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)



  1. The "tis-taint" arguments can be quickly resolved by administering the Alphabetic Code (Phonics) Screening Check being given to all Year 1 children in England. [Google for it. It's free, has multiple forms, and in a few minutes can identify an individual at any age who "can't read."] Indirectly, the Check also identifies individuals associated with the student's instruction whose "knowledge"--or lack thereof is faulty.

    Without this information, reading instruction, to say nothing of "literacy" instruction, will continue to be out of control and the tis-taint arguments will continue to recycle.

    In more than 600 schools in England, all Yr 1 children with few exceptions are passing the Screen. However overall England, only 77% of Yr 1 students did so.

    It's in the instruction, and indirectly in the teachers' knowledge, not in the kids or their parents.

    1. Thanks for these interesting stats on UK student performance and how it varies.

      It would seem that using the UK phonics check here in Aus is a very good idea for all the reasons you've outlined. I would add that what I see happening in my work in schools is lots of checking in the first couple of years of instruction to see if students can produce a letter name or a sound for a set of individual graphemes, but this would seem to me to have limited predictive power (beyond those students at severe risk) because what about those students who seem to cope okay with the limited initial or basic alphabetic code but who fall down when the teaching progresses to the extended or advanced code where they have to cope with two letters representing one sound, two or more different graphemes representing one sound depending on the position of the sound in the word (e.g. 's' and 'ss') and so on. Then you have some people saying that the students are spelling 'phonetically' (what does this mean anyway??) and point to it as a shortcoming of phonics instruction in general when what it is more likely to mean is that the student doesn't understand how the English alphabetic code works and probably wasn't exposed to a quality phonics program. (Can you tell I've been influenced by the work of John Walker?). So we need this check of real and nonsense words to get at code knowledge.

      Anyhow this is all very personally relevant to me as my own son (who had a great beginning let me assure you, checks of things like phonemic awareness, RAN , vocab which showed no concerns and extra help along the way from me) has not had quality phonics instruction in the classroom and did not pass the UK Phonics check when I gave it to him this January just prior to starting Yr 2 in Australia. Interesting huh?

      Can you explain your tis-taint statement? Is it saying I am right and tainting what your opponent says?

    2. What you found with your son is the information that would come from wider application of the Alphabetic Code Check. The term "Phonics" is so deeply embedded in usage that we're stuck with it, but the crux of reading is the link between written and spoken English: the Alphabetic Code. The UK Check is akin to the vision check used in auto licensing. Just as there is more to driving than vision, there is more to reading than the Alphabetic Code. The Phonics Check tags children who haven't been taught how to use the Code to link text to spoken English. Without such information kids slip through, and we get the 4th Yr slump, dyslexia, and the other consequences that are blamed on anything-but faulty instruction. Children who fail the Check will have "had Phonics" (and as with your son, will have had a lot more thrown at them). But they haven't been taught how to use the Alphabetic Code to communicate in written language the same way they communicate in spoken language.

      Your interpretation of "tis-taint" argumentation is accurate. The usual way to cut through such arguments is to rely on "research." But in education, "research" can be cited to support any statement that anyone cares to make, and (as you say) there is so much variation in how "Phonics" is implemented, the Reading Wars persist.

      The Alphabetic Code Check does not make reliable reading instruction, but it cuts through the tis-taint arguments.

  2. Thanks Dick - I agree completely, a Phonics Check would enable us to measure what students are actually taking away from what is happening in the classroom, rather than what teachers, or teacher educators say is happening. I've said before, and I say again, phonics is a necessary but not sufficient part of the process. But unless we get it right, we are setting students up for the Grade 4 slump, and all the misery that follows from that across the lifespan.