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A history of disputes about reading instruction

Dr Kerry Hempenstall, Senior Industry Fellow, School of Education, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.

 All my blogs can be viewed on-line or downloaded as a Word file or PDF at


Over the past thirty years, there has been considerable controversy over the competing emphases to beginning reading known as Whole Language and phonics. To provide a context for the debate, it may be helpful to consider the history of disputes about reading instruction, particularly as the instructional methods may differentially affect at-risk students. This article commences with a brief discussion of the advantages and challenges of our English alphabetic writing system, and of the literacy issues associated with it. Identification of the major attempts to deal with the complexity of our writing system is followed by a history of the search for the most efficacious means of evincing reading development. An examination of early research efforts, such as ‘The Great Debate’, ‘The USOE Study’, ‘Follow Through’, and ‘Becoming a Nation of Readers’ helps illuminate the current debate by highlighting which issues are from the past but as yet unresolved, and which are novel. A thread throughout the paper involves the role of educational research in influencing practice in beginning reading instruction.


Public interest surrounding the extent of literacy failure is at a high level currently, and in Australia, is reflected in the Federal Government’s decision to allocate additional federal funding ($6.5 billion per year) to fund reforms in teacher education and providing further resources to address the needs of the disadvantaged (Topsfield, 2013). These reforms have been partly driven by the unsatisfactory results of the relatively recently introduced national testing (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy), and by similarly concerning results in the Progress In Reading Literacy Study. This was the first occasion on which Australia participated in this international assessment.

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Can people with an intellectual disability learn to read?

Dr Kerry Hempenstall, Senior Industry Fellow, School of Education, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.

First published Dec 13 2012, updated March 28 2018

All my blogs can be viewed on-line or downloaded as a Word file or PDF at


The short answer increasingly appears to be - yes; however, it becomes more difficult as the severity and nature of the disability increases. The interventions that are effective for other struggling learners have proved the most effective for the population with intellectual disability too (Allor, Mathes, Roberts, Cheatham, & Al Otaiba, 2014). This is not surprising as the skills involved in successful reading are the same for those with a disability as they are for others. To teach this population well, it is necessary to begin early, teach intensively, expect the duration of instruction to be extended, and monitor progress continuously to ascertain how effective is the current intervention strategy. A requirement for success is that not only decoding but also students’ language development is addressed so that the students are capable of comprehending what they are reading. Of course, not only are comprehension strategies important components of reading skill; so too, world knowledge is needed to supply the context for understanding much of that which is read. Ultimately, access to world knowledge is at least partly consequent upon the capacity “to get words off the page.” So, world knowledge is both an enabling aspect of reading and a consequence of reading.

Teaching to special populations does have its own special challenges. However, there have been relatively few well designed studies that clearly demonstrate how best to go about developing literacy in this cohort of students. There appears to be some increased interest among researchers, but a large number of research questions remain unresolved. Indeed, it is only now becoming acknowledged that the teaching of phonic generalisations should be a significant component of a literacy program for these students.

Historically, there has been an assumption that students with intellectual disability have little prospect of achieving a state of self-directed knowledge acquisition. In the past, well-intentioned attempts to introduce students to reading have been through teaching “survival reading”. In this perspective, a number of sight words are taught – those considered to be valuable if the person is to achieve some limited life skills, such reading street and suburb names, or recognising important safety signs. This approach is unproductive, in the sense that students are not taught the logic of the alphabetic system, so have little prospect of generalising what they have learned to new (untaught) words.

What research there is has raised a number of potential outcomes:

A tantalising prospect relates to the possibility that people with intellectual disability may increase their intelligence through reading. For example:

“Much evidence has now accumulated to indicate that reading itself is a moderately powerful determinant of vocabulary growth, verbal intelligence, and general comprehension ability” (p.239). … “Print exposure appears to compensate for modest levels of general cognitive abilities .... low ability need not necessarily hamper the development of vocabulary and verbal knowledge as long as the individual is exposed to a lot of print” (p.162).

Stanovich, K.E. (1993). Does reading make you smarter? Literacy and the development of verbal intelligence. Advances in Child Development and Behaviour, 24, 133-180.

“ … diagnostic concepts assume that IQ sets a limit on either the level of achievement or the rate of progress of which a child is capable. This assumption was investigated in a longitudinal study of an unselected cohort of 741 children whose reading achievement was assessed at ages 7, 9, 11, and 13 years. Findings on rates of progress and levels of achievement clearly indicate that IQ does not set a limit on reading progress, even in extreme low IQ children” (p.97).

Share, D.L., McGee, R., & Silva, P. (1989). IQ and reading progress: A test of the capacity notion of IQ. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 28, 97-100.

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Evidence-based practice in the classroom.

 Dr Kerry Hempenstall, Senior Industry Fellow, School of Education, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.


My blogs can be viewed on-line or downloaded as a Word file or PDF at


There has been a burgeoning interest in evidence-based practice in recent times, and definitions and principles are readily found in journal articles and on the internet. What contrasts may be evident in a classroom between a teacher who incorporates research validated instructional principles and another who does not do so?

John and David are similar in many ways. They are active boys sharing a love of outdoor activities, and are easily bored indoors. The boys have learned to manipulate their respective parents with whining and disobedience when they are restrained, and only allow them peace when the boys obtain their own way. Their parents are often embarrassed by the public displays of disobedience, but they see the situation as temporary, and they frequently console themselves with the knowledge that their children are also very loving, are sure to grow out of their disobedience, and have never been in any real trouble. The boys began school in the same year and are in different grades at their parents' request. Interestingly, they have been placed in two contrasting classrooms in which the teachers have quite different educational philosophies and beliefs about the role of the teacher in the education system.

