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Teachers report on writes and wrongs of their uni education

New graduates about to enter WA’s primary school classrooms have claimed they are not being equipped with the skills they need to teach reading properly.

A newly qualified teacher felt so strongly that she has written an open letter to universities saying many trainee teachers — and their future students — were being disadvantaged because they were not exposed to reading instruction methods backed by science.

She said many academics did not emphasise the importance of using explicit instruction strategies to teach phonics systematically.

Instead, they focused on “antiquated and ineffective” approaches, such as encouraging students to guess at words based on pictures.

“The scientifically grounded concepts of reading acquisition have largely been ignored in teacher preparation,” she wrote.

“When all the evidence indicates that this is how we can develop successful readers, why isn’t it being taught to pre-service teachers?”

The graduate said it was not until her final semester at Edith Cowan University, when she took elective units on teaching phonics, that she felt she understood how to teach reading effectively. “I am one of the lucky ones of my cohort who actually do feel prepared,” she said. “Many of my peers do not.”

The graduate, who cannot be named because it could jeopardise her new job, said concerns about teacher training were not confined to one institution or to WA.

Graduates from Murdoch and Curtin universities said they also did not feel prepared to teach children how to read, despite four years of study and a $30,000 debt.

They said they learnt more about teaching reading in three days from a course run by ECU associate professor Lorraine Hammond, left, with the backing of the Fogarty Foundation.

Some Balga Primary School children returned to class a week early to allow graduates to practise the strategies.

The explicit instruction method teaches concepts in small, systematic steps, checking regularly for understanding, to help transfer students’ learning from their short-term to long-term memory.

Dr Hammond said many people believed that learning to read was a natural process, like learning to talk. But research showed children needed to be explicitly taught how to connect sounds with letters using phonics.

She said it was a problem that many academics were not up to date with the science underpinning effective reading teaching.

“You can’t teach what you don’t know,” Dr Hammond said. “The universities will say every beginning teacher is aware they ought to be teaching phonics, however, it’s how to teach it that they are not taught.

“There’s a lot of philosophies and theories and beliefs, some date back to Stalin’s Russia. We’ve moved on in terms of our understanding of what happens in the brain when you learn.”

Associate Professor Lorraine Hammond.Associate Professor Lorraine Hammond.
Camera IconAssociate Professor Lorraine Hammond.Picture: Simon Santi

Murdoch University head of education Susan Ledger said phonics and explicit instruction were embedded in all literacy units and were one part of a rich literacy environment mandated by the national curriculum.

“Students are introduced to a wide range of evidence-based literacy practices and programs that are taught in WA schools,” she said.

Fogarty EDvance program director Ingrid Sealey said the training course would be expanded because evidence showed results improved in schools using explicit instruction. She said universities could not cram everything into four years.

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