Explicit teaching: It's the only game in town - unfortunately?

Teachers and the public might be bemused by recent reports about:

  • the teaching of reading, We need a reading revolution SMH 12/2/24,
  • fads, Education led astray by fads (SMH 16/2/24), and
  • “explicit” teaching, Style puts students months ahead SMH 1/3/24. These articles, and the research reports that they are based on, claim a solution to the ongoing problems of student achievement, particularly in literacy.

In general, poor literacy standards have led to solutions based on different theories of learning. The current preferred theory is explicit teaching and its supporters have produced an array of studies to support its desired dominance in schools both primary and secondary. An existing approach, inquiry-based learning, has been denigrated and labelled the cause of poor performance.

Christians need to be careful about accepting new learning and teaching innovations which cancel what has gone before, not because they are inherently conservative people, but to be certain that what is being promoted and what is being discarded are consistent with their understanding of the character of God and resulting principles for Christian education. These principles include valuing individual students, providing equal access to the curriculum, understanding that knowledge of God can come through all aspects of the curriculum, the pursuit of truth and serving others.

The newspaper reports that are the subject of this article, all claim to have the answer, explicit teaching, and use widespread endorsements from schools, Department officers and the Minister for Education. They may have part of the answer, but this article questions whether they have “the answer”.


From the late 1980s, NSW through its basic skills tests, monitored student performance in literacy. The results demonstrated just how difficult it was to show any improvement in a whole cohort of students, but smart individual schools could use the diagnostic nature of these results to identify weaknesses in their students learning and adjust their teaching to improve those results. The narrowness of the tests and the importance that many placed on the results, led to continuing debates about their usefulness. Eventually, other states were dragged into this form of assessment and hence the NAPLAN tests.

In the early 1990s, there was a push from some university-based academics for dumping the whole of language approach to teaching reading and to replace it with phonics. When the curriculum officers in the Department were asked for a ministerial briefing about the Department’s approach to reading the response started with the statement The Department’s approach to the teaching of reading is eclectic. This statement wasnot an attempt to appease any of the protagonists, nor to accommodate any innovative teaching that might not be widespread. It was to recognise that different children learn in different ways. Something none of the SMH articles above, and possibly the approaches being advocated, do.

Christian teachers concerned for each student have always sought the best and most effective teaching method for each student. Finding what works for the individual means that they should not be locked into one only method of teaching reading but open to most and focused on what the research says works best.

The Department’s policy on reading and the NSW curriculum have reflected a greater emphasis on phonics and the improved position from the NSW NAPLAN literacy results compared to other states is attributed to this increased focus. While this is true, across a whole system of schools as large as NSW, eclecticism may also be responsible.

How do students learn to read? - a personal reflection.

Reading didn’t come easily to me. In fact, I don’t think that I could read well until Year 7 at high school. A brain injury of a depressed fracture of the skull before turning one year-old had an ongoing impact on the language area of the brain causing the way I learnt to adjust, and this took time. In contrast, my first daughter was different. When in Kindergarten we were unsure about how well she could read when she noticed a delivery box and read Teachers Scotch Whisky. We looked at each other and said, she can read!

When learning to read, not all students learn the same way, but Christians want them to all achieve fluency. When working in India with students in English medium schools, who spoke a variety of native languages, some learnt English quickly while others showed little improvement over long periods of time. The way English was taught was a problem. The teachers used the spelling method, where the teacher, usually with a pointer, had the students read each letter of a word by name, never realising that the name of the letter and its sound were fundamentally different in most cases. These students needed a basic course in phonics. Yet, amongst them were some students with language skills that allowed them to speak English reasonably well. Was it intelligence, a special ability to learn a language the advantage of already speaking two or more languages or their exposure to English speaking people? It was unlikely to be their teachers, who often struggled in English and were resistant to using it outside the classroom.

Students were not lacking in intelligence, and I remember a Year 3 girl demonstrating word attack skills to break up the word anti/dis/es/tab/lish/men/tar/ian/ism. Not bad! The meaning was not an issue, but her ability to recognise syllables and small words within the larger word, to sound them out and not be scared to approach a large word was impressive. Every student can learn and practice these skills that are encouraged and enhanced using phonics.

Then there was whole word learning. Could these students studying English as a second language learn words by simply looking at them, reciting them and then demonstrate learning by reading them in any designated order? Most can, some are better than others and some don’t see the whole word and it doesn’t imprint on their brain (if that is the right phrase.) Using a list with a Kindergarten class nearing the end of the school year is one example – when – where – were – what - why – want. For older students, learning whole words by sight enables them to read and to build up their vocabulary through that reading.

As for spelling, most students have the whole word in their heads, but if not, they can draw on their phonics to help them, but unfortunately about 20 per cent of commonly used English words are not phonetic. For some students, the spelling of many words needs to be explicitly learnt.

These experiences in Indian classrooms convinced me that students learn differently, and each can benefit from an eclectic approach, but one that diagnoses student weaknesses and emphasises the appropriate teaching method to address student differences. It is a pity none of these articles addressed individual differences in the way students learn. Christians need to conduct their own investigation of the literature and evidence before embracing the new and throwing out the old. In NSW, and other Australian states and territories, resources to implement different approaches are available and prospective teachers need to be trained in their use.

In conclusion, the NSW Department’s website has the following: The effective reading in the early years suite includes resources that highlight the role of phonics, phonological awareness, fluency and vocabulary in effective reading instruction as well as classroom-ready teaching strategies. Eclecticism is not yet dead.

What about fads?

