Why is the Vic Ed Dept promoting a Fountas and Pinnell assessment?

Last year, Victorian Education Minister James Merlino said the Education Department did not promote or endorse specific programs, and schools were best-placed to make these decisions.

This year, the Victorian Education Department is inviting schools in the North-East region to apply for up to $2000 to be spent on either Fountas and Pinnell or PAT Reading assessments, or a choice of three maths assessments:

The extra funds and emphasis on data-driven instructional decision-making are welcome, but not if they help teachers gather data on how well children can memorise and guess words, or identify children who are struggling with reading comprehension, without clarifying why (decoding? language comprehension? both?).

I’m no expert on mainstream educational assessments for typically-developing older students, but literacy assessments for beginners and strugglers (such as the ones listed here) should assess the skills that matter most for learning to read and spell.

These include phonemic awareness and letter knowledge in beginners, and phonological memory, rapid automatised naming, word and pseudoword reading and spelling in strugglers. These assessments can identify word-level reading/dyslexia-type difficulties, and thus powerfully inform effective instructional decision-making.

Children who seem to have oral language comprehension problems, which also affect reading comprehension, should be referred to a speech pathologist. Children whose comprehension problems arise from pedagogy that prioritises form over content need their teachers to read The Knowledge Gap by Natalie Wexler.

I have only once administered a Fountas and Pinnell assessment, and it left me scratching my head. I just don’t get the whole balanced literacy/guided reading headspace, which has its roots in the now-debunked idea that reading is a psycholinguistic guessing game.

You might already have watched the US Reading League video of psychologist Steve Dykstra unpacking the statistics in the “gold standard” study on Fountas and Pinnell’s Leveled Literacy Intervention program, showing the program was ineffective, though since most teachers don’t know how to read the statistics, they believe the marketing materials, and keep buying it. This doesn’t exactly build my confidence in the validity or reliability of Fountas and Pinnell assessments.

On the assessment page of the Fountas and Pinnell  website, you’ll see that the Benchmark Level Assessment assesses “students’ independent and instructional reading levels according to the F&P Text Level Gradient™“. The last time I looked, this gradient did not reflect the sequence of sounds, spelling patterns and word parts being taught in literacy lessons.

Fountas and Pinnell books for beginners are predictable/repetitive texts, which don’t simplify spelling patterns, and thus tend to encourage children to memorise and guess words, not decode them. I’d be (pleasantly) surprised if their assessments don’t reflect the same logic.

The PAT is the other reading test North-East region schools are currently allowed to buy with this new funding. The Australian Council for Educational Research sells the PAT tests, and its website says that the “Progressive Achievement Tests in Reading assess students’ reading comprehension skills, vocabulary knowledge and spelling”. It doesn’t say anything about word-level reading or phonemic awareness.

The PAT Reading test might be just what schools in the North-East region most need right now, but it might not be. Schools teaching children phonemic awareness and systematic, explicit phonics, and with a strong Response To Intervention approach, are very likely to need other assessments to document the progress of some students, for good, scientifically-based reasons.

Education Minister James Merlino should clarify that he meant what he said last year, and let schools propose other valid, reliable assessments for purchase with this additional funding. Taxpayers’ money should only be spent on valid, reliable assessments that are consistent with current scientific knowledge about how children learn to read and spell.

21 thoughts on “Why is the Vic Ed Dept promoting a Fountas and Pinnell assessment?

    1. alison Post author

      Hi Kate, I’m perhaps not the best person to advise on this as I’m not a measuring-progress-in-mainstream-schools expert, I’m a clinician who really should be mainly working with Tier 3 kids. However, so many of them haven’t had the teaching/intervention they needed in Tier 1 or 2, so I feel a bit like (as Pam Snow so eloquently puts it) the ambulance driver at the bottom of the cliff, keen to have a fence built at the top. Bentleigh West PS uses DIBELS (https://dibels.uoregon.edu/assessment/index/material) and PAT to measure progress, so that would be my main suggestion. They also use the TILLS, and I’d also suggest that the FELA (www.roslynneilson.com.au) and/or PAST (https://www.thepasttest.com) for phonemic awareness, the FELA is for early years but the PAST can be used with anyone. These aren’t standardised tests but they provide really useful information about underlying skills. We use the CTOPP to assess phonological processing in kids that seem to be struggling but that’s too expensive and long to use with everyone. If you haven’t seen the free MOTIF tests they are also probably worth a look: https://www.motif.org.au/home/tests. Hope that’s helpful, and as I see you’re in WA I’d suggest you also talk to Lorraine Hammond at Edith Cowan Uni and to the people at DSF in Perth, they know a huge amount, I wish we could clone them and have them in every state. All the best, Alison

      Reply
      1. Cindy

        Hi Kate
        Get in touch with your local Language Development Centre Outreach Service – they are a team of speech pathologists and teachers whose role is to help mainstream schools provide high quality assessment and intervention for oral language & the foundations of literacy.
        Many regards

        Reply
    2. Jacqui Tarquinio

      Hi all…love your work Spelfabet!
      I teach Jolly Phonics and have for a long time seen the problem using a whole-language/analytical phonic assessment in our educational environment. The problem is that as a country we do not truly follow an SSP method, therefore the department will never be sure as to what assessment best suits the needs of our students. The research is out there…the best is a systematic, synthetic, phonics approach (SSP). If you would like to see some evidence head to my website.

