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Reading is a verb. Literacy is not.

recommendations of the 2005 National Inquiry into the Teaching of


Literacy.
Teacher knowledge is the elephant in the room that has to be
admitted. Taboos do not make useful contributions to solving
Talking about reading has become a bit pass and unfashionable in
complex problems. There is a sad irony in the fact that much of the
education circles, but reading is high-stakes for the young people
literature on teacher knowledge is situated in journals that concern
who are the focus of my research those who have exited education
learning difficulties in children.
early and empty-handed when it comes to reading skills. No form of
literacy, whether traditional or postmodern is possible unless Similarly, it is not enough that literacy educators dont deny the
children achieve the ability to read. Children do not sit down importance of phonics and phonemic awareness. Literacy
and literate a book, a newspaper article, an online blog, or the educators need more than a lack of denial in order for their
instructions for a new game. They read them. If they are lucky, that students to succeed. They need knowledge and skills that give
is. them access to decades of cognitive science research on how
reading is acquired. How on earth can teachers be expected to
Recently, Robyn Ewing, Professor of Teacher Education and the Arts
enhance phonemic awareness skills when they dont reliably know
at the University of Sydney, wrote a blogpost critical of the Centre for
what a phoneme is, or how to count them in simple words?
Independent Studies Five from Five Initiative I wish to respond to
some of Professor Ewing assertions. Education is remarkable in two respects: for its capacity to turn
its back on evidence in favour of ideology, and for its wasteful
The fact that the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting
approach to the evidence already sitting at its feet and being
Authority (ACARA) has a particular definition of literacy is all well and
ignored. Both of these ingrained and indoctrinated responses occur
good, but that does not necessarily translate into useful classroom
at the expense of the educational livelihoods of children most
practices that in turn translate into useful skills for children. The
notably those who are starting from behind. When education
catch-cry its already in the curriculum is a hollow
academics get on an aeroplane, do they expect the pilot to
defence against the evidence that indicates that too many
say
Australian children exit primary school with under-done reading (and
writing) skills. There, I used that word again. Reading. Good afternoon ladies and gentleman; theres probably a particular
way that Im meant to get this Airbus A380 off the ground, but Id
Where is the evidence that Five from Five is touted as all-
like to try out a few ideas of my own on you today. After all, Im the
encompassing? It is ironic (and logically inconsistent)
pilot, and youre my passengers.
that Professor Ewing describes this approach as simplistic when
there is abundant evidence to indicate that primary teachers in Similarly, when education academics go to hospital with a suspected
Australia and overseas lack basic explicit knowledge of the heart attack, do they expect that an evidence-based protocol will be
complexity of how language works in order to teach reading*. Dr followed, or that the doctors in the emergency department are free
Louisa Moats has stated through the title of one of her publications, to interpret the evidence as they wish? In these examples, of course,
that Teaching Reading IS Rocket Science. However, too few there is a clear link between practitioner actions and outcomes, but
teachers exit their pre-service education equipped with explicit when teachers fail to apply evidence in early years classrooms
language knowledge and an understanding of the science of reading (because they were not equipped with it in the first place), there is a
instruction. Instead, they are fed a steady diet of Whole-Language creeping, insidious poisoning of a childs potential, that decades later
based approaches such as the Three Cuing system referred to is either explained away as a function of the childs background, or of
in Prof.Ewings blogpost. This approach is used widely throughout the child being unteachable for some intrinsic reason.
Australian schools, yet was not featured in any of the 20
Unlike pilots and doctors, teachers do not receive
confronting and immediate feedback about erroneous
practices. This seems to perpetuate a flat-earth belief- decoding text. Thats a bit like saying that theres more to making
system that is impenetrable by those on the outside begging a cup of tea than boiling the kettle. Advocates for evidence-based
to be heard. phonics instruction have always seen learning to decode as
a necessary but not sufficient part of literacy learning. The Simple
I am part of an Australian Research Council Linkage Project research
View of Reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986) asserts the importance
team which reported last year, consistent with a number of earlier
of both decoding and comprehension. So if you can't get words on
Australian and international studies, that primary teachers' explicit
and off the page, what hope do you have of participating in digital,
and implicit knowledge of basic linguistic constructs was limited and
critical, multi or any other sort of literacy?
highly variable (see Stark, Snow, Eadie &Goldfeld, 2015).
The 78 teachers who participated had a wide range of experience,
Some children have more limited past experiences and knowledge
and were most likely to rate their ability to teach skills including
of language to bring to the task of reading than others. Who, pray
spelling, phonics, comprehension and vocabulary as either
tell, is suggesting an over-emphasis on letter-sound
moderate or very good. However most of them demonstrated
relationships? What would an over-emphasis actually look like?
limited knowledge and stated that they did not feel confident
Its hard to escape the conclusion that for many teacher educators,
answering questions about their knowledge in these areas.
phonics is anything other than incidental, third out of three, last
Bear in mind that these teachers worked in disadvantaged schools resort assistance, as per the sacred Three Cuing doctrine.
where staff were sufficiently interested and motivated to respond to
The young people in my research, those in the tail of the education
a call for Expressions of Interest to take part in a research study on
curve, can interact all they like with a range of literacy materials. If
literacy teaching. A random sample may have produced even more
they cannot read, however, such interaction counts for nought in the
concerning results. It must be stressed, however, that these
real world, in which they will be permanently socially and
findings should not invite criticism of teachers themselves.
economically marginalised.
They are doing the best they can with their available knowledge and
skill toolkits. We can only imagine the greater reach of their efforts, I do agree with Prof. Ewing that ongoing teacher professional
however, if they were properly equipped with systematic skills learning is needed in this space, because there is an enormous
regarding the phonics and phonemic awareness aspects of the Big short-fall to be made up.
Five.
Instead of parking ambulances at the bottom of the cliff,
How can a child who receives solid, teacher-guided however, lets start building fences at the top, in the form of
instruction ranging across phonemic awareness, phonics, more rigourous teacher pre-service education. One day, a
vocabulary, comprehension and fluency be short- university somewhere will break ranks with the zeitgeist and the
changed? Seriously?! Many children can but dream of having wheels of change will start to turn.
these basics in place in their classroom. Having them in evidence is
Just imagine.
one thing. Having them based on robust evidence, is another thing
altogether. And where is the evidence that children exposed to
phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, comprehension and
fluency disengage from the learning process? What about the
possibility that systematic attention to these features might have the
very opposite effect for many at-risk learners? Stuff they don't tell you about research success

