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Learning the building blocks of words - sounds, their spellings, and word parts

The Australian Curriculum Version 9.0

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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?

Text types

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.

Word identification

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 understandingPhonemic awareness/skillsPhoneme-grapheme correspondencesMorphemes
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, hasPlural s as in dogs
3rd person s as in wins
Two letters often represent one soundTwo-syllable wordsff 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 soundsx as in box, exact
One sound can be represented by more than one letter/spellingc 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 wordpp 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 nowa 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

Spelling

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!).

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28 thoughts on “The Australian Curriculum Version 9.0

  1. Lyn

    Congratulations Allison on your well-deserved award!
    I agree wholeheartedly on your call for a more explicit sequence for teaching. Without this information in the curriculum it will lead to more work for teachers and,sadly, a greater chance for students to miss out.
    The word “authentic” is definitely one open to interpretation and I’m also afraid it will leave the door open to predictable texts.
    When the science is firm, nothing should be left to interpretation in such an important document.

    Reply
    1. alison Post author

      Thanks heaps for the kind words, much appreciated. Yes, I know the curriculum is a high-level document, but there aren’t so many important phoneme-grapheme correspondences (about 175 I think, depending on where you draw the ‘important’ line), syllable types (18, but the main ones to teach are VC, CVC, CVCC, CCVC and CCVCC) and common prefixes and suffixes (about 20 of each) to teach in the first three years that they couldn’t be listed in the curriculum, instead of the more vague stuff on phonemic awareness, phonics and morphology. Less precise information about achievement standards and content is better than information that supports non-evidence-based teaching, at least it can be interpreted in an evidence-based way by knowledgeable teachers. However, it can be interpreted in a less evidence-based way by teachers who need a bit more clarity and guidance from such documents, and teachers working with Whole Language diehard school leaders (there seem to be quite a few!) would find such clarity very helpful.

      Reply
      1. Debbie Draper

        Thank you for this post Alison. I’ve been trying to work on a process / document that unpacks each Achievement Standard then links that broad information with the National Literacy Learning Progressions. The next step is an even more detailed scope and sequence. I’m very excited by your ideas about what this could look like in Foundation. Do you have anything like that for year 1 and 2 or can you point me in the right direction?
        I think it’s important (at least where the AC is mandated) to relate assessment back to the Achievement Standards but we all know they are quite broad and open to interpretation!

        Reply
        1. alison Post author

          Hi Debbie, would the teaching sequence on the pages here be any use in formulating a teaching sequence for years 1 and 2? http://www.spelfabet.com.au/spelling-lists/teaching-sequence. I think Levels 1 and 2 can be mostly done in Foundation, then most of the vowel system (Levels 3-6) in Year 1, but most mainstream kids can dive straight into up to about 4 spellings of each vowel in Year 1, they don’t need to work up through all the very broken-down steps in our website’s Levels 4 and 5. We work with kids with lots of additional difficulties and needs so we needed a system with smaller steps. It would be great to have all the important conceptual, phonemic awareness and orthographic targets operationally defined and sequenced over the first three years of school in the National Literacy Learning Progressions. All the best, Alison

          Reply
  2. Brett

    Congratulations Alison. Thoroughly deserved. You’ve certainly had a huge impact in building my awareness, knowledge and practice around reading instruction. I’d bet that your generous contribution to literacy education has also had a similar impact on many other teachers in this country.

    Reply
  3. Tayla

    Congratulations Alison! Your work has been invaluable to me in my setting as an SLP in education. I’ve been working really hard to support students literacy at schools and can finally see some shift in *some* schools I work with.

    Reply
    1. alison Post author

      Hi Tayla, thanks so much! Great to hear you’ve found my stuff helpful and you’re finally seeing a shift, all change is hard and takes time, but we’re getting there. All the best, Alison

      Reply
  4. Jo

    Authentic texts is just another nod to whole language. So disappointing. This is going back to 90s when children just selected any old book and that was their reading. It’s worse than predictable texts. At least they were levelled to some degree.

    Reply
  5. Itea

    Congratulations. Everything you say is correct. Decodable texts are essential. The problem is resourcing schools and school budgets to afford decodable texts. I know they are essential, but they are not provided at our school. It’s very problematic.
    Thank you for everything you do towards best best best literacy practice.

    Reply
    1. alison Post author

      Thanks so much, I am renewing my nagging of politicians to fund decodables in Foundation and Year 1. It would make such a difference! Alison

      Reply
  6. Kate Hopkins

    Well done, you! So deserved. You have such a gift for distilling the noise and presenting information with such clarity. I just wish i had your energy. Thank you.
    .

    Reply
  7. Jenny Azzopardi

    Congratulations on your well deserved award.
    I really appreciate this article, particularly the detail in your suggested “highly specific and prescriptive phonemic awareness, phonics and morphology curriculum”. I have a question. Lately, I have been considering and debating the sound of Long U ie the name of the letter U. I would argue it has 2 phonemes /y/ and /oo/. As such, it would be listed in the category “One letter can (rarely) represent two sounds”. What are your thoughts?

