Articles – The Centre for Independent Studies

Reading writing on the wall

Jennifer Buckingham

06 January 2015 | The Australian

children reading 800x450Reading specialists around Australia and the world greeted yesterday’s article on NSW primary teaching degrees with mixed emotions.

They were delighted that a government has taken strong and positive steps to ensure children receive effective instruction in reading. But there was also a measure of despondency to have it definitively confirmed that most universities in NSW are doing a fairly terrible job of preparing new teachers, especially in the most fundamental and crucial aspect of their job – teaching children to read.

The audit report prepared by the NSW Board of Studies, Teaching and Educational Standards (BOSTES) is not yet public, but the findings as described in this newspaper are damning. Primary teaching degrees are failing to provide new teachers with adequate knowledge and skills in effective reading instruction, including explicit and systematic instruction in phonics. Most universities emphasise practices associated with whole language approaches to literacy, rather than foundational teaching strategies like phonics.

Phonics is the most contested battleground of the so-called ‘reading wars’, perhaps because it is the most misunderstood. Phonics is, in essence, the alphabetic code —the relationship between sounds and letters. Good phonics instruction gives children the ability to decode both familiar and unfamiliar words. Some children work out how to decipher the alphabetic code on their own, but the majority need some explicit instruction in phonics.

Phonics is one part of a high quality, effective reading program, but it is the part teachers are most likely to get wrong. Little wonder this is the case. According to the NSW audit report, even supervising teachers “appear to have little knowledge and understanding of literacy theories/models, and ineffective literacy skills”.

There has been a bewildering reluctance in university education faculties to acknowledge the scientific basis for effective teaching methods. Education academics often view the idea of explicitly teaching children how to read the written word (rather than reading them lots of books and hoping for the best) as somewhere between anachronism and  a ‘neo-liberal’, anti-public education plot. Teaching methods are given a bizarre ideological or sociological spin; a Dean of Education in a NSW university recently described phonics as a ‘mono-cultural’ approach to teaching reading.

Fortunately, BOSTES chairman Tom Alegounarias and NSW education minister Adrian Piccoli have a more pragmatic perspective: teachers should use the strategies that are the most effective for the largest number of students. As Tom Alegounarias said, ‘Teaching phonics isn’t about ideology or philosophy, it’s about evidence. Doctors don’t have a belief in penicillin, penicillin works. Phonics works, full stop.’

Also fortunately, the new NSW audit report is not an isolated example of evidence-based teaching methods gaining ground. The curriculum review commissioned by the federal government last year recommended a stronger emphasis on explicit teaching in the early years of schools, including phonics, a recommendation endorsed by the federal government. The new chair and deputy chair of the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL), Professor John Hattie and John Fleming, are advocates for the effectiveness of phonics and explicit teaching. With John Fleming also in the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG), it would be highly surprising if the forthcoming TEMAG report was ambivalent about the need for universities to teach effective reading instruction methods.

The momentum for change is powerful, and it’s about time, too. Australia is around a decade behind the USA and England in terms of adopting policies and practices that reflect the best research on teaching reading. Results of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Survey (PIRLS) suggest these countries are reaping the rewards of their policy efforts. In 2011, 24% of Australian Year 4 students failed to meet the intermediate international reading benchmark, compared with 14% in the US and 17% in England. New Zealand’s results were dispiritingly similar to Australia’s – as are their literacy practices.

Australia produces some of the world’s best reading research, but it is more likely to emanate from psychology, linguistics, or neuroscience departments than from education faculties, and is rarely seen in the curricula of teaching degrees. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of students are unable to read at even a basic level after 10 years of schooling. While education faculties shoulder some of the blame, as the major provider and funder of school education, state governments must also take responsibility and take action. The NSW government is leading the way.

Jennifer Buckingham is a research fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies. 

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