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Literacy and Behaviour (updated 2018)

Dr Kerry Hempenstall, Senior Industry Fellow, School of Education, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.

First published Oct 29/10/2012, updated 30/4/2018

My blogs can be viewed on-line or downloaded as a Word file or PDF at

The relationship between literacy and behaviour problems is a vexed area, as it is difficult to discern which might be cause and which effect.

In a follow-up article, I address the research on literacy and mental health problems in general.

Some quotes from the research:

"Behaviour problems among children with learning disorders are about 3 times than the norm by 8 years of age" ( p.295).

Mash, E.J., & Wolfe, D.A. (2002). Abnormal child psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Thomson Learning.

"These results provide evidence for the role of mastery of reading achievement in aggressive behavior, particularly in boys, and in depression, particularly in girls. The preventive trials provide evidence of the direction of effects, and the reversibility of the aggressive behavior and depressive symptoms in some children by raising the level of reading achievement. ... The results also add improving reading as a key element, at least, in preventing not only the consequences of poor achievement such as depressive symptoms and possible disorder, but also reducing aggressive behavior and its consequences in delinquency, drug abuse, and school drop out."

Kellam, S.G. (1999). Developmental epidemiologically-based prevention research: From efficacy to effectiveness. National Institute of Mental Health Fifth Annual National Conference on Prevention Research. Retrieved from


 “ … young urban children as young as second and third grade with reading difficulties exhibited elevated rates of problem behaviors, as compared to the nationally representative norm samples of the measures. In this study, a disproportionate percentage of the young urban sample already displayed clinically significant levels of anxiety (50%), social problems (40%), and oppositional behaviors (30%) in the classroom. These results thus support previous studies conducted mainly with older children showing that anxiety, social problems, and conduct problems were closely associated with literacy difficulties (Casey et al., 1992; Conners, 1997; Willcutt & Pennington, 2000). These finding are also consistent with research showing that kindergarten academic variables have been shown to predict problem behavior at the end of elementary school (McIntosh, Chard, Boland, & Horner, 2006), with an increasing relationship over years of schooling (see Algozzine, Wang, & Violette, 2011 for contradictory evidence). The significance of these findings for teachers is highlighted by arguments that “dual deficits of learning and behavior problems may make it difficult for practitioners to provide effective instruction” (Sutherland, Lewis-Palmer, Stichter, & Morgan, 2008, p. 223).” (p. 199-200)

Pierce, M.E., Wechsler-Zimring, A., Noam, G., Wolf, M., & Tami Katzir, T. (2013). Behavioral problems and reading difficulties among language minority and monolingual urban elementary school students. Reading Psychology, 34(2), 182-205.

“Research has demonstrated a strong positive correlation between behavior problems and low academic achievement (Gest & Gest, 2005; Landrum, Tankersley, & Kauffman, 2003). Above and beyond being correlated, Payne, Marks, and Bogan (2007) report that behavioral and academic problems are reciprocal in nature. In other words, behavior problems may cause a disruption in academic engagement and, as a result, students may fail to master skills because of this lack of academic engagement. The opposite is also true—a classroom where there are high levels of academic achievement will be a classroom with low levels of behavior difficulties. This point is critical. Students do not generally come to school hating to be there. If students experience more failure than success, they frequently learn to hate school. As Scott, Nelson, and Liaupsin (2001) note, “academics become aversive” (p. 313). Therefore, the more students find the classroom aversive, the more likely they will be to exhibit unwanted behaviors (Payne et al., 2007; Scott et al., 2001; Wehby, Lane, & Falk, 2003). Student success or failure are in large part determined by how well teachers provide effective instruction to their students.” (p. 242)

Martella, R.C., & Marchand-Martella, N.E. (2015). Improving classroom behavior through effective instruction: An illustrative program example using SRA FLEX Literacy. Education and Treatment of Children, 38(2), 241–272.

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Literacy and mental health (updated 2018)

Dr Kerry Hempenstall, Senior Industry Fellow, School of Education, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.

First published Nov 5 2012, updated 19/8/2016, 12/6/2018


All my blogs can be viewed on-line or downloaded as a Word file or PDF at

The relationship between mental health and literacy is not easy to disentangle, as studies are usually correlational in design. Certainly, there does appear to be a link - but does illiteracy cause mental health problems, or might mental health problems impede literacy development? Or perhaps a third variable affects both domains. One obvious candidate for a causal link involves extended failure caused or exacerbated by inadequate instruction, particularly in that first big educational hurdle – literacy development.

David Boulton of the Children of the Code fame writes about the unfortunate subjective experience of children with sustained educational low achievement, suggestive of an impact on self-esteem, mental health, and preparedness to persevere. His writings can be found by Googling the heading: Stewarding Healthy Learning.

What does it mean that most of our children are chronically improficient in the skill areas most critically important for success in school?

“What does it feel like - how does it feel, to be chronically, day after day, week after week, month after month, and for a great many children, year after year - not good enough? Not good enough at something that they know is important, that they know is causing them to fall behind, that they can’t seem to get good enough at achieving, and that they can’t hide because their family, friends, and peers know about it too?

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