Questions about the ALEA PETAA infomercial on the Year 1 Phonics test

The Australian Literacy Educators Association (ALEA) and the Primary English Teaching Association Australia (PETAA) have just released an “infomercial” about the proposed Year 1 Phonics test. They oppose it, but watching their infomercial left me with more questions than answers.

What’s the point of the Year 1 Phonics test?

Given the way NAPLAN data have been used to encourage schools to compete not collaborate, and teachers’ often crazy workloads, I completely understand that many teachers are wary of yet another mandatory test.

However, the point of the Year 1 Phonics test is to help teachers better identify which children are struggling to read words, in order to provide early, well-targeted intervention. NAPLAN only starts in Year 3, so can’t do this.

Nonsense words are included on the phonics test because they clearly show which children can crack words open by matching sounds to letters/spellings and then blending, and which can’t. Not having ever seen the words before, kids can only tackle them by sounding out.

Early years teachers can try such a test for themselves by downloading the 2016 UK version, available free online. Many Aussie teachers already are, apparently.

This test is quick, objective, and based on a model of reading (the Simple View) which stands up to scientific scrutiny, unlike the widely-used but slow and subjective Running Record, which is based on a model of reading so far from reality that nobody has ever come forward to admit they made it up (Multicueing or the Three-Cueing model).

What does the ALEA PETAA infomercial say about the Year 1 Phonics test?

The video opens with a nice bit of Star Wars style music, and then the President of ALEA says (quotes from the video are in red), “The standardised year 1 phonics test will result in precious teaching time being spent on teaching phonics in a stand-alone model and with nonsense words.”

My questions are:

  1. What is a stand-alone model of phonics, and who advocates it? Nobody I know proposes that teachers only teach phonemic awareness and phonics in the early years, and not teach vocabulary, comprehension and fluency (whether fluency strategies focus on orthographic mapping or not). All are important for reading success. Find me a single expert who says otherwise, and I’ll eat my whiteboard eraser.
  2. How would the phonics test make teachers teach nonsense words? I use them for assessment, as do Psychologists (but they call them the terrifically sciency-sounding “pseudowords”), but only a few phonics programs use them in teaching, and only in a small number of activities. If teachers don’t want to use those activities, they don’t have to.
  3. Does ALEA/PETAA consider nonsense words unsuitable for children? Does this mean they want to stop children reading The Lorax, Jabberwocky, Harry Potter and The Hobbit? Would they like to ban reading and writing about Pokemon and Star Wars?

Next in the video is the statement “Reading is a complex process of making meaning with text. As readers engage with text, they use the cueing system”.

“The cueing system” seems to refer to the approach promoted by Marie Clay, who wrote in 1998 that beginning readers should be encouraged to use “their knowledge of how the world works; the possible meanings of the text; the sentence structure; the importance of the order of ideas; the size of words or letters; special features of sound, shape, and layout; an special knowledge from past literary experiences before they resort to left to right sounding out of chunks or letter clusters, or in the last resort, single letters”.

Any reading scientist can tell you, this is about the worst advice you can give anyone teaching beginners, especially children with weak phonemic awareness. This wonderful cartoon captures what I think of it perfectly:

My questions are:

3. Why is ALEA/PETAA still talking about reading as though it is a “psycholinguistic guessing game”, long after this 1980s idea from father of Whole Language Kenneth Goodman has been comprehensively debunked by reading scientists? We now know reading is simply not a psycholinguistic guessing game. For starters, children do not, and cannot, read words using context cues. The brain’s context processor has almost no role in word identification. Context comes into play in reading comprehension after a word is identified.

4. Would the ALEA/PETAA leadership be prepared to read what scientists now know about reading? The best bits of the huge volume of research available are distilled in books like:

The next statement on the ALEA/PETAA video is: “We teachers employ a wide range of teaching strategies, based on a deep knowledge of how children learn to read and write, and on the individual needs of learners.”

My questions here are:

5. Are the “wide range of teaching strategies” all based on good evidence? The more I think about the term “Balanced Literacy”, the more I think it means “We like to mix strategies that are backed by sound evidence, and strategies that are not”.

6. Does “individual needs of learners” mean the same thing as “learning styles?” There is no evidence that learning styles actually exist.

The ALEA/PETAA video goes on, “There is a need for explicit instruction in letter-sound correspondence and word analysis skills but this should always take place in the context of a meaningful literacy event and in contexts that are meaningful for the child.”

I’d be keen to know:

7. What exactly is “a meaningful literacy event”? I’ve googled it and searched glossaries and indexes, and am none the wiser. The ALEA/PETAA Presidents’ 2016 statement on phonics also talks about “a genuine literacy event”, but again this is not operationally defined. I think it  means pointing out letter-sound correspondences during an activity that’s really about something else, e.g. wombats, pirates, or (as in the video) blocks.

