The Australian Curriculum Version 9.029 Replies
Prompted by an interesting Radio National interview with ACARA CEO David de Carvalho, I’ve been trying to get my head around early literacy in version 9.0 of the Australian Curriculum. It’s a definite improvement on previous versions, so WELL DONE to all those who argued for evidence-based practice, sorry I was too busy swimming through COVID-related mud to help.
My main interest is in the English strand for Foundation to Year 2, the vital learning-to-spell-and-decode years. Have predictable texts, multicueing and rote-memorisation of high-frequency wordlists finally been dumped? How specific is it about which phonemic awareness, phonics and morphology knowledge/skills to teach in the first three years? What does it say about spelling?
I can’t find any mention of predictable texts (hooray!), but Foundation students will now ‘read decodable and authentic texts’. Decodable texts contain spelling patterns and word types which children have been taught, and help them practise decoding words, and become strong readers. Predictable texts encourage guessing and memorising words, the habits of weak readers. Sadly, if the books my clients’ parents show me are any indication, they’re still the main book type our schools give little kids to ‘read’.
The new curriculum defines authentic texts as “Real, living or natural language texts which may entertain, inform and/or persuade.” In ESL teaching, we think of them as any text written by and for English speakers: signs, labels, leaflets, tweets, letters, menus, newspaper articles, stories, basically anything not written with an educational purpose.
Since authentic texts don’t have simplified spelling patterns, asking beginners to read them is asking them to read words they can’t read yet. State adaptations of the curriculum should clarify that adults will read authentic texts aloud to, or with, children until they’ve learnt enough of our complex spelling code to tackle them independently.
I’m worrying that in the same way Whole Language morphed into ‘Balanced Literacy’, while in practice very little changed, ‘authentic texts’ might become the new eduphemism for predictable texts. There’s nothing authentic about predictable texts. They are written with an educational purpose, using flawed logic about how the brain learns to read. They are nasty, unsafe products for struggling readers, and should all be replaced with decodable texts.
Multicueing (AKA the three-cueing method AKA MSV), encouraging learners to identify words from pictures/context and first letters, also seems to have been dumped from the new curriculum (hallelujah!). Strong readers identify words by looking at all their letters, noticing letter groups/patterns, sounding out any that aren’t yet ‘auto words’ (Jeannine Herron‘s term) or ‘brain words’ (Richard Gentry and Gene Ouellette’s term), and then using their oral language skills to understand the words in context.
Unfortunately, generations of teachers and school leaders have been taught multicueing and other literacy nonsense at university, and in some universities this continues. Teacher professional development on the science of reading is an urgent priority that should accompany the new curriculum, so teachers understand why they should stop using multicueing, and use prompting strategies based on sound science.
High frequency words
I can’t find any obvious encouragement for the non-evidence-based practice of asking children to rote-memorise long lists of high-frequency words (another hooray!). However, ideas about high-frequency words in the curriculum still need work. These words are defined as ‘The most common words used in written English text. Many of these words cannot be decoded using sound–letter correspondence and need to be learnt (e.g. ‘come’, ‘was’, ‘one’).’
The idea that there are two classes of written words, ones you can decode and ones you can’t, and must ‘just learn’, is not consistent with current evidence. Every spoken word contains sounds/speech bits, and every written word contains letters. Sound-spelling correspondences are how they match, and are important for learning ALL words. Two-thirds of the sounds in ‘come’ and ‘was’ are spelt just as you’d expect. Even weirdly-spelt ‘one’ is a third sound-outable, and its spelling makes more sense once you know it was once pronounced like ‘only’ and ‘alone’.
A more helpful and evidence-based approach to high-frequency words with unusual spellings would be to group them by spelling pattern, teach a small number at each step of the phonics teaching sequence, pointing out unusual sound-spelling correspondences (there is usually only one, except in a few words like ‘one’, ‘choir’ and ‘sure’) and include them in reading materials for that step. Happily, that’s exactly what most systematic, synthetic phonics programs do.
Clarity on what to teach at each year level
Version 9.0 is still fairly vague about which phonemic awareness, phonics and morphology concepts and knowledge are to be taught in each of the first three years of school. Think about which kids are most likely to be disadvantaged by this. Not kids in stable, home-owning families who don’t change schools much. It’s the kids who are always changing schools. Kids in poverty. Kids in foster care. Kids in the greatest need.
Such kids need a highly specific and prescriptive phonemic awareness, phonics and morphology curriculum which says exactly what everyone is expected to learn in each of the first three years. This would prevent little kids who change schools from missing out on key information and skills, and being re-taught things they already know. For example, in Foundation, it might spell out:
|Conceptual understanding||Phonemic awareness/skills||Phoneme-grapheme correspondences||Morphemes|
|Spoken words are made of sounds, which we write with letters.||Segment and blend VC, CVC, CVCC, CCVC and CCVCC words.
