Last week in his address to the National Press Club, the Prime Minister made brief mention that increased funding to schools hasn’t delivered improved educational outcomes. In the context of Australia’s slipping international rankings in Maths, Science and Reading, the Federal Government wants the biggest bang for the least amount of bucks. One of the specific policies directly tied to funding is the introduction of a Year 1 Literacy Numeracy Assessment that includes a phonics screening check similar to the one introduced in Britain in 2012.
One of the most contentious, divisive and ongoing debates in education is the question around teaching children to read and the role that phonics plays in the process. Learning to read is one of the most complex tasks we engage in as humans. Unlike walking or talking, it is not a naturally acquired skill. For a minority of learners, reading does happen naturally before they start formal schooling without any deliberate, sequenced or planned instruction.
We need to ask ourselves as educators ‘what does it mean to read?’ Sometimes as adults we don’t have the required knowledge to gain meaning from the text we are reading. Think about Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia – we gain meaning from the text by drawing on many strategies including phonic knowledge.
If reading is seen as a process of making meaning, then there are many factors or elements that contribute to the success of reading instruction. As Marie Clay said (2001), “Knowing sounds of letters and letter clusters is essential but not sufficient for successful reading of texts.”
What’s interesting is that the evaluation report undertaken by the National Foundation for Educational Research has found that the Phonics Screening Check and the systematic teaching of phonics in Year 1 classes, increased children’s ability to identify sounds and combinations of sounds, phonics but there was no discernible “identifiable impact on their attainment in literacy.” (Process of Evaluation of the Year 1 Phonics Screening Check Pilot – February 2015).
No-one disputes that the sooner educators can intervene, the greater the opportunity for struggling students to achieve. Since 2009, our system has been assessing Year 1 students in Literacy and Numeracy. Using the data and relying on evidence-based research, we chose to implement two intervention programs for Year 1 students: Reading Recovery and Extending Mathematical Understanding. Since 2015, all of our primary schools have trained intervention teachers and trend data shows that we are making progress.
Except for a lucky few, reading instruction is a complex and arduous process for most learners. The danger is that when governments zero funding in on a specific strategy such as phonics, it’s not at the expense of other evidence-based approaches. We need to take a long view here otherwise we run the risk of believing that one method, one strategy, one curriculum framework etc is the silver bullet needed for improving learning outcomes. If this were the case, we would have cracked the code long ago.