There is actually a name for this type of phonics teaching, “Embedded Phonics”. Sadly the scientific research shows it’s not very effective. See, for example, this 2006 large-scale controlled study, which compared children explicitly taught about spelling using phonics and children taught about phonics in the context of literature, and found “At the end of 5th grade, spelling-context children had significantly higher comprehension than did literature-context children.”

No, that wasn’t a typo. The children taught explicit phonics went on to be better at comprehension, AKA “making meaning”, which is (kind of hilariously) what ALEA/PETAA says is the most important thing about reading.

Next in the video is the statement: “Conversations about texts support children’s reading skills. Reading a wide variety of texts also supports children’s ability to write effectively.”

Well yes, if you can get words on and off the page. So far this week I’ve worked with 36 children and one adult whose schools haven’t taught them to do this very well.

The video continues: “Phonics, the relationship between letters and sounds, and phonemic awareness, the awareness of sounds that make up spoken words, together with the ability to segment and blend sounds to form words, is an important part of reading and writing. However, phonics and phonemic awareness is only one tool that children use to make meaning from a diversity of texts.”

Nobody disagrees with the first sentence, though reading researchers would be more forceful, for instance Snowling, Hulme, Snow and Juell wrote: “Explicit teaching of alphabetic decoding skills is helpful for all children, harmful for none, and crucial for some”. “Crucial”, not just “important”. If it does not occur, some kids will always struggle with decoding and thus also comprehension, vocabulary and fluency.

Regarding the second sentence, I’d like to know:

8. Which children are you talking about? Novice readers need to use most of their cognitive horsepower just to get words off the page, but expert readers can instantly recognise thousands of words, so have plenty of attentional resources to focus on things like genre, inference, author perspective, linguistic diversity and narrative structure. If we conflated novice and expert performance in sport like we do in education (e.g. the Australian Curriculum expects five-year-olds to study genre, inference etc), would we then all stand around scratching our heads about our declining performance in international competition, and saying the only problem was not enough funding? (though of course I give a Gonski).

More video: “Effective readers use knowledge of text structure and knowledge of grammar and at the same time they activate their knowledge of the topic”.

Well, yes, but we don’t observe effective basketballers and draw the conclusion that children who can barely throw and catch should be encouraged to dribble the ball between their legs and slam dunk. We teach them all to throw and catch first.

“Skilling and drilling young children in synthetic phonics or with nonsense words is meaningless to them and demotivating.”

My questions are:

9. If I were to observe a teacher “skilling and drilling young children in synthetic phonics”, what would I see? Would the children all look sad? Would they march up and down? Would the teacher be shouting? It’s possible to watch children doing explicit, systematic phonics activities on the internet (in videos like the ones here, here, here and here) but I can’t spot anything that stands out as evidence of skilling and drilling. They look a lot like normal classrooms, and the children look reasonably happy and interested. Perhaps someone from ALEA/PETAA can provide a helpful list of what it is I’m missing.

10. What measures of meaningfulness and motivation were used, and in what peer-reviewed journal can I read the research showing synthetic phonics is meaningless and demotivating to children?

The video goes on: “Finally, teachers use their expertise to respond to the needs of all the students in their classroom. and they employ a wide range of literacy-teaching strategies based on a deep knowledge of how children learn to read and the needs of their learners.”

I think I just want to repeat questions 5 and 6 here.

The video ends with a typed onscreen blurb reiterating support for embedded phonics, saying phonics assessment should be built into ordinary teaching (though most teachers aren’t taught about phonics at university, and don’t have or know about the relevant tests) and saying “the proposed Year 1 Phonics test doesn’t reflect current evidence-based research” (begging the question “what is non-evidence-based research?” I know, I shouldn’t be flippant).

I fully understand indignation about politicians imposing stuff on teachers, but the public pays for our education system, and in the context of a real and measurable decline in children’s literacy skills, some accountability is necessary.

I remain hopeful that most early years teachers will smile politely at this infomercial, inform themselves about the teaching approaches most strongly supported by scientific evidence, and boost their students’ and their own success by implementing these in classrooms.

New early literacy skill assessment service

It’s often very confusing for parents to work out whether to be concerned about their young child’s reading and writing skill development.

If the parents I talk to are reliable informants, advice from schools often goes like this:

  • Age 5-6: Yes, your child is taking a while to catch on to reading and writing, but let’s wait and see, she could just be a “late bloomer”. Just keep reading predictable texts and encouraging her to look at the pictures and guess, memorising high-frequency words etc.
  • Age 6-7: Your child will be attending individual or small group intervention, for more intensive activities of the type that didn’t work last year, e.g. Reading Recovery or Leveled Literacy Intervention.
  • Age 7-8: You need to pay a Psychologist $1000+ for a comprehensive cognitive and educational assessment, because we think your child might be dyslexic. If she is, you’ll have to pay a tutor to help her, because the school spends all its literacy intervention money on the program for 6-7 year olds.