One of the tired and hoary old chestnuts that is regularly trotted out
against those who argue for better and more systematic phonics
instruction is that there's more to reading than simply
known question on your topic) and to set timelines (it's not OK to roll
your candidature over year after year like your car registration). You
don't have to like your supervisors and you don't have to be their
friends. (That said, I count myself as very fortunate to still on very
good terms with both of my PhD supervisors and I still publish with
them both from time-to-time). As with the parent-child relationship,
you are expected to develop increasing independence over time.
3. Your PhD probably won't change the world. It's actually
an apprenticeship in which you're meant to be learning stuff. A lot of
Image source what you learn goes under the heading of "hidden curriculum" - how
the publishing game works, how the hallowed halls of academia
function, which stats program is easiest to use, and where to buy the
best coffee on campus.
4. Find out what matters in academia and do more of it.
This week, I was asked to say a few words at the opening of a Higher People who get ahead typically have a clear program of research,
Degrees by Research (HDR) festival, at the Bendigo campus of La and say no to temptations to stray too far from it. They also work
Trobe University, where I am the Head of the Rural Health School. incredibly hard, invariably in what might otherwise be seen as their
own time: evenings and weekends. "But that's bad for work-life
This gave me pause for thought about why some people are happy, balance" I hear you say. Well maybe it is and maybe it isn't. You'll
productive and "successful" in the research space, and others are need to decide at different points in your career how this plays out,
not. but you need to understand that those with whom you're competing
for research funds and academic posts are almost certainly working
many more hours than those for which they are paid. Someone had
Here's a few pearls I've gleaned along the way in my own research
to say it.
career, which started relatively late, as I spent some 13 years in
clinical practice before returning to study and completing a PhD. As 5. Publishing matters, so if you're not a strong writer, you
an aside, I don't regret one of those years in clinical practice - they need to develop your skills, or prepare to be lost in the publication
crowd.
provided rich, complex experience and gifted me some precious
and enduring friendships. 6. Don't be too distracted by presenting at conferences.
Don't get me wrong - conferences are important for sharing data,
receiving feedback, and networking with colleagues. But a
So, what I have learned along the way?
conference presentation doesn't carry the same weight on your CV
1. After you've carefully selected your PhD supervisors (that's as a peer-reviewed publication. If you're wanting an academic career,
another blog-post in itself), make it your business to soak up all the it's the latter that is important.
mentoring and support they can offer. You'll never again be on the 7. Think about where you're going to publish. This means
nursery slopes, so submit to the ignorance and naivet and drink considering journal Impact Factors, target audience, and the actual
from the font of your supervisors' wisdom. Listen carefully. It's fine to quality of your manuscript. Be strategic (and realistic) about the
make some mistakes along the way, but you don't have to make all match between the size and rigour of your study and the likelihood
of them. that the Editor of Nature/The Lancet/BMJ etc will be sitting by the
2. Your research supervisors are a bit like your parents - phone waiting to hear from you.
they are expected to literally "supervise" you, to give you feedback 8. Learn about metrics such as h-Indices. Sure, they are highly
(positive and negative), to set boundaries (you can't answer every reductionist and potentially even flawed. If you have an h-Index of
10, you're hardly getting credit for that amazing Cochrane Review research-wise. Remember too, that funding bodies look at the quality
that has been cited 280 times, as it has to just sit alongside the other and make-up of teams and this assessment can be weighted quite
nine papers that have been cited 10 times. Remember too, that your heavily in the overall rating of your project.
work might be oft-cited because people think it's a good example of 13. Kiss a few frogs. By that, I mean cold-call people interstate
a poor methodology or shoddy practice. I wonder how many times and overseas whose work is cognate to yours, and share your most
the (subsequently retracted) Andrew Wakefield autism-MMR recent publication (in which you have hopefully cited their work).
study was cited? Learn to love all your h-Indices equally, whether the Most researchers are delighted to hear that someone far away is
"official" offering from Scopus, or the always higher version offered aware of their work and has taken the trouble to get in touch. I've
by Google Scholar (because it picks up a lot of grey literature not formed a number of enduring international collaborations in this way
included by Scopus). and have published with at least two of them. Sometimes you won't
9. Don't be afraid to change tack in your research career. get a response, and sometimes it will be like a luke-warm bath.
I started off studying communication impairment and psychosocial That's OK, and it may not be about you - it may be because their life
outcome after traumatic brain injury and now have a focus on two is complicated at the moment and your timing was unfortunate.
key areas: language skills of young offenders and literacy education 14. Expect set-backs. They will probably be many and at times,
(as many of you would realize, there's a sad link between the two). I quite painful. I read a wonderful article via Twitter recently, called Me
do some related work on young people in the state care system, but and My Shadow CV. Read it. It's a great reminder that we don't see
try to be careful to always be able to articulate clear links between the rejected manuscripts and grants, or the unsuccessful job
my research interests. applications when we look at the profile of someone we see as an
10. Make sure you can answer the "so what?" question academic star. However it's the entries on this ghost-document that
about your research. If you're going to spend a good part of your provide us with valuable learnings, not to mention an extra layer or
work (and non-work) time consumed with a particular issue, you two on the rhino hide we call academic resilience.
need to be able to explain to funding bodies why it matters. Your 15. Speaking of Twitter, if you're not using this incredibly
research should also, therefore, pass the pub test (or failing that, the valuable platform, you almost certainly should be. I have discovered
grandmother test) - it needs to be able to be packaged to make whole new professional global networks of people who are interested
sense to the tax-payer who may well be asked to fund it. in things I'm interested in. Invariably these days if I come across
11. Related to the "so what" question is the notion something new and interesting, it's via Twitter. Try to follow a few
of translational impact. What are your findings going to translate people whose views you don't necessarily share too - it's good to
into and how? Your answers to these questions should drive your have your assumptions nudged from time-to-time, and to know how
dissemination strategy, covering peer-reviewed journals, reports, others think on your topic of interest (even if you're pretty positive
conference presentations, and the use of social media. that they're wrong).
12. Collaborate. It's been said that if you want to go fast, go 16. Be reliable. Successful researchers can't tolerate
alone, but if you want to go far, go together. To be honest, I think you unnecessary weights in their saddle bags. Be known for being the
can only go fast on your own to a point. You can sometimes quickly person who states what they will do, commits to delivering in a
get certain specific tasks done on your own, but if you want to timely and thorough manner, and then does so.
achieve significant outcomes in the research space, you need to form 17. Enjoy the ride. For all the lows and frustrations, the life of a
collaborations with others who share your focus and interest. But you researcher is deeply satisfying. There is great personal satisfaction in
don't all have to fall into the photocopier. It can be tremendously having a paper published after the long haul of funding, ethics
beneficial to have different paradigms, disciplines, and approval, data collection and delays, multiple manuscript drafts, late-
methodologies represented in your team - provided there are good night data-wrangling, responding to appallingly misguided reviewer
reasons that are driven by the research agenda, not by misguided comments, and other set-backs of various forms. I am reminded of
charity about finding a role for a drifter who has lost their way this when, from time-to-time, I receive an email out of the blue from
a total stranger, telling me how they have used such-and-such childhood. It hurts a little, but it leads to greater maturity and depth
a paper to change their practice or influence a policy maker. H- of understanding about oneself and the complex world in which we
Indices are all well and good, but it doesn't get much better than live. Sometimes we have to let go of cherished beliefs as adults too.
knowing that somewhere, you've made a small difference on the
ground. I often think that for primary teachers whose pre-service education
has been dominated by Whole Language-based ideology and
pedagogy, exposure to the scientific evidence on what works (and
who gets left behind) with respect to reading instruction must feel
somewhat akin to losing a belief-system like the idea that a fat jolly
bloke in a red suit flies around the world bringing presents to all of
the children of the world (well, to those of a particular belief-system,
and even then, not in an equitable fashion....let's not try to untangle
those loose ends today).

