Teachers’ union stance wrong on reading

Julie Mavlian

05 October 2018 | Ideas@TheCentre

I have been a member of teachers’ unions since I began teaching 30 years ago. The role of unions is to protect the pay and conditions of their members. However, as a practicing teacher, I am becoming increasingly concerned with their present stance on the teaching of reading that seems to undermine the very thing they claim to protect — teacher workload — as well as doing a disservice to the children they educate.

The NSW Teachers Federation commissioned a paper titled “Exploding some of the myths about learning to read” by Professor Robyn Ewing, who participated in the recent phonics debate. Professor Ewing will be given a further platform to present the ideas in her paper at a Federation-endorsed professional development session in October.

Professor Ewing’s report misrepresents the case for effective phonics instruction — including the adoption of a straw man argument that a systematic and explicit approach teaching phonics precludes other aspects of literacy such as vocabulary development. Professor Pam Snow has summarised the shortcomings of Ewing’s report by stating, “Nothing was exploded in Professor Ewing’s union commissioned paper. Rather, a number of tired though conveniently protean myths have simply been perpetuated; unhelpfully and uncritically so.”

In contrast, Professor Snow’s research documents the consequences of failure to develop essential literacy skills, and she draws our attention to the overly high rates of illiteracy amongst incarcerated youth who disengaged from society and the education system, as evidenced in the 2015 Young People in Custody Report.

As a learning and support teacher I see students every day who have difficulty with reading and spelling. Engaging these students in the classroom becomes increasingly difficult as students become older and the gap becomes wider. This adds to teacher workload and stress through having to manage disruptions and robs all students of valuable instructional time.

The gap need not become wider if teachers engage with the findings of reading research and trials. The South Australian phonics check trial showed that the check was not stressful for students and teachers and school leaders were overwhelmingly positive about it. More teachers are beginning to understand the importance of this check and the Queensland Catholic Education Commission will now trial the check in 2019.

Many teachers were surprised that the Phonics Check detected a deficiency in students’ decoding abilities that was not evident in the more cumbersome and time-consuming ‘running records’ mandated by many education departments throughout Australia.

Teacher unions should be arguing for teaching strategies that reflect a strong evidence base, and for assessment tools such as the Phonics Check that reduce teacher workload.

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