Five minutes of phonics to lift child literacy levels
November 24, 2016
A simple five-minute process could detect at an early stage all those Australian schoolchildren who are at serious risk of struggling with reading skills — and how to help them.
To read proficiently, students need accurate and fluent word identification skills and adequate language comprehension. Put simply, they must be able to work out what the words on the page or screen are and know what they mean.
The most effective way to develop accurate and fluent word identification is to learn the code of written English through being taught phonics —―the relationships between sounds in speech and the letter patterns in written words in an explicit and systematic way. This is one of the best-established findings in educational research.
Unfortunately, literacy policies and programs in use in Australian schools do not consistently incorporate evidence-based, effective phonics instruction.
Numerous studies have shown many teachers do not have the necessary knowledge and skills to teach in this way, and there is low confidence among principals in the ability of graduate teachers to teach reading.
Documents produced by peak organisations such as the Australian Literacy Educators Association and the Primary English Teaching Association Australia show they do not support explicit, systematic phonics instruction.
It is difficult to explain precisely the resistance to such a well-proven method. However, it seems to stem from a combination of ideological attachment to social theories of literacy, a rejection of the primacy of scientific evidence on how children learn, and vested interests in entrenched reading programs.
Whatever the reason, the result is that among English-speaking countries, Australia has one of the largest proportions of children who do not achieve minimum standards in literacy by Year 4.
The only way to accurately determine whether children are learning the fundamental phonics skills they need for early acquisition of reading — before the achievement gaps become difficult to close — is to assess what they know at a critical early point in their schooling.
The Australian government proposed a phonics check for Year 1 students in its May budget. Education Minister Simon Birmingham has since reiterated the government’s intention to introduce the check in Australian schools.
There is a strong precedent for this policy. The British government introduced a Year 1 phonics screening check in primary schools in 2012. The proportion of students reaching the expected standard in the Year 1 phonics screening check has increased since its introduction from 58 per cent in 2012 to 81 per cent this year. The proportion of students failing to achieve the expected standard in Year 2 reading tests has fallen by one-third across the same period, from 15 per cent to 10 per cent. The literacy attainment gap associated with socioeconomic disadvantage has narrowed to the same degree.
The phonics screening check is not an exam. It is not high stakes and is not onerous for students or schools.
Several Australian schools voluntarily are using the British phonics screening check already to inform their teaching. The check takes five to seven minutes per student to administer by a teacher.
In Britain, overall results are reported at a national level. Individual school results are not published but are taken into consideration in school inspection reports.
The check comprises 40 items, all of which are phonetically decodable words. The check has two sections, each of which has 20 items progressing from easier to harder. There are 20 real words and 20 pseudo-words. Pseudo-words are included because pupils will not have encountered them before and therefore will not be able to read them as remembered “sight” words.
The British Year 1 phonics screening check could easily be adopted for use in Australian schools with some simple adaptations and improvements that would increase its positive impact without increasing its cost.
A Year 1 phonics screening check would be an effective and cost-effective measure to demonstrate how well phonics is being taught nationwide and in individual schools, and would drive improvements in teaching. At the student level, it would provide early identification of students who are struggling with this essential foundational reading skill and need intervention or further specialist assessment.
Jennifer Buckingham is a senior research fellow and director of the Five from Five reading project at the Centre for Independent Studies. Her report Focus on Phonics: Why Australia Should Adopt the Year 1 Phonics Screening Check is published today (http://www.cis.org.au