Autonomy’s great if it delivers success

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The Australian Education Union dislikes our state’s new requirement to teach explicit, systematic, synthetic phonics in the early years, saying teachers already do phonics, must not be told how to do their jobs, weren’t properly consulted, and won’t cooperate. However, many teachers, including AEU members, are pleased by this new requirement. They see it as a vital social justice measure and a way to cut teacher workloads, and are disappointed by the AEU’s response. Teacher James Dobson writes about this here.

I’m not sure why being told to do something you already do is a problem. Everyone is told how to do their jobs, including self-employed folk like me. I’m working on my Speech Pathology Australia Certification, and must comply with Fair Work, NDIS, Medicare, ATO and many other requirements.

The reading/learning science movement has been growing like topsy for years, so I’d be surprised if Education Ministers and the AEU haven’t had plenty of discussions about how to best teach literacy. Having been a union rep myself, I’d be amazed if AEU members went to the barricades to defend teaching approaches which lack strong evidence, or the resulting high differentiation workloads.

Teacher autonomy (not evidence-based practice) gets top priority in the recently-updated AEU Pedagogy Policy. Perhaps whoever invited Barbara Arrowsmith to speak at the AEU office in 2017 led the policy review process. Has teacher autonomy been working well for this state’s struggling readers, and their teachers, who have a right to do high-quality work, and to see their students succeed?

New VAGO report

A new state Auditor-General (VAGO) report says our Education Department isn’t getting good value for the $1.2 billion dollars being spent over five years on its Tutor Learning Initiative. There’s substantial evidence (e.g. here and here) that high-quality, intensive small group intervention can help struggling readers catch up. Across the state in 2023, tutored kids’ test scores increased more than the median increase for all kids (great!), but less than matched kids who weren’t tutored (oh dear).

I’m sure many skilled, experienced tutors who understand reading/learning research provided high-quality intervention in many schools, and their students made a lot of progress. But what were tutors doing elsewhere? Balanced literacy (a balance of things that work and things that don’t)? Other ineffective programs/approaches? VAGO says tutoring was generally timely, but there were problems with targeting intervention, and making it appropriate to school context and student need. Workforce problems mainly affected secondary and F-12 schools.

VAGO concludes that many schools’ tutoring was not effective, and recommends a statewide, staged roll-out of effective programs. Data the Education Department already collects should be used to drive improvement. Absolutely.

What does good intervention look like?

Most kids who struggle to read and write have difficulty at the word level. Kids’ word-level reading and spelling improves when they do a LOT of well-targeted and sequenced reading and writing practice. If watching a Tutor Learning Initiative literacy session, I’d mainly want to see kids with eyes on text (in books, games, whatever) as they read aloud, or pencils in hand, writing, then reading back what they’ve written. I’d want to see tutors providing well-organised and sequenced, fast-paced work with immediate feedback and encouragement. They’d be helping kids get their reps up, and slam-dunk words into long-term memory for instant retrieval and thus fluency.

Take a look at the 90 second video about the Tutor Learning Initiative here: I see children walking, sitting, talking, smiling … but can you see any children reading or writing? What does this mean? I’m not sure, but I’d promote this initiative with a very different video.

System support for the best teaching and learning

The AEU’s submission to our recent state government inquiry into education says on p2:

“Geoffrey Robertson KC correctly argues that “a real revolution in education will only come when a government ensures that its state schools set the standard of excellence. Then and only then will we have equity.” The idea of equality draws on notions that all people in our society are of equal value. This democratic principle is crucial to underpinning the provision of public schooling. Only through proper and fair funding of our schools and a system focused on supporting school staff to provide the best teaching and learning programs that then (sic) we can achieve equity.”

Typo/grammar aside, I couldn’t agree more. It’s time to close the school funding gap. I hope the Federal Next Steps report ensures that future Initial Teacher Education graduates know how to teach reading and spelling fast and well. I hope ongoing Tutor Learning Initiative improvements, and implementation of the VAGO report’s recommendations, help stacks of struggling kids catch up with their peers in 2025. And I hope AEU members can persuade their leaders that early, explicit, systematic phonics is (to paraphrase Snow and Juel) helpful to all children and their teachers, harmful to none, and crucial for some, and that autonomy to wander in the literacy pedagogy wilderness is highly overrated.


7 responses to “Autonomy’s great if it delivers success”

  1. Megan King says:

    I’ve shared this page on my facebook group ‘Autism & Special Needs – Melbourne’ (
    How ridiculously egotistical and ignorant can they be?

  2. Justin McDermott says:

    Astonishing to see the Melbourne Age give space to a young teacher who believes that the burden of adopting Phonics will drive many Victorian teachers into resigning from the profession.

