Source: The Weekend Australian, March 18-19, 1995, pp. 1-2
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 children." 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 yesterday. 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 words. 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 method.
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