By Chris Pratt MAPS,
School of Psychological Science, La Trobe University

In late 2004, the Minister for Education, Science and Training, the Hon Dr Brendan Nelson, MP, announced details about the Australian Government National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy (Note 1). Whereas the title for the Inquiry refers to the broader term "literacy", the context of the Minister's announcement and the terms of reference make it clear that the main focus of the Inquiry is on reading, a central and fundamental component of literacy development. The brief of the Committee responsible for the Inquiry includes making recommendations on effective methods for teaching literacy in the classroom and for identifying those children experiencing problems in learning to read. There is also a clear message coming through the terms of reference that the Committee should be focussing on research evidence and how this evidence might inform teacher education and become the basis for practices in the classroom.

The announcement of the Inquiry followed by a call for submissions from the Committee provided the opportunity for the APS to make two submissions outlining the central contribution psychologists, especially Australian psychologists, have made and continue to make to the many facets of literacy development in our society. As this article, which is based on these submissions, demonstrates, this ranges from major contributions to our understanding of the fundamental processes underlying literacy development and the problems that some children experience with learning to read, to appropriate assessments and interventions for reading problems. It is a clear example of ways in which the discipline and profession of psychology jointly contribute to the education, health and welfare of individuals as well as to the broader development of society.


The basis of literacy instruction

With regard to the teaching of reading, it is well recognised that there have been two distinct and conflicting approaches to reading, typically referred to as the whole language approach and the decoding (or phonics) approach. The whole language approach has emphasised the links between spoken and written language and the fundamental and central importance of meaning in language as the basis of learning to read and to work out written words. In contrast, the decoding or phonics approach has emphasised the need for instruction to assist the child link the written letters (or graphemes, for example, b, d) with individual sounds of language (or phonemes /b/ /d/) (see de Lemos, 2002; Garton & Pratt, 1998). Although the debate between proponents of these two approaches has continued, and at times raged, for many years clear evidence has emerged demonstrating that systematic phonics training leading to children developing proficient decoding skills is an essential component of successful reading instruction.

Much of the research that has provided convincing evidence for the importance of decoding skills has been undertaken by psychologists (for example, Bowey, 2000; Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley, 1993). This work has not only provided substantial confirmatory evidence for the importance of instructional models based on decoding skills in the early years, it has also elucidated why such an approach is essential and what particular knowledge and skills children must acquire in order to become fluent readers. As a result of this work, and other research by psychologists on the development of skilled reading models (for example, Coltheart, 1978; Coltheart, Curtis, Atkins & Haller, 1993), the fundamental understandings necessary for learning to read have now been identified.

Children must develop an understanding of the alphabetic principle, which is an understanding that in alphabetic languages such as English, the sounds of language are represented in writing by letters. In order to do this, children must first develop some level of phonemic awareness, the ability to focus attention on the sounds. Whereas to adults the alphabetic principle seems simple and obvious, it is something that understandably eludes children until they are exposed to literacy instruction that specifically addresses the principle through the development of phonological awareness (Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley, 1989; 1993).

Following an understanding of this principle, children go on to learn the correspondences between letters and sounds (or grapheme-phoneme correspondences). It is here that systematic phonics training has been so effective, as long as children have the prerequisite ability to focus on the sounds of language. Without phonics training and the knowledge of letter-sound correspondences children will never be able to expand their written vocabulary effectively through self-teaching (Share, 1995). That is, without knowledge of how to apply phonological decoding to decipher new, unfamiliar words, their stored knowledge of words will not increase unless they are told what each new written word is by someone else. The chances of correctly working out what a particular word is from the surrounding written context alone without effective decoding skills is around 10 to 20 per cent. Thus one major goal of instruction must be to allow children to "self-teach" so that they can rapidly increase their written word vocabulary as their interest in reading develops.


Embedding decoding into literacy instruction

Whereas the approach to teaching phonics in early years was often as a set of isolated learning drills with no obvious links to reading or writing for the child, work of psychologists since the late 1970s (for example, Donaldson, 1978) has emphasised the need to embed where possible children's learning in meaningful contexts. Thus although it is essential that children are taught the correspondences between spoken sounds at the level of the phoneme and their correspondences with written letters through systematic phonics training, in the early stages of literacy, teachers must link this with other components of literacy including reading to children aloud for pure enjoyment of the story and providing a range of other activities such as writing and reading shopping lists or writing down and later reading telephone messages. In this context, it should be noted that children's early attempts at writing often dramatically raise their awareness of letter-sound links as they take on the challenge of trying to represent their own speech in writing (see Garton & Pratt, 1998).

There are many very enjoyable experiences that can be offered to the young child in the classroom which reinforce the pleasures that can be obtained from reading and writing and there should be ample time devoted to these activities as well as linking them to systematic phonics instruction that underlies phonological decoding and independent reading. And of course we must not forget that the ultimate goal of reading is to extract meaning out of the text. But without the ability to decode individual words there can be no comprehension of written text. So in summary, whereas a balanced approach to reading instruction will include reading stories for enjoyment and helping children pay attention to meaning once they can decode the text, international evidence now convincingly shows that without extensive phonics training in the early stages of reading, many more children than should be expected will struggle with literacy development. We have a clear example of the importance in education of following evidence-based practice (an approach familiar to all psychologists) rather than some recent fad and/or political agenda.


