MultiLit co-founder and chairman Professor Kevin Wheldall AM has been honoured for his pioneering research into language and reading instruction with the 2023 Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties’ Eminent Researcher Award.
Presented by Learning Difficulties Australia on October 14, the award acknowledges that Professor Wheldall’s research has changed countless children’s lives over many years and continues to do so.
The former director of Macquarie University’s Special Education Centre was one of the first researchers to flag concerns about the ineffectiveness of the popular reading intervention program, Reading Recovery, more than 30 years ago.
In accepting the prestigious prize, Professor Wheldall reflected on a research career spanning more than five decades and how his views were not always popular, especially in the early days.
“Whole language methods of teaching reading were well and truly entrenched when I commenced my career and we were very much going against the tide, despite strong emerging evidence around the importance of explicit teaching of phonics skills to children,” he said.
“While there have been difficulties over the years, I have been encouraged and pleased to see more and more schools and school systems embracing evidence-based practice in relation to the teaching of reading.
“Things have changed a great deal, particularly in certain states in Australia, however for some jurisdictions, there’s still a way to go.”
Professor Wheldall, who was born in the United Kingdom and moved to Australia in 1990, is the author of more than 350 academic books, chapters, and journal articles in the fields of educational psychology and Special Education.
He has previously served as President of Learning Difficulties Australia and was Executive Editor of LDA Publications, editing both the Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties and the LDA Bulletin.
He was commissioned by the NSW Department of Education in 1993 to evaluate Reading Recovery — a whole language-based program providing one-on-one tutoring to struggling readers – only to find that it worked for only one in three students.
That evaluation was never published by the department, however, prompting Professor Wheldall to release the research through academic publications and conferences.
The NSW Government eventually abandoned a $55 million-a-year program in 2016 – 23 years after the Sydney-based researcher first blew the whistle.
Professor Wheldall, whose research spans student behaviour, language comprehension, and reading acquisition, originally established MultiLit as a research initiative within Macquarie University in the mid-1990s. He later co-founded MultiLit, the company, when it spun out of the university in 2006 to provide resources for schools to support evidence-based teaching of reading at the classroom level to prevent students from falling through the cracks and requiring intervention.
“It’s fair to say that MultiLit was borne out of frustration with ineffective instruction in reading and related skills,” he said.
“By employing a rigorous, intensive, systematic, skills-based program of instruction, we have demonstrated repeatedly that low-progress readers can show extraordinary growth and we now have programs that make it possible for most non-readers or low-progress older readers to reach, at the very least, functional literacy.”
Professor Wheldall said he was honoured and delighted to receive the Eminent Researcher Award of the Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties.
“The journal has been close to my heart for many years and so this award is especially sweet,” he said.
“I would also like to thank the very many colleagues who have contributed to my work and supported important research over the years.
“As I reflect on what have I learned from my 50 years or so involvement in research, I’d say: follow the evidence; find your tribe; be prepared to be unpopular; learn from one another; be patient; and keep on keeping on.
“Persistence is key to making a difference.”
Read about the LDA 2023 Award Recipients here.