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Australian schools failing to teach children to read, expert warns

Mid shot of reading and dyslexia expert Dr Maryanne Wolf against a geometric background.
Dr Wolf says Australian teachers are ill-equipped to teach children to read.

ABC News: Andrea Mayes

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Australian schools are failing to teach enough children to read and an increasing reliance on digital screens is only worsening the problem, a US expert in reading and dyslexia is warning.

Maryanne Wolf, director of the Centre for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University, said there had been an alarming decrease in reading standards in recent years, with up to a third of the population classified as functionally illiterate.

Yet most teachers were ill-equipped to teach reading, especially to children from disadvantaged backgrounds or with learning difficulties, she said.

Dr Wolf said extensive research had proved the importance of teaching phonics to learn to decode words, yet many schools put too little emphasis the foundations of reading and explicit instruction.

"We need better methods, we need better professional development, and we need to understand that dyslexia exists," Dr Wolf said.

She said many Australian schools did not recognise dyslexia as a condition requiring educational support, and children with the condition often suffered from low self-esteem, leading to lifelong problems.

"It's an individual waste and it's an economic waste for Australia not to recognise dyslexia."

Parents struggle to get help

Dyslexia support advocate Tanya Forbes and her sons Brendan and Connor against a mountainous backdrop.
Tanya Forbes, with Brendan, 11, and Connor, 16, says her son was lucky to get support.

Supplied: Tanya Forbes

Tanya Forbes knows first-hand the struggles children with learning difficulties face.

Her son Brendan, now 12, was diagnosed with dyslexia when he was in Year 1 when he was unable to identify letters of the alphabet.

Fortunately, Brendan's "champion" teacher identified his problems early, and his school was able to provide a range of effective supports for him.

His experiences prompted Ms Forbes to find the Queensland Dyslexia Support Group, but she said Brendan's story was far from normal for most children with learning difficulties.

"His case is the exception rather than the rule, and many parents are up against a great deal of adversity when they're trying to get support for their kids," she said.

"Parents are still getting told that dyslexia doesn't exist, that there's no funding to support their kids."

Ms Forbes said children were being made to learn lists of "sight words" in lower primary school and given picture books as early readers.

But children with learning difficulties were often able to memorise the lists of words and guess the text of books from the illustrations, fooling teachers into believing they were effectively learning to read.

"It's not evidence-based, when we know what actually works is teaching kids the alphabetic code, teaching them to listen to the sound structure of language and how to connect sounds to letters."

Ms Forbes said her son, who is now in Year 6 and achieving in the middle cohort of students, was proof children with learning difficulties could become good readers.

"This is a boy with severe dyslexia, but ... it just goes to show that with good instruction, even kids with severe learning difficulties can respond," she said.

Screen time adding to problem

Dr Wolf said screens were having an adverse impact on the way children learnt to read, and led to children learning at a more superficial level.

Child using ipad
Dr Wolf says children's attention, memory and concentration change with increased screen time.

ABC News: Clarissa Thorpe

"There's no question that our children's attention and memory is changing when they are reading too long, too much, too early on digital screens," she said.

With children now learning on tablets at kindergarten, and being given screen time at home as a "pacifier", many pre-schoolers were now spending more than half of their waking hours on screens.

However, Dr Wolf conceded it was a difficult balancing act for parents, because banning screens altogether gave them the status of "forbidden fruit", leading to conflicts between parent and child.

"Digital technology can be a great resource but it can also be a pernicious one, so it's how we as a society really study the cognitive impact of that and use evidence-based research to go after the technology designers to do a better job of dealing with the problems of memory and attention we are seeing," she said.