Teach, Learn, Live Podcast: Noella McKenzie – Episode 4

Tim Bullard: [00:00:04] Hi, I’m Tim Bullard, and I’m the Secretary of the Department of Education in Tasmania. I think Tasmania might just be the best place in the world to teach, learn and live. In this series, I asked some fantastic guests some big questions about how we can support learners to succeed. Not only in today’s world, but in tomorrow’s as well. We’ll talk about the role of education in our communities and how we learn to lay the foundations for connected, resilient, creative and curious lives. And if we’re lucky, we’ll hear a bit about our guests own learning journeys as well. 

Kids: [00:00:42] Teach Learn Live, Tasmania 

Speaker1: [00:00:47] We’re coming to you from lutruwita, Tasmania, so I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Tasmanian Aboriginal people who’ve been caring for and educating their children and young people here for tens of thousands of years. I pay my respects to elders past and present and to all the Aboriginal community members who work in our child and family centres, libraries and schools and our supporting teams. And of course, I acknowledge our Aboriginal learners right across Tasmania and Australia who will be the strong community members and leaders of tomorrow. 

Tim Bullard: [00:01:22] Today I welcome back Dr Noella Mackenzie, associate adjunct professor and educational consultant. Over the past few episodes we’ve discussed what is literacy and why it’s important. We’ve also looked at oral language and writing, which we know are critical skills that children need to learn. In this episode, we’ll be focusing on why reading is critical for literacy success. What is reading? How do we define or describe it? 

Tim Bullard: [00:01:48] Welcome, Noella. 

Noella: [00:01:50] Thanks Tim. And it’s lovely to be here with you. 

Tim Bullard: [00:01:53] So I think we’ve all got memories of starting to read. I know that when I was learning to read probably in about 1977, that we were put in a queue and you had to wait your turn to kick off with a book. And I was very, very eager to move to the front of that queue so that I could start reading. Do you remember when you started reading and what your favourite book was when you were young? 

Noella: [00:02:18] Yes, actually I’m an unusual case because I read it before I went to school. I was the fourth child of five on a farm. We didn’t have a lot of entertainment. In fact, we didn’t get television until I was in grade four. And apart from doing jobs on the farm, we went to church every Sunday. And I think teasing it out now and talking to my mother about it, there was a combination of factors. One, we didn’t have many books at home. So the books we had, we read over and over and over again. And I will share a couple of those old books with you in a moment. But I want to explain the influence of going to a church service every Sunday for you know, from the moment I was born. In a church service, you’re surrounded by people who read from set wording week after week, and we call that choral reading. So as a child, you’re surrounded by this and you sort of, I think, initially mumble along and you are supported to do that. And gradually you get more and more of it and gradually you start to notice that the words on the page actually match what people are saying around you. You’re also singing hymns and often those are repeated over and over again. So you are surrounded by this process of language being used in repetitive ways. Then you add the fact that we didn’t have television, we didn’t have a lot of entertainment. And so a few books I’ve pulled actually off my shelf because I still own them. One is a very much loved Enid Blyton annual, and it is very old and it is very loved and quite worn out now. But looking through that again this morning, it’s full of stories, but it’s also full of what they call picture strips. There’s lots of pictures in here, but there’s also quite dense text. I had books like this one. That’s another favourite. The Pokey Little Puppy. 

Tim Bullard: [00:04:30] The Pokey Little Puppy was one of my favourites as well. A little golden book. 

Noella: [00:04:34] You remember that one. I wonder if you ever had ‘The Brave Little Duck’. 

Tim Bullard: [00:04:38] I did have the Brave Little Duck. 

Noella: [00:04:40] There you go. And another favourite, as I became better at reading, was Heidi. Now when I went to school, it was fairly traditional. We did read from anthologies and I loved the reading of the stories because we weren’t allowed to take them home. You could only read them at school. But I used to get frustrated because we used to do this round robin reading and you had to wait ’til it was your turn. And I was always reading ahead. So when it was my turn, I was in trouble because I didn’t know where we were up to. So it was a bit of a love/hate kind of situation. I wanted to read those stories, but I didn’t want to wait for being the fifth one in the circle to have the go. So I’ve got some really interesting memories of the process of reading. I also remember wanting to borrow The Famous Five when I was in grade two from the library. Because the library was my source of books. And the librarians said no they’re for grade three. You can’t have those in grade two. You have to wait till you get to grade three and then you could borrow those books. So I’ve got some interesting memories of this process of learning to read, but I know it became very quickly became a source of escape for me. It was a way of going beyond the farm. Was a way of understanding how other people live differently, how they have experiences beyond what I could relate to personally. 

