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My long journey towards the Science of Reading

[This is the third story in a series about the journeys educators have been on to change literacy practices in schools. This story is unique in that this educator has extensive leadership experience across schools. Thank you for your bravery and generosity in sharing your story, and for the tireless work that you do online as a result of your experiences. This is an unedited recount.]

My long journey towards the Science of Reading started with my first class (Year 2) in a small town in Queensland. I panicked when the principal assigned me a Year 2 class, as all I had learned from my university about that age was:

· Label everything in your room

· Read to the class

· Encourage students to read

It was all about immersion. Even guided reading didn’t get a look in.

I was muddling through. Yet, it became clear that some students were struggling with reading. I went searching for ways to help them, as I like most teachers I know, genuinely care about my students.

It was then that I stumbled across a departmental intervention program called Support-a-Reader. I thought it was fantastic as it actually had some structure, so I used it to help those students after school.

Then, I moved into the upper school for some time, where uninterrupted sustained silent reading was all the rage. I felt quite comfortable with that at the time, but not now.

Later I got a job as the teaching principal of a small school. The school had 3 classes. While I taught the older children, I felt very responsible for all the students in the school. So, I set up a structured intervention program to help struggling students. This involved training and using teacher aides to implement the Support-a-Reader program. It was the best I knew at the time.

Therefore, I trained the teacher aides and some parents to use the Support-a-Reader program to support struggling students.

A few years later a new teacher arrived from NSW. She introduced me to guided reading. I thought it was wonderful as I hadn’t encountered such a structured program to use with the whole class.

My next school was larger, but not too big. We had one class for each year level. As the principal, I didn’t teach but took on the learning support role. Once again, the fact that too many students struggled with reading dismayed me.

I discussed my dismay and my desire to do something about it with my director. He gave me an article by Hill & Crevola, which, amongst other things, pushed:

· Whole-school guided reading for all students

· Reading Recovery for those who were struggling

I swallowed it hook, line and sinker. So, I pushed it across the school. We systematically used:

· Running records (PM Benchmark Kit)

· Marie Clay’s other assessments (e.g. concepts of print)

I also started to make use of a Victorian resource called the Early Years Literacy Program. It was a program developed by the education department in Victoria had designed that was based on Hill and Crevola’s work. But it was more practical, and anyone could buy it.

Sometime later, I became the principal of a larger Catholic school. Fuelled by my desire to help more kids succeed to read, I pushed a Victorian program known as Class onto my early years’ teachers. It was basically a mirror of the Early Years Literacy Program. Yet, one that Hill and Crevola had developed with some Catholic schools in Victoria. We did PD, I sent teachers to Melbourne to watch it action, and we developed our own version for our school.

Then, for a time, I stopped working in schools to pursue other things. I eventually went back as a teacher and realised how much I missed teaching. Sadly, while teaching, I had a heart attack. The short story is that it was massive and left me with major damage, heart failure and in need of a heart transplant.

I couldn’t work during this time. Yet, I was still passionate about helping students learn. So, I started using all my time to read research on learning and teaching. It wasn’t until this point that I realised that much of what I believed about teaching reading was wrong. It had little if any, grounding in evidence at all.

Put another way, it took a disabling heart attack for me to become aware of and embrace the Science of Reading.

In my naivety, as a university student, I trusted that such a noble institution would equip me with the best, evidence-based knowledge about how to go about my work. As I gained more experience, I continued to view opinions from academics and seniors as being informed by evidence. Little did I know how wrong I was. As a result, I not only based my own teaching on misguided beliefs, I also pushed those beliefs onto others.

And, as my insight into my betrayal grew, my anger also grew. This anger, coupled with my desire to help more kids succeed, led me to start an evidence-based teaching blog.

Since then, I have had my heart transplant, but with many complications, including having both my legs amputated. And I continue striving to do my bit – regularly reading research and sharing what I discover.

However, I believe the root of the problem, and therefore the solution lies in initial teacher education at university. Teachers in training are too often fed fraudulent fads and unsubstantiated theories. And, as most teachers care about students, these fads and theories become part of who they are as a teacher.

This leads to a second problem, which is that passionate teachers are naturally resistant to their methods being challenged. To counter this, I think we need to call on their deep-seated desire to help kids, whilst also not sending a message that they are to blame.

Pockets of teachers are already starting to embrace the Science of Reading, but more is needed:

· Nationally, initial teacher education needs a massive overhaul, and the Australian Curriculum needs to stop referring to questionable concepts (e.g. predictable texts)

· At a system level, we need senior leaders educated in and embracing of the Science of Reading

Pockets of good practice exist in some schools and classrooms. Continuing to grow these pockets is commendable, but more is needed at both a national and systems level.

Shaun Killian

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