Rebecca Urban's article in The Australian
notes that New Zealand teachers are increasingly getting on board with phonics provision but may still lack the level of professional knowledge that they need to maximise their effectiveness:
By Rebecca Urban
May 17th 2018
New Zealand teachers defy policy with push for phonics
Researchers from New Zealand’s Massey University found that 90 per cent of more than 660 primary school teachers reported employing phonics-style methods in their literacy instruction.
Teachers in New Zealand are defying longstanding education policy on literacy and using phonics programs to teach children how to read, with a vast majority of converts reporting more confident and capable readers as a result.
In a first of its kind study, to be published today in the Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, researchers from New Zealand’s Massey University found that 90 per cent of more than 660 primary school teachers reported employing phonics-style methods in their literacy instruction.
And of the teachers surveyed, 84 per cent reported considerable benefits, such as improved reading ability, increased confidence in reading and writing, and a boost to literacy achievement across the classroom as a whole.
The study, which was funded in part by the New Zealand Ministry of Education, could have implications for education policy in Australia, which, like New Zealand, has seen reading proficiency among primary-aged students fall over recent years.
The federal government is currently pushing the states and territories to introduce a mandatory test of phonics skills for Year 1 students in a bid to arrest the decline. Education Minister Simon Birmingham is expected to use upcoming funding negotiations to press his case for the tests.
Massey University professor James Chapman, who led the study, said anecdotal evidence had suggested that, despite New Zealand education policy favouring a whole-language approach to literacy instruction, teachers were increasingly resorting to using varying degrees of phonics. And while the study confirmed this, finding that 68 per cent had embedded it in all literacy lessons, a related survey also found teachers had a mixed understanding of the literacy-related language structures required for effective teaching, meaning for many their ability to teach phonics effectively was constrained.
More than 50 different commercial phonics programs were found to be in use across the public schools surveyed; many of them lacking sound research to support them.
“Teachers know they should be using phonics and they are doing their best,” Professor Chapman said. “The system has been letting them down.”
Centre for Independent Studies senior research fellow Jennifer Buckingham said the study was relevant to Australia, where, although phonics was embedded in the curriculum, how well it was taught varied across the country.
She said many studies had found graduate teachers were emerging from training with a weak knowledge of the structures of the English language, while a large proportion of Australian early primary school teachers were not familiar with basic linguistic concepts.
“That’s one of the aims of the phonics check; to investigate if there is a weakness there and, if so, identify where those weaknesses are,” Dr Buckingham said.
Professor Chapman said Australia’s bid to introduce phonics screening was a “good move”, having worked well in Britain.
He said despite teachers’ best intentions, literacy levels in New Zealand were unlikely to improve unless teachers were given more support to increase their knowledge and skills in literacy instruction.