Tim Bullard: [00:06:10] And often looking at things like The Famous Five. And I also had the Jenning’s books because my dad was from the U.K. and so we read a lot of the books he’d read. I feel like I had an upbringing which was absolutely surrounded by a British child’s experience of growing up, even though we were living in the centre of Australia. So I think you could sort of imagine being in a totally different world through reading when we were young. 

Noella: [00:06:36] Absolutely. The Secret Seven was the other series that I read every one of. And you didn’t just read the books once, you read them over and over again. And particularly stories like Bomb Annual. That’s an Enid Blyton and it’s full of stories. Well, you didn’t just read them once. You read them over and over again. And I’m quite sure repeated readings improved the comprehension of what it was that I was reading. 

Tim Bullard: [00:07:00] So when you were young, what were the things that you can remember that your parents did or that your grandparents did, that helped you to read? 

Noella: [00:07:09] I think it was the taking us to church and surrounding us in that situation. It was the provision of a small number of books. Books and reading were valued. But my parents were very busy farmers, both of them, and so they didn’t have the time. My mother is ninety five now and she often talks about it. She loves sitting and reading to the grandchildren, and every now and again she’ll just look at me and she’ll say, I didn’t have time to do this with you, but I can see how magical it is now. So I guess it was, I had the older siblings and I’m sure the younger ones are advantaged by older siblings. I’m sure they helped me. I can’t remember them actually sitting and reading to me, but I can remember them helping me with words I didn’t know. 

Tim Bullard: [00:08:02] So one of my memories is being read to every night until I was at the end of primary school by my dad. And that was something that we always did. And I know that I’ve heard you speak before about the importance of parents and carers reading aloud to their children. But how does that support you to actually read, being read to? 

Noella: [00:08:25] Oh, that’s a really good question. For a start, it teaches you what story is all about. It teaches you about characters and how they can be experiences that are different to you. It teaches you about written language because written language is different to oral language. It’s actually fascinating because oral language is one of the key elements that supports children learning to read. However, a written language, which is what you hear when someone reads to you, is different. It’s a different structure and it’s in sentences that are different to conversational language. And it often uses vocabulary that’s different and in different ways. So when a child is read to whether it’s by the parents, the childcare worker, the kindergarten teacher, they’re surrounding children in that written language and they’re opening up that world to them so that when they start to read, they’ve got that familiar process to support that with their own learning. And I mean, it’s so exciting to hear that people are being read to until grade six. And beyond that, that’s a it’s a beautiful experience to sit, particularly if you’ve got a group of children in a family where you might have a five year old and a nine year old and a 12 year old who are all engaging with one book that is perhaps beyond the reading ability of any of them, even the 12 year old. But together they’re able to enjoy the shared experience. 

Tim Bullard: [00:10:05] I think it’s really fascinating over the course of these podcasts because what we’re seeing is that we’re building capability and knowledge, first of all, in our language of vocabulary. And you’ve spoken about the way that speaking and communicating with each other builds our oral language, which builds our vocabulary, which helps us understand words. But now I can see in reading we’re actually stretching that vocabulary. So we’re potentially reading out words allowed that we wouldn’t use in day to day life or wouldn’t necessarily be part of our conversational style. As well as through reading, teaching structure, because the way that written text is structured is very different to the way that we speak often. So you’re basically putting those building blocks in place through either speaking or reading aloud. You’re teaching children a lot of things innately aren’t? You are transferring a lot of knowledge. 

Noella: [00:10:58] Absolutely, one of the most important ones we’re teaching is listening comprehension. And listening comprehension is a key building block for reading comprehension. And there’s a link in there, too, to concentration. When you sit and listen to a book being read, the concentration that you develop helps you with your learning ongoing. But that ability to listen and understand is critical to then going on to reading for understanding. So you’re absolutely right, all these building blocks are being pulled together. It’s a bit like Lego. There’s a little bit here and a little bit there and together those blocks build a structure that allows the child to engage in the reading process. 