There's a number of challenges in having discussions about


evidence-based practice with teachers, and none of these reflect on
teachers, per se. They do, however, reflect on teacher training.
Santa Claus, Homeopathy, and Phonics: Where's the 1. While systematic synthetic phonics instruction is strongly
link? favoured by the cognitive psychology literature as a basis for early
reading instruction, some children, notably those from more
disadvantaged backgrounds, derive particular benefit from such
approaches. Teachers who work in communities characterised by
high levels of economic, social and human capital will likely find that
many (but by no means all) children will make the transition to
literacy almost irrespective of the instructional focus, because their
classrooms have more "high readiness" than "low readiness" children
with respect to learning to read. This is somewhat akin to the fact
that doctors who work in such areas may see lower rates of illnesses
in children that are due to air-borne pathogens, because such
Image source illnesses are more common where living conditions are over-
crowded. Our everyday experiences are a powerful driver of what we
see as "normal" and "abnormal".
Most of us can remember when we found out that Father Christmas, 2. If teachers accept, in spite of their pre-service education, that
the Easter Bunny, and/or the Tooth Fairy were not real entities. For Whole Language based approaches such as expecting children to
me, the disappointment of discovering that my parents were Santa memorise lists of commonly occurring words, and the use of three-
cueing strategies are not optimal, what do they do then? Become
was off-set by the relief that my attempts to deal with the illogical
overnight experts on delivering systematic synthetic phonics
premise of his work-schedule were now reconciled. I must have been
instruction? Not easy.
a budding empiricist even as a seven year old. Letting go of illogical
but cherished belief-systems is an important rite of passage in
3. Teachers are typically not taught the skills of reading and
critically appraising scientific research. The power of anecdote and
personal experience prevails when such a skill vacuum exists.
4. Teachers have been sold a crock in so-called "Balanced
Literacy". This is a slick attempt by some teacher educators to pay
lip-service (no pun intended) to phonics-based early instruction,
through pitches such as "Oh it's OK. We've moved on from the
reading wars now. Now we teach Balanced Literacy, so phonics is in
the mix".
In the mix?

Let's consider the so-called "Five Big Ideas" in literacy


education (phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary development,
comprehension, and reading fluency). How much emphasis on the
first two is enough? And when should phonemic awareness and
I do wonder though, how we can move from our current impasse.
phonics be introduced and called upon in the learning process? You
Four decades of Whole Language dominated teacher education and
might think you'd find some answers in the Australian document
classroom practice stands between today's children and exposure
entitled "The Place of Phonics in Learning to Read and Write" by
to evidence-based reading instruction. Maybe I need to believe in
Emmitt et al. (2013). Instead, this document takes a perversely
one of these:
undermining position with respect to the importance of phonics
instruction. The purpose of this blogpost is not to deconstruct the
work of Emmitt et al., but rather to use it as an example of a modern
guide for teachers that promotes what I've come to think of
as homeopathic doses of phonemic awareness and phonics
instruction. Sure, they're in the mix, but in doses that prevent
systematic skill acquisition by early learners. Effective phonics
instruction requires specialist knowledge of the structure of
the English language, and this unfortunately has been shown to
be significantly lacking in the teacher workforce - again, no fault of
teachers, and something I will come back to in a future blogpost.

In the meantime though, we need to think long and hard about what
Renovating the Language House
This is just a very brief blogpost to say that I have again updated my
it means for children to be receiving patchy and often weak
schematic "Language House" that I use when talking to primary
instruction in phonics. Phonics is not a stand alone. It's necessary
school teachers about the role of early oral language competence in
but not sufficient in order to get beginning readers off the blocks both the transtion to literacy and the development of prosocial
and into the transformational world of deriving meaning from written interpersonal skills.
text. But it needs to be taught well if early inequities in reading
readiness are to be removed in the critical first three years of school. I've blogged previously about how this schematic representation
came about, and have it updated here in response to my reflections
on discussions with colleagues at the recent Speech Pathology
Australia Conference in Canberra.

Most importantly, I thought it was important to show that language,


literacy and social skills development is dynamic and
ongoing throughout childhood and adolescence (and of course
across the whole life-span, but this diagram focuses on the
developmental period). Hence the brick pattern on the pillars in this
version, as a nod to the vertical progress that needs to occur in both
the literacy and interpersonal skill domains, as manifestations of
continued language development. Note too, that the walls in this
model are more visibly sunken into their granite-like foundations -
not just sitting on top of them.

I'm particularly indebted to Dr Ros Neilson for inspiring me to come


back and do some renovations.

Please feel free to use this for professional development and related
discussions, but I would appreciate being acknowledged as its
source. I'd be very happy to hear your thoughts and to take further
suggestions/comments.

Dr Louisa Moats in Australia - the agony and the


ecstasy

Last Saturday I joined around 160 other language and literacy


enthusiasts (predominantly teachers, both primary and secondary,
and speech pathologists) to hear Dr Louisa Moatsspeak in Melbourne
on the science of reading instruction. I was well primed for this
event, having read rave reviews of her presentations in other states,
and also having re-visited some of her published work in the week
prior to the workshop, most notably this one from 2007: Whole
Language High Jinks highly recommended if you havent read it.
Dr Moats was in Australia as a guest of LearningDifficulties
Australia (LDA). LDA celebrates its 50th birthday this year, and in a How can childrens vocabulary be strengthened?
generous and inspired piece of gift-giving, brought Dr Moats and her
expertise to Australia so that we might benefit from her wisdom on What do syntactic knowledge and understanding
matters pertaining to teacher training, literacy instruction, Response contribute to reading proficiency and how can they be developed?
to Intervention, and management of children with dyslexia.
The importance of comprehension and the role that oral
Ill focus in this blog on Dr Moats comments on reading instruction in language skills play in this.
particular, though I will also mention some of her reflections on
Whole Language and on teacher training.

Dr Moats impresses as an under-stated highly knowledgeable For a self-described Phonicator Dr Moats approach to reading
scientist, who also has the benefit of many years experience as both instruction richly reflects the cognitive psychology evidence on early
a teacher and an educational psychologist. She has personally reading and goes way beyond the necessary but not sufficient role of
assessed thousands of struggling readers of all ages, as well as early phonemic awareness and phonics instruction. Dr Moats also
conducting rigorous research on optimal teaching methods and stressed that while poor decoding skills play a large part in
teacher training regarding language constructs relevant to reading reading difficulties in the early years, by secondary school,
instruction. the picture is more complex, and deficits in early decoding skills
are now compounded by decrements in vocabulary, syntactic
understanding, and reading comprehension. If the foundations of a
Much of the Saturday workshop was devoted to the science of house are not sound, then we cant expect the walls and roof to be
teaching reading. Here, Dr Moats drew on Hollis Scarboroughs 2001 strong either.
reading rope (see below) to drill down on the specifics of reading-
related subskills such as
Some of the exercises Dr Moats asked the audience to do (like
determining the number of phonemes in common words) proved a
little challenging on a Saturday morning, even for this highly
What is a phoneme?
motivated and more-knowledgeable-than-average audience. This
How do voiced and voiceless phonemes differ? How does place of
articulation influence phoneme production? took me right back to first year linguistics when I was studying to be
a speech pathologist, and it struck me that if I was teacher who had
not been schooled in these concepts (a la most Australian teachers
What is a grapheme?
in recent decades), I would have been feeling out of my comfort
zone. Thats a comment on teacher training and not on teachers, and
What does phoneme-grapheme correspondence mean? it also reflects the truth behind the title of one of Dr Moats most
well-known texts: Teaching Reading IS Rocket Science.
What is morphology and how does it inform the teaching
of reading and spelling?
While there was much intellectual ecstasy in listening to Dr Moats
(OK, yes, Im a bit of a nerd) bringing the science of reading
instruction to life and seeing its teaching illustrated with clear and As an important aside, at Dr Moats workshop, I also met Berys
theory-based examples, the metaphorical agony lay in the fact that Dixon, whose work I became aware of when she contributed to the
Dr Moats was preaching to the choir, albeit in ways that gave the discussion forum following this piece on The Conversation that Alison
choir stronger, more in-tune voices. I doubt there were Clarke and I recently co-authored. Berys is a primary school teacher
many Balanced Literacy advocates in the room, nor Reading who had her own phonics epiphany in 2008, having been using
Recovery teachers, nor, perhaps most critically, teacher Whole-Language based approaches such as the Three Cueing
educators who (in the main) persist in their promotion of non- System. You can hear Berys telling her story at this link on the
evidence-based approaches to early literacy instruction. On this, Dr Spelfabet website. Theres also more information about Berys
Moats observed that we need to be outraged and less tolerant. work at this link and here's information about sourcing her fabulous
Dr Moats also observed that theres no point telling teachers that little Pocket Rockets. So this added a bit more ecstasy to the day.
phonemic awareness is important if teachers dont know what
phonemes are (as indicated by the research evidence on teacher
knowledge). In addition to a dozen or so workshop and seminar presentations, Dr
Moats also met with senior state and federal education bureaucrats
and ministers during her visit. In the interests of preventing us from
As a first-time visitor to Australia, Dr Moats expressed humility at the having to replicate other nations' expensive mistakes, I hope some of
reach and influence of her work here, but also some incredulity at those people listened carefully to what this very measured scientist
our preponderance for following in the footsteps of our UK and US had to say.
neigbours with respect to changing tack, and adopting approaches
ahead of the science being adequately accounted for. Its too late to
put the Whole Language/Reading Recovery genie back in the bottle, Thank you LDA, for bringing Dr Louisa Moats to our shores.
but I wonder what cliff well jump off next if we dont abandon our
lemming ways? (C) Pamela Snow (2015)

