Children lagging in reading skills is becoming a chronic problem in Australian schools, yet at least one small town in New South Wales has found a way to tackle it successfully. Raymond Terrace – little more than a village, and a struggling one at that – seems like an odd setting for an education revolution. But there, staff and faculty have found a way to turn around a trend with which the rest of Australia seems to be unable or unwilling to cope.
The solution seems to be in going back to the basics. Students who were found to be especially struggling were enrolled in an intensive phonics program which taught them how to connect letters with sounds and sounds with words. It is considered a backbone for the acquisition of reading skills, and children who do not master phonics by a certain age might be behind their peers in literacy for the rest of their academic careers.
Raymond Terrace Public School principal John Picton says the program, which is in its third year, has been a "godsend" with very positive results. The key thing, he says, is "the obvious focus on phonics and phonic awareness. You go back to basics and build that platform".
Success in Raymond Terrace could serve as a guiding light to the rest of Australia, which this year found itself near the bottom in literacy and reading when compared to other developed nations. Even among those who have been sounding the alarms about the state of the country's education system for years, the poor showing was greeted with surprise — and even with shock.
In 2011, Australia took part in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study for the first time, and the results – which were published earlier this week – were discouraging. The literacy skills among fourth-graders were found to be the worst of every single other English-speaking country. They were also behind countries like Bulgaria and Portugal.
"We should be hanging our heads in shame. It's absolutely damning," says literacy researcher Kevin Wheldall, an emeritus professor at Macquarie University who developed the phonics-based teaching system being used at Raymond Terrace Public School. Wheldall's system, called MiniLit (Meeting Initial Needs in Literacy) was shown, in a study published last month about the program at the Raymond Terrace school, to be very effective in addressing literacy problems.
Despite the success that has been achieved deploying MiniLit in places like Raymond Terrace, it's been slow to find adherents in other provinces, cities and schools. Instead, educators seem to continue their attachment to the Reading Recovery program – which is used in most of the country – despite the fact that recent research proves is it not very effective in helping children catch up their reading skills to grade level.
"I'm not saying it's not effective but it's not effective enough and certainly not cost effective," he says. Wheldall says it works for only one in three children – one child improves, one doesn't and one would have improved anyway.