Schoolkids in teaching’s war of the words
REBECCA URBAN, NATIONAL EDUCATION CORRESPONDENT, The Australian
AUGUST 7, 2018
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All whimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son …”
A rendition of the Lewis Carroll poem Jabberwocky kicked off academic Kathy Rushton’s contribution to a public debate on the merits of using phonics to teach children to read in Sydney last week, leaving some audience members scratching their heads.
Rushton and the education heavyweights on her team — University of Sydney teacher education expert Robyn Ewing and school principal Mark Diamond — were meant to be arguing for a more balanced approach to literacy instruction, in which phonics was taught in the context of a book or poem, even a song.
“Meaning comes first,” she said. That’s a common refrain from whole-language advocates.
But several commentators have since pondered how a child could attempt to read such a poem, with its nonsensical words, without employing the decoding techniques of phonics. And how could they hope to take meaning from a text they could not read?
The event, hosted by the Australian College of Educators and the Centre for Independent Studies, attracted more than 400 people to the Wesley Theatre in Sydney’s CBD. Thousands more watched it via a live web stream.
The reaction on social media and education blogs confirms that the decades-old “reading wars” are still going strong.
On one side are the advocates for phonics, a method of teaching reading and writing that, in simple terms, helps students to “decode” words by sounding them out.
And then there are those who support a whole-language approach, also known as balanced literacy or phonics in context.
Whole language, born from the theories of linguist Noam Chomsky and his contention that language is natural, generative and automatic, has its primary focus on “meaning”. In whole language, students learn words, letters, sounds and skills within a “meaningful context” while reading a book or a poem alongside a parent, carer or teacher. Any employment of phonic techniques is typically incidental rather than systematic.
Proponents, such as Ewing, say learning to read begins long before a child attends school.
In her recent report, titled Exploding SOME of the Myths about Learning to Read: A Review of Research on the Role of Phonics, commissioned by the NSW Teachers Federation, Ewing highlights parental education and socioeconomic status, as well as cultural orientations to reading, as having a significant impact on children’s success in learning to read.
Predictors of reading, she says, also include a language and story-rich home environment, frequent “linguistically rich” interactions between parent and child, lots of books in the home, quality preschool experiences and access to libraries.
“Listening and responding to stories builds vocabulary and grammar knowledge and encourages children to read regularly, which is by far the best way of developing reading ability,” she says.
“Singing, exploring rhymes, chants and all sorts of oral language play also help establish reading as an enjoyable and creative learning experience, as well as establishing the foundations for phonological awareness.’’
Ewing says “75 to 80 per cent” of children do not need explicit instruction in decoding to develop an understanding of letter-sound relationships. “Overusing phonics instruction can impede reading for meaning,” she says.
That approach, whole-language critics say, is akin to leaving learning to read to chance, disadvantaging, in particular, children from poor backgrounds who might not have grown up surrounded by books.
They point to research suggesting about one-third of children will have difficulty learning to read without being systematically taught how to decode written English, and another third will not learn to read at all without it.
Macquarie University’s Anne Castles, a cognitive scientist specialising in reading development, led the pro-phonics team in last week’s debate, where she said it was incorrect to assume children learn to read in the same biological way that they learn to speak.
“Children are born with the ability to acquire spoken language simply through interaction with the environment but we have no such disposition to learning to read,” she says.
However, presented with a library filled with books, they would not naturally begin to decipher the “curves, lines and dots on the page”, she says. “It’s a learned skill that typically requires instruction and our argument is simply that this instruction should include systematic phonics.”
Although neither side says phonetic and decoding skills are not critical or that children shouldn’t be introduced to rich literature early, that has failed to resolve the issue. To complicate matters, there is a debate between researchers who agree systematic phonics instruction is superior but disagree over which type.
Traditionally, children were taught to read using analytic phonics, a method that involved analysing a word by taking clues from recognition of the whole word, the initial sound and the context. It is, however, considered to be a hit-and-miss approach.
