Forget the fads and flapdoodle

Julie Mavlian

10 February 2017 | Ideas@TheCentre

child reading school 1Teachers need to understand best practice and reading research so they are not influenced by ineffective methods, expensive educational fads, and meaningless jargon like ‘neuroplasticity’. The Australian Education Union appears to be under such influence.

The AEU Victoria is hosting and promoting an event with Barbara Arrowsmith, the ‘Woman Who Changed her Brain’ — and, some say, her bank balance. The Arrowsmith program claims to address specific learning difficulties through strenuous written, visual, auditory, computer and cognitive exercises, or brain training. Unfortunately research has shown that brain training skills do not generalise to other situations, even if they are similar.

Alarmingly the Arrowsmith program has been around for over three decades, and has no published, independent empirical data to support its effectiveness.

Public and private schools alike have been seduced by its claims, and are using their education funding to buy an Arrowsmith license, and then charge parents thousands in additional fees for their children to participate.

Billions of dollars in increased funding over 10 years has seen little improvement in Australia’s literacy performance, yet still unions demand more money for schools. If unions, schools, and teachers can be taken in by expensive programs that lack evidence to support its claims, it’s no wonder we are not getting bang for our educational buck.

However, we can dramatically improve Australia’s literacy performance if we utilise the years of scientific reading research that has consistently found systematic phonics instruction is highly effective in helping to prevent reading difficulties amongst at-risk learners, and in helping to remediate reading difficulties in disabled readers.

Phonics is a vital key to early literacy instruction and must be explicitly taught alongside phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.  Unlike the Arrowsmith program, the proposed phonics check is based on sound research on reading, it has been tested for validity and reliability, is quick to administer and cost effective.

Teachers have an essential role in identifying students who may struggle with reading and offer appropriate intervention early when it is most effective. Preventing reading failure saves money, saves teachers time and energy but most importantly saves students from potentially devastating lifelong effects of illiteracy.

Immediately after Federal Education Minister announced the members of an expert advisory panel to help drive the government’s educational reforms — including the phonics check — the AEU criticised the check by essentially saying “schools need more money, not a test”.

Before the Federal Government commits funds, they need to know that it is going to be invested wisely in resources that will produce much needed results, and not on, what Professor Pam Snow refers to as educational ‘neuroflapdoodle’.

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