There has been considerable controversy around the proposed introduction of screening checks to identify at an early stage those children who are struggling with reading and numeracy.
However, effective teaching of those subjects in the early years of schooling is critical if Australia is to stem its current slide. And to be effective, teaching must include the use of appropriate assessments so that proper methods and intervention strategies can be put in place.
In response to the fact that large numbers of children are not meeting the expected learning outcomes and standards in literacy and numeracy, Minister for Education and Training Simon Birmingham appointed an Expert Advisory Panel this year to advise the government on how to best develop and implement a national Year 1 literacy and numeracy check.
The panel’s recommendation of a Year 1 Phonics Check reignited the debate over the role of phonics in learning to read — and why we need to identify children who are falling behind at an early stage.
Clear gap in the assessment of phonics
A review of current literacy and numeracy early years assessments in Australia by the panel found that while most states and territories undertake some form of literacy and/or numeracy assessment in Year 1, there is no consistent approach. And the state and territory assessments do not cover all aspects of the Australian Curriculum to the same extent. There is a clear gap in the assessment of phonics, which would be addressed through a national check.
This is why the panel recommended that the Phonics Screening Check that is statutory — and successful — in England’s primary schools should be adapted for use in Australia.
For early numeracy assessments, the panel found there is no single assessment of sufficient quality that covers all numeracy descriptors in the Australian Curriculum. Therefore a new tool should be developed for Year 1.
The Phonics Check has been a particularly controversial recommendation. However, it meets the best practice principles for early assessment: it accurately measures core knowledge and skills that are strongly predictive of later achievement and identifies risk of low progress; it is brief in duration to cater for the attention of young children and minimise cost and time burdens on schools; and it provides sufficient detail to guide intervention at the student level, and changes to teaching practice at the school and system level where necessary.
Despite some claims to the contrary, the Phonics Check is not NAPLAN for six year olds. The check simply involves a child reading aloud a list of 40 words to their teacher, which takes around five minutes. The words they read are specifically selected to allow the child’s phonic decoding skills to be assessed.
Unlike NAPLAN, teachers have the results of the check immediately. It is not onerous or stressful, it is in no sense ‘high stakes’ and Senator Birmingham has explicitly ruled out publication of results on My School.
A major evaluation commissioned by the UK Department for Education found that teachers had changed their phonics teaching practice to more closely align with the evidence base in response to the results of the Check.
There has also been an improvement in the proportion of children achieving at the expected standard in Year 2 reading tests, after more than a decade of stagnant achievement levels in those tests.
Critics of the Phonics Check have noted there has been no improvement in England’s latest PISA scores, but this is an invalid indicator because the cohort of children who have done the Phonics Check have not participated in PISA yet. The results of the Progress in Reading Literacy Study to be released at the end of this year will be a more salient measure.
The South Australian government has completed a trial of the Phonics Check in 50 public schools and state and territory education ministers will be considering a national trial and subsequent implementation at the next Education Council meeting in December.
It would be a great loss for Australian children if this opportunity to make a significant positive impact on early reading instruction is missed.
Dr Jennifer Buckingham is a senior research fellow and director of the FIVE from FIVE project at The Centre for Independent Studies. She was Chair of the Expert Advisory Panel on the Year 1 Literacy and Numeracy Assessments.