Cracking the code

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.

2 thoughts on “Cracking the code

  1. Two of our three sons were diagnosed as “dyslexic” at primary school in the UK – three or four decades ago. Their “symptoms” were not the same for both – and it struck me that the disorder was a very personal one – it could only be tackled on an individual basis. But no school had the capacity to take that on. They were “dumped” in the thinly disguised “rejects” classes. Nobody really knew what to do with them – basically, because each ‘sufferer’ had a highly individual limitation. A unique response for each individual was just too expensive to contemplate. It strikes me that “computer pattern recognition” used with great efficiency to detect individual enemy developments – if applied to the world of dyslexia could bring about dramatic improvement in individual performances by recognizing and reacting to each individual’s difficulties. Does research on such an idea exist. I doubt it there is more reward in programs for blasting the enemy to bits than there is for creating citizens able to contribute to society by having fully mastered reading and writing.

    1. Mike I completely agree with you. I’m not aware personal of the research that you allude to however I do know that with the rapid advances in artificial intelligence and augmented reality, we are going to have some powerful new tools and new ways to look at these sorts of problems.

      My concern however lies right in the heart of your comment “in the thinly disguised ‘rejects’ classes”. We have to change the current model of schooling that moves from a ‘one one sized fits all model’ where every child is assumed to be the same, taught in the same way and assessed in the same way. Contemporary theory and practices tells us we need to start from the individual and build the learning experience from there. So we start with the person not the class. If this happens, coupled with the technologies, I think we’ll make some major break throws.

      It’s going to take some brave politicians and parents and great teachers to find the answers to these problems.

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