Manipulate phonemes in all word positions in the above word types.
|a as in apple, e as in egg, i as in insect, o as in octopus, u as in up.
b as in bug, c as in cat, d as in dog, f as in fish, g as in girl, h as in house, j as in jelly, k as in key, l as in ladder, m as in monster, n as in noodles, p as in penguin, r as in road, s as in snake, t as in tiger, v as in vase, w as in worm, y as in yoga, z as in zip
|One letter can represent more than one sound.||s as in is, as, his, has||Plural s as in dogs
3rd person s as in wins
|Two letters often represent one sound||Two-syllable words||ff as in off, ll as in well, ss as in mess, zz as in buzz.
ch as in chip, sh as in shop, th as in with, th as in then
|past tense ed as in jumped, buzzed, landed|
|One letter can (rarely) represent two sounds||x as in box, exact|
|One sound can be represented by more than one letter/spelling||c as in cat, k as in kit, ck as in back, q as in quit.
w as in wet, wh as in when, u as in quit
ng as in sing, n as in sink
l as in lit, ll as in well, le as in battle
|Prefixes and suffixes change the type or meaning of a word||pp as in hopping
bb as in rubber
tt as in bitten
dd as in saddest
gg as in bigger
(double the last consonant letter after a ‘short/checked’ vowel before adding a vowel suffix)
|ing as in jumping
er as in older
est as in oldest
‘s as in Mum’s hat
en as in bitten
y as in lucky
|There are many other sounds and spellings. Some are in common words we need to learn now||a as in a
a as in was, want
a as in all, ball
are as in are
f as in of
i is in I
e as in me, he, we, be, she, the
ee as in see
er as in her
o as in to, do, who
o as in no, go, so
o as in come, some, done, none, one
or as in or, for
ou as in you
u as in put, pull, push
y as in my, by
Curriculum 9.0’s information about spelling, and the speech sounds on which it is based, is a bit underwhelming. In Foundation, children are expected to “spell most consonant–vowel–consonant words”. Vowels are defined in the glossary as “A letter of the alphabet (a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y) that represents a speech sound created by the relatively free passage of breath through the larynx and oral cavity”. Does this mean Foundation students should be able to spell words like ‘son’, ‘put’, and ‘gym’, but not longer but easier words like ‘crust’, ‘flint’ and ‘spend’?
The definition of ‘consonant’ doesn’t even mention sounds: “All letters of the alphabet that are not vowels. The 21 consonants are b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, w, x, y, z.” What about the final sounds in the words ‘sing’, ‘cash’, ‘rich’, ‘with’, ‘breathe’ and ‘beige’, are they not consonants?
In Year 1, children are expected to “spell most one- and two-syllable words with common letter patterns and common grammatical morphemes, and an increasing number of high-frequency words”, spell “known blends” (is there such a thing as an unknown blend?) and start using dictionaries. Then in Year 2 “They spell words with regular spelling patterns, and use phonic and morphemic knowledge to attempt to spell words with less common patterns.”
Exactly which letter/spelling patterns, morphemes/morphemic knowledge and high-frequency words they mean is unclear. This is a bit like having a curriculum that says, ‘In Foundation, children will spell little words, then in Year 1 they’ll spell slightly longer and harder words, then in Year 2 they’ll spell even longer and harder words”.
Phonemes, the mouth gestures and sounds of speech in children’s mouths, are the engine room of learning to spell and read. It’s time education stopped speaking a strange patois of precise linguistic terms and sentences that leave you none the wiser about whether the topic is sounds, letters or both. Teachers need to know what all the 44 speech sounds are, the different ways each one is spelt, the most common prefixes and suffixes, how they are joined to base words, and the terms they can use to talk and write about them clearly and precisely. They should also know a bit about how our language developed, because kids always ask ‘why?’ (though that link is perhaps not entirely historically accurate).
I hope Radio National’s Geraldine Doogue, whose interview got me poring over the new curriculum, does organise extended follow-up discussions about how to turn around our declining PISA performance. I encourage you to tell her what you think. We need states to adapt the national early literacy curriculum to give more clarity and certainty to early years teachers, and help them to swiftly replace outdated, unscientific ideas and materials with ideas and resources fit for the 21st century.
Two extra things: Linnea Ehri visit, and OMG I’m an OAM
Emeritus Professor Linnea Ehri, whose research was so important to developing our understanding of how we learn to read, will be in Australia in October, hosted by Learning Difficulties Australia. I’ve just been roped in to help organise this. She’ll be in Melbourne on the weekend of 22-23 October, so Victorians should save the date, and people in other states should watch the LDA website for updates. Exciting!
Finally, (pinches self) yesterday I got a Medal of the Order of Australia in the Queen’s Birthday honours. Thanks to Lorraine Hammond for the nomination, and congratulations to all the people working to make the world a better place on today’s awards list, and previous lists. Lorraine, Mandy Nayton, Kevin Wheldall, Molly de Lemos, environmentalist Margaret Blakers, disability activist Frank Hall-Bentick, comedian Rod Quantock, and public transport expert Paul Mees all spring to mind. I feel honoured to know and join them, and hope it impresses the judge if I get arrested for chaining myself to a coal-fired power station or logging truck. Am now thinking of lots of people more deserving than me to nominate via this process (know someone? Go for it!).