Whatever pedagogy you adopt, there’s no fast-tracking experience. Barbara Comber, one of Australia’s foremost literacy researchers, has argued that a teaching practice is actually a ‘body of work’ that you develop over time. This ‘body of work’ consists of complex designs and strategies that you are constantly improving and adjusting. So, by the time you reach the end of your career, you’ve developed an enormous resource of knowledge and experience that younger generations can choose to tap into.
Unfortunately, the incredible wisdom of retiring teachers is often overlooked or goes with them when they leave.
Luckily for you, we’ve tracked down Kate Morrissey in the sleepy suburb of Haberfield, Sydney.
Now retired, she was a teacher for 37 years in public primary schools, mostly in low-income areas. For the first 20 years of her career, she taught regular classes. Then, she decided to up-skill and did a two-year course to become a special needs teacher.
For the last 17 years, she specialised in teaching reading and literacy to kids with special learning conditions.
Over the course of her career, she’s witnessed the coming and going of a number of different pedagogies. Throughout, she developed and perfected her own personal program and designed a language assessment tool. Her approach achieved some of the highest rates of improvement in reading and literacy in Australia.
“I devised a ‘Language in Maths’ program, started a school support program for special needs children and mentored teachers. I also devised an assessment tool for pinpointing reading levels, which I introduced and used throughout the school. And, yes, I had people visit the program over the years to learn what I was doing because it worked and the results I was getting were great.”
– Kate Morrissey
Here are 5 essential tips on how to teach reading and literacy to get the best possible outcome for your kids.
1. Understand the basics of how kids learn the language.
We have a capacity to memorise approximately 400 words, that is, we don’t need to decode them every time we see them. The rest of our reading vocabulary we have to unpack, usually by breaking the word down. We do this when we come across a text that is unfamiliar, or difficult. If you cannot break a word down, it is impossible to access unfamiliar words.
2. ‘Scaffolding’ and repetition.
Like any skill, reading (or the components of reading), need to be repeated until it gets stuck in the muscle memory. We can call it drill, repetition, whatever you want, but it has to be done. The average child has to be exposed to a concept at least five times before it becomes familiar. So reading has to be taught by building up layers – we call it scaffolding.
3. Practise each element of language (sound, concepts, print) in a sequential program.
Every day, sounds have to be practised, blending of sounds have to be practised, sight words have to be learnt, concepts of print have to be taught. This has to take place sequentially, and patiently. There are lots of games, chants, activities that make this process easier for the child.
4. Assess an individual child’s reading level and match them to text.
When a child has an initial bank of sight words and book awareness, they can be ‘matched to text’. In other words, for children to improve they must have access to material that is pitched at their correct reading level. This means that the teacher has to listen and respond to the individual’s level of reading.
5. Individual reading is essential.
Lastly, not all children progress at the same time. Learning to read is not a one-size-fits-all.
As a teacher, you must be aware that some children will take longer to get that particular skill mastered. Individual reading programs are a must. Without an intimate knowledge of each child’s level of reading, you cannot ensure that no child will be left behind.
Currently, half of the new teachers in Australia are quitting within five years, and many are reporting feeling underprepared when they graduate from standard training. To correct this, Torrens University has developed a Masters of Education (Reading and Literacy), that specifically aims to prepare teachers for the demands of a contemporary classroom.
But new teachers will also need help and guidance from the previous generation, so take every opportunity to learn from older staff or mentors. After all, the more wisdom we pass down through the generations, the better the results for our kids!
See here for more information on the Masters of Education (Reading and Literacy).