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
The other day our state Education Minister announced $72.3 million extra dollars will be spent over four years helping struggling secondary students, specifically kids who haven’t met Year 5 NAPLAN benchmarks.
Woo hoo to that, I say. But if it’s spent on doing the same sorts of things that didn’t work in primary school, it will be a waste.
Secondary school students with poor decoding skills and very little ability to spell generally need a good initial blast of synthetic phonics to build their awareness of sounds in words and knowledge of spelling patterns, followed up by work on vocabulary, comprehension and fluency. I’ve been doing this type of work for 14 years, in conjunction with the world’s most fabulous integration teacher and aides. We’re yet to find someone we can’t teach to read, including students with intellectual disability, language disorder and English as a second or third language.
Here’s roughly what I’d do and buy if I were a decision-maker in a secondary school with a number of students who have encoding/decoding difficulties.
An article yesterday in The Conversation called "'Biggest Loser' policy on literacy will not deliver long-term gains" has urged caution at the government's $22 million for Direct Instruction in remote Aboriginal communities.
Stewart Riddle from the University of Southern Queensland writes that the Federal government can't expect to axe the Gonski education funding model and indigenous community health and education programs, "and then turn around and claim that a sparkly new program will somehow 'fix' Indigenous literacy."
Well, I agree, I'm angry about the big cuts too. But I think the Direct Instruction funding is probably a good thing, and is likely to give the Aboriginal kids involved a good start on literacy.
No, it won't fix all the problems, but the muddled approach Riddle recommends is more likely to leave them simply unable to get words on and off the page.
"Skilling and drilling"?
Riddle argues that the Direct Instruction program that has received the $22m funding is about "skilling and drilling students to the point of exhaustion, in order to get the most visible results possible (i.e. increased NAPLAN scores) in the shortest time".
He doesn't cite any evidence to support this controversial statement, or explain exactly what other sorts of results might be more desirable than fast improvements on national literacy test scores. He argues that other things are probably more important than test scores.
In the UK, synthetic phonics is now official government policy for early literacy-teaching, and primary schools that spend up to $9200 on accredited synthetic phonics resources and training before March 2013 get half of it paid for by the government.
I want what they've got.
All government-funded schools with Year 1 and 2 students (5-7 year olds) are eligible for this support to buy synthetic phonics resources. Not sure whether large and small schools get the same amount, and it looks like secondary schools miss out.
So actually, I want what they've got, but with a bit more equity.
Have a look at the incredible catalogue of phonics resources they can choose from, with its rather strange title "The Importance of Phonics".