Understanding the evidence

When school leaders know the evidence on how students learn to read, and understand the implications, they can support teachers to implement best practice literacy instruction to improve student outcomes. This includes:

  • cognitive load theory
  • explicit instruction
  • a whole-school curriculum approach
  • the six key components required for reading development, known as the Big Six
  • a systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) approach to phonics instruction.

Evidence and research

Cognitive load theory

Cognitive load theory is a model that explains how we learn new information. It is centred around an understanding of how information is processed and stored.

In the school context, when students are presented with new information they use their working memory to process it. Working memory, however, can only hold a small amount of new information at any one time. It has limited space. Because of this, students learn best when taught small chunks of new information. If they are given too much at one time, students become overloaded and cannot learn.

When students apply knowledge and practise skills, this new information becomes stored in their long-term memory, which has an unlimited capacity. Once information is stored here, working memory is freed up to process the next chunk of new information.

The key implication is to be mindful of students’ cognitive load, and to ensure we teach new knowledge, concepts and skills in a way that does not overload students. To do this, teachers need to understand the principles of explicit instruction and plan their lessons accordingly.

Find out more about cognitive load theory and its implications for teaching:

This NSW Department of Education webpage links to a 2017 report by the NSW Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation. The report provides detailed information about cognitive load theory and the evidence that supports it.

This NSW Department of Education webpage links to a 2018 report by the NSW Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation. The report provides ideas on how teachers can incorporate the principles of cognitive load theory into their instruction. It gives examples for each of seven key strategies that support teachers to plan instruction that aligns with cognitive load theory.

This article by Dr Ollie Lovell, published in the Learning Difficulties Australia Bulletin, explores cognitive load theory and how this affects learning and teaching. It includes several detailed examples of how instructional recommendations can be put into practice.

This NSW Department of Education 32-minute audio recording explains what cognitive load is, how human brains learn, the implications for teaching practices and practical ideas for implementation.

Explicit instruction

Explicit instruction is a best practice approach to teaching that reflects research about how students learn and process new information, as explained by cognitive load theory. Because of this, explicit instruction is an effective teaching practice that has a positive effect on student outcomes.

Explicit instruction reflects research about how students learn because it involves:

  • breaking down concepts and skills into smaller chunks
  • demonstrating and explaining concepts and skills using worked examples
  • providing students with ample opportunities to accurately practise skills
  • planning lessons with an achievable focus that is shared with students.

Find out more about explicit instruction and the evidence base that supports this teaching model with these resources:

This Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO) webpage outlines the key evidence-based practices involved in explicit instruction. The article provides practical ways teachers can incorporate key principles into their practice. It supports the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, Focus area 3.3: Use teaching strategies.

This rubric, created by the Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO), breaks down key capabilities that contribute to explicit instruction by outlining the various criteria involved and how this looks in practice.

This Five from Five webpage outlines what explicit instruction is, summarises key research findings, and provides a list of related references and further reading suggestions.

Use these resources to support your school to plan and implement lessons that are aligned with explicit instruction principles:

This Literacy Hub professional learning topic supports teachers to learn more about the principles of explicit instruction and explains how to plan and implement phonics lessons following these principles. This material includes background information, webinar recordings, prompts for putting learning into action and resources for practical implementation.

This Literacy Hub document outlines the attributes of evidence-informed phonics instruction, which align with the principles of explicit instruction. This resource includes a flowchart outlining the steps involved in a phonics lesson and review, highlighting how the I do, We do and You do components are incorporated. You will also find a sample phonics lesson and examples of skill application tasks.

This ready-to-use slide pack from the Literacy Hub is a sample interactive phonics lesson, aligned with an explicit instruction model. This resource is supported by the sample phonics worksheet (beginner). A sample lesson and worksheet are also available at the standard level: sample phonics lesson (standard); sample worksheet (standard).

Whole-school curriculum approach

Best practice evidence informs school leaders and teachers that a whole-school curriculum approach to planning and teaching benefits students and teachers. A whole-school curriculum approach:

  • increases student learning through building on knowledge and skills in a planned, logical sequence
  • ensures all students receive high-quality instruction
  • reduces gaps in student learning
  • reduces planning time for teachers
  • provides teachers and students with whole-school, quality resources
  • increases teacher knowledge through a shared language and expertise.

Find out more about the benefits of a whole-school approach and how to implement it in your school:

This Grattan Institute guide outlines the evidence for whole-school curriculum planning. It details the key elements of a whole-school curriculum approach and outlines the steps that school leaders can take to make this approach a part of their school culture.

This Grattan Institute report outlines recommendations for improving curriculum planning in schools and provides case studies that illustrate success in whole-school curriculum planning.

The Big Six

Over past decades, a large body of evidence has been gathered from thousands of scientific studies about how children learn to read. A key conclusion from these studies is that it is best practice to incorporate six key elements, known as the Big Six, into literacy instruction.

The Big Six (oral language, phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension) should be planned for and explicitly taught.

The Australian National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy (published in 2005) found that:

  • teachers should provide instruction in an integrated way that develops students’ oral language, vocabulary, grammar, fluency and comprehension skills
  • phonics should be taught in a systematic, explicit way so children can master code-breaking skills.

The US National Reading Panel (published in 2000) report found that:

  • to become proficient readers, students must develop phonemic awareness, phonics skills, fluency and the ability to comprehend
  • explicit instruction in phonemic awareness is essential
  • phonics that is taught explicitly through a systematic synthetic approach has better results than other types of phonics instruction.

Find out more about the evidence supporting best practice literacy instruction:

This article by the Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO) provides an overview of what the evidence tells us about how children learn to read, and what this means for how reading should be taught. The article outlines the key components required for students to learn to read and provides an explanation of the Simple View of Reading model.

This paper by Deslea Konza from Edith Cowan University uses the Big Six as a framework to examine the key components required to effectively teach children to read. Konza discusses each of the six elements and explains why they are a vital part of the reading process.

Jocelyn Seamer presents this 13-minute Literacy Hub video on the research base of structured literacy. She summarises evidence from key reports into how children learn to read and gives an overview of John Sweller’s cognitive load theory and Stanislas Dehaene’s Four Pillars of Learning Framework.

Systematic synthetic phonics (SSP)

Evidence supports the systematic, explicit teaching of phonics as a key component of reading instruction. Best practice phonics instruction involves teaching word recognition skills using a systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) approach.

The Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading (often known as the Rose Report; published in 2006) found that:

  • students should be able to recognise letters, know the sounds of letters and be able to blend letters together before they progress to developing further reading skills
  • the English language is a complex system that students cannot work out themselves; therefore, decoding skills must be taught so that students understand the alphabetic principle
  • phonics should be taught systematically, regularly and explicitly.

Read about other evidence supporting teaching phonics using an SSP approach.

This report from the National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy (published in 2005) includes recommendations for the effective teaching of reading, including that phonics should be taught explicitly and systematically.

This research-based report provides an outline of key findings and recommendations, and includes detailed information as to why teaching phonics is an essential element of early reading instruction.

This paper by Deslea Konza from Edith Cowan University focuses on the teaching of phonics and what best practice phonics teaching looks like. The paper provides guidance on how to teach phonics systematically.

This comprehensive list of reports on the Five from Five website will help you find out more about the evidence that supports best practice literacy instruction.