Conjuring up panic about teaching reading

Sep 22, 2023
Exam at school.

Magicians regularly use distraction to trick us into perceiving one thing while another is happening. Politicians use similar tricks to signal concern about public policy problems. Recently there has been an organised campaign to get us to believe that NAPLAN literacy results can all be explained by differences in the methods used to teach reading.

For example, while the verified data show that, over the past few decades, tens of thousands of people seeking asylum have arrived in Australia by plane, successive government have used the distraction of stopping boat arrivals to appear to be addressing the ‘unauthorised entry’ problem. In the meantime, as Dr Rizvi has shown in these pages, thousands continue to flow in by plane.

Now we are told that the concerning literacy results revealed by the latest NAPLAN tests demonstrate that the heart of the problem lies in the methods used to teach reading, not in the distribution of resources. The proposition goes something like this: reading is taught in public schools through guesswork, without adequate attention to the needs of specific students or to relevant research, and methods are applied inconsistently across schools, so that parents have no idea what methods are being used at their child’s school. This unprofessional randomness explains the recent poor literacy results of particular cohorts.

The solution proposed is to adopt ONE method of teaching reading embracing phonics and direct instruction and to standardise that approach across all schools and cohorts. In support of this concerned parents provides testimony of the method’s effectiveness for their kids and professionals such as speech pathologists are recruited to the campaign.

Three main groups are promoting this solution: the consultancy firm “Equity Economics”, the Centre for Independent Studies, and the Catholic education system, especially the Canberra/ Goulburn diocese.

Let’s examine the elements of the conjuring trick.

The straw man – public school teaching methods

Apparently public school students are taught to guess words rather than sound out their letters. Parents cannot reliably find out what methods are being used, as they vary from school to school. Who can believe any of these assertions?

Phonics is the term for learning the standard sound associated with a particular letter in any particular language. It is important in learning to read because we all start that journey in our native language by already speaking that tongue. Learning the sound represented by a letter relates the letter to language we already know in speech form. Not that we all aim to read aloud, in fact most of us rarely do. So we can accept that phonics is an essential part of learning to read – but that does not mean it is the be-all and end-all of learning to read. Moreover, in English the sounds of many letters and letter groups vary in what can appear to be a random manner: recur recent bear beard heard etc. There are rules for teaching this variation of course, but as a Russian friend said to me once – “English appears to have more exceptions than it has rules!”


Allegedly public school students are encouraged to “guess” words rather than sound them out. The implication is that this “guessing” is confusing and inhibits learning. Does this withstand scrutiny?

If you’re nuts enough to think that guessing can work as the main way of teaching reading then guess the meaning of this:

уи кㅏн ㅓлл лэрн тㅜ рийд.*

You can only “guess” a word if you are already able to understand other words in the sentence and you expect the whole sentence to mean something sensible. Moreover, not all words are “sounding” words.

Let’s try it: “Amy likes to eat lxxxxxx in her salad” – “Amy likes to eat lizards in her salad”; Amy likes to eat lollies in her salad”; Amy likes to eat lettuce in her salad”. I think most 5 year olds could solve this word puzzle. If you want to denigrate this process, call it “guesswork”. If you observe it dispassionately, it’s just a form of inductive reasoning, a skill highly valued in science, technology and philosophy. It’s not the be-all and end-all but a step along the way to improving your reading.

In fact, this sort of reasoning is how most people rapidly expand their vocabulary once they reach a certain level of competency in any language. Few people read with a dictionary beside them – which is why many misuse words such as “fulsome” and “prevaricate” (yes – I mean you – go and look them up!).

Inconsistent methods across schools and the views of speech pathologists

“Concerned” parent finds it distressing that different methods are used in different schools and even by different teachers in the one school. But how many students tested in NAPLAN have been exposed to different methods across schools? Almost certainly a minority. And how hard is it to find out which method is being used – just ask!

Speech pathologists are trained to diagnose and treat difficulties people may have with pronouncing particular speech components. They can only assist with learning to read when those difficulties affect a student’s ability to understand or progress with that skill. But many speech difficulties are irrelevant to effective reading. For example, a student who has difficulty pronouncing the letter “r” may nevertheless be able to read fluently. “Wobert wan faster and won the wace” may not sound like “Robert ran faster and won the race”, but the student will know what they are reading. Their speech mistake does not arise because they think the letter “r” is the same as the letter “w”! Citing speech pathologists about reading is like citing motor mechanics about learning to drive.

The protagonists

Equity Economics is a consultancy firm wholly staffed by former political advisers to the previous federal Liberal/National Party government. They do not demonstrate any professional capability in education or in the teaching of literacy. So how is their expertise relevant to the NAPLAN results for literacy? They ARE skilled in marshalling arguments to support a particular policy approach and in orchestrating campaigns to promote it. They are doing this by placing essentially the same tendentious article repeatedly in mainstream media such as the Canberra Times. As their website shows, they work predominantly for conservative causes and organisations. Either way, they do it for a fee. So who would pay? Someone with something to gain?

The Centre for Independent Studies is an organisation that explicitly promotes conservative anti-progressive policies. They believe people should be entitled to retain the fruits of their own endeavours and are resolutely opposed to any re-distributive policies. They specifically reject the Gonski recommendations about directing extra resources in education to less advantaged socio-economic groups.

The Canberra/Goulburn Catholic system imposes the “direct instruction” method across its schools and advocates its use especially for students who the NAPLAN results show are being “failed” by other methods. But is this what the NAPLAN results really show?


The NAPLAN literacy results show that MOST students learn to read adequately and a MINORITY in each cohort need extra assistance. The statistically most significant variation in results can be directly related to the socio-economic background of the students. There is no evidence that direct instruction, phonics or other useful tools are NOT used in the schools that perform poorly in NAPLAN literacy tests. It has been known for at least 60 years that the best indicator of success or failure in learning to read is the student’s socio-economic background.

In other words the NAPLAN results showing poorer progress in rural/regional/remote and disadvantaged students support the Gonski recommendations for the re-distribution of resources to address that disadvantage. This would mean moving resources from over-funded schools such as those of the Canberra/Goulburn diocese to schools serving socio-economically disadvantaged groups.

But no – the problem is not resources – it’s methods! So you have no case to take away our funds.

SNAP – the conjuror’s trick is done!

* Give up – this is not in any language: it is a combination of Cyrillic and hangul letters that if read aloud would sound like “We can all learn to read.”

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