New year, same crappy old Education Department advice

20 Replies

In 2018, my state’s Department of Education and Training (DET) produced a brochure for parents called “Literacy and numeracy tips to help your child every day”.

Its top recommendation for “Helping your child work out difficult words” was to tell them, “Look at the picture. What word makes sense?”

Its authors clearly weren’t across the scientific research on how the brain learns to read, which shows that strong readers read (surprise!) the written words in books. Guessing words from pictures or context is only the strategy of 1. weak readers, and 2. learners trying to read books containing spelling patterns they’ve never been taught (e.g. predictable texts, still sadly widely used in schools).

I wrote a cranky blog post about the DET brochure at the time. Then, as my hands were still itching to tear my hair out, I made a free phonics workbook with the same teaching sequence as affordable decodable books, to give parents without much cash a better alternative.

Three years later, parents of five-year-olds have once again been given the same crappy advice in the same brochure, in the 2022 Prep bags. This is the Australian state with the car number-plate slogan “The Education State“, I kid you not.

The brochure only contains the word ‘phonics’ in a section called “Making the most of screen time”, but doesn’t help parents find quality early literacy programs, or consider the difference between them and Reading Eggs, as I have here and here.

There are five nice story books in the Prep bags, suitable for parents to read to children, but not a single decodable book suitable for young beginners to read themselves (unless the book “Hark, It’s Me, Ruby Lee!” is different from “It’s Me, Ruby Lee!” in the Education Minister’s media release).

For a calm, thorough discussion of the difference between the approach recommended by the DET in this brochure, and the approach recommended by reading scientists, see this article: Balanced Literacy or Systematic Reading Instruction? by Prof Pamela Snow.

There has been lots of media discussion about the importance of evidence-based teaching in the early years – recent examples are here, here, and here – and so many wonderful schools and teachers are enthusiastically embracing reading science, that I’d imagined further taxpayer-funded distribution of bad advice to parents wasn’t possible.

Our system not only fails many children with language-based learning difficulties at the start of their education, it bizarrely offers non-evidence-based “Colour Themes” during NAPLAN tests, and this year is making life even harder for the ones who battle on to Year 12, by adding a literacy assessment to the General Achievement Test. The result will be recorded on their graduating certificate for potential employers to see.

Instead of going back to tearing my hair out, I’ve made my January 2019 free Letters and Sounds workbook available again. If you can afford something better, use it instead. If not, and if your child is being taught to read and spell by memorising and guessing words, I hope it helps get them decoding and encoding. The leaflet size Pocket Rockets follow the same phonics teaching sequence, and I think they’re still the cheapest printed decodable books for beginners around.

I look forward to the day when the Victorian DET provides more solidly evidence-based early literacy information and resources to children and parents.


20 responses to “New year, same crappy old Education Department advice”

  1. Mary-Louise Shearer says:

    Great work Alison. Keep talking about it.

  2. Me says:

    How can the department change when it promotes staff that have not had phonics training as a child and when at university it is not part of the curriculum. They merely repeat what they know because that is what they have been taught. The trend to one size fits all “teacher” is the greatest worry. Frequently high school teachers are put onto infants classes and they don’t understand that they have to actually teach the child how to read.
    Many decades ago I had a highly skilled and experienced Kindergarten Teacher tell me that on week 3 of term 1 a new teacher came into her class with an overhead projector and told the children to read the questions and write the answers in their books?! I saw so many excellent teachers leave because they could not watch the deterioration of their profession any more.
    The concept of “infants” school has gone and “lower Primary” has taken its place. Teachers with no understanding of “age and stage” let alone phonics training are let loose on classes with curriculum’s that so not offer appropriate guidance in regards to teaching.

  3. Maria De Ionno says:

    I feel with you, and have been shocked that not all schools and systems are aware by now that a systematic synthetics approach is necessary as a start, and to not encourage guessing based on non-letter information. Thanks for the additional free resources…and the links to useful books. I do beg you though to do your own research – ask adults (even those without reading problems) in your orbit to look at the same information written on different coloured paper and check whether some colours make it easier than others to read – as a start in understanding the needs of those children who find in hard to learn even with the best teaching. Those are the ones I am concerned about..and you have such great resources, so if you added colour information, that large percentage of children would not miss out.

  4. Melanie Johnson says:

    Alison, the despair is real. It’s now the second time this useless guide has been sent home to us and gone immediately into the recycle bin. My 5 year old was so excited to bring home his new book bag and I have been reading the 5 books we received to him. He is one of the children who could have benefited from a decidable text – after completing 2 years of the Little Learners Love Literacy program, to give him the best start possible. he is able to read simple decodable texts. How exciting it would have been for him to discover a book he could read to me!
    I am forwarding your blog post to the leadership team and literacy leaders at my childrens’ school – only a stones throw from where you are – as I continue in my quest to engage them in a rigorous conversation about shifting their balanced literacy program to one based on the Science of Reading. It is a battle royale – but I refuse to give up and accept inadequacy that results in way too many instructional casualties. I said in another post on this topic, I am just waiting for Skippy the Frog and friends to arrive home to compliment this fluff – but we will be ready and waiting with the Decoding Dragon to make light work of them!
    Continued thanks Alison for all you do to support children and families!