Centre for Independent Studies senior research fellow Jennifer Buckingham, another participant in last week’s debate, believes synthetic, systematic phonics has “the strongest research support”.
Involving explicit instruction, SSP involves teachers building phonic skills from the smallest sounds (graphemes). Children are then taught to blend sounds (“c-a-t equals cat”) as well as segment (“Sound out this word for me”).
While the Australian curriculum highlights importance of students developing phonological and phonemic awareness and alphabet and phonic knowledge, it does not mandate a particularly method, or pedagogy, for teaching.
Buckingham last year chaired a review into phonics instruction on behalf of the federal government and found reading — and phonics — instruction varied widely across the country. She encountered many schools that claimed to be teaching phonics explicitly and systematically, but were not.
“Numerous reviews of scientific studies of reading have recommended that early reading instruction should have a well-developed systematic and explicit phonics component,” she wrote in her final report. “The extent to which education academics, principals, and teachers have adopted this message remains uneven.”
Such an ad hoc approach has been blamed in part for Australia’s recent poor results in national and international assessments.
According to the latest Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, 19 per cent of Australian children in Year 4 did not achieve the intermediate benchmark, described as a “challenging but reasonable expectation”. The latest NAPLAN test reveals only 21 per cent of Australia’s Year 9 students achieved age-expected proficiency in reading. Almost 44 per cent of Australians aged 15 and above are considered functionally illiterate, meaning they struggle with the literacy skills needed for everyday life.
Following Buckingham’s review, the federal government announced a push for nationwide consistent phonics screening at Year 1. So far, only South Australia has accepted the challenge.
Ewing, in her report for the NSW Teachers Federation, argues against the need for a check, claiming her review of the current policy prospects around the teaching of synthetic phonics, together with reading research over the past two decades, found “no clear advantage” for either analytical or synthetic phonics.
She does concede, however, a documented advantage for “systematic teaching of any given phonics approach alongside other clearly established known strategies that foster the development children’s reading”.
Her conclusion: “The costly introduction of a phonics check for all Australian six-year-olds is not supported by research.”
Another member of the Buckingham-chaired review panel, La Trobe University’s Pamela Snow, is disappointed the debate continues and is critical of what she describes “education’s casual relationship with generating, critiquing and applying evidence”.
“Ideas are translated into practice in education on a whim, especially if they have a popular psychology ring to them,” she tells The Australian. “In health, new interventions must go through a rigorous evaluation and trial process before being adopted en masse. In education, it’s a case of ‘choose your own adventure’.”
Snow says much of the research supporting SSP comes from other disciplines, such as cognitive psychology and speech pathology. “Some education academics adopt a talk-to-the-hand approach to research findings published out of paradigm and many claim that people who have never been classroom teachers have no place in the argument at all,” she says. “This is intellectually unsophisticated.”
Snow has also taken issue with claims made during the debate, and frequently in education circles, that the proposed phonics check would amount to yet another “high-stakes” test adding to the pressure on children.
“We have a teaching workforce that was itself largely the result of whole-language classrooms and this applies in large part to education academics too,” she says.
“So even if the federal government were to decree tomorrow that we are going to teach phonics explicit, we neither have an academic workforce nor a teaching one that is equipped to make the change. This may be part of the reason that teaching unions are so opposed to initiatives such as the phonics screening check — the results will potentially shine a light on what’s really going on in classrooms. The check is not high- stakes for children but it is for the teaching workforce.”
Despite resistance, there are signs things are changing.
The NSW Department of Education is rolling out professional learning for teachers in the explicit teaching of reading.
“This professional learning uses evidence and research-based approaches to literacy that meets the needs of all students, including synthetic phonics,” a department spokesman says.
In addition, a team of 50 literacy and numeracy experts is being recruited to support NSW teachers following on from a decision — welcomed by phonics advocates such as Buckingham — to axe the controversial $50 million Reading Recovery program, which was found to be ineffective.
And, since 2015, all accredited primary teaching degrees are required to provide explicit and systematic teaching of reading, including content specific to phonemic awareness and systematic phonics instruction.
