Phonics in a Post-Truth Age

banksy-lies-politics

There have been renewed calls for phonics instruction in Australian primary schools, along with a mandatory phonics test for students in Year One.

The calls come from many sources. They come from well-intentioned professionals like speech pathologists, who work with children who’ve struggled to learn to read. They come from think-tanks and politicians. They come from people with financial interests in selling phonics programs to schools.

They don’t, however, come from the professionally qualified experts who teach young children to read in schools every day. They don’t come from the education academics who specialise in the teaching of reading and development of literacy. They don’t come from the curriculum experts who carefully develop reading curriculum for our schools, or from the school and system leaders who are responsible for the ongoing professional development of our teachers.

At this point, I’m sure I will be accused of the logical fallacy of ‘appeal to authority.’ It shouldn’t matter who is making the argument, what matters is whether their claims are true.

But it does matter who makes the argument. It matters a lot. We should not so easily dismiss the views of professionals with not only the most relevant academic credentials but also the closest knowledge of what actually happens in classrooms every day.

The phonics lobby, as I’ve chosen to label the group that so stridently calls for its return to schools, would have us believe that primary teachers:

  • teach reading using a whole-language approach
  • do not teach phonics explicitly
  • if they do teach phonics, they don’t teach it well
  • do not know how to assess phonics
  • have no idea what they are doing

In NSW the whole language approach ended in around 1994 when a new curriculum for English was released. I remember it well because I’d just started my professional teaching career and had to suddenly re-learn how to teach English, this time explicitly.

This brings me to another criticism that the phonics lobby like to throw at us. Charitably, they tell us it’s not our fault we have no idea what we are doing. It’s the fault of our training. We were all indoctrinated by into our kumbaya ways by the left-wing progressive post-modern academics who dominate teacher education.

I admit that it’s possible. I have turned out to be left-leaning educator and have been known to sing Joni Mitchell while strumming guitar after a few too many beers. But I’ve no idea what the dominant ideology of teachers or teacher educators might be, if there even is one.

But the point is, that really doesn’t matter. Initial Teacher Education (ITE) is just that – INITIAL teacher education. We don’t stop learning the moment we graduate university. In fact, to maintain our accreditation against the  Australian Professional Teaching Standards we must continue our professional learning throughout our career.  At university, I learned to teach reading using the whole language approach. Upon graduation, with a new curriculum requiring an explicit teaching approach, I re-learned. The NSW government provided, and continues to provide extensive professional learning for teachers around the state to ensure we have the knowledge and skills to do our work well.

I think it was around 2010 that the Best Start initiative was rolled out to NSW primary schools. Along with an initial assessment of all children upon entry to Kindergarten, all schools had to ensure that they were teaching phonics. And not just any phonics – synthetic phonics, which is the preferred method of the phonics lobby.

All public schools across NSW were provided with extensive professional learning involving a series of face to face workshops, in-school tasks, and participation in professional learning communities. That training continues. Every year, courses continue to be provided to schools to ensure that any untrained teachers, new to teaching the early years have access to that professional development.

We were provided resources to create our own phonics and phonemic awareness programs, and we were even provided the assessment tools.

NSW has been teaching reading, including phonics, explicitly since 1994, and have been teaching synthetic phonics since 2010. Yet the phonics lobby would have us believe that none of this is happening, phonics are ignored, and whole-language is our method of choice.

They either have no idea what they are talking about when it comes to what ACTUALLY is going on in schools, or they are deliberately misleading the public. After all,  in this post-truth age, why let facts get in the way of our agendas.

 

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4 thoughts on “Phonics in a Post-Truth Age

  1. Hey Corinne 🙂

    Whilst I agree that the phonics lobby is a bit too gung-ho with their “sky is falling!” hyperbole regarding phonics in schools, I *do* think they have a point.

    I went through my initial teacher training in 2002, and was not taught how to teach phonics effectively at all. It wasn’t until I did my Masters in special ed that a whole new world was revealed to me, and I realised the complexity of phonological/phonemic awareness/phonics and gained a depth of understanding that would not only allow me to teach phonics well to average learners, but also diagnose the needs of students struggling with these skills. Much of the content was delivered by speech paths and it was so enriching to have more of a scientific understanding of these skills rather than just being fed the pedagogical ideology of a given lecturer. When I reflected on whole school programs I had taught prior to this, I winced at how unsatisfactory they had been.

    As for official training being dished out to schools, I’ve worked at a few different (low-SES, high NESB) schools in recent years, and there’s not been any focus on phonics (or either of the PAs) in that time that I’m aware of. Of course, there is Best Start, and student learning plans which suggest strategies, but that comes nowhere near having an in-depth understanding of the cognitive and mechanical processes behind these skills.