Dr Moats noted that reading is one of the most studied human My response to Dr. Eileen Honan's AARE blogpost on
skills, yet we persist in failing to apply the hard-earned "how teachers are taught to teach reading"
science in early years classrooms, and instead accept high rates I have now made two attempts, two days apart to post the following
of suboptimal literacy levels in first-world nations such as the US and in response to a blogpost by Dr Eileen Honan (University of
Australia. Im not the first to observe that such willingness to look the Queensland) on the Australian Association for Research in Education
other way would result in riots in the streets if interventions that
website
treated a potentially chronic medical illness were being withheld
from small children. Low literacy, however, is such a condition, yet Dr Honan was writing in response to this piece by me and Alison
we have allowed a confluence of social and political factors to force Clarke, published on The Conversation site on February 6:The way
evidence to take a back seat, in favour of allowing ideology to drive we teach most children to read sets them up to fail
the literacy instruction bus.
I don't know why my response has not been published, but here it is:
Eileen no-one, least of all me or Alison Clarke, is suggesting that skilled readers. In addition to her hours and hours of honorary work,
phonics is a magic bullet. Phonological and phonemic awareness Alison provides resources and ideas free of charge via her website.
are, however, necessary, though not sufficient elements in good As a clinician who specialises in working with children with reading
reading instruction. The key point in our piece on The Conversation difficulties, she should be receiving only a small number of referrals
recently was that in spite of recommendations made in the 2005 from surrounding schools.
National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy, teachers are not being
Until Australia is performing much more strongly on objective
taught how to approach this aspect of literacy instruction in a
measures such as PIRLS, clinicians such as Alison will have to
systematic way. Some very fortunate children seem to be able to
struggle to see as many instructional casualties as they can. Sadly,
skip over the bridge to literacy in a fairly seamless manner, while
theres just not enough Alison Clarkes to go around.
others need much more in the way of systematised support.
In addition to PIRLS (http://www.acer.edu.au/files/TIMSS-
I really dont think its possible for you to make authentic
PIRLS_Australian-Highlights.pdf) , we also have Australian Bureau of
generalisations about how Australian teachers are taught, because
Statistics data on poor literacy rates in this country
(as far as I am aware, please correct me if Im wrong) we dont have
(http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4228.0Main+Featu
national audit data that maps this. Recently, however, in NSW, a
res202011-12), and a damning 2011 report from the Industry Skills
report was released that indicated that this needs to be done better:
Council of Australia
http://www.boardofstudies.nsw.edu.au/news-media/media-
(http://www.voced.edu.au/print/content/ngv45623) .
release.html
If you can present compelling evidence that were actually
The work of Australian teacher educator Ruth Fielding Barnsely also
doing well with respect to how we teach our children to read,
shows poor teacher grasp of key metalinguistic knowledge in pre-
Im all ears.
service and inservice teachers see
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1359866052000341133
#.VPQHuyuUd8E. Being passionate is a great start, but having some
real knowledge and skills is what gains traction with respect to high The way we teach most children to read sets them up to fail
quality instruction. This raises the issue of the "Peter Effect" in February 5, 2015 7.38pm GMT
teaching that one cannot teach what one does not know See:
https://www.cis.org.au/images/stories/policy-magazine/2013- Author
spring/29-3-13-jennifer-buckingham.pdf

Its ironic that you refer to Dr Norman Swan, of ABC Radio Nationals
Health Report, as endorsing a phonics-based program, as he is one
of Australias biggest champions of evidence-based practice. As
such, he has a keen eye for unsubstantiated claims and holds
researchers and practitioners to account for their claims.

I note too, your attempt to discredit my colleague Alison Clarke, a


highly regarded Melbourne Speech Pathologist who does a huge
amount of probono work to promote improved classroom practices 1. Pamela Snow
and afford more children the opportunity to exit primary school as
Associate Professor of Psychology, Monash University

Disclosure statement

Pamela Snow receives funding from the Australian Research Council


(Linkage Scheme).

Partners

English is a complex language with roots in many others, and the


teaching of it should reflect this. AAP
Monash University provides funding as a founding partner of The
Conversation AU. A new batch of Australian five-year-olds has just started school,
eager to learn to read and write. Unfortunately for them, English has
one of the most difficult spelling systems of any language, thanks to
the way it developed.

A patchwork of many languages

Words from Germanic Anglo-Saxon (woman, Wednesday) and Old


Norse (thrust, give) were mixed with words from the churchs Latin
Victoria State Government provides funding as a strategic partner of (annual, bishop), and Norman French (beef, war). Pronunciation
The Conversation AU. changed dramatically in England between 1350 and 1700 (The Great
Vowel Shift), and scribes paid by the character added letters to
words.
The Conversation UK receives funding from Hefce, Hefcw, SAGE, SFC,
RCUK, The Nuffield Foundation, The Ogden Trust, The Royal Society, Science, technology and The Enlightenment added words, often
The Wellcome Trust, Esme Fairbairn Foundation and The Alliance for based on Latin or Greek (anthropology, phone, school), wars and
Useful Evidence, as well as sixty five university members. globalisation added even more, like verandah from Hindi, tomato
from Nahuatl (Aztec) via Spanish, and yakka from Yagara (an
View the full list Australian Indigenous language). Words are also continually being
invented and added to contemporary dictionaries.

The way we teach most children to read sets them up to fail Words from other languages typically carry their spelling patterns
into English. So, for example, the spelling ch represents different
sounds in words drawn from Germanic (cheap, rich, such), Greek But which type of phonics works best? The Clackmannanshire
(chemist, anchor, echo) and French (chef, brochure, parachute). study provides convincing evidence for synthetic phonics. This starts
from just a few sounds and letters in short words, and systematically
adds and practises more sounds, spellings and syllable types, until
children can read well enough to independently tackle the real
books adults have been reading them.

