What the ‘Dubbo study’ tells us about background knowledge and reading comprehension

Is a lighthouse just a lighthouse?

The contribution of background or content knowledge to reading comprehension is becoming better understood (see for example, here, here, here, and here) and there are long-standing concerns about persistent differences in literacy levels among rural and metro students, and Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.

Put these things together and you have the basis for an important experimental question: Would students in a rural area with a relatively high Indigenous population perform better on reading comprehension assessments if they were likely to be familiar with the content?

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When should reading instruction begin?

by Nicola Bell, Jennifer Buckingham, Kevin Wheldall, Robyn Wheldall, and Anna Desjardins*


People sometimes raise the question of when the optimal time is for children to begin to learn to read. This is especially relevant for parents of children who are home schooled, or who attend schools where the preference is to start reading instruction later (such as Steiner schools), but it is also an interesting question to address more generally.

By formal reading instruction, we mean systematic and explicit instruction in reading and understanding text, with assessment and intervention to ensure students are making good progress. In the years prior to the onset of formal reading instruction, a focus on language development (oral language and phonological awareness), the alphabet, and daily experiences with books and writing, at home and in early education settings, are encouraged. 

In the absence of experimental randomised control trials on the outcomes of students who start learning to read at age 5 vs. 6 vs. 7 years old, we need to consider other types of evidence and reasoning about when students should begin formal literacy instruction.

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‘Clarity’ leaves schools leaders in the dark on the science of reading


The book Clarity: What matters most in learning, teaching, and leading (Sharratt, 2019) is on the desks of many principals around Australia and elswhere in the world. It is a recommended text for leaders in a number of school systems. Published and sold by the Australian College of Educational Leaders, and with a foreword by John Hattie, one might reasonably assume that its contents and advice are based on rigorous research evidence. Author Lyn Sharratt is herself an advocate for the use of data to inform teaching practice.

Unfortunately, however, on the subject of literacy teaching, Clarity does not lead principals and teachers in the direction of evidence-based instruction. It endorses the use of practices such as levelled readers, running records, and Reading Recovery, which are not consistent with what research has shown to be the most effective methods of teaching and assessing reading.

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Threading together the sciences of reading

By Nicola Bell


Research that informs our collective understanding of literacy development is not conducted within one field of science. This is tricky, because it means that researchers working in different areas aren’t necessarily speaking the same language. As such, it’s not always obvious how various strands of evidence are woven together to form a coherent picture of the ‘science of reading’.

So, let’s get detangling. What exactly do people investigate to answer questions related to literacy development?

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