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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On porcupines and predictable text: What are predictable texts and why are they a problem?


The problem with predictable text: How many beginning readers can read these words without the aid of repetition and picture clues?


The draft revision of the Australian Curriculum was released for consultation in April and two aspects of the English: F-6 curriculum have attracted particularly strong criticism. One is the inclusion of a variation of the three cueing strategy for reading. There are multiple references in the draft curriculum to students using ‘contextual, semantic, grammatical, and phonic knowledge’ (or some variation of this) to read words, and to ‘text processing strategies’, which is another term for the same idea. As explained here, three-cueing with phonics as the strategy of last resort is not an effective, evidence-based reading strategy. It instills the habits of weak readers and therefore should not be enshrined in the Australian Curriculum.

A second and related problem in the draft curriculum is the requirement that children read both decodable texts and predictable texts. These different types of texts are designed to encourage different reading strategies and therefore they contradict each other at a time when consistency is important.

Predictable texts are based on the same flawed premise as the three-cueing strategy – the idea that skilled reading involves prediction and guessing – whereas multiple scientific studies have shown that skilled readers process all of the letters in a word and that this becomes automatised through phonic decoding. Decodable books are designed to establish this skill.

While picture books with repetitive text structures are enjoyable and valuable for very young children before they begin formal reading instruction, and later as a shared text, they are not appropriate as classroom or home ‘readers’ for students to practise their own reading once they begin school.

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Open letter to ACARA about the revised Australian Curriculum: English

Emeritus Professor Max Coltheart has prepared a letter to ACARA on behalf of the members of the Developmental Disorders of Language and Literacy (DDoLL) network, a group of reading researchers, cognitive scientists, teachers, principals, speech pathologists, linguists, and specialist practitioners who are concerned about effective instruction and intervention for all students.

The letter is published here and reproduced below. If you would like to support this letter by adding your name to the list of signatories, please send an email to <>

Other organisations and networks have distributed similar letters or encouraged their members to support the DDoLL letter. Please sign only one version.

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Curriculum takes backward step on the path to literacy

By Jennifer Buckingham

In the same week that federal education minister Alan Tudge reiterated his aspiration to take Australia back to the top of the international school education rankings, pointing to improved results in the United Kingdom and Poland for inspiration, the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) has drawn its inspiration from elsewhere and released a proposed revision of the Australian Curriculum that doesn’t seem likely to move Australian schools in the desired direction of travel.

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