Questions about the ALEA PETAA infomercial on the Year 1 Phonics test

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The Australian Literacy Educators Association (ALEA) and the Primary English Teaching Association Australia (PETAA) have just released an “infomercial” about the proposed Year 1 Phonics test. They oppose it, but watching their infomercial left me with more questions than answers.

What’s the point of the Year 1 Phonics test?

Given the way NAPLAN data have been used to encourage schools to compete not collaborate, and teachers’ often crazy workloads, I completely understand that many teachers are wary of yet another mandatory test.

However, the point of the Year 1 Phonics test is to help teachers better identify which children are struggling to read words, in order to provide early, well-targeted intervention. NAPLAN only starts in Year 3, so can’t do this.

Nonsense words are included on the phonics test because they clearly show which children can crack words open by matching sounds to letters/spellings and then blending, and which can’t. Not having ever seen the words before, kids can only tackle them by sounding out.

Early years teachers can try such a test for themselves by downloading the 2016 UK version, available free online. Many Aussie teachers already are, apparently.

This test is quick, objective, and based on a model of reading (the Simple View) which stands up to scientific scrutiny, unlike the widely-used but slow and subjective Running Record, which is based on a model of reading so far from reality that nobody has ever come forward to admit they made it up (Multicueing or the Three-Cueing model).

What does the ALEA PETAA infomercial say about the Year 1 Phonics test?

The video opens with a nice bit of Star Wars style music, and then the President of ALEA says (quotes from the video are in red), “The standardised year 1 phonics test will result in precious teaching time being spent on teaching phonics in a stand-alone model and with nonsense words.”

My questions are:

  1. What is a stand-alone model of phonics, and who advocates it? Nobody I know proposes that teachers only teach phonemic awareness and phonics in the early years, and not teach vocabulary, comprehension and fluency (whether fluency strategies focus on orthographic mapping or not). All are important for reading success. Find me a single expert who says otherwise, and I’ll eat my whiteboard eraser.
  2. How would the phonics test make teachers teach nonsense words? I use them for assessment, as do Psychologists (but they call them the terrifically sciency-sounding “pseudowords”), but only a few phonics programs use them in teaching, and only in a small number of activities. If teachers don’t want to use those activities, they don’t have to.
  3. Does ALEA/PETAA consider nonsense words unsuitable for children? Does this mean they want to stop children reading The Lorax, Jabberwocky, Harry Potter and The Hobbit? Would they like to ban reading and writing about Pokemon and Star Wars?

Next in the video is the statement “Reading is a complex process of making meaning with text. As readers engage with text, they use the cueing system”.

“The cueing system” seems to refer to the approach promoted by Marie Clay, who wrote in 1998 that beginning readers should be encouraged to use “their knowledge of how the world works; the possible meanings of the text; the sentence structure; the importance of the order of ideas; the size of words or letters; special features of sound, shape, and layout; an special knowledge from past literary experiences before they resort to left to right sounding out of chunks or letter clusters, or in the last resort, single letters”.

Any reading scientist can tell you, this is about the worst advice you can give anyone teaching beginners, especially children with weak phonemic awareness. This wonderful cartoon captures what I think of it perfectly:

My questions are:

3. Why is ALEA/PETAA still talking about reading as though it is a “psycholinguistic guessing game”, long after this 1980s idea from father of Whole Language Kenneth Goodman has been comprehensively debunked by reading scientists? We now know reading is simply not a psycholinguistic guessing game. For starters, children do not, and cannot, read words using context cues. The brain’s context processor has almost no role in word identification. Context comes into play in reading comprehension after a word is identified.

4. Would the ALEA/PETAA leadership be prepared to read what scientists now know about reading? The best bits of the huge volume of research available are distilled in books like:

The next statement on the ALEA/PETAA video is: “We teachers employ a wide range of teaching strategies, based on a deep knowledge of how children learn to read and write, and on the individual needs of learners.”

My questions here are:

5. Are the “wide range of teaching strategies” all based on good evidence? The more I think about the term “Balanced Literacy”, the more I think it means “We like to mix strategies that are backed by sound evidence, and strategies that are not”.

6. Does “individual needs of learners” mean the same thing as “learning styles?” There is no evidence that learning styles actually exist.

The ALEA/PETAA video goes on, “There is a need for explicit instruction in letter-sound correspondence and word analysis skills but this should always take place in the context of a meaningful literacy event and in contexts that are meaningful for the child.”

I’d be keen to know:

7. What exactly is “a meaningful literacy event”? I’ve googled it and searched glossaries and indexes, and am none the wiser. The ALEA/PETAA Presidents’ 2016 statement on phonics also talks about “a genuine literacy event”, but again this is not operationally defined. I think it  means pointing out letter-sound correspondences during an activity that’s really about something else, e.g. wombats, pirates, or (as in the video) blocks.

There is actually a name for this type of phonics teaching, “Embedded Phonics”. Sadly the scientific research shows it’s not very effective. See, for example, this 2006 large-scale controlled study, which compared children explicitly taught about spelling using phonics and children taught about phonics in the context of literature, and found “At the end of 5th grade, spelling-context children had significantly higher comprehension than did literature-context children.”

No, that wasn’t a typo. The children taught explicit phonics went on to be better at comprehension, AKA “making meaning”, which is (kind of hilariously) what ALEA/PETAA says is the most important thing about reading.