    Reply
    1. alison Post author

      Hi Jenny, thanks so much, and yes, the phoneme /ue/ as in ‘unit’ really is two sounds (the same as the word ‘you’, the consonant /y/ and then the vowel /oo/) but in my classification system I’ve counted it as just one sound, like diphthongs that transition from one place to another in the mouth (as in ‘make’, ‘fine’, ‘home’, ‘coin’ and ‘house’), because it’s not two sounds in every word in every accent. Think about how Aussies say ‘news’ and ‘dew’ and ‘stupid’ versus how Americans say them, just with /oo/. All the spellings used for /ue/ are also used for /oo/, so many programs teach them together, putting ‘cute’ and ‘flute’ on the same lists. Also should one explain to kids that the first half of the letter represents the /y/ and the second half represents the /oo/? Anyway by the time kids get up to that in the teaching sequence I use, they don’t miss a beat or need an explanation, and it’s too advanced for foundation, which is why it’s not on the table in this page with X. But yes, 10/10 for phonemic awareness! Alison

      Reply
  8. Jen

    Congratulations Alison on receiving your OAM!
    Keep doing what you’re doing, you are an absolute inspiration!

    Reply
  9. Tanya Serry

    Dear Alison,
    Your award gives me faith in the system. Your never-ending commitment to support, to disrupt the status quo (backed up by sound evidence), to share your wisdom and to always always always do it with grace and humour are just a small number of reasons that you make you such a deserving recipient.
    I know you will just keep on with your outstanding work but I am delighted for you and thrilled to see you sharing this recognition that comes form your peers.
    xx tanya

    Reply
    1. alison Post author

      Tanya, that’s so kind it makes me feel a little bit weepy. I thought the email from gg.gov.au was a hoax at first, am still getting used to the idea. Of course my most irreverent friends are helping me with the adjustment by curtseying and offering me cucumber sandwiches, ha ha. All the very best, Alison xx

      Reply
  10. Mary Keating

    Agree with all you have stated here. And congratulations. Surely teachers would not be introducing words like beige and sure in first two years! The soft ‘g’ tells you it’s French and children will need to read ‘measure’ in maths instructions. And texts could still be authentic without such words. I have done my own analysis of what have been nominated The First 100 Sight Words for myself some time ago and only about 20% do not fit known spelling rules. From 50 years of my involvement in teaching, I’ve observed that we tend to go around in circles. Once we lock down the curriculum – as you urge the authorities to do – we will improve outcomes for children and make teaching less onerous for teachers.

    Reply
  11. Michelle Norton

    Congratulations on your OAM Alison; it is just recognition of your tireless advocacy and the impact you have had. Thank you also for your Aust Curric analysis. It is definitely better but it isn’t best. Still some residual elements from days of balanced literacy and don’t rock the boat thinking. I have followed your suggestion and contacted Saturday Extra. I also heard the interview and was hoping GD would follow up in future as she indicated she would due to the high level of interest.

    Reply
    1. alison Post author

      Thanks for the lovely feedback, I am still pinching myself a bit about the OAM. Good on you for following up with Geraldine Doogue, she seems to know that our declining PISA scores suggest a really interesting story. Let’s hope she takes it up! All the best, Alison

      Reply
  12. Jackie

    Hello Alison
    Thank-you for summarising and breaking down the Australian Curriculum. My child attends a school in Victoria where they use the Australian curriculum instead of the Victorian Curriculum. I was very excited to read that the Australian curriculum was planning for students in F-2 to read decodable books. Do you know when the 9.0 Australian curriculum will be implemented?
    It seems like many schools are using decodable texts but they just can’t seem to fully commit. Is it because they feel like all those levelled readers would be wasted or they don’t have the knowledge and understanding that underpins decodable books. My daughter is in grade two and she is currently in intervention doing MiniLit, which is great, but they continue to send home predictable texts and she is currently getting predictable books from the ‘blue star’ box from her classroom, she can’t wait to move up to the next box. We rarely read them as we read decodable texts at home. I asked for her to be given decodable books and she was sent to the prep room to choose a LLLL book and because she reads them at home she had to choose the appropriate level. I’ve asked the school to let me know what she is doing in Mini-lit so we can compliment with decodable books. I just can’t wait till all this nonsense stops and doing a little bit of this and that stops, it’s like school have just thrown a few decodable texts into the mix!

    Reply
    1. alison Post author

      Hi Jackie, I think it’s up to the states to implement the new curriculum, not sure what the timelines are. How annoying that your daughter’s school is doing MiniLit but still sending home predictable texts, they just mustn’t have bought enough decodables, or as you say don’t want to waste the levelled readers, even though they teach the habits of weak readers. They all belong in the recycling IMHO! Anyway let’s just all ask education ministers to upgrade the books little kids are given to read, I did some sums and it would only cost about $18 million to give every F and Yr1 classroom a class set of decodables. That’s peanuts compared with what they spend on other things that have a much smaller impact. All the best, Alison

      Reply
  13. Rochelle Obel

    Dear Alison,
    Hugest congratulations to you on your most deserved OAM. After 33 years of teaching, Im always inspired by you and have found that your resources are often the highlight of my 1:1 sessions. Thank you for everything you have done iand continue to do n shaping curriculum and inspiring the teaching community. In the words of the legendary Neale Daniher, Play On !!

    Reply
    1. alison Post author

      Dear Rochelle, thanks so much for your lovely feedback, it is so much appreciated. Neale Daniher! My mum is a mad Essendon supporter, she’d be happy with that quote! All the best, Alison

      Reply
  14. Carolyn Horton

    Dear Alison,
    Congratulations to the power of 1000. An OAM for you is most fitting. Your ability to explain concepts, and the ‘edu-political’ implications in particular, make your amazing website the first port of call for this this Early Childhood teacher. Thank you for your sheer hard work and dogged determination to get SOR ‘out there’.

    Reply
    1. alison Post author

      Carolyn, that’s such lovely feedback, thank you. I’ll think of it next time I’m about to procrastinate about working on the website! Alison

      Reply

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