Phonics makes a comeback as a sound foundation of learning
Rebecca Urban, The Australian, 23 January, 2021
When Brooke Wardana strolled into class on her first day as a new teacher, any nerves were quickly tempered by a youthful optimism that her Year 2 charges were going to thrive.
Inspired by a “student-centred” approach to learning — in line with the “constructivism” philosophy of education woven through her university course — she set about creating an aesthetically pleasing learning environment where students would have every opportunity to build their own knowledge and skills through stimulating play and experimentation.
Even in the case of reading — a cognitively demanding task for a novice learner — the prevailing thinking was to surround a child with quality literature and they would learn to read.
But, as the new teacher quickly discovered, many of her students did not. By the end of the first term, Wardana was sitting in her principal’s office, talking about quitting as she fought back tears.
“I so wanted to be the best teacher I could be,” she says. “I was doing all the things I’d been told at uni and it was quite disheartening that I wasn’t seeing very much gain in the students’ learning. I thought perhaps it was me; that I just wasn’t a good teacher.”
Thirteen years on, Wardana is still teaching but in a very different way. So prized is her expertise and skill in early reading instruction, the Perth-based educator travels around the country helping other schools and teachers improve their own teaching.
What saved her career was being introduced to a more experienced teacher at her school who invited her to observe her lessons. The colleague also would watch Wardana teach and the pair would share feedback. The first thing Wardana noticed was that the senior teacher had an “old-school” approach to teaching. She took on an instructional role in her classes as she explained and demonstrated the concepts to students in a step-by-step manner before giving them the opportunity to practise what they had learned.
The key skills for reading, including phonics and decoding, were taught explicitly and systematically, with nothing left to chance. When Wardana took what she had learned and tried to emulate the methods in her own class, the results came quickly: “It had a huge impact on the students’ understanding and their learning, it really accelerated it, and I finally felt like I could be a good teacher.”
Although the past year was a highly disruptive one for schooling, as concerns over the spread of COVID-19 closed schools, for months in the case of Victoria, it also has been one of significant headway in the long-running bid to overhaul how Australian schools teach reading.
Recent significant policy developments, largely in NSW and South Australia but also in Tasmania, have been geared towards returning tried-and-tested phonics — learning the sounds of letters — to early reading instruction.
Australian researchers, school principals, teachers and even parents are waking up to a theory known as the simple view of reading, and they believe it should guide how Australian children are taught to read.
Proposed in the mid-1980s by researchers Philip Gough and William Tunmer, the simple view states that reading has two basic components: word decoding and language comprehension. It has extensive empirical support.
According to one of the foremost experts on reading, French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene, learning to read consists of first recognising letters and how they combine in written words, then connecting them for processing in a part of the brain that stores knowledge of letters and sounds. “As adults we have forgotten how we were as children; we have forgotten how difficult it was to learn to read,” Dehaene has said. “If we look, the brain does process every single letter and does not look at the shape. Whole-word reading is a myth.”
Building core skills
The NSW Education Department, which oversees the nation’s largest school system, is pushing for schools to teach phonics explicitly, specifically systematic synthetic phonics.
Also called blended phonics, systematic synthetic phonics involves teaching children the relationships between letters and the corresponding sounds for them to learn how to decode, or sound out, words. This knowledge and skill set is built in isolation before students are asked to attempt to read books on their own.
While phonics alone is not sufficient for a student to become an efficient reader, it is considered a core foundational skill necessary to develop other important skills, such as fluency.
Although evidence has been mounting for the past 20 years pointing to the superiority of systematic synthetic phonics over other phonics approaches, whole-language-based balanced literacy continues to be favoured by education faculties, prominent academics, some education departments and across school systems.
Proponents of balanced literacy claim that learning to read entails more than simply reading words and that reading ultimately is about making meaningful connections to a text. They argue there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to effective instruction as good teachers draw on a repertoire of strategies to meet each student’s needs.
Chloe Painter is a teacher who struggled in her early years because a lot of what she'd learned at uni about how children learn to read wasn't based on current evidence. Picture: Aaron Francis
A balanced literacy approach also seeks to develop children’s phonics skills but rejects the idea of a set sequence for teaching letter-sound relationships in isolation. Instead, instruction often starts with something meaningful to each child: their name, favourite pet or their birthday month. Teaching is always done in context, such as when reading a book.