Tim Bullard: [00:11:45] And I think what I’m hearing from you is as a parent or a carer, don’t be afraid of texts which might actually be outside the initial comprehension of the children you’re reading to. If they’re interested in the story, even if the words are a bit big, there’s some learning going on underneath. And I think from my personal perspective, sometimes I’m surprised by the words. If you go back and say, well, what does that actually mean? The children will often be able to say to you, oh, yes, I know what that means. 

Noella: [00:12:12] Absolutely. And I did that with my own granddaughter a few months back. There was a book that I’ve been reading to her that had quite complex language in. And initially, I wasn’t sure whether she was understanding, but she was engaged with the book. And so this particular day, I was going to be working with teachers in the afternoon and I was just curious if she understood what it meant when they were talking about being on the brink. And she just looked at me, and it was as if you’re interrupting the story Nanny. She said, it means edge, keep reading. And I thought we hadn’t had a discussion about it. It’s not a word that she would expect a four-year-old to be using in their oral language. But hearing it within that context of a story, she was able to listen. She was able to understand. And that develops, I think, a love of words and language. And, you know, there were some days she would arrive at our house because we babysat her on Wednesdays last year and she’d say, you choose five books and I’ll choose five books and will read them during the day. And she’d just have the plan. And that tells me that that’s a child who knows what this process is all about. She wasn’t reading before she started school, but she knew a lot about reading. 

Tim Bullard: [00:13:35] So obviously reading, building a love of literacy. But what else what other links are there between reading and literacy more generally? One thing that I’m thinking about and I’m interested to explore with you is if you’re building your vocabulary through reading or being read to, how does that then play out in how you write? 

Noella: [00:13:55] Oh, it’s the reciprocal processes between reading and writing have been demonstrated over and over again. So the child who is familiar with written language from being read to is able to translate that understanding into the process of writing so that, yes, being read to is definitely beneficial to the processes of writing. And then of course, when the child starts to engage with print themselves, when they’re focusing on the detail in print to read print, that also helps them with writing print and vice versa. So the two processes, the closer they can be connected, the better for children’s learning. 

Tim Bullard: [00:14:41] It’s very exciting, isn’t it, when you see a written piece of work which might be beyond what you would expect of a child, and they say, oh well, that’s yes, I took that idea because that’s what they did in this book. You know, they can actually see that there’s a bridge between what they’ve read and how the sentences are structured. And they’re basically just trying it out to see whether it works in their own writing. 

Noella: [00:15:01] Absolutely. And you think as adults we do that, too? If we’re learning to write in a particular form for our job, for example, I think the first thing that most adults say is, can you show me an example? I’d like to read an example of that kind of report or that kind of text that you’re asking me to do. So we read and then that reading helps us with our writing. 

Tim Bullard: [00:15:27] So looking at teaching of reading, teachers obviously get a lot of advice about how to teach children to read. And one of my reflections is that that advice has changed over time. How has it changed? Where have we sort of come from maybe from when you were learning to read, to when I was learning to read to now. Has it changed about what good teaching of reading looks like? 

Noella: [00:15:49] It’s actually interesting. It has and it hasn’t. I think reading is one of those topics that’s been a hot topic ever since I’ve been teaching. And when I think about that, I was thinking of the different programs I’ve seen come and go in my career. For example, when I first started teaching, there was a program around called Words in Colour. And it was highly phonetic and it used a combination of letter patterns but colours. We had Mount Gravatt, which adapted children’s oral language into a written form. We also had breakthrough to literacy, which I don’t know whether you remember perhaps seeing those lots of little words in cardboard and you lined them up. 

Tim Bullard: [00:16:37] I do. 

Noella: [00:16:37] Yes. And then, of course, with computers, they became lots of online programs you’ll see reading rockets and reading eggs and all these online programs. So a quick search will find you lots of different approaches. And when I first started, there was a very strong emphasis on phonics and a strong emphasis on whole word teaching. So we did phonics, but we also taught whole words using flashcards. What I quickly worked out was that the experienced teachers that I worked with seemed to adapt whatever the program was to the diverse needs of their children. And so I very quickly learned that, OK, yes, we’re using that program, but that’s not going to work with all our children. The experienced teachers, they seemed to know that. 