Clackmannanshire is a disadvantaged area of Scotland, but by the


end of primary school the children using this program were three
years ahead of the national average on word reading, 21 months
ahead on spelling and five months ahead on reading comprehension.

In 2005, Australias National Inquiry into Teaching


Reading recommended that young children should be provided with
systematic, explicit and direct phonics instruction, and that teachers
English has 26 be equipped to provide this. Similar inquiries in
characters, but many more sounds. Shutterstock the US and UK agreed.

Our originally Latin alphabet has only 26 letters for the 44 sounds in Are children being taught this way?
modern Australian English. To master our spelling system, children
must grasp that words are made of sounds represented by letters, The short answer is no. The main reason is that few teachers are
that sometimes we use two, three or four letters for a sound (f*eet, trained or equipped to teach synthetic phonics. Theyre often taught
bridge, caught), that most sounds have several spellings (Her* f*irst at university by academics whose careers, publication records and
nurse works **early), and that many spellings represent a few reputations are based on whole-language teaching approaches,
sounds (food, look, flood, broo*ch). considered modern, progressive and child-centred. Phonics,
conversely, is framed as old-fashioned, reactionary and teacher-
How should children be taught this complex code? centred, so is used less.

In his internationally acclaimed analysis of the effectiveness of Children are typically encouraged to read real books containing
teaching methods, Professor John Hattie assigns effect sizes long words and difficult spellings, and to guess unknown words from
ranging from 1.44 (highly effective) to -0.34 (harmful). Effect sizes first letters and pictures. They try to write words that are too hard for
above 0.4 indicate methods worth serious attention. them, and often the resulting spelling mistakes are put up on the
wall for everyone to learn. They memorise lists of high-frequency
words.
There are two main schools of thought about how to teach children
to read and write, one focused on meaning (whole language) and
one focused on word structure (phonics). Hatties meta-analysis Phonics work in Australian classrooms typically focuses on initial
gives whole language an effect size of 0.06, and phonics an effect letters and a few basic strategies, not sounds and their spellings in
size of 0.54. all word positions. There is little systematic instruction in word
blending or segmenting (breaking words into parts, such as
syllables), or in many of Englishs 170 or so major spelling The vast majority of children will only learn to read and spell in the
patterns. Australian curriculum requirements for English reinforce right developmental window when teachers are equipped with the
this mess-of-methods approach. best available methods, based on the best available evidence.

Many confused children learn to guess and memorise words rather


than sounding them out. This seems to work at first, but by their
third year of schooling lack of visual memory (disk full!) means they
start to fail. The well-intended Reading Recovery program, about
80% whole language and 20% phonics, often fails to provide the
boost these learners need.

Children who cant read much by age nine are in serious trouble. By
then, teachers expect them to have finished learning to read and to
start seriously reading to learn. Yet the 2011 Progress in International
Reading Literacy Study found that a quarter of Australian Year 4
students fell below international benchmarks in reading, with 7%
scoring very low.

Using evidence in education

If large numbers of children were contracting a serious, preventable


illness and you asked your doctor how to protect your child, youd be
rightly angry if the doctor didnt understand the current medical What are English morphemes, and why do they
research and thus recommended what s/he learnt at university, or matter for spelling?
had used before and preferred. You might contact the Medical Board 2 Replies
to make a complaint or, if you had followed bad health advice, lodge
a malpractice suit in the courts. At the start of each year, to the delight of Aussie word nerds, the
Macquarie Dictionary announces which new words have come into
Evidence-based practice is deeply embedded in the culture of health common usage in the previous twelve months, and gives us all a
professionals. Graduates are taught to read and understand the People's Choice vote on the Word of the Year.
language of rigorous research and to turn to peer-reviewed academic Of this year's crop, I enjoyed "flappity", "mansplain", "voluntold", "job
journals and properly controlled experimental designs as the best stopper", "bamboo ceiling", "wikiwash", "mandal", "facekini",
sources of evidence. This doesnt happen nearly enough in "normcore", "decision fatigue", "doge", "compassionista", "precariat",
education. "girlie man", "lifehacking" and "dog surfing", but having had to deal
with more politicians, planning bureaucrats and property developers
Childrens opportunities are seriously compromised if they dont than is really recommended for one's good mental hygiene, would
learn to read and spell. They are much more likely to drop out of give the gong to "ICACable".
school early, be unemployed, suffer ill health and get on the wrong
side of the law.
If you're a native speaker of English and you haven't been living "When" is a conjunction or adverb about time.
under a rock, you can probably take a reasonable stab at
the meanings of many of these words, because of your knowledge, We don't make up new function words like these, and it's quite hard
or ability to infer, the meanings of their components. to explain what a lot of these words mean. They really only make
This is especially true if I put them in sentences: "The teenagers sense when used in sentences.
became flappity as their idol's limo approached", "Yes, dear, I got two
distinctions for statistics at uni, no need to mansplain", or "The whole The rest of our words are content words with a semantic
department was voluntold to help out on Open Day". purpose. They carry the main meanings we are talking or writing
about, such as "cat", "swim", "red" and "always".
Even though "ity", "splain" and "volun" aren't words in their own We can and do make up new content words all the time, and if they
right, they are used here as meaningful word parts, or morphemes, catch on, dictionaries catalogue them and they become part of the
to build the new meanings. When you know the suffix "able" and that language.
ICAC is the Independent Commission Against Corruption, if I say,
"The former Minister's relationships with the property industry are Bound morphemes
very ICACable", you will understand me perfectly. Many English words are made up of two or more meaningful parts,
Different types of morpheme for example the words "catty", "swimming" and "reddest" all contain
In linguistics, morphemes are the smallest meaningful units in a two bits of meaning. The "y", "ing" and "est" are bound morphemes,
language, and are used to build word meanings as well as their which need to be attached to another morpheme before they
structure. The study of morphology is separate from, but of course become a word, and can go out in sentences.
related to, the study of phonology (speech sounds), syntax (word
types and their use in sentences), semantics (meaning) and Some of our bound morphemes serve a syntactic purpose i.e.
pragmatics (language use in context). they inflect nouns, adjectives or verbs. Since English puts these only
at the ends of words, not at word beginnings, these are
Knowing a bit about morphology can help with explaining and called inflectional suffixes.
demonstrating spelling patterns to kids, so let's have a go at it. Two of these are added to the ends of nouns:
Free morphemes
Many English words cannot be broken up into smaller meaningful Plurals: show there's more than one of something. The usual
parts, for example, "cat", "swim", "and", "the", "red" and "when". plural morpheme is "s" or "es" e.g. cat-cats, dog-dogs, witch-
They contain only one morpheme, and since they can go out on their witches. However, sometimes we form plurals in unusual
own in sentences, are called free morphemes. ways, in words that come from Old English, Latin or French
e.g. mouse-mice, child-children, radius-radii, phenomenon-
Some free morphemes are function words with a syntactic or phenomena, genus-genera, larva-larvae, bureau-bureaux
etc. Click here for more examples.
grammatical purpose:

