Phonics in a Post-Truth Age


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.