Noella: [00:17:26] So the experienced teachers I noticed from my very first year of teaching, they read aloud to their children numerous times every day from beautiful books. I also learned that a lot of children seem to learn to read within these different classroom programs. So you might have Teacher A’s adaptation and teacher B’s adaptation that actually looked quite different. But the majority of the children in their classrooms would learn to read and they’d have a few that would have difficulty. It’s actually interesting. Kids are so clever. I think children learn sometimes in spite of us and in spite of us being a little pedantic at times. So thinking about that, we’ve seen a shift to meaning being the focus of reading. We’ve seen enjoyment coming into the process earlier on, I think. We like our children to enjoy what they read. I think publishers have done some really good things and done some strange things over the years. So we’ve had examples of books series that are really useful. And we’ve also, I think one of the real benefits, if I look at these books here, my old books, they were all fiction. One of the really positive moves I think I’ve seen in the last perhaps 15 to 20 years is a shift towards reading nonfiction. And a lot of young children really want to, as one of my grandsons would say, read about stuff. 

Noella: [00:19:02] I want to know things. So there’s been a whole lot of different things that have happened along the way. And I think the best teachers are those teachers who are flexible in their approaches to teaching reading. They know that not all of their children are going to be, I guess, won over by this process that’s actually really complex. It’s a complex process. So children are going to have to work to learn how to do it. So teachers, the flexible teachers, know that they approach these children this way, and those children that way, and they can be flexible. My first lesson on you must be flexible, you have to be careful you’re not too pedantic, is when I was teaching a prep class very early in my career and we had a spate of children bringing junk food for recess for morning tea. And the principal had said, can you all have a little bit of a chat with your children about bringing fruit and bringing fresh vegetables to school for recess? So I’d forgotten to do this. And it was the last part of the day and the children were packing up. And I said, oh, and by the way, children, don’t forget tomorrow we really would like you to bring a piece of fruit for recess, such as a pear, an apple or an orange. The next morning, I had a parent on my doorstep with a child, and the mother was obviously very upset. 

Noella: [00:20:28] And she said, can you please tell my daughter that she can have a mandarin or a banana? And I looked and I said, yes, of course she can have a banana or a mandarin. Apparently, there has been this absolute war because, No, Mrs Mac said a pear, an orange or an apple. She didn’t say bananas. She didn’t say grapes. She didn’t say mandarins. And that was a real lesson to me, that in all my teaching, I had to be careful the way I approach things with children. For example, if I say that’s an ‘a’ and it makes the letter A and it makes an ‘a’ sound and that’s an S. How do I then explain to the child that WAS is ‘was’. I’ve told the child, that that’s an ‘A’ and I’ve told the child that that’s an S making a sss sound. Now, the children who take on this complexity easily, they go, oh, yes, but I now can also make this and it can also do that. But the children who are easily confused, they’re there thinking no, Mrs Mackenzie said that that’s a ‘w’ that’s an ‘a’ that’s a ‘s’. So that word is was. So I guess it’s not about the program. It’s actually about the teacher and how the teacher interacts with the children and their learning, and that needs to be flexible. 

Tim Bullard: [00:21:53] I’m hearing a very strong theme of differentiation in teaching, which resonates so strongly with me. I think one of the things that we see in reading teaching, and also in literacy more generally is a lot of people who profess to have an answer, an answer that’s going to be universal and meets the needs of all learners. And as you’ve just pointed out, in some really strong examples, children are actually individuals who come to learning with different dispositions, and skills, and ways of sorting the world in their mind. And just coming with some universal response is never, ever going to meet the needs and learning styles of every single child in that classroom. 

Noella: [00:22:37] Absolutely not. And the other thing to connect there is UNESCO and others have talked about emotion and cognition. The connection between these two factors. And if something is so hard and you’re feeling stressed or fearful, then you aren’t able to relax enough to learn from it. So that’s the other element of the good teacher who’s flexible and able to see that, OK, what we’re doing here is actually stressing these children. We need to come at it from a different angle for those particular children. We still, the end goal is still teaching them how to read, but one size definitely does not fit all. And we have to recognise that sometimes in our classrooms, the only connection there is between those children in that room is that they’ve got a birth date which is within a particular time frame. And for some of our children, that time frame can even be 18 months to two years. So if you think about the difference between a child who’s four and a child who’s nearly six, there’s even their birth date is a problematic, I guess, restriction. If we think about it like that. The child who’s nearly six, the child who’s just turned four, they can both be in prep. So it’s a tricky one for us to think about. And there is no easy one size fits all. Absolutely not. I would advise teachers to develop their knowledge of the reading process and the writing process. Literacy in general. And then get to know their children and their children’s strengths. It’s interesting, some children come to school with a lot of the prerequisites for early reading and writing. In there we often talk about their backpack. Their backpack is overfull of all the things that they need, that mean that they’re going to be able to engage in the, whatever the program is, from day one of prep. Other children come with a much lighter backpack that might have some of the prerequisite learning and dispositions, but may not have some of the other prerequisites. 

