Noel Pearson Boyer on stage during his first Boyer Lecture

Noel Pearson Boyer Lecture Four




“Something changed forever in Chris Drage around the time he turned 13.”

In 2018 I read a story in The Australian about the 16-year-old Aboriginal boy who tragically drowned in the Swan River with his best friend following a police chase. It was like so many stories of young black lives cut short that you read in the news regularly. The story affected me, and I followed the subsequent coronial inquiry.

The journalist Paige Taylor wrote: “As a kid he was cheery and cheeky, growing into a champion athlete and a skilful junior footballer who could hold his own against much older boys and dreamt of following his indigenous heroes into the AFL.”

“Yet by the time he was a teenager, Chris had dropped out of high school – never to return — and stopped playing sport, becoming distant from his mother who worried incessantly about her beloved boy. His pastimes, instead, involved smoking weed as he began to hang out with a pack of wayward Aboriginal boys who, like him, never had a father figure in their lives and seemed to lack direction.”

Chris’s mother, Winnie Heyward, “believed the biggest influence on her son’s errant behaviour was the absence of a father figure or a male mentor.”

His mother, “noticed her son had learning difficulties” and had been “diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD”: “The school provided special tuition, but classes continued to confound him and reading was almost impossible.”

His mother told Taylor that “He taught himself to read from Facebook.” Chris was “enrolled in

… a highly regarded football program” … “[b]ut [his] attendance rates dropped below 50 per cent.”

“Everything fell apart for Chris in high school,” his mother said, “That was the start of all the trouble. It was like he was trying to find himself, but he was lost. I feel like I tried to teach him the right ways, but it just blew up in my face.”

This loving and dedicated mother did everything to give her children a better life. Now her son was lost to a tragic drowning.

I believe Chris would have survived his absent father. I am convinced he would have prevailed over his ADHD and dyslexia. He had the unstinting love of his single mother, and that could have been enough.

My belief is Chris’s school education failed him. His primary education failed to teach him to read.

The inability to read is in my view the universal explanation of why bright, irrepressible primary schoolers turn into sullen, disengaged high schoolers who drop out. I see this play out in depressing succession – involving hundreds and thousands of lives.

And yet what is now known as the science of reading – the evidence showing what is necessary and effective in teaching reading to young children – has been known for at least 50 years. If that is so why do large proportions of Australian classrooms still fail to graduate students without functional literacy – year in and year out? Despite these students attending primary school for 7 years?

Why is the teaching of reading in Australia still in denial of the vast accumulation of evidence in favour of the science of reading? Even though the facts of failure and under-achievement are plain in every classroom and every school?

Do any teachers know of students from their classrooms who left school without being able to read? Of course they do. Scores and scores.

Do any school leaders know of students from their schools who left without being able to read? Of course. Hundreds and hundreds.

Do any school system administrators know of students from their systems who left without being able to read? Of course. Thousands and thousands.

The statistics show this failure year after year. And yet why haven’t we done anything to stop this failure? Especially when we have known what we need to do to fix reading achievement for many long decades now? Why don’t we do what the scientific evidence says we need to do?

Let’s just pause to consider this absurdity. The most significant national initiatives in education undertaken since education minister Julia Gillard introduced standardised testing through NAPLAN, were the two Gonski inquiries of 2011 and 2018.

In 2010 Gillard commissioned businessman David Gonski to devise a fairer funding model for schools. The inquiry resulted in a large increase in funding.

A second inquiry undertaken by the Turnbull government charged Gonski with the task of working out what needed to be done with the increased investment in order to produce better outcomes from Australian schools.

Both inquiries avoided the question of pedagogy. They avoided the question of teaching and specifically how to teach reading. This was the most important question for the state of Australian schools and Gonski strictly avoided it. There is to my mind no doubt this failure to confront the how of teaching and not just the who – the verb and not just the noun – is the reason why the Gonski funding reforms have failed to yield improved outcomes from Australian schools.

The issue of effective instruction was in front of Gonski, but he avoided dealing with it because he didn’t want to take a stand in relation to the highly contested issue of pedagogy. More than a decade after the Howard government minister Brendon Nelson commissioned the late Professor Ken Rowe’s National Reading Inquiry in 2005, which recommended the explicit teaching of foundational reading skills including phonics – the same as similar inquiries in the United States and Britain had done – the teaching of reading contrary to these recommendations was still the prevailing norm in Australian schools.

The flawed methods of teaching reading still predominate in Australian classrooms almost two decades after the National Reading Inquiry. Tens of thousands of children are going wanting in terms of literacy as a result, every year. And because reading is fundamental to all other learning this failure is destroying the education of these children and their lives.

For some years now, I have played with the metaphor of swimming. We know the technology and methods of swimming. We know how to teach children the mechanics of swimming so that they do not drown at our beaches, rivers, lakes and swimming pools. If we decided to make the teaching of swimming compulsory, we would be able to ensure that every Australian child learned to swim.

