Learning to read is foundational. The importance of literacy in the first years of schooling is not in question. Students’ oral language interactions in the early years of schooling, their engagement with print and digital texts and experiences recording their ideas in writing are important for their lives in and out of school. The teaching of phonics and phonological awareness are fundamental and essential elements in learning to read and to write. Both elements form an integral part of the Victorian Curriculum: English, which guides Victorian educators in their planning and teaching.
This post is in response to recent damaging reports that have re-ignited the age-old argument that there is a literacy crisis and the best and only way to attend to it is the use of a ‘phonics first’ approach which prioritises synthetic phonics.The intensity of the argument has increased of late, with blame landing squarely at the feet of early years’ teachers, with the residue reserved too for those who prepare teachers for their role.
Pieces published in The Age and other publications over recent weeks have added fuel to the ‘literacy wars’ fire. On February 16 it began in The Age with ‘Results came really quickly: How one tiny Victorian school turned literacy around’ by Adam Carey. This was quickly followed on February 19 with ‘Follow Science in Teaching Kids to Read’ by Dr Nathaniel Swain and more recently on March 21, Dr. Tina Daniel echoing ideas presented by Swain and Carey, with her opinion piece, ‘Dud teachers? In Victoria, it’s the lack of phonics that’s the problem’. There are commonalities across these articles – the implication that teachers do not know how to teach; the need for commercially-produced programs; and the view that literacy is merely a set of discrete skills. We disagree with each of these points.
What we know is this – phonics and phonological awareness are integral components of writing, as well as reading and oral langauge. Students in the early stages of literacy learning draw on the reciprocity between reading and writing to assist the identification of sounds in words which can be matched to letters and written down. The teaching of phonics and phonological awareness should be undertaken in an explicit and systematic way. This is not disputed by researchers, or teachers, nor the wider education community. But the way in which phonics and phonological awareness are taught remains a contentious issue. And the loudest voices in the argument are often those who lack the experience of teaching in mainstream early-years classrooms.
The term ‘science of reading’, based on research positioning reading in the cognitive realm, is increasingly used in these debates. Some states (currently SA and NSW) have aligned themselves to this science of reading approach. They have prioritised the use of decodable texts and commercially-produced phonics programs. Victoria has been criticised for failing to adopt the same prescriptive ‘phonics first’ stance. We feel The Age’s education editor Adam Carey feeds into the Victoria bashing narrative. He cites Fahey, from the Centre for Independent Studies, whose background is in economics and policy. Fahey suggests Victoria needs a ‘wakeup call’ because they have ‘dragged the chain on the national reform agenda around reading instruction.’ As education editor, Carey could have cited numerous experts, from Australia or overseas, who have researched in the field of reading comprehension and would have added value to the discussion.
NAPLAN is often woven into discussions about phonics. So we point out that Victoria, without a prescriptive phonics program have enjoyed great success. Victorian teachers should be celebrated. They are given agency to draw upon a range of well-researched strategies to teach literacy and create their own program to address their students’ diverse needs. Recent NAPLAN results have confirmed that Victoria has done exceptionally well in national results for reading. Victoria outperformed New South Wales on NAPLAN, for both the students who require extra support in literacy and for those achieving above the standard. Differentiated teaching is reflected in these NAPLAN results, because good literacy teachers know that every child has different learning needs. We know the variable in education is the child, the teaching of reading is not an exact science.
The approach taken at Melbourne Graduate School of Education in initial teacher education programs and in professional development of continuing teachers is based on a framework initially developed by Freebody and Luke (1990). This framework recognises the place of the systematic and explicit teaching of phonics within a comprehensive view of literacy, one which includes comprehension, knowledge of how different texts are organised and constructed and critical thinking about the content that is being read. It also recognises that the reader does not come to the text as a ‘tabula rasa’. Rather, they bring with them cultural, linguistic and textual knowledge, which help them to read the text.
Australian students are diverse. They bring varied but rich knowledge and skills to their literacy learning. In response, teachers need extensive knowledge of the way language works, they need knowledge of pedagogical practices, and they need to know what each student can do and what they need to do next. Teachers need to be afforded agency to use their knowledge to cater for the diverse learning needs. Teachers are professionals.
Public debates must acknowledge the complexity of early literacy, the successes experienced as well as the challenges encountered. The quest for comprehensive and effective literacy practices, which differentiate to meet the needs of all students, can only be addressed if the complexity of literacy is recognised. Teaching is more than science. It is also a craft and an art. Fundamentally, it involves teachers’ intellect and criticality to be responsive to students’ needs. We applaud the teachers and the students who engage in these complex practices each day.
From left to right: Dr. Martina Tassone, Dr. Helen Cozmescu, Bree Hurn and Dr. Linda Gawne are part of the Primary Language & Literacy Academic Teaching Team at Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne.