Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Explaining or justifying literacy instruction?

In their piece on The Conversation this morning, Queensland education academics Drs Stewart Riddle and Eileen Honan referenced a previous article of mine on The Conversation* (co-authored with Alison Clarke) as a source of “misinformation” about how the teaching of literacy is approached in Australian schools.

I was mildly bemused to see that today’s piece opens with an effort to persuade the reader that there’s nothing controversial about early reading instruction. Ironically, this position is refuted in the NSW Department of Education document to which they link:

For decades now, phonics has been the subject of great public debate. It seems everyone has an opinion on it, so much so that a host of myths and half truths have arisen.

While experts argue about how much emphasis should be placed on phonics instruction in classrooms, just about all agree the teaching of phonics and phonemic awareness is critical to children learning to read.

Anyway, we’ll put that inconsistency aside.

Stewart Riddle and I have had a number of collegial on and off-line interactions about reading instruction and teacher education and I think it’s fair to say we’ve both gained from these discussions. I find it hard to disagree with some of what he and Dr Honan say in today’s piece. In particular, they emphasise the importance of fostering early oral language skills as a means of supporting children’s transition to literacy in the early years. The two randomised controlled trials in disadvantaged schools in Victoria in which I have been an investigator (one ongoing) have as a central platform teacher knowledge and practice concerning children’s oral language skills, in particular phonemic awareness, narrative skills, vocabulary, and comprehension (see this link to the completed OLSEL study). So there’s much common ground here. 

Where things become problematic, however, is when we interrogate the evidence pertaining to teachers’ language knowledge concerning the teaching of literacy. Unfortunately there is a growing body of Australian and international research that points to unacceptably low levels of explicit linguistic knowledge on the part of practising teachers. In a study published by my group last year  we found that not only was knowledge poor, but teacher self-rated confidence regarding their knowledge was disproportionately high; this means that teachers are not good at “knowing what they don’t know” with respect to their knowledge base. It is important to note that these difficulties did not only apply to knowledge pertaining to decoding skills (e.g. the ability to define key concepts such as phoneme and morpheme, and the ability to accurately count phonemes in words), but also existed in domains pertaining to semantics and grammar. 

I have no doubt that organisations like the Australian Literacy Educators' Association  have a genuine commitment to fostering early literacy skills in Australian classrooms, but to be seen as a credible force, they need to move beyond defending current classroom practices to interrogating the evidence concerning uneven performance in our schools. This unevenness cannot be conveniently and simply explained away on the basis of funding arguments, as some schools punch well above their weight when it comes to reading performance in spite of socio-economic disadvantage.

I have blogged on this topic before, in a piece entitled
Taboo topics: Reading instruction and teacher education. Talking about teacher knowledge cannot be a taboo topic, any more than the community would condone us not talking about gaps in health professionals’ knowledge and skills.

Australia’s poor performance on reading being re-packaged as “moral panic” for readers of one particular newspaper is disappointingly trite and simplistic. The youth offenders and children in state care who have been the focus of my research for the last 15+ years deserve better than that from education academics. Sadly, their language and literacy skills are so poor, they cannot take part in the debate. They become part of the silent throng of adults who are illiterate and are excluded from the economic mainstream, as featured on this morning’s episode of Radio National’s Life Matters

So Drs Riddle and Honan may be explaining more than they think when they describe how literacy is taught in Australian schools.

*Note - this link was subsequently amended in the Riddle and Honan piece and replaced with this link, which is a discussion around the views Alison Clarke and I expressed in our February 2015 piece on The Conversation

(c) Pamela Snow (2016)