The Federal Government Education Minister Simon Birmingham commissioned an expert education committee to evaluate and trial a simple 5 minute screen of basic literacy and numeracy skills for all Year 1 children. This has been successfully completed and he will take this implemental proposal to a COAG meeting of Education Ministers in December.
Whilst many educators and parents welcome this initiative, that will identify children who are not learning these skills before they fail, there are media reports that whole language advocates in teacher unions and English teaching organizations are rigorously lobbying politicians and educators to boycott this test. I have difficulty understanding their lack of rationale.
We know that reading skills in Australia have been declining for decades, despite huge increases in funding. In 2016, the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) results found that 61% of 15 year old students achieved a level of national reading proficiency. That means 39% of 15 year olds or about 125,000 students read below the expected level of reading for their age. This also means they would be unable to engage in the secondary curriculum, not to mention the damage to their self esteem.
In 2013, the PIAAC (Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies) study found that '44% of adults in Australia are functionally illiterate'. In an adult population of just under 20 million, that is quite a few million people who haven't all just arrived from a non English speaking country. Apart from struggling to find a workplace, they cannot read instructions, health, medication or safety information, let alone participate in a literate society.
In 2011, the PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) results found that 25% of Year 4 students 'did not meet expected reading standards and had reading skills lower than most other English speaking countries'. That meant that at least 68,000 children in that Year 4 level could not read much, if at all. Schools offer no effective help for those children, who have to continue through the system, gathering psychological damage as they go. The 2016 PIRLS results will be published this December. It is probable that there will be poor results again because teaching methods haven't changed. Excuses will be given by whole language advocates about lack of breakfasts, sleep, books, finance or teacher's ATAR scores that insult parents' intelligence.
Why? Well, despite successive governments trying to achieve accountability in education and improve the way Australian children are taught to read at school, a few whole language advocates in influential places continue their block on the teaching of phonics.
In 2005 the National Inquiry into Teaching of Reading (NITL) reviewed all the scientific research to state that 'systematic, direct teaching of (synthetic) phonics was the best way of teaching children to read and write, something we older teachers know to be true.
But, with a few exceptions, the whole language/child discovery approach to literacy, (I cannot use the word teach) remains in most F-1-2 classrooms, with minimal lip service paid to phonics. Graduate teachers still say they have not been taught how to teach children to read and write in their teacher training courses. English organizations still tell their members not to teach phonics and some principals mentioned that their staff can 'teach it if they want to.'
In whole language, the children have many texts read to them, whilst it is assumed that in a stimulating environment, they will 'catch on'. Teachers 'guide' children to guess unknown words by looking at the picture and using context to guess what the word may be. If it makes sense, it is acceptable. For example, say the child is presented with the picture of an apple and the text, "The apple is red." If the child says "The apple is round" or "The apple is rotten", it is accepted as correct because it makes sense. There is much practicing of errors, accurate comprehension is at risk and no spelling is learned.
This ideology came from one American Educator in the late 1960's, who studied the reading behavior of competent readers, who already had the visual image of many words stored in long term memory. Therein lays the first flaw of this ideology, because beginning readers do not yet hold those visual images of words, so they are in a totally different situation.
The second flaw with this ideology is that whole language is based on an assumption that reading and writing of the written language is learned naturally in the same way that we learn oral language. But neuroscientists tell us that oral language may be learned naturally but learning to read and write is not. It needs to be taught and learned in a developmental way, starting with the simplest sub skill and working systematically through the hierarchy of skills to mastery, like many other skills we learn. This is not an opinion; it is fact.
Teaching children phonological processing skills to learn the written language is teaching them a strategy, a plan of how to learn the English written language, instead of encouraging them to guess. That's the vital difference. Children really enjoy learning this way. They have a plan.