Tuesday, 10 May 2022

What’s faster: changing reading instruction in initial teacher education or tar dripping through a glass funnel?

I have written recently about the process by which schools undertake change in their approach to early reading instruction. This requires a conscious, conscientious and sustained process of around 3-5 years work, in order to build teacher knowledge and skills and embed new practices as routine. It is not a trivial exercise, and it is not for the faint-hearted. Some teachers decide it is not for them and move on. Principals like Sue Knight who have led such journeys describe a kaleidoscope of emotions experienced by teachers when they see what they, and by extension, their students have missed out on, with respect to understanding reading, writing, and spelling.

The most common refrains from such teachers?

Why wasn’t I taught this at university?

I feel so bad about all of those students who I now know I could have taught to read.

This week, the Australian Assessment and Curriculum Authority (ACARA) released the new national curriculum, after much consultation and public debate. Two key, and pleasing changes in this document are that predictable texts will no longer advocated in early years reading instruction and nor will the popular, but empirically-baseless three-cueing (multi-cueing) approach. Alison Clarke explains the problems with this tired old work-horse here.

I am pleased to see these changes, as they represent progress towards Australian early years classrooms being released from the shackles of approaches that take no account of the needs of novice learners in the face of one of the most complex writing systems in the world. Because of this theoretical and practice gap, too many students are left behind, and we simply do not have the intervention resources to catch them up.

Will this change be enough for us to do the necessary 180-degree U-turn away from balanced literacy? No, it will not.

Will providers of Initial Teacher Education (ITE) programs continue to smile and wave with glib reassurances that “Phonics is in the Australian curriculum and our course is accredited by the relevant authority, so ipso facto, we must be preparing our students to teach phonics”? Probably.

But this is about much more than phonics, and as I have described previously, anyone who characterises this as a debate about “phonics Vs whole language” has been hibernating for more than a decade.

This is a debate about the extent to which deep knowledge of linguistics and the English writing system underpins everything that goes on in the literacy block across the primary years. It is a debate about how to teach vocabulary, morphology and etymology, sentence structure, inferencing, spelling, fluency, and writing across genres, amongst many other things.

There’s a revolution occurring from the ground up in schools, with teachers thirsting for this knowledge, flocking to online short courses, dedicated Facebook groups and other communities of practice such as Think Forward Educators, to gain the knowledge that has existed for a couple of decades (at least) and they paid for, but did not receive, at university.

It’s time though, for Australian universities to join the revolution and share the heavy lifting on delivering and endorsing teacher knowledge and practice that ensures truly outstanding and inclusive practice for all students in all classrooms. This should not be a lottery or (un)lucky dip for parents.

Perhaps you have heard of the famous Pitch-Drop Experiment at the University of Queensland? 

Having commenced in 1927, it’s the world’s longest-running laboratory experiment. It’s a fascinating story and I recommend you reading about it.

                                                                         Image source

Why am I mentioning it here?

Firstly, because the way that we have been experimenting with reading instruction over recent decades is going to push the Pitch-Drop Experiment off its longest-running pedestal if we’re not careful. It may not be a laboratory experiment, but it has certainly been a poorly controlled social experiment and one that would never receive approval from a Research Ethics Committee.

And secondly, because waiting for change on reading instruction in initial teacher education has become eerily similar to waiting for the next drop to fall. (Spoiler alert: it took 8 years for the first drop to fall, and since 1930, only 9 drops have done so).

We need to reduce the viscosity of change in teacher preparation for reading instruction and widen the funnel neck so that rich content pours freely into university lecture theatres, tutorials, assessments, placement activities and on into classrooms everywhere.

Our 2005 National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy did not endorse Balanced Literacy (on the contrary) but nor did it shift the needle on ITE content, as demonstrated in the 2019 Short-Changed Report. Instead, as Alison Clarke observed, some phonics lipstick was applied and it was business as usual.

Teachers are changing and now university academics need to as well. At the University of Queensland, they have cameras poised 24-7 so that the next pitch drop is not missed. If we don’t have teachers being met in the middle by university academics, we can be sure that our rate of change will continue to be on par with the rate at which the pitch is dripping through that funnel at the University of Queensland: excruciatingly slowly.

Idly watching pitch ooze at a glacial speed out of a glass jar is one thing. Standing by and consciously withholding improved knowledge and practices from Australian teachers and children is something else altogether.

Let’s hope the imperceptible speed of change in Australian university ITE programs doesn't continue to be education’s Pitch-Drop Experiment. 

(C) Pamela Snow (2022)