A fad is a popular innovation in teaching and learning that gains momentum and draws a following. The implication is that fads are not based on creditable research and are at best attractive, but ineffective in teaching. To label something as a fad is to denigrate it. Fads have a method or style of teaching around them that resist the use of other proven approaches. They may be part of the big picture, but not a basis for teacher lesson planning and implementation. But what about inquiry- based learning which comes under severe criticism in Education led astray by fads. Is it a fad? And in the University of Queensland research style puts students months ahead, is explicit teaching simply a style?

Inquiry-based learning underpins learning in the humanities and is grounded in a vast array of research. It is not a fad. It demonstrates constructivist approaches to teaching that understand knowledge to be independent of the learner who interacts with this knowledge to know and to develop meaning. It involves the construction of quality tasks, whereas traditional education is based on the view that the teacher (possibly the textbook) has the knowledge and needs to put this knowledge into the heads of students. Can you teach history without students grappling with multiple perspectives, social issues, diverse opinions and by analysing and evaluating sources? How would you teach economics without students investigating economic and political alternatives? Constructivist approaches rely on quality tasks involving research and analysis as basic tools for students to learn in the humanities. While inquiry-based learning is foundational to the humanities, it may not be the focus, or most used approach, in other subjects including mathematics and the sciences.

The SMH articles are confusing. They recommend teacher-led instruction and explicit learning and dumping any inquiry-based approaches. They quote the use of leaning theories like cognitive load theory but don’t seem to recognize individual learning differences in the same way. One compliments NSW on mandating phonics within the context of criticising other states and territories and this is likely the main target of that report. Is there no place for inquiry-based learning?

And just what is explicit teaching?

Explicit teaching is an important teaching process, which involves a series of steps whereby the teacher decides the learning intentions and success criteria, makes the intentions and criteria transparent to students and evaluates if they understand what they have been told by checking for understanding. (Google)

*Explicit teaching is an important teaching process, which involves a series of steps whereby the teacher:

  • decides the learning intentions and success criteria
  • makes the intentions and criteria transparent to students
  • evaluates if they understand what they have been told by checking for understanding
  • retells students what they have been told by tying it all together with closure*. (NSW Department of Education website)

Wait a minute! Isn’t this just what we would call good teaching? Throw in a quality constructed task with these criteria and you have what most teachers would consider a thoroughly well-prepared lesson. And doesn’t this description of teaching mirror HSC assessment tasks in practice? Is explicit teaching simply another way of talking about quality teaching?

Explicit teaching is based on research about how students learn. Cognitive load theory is probably the most significant. Advocated by Australian psychologist John Sweller it takes a widely accepted idea that our working memory is limited in what it can process at one time. Information is processed in the working memory, where small amounts of information are stored for a very short time. The average person can only hold about four ‘chunks’ of information in their working memory at one time. Long-term memory is where large amounts of information are stored semi-permanently. Information is stored in the long-term memory in ‘schemas’, which provide a system for organising and storing knowledge. If a student’s working memory is overloaded, there is a risk that they will not understand the content being taught and that their learning will be slow and/or ineffective. (Cognitive load theory: Research that teachers really need to understand, NSW Department of Education website).

The conclusion is that cognitive load theory supports traditional teaching methods and explicit teaching as outlined above.

Explicit teaching verses inquiry-based approaches.

Over the last 10 years, debate has continued about the superiority of explicit teaching over inquiry-based learning. Explicit teaching has gained many followers and the results from research continually demonstrate improved performance when explicit teaching is adopted. However, the studies are not one sided. Inquiry-based advocates have entered the argument with research evidence that highlights some of the advantages of inquiry-based teaching including the development of conceptual knowledge. The literature is full of claims and counter claims by advocates of explicit teaching and inquiry-based learning.

As reported more recently in Mindshift, January 2022 Two groups of scholars revive the debate over inquiry vs. direction instruction, these two seemingly opposing groups (one including John Sweller) have come to an agreement about common ground. Basically, they have agreed that students need a strong foundation of knowledge and skills for inquiry-based learning to be successful and this learning is far more effective when students receive a lot of guidance and feedback. Young students and low achieving students need strong explicit teaching, but the older and brighter students benefit more from inquiry-based approaches. To deny access to inquiry-based learning for these students would be to dumb-down the learning. They also acknowledge the need for elements of both approaches when designing lessons for all students.

Christians need to be aware of these debates to objectively assess the different approaches. The clash of teaching approaches does not have to be. There is a place for both, but not a place for a reliance on one approach only. Good teaching has always embraced elements of both approaches. Eclecticism has much to offer.

Is it just a matter of style?

The University of Queensland research Style puts students months ahead is very one-sided, choosing not to mention any contrary research or aspects of the ongoing debate about explicit teaching and inquiry-based learning. It raises several methodological questions and the labelling of explicit learning as a style and likening it to back to basics as the most effective way to lift results, belittles it.

It is disappointing to read that senior Department officers and the government have seemingly put all their eggs in the one basket – explicit teaching. It may well be that more explicit teaching is needed at every level of schooling and that where it has been integrated into existing practice improvements have been demonstrated. However, denigrating inquiry-based learning, blaming it for current conditions and belittling it with terms like fad and style, ignore the total of research into how students learn.

Summary Those promoting explicit teaching who choose to ridicule inquiry-based learning when they could embrace it within the framework of explicit teaching do themselves a disservice. As with reading, eclecticism provides a way forward to meet the needs of all students. Christians, concerned to embrace best practice to meet the varying needs of students, should not glibly accept the latest approach to teaching without a thorough investigation otherwise, what is reported as the answer might just turn out to be part only. Putting your eggs in one basket can end up with having egg on your face.

John Gore