Robyn Ewing

Seven things teachers agree on about teaching reading in Australia. Stop all the political haranguing over phonics

There is widespread agreement among educators and school communities about the importance of teaching phonics and other code-based literacy practices in early years classrooms. Why, however, is phonics instruction, one of the processes teachers use in helping children learn to read, so foregrounded by government policymakers and bureaucrats in Australia these days?  Why is one particular approach to the teaching of phonics, synthetic phonics, now being proposed as the ‘right’ way to teach phonics in Australia? And why do some influential cognitive psychologists believe they have all the answers when it comes to teaching reading, and appear to have undue influence over important literacy policy?

These questions are confounding teachers all around Australia. They talk about the research projects they find in their professional reading. Many follow discussions on blog sites such as this one. Others are participating in research in their own classrooms or within school/university partnerships. They then speculate about the motivation behind the “silver bullet” solutions they are being sold.

The groundswell of those wanting answers has grown as the roll out of new literacy teaching programs continues across states and territories. The looming imposition of a synthetic phonics test for all Australian six year olds is adding to teacher concerns. They are clear that another test is not the way to improve national standards.

I am continually asked: why are we are once again adopting UK policies and accepting as ‘evidence’ the Rose Report from the UK? This report recommended that synthetic phonics be the preferred method for teaching early reading in the UK, but the ‘evidence’ quoted in the report has been widely disputed, including in the UK, by highly respected literacy education experts. The way the report has since been used politically is of ongoing concern.

This was the impetus for the Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney to hold a symposium on The role of phonics in learning to be literate last week in Sydney in conjunction with The Australian Literacy Educators Association. The board and staff of the Primary English Teachers Association also supported the symposium. More than 140 educators attended to hear three presentations from expert literacy educators. The symposium created such widespread interest that we are holding a repeat on March 17th and another symposium in Melbourne on 5th May. It is clear that teachers and principals have both the energy and enthusiasm for ongoing professional learning in this critical area. Professional development must be tailored to the needs of individual teachers and schools. It should not be imposed by politically or commercially driven agendas.

Associate Professors Pauline Jones, Lisa Kervin and Dr Jessica Mantei (University of Wollongong) shared their emerging findings from their large research project, TRANSLIT. The project is investigating the nature of students’ literacy experiences at key points in schooling from foundation to senior secondary (preschool to school, primary to secondary school and so on). It is investigating how teachers teach ‘constrained’ skills including alphabet knowledge, word lists and phonics. These findings will be valuable for all teachers of literacy and for schools in developing their literacy programs and policies. The findings also will be useful to help those outside the teaching profession understand how isolated instructional experiences can be integrated into rich, engaging and meaningful literacy programs.

Former principal and lecturer, now literacy consultant David Hornsby reminded us that The Australian Curriculum: English defines decoding as including comprehension. Simply focusing on letter-sound relationships constitutes only recoding or moving from printed code to oral code. He demonstrated with many concrete examples why morphemes are required for phonemes to express themselves.  A number of practical activities quickly dispelled several myths about how English orthography works. If morphological awareness is developed in conjunction with phonics, children come to understand that English spelling represents meaning and that meaning determines how phonology works.

Emeritus Professor Marie Emmitt led the discussion about the importance of teachers having a sophisticated knowledge of sound-letter relationships and ways children learn phonics and use complex sound letter knowledge for spelling and word identification. Teachers need to ascertain what phonic knowledge children have already learned and determine what next will assist them in their reading and writing. Meaningful opportunities for learners are then offered to enable children to further develop phonic knowledge and to see it being used strategically in assisting with word identification, writing and spelling.

Teachers and principals shared issues they are currently experiencing with the teaching of literacy in Australia.

At this symposium there was widespread agreement that:

Learning to be literate is crucial for children’s life chances.

Children who struggle to become literate face spiralling problems throughout their schooling and into their life after school. Mastering 21st century literacy skills leads to a more socially active and fulfilled life.

Socioeconomic status has a big impact on how well children read

The continual handwringing about falling literacy standards in Australia overlooks this single most important influence. While investment in schools and investment in quality teaching are crucial, until our governments do something about the growing inequity in Australian society and Australian schooling they are ignoring the one thing that can make the most difference.