Buckingham is pleased with recent developments in the Northern Territory and Western Australia. She says many NT teachers are using synthetic phonics, particularly in remote schools, and the WA government recently provided $32m in funding to support explicit phonics instruction in schools in the Kimberley and Pilbara to close the attainment gap for indigenous students.
Victorian teacher and PhD candidate Greg Ashman has a special interest in education research and has recently published a book, The Truth about Teaching, which examines evidenced-based education practices, taking a detailed look at the phonics debate.
“There is little that is more rancorous than a discussion of phonics in education,” he says.
While Ashman makes it clear in his book that the “available evidence” suggests “SSP is generally superior to other approaches to teaching phonics”, he tells The Australian there is a valid argument to be had about the quality of the studies and lack of gold-standard, randomised controlled trials that support the premise.
“This is further complicated by the fact that phonics has evolved a great deal over recent years and so earlier research (has not been conducted) into what we would now describe as SSP,” he says.
“However, once you have absolutely loads and loads of evidence that points one way … reasonable people take a view.”
Ashman says a barrier to wider acceptance of the research is the personal experiences of teachers. “Teachers hang on to things that they have found useful or gotten comfortable with,” he says.
Rushton rammed this point home last week, declaring “I’m not a scientist, I’m a schoolteacher” when asked by an audience member whether her side had researched what occurs in the brain of a child when they learn to read.
She said her view had been formed by years in the classroom, watching children struggle as they learned to read, and she worried about those children who would be lumped with decodable readers such as The Tot and the Pot — held up and read out by Diamond moments earlier, apparently for the purposes of ridicule — and never given the chance to advance to more rewarding literature.
Buckingham struggles to hide her exasperation at the claim. “We have not argued that children should learn phonics first and you lock all the books in a cupboard until they’ve learn their letter sounds,” she says. That’s not what we’re saying.”
Castles says teaching systematic phonics was simply about giving kids the tools to go out and read what they want.
“If we teach kids phonics, teach them how to crack the code … they can get from the sound of the word to the meaning, which of course is the most important thing.”
The Centre for Independent Studies’ FIVE from FIVE program, which is free, has, contrary to claims that phonics advocates are typically motivated by commercial interests, identified phonics and phonemic awareness as just two of the five necessary skills required for effective reading, alongside fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. An effective high-quality literacy program should include all five components, Buckingham says.
For the parents of children who have struggled with learning to read, the claims of Ewing and Rushton are particularly grating.
Dyslexia awareness advocate Belinda Dekker recalls doing “all the right things” as a parent. She talked to, read books and sang songs to her daughter from the moment she was born, creating that so-called prime foundation for literacy development.
However, by Year 2 her daughter still could not read independently, which was creating much anxiety. A diagnosis of dyslexia — a cognitive disorder that involves difficulty learning to read or interpret words, letters and other symbols, affecting up to 10 per cent of the population — soon followed.
Ironically, Dekker says, one of the most effective ways to assist dyslexics to learn to read is through explicit phonics instruction, which was not a part of the teaching pedagogy at her daughter’s school.
So, like many families in similar situations, they hired a private tutor. Within six months her daughter could read, spell and write at the expected level for her age. Now, aged 13, she is a prolific reader and writer.
A director of SPELD NSW, a dyslexia support group with more than 10,000 members, Dekker says parents are tired of being held responsible for their children’s inability to read.
“Most of them are good parents who read to their children from birth, yet their children still struggled with reading,” she says. “The research shows us that 97 per cent of children, even those with dyslexia, will learn to read through explicit phonics instruction.
“The problem is teachers are not teaching it, or they’re not teaching it well enough.”
Ashman says he dedicated a chapter of his book to the phonics row because it captures the education debate more widely.
“It pits science against semi-mystical invocations of ‘authenticity and ‘meaning-making’,” he says. “We will know that we have finally become a profession when debates likes this no longer represent genuine differences in the methods we use.”https://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/i ... 245bc76ab8