Friday 25 November 2016

Why is a Phonics Check a good idea in Australia?

 Image result for skills check

This week, the Centre for Independent Studies released a report authored by Dr Jennifer Buckingham, arguing the case for a Phonics Check at the end of Year 1 in all Australian schools. The rationale behind this call lies in the underwhelming engagement of (a) states/territories and their education sectors and (b) Faculties of Education in taking seriously the recommendations of the 2005 National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy (NITL). The reasons for this resistance are largely ideological and have been discussed elsewhere on this blog. If Australia was a high-performer with respect to literacy outcomes, then we would not be having this debate. We could all content ourselves with the knowledge that whatever it is that early year’s teachers are doing, it is working, so there is little need for us to interrogate their knowledge or practice. However that is not the case. 

Where is the evidence that reading performance in Australia is problematic?

In addition to PIRLS data on low literacy levels of Year 4 students in Australia, we also have Australian Bureau of Statistics data on poor literacy rates in this country. NAPLAN results have been flat-lining since 2008 and it is estimated that 40,000 15 year-olds (1 in 7) do not achieve baseline proficiency in reading, a failure rate that is echoed in the Industry Skills Council of Australia's 2011 report No More Excuses, which cautions that low language, literacy and numeracy (LLN) skills threaten our capacity to compete economically as a first-world industralialised nation (p.1):

Literally millions of Australians have insufficient LLN skills to benefit fully from training or to participate effectively at work.

The situation looks as if it could be getting worse, not better: the LLN performance of Australian students has, over the past decade, worsened in comparison to other OECD countries. 

So – we have multiple sources of evidence that we are under-performing, and our situation may be getting worse rather than better. 

Teacher educators have had more than ten years to be pro-science and show leadership in engaging with the recommendations of the NITL, however progress remains glacial and highly uneven. I suspect many of them hoped the NITL would simply go away if they didn’t talk or think about it. Perhaps the hope was that so-called Balanced Literacy would appease/fool enough politicians and policy-makers and then any remaining attention could simply be deflected to school funding debates.

Ironically, in the meantime, many schools continue to engage with pseudo-science and non-evidence-based approaches, which rarely if ever seem to be called out by education academics.


How could a Phonics Check be helpful?

Many stakeholders who are concerned about children’s unnecessary academic under-achievement and ultimate failure are on-board with the evidence that a Phonics Check is an appropriate intervention to raise awareness about, and address:
  • Uneven knowledge on what effective phonics instruction actually means (incidental Vs analytic Vs synthetic - they are all different and not equally effective).
  • The fact that teaching below the word level in a systematic way helps children to learn and apply critical de-coding skills that we all need in order to be effective and efficient readers.
  • The role of effective phonics instruction at the outset in setting the overwhelming majority of children up for academic success – not just those who come from linguistically enriching home environments, with shelves groaning with often-read books.
  • The role of accurate and timely feedback on student learning to inform and influence teacher practices.
  •  The importance of getting early instruction right, rather than applying costly band aids after the fact, when early instruction has not been optimal, as per Dr Misty Adoniou’s perplexing suggestion that rather than a Phonics Check, we should wait until failure is deeply entrenched at Year 4.
  •  The importance of rigorous translation of research evidence into classroom practice. We don’t need more evidence in this space; we simply need more on-the-ground application of the rich body of evidence sitting at our feet.
The quality of what transpires in classrooms is not simply a matter for the judgement of teachers in the classroom, their employers, or their unions. If we applied this lack of logic and accountability in medicine, there would be riots in the streets, and banner headlines in our newspapers. We expect medical practitioners and their educators to engage with evidence and to ensure it is translated into practice. Patient safety and wellbeing is rightly placed above doctors’ ideological preferences and egos.

Why is it then that children’s educational wellbeing is not placed above the taboo of talking about uneven quality in teacher education and practice?

(C) Pamela Snow, 2016


  1. Spot on Pamela. I've shared it with Minister of Ed in SA.

  2. Thanks Shaz. let me know if you have a response.

  3. Why is it then that children’s educational wellbeing is not placed above the taboo of talking about uneven quality in teacher education and practice?

    That's a very good question! Four reasons come to mind:

    One. The "evidence", the research literature" is such that one can find published "research" (in refereed journals to support almost any statement about schooling that anyone cares to make.

    Two. All instructional failures are attributed to the students, their parents, or to "society" rather than to the instruction that was provided.

    Three. The teacher, rather than the tools and protocols the teacher uses, is viewed as "the" important factor in instruction--"a good teacher can make any programme work." This places an impossible burden on teachers and lets authorities and officials off the hook.

    Four. Our standard indicators of instructional accomplishments are ungrounded relative comparisons. The "diagnostic" information they yield provides no diagnostic information.

    I join you in believing that an Alphabetic Code [Phonics] Check is a good idea. The Check is akin to the Snellen Visual Accuity Chart used in driver licensing. That is, it's a valid and reliable standard for determining "what you can read" in the same way the Snellen Chart tells "What you can see.

    Further, the Check provides a dependent variable for Natural Experiments that can sort out the variability in "reading achievement" now seen among classes, schools, local authorities, and even nations.

  4. You've nailed it as always Dick. I particularly like your Snellen analogy - it is after all, just a screen, not a diagnostic test.
    Many thanks once again for taking the time to add your valued comments.

  5. If Misty was a doctor she would run the risk of being struck off. Her persistent and perilous promtion of a pedagogy producing parlous at best and appalling at worst results sums up all that is wrong with our so called leaders in literacy education. The stranglehold she shares with the bulk of university literacy experts is realised in a two tiered result with the top tier being a very literate cohort rewarding the pedagogy with their competence and achievements. Meanwhile there is growing bulge in the tail of the data made up of students who will struggle to participate meaningfully in society as they are casualties of the instructional method. This situation is now at breaking point as the economy slows and is facing its own transformation, but as a nation we have insufficient students ready to meet the demands of economic transformation The cost of our collective denial with respect to introducing an early phonics check will be a broadening economic malaise.

    1. Thanks for your comments Susan. Sadly, I think you are correct in your summation that that the needs of those children who don't thrive in a Balanced Literacy environment are not being met. I don't believe this is a funding issue - it's a knowledge translation problem.