Children from disadvantaged or at risk backgrounds need a much higher level of support at school. Schools who have higher enrolments of disadvantaged children therefore need the best resources, policies, support staff and wide-ranging specialist help alongside ongoing fully funded professional development for their teachers.

Learning to be literate is a highly complex contextualised social practice – not a series of hierarchical skills

Teaching literacy involves complex processes. It cannot be reduced to a linear hierarchy of skills. Learning to be literate is a rich experience that transforms the way we look at the world. Teachers need to study deeply to gain the knowledge and understanding of a wide repertoire of pedagogical skills to teach literacy. They need to apply this knowledge and experience to design learning experiences that will meet the needs of individual children in particular circumstances in specific classroom and community contexts.

Learning to read is about making meaning. There are no easy, one size fits all recipes.

Learning to read is basic to being literate and learning to read is about making meaning. Knowing how to use graphophonic knowledge is important but it is only part of the process. Teachers need to use many different strategies to help some children become readers.

Rich literature, real texts should play an important role in any literacy program

Decades of research underline the importance of the time children spend listening to and sharing stories with loved ones. Telling stories, talking together linking the child’s own experiences, linking them with books, discussing visual images and playing with language are vital in helping children make sense of their world and their place in the world. This must continue in early childhood and classroom contexts. A wide range of authentic literature and real texts are thus vital elements in any literacy program.

Phonics and other code-based literacy practices are widespread in early years learning contexts in Australia. Where is the evidence that teachers aren’t using these strategies?

With all of the talk about basing our strategies and policies on evidence teachers are puzzled about why they are continually told via media articles or policy imposed by politicians that they are not teaching phonics. Teaching phonics is embedded in the teaching practices of Australian teachers and is required by the Australian Curriculum. Where is the evidence that they are not using these strategies?

Another test is highly problematic and will disadvantage our EALD (English as an additional language or dialect) learners as well as many in vulnerable situations

Bilingual learners who are just beginning to or become confident with learning to speak English may become anxious about such tests especially where they are expected to make sense of isolated words. It is also well established that such tests can also disadvantage those children who are more vulnerable. These kinds of tests can also be problematic for young proficient readers who expect the content of their reading to make sense. Being asked to read a list of words in isolation some of which are nonsense words can send a confusing message about the nature of reading.

The proposed Year 1 phonics test is not necessary. Any approach that singles out phonics instruction, and more recently, advocates for synthetic phonics specifically, and testing the recoding of words (some of which are nonsense words) distorts and distracts from the bigger picture of our need to continue to develop effective classroom literacy practices that meet the needs of all learners.


Future symposiums

The Role of Phonics in Learning to be Literate

When Saturday 17th March 201810.00am – 1.00pm (Registration from 9.30am)

Where Education Building The University of Sydney

Cost $110pp (GST Inc.) ALEA Individual Member $44pp (GST Inc.) ALEA Institutional Member $55pp (GST Inc.)

Register here for March 17th in Sydney

 

The Role of Phonics in Learning to be Literate

When Saturday 5th May 201810.00am – 1.00pm (Registration from 9.30am)

Where tba

Cost $110pp (GST Inc.) ALEA Individual Member $44pp (GST Inc.) ALEA Institutional Member $55pp (GST Inc.)

Register here for May 5th in Melbourne

 

Robyn Ewing AM is Professor of Teacher Education and the Arts at the University of Sydney. A former primary teacher she teaches in the areas of curriculum, English and drama, language and early literacy development. Robyn’s research has particularly focused on the use of educational or process drama with authentic literary texts to develop students’ imaginations and critical literacies. Her current research interests also include teacher education, especially the experiences of early-career teachers and mentoring; sustaining curriculum innovation; and the role of reflection in professional practice.

 Robyn was president of the Primary English Teachers Association from 2001-2006, is a past president of the Australian Literacy Educators Association (ALEA).  She is also a council member of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS), an Honorary Associate with Sydney Theatre Company, Board member of WestWords and Visiting Scholar at Barking Gecko Theatre. She enjoys working collaboratively with classroom teachers interested in innovative curriculum practices and has worked in partnership with Sydney Theatre Company on the teacher professional learning School Drama program since 2009. 

A new phonics test for Australian six year olds is a BAD idea

The recent announcement by Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, of a nation-wide phonics assessment for six year olds is of great concern to me. I believe, as do many of my fellow literacy expert colleagues, this new test will not help improve our literacy levels.

