settled near rivers.

If you’ve been teaching your students about the story of Columbus, you could give them a list such as the following:

___ queen Isabella and king ferdinand
___ colombus never reached
___ the sailors were tired and frightened
___ in three small ships
___ columbus an Italian sailor

After marking these examples F or S, students should convert the fragments into sentences at the bottom of the page and add the correct punctuation and capitalisation to the sentences.

Fragments are the first focus and there are many others all highly useful. The book even has a sequence from year 1-8 (America) outlining which activities to introduce each year. Students are not going to learn how to write well by osmosis. For the first time, I really feel like I have the knowledge and clarity needed to approach writing systematically and explicitly and, in my opinion, that makes this book a must read.


What about comprehension strategies?

Reading is about making meaning. Although whole language advocates argue phonics advocates don’t believe reading is about making meaning because they ‘drill kids in meaningless phonics activities’, the reality is all teachers with a sound understanding of reading research agree that reading is, without a doubt, about making meaning. The disagreement is how students should be taught to access text to make meaning.

Whole language advocates believe that everything we do in the reading classroom should be centred around context because reading is about meaning. Phonics advocates disagree. Phonics advocates will tell you that in order to make meaning, you have got to get the words off the page first. You can’t make meaning from anything if you cannot get the words off the page. Learning to decode must precede an emphasis on meaning-making for this very reason. As obvious as this sounds (and as heavily backed by research as it is), many from whole language choose to target meaning from day one because they do not draw a distinction between decoding and meaning-making. Comprehension strategies – predicting, questioning, visualising, monitoring, summarising and visualising – are introduced early in a whole language classroom even though it is a complete waste of time.

The reason it is a complete waste of time is that the texts students read lack complexity and are therefore very easily understood. A student will understand the texts they read if: 1) they understand 95% of the vocabulary in the text; 2) they have sufficient background knowledge about what they are reading; 3) their decoding fluency is good. Of course, this is not to say we should simply have them ‘bark at print’ but it doesn’t mean we should explicitly teach comprehension strategies either. During read-alouds, teachers will, of course, have students discuss aspects of a text all without explicitly teaching comprehension strategies. During student reading, the teacher simply has to remind the students to make sure they are thinking about the story as they read. This, with sufficient vocabulary, background knowledge and decoding fluency, is enough to ensure students understand the simple texts they read.

Now if they don’t understand what they read, the reason is not that they aren’t using comprehension strategies; rather, it is very likely they are deficient in either decoding fluency, vocabulary or background knowledge (here and here). Teachers have limited time and should use it wisely. It would be far better for a teacher to explicitly teach these before even bothering thinking about introducing comprehension strategies.

Comprehension strategies should definitely be taught but they should be taught much later on after decoding fluency has been reached. Willingham suggests introducing them around year 3-4 as this will help students focus their working memory capacity on meaning-making. Once the strategies have been taught, they should be revisited but only to remind students of what they are, why they are useful and how to use them because there are diminishing returns to teaching comprehension strategies – once they are taught, there is very little to gain from teaching them over and over. It would be a much better use of time to explicitly teach vocabulary (including morphology), background knowledge and spelling. These will all support comprehension of a text much more than constantly banging on about the super six.

Dipping my toe into retrieval practice

Recently, I identified retrieval practice as an area of great potential. It is a low cost, high impact strategy well supported by cognitive research. Simply put:

Retrieval Practice occurs when learners recall and apply multiple examples of previously learned knowledge or skills after a period of forgetting. (Lemov, 2017)

Examples of retrieval practice tend to show the students engaging in recalling a series of fact-based questions to mitigate the effects of forgetting. The act of retrieving previously learnt information from long-term memory and placing it in short-term memory will strengthen the memory and reduce forgetting. That is the rationale behind engaging students in retrieval practice.

The rationale behind retrieval practice is to reduce the forgetting curve

We’re at the end of the school year in Australia. A year in a 5-year-old’s world is a lifetime (I teach 5-year-olds). I was intrigued after reading a bit about retrieval practice through Doug Lemov. I wondered how much of the content we had covered throughout the year had been remembered by my kindergarteners. I decided to investigate.

The answer was not much at all. For example, at the beginning of the year, we covered the five (traditional) senses. To my dismay, some of my students could not even recall the senses (let alone recall how they work) even though we had covered them and I had data telling me they knew them.

The truth is, I had made a fundamental error most teachers make: I mixed up performance with learning. Performance is how well students complete a task at the point of teaching (quite interestingly, Robert Bjork has done research showing performance on a learning task does not correlate well with long-term learning). Learning, on the other hand, is a change in long-term memory. Memory is plagued by forgetting and that is why it is not the same as performance. Learning is not performance because, for learning to have taken place, there needs to be a change in long-term memory. If students, after a period of time – say, 6 weeks –  have forgotten material taught, as mine did, then they haven’t really learnt the material even if they’d been exposed to it and understood it. I made the error of assessing before a period of forgetting. I assessed the performance of my students (which simply reflects the teaching) and not the learning that had taken place.

Of course, performance is not the goal, learning is. My students were taught the content and definitely understood it – that much was clear from performance on the learning task – but they had forgotten it in the long term because we had not revisited it. They had not engaged in retrieving the information from their long term memory which led to forgetting. Retrieval practice is a powerful way to engage students in this recall and stop the forgetting curve.

I decided to revisit the senses through a series of read-alouds but this time I engaged my students in a series of retrieval practice questions at the beginning of lessons. I also integrated the subject-specific questions into 5-minute blocks of mixed retrieval practice throughout the day. My questions focussed primarily on the latest content with fewer questions related to the earliest content and were asked in a ‘rapid-fire’ way (I mostly cold call, but will also take hands, especially if low performers show enthusiasm).

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The results have been promising. The students remembered more lesson-on-lesson and so engagement was also way up. Students love to know things and the more they know and remember, the more confident they become in sharing and discussing ideas. I had students jumping off the carpet in eagerness to answer questions. What’s more, the students started to point things out to me outside lessons. One student mentioned to me that it was always loud at the beginning of assembly because the sound waves kept ‘bouncing off the walls’. She suggested we take assembly outside instead. This is what happens when students know things well: they start to apply it to their surroundings; they gain interest in a topic and how it applies to their lives.

I am currently waiting 6 weeks to assess their knowledge and understanding of the material covered. Retrieval questions related to the topic during my blocks of mixed-subject retrieval practice are naturally becoming less frequent. I will be very interested to see how they go and I dare say they will know much more than they did before. We know incontrovertibly that knowledge builds on knowledge and knowledge is the foundation of skill development. The process of retrieving information this young will only help them gain powerful knowledge and skills in the future. Retrieval practice is low cost, high impact and I would encourage all teachers, including early years teachers, to use the technique. It’ll make a big difference.

On a final note, I think there is great potential in engaging young children in a series of read-alouds. E.D Hirsch is a big fan of them and I think he is on to something that could become a powerful teaching tool. Combine short read-alouds with retrieval practice and writing tasks and you’ve got yourself a powerful formula for effective learning.