Nurturing Young Readers at Daylesford Dharma School

How we integrate the Evidence Based Reading approaches to teaching Literacy.

Written by Tanya Wiggins, Learning Manager, Master of Education (Research), BSc-Human Movement and Andrea Furness, Principal, BSc-Hons.

All parents and teachers desire to see their children flourish academically.  There is a growing expectation that children need to simultaneously develop and grow their social and emotional learning that forms the foundation of their happiness and contentment.  For children to flourish as learners, they need to establish a level of success, confidence and trust in their learning process. The fundamental skill of reading is one of the cornerstones for experiencing a sense of success in early primary years and can set children up for the journey of  lifelong learning. The ability to read not only opens doors to access knowledge but can also bring joy, connection, imagination and stimulation into a child’s life. 

The media has recently been awash in revealing some troubling data that indicates that in Australia, the approach to the teaching of reading is falling short of the mark. The Australian Early Development Census data from 2021 assessed that 22% of children studied were developmentally vulnerable in one or more domains and particularly vulnerable in language and cognitive skills, which are foundational for literacy development Australian Early Development Census – Department of Education, Australian Government (2023). This trend was reinforced by the 2019 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study which assesses the reading literacy of fourth-grade students worldwide and found that approximately 25% of Australian students did not meet the minimum proficiency. We have long known that developmental vulnerability in early childhood can contribute to difficulties in learning to read and comprehend texts as children progress through school. The international data suggests that currently there are a significant proportion of Australian children struggling with basic reading skills, and this can have long-term implications for their academic success and overall well-being.

At Daylesford Dharma School, some years ago, our Learning Manager Tanya Wiggins became aware of this data and the emerging research that debunked the way that reading was commonly being taught in schools. Over the past years, Tanya has been leading and supporting our school’s quest  to provide the best support for student literacy development which includes exposing our teachers to new knowledge that science is revealing about effective teaching methods. We have been progressively training our teachers and resourcing them to structure their teaching methods around evidence based practice.  There are two prominent evidence-based teaching approaches that have emerged in recent years that you may have heard about: the Science of Learning and the Science of Reading. Let’s delve into what these approaches entail and explore how parents and teachers can work together from these understandings to pave the way for our students’ reading success.

 The Science of Learning: the guiding principles for effective teaching

The Science of Learning provides valuable insights into the cognitive processes involved in acquiring knowledge and skills. This includes the research from cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and educational theory to inform teaching practices. Our literacy program at Daylesford Dharma School is rooted in these evidence-based practices and we work to align our practice with these key principles. Here’s how we integrate these principles into our teaching:

Metacognition: This involves teaching children to develop awareness about their learning processes. Teachers reflect with students on how they feel most comfortable learning, support them to recognise and set learning goals, monitor their progress objectively with explicit, process based feedback, and brainstorm how they can modify strategies when faced with new challenges. 

Active Learning:  Children learn best when actively engaged in the learning process. Our classrooms buzz with engagement as students participate in hands-on activities. Active learning encourages student-led activities, discussions, and problem-solving tasks that stimulate critical thinking and deep understanding. The Inquiry unit of work in our curriculum strongly promotes this type of learning for our students and also provides quality, authentic opportunities for children to apply their learning into their school and wider community. This enables them to experience putting their learning into action in a way that supports positive outcomes for their communities. Our Australian Dharma Curriculum also targets the development of metacognition and active learning. 

Feedback and Practice: Providing timely and constructive feedback from a relationship of trust with a teacher is crucial for learning and reading. Providing ample opportunities to regularly practice new skills reinforces learning and helps consolidate new knowledge and skills as mastery. 

Transfer of Learning: Helping children connect what they’ve learned to real-life situations fosters transferable skills and enhances long-term retention.  In our school you will see this in action via teachers supporting student led learning projects in the Compassionate Citizenship program,  in our Bush School curriculum and in our excursion rich approach to learning that is connected to our Inquiry investigations. We are an agile school with highly motivated teachers who plan each term to stimulate our students in this way to support learning relevance and consolidation. 

The Science of Reading: building strong foundations in literacy

Central to our literacy program is our Evidence based approach which delves into the mechanics of learning to read and comprehend written language. Our approach embraces the core components of the Science of Reading, ensuring that students develop essential reading skills systematically and effectively. Here’s how we address each component which are referred to as “The Big 6”:

Phonemic Awareness and Phonics: In our Foundation to Grade 2 classes, we place a strong emphasis on building phonemic awareness which is the ability to notice, think about and work with individual sounds. We practice this skill through daily activities such as blending, segmenting, sound isolation and manipulation. Daily systematic synthetic phonics lessons also form part of our literacy learning, where children are taught letter sound relationships and spelling patterns. A daily review of previous learning is built into these lessons to support children in building mastery of these skills. Once children can map sounds to letters they have the building blocks for being able to decode text. 