The same goes for reading. We know the technology and methods of reading. There is now a vast science of reading. We know how to teach children the mechanics of reading so that they do not drown in their school education and their future lives.

And yet we allow thousands of young Australians to drown in illiteracy every year.

The science of reading tells us that reading and writing are new technologies invented by humans. They are only a few thousand years old. Many societies – like Aboriginal Australia – only encountered these technologies in the past two hundred years. They are not part of our human evolution. The ability to read and write is not something biologically natural in the way speaking is. The acquisition of language is part of our biological evolution. This is what the evolutionary psychologist David Geary calls biologically primary knowledge: like the ability to recognise faces and other crucial learning, the ability to acquire language is innate and natural.

This is the first mistake: the assumption that reading and writing is the same as language, and the task of school education is to somehow draw that out of the students rather than teaching them the skills and methods of what is a new technology.

Based on more than forty years of rigorous research, the science of reading tells us that children need explicit instruction in five essential components of reading —phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension — in the first year of school when they are five years old.

Let’s go through these five elements.

Phonemic awareness is the ability to make all of the sounds of the language we are learning. For students who have English as their mother tongue, this phonemic awareness is natural because such native learners have acquired it as part of their acquisition of English. Young Mandarin speakers are similarly aware of the phonemes of their mother tongue simply because it is part of their native language which they learned to speak from their earliest childhood. Young Guugu Yimithirr speakers from my home are also phonemically aware in their native language.

The problem is schools routinely overlook the fact that Mandarin and Guugu Yimithirr students who are learning English are not phonemically aware of the English language. There are phonemes in their languages that are not present in English and there are phonemes in English that are unknown in their languages.

Schools need to explicitly teach students from non-English speaking backgrounds to be phonemically aware of English. Otherwise, they will be at a starting disadvantage compared to native English speakers.

One of my ancestral languages is Guugu Yimithirr. If you were to learn my language, I would need to explicitly teach you a number of phonemes that are sounds of the Guugu Yimithirr alphabet, unfamiliar to English speakers. One of them is the phoneme nh written nh, it is formed by putting your tongue at the back of your top teeth. The groper fish is called nhinhinhi. Another phoneme common to Australian Aboriginal languages is ng spelt ng. English speakers know this phoneme at the end of words like bring and sing but would have to explicitly learn it because numerous Guugu Yimithirr words start with ng such as ngali [you and I] and ngnhthaan [us]. They would also need to learn the trilled r such as in warra [bad] and gangarru [kangaroo]. ‘Rr’ is common to Australian languages but unknown to English, so I would need to explicitly teach you these phonemes. Only if you grew up with Guugu Yimithirr as your mother tongue, would these phonemes be known and pronounceable by you without explicit instruction. A knowledgeable Guugu Yimithirr teacher would need to explicitly teach you.

The second skill is phonics, learning the correspondence between letters and sounds in the language you are learning. This is crucial to reading. It connects the technology of symbols with the sounds of language. In other words, the symbols indicate what the mouth and throat should do in terms of the sounds it should make when expressing the language of words. Phonics instruction is about learning the individual letter sound relationships and blending them to pronounce the full word. So we learn that the symbol c is ‘c’, and the symbol a is ‘a’ and the symbol t is ’t’. Sound it out: ‘c-a-t’. Say it fast: ‘cat’.

Can you believe that in one sense reading is that simple? ‘d’, ‘o’ and ‘g’. Sound it out: ‘d-o-g’. Say it fast: ‘dog’.

Of course, English is not completely consistent in its phonics. The alphabetic code of English is a product of its mongrel heritage. So the alternative phonemes for c and a in cat is a source of confusion. English has 26 letters but 44 phonemes. However, reading programmes such as Direct Instruction have invented practices that takes the vagaries of English into account in the teaching of letter-sound relationships.

The next element is fluency and its role is obvious: the more fluent the reader becomes the more likely she is to enjoy reading as the cognitive load of decoding text is reduced making reading more efficient. Many school leavers who can read but are not fluent do not go on to be lifelong readers of books.

Then we come to vocabulary which is about increasing word power in the language of learning and its comprehension. This is a lifelong journey involving explicit teaching, extensive reading and habitual consultation of dictionaries. It is about extending one’s knowledge and understanding of subjects: new vocabulary equals new understanding. Often new vocabulary acquisition is tentative and takes a long time. One can read new vocabulary readily but one may be uncertain or unconfident about deploying it in speech or writing. A lot of reading in formative years involves vocabulary that is not fully mastered and a lot of reading of highly technical papers is similarly difficult for mature readers unfamiliar with knowledge of those technical fields. Vocabulary and meaning is a lifelong endeavour.

Of these five elements, it is the explicit teaching of phonics that has been bitterly resisted by the progressive education theories that have dominated Australian classrooms for the past 40 years. Notwithstanding the recommendations of the National Reading Inquiry 17 years ago. Notwithstanding the science of reading and its enormous evidence base. There is still a resolute resistance and obscurantism in relation to the teaching of letter-sound relationships in English.

