Little is more fundamental to the success of an individual than literacy. If our children do not develop the abilities to read, write, speak and listen properly, almost everything else in life is denied them.
Which makes it a great shame that too many young Australians have fallen through the cracks with their English skills poorly developed. The proportion of Year 4 students who are poor readers compares badly with almost all other English-speaking nations and so they go on to fail at senior school.
However, there are grounds for optimism. Last week NSW became the second state after South Australia to introduce compulsory phonics screening for Year 1 students. The Tasmanian government conducted a trial this year. The Year 1 Phonics Check was developed by the British government and has been mandatory in all English schools since 2012.
Phonics, for those untutored in the intricacies of early school-policy debates, is the time-honoured approach of teaching the sounds of the alphabet, spelling them and blending these sounds into words; for example, c-a-t cat.
Until recently, this was considered old-fashioned, and that, left to their own devices, children would somehow absorb the art of reading. This is what is known as the “whole word” or “whole language” method.
The logic went like this: if we jettisoned those boring phonic drills, children could work out words in context or by guessing them from pictures. The more they encountered frequently used words, the more likely they would recognise them automatically. Who cared, for instance, if they read the word “dog” instead of “dragon”, as long it made sense in the sentence? Reading and writing would become easier and fun, thus students would learn more quickly.
However, this approach had shown especially poor results for children experiencing reading difficulties. Students, especially from poor backgrounds, misused grammar and could not punctuate. They just found reading difficult and unrewarding and stopped trying.
Not surprisingly, there has been overwhelming evidence not just about the urgency of the problem but also about the measures needed to turn the intellectual tide. No longer is the use of phonics regarded as educationally and ideologically unsound.
Now, at last, there is a general agreement, including among a clear majority of NSW teachers who participated in a training blitz, that systematic, synthetic phonics is an essential part of the teaching of reading. A strong foundation of phonics helps with comprehension and writing.
There are several policy heroes in this story.
Credit must go to the federal Coalition government for being an early champion of the Phonics Check. Under education ministers Simon Birmingham and Dan Tehan, and the veteran policy wonk Scott Prasser, Canberra has been determined to push ahead with ensuring that phonics was at the heart of teaching children to read. They have made an online version of the Phonics Check available to all schools.
In South Australia, Labor took on the establishment and ran a trial of the phonics screening check with the support of the opposition. The success of the trial led to a statewide roll out in 2018 and the results speak for themselves.
Whereas in 2018, just 43 per cent of Year 1 students met the expected achievement level in the Festival State, this year 63 per cent of SA state school students demonstrated phonics skills at the benchmark level or higher.
The results are a vindication of the SA Education Minister John Gardner’s boldness in pursuing sound, evidence-based policy. They are also a tribute to the hard work of SA’s primary school teachers, who have improved the way children are taught to read in South Australia.
In NSW, Education Minister Sarah Mitchell has persevered, despite strong opposition from the teacher unions who ignored the empirical evidence. The battle between reading by phonics and the whole language method is over, she says, and phonics offers the only realistic chance of remedying the scandal of mass illiteracy.
Finally, the think tank that I head, the Centre for Independent Studies (previously led by Greg Lindsay from 1976 to 2017), deserves recognition. For years, CIS pointed to the importance of using evidence-based teaching methods, including learning the sounds of letters as building blocks, to master reading and to reduce preventable achievement gaps.
The ultimate aim was for students to read widely with understanding, but learning to decode the words on the page was the necessary first step. If this sounded like common sense, it was. CIS’s philanthropically funded Five from Five project, led by my colleague Jennifer Buckingham (now MultiLit’s director of strategy), worked with a coalition of researchers, teachers, principals, parent advocacy groups, reading specialists and government allies to hammer home the message.
The lesson here is that the most important of school subjects remains English, the foundation of future learning. All children, regardless of their background or intelligence, are capable of being taught to read. The Phonics Check is the best way to detect quickly children who are failing at the first hurdle at school.
If other states followed SA and NSW, and if there were a general recognition across the nation that phonics is at the heart of the teaching of reading, then every Australian child would be afforded the best start in life.
Tom Switzer is executive director of the Centre for Independent Studies and a presenter at the ABC’s Radio National.