In Wardana’s early days of teaching, she would encourage a practice popular in balanced literacy classrooms known as “multi cuing”. When a child would become stuck on an unfamiliar word she would encourage them to draw clues from the pictures, the first letter, the context of the story or the structure of the sentence.
The problem with this technique, as she discovered, is that it can create an illusion that a child is reading “when, in fact, they just become really good at guessing”. That can then lead to what many teachers describe as the Year 3 or 4 “reading slump” — a point at which a young reader starts to fall behind when the pictures are taken away and they encounter more complex words.
When Chloe Painter landed her first teaching job in 2013 — a mixed years 3 and 4 class — she encountered many children just like that.
Throughout her studies, Painter had been led to believe that her job in the classroom was to be a “guide on the side” so the children could “construct their own knowledge”. A conscientious university student, she was confident that she would be able to transfer her own love of reading and literature on to her students and they too would become proficient and passionate readers. That they didn’t came as a huge shock.
“I guess we were told to assume that maybe those students hadn’t been read to at home,” the Geelong teacher says. “So I’d tell the parents that their child just needed to read more. Or it was put back on the child. Never the teaching.”
A few years into her career, and preparing to take over a Year 2 class, Painter was struck by an unsettling realisation: “I had no confidence whatsoever that I could teach those children to read.
“I couldn’t tell you how a child learned to read and that really bugged me.”
The 2019 report Shortchanged: Preparation to Teach Reading in Initial Teacher Education, by MultiLit research director Jennifer Buckingham and Linda Meeks of Macquarie University, raised serious concerns about the lack of focus in many courses on early literacy and preferencing of balanced literacy approaches over phonics.
While universities vehemently rejected the findings, the federal government has since ordered universities to enhance course content to ensure that students, on graduating, know how to teach reading, including phonics.
New standards for course accreditation mean that universities will need to ensure that their teaching of early reading instruction addresses “evidence-based practice across the following elements: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension and oral language” when they come up for reaccreditation every five years. It is likely to take some time for change to wash through the system.
States weigh in
Australia’s dwindling performance on several international student assessments has worried policymakers and educators for some time now.
Reading literacy among Australia’s 15-year-olds has declined during the past decade, according to the OECD’s 2018 Program for Student Assessment report, while 19 per cent of Australia’s Year 4 students cannot read at a proficient level, the latest Progress in International Reading Literacy Study shows.
In South Australia and the Northern Territory, that figure is 25 per cent.
The data has prompted a rethink in several jurisdictions.
In 2018, South Australia became the first state to require all government schools to conduct a Year 1 phonics screening check; a short and simple test originating from Britain that is designed to test a student’s ability to decode words.
Then in November last year, NSW announced that it too would introduce mandatory phonics screening, following an extensive trial. However, the state has taken its approach even further, demanding that schools ensure that they teach phonics.
In a punchy opinion piece published in The Sydney Morning Herald, the NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell declared the long-running “reading wars over” as the research repeatedly had shown that phonics trumped whole-language approaches.
“It is a crying shame that parts of the education community are so blinded by ideology that they cannot bring themselves to accept the evidence … that is sitting in front of them,” Mitchell wrote, urging university vice-chancellors to “take a broom … and clear out the academics who reject evidence-based best practice”.
Looking at the results of the NSW phonics screening trial, it’s not hard to understand the minister’s fighting words. Across the 520 government schools that took part, only 43 per cent of students met the expected benchmark of correctly decoding 28 out of 40 possible words. In the case of Indigenous students, only 18 per cent met the benchmark.
That most NSW Year 1 students struggled to read basic common words — words such as in, up and over — bodes ominously for their further reading development as a plethora of studies have pointed to the link between word decoding and reading comprehension.
A 2019 article in the Journal of Educational Psychology, “Decoding and Reading Comprehension: A Test of the Decoding Threshold Hypothesis”, by Zuowei Wang, explored the reading comprehension outcomes in a study of 10,000 students.
In the case of Year 5 students with “normal” decoding ability, it found reading comprehension performance increased an estimated 2.91 points across a year, with reading comprehension growth accelerating each subsequent year.
In contrast, Year 5 students below the “normal” threshold in decoding showed significantly lower initial reading comprehension scores than their peers and almost no annual growth.
