Articles – The Centre for Independent Studies

10 years of slow progress

Jennifer Buckingham

11 December 2015 | Ideas@TheCentre

4f85575b-a944-4db9-a084-e439d549c1a5CIS held a roundtable this week to mark the tenth anniversary of the National Inquiry into Teaching Literacy. The inquiry was prompted by an open letter to then federal education minister Brendan Nelson from 26 academics who were deeply concerned about persistent low literacy of Australian students. Published in The Australian, the letter stated that in many schools, teachers were not using the most effective, evidence-based instruction methods and literacy programs. It warned literacy rates would not improve until this changed.

The report from the inquiry supported the letter’s claims. However, 10 years later, progress has been slow and literacy rates reflect this. At the CIS roundtable, Emeritus Professor Max Coltheart — one of the signatories to the 2004 letter — described the timeline of action and inaction over the past 10 years: a somewhat depressing illustration of the challenge of getting research evidence into classroom practice. Dr Jenny Donovan talked about the work of the Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (CESE); an important initiative of the NSW Department of Education and Training that is attempting to bridge the research-to-practice gap.

For substantial change to occur, multiple players will need to be involved. High-level policy documents now more often reflect the evidence on teaching reading, but principals and teachers carry the responsibility for classroom implementation — and this has been patchy. Western Australian media this week reported on a study of nine schools that had achieved exceptional performance in NAPLAN. It found that all nine had in common the explicit and systematic teaching of phonics (also known as ‘synthetic phonics’) in the early years of primary school.

The study author, Emeritus Professor Bill Louden — who was deputy chair of the NITL committee in 2005 — said “All of the schools were using synthetic phonics and 10 years ago that wouldn’t have been the case…from my point of view, there is no excuse not to begin with synthetic phonics with small children, otherwise you’re just waiting for them to fail.”

Perhaps there is a glimmer of hope after all. Early next year, the CIS will launch its project to ensure effective reading instruction is provided for all children. Stay tuned.

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