The possessive: shows that something belongs to a noun,


"And" joins words and sentences.
and is written as an apostrophe + "s" e.g. the frog's leg, the
city's skyline, the cat's pyjamas. If we are talking about two
"The" indicates a specific, known noun e.g. "a moon" could be frogs having four legs, we just add a possessive apostrophe
anywhere in the universe, but "the moon" is the one that goes after the plural "s" ("the frogs' legs).
round the earth.
Two inflectional suffixes are added to the ends of adjectives: "ante" adds the meaning "before" as in antechamber,
antecedent, antenatal (but beware, sometimes the meaning
The comparative: is used to make adjectives that compare "ante" is spelt "anti" as in anticipate, antique)
things, and written "er" e.g. funkier, lazier, redder.
"omni" adds the meaning "all/every", as in omnivorous,
The superlative: is like the comparative, only moreso, and omniscient, omnibus.
written "est" e.g. funkiest, laziest, reddest.
"ist", "ian" or "eer" after a noun to add the meaning "one
Four inflectional suffixes are added to the ends of verbs: who" e.g. pianist, dramatist, optometrist, politician,
magician, musician, mountaineer, musketeer, engineer.
Third person singular present tense: is the "s" verb
agreement in "she sleeps", "he wakes" or "it lurks". "vore" after a noun adds the meaning "eater", as in carnivore,
herbivore, omnivore, locavore.
Simple past tense: is usually "ed" as in "it lurked" but we
also have many irregular forms from good old Old English, like "gate" has within my lifetime become a suffix which turns a
"she slept" and "he woke", where it is hard to say which bit of word into a scandal, as in Watergate, Camillagate and
the word is the base word and which bit is the past tense, but Wormgate (an Australian federal election debate controversy).
there are still two meanings and therefore two morphemes.
"er" after a verb to add the meaning "one who" or "that
Past participle: usually "en" as in "she has chosen" or "he which" e.g. dancer, swimmer, repairer, can-opener, toaster,
had woken" or "ed" as in "they have danced" or "we have typewriter. However, "er" is not always a suffix when it
smashed", but there are again many irregular forms e.g. "I appears at word endings a brother is not someone who
have slept", "you had crept" etc. There are many lists of broths, and water is not a thing that wats,
irregular simple past and past participle verbs on the
www, click here for one from the British Council. "ity" after a verb to make it into a noun e.g. prosperity,
equality, security.
Present participle: the "ing" that shows continuous action
e.g. "she is carousing", "he was prancing". Note that these "un" before a verb to reverse its action e.g. undo, unpack,
"ing" words can be used as adjectives e.g. "The prancing unlace, unwind, unpick.
pony", or they can be used as nouns e.g. "Prancing has worn
me out". "ment" after a verb to turn a verb into a noun e.g.
embarrassment,
Then we have many more morphemes called derivational
affixes, which go at the start of words (prefixes) or the end "ly" after an adjective to make it into an adverb e.g. kindly,
(suffixes) to change their meaning or word type. For example, we quietly, aggressively.
can add:
"ous" after an adjective to add the meaning "full of" or
"anti" before a noun adds the meaning "against" e.g. antiwar, "possessing" e.g. joyous, nervous, spacious.
anticlimax, antidote.
Both inflectional and derivational affixes are used productively to To most of us "Thurs" is now just a stem that is part of the name of a
make new words. Children typically experiment with them a lot when day, it's not a meaningful unit like "birth", "dream", "light" or "holy"
learning to speak, making cute mistakes, e.g. "I runned and falled which we combine with "day" to get "birthday", "daydream",
over", "It's the funnest", or "I scratched my legpit". Adults sometimes "daylight" and "holiday". If I said, "I'm having a little Thursmo" or
deliberately get them wrong for comic effect e.g. asking whether "I'm feeling Thursish" you'd probably conclude I am a bit midweek-
you've squozen the oranges. weary, and wish the weekend would hurry up and come. You
wouldn't expect me to start throwing hammers round the office.
These affixes also tend to have predictable spelling patterns, so that
once you know how build words in spoken language using the suffix Words that are in current English made of two or more morphemes
"ful", and you know how to spell words like "fearful", "joyful" and can also sometimes be cropped but still carry the meaning of the
"wilful", I can tell you about something "squessful" and ask you to longer word, which is how the prefix "diss" came to mean
write it down, and you'll put FUL not FULL, FEL or something else. "disrespect". But this same cropping also happens to single-
People learn the affixes in spoken language naturally, because that's morpheme words e.g. "bro" was cropped to"brother", and is now
how our brains are wired, but major spelling patterns like this should being used as a morpheme in its own right, in words like "bromance".
be taught, because spelling is a learnt skill, not a natural process.
Once-were-morphemes
Bound stems (sometimes called word roots) Former Latin Masters and self-styled Language Mavens (let's call
There are a further set of morphemes in English which aren't words them FLMs) like to devise tests containing questions like "what does
by themselves, but do carry specific meanings, and which can be 'alb' mean?" which are supposed to elucidate who has had a Really
made into new words by adding one or more prefixes or suffixes. Proper English Education. I think of these tests in the same category
These are called bound stems or word roots, linguists being rather as the 1930s Australian immigration department language test,
keen on trees as metaphors for language structure. which was a dictation test. If the immigration officer wanted to
exclude you, but you spoke English and all the other major European
For example, the stem "tele" means "far off" as in "telegram", languages, the test could be administered in Scots Gaelic (click
"television" and "teleport". The stem "phon" meaning "sound" gives here if you don't believe me).
us "phoneme", "euphonium" and, if combined with the stem "tele", To answer the FLM test question "what does the English bound stem
"telephone" (a bit like a compound word, but made out of two "alb" mean?", you either have to know some Latin or a derivative
stems). The bound stem "vac" means "empty" as in "vacuum", language like Italian or Spanish, or you have to think about what
"evacuate" and "vacant", even though it is not pronounced the same words in English containing "alb" (albino, albumen, albatross, albedo)
in all three. English tends to keep stems spelt the same even when have in common, while ignoring unhelpful words like "albeit",
their pronunciations vary considerably, think of the "anthrop" "balboa" and "album" (unless you know the first albums were white
(meaning "man") in "anthropology" and "misanthrope". So it's useful tablets on which events and names were written) and be able to
to be taught some of the most common bound stems. isolate the common thread in meaning.

Word cropping This is hard, and young children can't usually do it, plus whether in
We get the word "Thursday" from the Old English words meaning real life it helps anyone to know that "alb" means "white" is kind of
"Thor's day" (Thunresdaeg),Thor being the Germanic god of throwing arguable. It's not widely used to make new words, though if there is a
hammers across the sky, creating thunder. sudden upsurge in the need for unique URLs in the dairy, detergent
or dental industries, it might be. There's no morpheme "tross"
meaning "bird" or "fly" or "burden". So to most of us, the English Nonsense words
word "albatross" contains only one morpheme. 3 Replies

Which morphemes to teach, when? A big hoo-ha is going on in the UK because the new national literacy
With an overcrowded curriculum and diminishing marginal utility on test includes a test of nonsense word reading. Opponents say the
some content, teachers wanting to teach spelling in a logical, words are too hard for children, and don't mean anything.
patterned way need to decide which morphemes to teach, and in
what order. However, this sort of testing is based both on sound logic and good
science.
Without a whole-school spelling/word study curriculum which knits
phoneme-grapheme correspondences (like the "ed" in "jumped" and Non-word reading and spelling tests explore a person's word attack
the "est" in "slowest") with the meanings of morphemes (like the skills separately from their vocabulary. They show how well a person
"ed" in "jumped" and the "est" in "slowest") there will inevitably be a can apply letter-sound patterns to new words.
lot of doubling up, gaps, and confusion. So I'm always a bit surprised
how few schools have a whole-school spelling/word study curriculum. When do we need word attack?
Word attack is a vital skill for readers and spellers of all ages, and we
An amusing video about English morphology need to use it constantly.
I found a great little YouTube video about morphology, which is a lot
funnier than the lectures I had about it as an undergraduate, if you Books, movies, TV shows and computer games have been full of
have a spare 7 minutes. made-up words since Jabberwocky, Heffalumps and Willy Wonka. JK
an introduction to morphology- youtube Rowling invented whole swags of them (Snape, Malfoy, quidditch,
Gryffindor), and the Simpsons are craptacular at new words.