Australian children have been “marking time” or “falling behind” when compared on international benchmarks like PISA since high-stakes testing has been introduced and ramped up in this country. This latest mandate is part of the political cycle associated with testing regimes. Continuing this kind of assessment will not improve student literacy outcomes.

Evidence from the UK and USA, where similar tests have been used, may show improvement in performance on the phonics test over time but do not correlate with an improvement in children’s literacy levels. In fact what can happen is a narrowing of the literacy curriculum.

No evidence that phonics training preceding meaning making helps

 As renowned English author Michael Rosen explains, the difference between a phonics test and learning to read is that a phonics test merely requires children to pronounce a list of words, while learning to read is about making meaning of a text.  Phonics is only one part of the literacy story. And there is no evidence that phonics training should precede meaning making in literacy learning. It is much more productive to address decoding skills in meaningful contexts.

Absolutely the drilling of phonics will help some children do better in phonics tests, but there is no correlation with ultimately learning to be literate.

What the evidence says

We do know that six year olds should not be subjected to this kind of assessment. There is emerging evidence that teachers and students are finding the test-driven approach to education in Australia is anxiety producing.

Early childhood contexts and the first years of schooling should be centred on engaging in creative play with language including poetry, songs and rhymes, developing children’s confidence in talking about and responding to story, building a rich vocabulary and developing an understanding and love of literature.

One of the best predictors of literacy success is access to books in the home, as well known research tells us. In addition, shared reading, storytelling, talking about books from an early age and the opportunity for children to read widely are all important in learning to be literate.  Many children living in poverty do not have access to a wide range of books and shared reading experiences from an early age. If we want to spend more money in Australia to develop literacy we should be investing in the provision of quality literature for all Australian children and better resources for teachers who teach disadvantaged children. We need more teacher librarians in our schools. At the moment, however, we are seeing a reduction in teacher librarians in public schools.

A new research brief from Save our Schools supports the argument that the continuing gap in access to education resources between advantaged and disadvantaged schools in Australia are among the largest in the world and the OECD. Disadvantaged students in Australia continue to be denied equal opportunities to learn because they have less access to qualified teachers and resources than their more advantaged counterparts.

Data from PISA 2015 published in a supplementary report by the OECD show that disadvantaged schools in Australia experience more teacher shortages, higher teacher-student ratios and more shortages or inadequacy of material educational resources than advantaged schools.

If we are serious about improving literacy levels in Australia we should be investing our money more wisely than in another useless test. Widening socioeconomic inequality will be a much larger determiner of children’s literacy achievement than performance on a phonics test.

 

Robyn Ewing is Professor of Teacher Education and the Arts at the University of Sydney. She teaches in the areas of curriculum, English and drama, language and early literacy development. She works with both undergraduate and postgraduate pre-service and inservice teachers. Robyn’s research has particularly focused on the use of educational or process drama with authentic literary texts to develop students’ imaginations and critical literacies. She has been published widely in this area. Her current research interests also include teacher education, especially the experiences of early-career teachers and the role of mentoring; sustaining curriculum innovation; and evaluation, inquiry and case-based learning.

 Robyn was president of the Primary English Teachers Association from 2001-2006 and is immediate past president of the Australian Literacy Educators Association (ALEA) and former vice president of Sydney Story Factory.  She is also a council member of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS), an Honorary Associate with Sydney Theatre Company, Board member of West Words and Visiting Scholar at Barking Gecko Children’s Theatre. She enjoys working collaboratively with classroom teachers interested in innovative curriculum practices. 

Teaching literacy is more than teaching simple reading skills: it can’t be done in five easy steps

If we truly care about all Australian children and young people becoming literate I believe it is vital we understand and define the complexity of literacy.

The conflation of different terms like reading instruction and literacy is not very useful. While reading is part of literacy, literacy is a much bigger concept which is continually changing due to the ever-increasing forms of literacy that are developing.

Educators who specialise in literacy are currently working with the Australian Curriculum definition (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority) which defines literacy as encompassing:

…listening to, reading, viewing, speaking, writing and creating oral, print, visual and digital texts, and using and modifying language for different purposes in a range of contexts.

Literacy encompasses the knowledge and skills students need to access, understand, analyse and evaluate information, make meaning, express thoughts and emotions, present ideas and opinions, interact with others and participate in activities at school and in their lives beyond school….