      Today, when I read this article by Spelfabet I was happy, as it joins in the long-standing literacy wars that are raging here in Australia. If anyone is interested in reading some outstanding articles about the change that needs to happen with our reading assessments here as some https://www.teachermagazine.com.au/articles/teaching-reading-its-simple-but-not-simplistic the simple view of reading which is scientifically based. Others include https://jocelynseamereducation.com/2019/04/18/time-to-break-up-with-running-records/.
      One thing I can really advise you to do is to be flexible in this ever-changing environment but make sure you stand up for what you can see works. As an SSP teacher I really recommend systematically teaching and testing the 42 sounds of the English language and testing using decodable words… the free Burt (reading) and Schonell (spelling) tests on the RRF website are a good place to start http://www.rrf.org.uk/resources.html.

      At the moment it all depends on the schools we are teaching at…some embrace the change as they have seen the data and some just can’t move on as they are stuck in a ‘time warp’. If you want to change things remember you are fighting a literacy war and this fight is from the bottom up. Like some of you already said it needs to be changed from parents and teachers (university lecturers like Pamela Snow and Jennifer Buckingham are doing their best but we need to fight too). I wrote to the Hon Dan Tehan (MP) at the beginning of the year after his ‘Phonics in Schools’ press release and he assured me that a phonics ‘task force’ was to be assigned to address the conflict here within Australia. Fingers crossed!

      For those of your schools that are keen to follow an excellent SSP program of Jolly Phonics you could always watch Sue Lloyd (author of Jolly Phonics in the UK) discussing reading tests on her website http://tcrw.co.uk/help-with-reading-and-writing-problems/identifying-reading-and-writing-problems/part-1-using-tests-to-identify-problems/.
      All the very best and don’t forget to fly the systematic, synthetic phonics flag during this battle!

      Cheers,
      Jacqui Tarquinio
      Jolly Phonics in Melbourne

      Reply
      1. alison Post author

        Hi Jacqui, I’ve just been looking at your lovely new website, wow, I hadn’t seen that before. I have put a link to it in a couple of places on my website but must do a more thorough update and make sure that it’s in all the relevant locations this coming school holidays. So great to hear that you’re also pushing for better early years phonics teaching and I hope to see you around the traps in Melbourne sometime. All the very best, Alison

        Reply
        1. Jacqui Tarquinio

          Hi Alison,
          I was thrilled to get your message. I always promote your work at the schools I teach and especially all your wonderful resources! I hope you saw that I also have you linked on my website and thank you so much for linking your website to mine! Anything to help promote a change in the way we teach early years English in Australia!
          I have some up and coming videos that I have recently put together that will help parents to teach Jolly Phonics in the home environment. They should launch in the next week or two.
          Just wondering if you were aware that the Jolly Phonics decodable readers are free if you download them before the 30th of June. Jolly have been putting together a whole lot of helpful resources to assist teachers during the Covid crisis. You may also find these helpful too. The link is as follows https://www.jollylearning.co.uk/jolly-phonics-e-readers-now-available/?sfns=mo
          Please yell out if I can be assistance in anyway. All the very best and stay in touch.
          Kindly,
          Jacqui

          Reply
          1. alison Post author

            Wow, Jacqui, I hadn’t seen (or don’t remember seeing) the free Jolly Readers, and have now downloaded them and will be able to show others. I have a few of them in my book collection but as you know paper books are expensive so the rest have been on my wish list. I look forward to your videos and yes, please do keep in touch, at least online and I hope when COVID-19 permits, in person. All the very best, Alison

  1. Sarah Hughes

    What can we do to ensure this doesn’t continue in schools? As a parent and not a classroom teacher, I find this so frustrating!

    Reply
    1. alison Post author

      Sarah, I wish I knew. It’s terrible for teachers as well as kids and parents. Imagine how much teacher workloads could be reduced in higher year levels if they didn’t have to do all the differentiation work they currently do to include so many kids with poor literacy. I think the change has to be teacher-led and there are some really great teachers trying to make it happen, but there isn’t a lot of support from the bureaucracy or academia, at least in this state.

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    2. Sarah fowlie

      Sarah Hughes I agree. I find it equally frustrating. I have been wondering lately if there was a parent movement/group in Victoria ( I am in Melbourne) to try and highlight/ campaign the state government/ schools. Hopefully someone may be reading this, who knows of any like minded parent groups? I think the voice of parents could be just as influential as that of teachers.

      Reply
  2. Wendy King

    I so feel your frustration!! Just when it seems like progress is being made towards implementation of science based reading practices, it is hit with yet another hammer!! Hope to despair!! Why are the Education Authorities not following the Science of 20 to 30 years? Negligence!!
    Here in New Zealand, we had the same statement last year from our Ministry of Education!

