Education Comment: Dr Forwood on literacy findings

By Dr Charlotte Forwood, Leader of Advanced Learning

‘Challenge, Broaden, Revolutionise’, the theme of the National Conference of Speech Pathology Australia held in Canberra recently, resonated with Carolyn King* and I as we linked new information, research and resources with the programs and support currently provided by the Advanced Learning Department, and I presented my own findings with colleagues to expand on these themes.

According to an Industry Skills Council report, more than 7 million Australian adults are likely to experience difficulty with reading skills, including difficulty reading and following instructions, communicating reliably via email or interpreting graphs and charts. These people are not illiterate, but don’t have the appropriate literacy skills required by the workforce. Our work as educators must therefore focus on ensuring that students leave us with the literacy skills necessary to navigate their adult lives successfully.

I was honoured to be invited to present two sessions to upskill colleagues and other industry specialists on vocabulary development, which was informed by my work at Strathcona and research for my recent doctorate at Curtin University. I presented a poster titled Beaker or Flask: What’s in a Word? Differences in understanding of secondary Science vocabulary. This poster gave an overview of the difficulties students have with learning and understanding concrete, instructional and conceptual Science vocabulary, and the links with attitude to Science.

I also ran a practical workshop for over 85 speech pathologists to provide them with processes, strategies and resources to use when targeting vocabulary development with upper primary and secondary students. Vocabulary skills are linked to general comprehension; reading comprehension; high level thinking skills, such as analysis and evaluation; academic achievement and attitude to school. Vocabulary is one of the five key areas of literacy, so an important part of any school program.

Associate Professor Pamela Snow, one of the keynote speakers at the conference, enlightened us about risk factors and preventative factors for academic achievement. Risk factors for poor academic achievement included coercive parenting and lack of connectedness. Preventative factors linked to academic success include positive parental support, strong self-esteem, resilience and a strong sense of connectedness. She discussed the importance of good oral language skills when students start school. Students with good phonological awareness skills (e.g. the ability to identify sounds in words and manipulate sounds) and a well developed vocabulary are ready to read. Those students with poor foundation skills may struggle to develop adequate literacy skills. The more children read, the better their vocabulary; the larger their vocabulary, the better their comprehension.

The five key areas of literacy are: phonemic awareness (sound awareness), vocabulary, phonics (sound/letter correspondence), fluency and comprehension. Each needs to be targeted as part of a school’s literacy program. Teaching strategies need to be based on findings from rigorous evidence based research, this includes systematic, direct and explicit phonics instruction in the early years, a core part of Mellor House literacy programs.

Associate Professor Snow noted that the following programs have no empirical cognitive evidence: Reading Recovery and the Arrowsmith Program. The existence of Irlen Syndrome was also questioned. This is quite provocative as each of these has many advocates.

Associate Professor Snow discussed Response to Intervention (RTI) – a three tier model of intervention, which is also used at Strathcona. At Tier 1, students are universally screened and their progress monitored. School wide intervention at this level may be instructional and/or behavioural and includes a differentiated approach to implementing the curriculum. Additional assessments and observations are used to move students to Tier 2 intervention, which consists of core and targeted interventions in small groups. A range of assessment options is available, including tests of cognitive, language and literacy skills, mostly administered within Strathcona by experienced specialists. Tier 3 interventions are more intensive and based on ongoing monitoring of students. At Strathcona, this may include involvement in intensive programs, individual assistance or access to external professionals.

We learnt about the impact of a high cognitive load on literacy. Dr Susan Galletly presented information about the cognitive load of different languages. English has one of the most complex codes, with more than 500 different spelling patterns to learn, compared with relatively simple languages such as Finnish and Italian. By Year 1, more than 90% of students can decode writing accurately in Finnish. By Year 1, only 34% of students can decode English.

We explored new approaches to determine students’ knowledge, understanding and ability to learn, using dynamic assessment. Dr Natalie Hasson from City University, London presented a most informative session on Dynamic Assessment of Sentence Structure. There were workshops on links between oral and written language, metaphors to use when describing language, discussions with presenters about conducting research in schools, as well as evaluating programs.

Carolyn and I returned to Melbourne not only inspired to implement new approaches, but also confident that the Advanced Learning Department at Strathcona is engaged in best practice. We can consider ourselves leaders in terms of understanding and implementation of services and programs to develop all students’ language and literacy skills from ELC to Year 12.


Pamela Snow, Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry, Monash University, Blog: The Snow Report

Susan Galletly: If English were easy to spell

The case for dynamic assessment in speech and language therapy, Hasson N., & Joffe V. (2007) Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 23(1) pp. 9-25.

Charlotte Forwood: Investigating Differences in Science Vocabulary

*Carolyn King coordinates Advanced Learning in Mellor House.