Next in the video is the statement: “Conversations about texts support children’s reading skills. Reading a wide variety of texts also supports children’s ability to write effectively.”

Well yes, if you can get words on and off the page. So far this week I’ve worked with 36 children and one adult whose schools haven’t taught them to do this very well.

The video continues: “Phonics, the relationship between letters and sounds, and phonemic awareness, the awareness of sounds that make up spoken words, together with the ability to segment and blend sounds to form words, is an important part of reading and writing. However, phonics and phonemic awareness is only one tool that children use to make meaning from a diversity of texts.”

Nobody disagrees with the first sentence, though reading researchers would be more forceful, for instance Snowling, Hulme, Snow and Juell wrote: “Explicit teaching of alphabetic decoding skills is helpful for all children, harmful for none, and crucial for some”. “Crucial”, not just “important”. If it does not occur, some kids will always struggle with decoding and thus also comprehension, vocabulary and fluency.

Regarding the second sentence, I’d like to know:

8. Which children are you talking about? Novice readers need to use most of their cognitive horsepower just to get words off the page, but expert readers can instantly recognise thousands of words, so have plenty of attentional resources to focus on things like genre, inference, author perspective, linguistic diversity and narrative structure. If we conflated novice and expert performance in sport like we do in education (e.g. the Australian Curriculum expects five-year-olds to study genre, inference etc), would we then all stand around scratching our heads about our declining performance in international competition, and saying the only problem was not enough funding? (though of course I give a Gonski).

More video: “Effective readers use knowledge of text structure and knowledge of grammar and at the same time they activate their knowledge of the topic”.

Well, yes, but we don’t observe effective basketballers and draw the conclusion that children who can barely throw and catch should be encouraged to dribble the ball between their legs and slam dunk. We teach them all to throw and catch first.

“Skilling and drilling young children in synthetic phonics or with nonsense words is meaningless to them and demotivating.”

My questions are:

9. If I were to observe a teacher “skilling and drilling young children in synthetic phonics”, what would I see? Would the children all look sad? Would they march up and down? Would the teacher be shouting? It’s possible to watch children doing explicit, systematic phonics activities on the internet (in videos like the ones here, here, here and here) but I can’t spot anything that stands out as evidence of skilling and drilling. They look a lot like normal classrooms, and the children look reasonably happy and interested. Perhaps someone from ALEA/PETAA can provide a helpful list of what it is I’m missing.

10. What measures of meaningfulness and motivation were used, and in what peer-reviewed journal can I read the research showing synthetic phonics is meaningless and demotivating to children?

The video goes on: “Finally, teachers use their expertise to respond to the needs of all the students in their classroom. and they employ a wide range of literacy-teaching strategies based on a deep knowledge of how children learn to read and the needs of their learners.”

I think I just want to repeat questions 5 and 6 here.

The video ends with a typed onscreen blurb reiterating support for embedded phonics, saying phonics assessment should be built into ordinary teaching (though most teachers aren’t taught about phonics at university, and don’t have or know about the relevant tests) and saying “the proposed Year 1 Phonics test doesn’t reflect current evidence-based research” (begging the question “what is non-evidence-based research?” I know, I shouldn’t be flippant).

I fully understand indignation about politicians imposing stuff on teachers, but the public pays for our education system, and in the context of a real and measurable decline in children’s literacy skills, some accountability is necessary.

I remain hopeful that most early years teachers will smile politely at this infomercial, inform themselves about the teaching approaches most strongly supported by scientific evidence, and boost their students’ and their own success by implementing these in classrooms.


8 responses to “Questions about the ALEA PETAA infomercial on the Year 1 Phonics test”

  1. Marcia Paturzo says:

    This should be compulsory reading for us all. Thank you for such a succinct informative response. Some days it’s hard to believe that things will improve.

  2. Berys Dixon says:

    Alea have really got it nailed! I’ve been using lots of context clues in my attempts to decipher the language here in France as well as prior knowledge and I know quite a few high frequency words now-nous allons, oui, merci beaucoup…Of course I’m not too good at actually hearing/reading the important words themselves – I can only use the first sound and think what word it could be -but making meaning is the thing.. The other day we went on a tour of some caves. It was all in French but using the cueing systems I was able to construct my own meaning.. I think part of the story was about Ricardo Montalban and how he once visited the caves in order to join the priesthood but his Nanny came along with some salmon to talk him out of it and he decided to go home and live on the pension…Now that’s a meaningful literacy event.

  3. Amanda Craig says:

    Thanks Alison for such a well presented rebuttal to the (unfortunately) pervasive nonsense portrayed in that video. And also thanks to Berys, I had a good chuckle.

    • alison says:

      You’re welcome, thanks for the lovely feedback. I guess it’s going to make some generally well-intentioned people angry with me but seeing children wasting precious learning time and being misled by harmful methods just drives me nuts. Thankfully we all have Berys to help us see the funny side.

  4. Sue McCandlish says:

    Hi Alison, thanks for your views, clearly stated as always which I enjoy. I think the point of reading is to make meaning, so ALEA is right there, but it’s the code breaking piece, aka Phonics, which is the enabler. So it needs to be in the spotlight in all schools! BTW “meaningful literacy event” – seriously?? PC gone overboard.

  5. Lyn Goodwin says:

    Thank you for your response. I appreciate your expertise and the provision of such great research and examples.

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