Tim Bullard: [00:25:02] So going to sort of the theory of reading. How can you describe all of those components? You’ve said that it’s complex and you’ve said that there’s no easy way through teaching children to read. What is the science that sits behind reading and it’s teaching? 

Noella: [00:25:18] It’s actually a very exciting time to be talking about this, because we’ve got so much that’s coming up under the banner of science, or in some instances they’re referring to sciences of reading. The most important understanding is that there’s no one right answer here. And in fact, there’s been something like 14000 research publications that have had reading as their focus in the last ten years. Now, that demonstrates the complexity of this process, that you could get 14000 research publications. Now, people don’t agree. And that’s why it’s really quite interesting that, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, in terms of theory and what is a theory. And when I work with undergrads, I’d always say to them, a theory is just a way of explaining a phenomena. There isn’t just one way of explaining phenomena. And the ways we explain phenomena change with extra information. With looking at things from different angles. And so at the moment, we have this amazing resource of publications that are coming out under the banner of science of reading, and they’re discussing this complex process from different perspectives. And they’re all adding research from different studies that are building a really rich source but are very clearly saying, but there isn’t one right way of explaining it. But if I go back to that theory business for a minute, I want us to think that we have our own theories based on our own experiences and our own knowledge. 

Noella: [00:27:12] And your theory might be a little different to mine. That doesn’t mean yours is wrong and mine is right. I have a theory based on my experiences and knowledge. You have a theory based on your experiences and knowledge. What we have to do is bring those together in a way that’s compatible for the benefit of children. So just to bring that together, there’s no one single definition or science of reading. There’s no consensus as to what has been cited to inform theory, research policy and practice, more about all the time. There’s no single definition of the science of reading or from the science of reading. There is no consensus as to what has been cited to inform theory, research, policy and practice in the name of the science of reading. Think of the science of reading as like a massive library of resources and you take one resource off the shelf and you get a picture. You take another one off the shelf and you get a slightly different picture because somebody has approached it from a different direction. The simple view of reading, which was developed by Gulf and Tumna back in 1986, it created a very simple formula that talked about decoding, plus language comprehension equalling reading comprehension. And that view is accepted by a lot in perhaps the speech and language area in some education areas. But there are others who will question it. 

Noella: [00:28:54] And I’ve spoken with speechies who will question that particular theory. And even Tumna himself came out in 2012 and said that their original claims about decoding plus language comprehension perhaps needed to be reassessed because the decoding and the language comprehension really weren’t as easy to separate as they first thought. And this is a nice demonstration of how theorists will adapt and shift their thinking with further information. Another adaptation of the simple view of reading that’s very commonly applied is Scarborough’s Rope. Now what Scarborough did was she took that simple view of reading and she expanded it. And she expanded it in order to explain to parents whose children were having difficulty reading, how the process was actually very complex. That the decoding plus language comprehension equals reading comprehension was just too simple in its way of explaining what was actually a really complex process. So she expanded, in fact she didn’t use the word decoding. She used word recognition. And within that she talked about phonological awareness, decoding and sight recognition. She brought those things together and she didn’t actually name phonics as such, but she talked about the alphabetic principle. She then took the language comprehension part of that formula, and she expanded that to include background knowledge, vocabulary, language structures, verbal reasoning and literacy knowledge. So she expanded these processes to help explain this complex process and Scarboroughs Rope is still very widely referred to. 

Tim Bullard: [00:30:49] So basically what you’re looking at there, Noella is, I can work out what the word says through word recognition. And there are a number of ways that I’m going to do that. And then I can understand what the word means through my language comprehension. But the Scarborough’s Rope theory shows you need a lot of things in your toolkit to do that. That’s not decoding equals word recognition and maybe vocabulary equals language comprehension, and that’s the end of it. It’s actually a lot more than that to bring those two pieces together in this theory to be a skilled reader. 