I’m really tired of hearing this story, and aware that the “late bloomer” is usually on a path to failure, so I want to provide parents with earlier, more evidence-based advice. However, I’m too busy to offer a new service myself, so I’ve hired another Speech Pathologist, Nicole Erlich, to offer a reading/spelling assessment package for 6-8 year olds that’s fairly quick, focuses on the things that matter most for beginners, and doesn’t cost the earth. Continue reading


The Arrowsmith program has been going for about 35 years, and had a research program for about 18 years.

In all that time, not one study has appeared in a peer-reviewed journal providing reliable scientific evidence that it works. Not one.

Perhaps the Australian Education Union didn’t realise this when giving Canada’s Barbara Arrowsmith-Young (AKA The Woman Who Changed Her Brain) a platform to promote her program here last week.

Radio National also interviewed her but failed to ask her hard questions, like whether her program has actually been shown to work. Continue reading

What kind of knowledge is needed for good spelling?

A lot has been written by philosophers and in Dilbert cartoons about different types of knowledge.

Often these are described using terms like “explicit” versus “tacit” or “declarative” versus “procedural” knowledge. What matters most for spelling?

Declarative versus procedural knowledge

Explicit, declarative knowledge is theoretical information about a subject e.g. that we use a base 10 number system, and that our Solar System has 8 planets (sorry, Pluto). Libraries, databases and the internet are full of it.

Procedural knowledge is often harder to describe (more tacit) and more practical. It’s knowing how to do something, like tie up a shoelace, play the guitar or ride a bike.

I have quite a bit of explicit, declarative knowledge about how to play brilliant tennis (yes, the Australian Open men’s final is on, but we love both Roger and Raffa, so who to barrack for?!) but despite years of trying (our tiny country town didn’t have enough kids to field a team without unco asthmatic me), I never managed to convert this into much procedural knowledge.

I’ve been nerdily immersed in spelling books lately, and have realised that most books about spelling are full of explicit, declarative knowledge, but aren’t necessarily much help with the “how”, or what we should be doing to build tacit, procedural knowledge of spelling. Continue reading

The difference between research and marketing

A recent TES article says a new UK report reveals a “Silent army of 40,000 ‘lost girls’ struggling with reading”.

Great, attention-grabbing headline. Shades of Boko Haram. But we already know that many girls can’t decode, or can’t comprehend language very well, or have both problems.

There are fewer struggling girls than struggling boys, and girls are more likely to shrink into themselves than attract attention by behaving badly when they’re struggling. But struggling girls exist in schools everywhere, which should already be identifying and assisting them.

An over-reliance on phonics?

What made me sit up and pay attention in the TES article was its statement that the report it discusses “suggests that an ‘over-reliance on phonics’ is obscuring deeper problems with reading in primary schools – where children can read words but may not understand them”. Continue reading

The UK Phonics Check could help reduce teacher workloads

There’s an article in yesterday’s Age newspaper about a proposal from literacy expert Dr Jennifer Buckingham for compulsory use of the UK Phonics check with Australian first grade children. Rather than trying to paraphrase it, I encourage you to read the proposal yourself, it’s in plain English and based on a behemoth of scientific evidence.

Any teacher, school or interested person can already use the UK Phonics Check. It’s quick, free, simple, downloadable and a useful assessment of early reading skills. Some Australian schools already use it. Click here for the 2016 version.

The test asks children who’ve had about 18 months of literacy instruction to read 20 real words like “chin”, “queen” and “wishing”, plus 20 made-up words like “doil”, “charb” and “barst”.

Since its introduction in England in 2012, the proportion of children passing the Phonics Check has increased each year, and the proportion of children below the expected standard on Year 2 reading tests has fallen by a third. The achievement gap between wealthier and poorer students has also narrowed. Yay to that. Continue reading

Controversial dyslexia therapies

Parents often tell me they wasted precious time and money on controversial reading/spelling/dyslexia therapies that didn’t work.

The time wasted is even more of a worry than the money. The more a child falls behind, the more she or he becomes likely to never be able to catch up.

I’ve written a few blog posts about various controversial therapies, but not a summary one that might be easily found by an anxious, googling parent. So I thought this might be a good way to mark the end of Dyslexia Empowerment week, and come in handy while we wait for Pam Snow and Caroline Bowen’s 2017 book “Making Sense of Interventions for Children With Developmental Disorders”.

Most readers of this blog will already know about the MUSEC Briefings, which summarise the research on a large number of special needs interventions, many of them controversial.

Another useful source of information about controversial therapies is a 2015 NZ article called Behavioural Interventions to Remediate Learning Disorders, which reviews Arrowsmith, Brain Gym, Cellfield, Cogmed, Davis, Dore, Fast ForWord, Lexia, Lumosity, Slingerland, Tomatis and several other programs.

The 2007 Santiago Declaration by prominent neuroscientists pointed out that “Neuroscientific research, at this stage in its development, does not offer scientific guidelines for policy, practice, or parenting.” Which is polite scientist speak for “neuro and brain-based interventions are mostly bunkum”. You can read more about this here, here and here. Continue reading

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