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  • Emina McLean

This is personal

[This is the fourth story in a series about the journeys educators have been on to change literacy practices in schools. This educator, through learning about the science of reading, realised their own literacy difficulties at school were the result of poor instruction, rather than being their own fault. Thank you for your bravery and generosity in sharing your story, and for all of the work you are now doing to improve literacy practice. This is an unedited recount.]


I’ve been a Primary School teacher for 14 years. I spent 12 of those years faithfully following a meaning first pedagogy when it came to reading. Learning goes from the heart to the head. Students learn to read through multiple opportunities to engage in reading. These old ‘truths’ I learned as I began my career, etched unquestioned into my professional DNA. There are many things that I could have written to try to explain what I have experienced since this old blind faith was shaken and I discovered the Science of Reading. I could have written about my school’s shift to a structured literacy pedagogy. I could have written about the evidence-based research and the people who have influenced me: Pamela Snow, Jennifer Buckingham, Sarah Asome, Lyn Stone, Alison Clark, Lorraine Hammond, Natalie Wexler, Emily Hanford and David Morkunas, along with countless others. I could have written about the students who come to my school after predominant teaching practices have failed them. I could have told you anecdotes from my teaching, like the time I cheered and then wept, alone in my home office, while listening to a recording a parent sent me of her child reading aloud. But I am not going to write about my school, the research, or my students. I have decided to write about me and about my daughter because, for me, this is personal.


I was six when I came to believe that I must be stupid. I believed that I must be stupid because everyone around me could look at words and just make sense of them in a way that I could not. I lived and relived the agony of hearing my teachers and my parents tell me to 'sound it out'... but how? How do you know where the sounds are? Eventually I learned to read. Only I didn’t. What I learned to do was to get by, to make meaning from text by skipping words, by looking ahead, and by looking at the first letter and thinking 'what makes sense?’ Text-book meaning first pedagogy. And I did well in school. It was hard work, but I did really well. I graduated from secondary school and achieved entry into my first choice of university course. I graduated from university and was accepted into every postgraduate teaching course I applied for.


During my postgraduate teacher training I was thrilled (at my then fortune, but now misfortune) to have a very prominent literacy expert as my English lecturer. I remember the feeling of relief that washed over me when he explained that, and I will quote him directly on this, "Our orthography is morphemic, not phonetic. It privileges meaning not sound. And, in fact, a phoneme doesn’t exist outside of a morpheme." There was nothing wrong with me… I had simply, and regrettably, had teachers who did not know that reading English had nothing to do with sounds. Meaning first. From the heart to the head. Students learn to read through multiple opportunities to engage in reading. I could help my students to make meaning of authentic text by sampling, predicting, testing, confirming and self-correcting.

It was liberating.


Until it wasn’t.


For a long time I taught Years 3-6. But during those years, I noticed a theme. Every year I had this handful of students who could read... kind of... but not well enough. My friends who taught in secondary schools would puzzle and complain about the poor literacy skills of their students. I knew deep down we were missing something. There was some nuance to this that I just didn’t get.


Eventually I was sent on a five day course by my principal. It was a course in synthetic structured phonics. It sent me into a year long practicum, and down the Science of Reading rabbit hole. It changed me forever.


Six-year-old-me wasn’t stupid. Six-year-old-me couldn’t sound things out, because no one ever explicitly taught me how to hear the sounds in words. Six-year-old-me couldn’t sound things out, because no one ever explicitly taught me how those sounds could be spelled. The English language is complex. But not so complex that readers need to look around for clues to make sense of it. You just need someone to show you the code.


The false allure of all I thought I knew vanished before my eyes. I wondered... what if? What if I had known this sooner? What if I had been taught how to teach this way at University? What if my teachers had shown me how to do this when I was at school? Then I had the opportunity to witness what if first hand.


My eldest daughter was four. I know that’s young. Everyone learns at their own speed. But this child could recite, by memory, a stack of books taller than herself. Yet she would still ask my husband and me, “How do you remember all the words to all the different stories?” I recognised something in her that is so easily missed by those for whom reading comes naturally. Something in her that I see in some of my students. I recognised something in her that I felt when I was six and I came to the conclusion that I was stupid. Something in her that I had felt for 35 years.


So she became what I could have been… what so many of our students could be.

The structured literacy I taught in the classroom, I shared with her at home. I spent more than a year watching what happens when a child never hears the prompt ‘look at the picture.’ and only hears ‘look through the word.’ I taught my daughter how to read using synthetic structured phonics. We worked through the commonly used words by spelling pattern. She would carefully sound out little words until they became sight words, trading in her mapped word for something new. She would cackle with laughter as she exaggerated the irregular parts of some words, and then pronounce them correctly. She carefully decoded the word had: /h/ /a/ /d/ for nearly six months while other words lapped it. Eventually even /h/ /a/ /d/ became h-ad, and then had.


I decided to keep track of the words she had learned by letting her highlight them off a printed copy of the Oxford Word List. One day she asked “Can I highlight knew? It has a silent k.” I realised that I hadn’t noticed when her eyes had shifted from watching the pictures to watching the print. The self-teaching principle was kicking in. Suddenly she started reading all kinds of other words off the list. Words I hadn’t taught her. One afternoon she called out to me from the other room “Did you know Sasquatch has a silent t in it? Why is that?” On another occasion, she was examining a bag of salt on the bench and asked, “Do you think salt is Old English? Because that spelling seems like it might be from Old English.” This Old English hypothesis was most likely an influence from Lyn Stone’s Zoom lessons in term two, because it hadn’t come from me.


Now she knew how to read, so as I read to her, she was able to teach herself new words.

My daughter started reading decodable texts on her fifth birthday. She had to work hard to read pages with three or four cvc words on them. Now, six months later, she can read paragraphs from the books she is interested in, such as When We Became Human, with complex ideas and words like fossils, primates, creatures, relatively, tree shrew, and asteroid. She’s an amazing reader. She loves reading. She’ll sit for hours quietly pouring over her favourite books.


Over this same time I have felt a shift in myself too. Suddenly, in my late 30s, as a successful professional with two University degrees, I too have learned how to read, instead of just knowing how to make meaning from text.


The last two years have been an intense and confronting shift for me. But now that I have witnessed the answer to my own what if? I will spend the rest of my career advocating for change: For my students ...for my daughter… and for six-year-old me, who only ever needed someone to actually teach her how to read.

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