Becoming literate is not simply about knowledge and skills. Certain behaviours and dispositions assist students to become effective learners who are confident and motivated to use their literacy skills broadly.

For example, the Australian curriculum’s definition of literacy thus far exceeds the ‘key skills’ addressed in the recently launched FIVE from FIVE project proposed by the Centre for Independent Studies. FIVE from FIVE is being touted, with much fanfare, as some all-encompassing way of teaching children to read. Evidence-based methods of how to teach reading differ markedly from such simplistic ‘solutions’.

Each one of the ‘five key skills’ (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension) listed by the FIVE from FIVE project is indeed an important skill. This is why they are already embedded in most teachers’ reading programs. In my experience there are few literacy educators who would deny the importance of phonics and phonemic awareness (identifying, thinking about, and working with the individual sounds in words) as needed when becoming literate.

However, these are not the only skills needed in helping a child learn to read. Any child being taught to read in a way that focuses solely on these skills will be short-changed. I believe that asserting that such a program is sufficient could be damaging to many children as it could lead to them disengaging from the literacy learning process.

Stop telling teachers there is a simplistic way to teach reading

Like many educators, I am fed up with the suggestion that teachers and principals, parents and policymakers are unaware of the importance of teaching these skills. Competent, experienced readers sample just enough visual information to feel satisfied that they have grasped the meaning so far of whatever text they are reading. They also bring their past experiences and knowledge of language to the information in a specific text and use prediction and questioning strategies to test and re‐test that they have understood the author’s purpose in a particular context. An over‐emphasis on letter‐sound relationships can be very confusing for children learning to read.

Australian teachers, principals, parents and policymakers already have a deep understanding of the repertoire of strategies and approaches that need to be chosen to suit the intellectual and learning needs of individual children. They know how important it is to make sure that all children learn to read for meaning and to enjoy the process.

Let’s talk about what is important

I agree with eminent Australian literacy educators and educational researchers Emmitt, Hornsby and Wilson who explain that the:

Three important sources of information in text are meaning, grammar and letter‐sound relationships – often referred to as semantics, syntax and graphophonic relationships respectively. Emmitt, Hornsby and Wilson (2013, p.3)

These sources, or cueing systems, work together simultaneously. Over‐emphasis on any one cueing system when learning to read is not effective.

Also, as teachers know, a rich vocabulary and fluency are significant but children need to be able to go beyond simple literal ‘comprehension’ of a text. They need to be able to make inferences and evaluate the importance of words within a text.

Teachers of reading today share rich authentic literary texts with their students. They know extensive research has demonstrated the importance of prediction and questioning strategies in learning to be literate.

One of the best ways for children to excel in reading comprehension tasks is for them to have the opportunity to interact widely with a wide range of books, selected by them, for enjoyment.

Children not only need to learn how to make meaning from text to carefully analyse the arguments or assertions in a text, to evaluate texts, but also how to create their own with confidence and creative flair.

There is no single recipe for literacy learning. The FIVE from FIVE project is yet another implicit criticism of the Australian teaching profession; and a good example of what we should not be doing by reducing the teaching of reading to five skills.

Instead we should be investing in more teachers to work with the children who need more intensive support. Our public schools should be appropriately funded to provide rich authentic resources and ongoing teacher professional learning. These are the things that will make a difference.

 

EwingRobyn Ewing is Professor of Teacher Education and the Arts at the University of Sydney. She teaches in the areas of curriculum, English and drama, language and early literacy development. She works with both undergraduate and postgraduate pre-service and inservice teachers. Robyn’s research has particularly focused on the use of educational or process drama with authentic literary texts to develop students’ imaginations and critical literacies. She has been published widely in this area. Her current research interests also include teacher education, especially the experiences of early-career teachers and the role of mentoring; sustaining curriculum innovation; and evaluation, inquiry and case-based learning.

 Robyn was president of the Primary English Teachers Association from 2001-2006 and is immediate past president of the Australian Literacy Educators Association (ALEA) and former vice president of Sydney Story Factory.  She is also a council member of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS), an Honorary Associate with Sydney Theatre Company, Board member of West Words and Visiting Scholar at Barking Gecko Children’s Theatre. She enjoys working collaboratively with classroom teachers interested in innovative curriculum practices. 