    Reply
  3. Penny Peers

    We have introduced Initial Lit into our Prep/1 class and continue with the same ideology into our other primary literacy classes but we have struggled to find the easiest and most effective assessments for struggling readers beyond Grade 1 as we are moving away from PM benchmarking. Also love to know what programs/resources you would recommend for intervention?

    Reply
    1. alison Post author

      I understand that the good folk at Bentleigh West PS use DIBELS (https://dibels.uoregon.edu/assessment/index/material) and PAT to check progress. They also use the SPAT-R for phonemic awareness in the early years, but the FELA is the new version of the SPAT-R, and while it’s not standardised yet the PAST (https://www.thepasttest.com) assesses phonemic awareness as well as proficiency, so it’s great for those older kids who pass the easier PA tests but still aren’t really building their sight vocabularies or getting fluent. BWPS also use the TILLS for more in-depth assessment across a number of areas. I also like the Parallel Spelling Tests, John from Sounds-Write suggested them and I’m still getting my head around them but they look more useful as the basis for programming decisions than clinical tools like the Test of Written Spelling, which we currently use, but then I often also have to get a sample of other words before working out where to start.

      Regarding programs, I love Sounds-Write (https://www.sounds-write.co.uk/) for both early years and intervention, we use it with the Phonic Books’ Catch Up series a lot for kids aged 8 and up. But it seems now every year there are more and more good systematic phonics resources for older kids, I am trying to find the time to properly update my website lists with all the good things, sorry I’ve fallen a bit behind on this lately but I’ll get onto it.

      Reply
  4. felicity whitten

    This is really disappointing to hear. Especially so now when many schools will have reduced budgets due to COVID. Less fund raising opportunities and redistribution of funds to conform with hygiene etc means money needs to be spent on quality decodable resources and assessments. Such a shame the departmental advisors aren’t forced to study best practice for teaching Literacy before they make superfluous recommendations.

    Reply
  5. Narelle Furminger

    When used correctly in conjunction with ‘real systematic phonics‘ teaching, it is a very comprehensive resource.

    Reply
    1. Claire

      What does ‘used correctly’ mean Narelle? An obvious flaw is the lack of ‘decodability’ of texts, encouraging guessing based on the pictures and syntax, which works against any ‘real systematic phonics’ teaching, leaving the students not knowing what approach to take when faced with an unknown word. If it is ‘comprehensive’ why would it be used ‘in conjunction with’ systematic phonics teaching? I’ve seen it used for intervention over many years without meeting the needs of the vast majority of students who were in the program – it became accepted that these students would just remain in the intervention program year after year….many falling further and further behind their peers.

      Reply
      1. Narelle Furminger

        Hi Claire,
        Firstly these books are ‘decodable’, if phonics is taught correctly. If SSP teaching æ as in ant -SATPIN is taught then yes these books are harder to decode with the SSPletter sound code supplied. Where in F &P does it say don’t teach phonics or where does it say only ask children to guess the words from syntax and semantics.? SSP is not systematic if the learning is not transferable to all print but only suited to a decodable set of readers. Teach teachers how to teach ‘real’ phonics and any reading series can be used. – that is if the aim is to build teacher capacity to stem the casualties.

        Reply
        1. Claire

          Actually if you pull out the very first 4 books as an example I think you’ll find that they’re impossible to decode (not just harder) given the phonic component of the program. The intriguing thing about the program is that it doesn’t say ‘don’t teach phonics’ but rather it provides a phonic progression that doesn’t support reading the books. It doesn’t say ‘only ask children to guess the words from syntax and semantics’ but it encourages guessing (literally and out of sheer desperation – I’ve seen it in foundation kids and older kids who have missed out on SSP teaching) because the phonic component of the lesson is inadequate for reading the book for the lesson.
          I do agree that with good phonic teaching eventually the students should be able to read all print… I just don’t expect it straight away, in the same way that I wouldn’t expect a child who was still developing 1:1 correspondence to be able to understand and use the processes of addition and subtraction. And I definitely agree that we all want to avoid more students becoming reading ‘casualties’.

          Reply
  6. Leanne Johnson

    A parent here – with two dyslexic children 9 years apart. (19 & 10) I wonder if the Pat-R is filtering down from the secondary school environment where it is used in submission to VCAA as part of the required evidence for accommodations for students with a SLD in VCE SACS and exams. I just checked it is still there for 2020. We didn’t come across it until year 11 & 12 but I noticed that Learning Support at the school were beginning to regularly use it on students in the younger years. It didn’t inform intervention just accommodation. I hope this doesn’t become the approach in primary schools.

    Reply
    1. alison Post author

      Hi Leanne, not being a teacher I’m not sure whether the PAT-R started in secondary, or whether it is informative in planning intervention not accommodation. However lots of people are now asking me questions I can’t answer about it and other assessments so I am reading like mad about them! Might be able to write a follow-up blog post on this once I have my head around mainstream educational progress-checking assessments. Alison

      Reply

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