Pamela Snow, co-director of the recently established the Science of Language and Reading Lab at Victoria’s La Trobe University, describes the Year 1 phonics check as an “early warning system” to pick up those children who “may be masking difficulties with decoding”.
“You can’t understand a word you can’t decode,” Snow says. “Without decoding, there is no way in to meaning.”
Under the new School Success Model in NSW, which is aimed at boosting student outcomes across the board — not just in reading — schools will have individual phonics-related targets to meet.
Mitchell is unapologetic about the approach, telling Inquirer that she sees it as her job to fight for better outcomes for students. The way to do that, she says, is through “evidence-based reform”.
“The debate about phonics I genuinely find quite extraordinary given the evidence it works,” she says. “A phonics-based approach is the path we are going to be taking and we expect the universities will work with us on that.”
Fiona Mueller, a former director of curriculum at the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority says the time has long passed for the whole-language philosophy to be booted from classrooms.
“It’s great to see phonics making a comeback,” she says. “Balanced literacy is just a junk term for low expectations in English language and literature.
“It is incredibly hard for schools to overcome indifference and even resistance to education, but a passionate, well-trained teacher can work wonders and they deserve the best curriculum and support we can offer.”
Looking for answers
Jenny Donovan, who headed up the NSW Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation at the time it was undertaking considerable work investigating effective reading instruction, says recent policy developments are a natural evolution of that work.
It was the CESE’s scathing reviews of Reading Recovery and later Language, Learning & Literacy (L3) that prompted the state government to cease funding both approaches.
In the meantime, the centre developed best practice guides for teachers on reading instruction that emphasise the key role of systematic synthetic phonics, and the department rolled out professional learning for more than 2000 teachers.
Donovan, who recently was appointed inaugural director of a new national education evidence institute, says she believes that pockets of resistance, to the phonics check in particular, will fade.
“There will always be some teachers who are very against testing, but when you give them data and they can see how they can use it to help their students, they often want more,” she says. “I think teachers will jump on board when they see benefits for students.”
Teachers already seem to be taking matters into their own hands.
In late 2019, a group of West Australian teachers launched a Facebook group called Reading Science in Schools, with the aim of providing a forum for educators to connect, share ideas and discover evidence-based ways of teaching students to read, write and spell.
The group provides free resources, such as lesson routines, sample literacy blocks and assessment tools. In the year since, membership has swelled from 200 to more than 22,000.
Speech pathologist turned teacher Stephanie Le Lievre, one of the co-founders, says she has been buoyed by the “incredible response” to the project.
“Most of us didn’t learn this content at university,” she says. “It’s our belief that teachers shouldn’t have to pay to access evidence-based information.”
In Painter’s case, her “traumatic” entry into teaching inspired her to go looking for answers to why her students were struggling.
She came across the work of Buckingham who, while at the Centre for Independent Studies, founded the Five from Five reading program, which provides free resources for developing the so-called Big Five skills for reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension.
Painter also started attending conferences and events such as the sharing best practice event held at Melbourne’s Bentleigh West Primary School, which is considered a leader in explicit phonics instruction.
Having abandoned the “phonics is bad” mindset she had picked up at university, she began working explicitly with her students on their phonological and phonics skills and encouraging them to read through all the letters in a word.
Painter began leading lessons, rather than facilitating, and built multiple opportunities for revision into the school day.
After six months of following this approach, students who would previously struggle with identifying the sounds in a word in the correct order were now able to do so, and the children’s writing and spelling also improved.
“A group of them were really reading for the first time in their academic life,” Painter says.
“And their parents were starting to be able to sleep at night without worrying about whether their child would ever be able to read.”
While Snow has welcomed growing awareness of the science of reading, she sees too much ingrained opposition to be overly optimistic about the impact of recent developments.
She suggests broadening the debate.
“I think we need to be talking about improved reading instruction, not just advocating for ‘phonics instruction’,” she says.
“It’s about how we teach children the intricacies of how their writing system works and whether this teaching is delivered by educators who are themselves highly knowledgeable about the structure of English, or have only a superficial set of instructional tools that are doomed to leave a significant proportion of students behind.”
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This is a very thorough article written by educational journalist, Rebecca Urban, for The Australian:
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