One reason appears to be the belief that children learn without it. This is partly true. Reading theorist Professor Kevin Wheldall once explained that in any given classroom 25% will learn to read no matter what, 50% will learn to read if they are taught competently via whatever approach, and 25% will never read without explicit instruction. I call this the Wheldall rule and I see it play out time and time again in schools and in their data. 25% of every cohort struggling to read because they have not received explicit instruction.

The bottom 25% are usually comprised of students with learning difficulties, poor socio- economic backgrounds, non-English speaking backgrounds, parents who are not educated and homes without books. It is this bottom 25% that fall out of our schooling systems every year either graduating without functional literacy or dropping out sometime in high school. Indigenous Australian children comprise a large proportion of this failure.

Chris was part of this cohort. His primary school failed to teach him to read because it failed to explicitly teach him phonics and the other basic skills of foundational reading. His brief high school experience failed to remediate the failings of his primary school. I read his coronial report and it clearly failed to diagnose the true reason why his family lost their beautiful boy in such a tragedy. The coroner and those conducting the inquest had no idea what they were witnessing. This is the pipeline from the failure to learn because of the failure to teach. To truancy and disengagement. To street life and petty crime. To juvenile detention and adult incarceration. Hiding in plain sight behind all of the factors involved in teenage disengagement and offending is prior primary school illiteracy. Australian public discourse focuses on the symptoms of this failure and is completely blind to its cause.

A second reason why Australian classrooms stubbornly refuse to teach children the constituent skills of reading, is the belief that phonics will destroy the love of reading and literature. But this objection makes no sense. Children love stories. Humans love stories. Stories make us human. We hear and tell stories every day from our earliest childhood. Oral stories are then complemented by stories in books. Long before we read, we come to love stories from books read to us at home, and by our teachers at school.

The next phase is for us to be able to read the stories we love in books. We just need to learn the mechanics of reading so we can get into books. If we don’t master the mechanics, how can we love reading and the books that reading makes available to us?

This objection to phonics based on the argument that it destroys the love of reading and books, is a nonsense. It is illogical: how can any child love books if they cannot read?

Thousands of children are expected to work out how to read and write through a process of immersion and indirect guidance rather than teacher-led instruction that is focused on the constituent skills.

At the heart of the school education injustice crisis is this confusion about how children learn and how teachers should teach. There are two camps. The first camp is the student-centred learning camp, or the social constructivists, the inquiry and discovery learning camp. They have held the commanding heights in school education over the last half-century. Most Australian schools follow this camp. The second camp is the explicit and direct instruction or teacher-led instruction camp.

These two camps have been at logger heads for decades. Teacher education faculties across the Western world are dominated by those who follow the inquiry learning camp. In Australia, a recent survey showed that of the 450 teacher education degrees, only three of them offered courses teaching the theories and practices of the science of reading. Teacher-led instruction is virtually absent from teacher education in Australia.

School education can do one of two things for children and their future lives. First, it can reproduce whatever advantage or disadvantage the children have as a result of being born into the circumstances of their family. This is the reproduction model. Second, it can transform the future trajectory of children’s lives, by giving them a pathway out of disadvantage that enables them to rise out of the circumstances of their families. This is the transformational model of school education.

Most Australian schools are based on the reproduction model. Few, if any, are transformative.

Since we gained citizenship in 1967, we needed transformational schools, but we only have schools that reproduce our disadvantage for the most part. The schools that serve the very far left hand side of the Bell Curve of Australian Schools, are in truth preparatory for future underemployment and unemployment, and the obscenely high rates of juvenile justice and adult incarceration, that mark the Bottom Million in particular. This is because the students that attend them end up under-literate and under-numerate and by the end of primary schooling are disengaging from secondary schooling, where they mark time or leave.

The wastage of talent and potential is staggering. Lives just written off because we cannot give the children the transformative education they need and deserve.

I want to dedicate this lecture to Chris’s memory, the beautiful boy whose life was cut short so unnecessarily and so painfully for his mother and family. I want us to think about Chris as not just another Indigenous boy whose chances in this country were cut off too soon for reasons that seem so usual to readers of newspapers: disengagement, truancy and petty crime leading to detention, incarceration and early death. Chris’s story is about Australia’s failure, through its Western Australian school system and through the school he attended, to give him the education he needed for a new life trajectory which his mother had done her damnedest best to support him in. To break the cycle of disadvantage and hopelessness and to keep the optimism of his childhood alive through his teenage years. So that he could take a rightful place in his own country. Chris drowned in the waters of the Swan River but it was in fact the fatal currents of illiteracy that had dragged him under and left his family grieving his short life.

Thank you.

More information

This is the fourth of five lectures to be broadcast by the ABC in the Boyer Lecture series for 2022.
You can watch the first lecture in full on ABC iview and listen to each lecture on the ABC Listen app.

You can read the other lectures here.

Picture: Oscar Colman


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