Source: The Weekend Australian, March 18-19, 1995, pp. 1-2

Students struggle to string syllables together

By education writer CAROLYN JONES  
AN overwhelming majority 
of students entering secondary 
school cannot decipher many 
words of two and three syllables 
because the way they are 
taught to read and write is 
seriously flawed, according to 
new research. 
The study of 650 six to 
14-year-olds carried out by inde- 
pendent researchers Mr Byron 
Harrison and Ms Jean Zollner 
blames poor literacy on the 
"whole language" method of 
reading and writing that is 
taught in most primary schools. 
Their study found 85 per cent 
of boys and 75 per cent of girls 
have difficulty reading and form- 
ing two and three syllable words 
at the end of primary school. 
Almost half of all 7-year-olds 
experience "significant difficulty" 
in blending three letters together 
and by the age of 12, almost 40 per 
cent of these children still make 
the same mistake. 
  According to the study, they 
are confusing name and sound 
association because the tra- 
ditional phonetic method of read- 
ing and writing is no longer 
emphasised in schools. 
  About 83 per cent of children 
fail to guess words accurately by 
the age of five but by the end of 
primary school, 62 per cent still 
guess wrongly. 
  Mr Harrison said the five- 
year study was confined to 
Tasmanian students. But he 
believed the findings were appli- 
cable nationwide. 
  He said the introduction of the 
whole language method in 
schools meant children were not 
being given a sufficient ground- 
ing in traditional grammatical 
skills and theory: "The whole 
language method ... is failing the 
overwhelming majority of these 
  The whole language approach 
to teaching children how to read 
and write was introduced into 
Australian schools in the late 
1960s and early 1970s in line with 
US and British educational 
trends. Instead of learning to 
read and spell phonetically, chil- 
dren were taught to recognise 
familiar printed words by word 
guessing and then placing them 
in context in a sentence. 
  Ms Zollner is a remedial edu- 
cator and Mr Harrison is an 
optometrist but despite their lack 
of academic recognition they 
have built a strong following 
among parents and teachers 
from school sectors in all States. 
  The pair's visual attention 
span theory (VAS) argues that if 
children with undeveloped visual 
memory are encouraged to rely 
on whole word guessing and 
reading-for-meaning techniques, 
they will quickly develop bad 
habits of inaccuracy. 
  Although their theory has so 
far been virtually ignored by 
State education departments, it 
seems parents and schools can- 
not get enough of it. Representa- 
tives from a diverse group of 50 
NSW schools from the indepen- 
dent, Catholic and government 
school sector attended a work- 
shop held by the pair in Sydney 
  Sydney parent Ms Katy 
Zanatta swears by the program 
and its effect on her 9-year-old 
son Stephen. 
  "The transformation is just 
incredible. He feels much more 
confident with his reading and he 
even enjoys reading signs and 
labels," Ms Zanatta said. 
  Concerned about Stephen's failure 
to grasp simple literacy tasks early 
last year, and after refusing a psychol- 
ogist's suggestion he take medication 
for attention deficit disorder, Ms 
Zanatta turned to a teacher at Ste- 
phen's school who had heard about 
the VAS theory. 
  Twelve months later, Ms Zanatta 
says Stephen now enjoys school and 
appears to have little difficulty read- 
ing and writing. 
  The program, which costs S250, 
focuses on a computerised reading 
and spelling program with a variety of 
tasks and activities that parents can 
use with their children at home and 
teachers can use in the classroom. 
  Educators argue that children need 
both phonic knowledge and whole 
word recognition when learning to 
read if they are to progress normally. 
But a child must learn some phonic 
skills so they can read unfamiliar 
  Although NSW is leading the 
States by reintroducing phonics in 
the classroom, Ms Zollner and Mr 
Harrison fear the renewed "back to 
basics" push in education circles is 
"too little, too late". 
  But the Victorian Directorate of 
Education disputes the findings. 
  According to a spokesman, the level 
of phonetic instruction in schools is 
"adequate" because it is now recog- 
nised that teachers should not just 
rely on one reading and writing 

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