Noella: [00:31:25] Absolutely. And if we look at it, sometimes they say that decoding and if I go back to Gough and Tumna, their original definitions of decoding was that you can read a word in isolation, and you could read it silently or you could read it out loud. But it was far more than sounding out. They’re very careful to say that. But the issue with the word in isolation, if we stay with that notion of decoding, is that we have a rich orthography in English, a very deep orthography. And as such, we have words, for example, our homonyms where you might read the word, but you won’t actually be able to attach a meaning to it until it’s contextualised. If I think about words that spelt the same but have different meanings and different pronunciations. A really simple one would be the word. Is it close or is it close? Is it read or is it read? Is it you know, I don’t really know whether I should be saying close or another one would be minute or minute. I could read both of those words in isolation, but I don’t really know if I’m reading it as minute or minute you until I see the other words around it. And I think this is why Tumna and I came back and said separating, decoding and language comprehension was a bit simplistic. That they’re not always easily separated. Now, the most recent view of reading, if you want to call it, and they do, actually is called the active view of reading. 

Noella: [00:33:07] And this is only very new. It’s only been published in the last month. And one of the things that I find really interesting about this particular active view is that they take into account the text task and sociocultural context. They’ve contextualised the process. And they’ve also taken into account executive functioning. And that includes motivation and engagement. And we all know that if we’re motivated to do something, we’re going to put more effort into it than if we’re not motivated. Doesn’t matter if it’s doing the dishes or doing the washing or whatever it is. If it’s reading. If I’m highly motivated, I’m going to want to do the work associated with reading that text. The other interesting thing about this model is they take the word recognition and the language comprehension and overlap them. Identifying what they call as bridging processes in the middle. This is that overlap. And in that overlap, you’ll see things like vocabulary knowledge, morphological awareness, graphilogical, semantic, cognitive flexibility. These are processes that are important for decoding and word recognition, but they’re also important for language comprehension. So they’re showing that overlap. And I think that’s a really interesting development. But it’s just also showing that our theories can change, they can develop. But our theories are also impacted by our current knowledge and our experiences. And I think Duke and Cartwright are very much coming from a classroom context. 

Tim Bullard: [00:35:02] It’s very interesting, isn’t it, that for hundreds of years people have been able to read and we’ve almost had to backward map to how’s that happened. Because we know that there are people that can’t read. So it’s really important to understand the science and theory behind it so that we can look with more integrity at which part are people missing in terms of their reading journey? Where do they need more effort or energy put in? And I think bringing this together in a reading model, the other things that we’ve talked about make so much more sense, don’t they? So if you need word recognition that goes back to the oral language discussions that we had earlier, we know that writing gives you some of that understanding about structure and reasoning. And we also, I really like the idea in the Duke and Cartwright work around cultural and other content knowledge. You actually need to frame what you’re reading within the world in which you live. And I imagine that if you take a text that’s translated and has been written in a very different culture, it’s probably quite difficult for even quite advanced readers to understand because they’ve got no context to think, oh yes, that’s one of those. Or they’ve gone to this place. And I know what that looks like and how it operates. 

Noella: [00:36:18] Absolutely. And we don’t even have to go to a different cultural context. All we have to do is go outside our experience and knowledge and comfort zone. And one of the research papers I read recently accentuated the importance of background knowledge to reading. No matter who we are, no matter how experienced we are. And if I was to use the example of you and I and your background in law, that allows you to access the meaning of contracts, for example, with the knowledge of language structures and vocabulary that are pertinent to that particular kind of document. The first time we took out a mortgage, I was a young mid-20s, but I had nightmares reading the contract for our first home because I didn’t understand the language in the way I wanted to be able to understand the language. I think if we use medical language as another example, often people are overwhelmed by the language that a doctor uses. The doctor is not meaning to be exclusive, but it’s just they have a field of language that they use in a different way. So give me a physics textbook and ask me to read and understand. I will struggle. And yet I’m a voracious reader of fiction and nonfiction. 

Noella: [00:37:50] So background knowledge is a classic example. And I’ll just use a really simple children’s example to pull this together. If you’re reading the word f l y. I want you to just think for a moment, how many possible definitions there will be for that word. Now, we could go through them, but I know the listeners will be coming up with their own versions. Well, if I then tell you that the book is about fly fishing, then suddenly a lot of people’s definitions that they were thinking about have shifted because they are thinking, well, that doesn’t have anything to do with my definition of fly. And some people will immediately go, oh, yes, I know what a fly is with fishing. I’ve seen them. They’re pretty little things that they spend ages making and it looks like an insect. But for others, they may have no experience of the process of fly fishing. So they’re thinking fishing at the pier with a worm on the end of a hook. Oh, well, it flies over the water, I guess, but I still don’t quite get what this is about. And yet the wood was a simple three letter word. 