    I have had to explain to colleagues what phonemes are. I’ve also had teachers ask me how to sound out quite straightforward words, as they didn’t know how to do it themselves. (I’m not saying those things judgementally btw – but they are concerning examples that have contributed to me questioning how well we’re doing things). In Year 5, I am seeing large numbers of students with huge segmenting and blending difficulties, yet their NAPLAN results indicate they’re not below the rest of the state in things like spelling. So when I hear people like Wheldall et al (and yes, I know they have vested interests) talking about issues with phonics, I find it hard to disagree.

    I think schools *say* they teach phonics – and no doubt they do – but has there been any real investigation about the quality of instruction across the board? It sounds like the schools you’ve taught in have focussed on it and have probably done it well. But I would argue it’s not been the same everywhere. Something like a system-wide phonics test, with attached PL and diagnostic/strategy support would go a long way to ensuring consistency across the nation and making sure that *all* our kids have a fair shot at developing these crucial early literacy skills.

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  2. Assuming the phonics check goes ahead I’m interested in what happens when a child fails to meet the standard. Currently teachers raise concerns about a child’s physical, social, emotional, or academic progress and the child needs to be a looooong way behind age norms (i.e. 2 SDs) before any additional support is provided to child or teacher.

    By and large through their training, experience and ongoing professional learning teachers are already pretty good at identifying children slipping behind. The problem isn’t identification, it is support when the problem has been identified.

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  3. Dear Corinne
    Thanks for your post. It’s good to have an avenue for dialogue on this important issue. It’s a shame that we can’t seem to get past some of the old stumbling blocks in this discussion, however. Of course the teaching of reading is predominantly (though not exclusively) the domain of primary school teachers. However there is compelling and triangulated evidence that tells us that too many children reach Grade 4 with insufficient skills with decoding and/or comprehension to keep up with the ever-increasing demands of the academic curriculum. A small percentage of these children will have an underlying developmental language disorder (either on its own or in conjunction with another neurodevelopmental disorder), but many more have no identifiable reason for not having acquired reading skills at the expected level. Often these children come from relatively more disadvantaged backgrounds, bringing less linguistic capital to the classroom with them, and needing focussed and explicit early phonics instruction alongside early vocabulary, narrative skills etc development if they are to have any hope of catching up and keeping up. You will have seen such children repeatedly over the years in your school experience I am sure.

    So I doubt that there will be disagreement on the fact that some children struggle with the transition to literacy more than others. Where there is difficulty, however, is in discussing the role of classroom instruction in this process. This I find puzzling and disappointing. There is an abundance of evidence that attests to low teacher knowledge with respect to the basic linguistic concepts needed to teach phonics explicitly and expertly (e.g. what is a phoneme, how to count, blend, and segment phonemes in words; what is a morpheme, how to differentiate morphemes from syllables etc). Even Misty Adoniou is up front about this, as per this extract from a 2015 open access paper of hers:
    http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1359866X.2014.932330, where she states (p.104):

    “The consequences of a lack of content knowledge in teaching literacy can be serious, with Shulman (1986) indicating that lack of content knowledge results in narrowed and regressionist pedagogies as teachers resort to replicating own past experiences with instruction in language. In particular, to be effective in teaching children who struggle with literacy, they need a strong content knowledge of the English language (Spear-Swerling & Cheesman, 2012). Numerous accounts of beginning teachers note a lack of content knowledge about how the language works – most particularly, the basic constructs of the English language (Alderson & Hudson, 2013; Hadjioannou & Hutchinson, 2010; Moats et al., 2010; Washburn, Joshi, & Cantrell, 2011; Wong, Chong, Choy, & Lim, 2012). Spear-Swerling and Cheesman (2012) suggest that without good content knowledge in the area of literacy “teachers may provide inadvertently confusing instruction to children” (Spear-Swerling & Cheesman, 2012, p. 1692”.

    As I commented on The Conversation in response to Misty’s most recent piece, trying to address the long tail of under-achievement with respect to literacy without being able to talk about teacher knowledge is like taking your car for a service and the mechanic not lifting the bonnet. Until we can shift this taboo, I fear we can’t make progress. Ironically though, I find teachers themselves are very open to having their knowledge widened, and often express disappointment in their lack of pre-service grounding for explicit phonics instruction. Isn’t the best way to advocate for and support teachers to acknowledge and act on the unevenness in current practice? Isn’t this what we do when we identify gaps in the knowledge and skills of other professionals? Why is it a taboo to do so for teachers?

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  4. I agree that phonics has made a comeback in schools in recent years. Should be more of it, but not taught exclusively. A variety of teaching strategies works best, as different children thrive with different approaches. I also agree that nobody stops learning the day they graduate as a teacher. In fact, the next three years in their own classes, with sensible and supportive mentoring, is when they will develop the survival skills and teaching techniques that will enable them to have a successful teaching career while always seeking better ways to enthuse and educate their students. Each year they get better and better. Of course some graduate and have one year’s experience repeated over and over for the next 35 years. They do not want to learn anything new or attend any professional learning programmes. These people are a drag on the system, they frustrate good teachers, they bore their students and should be weeded out as soon as possible.

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