There's a new fillum called Kath and Kimderella, Sheldon on Big Bang
Theory says "Bazinga", people play Blokus and do Sudokus, and on
TV there are loads of people with names we didn't know before, like
Poh, Devin and Miike.

People are sexting each other, wearing burquinis, supporting


Movember, suffering nomophobia and going glamping.

In my local shopping centre, there are businesses called Mosskito,


Sumos, Cellini, Frootz, Biba and Mien. The brands of things they sell
are mostly not in the dictionary, and brands are everywhere in our
homes- just thanks to the latest bout of hayfever I have Flixonase,
Rhinocort and Brauer nasal spray in the bathroom cupboard (nope,
didn't really use them, but thanks for asking).
Maps and street signs are full of new words, as are museums and
Dearm Noe
galleries. On recent visit to Gippsland, we learnt about calcite and
speleothems in Buchan, and went to Bairnsdale's Krowathunkooloong
Peopar financial Chooque Jauri Kough,
Keeping Place to find out about about the Gunai/Kurnai people.
d Pets advisors hair Gifts Podiatrist
Earlier this year on Sydney's trains I read loads of place names I
didn't know, like Tuggerah, Narara and Koolewong. Yesterday Confidently literate adults can pull these words apart into spelling
afternoon on the internet I read about the cutest little animal called patterns and apply the relevant sounds, but you probably weren't
a pika, and don't even start me on the new words that have invaded sure how to say:
every cookbook and menu taquito, edamame, soju, and dozens of
words for what my dear old dad calls "modern lettuce".
The ou in "shoup" is it like in "shout"? Or "soup"? (perhaps
Nonsense words = words we haven't met yet it's a cafe for large noisy groups?)
Think about how many more words adults know than children do.
Words that kids don't know yet are effectively nonsense words to The "ea" in "Breaf" like "leaf" (do they sell only very short
them. books?), "deaf" (audio books?) or "break"? (short
malfunctioning audio books?)
I've never had a young learner blink at being asked to read or spell
nonsense words, because from their perspective, they're doing it all The "ie" in "Prantine" like "praline" or "refine"? (bet you
the time. I tell them the test words are the names of aliens, deep-sea went for praline, anticipating Anne Hathaway in Les Mis)
monsters or games played in Biddleonia.
"ey" in "Gey" like "key" or "they"? (do a lot of GLBTI people
One of the ways children learn words and build their vocabularies is live in the area?)
by sounding them out. Once you know the main patterns, this works
most of the time, though most of us have tripped on words like "age" in "Classage" like "massage", "passage" or all jou-jou
"epitome", "hyperbole", "gazebo" and "pilates", if we read them and French, like "corsage" and "entourage"?
before we heard them.
"eo" in "Peopard" as in "people", "leopard" or two separate
What are we doing when we attack words? syllables, like "peony"?
Try this experiment on yourself. Imagine you are visiting a new
shopping centre, and read aloud these business names I just made "ear" in "Dearm" as in "dear" or "earn"? Or did you go for 2
up, listening to yourself and thinking carefully about what you're syllables, "de-arm", thinking they'd cost you an arm and a
doing: leg?
Prantine Gey
"ch" in "Chooque" as in "chips" or "chef"? "oo" as in "soon" or
Shoup Breaf fine locksmit Classage "look"? What if this business swapped names with the pet
shop?
cafe books dining hs beauty
"au" in "Jauri" as in "jaunty" or "kauri"? "i" as in "taxi" or
"Jedi"?'
"oe" in "Noe" as in "Zoe" or "toe"? "Kough" as in "dough", Everything is a real word on the internet
"plough", "through", "rough" or "cough"? By the way, I searched the internet for the business names I made
up for this blog post, and they are all in use as real, meaningful
Literate adults know how to break these words up into syllables and words by someone, somewhere.
spellings, and which sounds each spelling is most likely to represent,
as though they had internalised this list. They think about other, Shoup, Prantine, Dearm, Jauri and Kough are family names; Noe is a
similarly-spelt words, and once they have a possible pronunciation, place name; breaf and gey are slang; peopard is a pattern; classage
consider meaning. Wouldn't Deed Poll have zapped Kough is a French word, and Chooque seems to be a prolific gamer's
pronounced "cow" by now? But maybe her parents called her "Noe" nickname.
pronounced "no" to counter the surname.
Did you think about the extent of homophobia and its impact on The gap between real and nonsense words is not wide (even "blog"
business viability, the reciprocity of the pet-owner relationship, or the was a nonsense word 15 years ago), and we all need to be able to
main motivations of financial advisors when considering plausible read both.
pronunciations? Reading is about letter-sound
relationships and meaning. To read well, you have to be able to do Don't be scared: nonsense words are just words we haven't met yet.
both.
Nonsense word testing
In test situations, it's useful to separate out the letter-sound skills so
that you can see perzackly (my sister's word, which I am determined
to bring into common parlance) where learners are having problems.

Non-word reading and spelling tests can't be beat for pinpointing


how well learners can break up words into syllables and sounds,
which spelling patterns they already know, and what they still need
to learn.

Macquarie University now offers great little nonsense word tests free
on the MOTIF website. You have to sign in and promise not to misuse
them first. Some of these tests have been standardised on large
groups, so can be used to work out whether a young learner's word
attack is on track for their age.
It can be tricky for non-experts to tease out from the results of such
tests which spelling patterns a learner needs to practise, so I also
use my own tests which incorporate all the main spelling patterns
covered in this blog, match my workbooks, and which I'm putting on
this blog as fast as I can. There are also quite nice little nonword
tests here and here.
The UK Phonics Check could help reduce
teacher workloads
5 Replies

Theres an article in yesterdays Age newspaper about a proposal


from literacy expert Dr Jennifer Buckingham for compulsory use of
the UK Phonics check with Australian first grade children. Rather than
trying to paraphrase it, I encourage you to read the proposal
yourself, its in plain English and based on a behemoth of scientific
evidence.
Any teacher, school or interested person can already use the UK
Phonics Check. Its quick, free, simple, downloadable and a useful
assessment of early reading skills. Some Australian schools already
use it. Click here for the 2016 version.
The test asks children whove had about 18 months of literacy
instruction to read 20 real words like chin, queen and wishing,
plus 20 made-up words like doil, charb and barst.

Since its introduction in England in 2012, the proportion of children


passing the Phonics Check has increased each year, and the
proportion of children below the expected standard on Year 2 reading
tests has fallen by a third. The achievement gap between wealthier
and poorer students has also narrowed. Yay to that.

