Government calls inquiry into learning methods for reading The Australian government is to hold an inquiry into the way reading is taught following widespread concerns that too many secondary students are barely literate. Federal Education Minister Brendan Nelson this week said he would ask a team of independent experts to report on the best ways of teaching children to read. But the plan has bitterly divided the education community. Dr Nelson was responding to 26 leading literacy researchers who wrote expressing concerns that a 'whole language' approach to teaching reading was ineffective for many children and had no scientific credibility. The researchers claimed that many teachers themselves struggled with literacy. They referred to a survey of 370 teachers and final-year trainees at a Queensland university which found more than half were unsure of what a syllable was while three-quarters could not correctly count the sounds in words. Dr Nelson said there was widespread anxiety among parents about reading standards: 'There are a lot of parents, it gives me great distress, who are finding out that their children at the age of eight and nine are barely literate.' But the Australian Education Union's federal president, Pat Byrne, said there were strongly held views on both sides of the reading debate. 'You could just as easily get a letter signed by 26 supporters of the whole-language approach,' Ms Byrne said. 'Some children learn with the phonics approach, others with whole-language, and teachers use what works. We would be very concerned if one approach was preferred over the other.' In their letter to the minister, however, the researchers said reading instruction in schools was ineffective for many children because the whole language approach immersed students in a rich variety of texts without specifically teaching letter-sound relationships. They argued that most schools, education departments and teacher training institutions failed to accept the scientific evidence that phonics was crucial for teaching a child to read well. Almost one in four Australian children were not reading adequately by the time they completed primary school, the researchers said. Primary school principals welcomed the inquiry but warned it should not become a witch-hunt. They were also concerned about the large numbers of poor readers who drifted through school without specialist help after completing early remedial programmes. The plan for an inquiry was criticised by state education ministers. Victorian Education Minister Lynne Kosky said the federal government was not responsible for running state schools and Dr Nelson should not be spending tax-payers' money when he had no responsibility for the areas. The Victorian government had initiated a multimillion-dollar programme to improve literacy among children in the first three years of school. Ms Kosky said primary class sizes had been cut to a 30-year low to help teachers focus on basic literacy. For the early primary years, class sizes have fallen from around 30 in the 1970s to 22 today. Deans of education in the nation's 38 universities said they were not convinced a national inquiry into literacy was worth it. 'A raft of research into reading and its relevant learning development already exists,' said the president of the Council of Deans of Education, Professor Terry Lovat.