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A better read on literacy

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A better read on literacy

A Coast lawyer-turned-educator says that creating flexible learning environments and focusing on individual student needs to encourage reading will go a long way to reversing current education shortfalls. WORDS: Candice Holznagel.

Educator Natalie Pryor was five when she unearthed her love for reading. The Little Golden Book, Let’s Go Shopping, stole her young heart, eventually leading to a successful career in all things words.

“Whenever I read as a child, it was a beautiful escape. I saw those books as movies in my head – all the detail,” Natalie shares.

Today, that Little Golden Book hangs proudly on the wall in her Caloundra studio, where she spends her days working with children to increase their literacy skills and boost their confidence in the classroom. Her husband Aaron tracked down an original copy and gifted it to Natalie for their anniversary. It reminds her daily of the importance of reading for joy and the importance of family – two things she values deeply.

“During the past few years, I have fallen back into the habit of reading for joy and have been reminded that it’s important to read for the fulfilment, not just for study and learning purposes,” she tells My Weekly Preview.

“In my previous career as a lawyer, I was required to read case law and textbooks. Working in litigation, the most important element relating to literacy is understanding the impact of words and the effect they can have on sentences and contracts.

“You have to be precise in your languages and be particular with your reading and writing. It does take the enjoyment out of reading and focus on a different skill set.”

It was following the birth of her first child, now aged 10, that Natalie realised her career in law no longer aligned with her core values.

And so, following the birth of her second child, Natalie began studying for her Masters in Primary Education.

“It was a huge jump from law into doing something that I was purely passionate about. I knew this was where my heart was. People thought I was taking a step backwards in my career. In truth, I was taking a step forward into who I wanted to be and how I wanted to help as an educator.”

Naturally, being the bookworm that she is, Natalie specialised in literacy.

Always the learner, she committed to additional courses outside her university degree and secured a position with an independent Sunshine Coast school, working in literacy intervention.

It was here that she realised there was a discrepancy between how children should be learning and the education curriculum.

The curriculum has come under fire in recent months, with a focus on the obvious need for early intervention in literacy.

The 2023 NAPLAN test results – the first to be released under the new measurement scale – show that an ‘alarming’ number of Australian students are not on track with their learning, research from the Grattan Institute reports. A peak independent body that produces public policy recommendations, the institute states that about one-in-three students in Australia failed to reach expectations in reading, writing and numeracy.

The new scale is based on four categories. Students in the ‘needs additional support’ and ‘developing’ categories sit below expectations. The other two categories include ‘exceeding’ and ‘strong’.

The NAPLAN data indicated that 23 per cent of students sat in the ‘developing’ bracket, while 10 per cent were in the ‘needs additional support’ category. More than 40 per cent of Year 3 and Year 9 students fell short in grammar and punctuation.

In addition, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which tests knowledge and skills essential for work and life, shows that two-in-five students do not meet the Australian national proficiency standard in reading or writing by the time they are 15.

The statistics are sobering. For Natalie, it is more evidence that early intervention and additional support are needed to ensure children are securing important foundational skills.

“My whole purpose of moving into education was to align with my values of helping children,” she says.

“I wanted to tailor learning individually to kids. Our teachers are doing the absolute best they can with the resources and support they have. The reality is that while most teachers would love the opportunity to connect with and work one on one with a student, it is not possible.”

Natalie launched Hidden Key Literacy Services in 2022. In a short 12 months, Hidden Key has grown to cater for children of all abilities, many of whom do not thrive in a traditional education setting.

“This is an overarching education problem,” Natalie says of Australia’s literacy shortfalls.

“It is a top-down issue. Experts weigh in that this is not a problem with the teachers, it is a problem with the institution itself. Teachers already have too much on their plate.

“We are in a society where people now have a focus on diagnosis and early intervention, which is absolutely fantastic. Unfortunately, the expectation is often on school teachers to tailor programs and support needs for each individual child.

“In an ideal world, that would be amazing. In reality, classroom sizes are too big.”

So, what exactly is the solution? For parents, the key is to take matters into their own hands by introducing more home-based activities and seeking support from educators outside of the school grounds. Of course, finding what works for your child helps, too.

Natalie says parents are often surprised by how well their child can work in a flexible environment.

“At our studio, we have created an environment that has a multi-sensory approach where movement is allowed and there are short but frequent breaks.

“Kids don’t want to feel like they are in a traditional classroom setting. They are open to learning and engaging more when they can move and their learning styles are understood.”

As a mother to children with additional needs, Natalie is also focused on providing researched, evidence-based programs that specifically support children with ADHD, autism, auditory processing disorder and dyslexia.

“Kids are reaching for an iPad before they are reaching for a book. Obviously, it is important for today’s children to be tech-savvy, but it is equally important to understand language,” she says.

“The spoken language is inherently built into humans. Reading is not.

“Speaking is survival. Reading is a man-made construct – and the English language is very complicated.

“We need more emphasis on this.

“We need to empower kids from all backgrounds by acknowledging that it is difficult and yet teach them in a way that is scientifically proven to embed the knowledge.”

Crack the reading code: how to get your kids to read

Dr Lillian Fawcett is the creator of the Cracking the ABC Code. She is an accredited Dyslexia-SPELD specialist teacher and has additional qualifications in psychology. Her evidence-based literacy programs take a multi-sensory approach. Here are her five steps to help reluctant readers pick up a book and start reading.

  1. Choose a book from a series and read the first two chapters to them. If they enjoy the book, chances are they will want to continue with the rest of the series.
  2. Ask your child to read the next one or two pages to you. You can help when they struggle, but don’t make it a reading lesson. That takes the fun out of reading.
  3. Leave the room after gently encouraging your child to continue reading silently for five minutes. The goal here is to gradually increase the time as the days go on. This step will help your child become an independent reader.
  4. Return to the room and continue reading from wherever your child is up to until the end of the chapter. Don’t quiz or question them. Simply read from the point they identify in the book. If you have time, read another chapter. Dr Fawcett says this is a critical step in the process as it hooks the child into the story. It also provides a good model of reading and helps the child finish the book quickly, which is more incentive.
  5. Repeat steps 2-4 every day until the book is finished. Then start the process over with the second book in the series.

Tip: Try to read at a similar time each day, such as bedtime. This helps reading become habitual.

For more tips, visit the website: crackingtheabccode.com.

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Candice's passion for journalism led her to the Sunshine Coast 12 years ago where she has worked across multiple media and communication platforms. An avid traveller (she lists Paris, Venice and Vietnam as her faves), this mum of one loves meeting with people from all walks of life and finds inspiration within their stories. Candice joined the team in 2014 and is MWP's editor.

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