  5. Tanya Serry says:

    Hi Alison, Would you consider re-releasing your Reading Eggs blog?

  6. AJ says:

    It is shocking to observe Year 1 students guessing at written CVC words during a rhyming activity. They are at sea after the first sound…I feel like an alien in a foreign land.

  7. Mary Bracy says:

    Hang in there, Allison! Across the ocean in NY many people I know have been reading your material and adjusting their instruction. You may want to pull your hair out but you ARE having an impact. You are planting seeds for a forest from which our future children/students will benefit! What if you didn’t?!! You go girl! I have learned so much from you and when I forget something or need a refresher, I hit YouTube and watch a great video with a pillowcase brain or some 1970’s toys that you made to make information more accessible to adults haha!!! We NEED you!!!

    • alison says:

      Thankyou, Mary! That lovely feedback is very much appreciated. There are always a few people who criticise me for being negative, but it’s hard NOT to feel a bit negative when you work day in, day out with children who have been let down by our education system. But people like yourself pick me up again and make me realise we really are making progress, and one day nobody will dream of teaching children to ‘read’ by guessing and memorising words rather than decoding. All the very best, Alison

  8. Scott says:

    I’ve recently been observing students in class to see why their SSP intervention doesn’t seem to be “sticking”. Turns out they are getting the same old whole language instruction during class time (instead of having their SSP strategies reinforced). One lesson was taken by a second teacher whilst the primary teacher did guided reading. Teacher 2 is their language specialist so they were giving kids the occasional instruction in that language “OK, everyone let’s look for something in the picture that is the colour aspro”. One young bloke was in tears because he was so confused. It took her 40 minutes to read the first page of the book to the class because they spent so much time looking at the pictures and getting their mouth ready for tricky words (what is a tricky word? How can a student get their mouth ready if they can’t read it?”) . They also attempted to build vocabulary mid story by looking at stuff in the pictures that might give you a clue what a “miller” was and what they do.

    • alison says:

      OMG, what is the colour aspro? No wonder someone burst into tears. We speech pathologists know a fair bit about mouths and find all that ‘get your mouth ready’ stuff simply bizarre. So so sorry that what’s happening in the classroom is undermining quality intervention. Such a pity so few teachers are given the knowledge and skills they need to teach literacy really well, it’s bad for them too. Alison

  9. Georgina Georgalli says:

    Excellent read. Just wondering if you have any thoughts on the program-‘Teach your monster to read’? as my school is thinking to set up our students on this as an alternative to Reading Eggs.

    • alison says:

      Hi Georgina, I haven’t used Teach Your Monster To Read much but I have it on my iPad. It wasn’t my favourite when I tried it a couple of years ago, and I just had another look now, and it still isn’t, but I’m not a little kid or someone working with mainstream learners. I am only interested in high repetition sound-to-print phonics in real words, not ‘find the letter that makes the sound’ type activities. But it’s almost certainly a better option in terms of phonics content than Reading Eggs.

    • Scott S says:

      I know some SoR schools are using it in combination with Nessy and Ozphonics. My son liked it when he was 4-5yo and it started teaching similar skills to Nessy’s Hairy Letters and Hairy Phonics, but scaled up to some advanced skills like decodable sentences. My son didn’t finish TYMTR so I don’t know how advanced it gets.

  10. Scott S says:

    Aspro is Greek for white 🙂

    I sat with a student during their independent reading and they just flipped through a book and made up a story based on the pictures. I know they have had at least 1 year of 1:1 SSP intervention, so I had them read a decodable book I had on my iPad. Wouldn’t you know it, they magically managed to work out what most of the words were by sounding them out.

    I work across a bunch of schools and the disconnection between what is taught in the interventions and classrooms is an issue in a lot of them. I’m in the process of looking at the research around this issue to back up my statements to schools on how this reduces the effectiveness of the interventions, but this is slow going given all the other work I have to do.

  11. Claire P says:

    I’m a Speechie in QLD, working in 2 schools. In QLD, schools (both public and private) have access to Speech Pathology support – either visiting or working as part of the teams in schools. I think this model has worked well in slowly bringing evidence-based practice to the teaching of literacy ‘on the ground’. I’ve found (as have many of my colleagues) that many teachers and student support staff are eager to listen and implement the strategies we suggest, as much as they can whilst working under a particular system. Many early years teachers also lament that they aren’t taught this information at university. It’s my understanding that in Victoria, you don’t have Speechies working at or with schools… you and many others might already be doing this, but maybe advocating for schools to access more SP support might be a way of creating that positive change? I’m aware of a research project underway here in Brisbane looking at the efficacy and impact of SPs in schools. I’m wondering if there’s other models of our kind across the globe that might have been researched, and whether that could be used to change what’s happening in Vic (and other Australian states)? If anyone’s aware of any, please let me know!

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