Armed with warm coffees and puffer coats, 260 educators filed into the auditorium at Merici College. On a Saturday.
Fresh from five days in the classroom, teachers attended the first Sharing Best Practice conference held in Canberra on September 9.
The grassroots, not-for-profit organisation is focused on showing educators how research on the science of reading and science of learning can be translated into the classroom.
Sharing Best Practice committee member Jessica Colleu Terradas said the organisers had to turn people away from the sold-out conference.
"It's very pleasing to see that many educators turning up on a Saturday and giving up their time," she said.
She said the science of learning has been around for decades and yet many teachers are still in the dark about how to apply it in their classrooms.
Some are even discouraged from using the science of reading to teach basic literacy skills.
"There might be a bit of a polarisation between the whole language approach and then the synthetic phonics approach," she said.
"Here we're promoting highly-structured literacy approaches."
Experts from around the country volunteered their time at the conference to feed the hunger from the profession to learn more about best practice for teaching literacy and numeracy.
Whole language vs reading science
South Australian speech pathologist Dr Bartek Rajkowski kicked off the conference with an impassioned presentation on why a knowledge of phonics is critical to teaching spelling.
"English is an alphabetic language meaning that the letters in the language represent the speech sounds," Dr Rajkowski said.
"So understanding that relationship is a very, very powerful tool for teaching yourself to read for teaching yourself new words and for understanding how spelling works."
However, the dominant method Australian schools use to teach children to read is known as whole language or balanced literacy.
"This is really what we call a constructivist approach to the teaching of reading, which means that we kind of surround kids with books and assume that they're going to teach themselves to read when in fact, reading is something that research has shown is best taught explicitly," Dr Rajkowski said.
Many students will crack the code themselves, but others will not.
In his practice, Dr Rajkowski sees some of the students who have the greatest difficulties learning to read. But with the right instruction - systematic synthetic phonics - they can make significant gains.
One of his students, Dylan, could not read or spell when he started high school. But with a lot of determination and high-quality intervention, he made great improvements and is now in a mechanical engineering degree at university.
"Certainly getting to university is not the be all and end all of achievement, but the fact that a student like Dylan who had such profound difficulties at that age, was able to make that progress is a very good example of just what's possible with with the right type of intervention."
South Australia's Literacy Guarantee Unit
Steering the ship around towards a science-based approach is not an easy feat.
South Australia was the first Australian jurisdiction to roll out a mandatory year 1 phonics check in 2018. The state has seen great improvement in its results each year. Only 43 per cent of students met the benchmark in 2018 but this rose to 63 per cent four years later.
Clare Harris manages South Australia's Literacy Guarantee Unit which was also established in 2018. She oversees 28 literacy coaches who go into schools to help teachers align to best practice.
"What we've learned the hard way is that it just has to be entirely opt in," she said.
"The principal has to be on board and there has to be some teachers in the school who are willing to be coached because you can't force your way into someone's classroom. It's a very, very relational exercise."
The coaches give teachers the research and evidence base for the techniques but they also come into their classrooms to show them how it works.
Ms Harris said teachers can be resistant to the science of reading.
"[Some teachers say] 'it's kill and drill, it's boring.' So a lot of the work my coaches do is helping teachers see that it can be fast-paced and engaging and that it should be fast paced and engaging," she said.
"There's some really fantastic decodable readers out there. You can make anything boring. You can make anything engaging ... I'm convinced teaching is performance art."
The most exciting moment for the unit is seeing the lift in the phonics screening check results in the schools that have been working with the literacy coaches.
Ms Harris said there was a momentum in South Australia since the switch in policy.
"We're not stopping. We're still funded and we're continuing the work," she said.
All Catholic systemic schools now have the common goal of implementing consistent teaching based on the science of reading and the science of learning.
ACT public schools have a lot of autonomy when it comes to how they teach students to read, but some have begun heavily investing in evidence-based practices.
At the Sharing Best Practice conference, 88 attendees were from ACT public schools, including Monash, Mount Roger and Lyneham Primary Schools.
Senior officials from the Education Directorate also attended the conference.
Some Parents and Citizens committees have offered to purchase decodable readers for their schools.
Miss Colleu Terradas said the Sharing Best Practice conference was mainly speaking to the converted but there seemed to be growing interest in how to translate research into the classroom.
"It's not new, but I can see there's a momentum about evidence-based practice ... around the ACT," she said.
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