Tim Bullard: [00:39:04] I think that is such a strong example because I moved from an image of an aeroplane in my head, and I did actually have a grandfather who was a fly fisherman. So I then I quickly jumped into thinking about those little hooks with the feathers on them. But it just shows that your lived experience and as a child coming into the classroom, your lived experience is going to underpin how easily you engage with different types of text. 

Noella: [00:39:32] Absolutely. And it’s an interesting aha moment for young children when they suddenly realise that it’s not just about what’s on the page. It’s actually about what’s in their head already. And initially they think it’s all about what’s on the page. And but if you think about a definition of reading as extracting information from the page and then adding that to your existing knowledge, that’s what leads to true comprehension. And so for children, when they make that connection, they go, oh, OK, I can do this. Rather than it’s all about the, as I’ve had some children say, the little black squiggles that are on the page. 

Tim Bullard: [00:40:18] We’ve talked in previous podcasts about phonics. And often I feel that people that talk about phonics think that phonics is the panacea for reading, that if you have phonological awareness, you’re going to be a reader. What I’ve learned through this podcast, I think though, is that that is part of word recognition, which is only part of the stories. Is that, am I right am on the right track? 

Noella: [00:40:43] Yes, I think you are. And it worries me, actually. Phonological awareness is different phonics for a start. So we need to make sure we’re clear there, that phonics is the link between the graphemes or the letters, and the sounds that they can potentially make within the context of a word. I think we’re actually expecting phonics to do all the heavy lifting at the moment. That’s the message I’m getting from the media is that phonics will cure the world of any reading issues. And while phonics, I would say, is incredibly important, it’s part of the process, not the process. And so let’s give phonics a break. It can’t do all the heavy lifting. There are other things we have to teach children. There are other things that children have to learn if they’re going to be readers. Not saying phonics isn’t important. It’s absolutely key to decoding, no question. 

Tim Bullard: [00:41:42] So it’s a necessary precondition to reading, but it is not the answer to reading. 

Noella: [00:41:50] I wouldn’t call it a precondition. I would say it’s a necessary skill that children develop as they are learning to read. And it’s definitely something that we all use. Good ratings, experienced ratings will drop down to that basic decoding process when they come across a word they’ve  never seen before. And sometimes that gets us to the right pronunciation and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes even an adult will mispronounce a word for quite some time until they hear it pronounced correctly. And then they go, Oh, so that’s how I say that word. And you know, I could give personal examples that are numerous over the years. The one that I think people relate to very quickly is the name of the character in Harry Potter who is Hermione. And I had no idea how to pronounce that word when I first read the book. And I had Hermione and Hermione and I did not know how to do it. I provided, you know I used all my phonics skills, but that wasn’t enough. I actually had to have the word in my head. And that’s where we sometimes misunderstand that sounding out can work if the word is in your head as a resource for you to access. So as I start to sound it out, it connects with a word I know. And that’s why that decoding and that listening or language comprehension are inseparable. 

Tim Bullard: [00:43:21] Absolutely fascinating, Noella. I just want to thank you again for being so generous with your time and sharing your learnings and insights. I have learnt so much over the past few weeks, and I know that our listeners will too. Thank you so much. 

Noella: [00:43:36] A pleasure. Thank you, Tim. 

Tim Bullard: [00:43:39] Are you interested in teaching in Tasmania? Teaching really is an amazing career for people who are interested in driving real change for children and young people and the Tasmanian community, in a way few other professions can. Find out more about teaching in Tasmania on our website. And you can find out about teaching vacancies by visiting www.jobs.tas.gov.au. 

Tim Bullard: [00:44:02] I hope you enjoyed today’s conversation. Stay up to date with all our latest episodes by subscribing to Teach, Learn, Live through your favourite podcast app. You can also find all our past episodes on the Department of Education website. 

Tim Bullard: [00:44:28] Do you know an inspiring learner, family, teacher or community we should feature on the show? Then please let us know at teachlearnlive@education.tas.gov.au 

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