    Does anyone really understand what’s driving the AEU into its reactionary position? Is it just the embarrassment of admitting that their 40-year commitment to ‘balanced literacy’ has been a mistake? If so, it will be even more awkward when we begin to see comparative data from public schools that adopt phonics and those that don’t.

    • alison says:

      Yes, the bit that got me in that article was: “If we really want to remain the education state, we need to invest in changes that celebrate teacher professionalism …” Celebrate teachers ignoring decades of reading research because they think they always know best? Srsly? Anyway, once teachers understand how our writing system works and experience the success that early systematic synthetic phonics brings to children and themselves, in my experience they never want to go back to balanced literacy. They ask ‘why wasn’t I taught this at university?’ At some point the majority will have had this experience, so we just need to hang in there, focus on the evidence and the outcomes teachers and kids need and deserve, and we’ll get there.

  3. susan margaret mahar says:

    No. Teachers are not embarrassed; Infuriated and disheartened maybe as they are subject to constant undermining and attack by non-experts with their unsubstantiated claims of ‘evidence based’ science. I totally support the need to identify and provide intervention programs for kids who are struggling but there is no one-size-fits-all program even for those who struggle.. I spent most of my teaching career in underprivileged areas so I know exactly what it means to engage children in meaningful reading and writing programs and how empowering it is. During the 80s teachers actually teamed with speech pathologists and kids were the beneficiaries. However during the nineties a change in literacy funding enabled cognitive scientists (speech pathologists and clinical psychologists) to set up tutoring programs outside and in opposition to school programs. tutoring became a billion dollar industry were to be made and children have come off second best. Social, emotional and intellectual developmental differences have been overlooked as the aim became to prove beginners were failing because teachers were incompetent. As an original Infant Trained Teacher with post graduate qualifications in literacy who managed multi-aged classrooms of enthusiastic learners my whole teaching career I’m appalled and saddened by the way speech pathologists see themselves as experts in teaching. They have an important role in helping kids articulate sounds. In recent years. One of my grandchildren would have benefitted from early language support but I advised his mother to wait until he could read so he wouldn’t be labelled dyslexic and face an instructional program unsiutsed to his needs. That worked but his life could have been easier had he not had to wait until grade 5 for intervention to help him articulate. We were privileged too – educated parents,a house of books, Not every child is so lucky and we know they are overwhelmingly in disadvantaged areas. What a pity we can’t reclaim some mutual respect for the sake of the children. Let’s be kind and listen.

    • alison says:

      Hi Susan, how extraordinary that someone with years of teaching experience and postgraduate qualifications in literacy would recommend delaying any child’s speech-language therapy until Grade 5. Articulation errors often interfere with learning to read and spell, and early speech-language intervention is much easier and more effective than delayed intervention. The role and expertise of speech pathologists is outlined here: When the whole school system is teaching children to read and spell according to the best available scientific evidence, instead of teaching them to rote-memorise and guess words, there will be no need for people outside the education system to do it. Nobody will be happier about this than me. I’ve also worked in many disadvantaged schools and I find it infuriating and entirely unacceptable that many children currently only get the kind of teaching they need if their parents can pay for it. I have great respect for teachers and am glad that the government is now listening to the many thousands of teachers and others who are working together to translate research into practice, prevent reading failure and ensure that struggling learners get early, effective intervention at school.

      • Susan Mahar says:

        Yes Alison, it hurt not to be able to tap into help for my grandson but I knew enough about him to know he would be totally frustrated and demoralized by an intervvention which undermined the teacher and school he loved. Also because he loved books and adored being read to. Luckily the family coped but it is not a decision any parent should be forced to make. I am happy to report the few times I have agreed to help kids in my retirement I have gone to observe them in class and assure class teachers that I am happy to adapt what I do to support the reading and writing programs I have observed. This has worked well for everyone – especially the kids. I must admit I declined to help anyone for quite a while because I knew the damage done by out-of-school tutors who undermined the local school, unsettling kids and their parents. Which brings me back to my grandson and his needs as a five year old. I did a lot of research to eventally find a speech pathologist who had studied early literacy development. It was clear from her written statements about her understandings that she would work to supprt him without feeling a need to criticize the way he had been taught. (And yep one of his strongest skills always was a memory for words!). Speechie was great but – yes- I wish we had found her when he was five. There is a place for quality support.

      • Susan Mahar says:

        PS The AEU pedagogy policy is excellent. I see you have highlighted a link. It should clear up misunderstandings about teaching, as opposed to tutoring. I hope it is widely read. I feel it says everything that needs to be said. I rest my case. Be kind.

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