Pyne’s curriculum plans get an F for Fail (not Fixed)

Every Australian student deserves a quality education with access to the best teachers and resources. No-one would disagree with this lofty aspiration. But the Federal Government’s recent response to the Review of the National Curriculum gives us little evidence we are any closer to such a goal.

Education Minister Christopher Pyne asserts that there is a need to ‘rebalance’ the Australian Curriculum and ensure it is ‘robust and relevant’. Much of the national curriculum is yet to be implemented so rebalancing might be a bit premature. However, I would like to comment on several of the minister’s March 5th announcements.

Some seem to be at odds with each other and, in my opinion, advocate a further narrowing of the intended curriculum.

Pyne’s plans include:

‘reducing the quantity of content, adding more depth and less breadth’

Much has been written about a content-laden and overcrowded curriculum, especially in relation to the primary years. It is claimed that there needs to be a more explicit focus on literacy and numeracy in the early years. As Pyne puts it he wants more ‘basic literacy and numeracy’ taught, with no detail on what he means by ‘basic’ and how it could be taught.

We give children real world reasons for needing to learn how to read and write these days. Each subject area makes different literacy demands. At the same time subject areas do not stand in discrete isolation from each other. So a fair amount of content is necessary, unless the intention is that we go back to meaningless literacy (and numeracy) exercises, which were never really very effective in the first place.

The modern world is complicated and our children need to be able to respond positively to escalating change in knowledge. I believe we should be aiming for more than something labeled as ‘basic literacy and numeracy’.

 ‘strengthening the presence of phonics and phonemic awareness’

Phonics and phonemic awareness seem to be the panacea for the improvement of student literacy outcomes. Yet a knowledge of phonics and phonemic awareness will not make someone literate. Decoding letter sound relationships are only one aspect of learning to communicate through reading and writing. In any case the Australian Curriculum: English already includes a strong emphasis on phonics and phonemic awareness.

 ‘combining history, geography, civics and citizenship and economics and business into a single combined humanities and  social sciences subject for primary schools’

This recommendation seems to be impossible and seems to work against some of the original intentions of a national curriculum. It implies a return to a weak and superficial 1950s type of Social Studies with no understanding of the knowledge base for these different disciplines. It appears to be another classic attack on the Social Sciences.

‘improving clarity, reducing duplication and complexity – especially in the way cross curriculum priorities and general capabilities are presented’

This is based on how the national curriculum is being read or interpreted. The general capabilities and cross curriculum priorities were never intended to be seen as additional curriculum content. Rather they were to be seen as ‘lenses’ which teachers could use to plan to ensure that content was linked meaningfully to the real world across the learning areas and across the grades. So the development of cross curricula skills need to be emphasized rather than reduced.

 ‘improving the accessibility for all students especially those with disabilities’

Everyone wants an inclusive curriculum that will enable all students to learn and develop. No argument there. But equitable access means some students will need more investment of expertise, time and resources. If the Federal Government is serious about this issue it will need to dramatically increase its specific funding for disadvantaged children and children with disabilities. Words make little difference here.

‘making the curriculum more parent friendly’

Teachers welcome parent involvement and participation in their children’s schooling. Those of us involved in education know how important it is to educate parents to ensure they understand the intentions of the curriculum. This does not mean, however, that the curriculum needs to be over-simplified or ‘dumbed down’.

As I see it, all of the above ignore the need for new and creative ways of thinking about curriculum and teaching methods. Worse, I believe they are likely to contribute to less equity, access, participation and therefore less social justice for many Australian children and young people.

 

r-ewing-am copyInitially a primary teacher, Robyn Ewing is currently Professor of Teacher Education and the Arts and Interim ProDean, Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney. She lectures in Curriculum, English, Literacy and Drama across pre-service and postgraduate teacher education programs and is passionate about the role that the Arts can play in transforming learning. Robyn’s teaching, research and extensive publications include a focus on the use of drama strategies with literature to enhance students’ English and literacy learning. Teacher education, especially the experiences of early career teachers and the role of mentoring, sustaining curriculum innovation and evaluation, inquiry & case based learning and the use of arts informed, particularly narrative, inquiry in educational research are also current research interests.  She has worked alongside teachers in classrooms as a mentor since 1995 and is also working in partnership with Sydney Theatre Company on the School Drama project. She is National President of the Australian Literacy Educators Association, Vice President of the Sydney Story Factory Board and a Council Member of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS).