Lower order rote skills, my eye

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There's an article by secondary teacher Chris Fotinopoulos called "Corporate Jargon Has No Place In Our Schools" in today's Age newspaper, railing against the infiltration of corporate jargon and thinking into schools.

Schools must now have business plans, talk in terms of productivity and investment, and tie their curricula to future workforce participation. Activities that don't obviously fit this framework, like the study of ancient texts or philosopy, can be under threat.

These are valid concerns, I think, and worth talking about. Schools are more than training facilities churning out fodder for the job market. If you're interested in the philosophy of education, you might also like a new book called "Taking God to School", about the systematic undermining of our proud free, compulsory and secular education system, by one of the nicest and brainiest people I know, Professor Marion Maddox of Macquarie University.

However, Fotinopoulos' article goes on, "Any training facilitator can impart lower-order rote skills".

If by "lower-order rote skills" he's talking about the ability to read and spell, he could not be more wrong, on two fronts.

Teaching reading and spelling well is not simple

Firstly, teaching reading and spelling well requires specialist skills and knowledge. The reason tests like NAPLAN and PISA are showing gaps in student literacy learning is that teachers are not being equipped at university to teach reading and spelling well – click here for an earlier blog post about this.

Some children can already read when they start school, while others are unaware of sounds in words and don't recognise any letters, and others don't even speak English.

In my local schools, children are typically grouped by age not ability level for their reading/spelling classes, so each teacher must either pick a level that suits either the weakest students or the majority, or try to teach at multiple levels. It would make a lot more sense to group literacy-learners by ability.

Many children have parents who can't read or are minimally literate, so on these grounds alone, the "parents should read to their children with joy and expression" approach is clearly nonsense. Some parents aren't literate in their first language, either.

Our school system is currently geared to teach the majority of children how to read, but tolerates about a 20% failure rate in the first year of school, although we know this high failure rate is preventable (see for example, research from Scotland). This is terrible for affected children's self-esteem.

Schools typically start offering varying amounts of additional help to strugglers in their second year, but when it's not targeted to their specific needs, it doesn't work well, or only works to a limited extent or for a short period. Learners still struggling then often end up with a diagnosis such as "learning disability", which locates the source of the problem firmly within themselves, not in the early literacy curriculum.

Many schools don't teach much about spelling patterns (click here for an earlier blog post about typical school spelling lists) and spelling is often seen as a fairly unimportant skill, now we have computers with spellcheckers. Your average teacher should be able to give children an overview of our spelling system like the one in this blog post or this video, and teach Phoneme-Grapheme Correspondences (PGCs) in a systematic, orderly way, but good luck finding one who was taught this at uni.

Handwriting is another skill that often gets short shrift, but which is closely tied to reading and spelling skill development, so I was glad to read another article in today's Age highlighting this, and encourage you to click here and do likewise.

Learning to read/spell is complex and clever

Getting words onto and off pages is a complex and clever skill, and requires multiple subskills to come together and work as a fluent whole. These supposedly "lower-order, rote skills" are the foundations on which all other text-based literacy skills, and much of what we think of as "higher-level language" are built. They aren't just a jumble of rocks, they must be put correctly in place, or the whole structure will wobble.

Education faculties usually don't teach student teachers much about the science of reading or spelling, so even the basic components of written and spoken words are often poorly-understood in schools. If you doubt this, go and ask a few teachers questions like:

  • How many sounds there are in the English language (44 – click here to see a list), and how many of them are vowel sounds (20),
  • How many sounds there are in the words "text" (5), "hatched" (4) and "neighbour" (4).
  • How many different ways the sound "k" can be spelt (I know of 24, click here for a list, and teachers of literacy should be aware of at least 10 or a dozen).

If you can find an early years teacher who can come close to the correct answers on all three questions, and can tell you which PGCs she or he is teaching this term, in what order, give her or him a gold medal, and try to get your kid into his or her class.

Some people learn to read and spell effortlessly and without much direct teaching, the same way some people can teach themselves to play a musical instrument.

That doesn't make what they are doing not-clever, it means they have a talent in this area. Such learners are the minority, whatever their parents tell you. Unfortunately personal stories tend to ring truer to human beings than scientific evidence, but when they disagree, science is usually right.

For the majority, learning to read, spell and play a musical instrument well require well-organised instruction and effort.

The 20% of children who struggle with early literacy typically need reading and spelling broken down into small components and steps for them, and to learn one new thing at a time, practising it till it's fast and automatic i.e. Synthetic Phonics.

The vast majority of children would also benefit from being taught this way, so that they don't just learn how to read, but can also spell well, and don't have to rely spelling checkers and other crutches.

There is no need to trivialise learning to read in order to emphasise the importance of reading to learn.

What we all want is for everyone to be able to do both, and if you can't do the former, then you have no hope of doing the latter.