Of course correlation doesnt imply causation, and testing isnt


teaching. The improvement is probably largely due to the
implementation of the 2006 Communication, Language and Literacy
Development Strategy, which resourced, trained and required
teachers to teach explicit, systematic, synthetic phonics in the early Most reading problems are the result of poor decoding, and nonsense
years of schooling. word reading tests are simply the best way to identify poor decoding
skills. Email me if youd like about a kilometre of supporting
However, the introduction of the Phonics Check probably helped references, or see the references in Dr Buckinghams paper.
sharpen everyones phonics focus, as well as acting as an
accountability measure for government. If you cant measure it, you NAPLAN starts in Year 3, way too late to identify children needing
cant manage it etc. early intervention. The running record type assessments currently
widely used in schools to assess reading skills are far too subjective,
Theres no way to tell whether children who can read real words on a not focussed on the things reading research tells us matter most,
test have memorised them as wholes or are able to sound them out. based on the faulty theory of multi-cueing, and take far too long.
However, made-up words, which children have never seen before, I wish teachers would throw these subjective, time-wasting
can only be read successfully by sounding them out. assessments out the window, and instead use efficient evidence-
based assessments like the Castles and Coltheart 2 (Free online!
To successfully read charb a child needs to know that it contains Standardised on Australian children! Writes its own report!) and
three graphemes/spellings, ch, ar and b, match them to the other free MOTIF tests, the PERA, the YARC or the UK Phonics Check.
relevant sounds/phonemes and blend them into a word. Better assessments would immediately reduce teacher workloads. I
always want to weep when I see teachers at their desks long after
Children encounter new vocabulary in books all the time, including the kids have left and the cleaners are in, pointlessly evaluating error
nonsense words like grinch and bottersnike and muggle, so types in order to work out which unscientifically-levelled books to
children who have grasped the basics of our sound-spelling system give a child next (dont start me on levelled books for guided
dont blink at being asked to read nonsense words. reading), or rushing out the door with a bag full of running records to
work on at home.
To make it absolutely clear which words are made-up ones on the UK Better assessments would mean better identification of children in
Phonics Check, each nonsense word is illustrated with a nice alien, need of extra help, and of what kind of help they need. Fewer kids
like these: would fall through the cracks, and intervention resources could be
better targeted.

However, the biggest reduction in workloads which could be


achieved with better assessments, plus better training and resources
in the early years, is for those teaching later in primary school, as
well as secondary and even tertiary educators.
The kids who dont crack the spelling code in their early years early literacy according to the best scientific evidence, and to rapidly
generate masses of extra work for other teachers downstream. and successfully identify children requiring extra help.

They misbehave to distract attention from their difficulties. Of Today theres an article in The Conversation by University of
course. Would you want to be the naughty kid, or the dumb kid? Canberra academic Misty Adoniou arguing against the
implementation of the Phonics Check, and she was also quoted in the
Because they cant participate effectively in the mainstream Guardian yesterday in an article called Researchers warn against
curriculum, they generate huge amounts of curriculum differentiation further use of phonics testing in schools.
work for teachers. In The Conversation, Adoniou writes, The phonics test has been
deemed successful because the children get better at doing it over
Anyone who has worked in schools knows that there are many the course of the year, but my understanding is that most English
conscientious teachers who put in massive amounts of extra time children only do the test once. Children in Year 2 only do it if they
outside class helping older students whose literacy skills are poor. didnt meet the standard in Year 1, or didnt do it before, and anyway
They come in early, stay back late and generally bust a gut trying to each year there are different words on the test.
either backfill basic skills that are lacking or compensate for them.
Adoniou also disparages some UK teachers practice of teaching
This week I was talking to a young man with serious literacy children how to read made-up words. Id like to know how children
difficulties who said he got through English in secondary school can be expected to read books like Harry Potter, Dr Seuss, Winnie the
because one of his teachers would stay back and explain the texts to Pooh, Lord of the Rings or Lewis Carroll if they dont have this skill.
him, help him understand his homework etc. Perhaps nobody else What about Pokemon cards, road signs, menus, maps, the footy
noticed, and certainly that teacher wasnt paid any extra. But like so record, train timetables, shop names and brands?
many teachers round the country, she or he was willing to go the
extra mile.

I want the proportion of children below the expected standard on


NAPLAN to fall by a third. I want the achievement gap between
wealthier and poorer students to narrow. If they can do it in the UK,
we can surely do it here.

Its sad that teacher organisations seem to view Dr Buckinghams


proposal as a criticism of teachers, rather than an idea which might
help address what literacy statistics tell us is a serious problem,
using a quick, inexpensive, evidence-based tool being used
effectively elsewhere. Its sad that they dont recognise the poor
quality of the tests currently widely used, or the amount of teacher
time they waste.

Theres nothing more anti-teacher than failing to provide early years


teachers with the training and tools they need to teach and assess
I wrote a 2012 blog post about the blurriness of the line between Phonics is only a part of reading. This is true. Everyone
real and nonsense words, if youre interested. Suffice to say that the agrees. Knowing the road rules is only a part of driving. Does
point of having an alphabetic code is that you can write anything you Adoniou propose we stop testing learner drivers road rule
can say. You make a new words up and write them down, just like JK knowledge?
Rowling, how cool is that?
Apparently contradicting her earlier suggestion that measurable The background to the UK Phonics Check is research done in
improvements in childrens literacy in England since the introduction Scotland, which Adoniou writes was not peer-reviewed, has
of the Phonics Check are due to test practice effects, Adoniou writes been critiqued and the children from the study ultimately did
that six-year-olds in England are getting better at sounding out not perform any better than any other school in Scotlands
individual decodable wordsWhat isnt clear is if they are getting national standardised reading test in Year 7. She doesnt
better at reading. name or link to this research so we can only assume she
refers to the 7-year Clackmannanshire study, luckily I have
the link here. The studys report on the Scottish government
I find this baffling. Sounding out words is a part of reading. Skilled
website says, The children in Primary 7 comprehended what
readers do it quickly and automatically, while novice readers do it they read 3.5 months above what would be expected for their
slowly and laboriously. What Adoniou says makes about as much chronological age, which seems inconsistent with Adonious
sense as saying six-year-olds are improving their ability to pedal statement that they were not better readers. I cant check this
and balance on a bike, but we dont know whether they are getting out for you, because she doesnt provide a reference.
any better at cycling.
The Phonics Check is a distraction, presumably from
Adonious other main arguments against the Phonics Check seem to teaching as usual. Perhaps when we get the PIRLS 2016
be: results, we might all welcome a distraction.

Teachers already collect heaps of data and dont know what to The money would be better spent on Year Four deep
do with it all (stop requiring teachers to pointlessly collect so comprehension. Im trying to imagine how children in Year
much meaningless data, perhaps?) Four who cant decode text very well will be able to deeply
comprehend it, however well they are taught, and I cant say
Northern Irish children do well on the international PIRLS Im getting very far.
reading test, and Canberra children do well on NAPLAN, yet
neither of them have a phonics-only approach to reading. The teacher unions other, more understandable objection to the
Whatever that is. Theres precisely nobody who advocates Phonics Check is that its a distraction from the governments plan to
teaching phonemic awareness and phonics without teaching cut Gonski funding in 2017. Luckily those of us who care about
vocabulary, comprehension and fluency. How is the reading equity in education are not going to be so easily distracted, heres
performance of Irish or ACT children (where the Phonics Check the link to the I Give A Gonski campaign website if you havent
is not from) an argument against the Phonics Check? Also, I already seen it.
dont know about Northern Ireland, but Canberra has the
second-highest income in the country, and wealthier kids tend
to do better on tests.