  • Fluency: Fluency lessons are built into our literacy routine. In Foundation to Grade 2 classes students focus on sounding out words targeted at their current letter-sound knowledge. They also use targeted decodable texts, word lists and sentences  tailored to build their recognition and speed. This fluent reading involves not only accurate decoding but also automaticity and prosody (intonation and expression). Practices such as repeated readings and guided oral reading help to establish fluency. In our 3-6 classrooms fluency continues to focus on word recognition and language comprehension. The less a reader needs to focus on word recognition and decoding, the more they can direct their attention to understanding the meaning of the text. 
  • Vocabulary: The core purpose of learning to read is to be able to comprehend and apply what we read. Vocabulary is explicitly taught across the school and is often linked to our core learning areas such as History, Geography, Science or Awareness program. When looking at vocabulary we explore the meaning of words in context and then apply them to reading activities. In our middle and upper classes students explore word origins and the use of suffixes and prefixes to alter the meaning base of words.  A strong vocabulary is essential for comprehension. 
  • Comprehension:  Comprehension is taught through the use of a range of texts which are often linked to our Inquiry investigations. In these lessons we support students with building their background knowledge on a topic, and apply language structure and vocabulary knowledge to enhance their literal and inferential understanding.  We use Scarborough’s Reading Rope to guide the skills we need to build for language comprehension.  Teaching children comprehension strategies such as predicting, summarizing, questioning, and visualizing helps them understand and analyze texts more effectively. 
Nurturing early reading


The Simple View of Reading: what a beginning reader needs to master

At the Daylesford Dharma School, our teachers also use an approach called the simple view of reading (SVR). This approach provides teachers with a tool to understand how students are progressing with the 2 key factors of success: reading accuracy and language comprehension. Once teachers are aware of how students are tracking in these two areas, differentiated teaching can then be developed for students.  Reading is a complex cognitive process. It involves reading accurately and with understanding. The SVR considers both of these factors. Gough and Tumner (1986) developed this simple view of reading, not because reading is a simple process, but rather their model is a conceptually simple representation of what a beginning reader needs to master. So helpful!

Nurturing childhood literacy


Bridging Theory with Practice: a holistic approach to literacy teaching

At our School, we bridge both Science of Learning and Science of Reading theory into practice as we implement educational evidence-based strategies into our classrooms. Our structured literacy approach ensures that students receive explicit and systematic instruction in the key literacy areas of reading, writing and spelling. The reading skills we build with students are then applied and practiced in other aspects of our learning areas such Humanities, Maths and our Awareness program. By fostering a rich literacy environment and providing differentiated instruction tailored to students’ needs, we empower young readers to unlock the complex process of learning to read that supports the joy of learning and can bring academic success and achievements. 

As we continue to refine our literacy program based on the latest research findings, we remain dedicated to equipping our students with the skills and confidence they need to thrive in their reading journey and beyond. Together with our committed educators and supportive parents, we are shaping literate, curious, and lifelong learners who are prepared to navigate the complexities of the world with confidence and competence.

Bridging the Gap: Implementing Effective Strategies at Home

As parents, we play a crucial role in supporting our children’s literacy development. Here are some practical tips for incorporating elements of the Science of Learning and the Science of Reading at home:

Read Aloud: Regular read-aloud sessions provide opportunities for children to hear fluent reading and engage with rich language. Encourage discussions about the story, characters, and plot to promote comprehension.

Phonics Games: Incorporate phonics games and activities into playtime to reinforce letter-sound relationships. Apps, puzzles, and word-building games can make learning phonics fun and interactive.

Vocabulary Games: Word games that support children to increase their vocabulary, find synonyms and antonyms for a word, build new words and create oral stories are not only fun on car trips or walks but are a great way to support their growing vocabulary. The following website has some great simple games to play in the car:

Model Metacognition: Talk to your child about your own reading habits and strategies. Model metacognitive skills by discussing how you choose books, set reading goals, and monitor comprehension while reading. As you read to them model what you do when you come across an unfamiliar word. 

Create a Literacy-Rich Environment: Surround your child with books, magazines, and other reading materials. Designate a cozy reading nook and encourage independent reading time.

Provide Feedback: Offer process praise and encouragement when your child demonstrates reading progress. Provide specific feedback on areas for improvement and celebrate their achievements. See the link below that highlights the approach to feedback used in our classrooms that is linked to the growing body of neuroscience literature we have been learning about and applying at the Dharma school since 2016.