The national curriculum

Australia's getting a national curriculum, and one of the areas it covers is literacy. Sounds great to me. Too many kids change schools and miss key information, or have to study the same thing twice.

I went to the Australian Curriculum website today, to find out what it says about teaching beginners to hear sounds in words (for spelling) and blend them together (for reading), plus understand how sounds are represented by letters and letter patterns (for both).

Objectives for beginners

I went first to the page that describes the English Achievement Standards for the Foundation Year, to find the main objectives on the sounds and letters front for five-to-six-year-olds.

The page first talks about predicting and questioning, recalling and connecting texts and understanding there are many text types. It also talks about short, predictable texts (but not short, predictable words), vocabulary and images (isn't that Art?), all discourse from the Whole Language literacy-teaching methodology that we know lets about a fifth of learners down.

The standards say children in their first year of school draw "on their developing knowledge of concepts about print and sound and letters" (italics are mine, typo is not).

Literacy: caught or taught?

I was hoping this standard would say children will be directly taught how to work from left to right and the top to the bottom of the page, how to hear sounds in words, and how to represent the various sounds with letters and letter patterns. But this sounds a lot like the authors think sound-letter knowledge just "develops" through exposure to books, the same way most children learn to talk through exposure to spoken language.

I don't care if you teach the lucky few  this way – the kids with naturally good phonemic awareness and pattern recognition skills, who can work sounds and letters out pretty much by themselves. Though once you start asking questions, it turns out a lot of them had a nice Nanna or someone else outside school who gave them the lowdown on sounds and letters.

Letting down kids with speech-language difficulties

Whatever this means for more linguistically able kids,  it makes me very grumpy that too many kids with a history of speech/language delays and disorders, and kids with weak phonemic awareness, are expected to learn the complexities of our spelling system just via exposure to print.

It's like throwing them in the deep end of a pool full of alphabet soup, and waiting for them to sink, then pulling them out and sending them off to Reading Recovery to do (often but not always) more of the same, but in a smaller pool.

Which letters and which sounds?

The next thing the Australian Curriculum website says Grade Preps will do is, "identify the letters of the English alphabet and use the sounds represented by most letters". But it doesn't say which sounds will be used, and which won't, or how they will be used (to decorate the classroom?).

It doesn't say what learners are meant to think about the sounds associated with the letters they don't learn, but are nonetheless exposed to during all the recalling short predictable text etc. Nor what they're told about the 18 sounds of spoken English that don't have their own letters.

There is enough time

Grade Preps are at school five days per week, working about four or five hours per day for about forty weeks per year, give or take a few sickies and vagueouts, and literacy is probably the number one thing they are supposed to be learning.

I can't see how that's not more than enough time for the National Curriculum to require them to cover at least 42 of the 44 sounds of English (perhaps leaving out zh as in vision, treasure and beige, and the unstressed vowel) and their main spellings in little words of one syllable.

Most children starting school have already been using spoken language for around four years. It's good educational practice to work from the known to the unknown, so i don't understand why this curriculum doesn't say, "learn at least 42 of the 44 sounds in the spoken words children are using, and how each is typically represented by letters". Oral language isn't the new thing here, written language is.

Wanted: An editor who demands plain English and SMART objectives

The Achievement Standard goes on to say that five-year-olds will, "listen for rhyme, letter patterns and sounds in words". Listening for rhyme and sounds in words, great! But listening to letter patterns? I stuck my ear right up to some letter patterns today, and couldn't hear a thing.

The standard then contains more stuff about texts, experiences, likes and dislikes, objects, characters and events, clear communication and retelling, before, "They identify and use rhyme, letter patterns and sounds in words". Presumably that means "they read and write/spell words", but we still don't know what sort of words, or which sounds and spellings are in them.

Will they write only two and three-sound words? Will there be any consonant blends, or digraphs, or longer spellings, like the dge in bridge and the eigh in eight? The Achievement Standard leaves open the possiblity that the choice of words might be no better than random from a word structure point of view, probably including the word "cat" but perhaps also the word "pterodactyl".

Then there is more Whole Language stuff: using familiar (memorised?) words, phrases and images (more Art)  to convey ideas, then "evidence of sound and letter knowledge, beginning writing behaviours" (could this just mean holding a pencil up the right way and making marks on paper?) "and experimentation with capital letters and full stops." I'd rather be taught punctuation than left to work it out myself by trial and error, thanks.

Lastly, "They correctly form known upper- and lower-case letters". Again, does this mean two letters, or 22?

So I haven't bothered to read the rest of the standards. If an undergraduate Speech Pathology student wrote therapy objectives like these, I'd just ask for a rewrite. And I've stopped hoping that the National Curriculum is going to help get Australia into the Top Five countries on literacy any time soon.

Which is very sad, because the idea is a good one.

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