Managing reading difficulties

Unfortunately we must recognise that even with the best reading instruction there will still be some children who continue to experience problems that often seem unexplained insofar as they have had adequate exposure to appropriate instruction and an absence of any sensory impairment or spoken language impairment. These children are usually referred to as having dyslexia, a specific reading disability or more generally a reading difficulty. Again research psychologists have made major contributions to our understanding of causes underlying reading problems and to the assessment and identification of reading problems (for example, Eisenmajer, Ross & Pratt, 2005; Hogben, 1997). They have also addressed the important area of the psychosocial implications of reading problems that can result in adverse affects on the health and wellbeing of the individual (for example, Mathews 2004; Prior, 1996). There is now clear evidence that the majority of children with reading disabilities have a fundamental difficulty with phonological decoding. That is, even though they may have knowledge of the individual correspondences between sounds and letters, something prevents them applying this knowledge effectively when encountering new words resulting in a major negative impact on their literacy development. Further, given the centrality of literacy in our culture and the high value placed on it, the consequences of literacy problems are far reaching for the individual impacting on other school subjects and later on employment prospects (see Vogel & Holt, 2003) as well as on their social and emotional development, a point to which we will return below.


Psychological interventions: assessment

In parallel with these important inputs from research, practitioners have played a major role in the identification of reading problems and in providing appropriate group and individual interventions. In the very early years of education during preschool and early primary there is a need for preventative measures and when prevention is not possible, for early intervention. To do this successfully educational psychologists work in conjunction with teachers and special educators so that informal and formal assessments will reliably identify children with actual or potential reading problems in the school context. Effective teamwork at this level, involving appropriate assessments and interventions, can result in some of the reading problems being addressed in the classroom context without further intervention. But to do so requires adequate resources so that school psychologists can work effectively.

In this context, there is an important distinction between screening tests that can be administered by teachers in the classroom to identify children who are potentially at risk and more extensive follow up psychological and educational testing involving the school psychologist. It is also important where possible to ensure that Australian-based tests are used or tests that at least have Australian norms available. The Martin and Pratt Nonword Reading Test (Martin and Pratt, 2001) and the Neale Analysis of Reading Ability (Neale, 1999) are two tests developed in the Australian context that provide assessments of children's phonological decoding skills, and of their comprehension, reading speed and accuracy respectively. Both these tests are widely used in the classroom as well as in ongoing research into reading development.

In addition to school-based assessments and interventions, there are times when referrals should be taking place to other psychologists who can provide much more in-depth assessment of cognitive strengths and deficits than is possible in the classroom. Clinical neuropsychologists and educational psychologists, who have extensive training in a broad range of assessments, can go beyond an identification of the problem. They can provide an analysis of the child's cognitive strengths and weaknesses, which is essential in understanding the precise nature of the problem as well as providing information about which intervention strategies are likely to be most effective. These assessments provide a greater understanding of the child's individual learning profile that can serve to reframe expectations of the child in the home and school environments, an essential step towards the healthy development of children with learning problems.


Psychological interventions: psychosocial

As noted above, literacy problems frequently extend well beyond the educational domain. Many children suffer adverse social and emotional outcomes, are at risk of mental health problems, and have a higher likelihood of delinquency and becoming part of the prison population (Brown, 1997; Jensen, Lindgren, Meurling, Ingvar & Levander, 1999). In short, the psychosocial health and welfare of these students is a major concern and one that has often been overlooked. Clinical and counselling psychologists, along with other psychologists who also have expertise in psychosocial assessment, can provide evidence-based interventions working with the individual, the family and groups. Interventions can be designed to meet the psychosocial needs of the individual and include social skills training, programs to increase resilience, self-esteem development, anger management, relaxation training and effective problem solving techniques.

An important role for psychologists therefore is to develop strategies that promote good experiences for the child in the school setting. Identifying the child's strengths in order to promote success in areas other than academic achievement, such as art, music, sports, and other extra-curricular activities can help to reduce the negative effects of academic difficulties. In many instances individual and family sessions will be required for the interventions to be effective. Family sessions are often necessary because of the impact of the problem on the family that can lead to dysfunctional interactions that need to be addressed within the families of children with literacy problems. Moreover, psychologists have an important role to play in working with families, to assist them to develop the child's strengths and promote positive experiences for the child both within the home and the school. Group interventions, especially in the early stages of psychosocial problems, can also be effective and these lend themselves to working within a school context with groups of children who have shared experiences.

Given that literacy problems often have life-long consequences, as discussed above, individuals with these problems will face immense difficulties seeking employment and will often require assistance. Some of these adults will have spent time in correctional institutions as a result of their experiences of failure and frustration at school, further reducing employment prospects. Organisational psychologists and other psychologists with vocational training are in a position to provide assessments of these individuals and support them in pursuit of employment that will take account of their difficulties and allow them to contribute at a level commensurate with their general abilities. There are various strategies that can be implemented by psychologists to assist adults with learning difficulties to improve their skills and succeed in a work environment. These include basic skills remediation and vocational training, changing the environment or the conditions under which the learning takes place in order to assist the adults with learning difficulties to develop alternative pathways to accomplishing their goals, and teaching cognitive or learning strategies (learning to learn) including the development of compensatory and/or alternative strategies for learning (for example, Reid & Kirk, 2001).

In conclusion, this article, based on the two submissions the APS made to the Inquiry, has outlined the important contribution of psychologists from many different specialisations to literacy development and the health and welfare of individuals who experience literacy problems. In so doing, it highlights the importance of all psychologists, regardless of their speciality, receiving training in aspects of literacy development and in particular on the identification of learning difficulties and appropriate interventions or referrals for individuals with literacy problems.



  1. Further details of the National Inquiry can be found at
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Acknowledgment: The author would like to acknowledge the substantial contributions of Rebecca Mathews, David L Stokes and Lyn Littlefield of the APS National Office to the submissions on which this article was based.



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