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Why the fuss about the Year 1 literacy and numeracy screen?

By Jo Rogers - posted Friday, 1 December 2017

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.

I've been teaching children to read and write for fifty years next year, using the systematic teaching of (synthetic) phonics using the 44 sounds in English to be represented by the 26 letters of the alphabet. I know how well it works for all children.

There are many myths and misunderstandings about phonics and I think some of the anti-phonics educators just don't understand the process. They say, "It doesn't work because not all words can be sounded out' or 'Direct teaching of phonics will stifle creativity' and 'The children will have to read books with text like "The fat cat sat on the mat." These comments are false.

All words are sounded out by definition of oral language. When we speak, we are 'sounding out' words using the 44 sounds in our language. If (synthetic) phonics is effectively and consistently taught, especially in the first three years of school, children are able to write many more words to express their thoughts and they read all the same books they have access to now.

One complaint about the Year 1 Screen Test is about asking children to decode nonsense words like hib, mep or snop to find out if they are guessing words or using phonic knowledge they are supposed to learn to decode text. There is nothing wrong with this task. Decoding is the gateway skill to the other reading skills. When we read, without decoding a word correctly, we cannot access correct meaning or learn to spell that word.

Let me explain further. The dictionary states that 'Phonics is the representing of each speech sound (44) by a particular letter or letters which is always used for that sound'.

Some say this is the Alphabet Principle, which is limiting. E.g. A is for apple, B is for ball, C is for cat but what about 'circus'? F is for fish but what about photo? S + H is for ship but what about chef and sugar? It is the 44 sounds that come first. Children come to school with oral language so that is where to start. Phonemic awareness is the skill of listening to and differentiating between these 44 sounds.

Analytic phonics is about reading text to children, then mentioning phonic examples in the text. This is an activity for competent readers not beginning readers.

Synthetic phonics is starting at the beginning and building knowledge step by step, as with the way we learn many other skills.

So teaching one sound at a time, say words with the sound 'c', it is made by the letter C in car, the letter K in kite, the letters C + K in pack, and the letters C + H in school.

If we learn words that have the sound 'f', the letter F makes the 'f' sound in fish, the letters F+F make the 'f' sound in cliff and the letters P +H make the 'f' sound in photo and phonics.

If we learn words with the 'sh' sound, the letters S+H makes the 'sh' sound in ship, the letters C +H make the 'sh' sound in chef and the letter's' makes the 'sh' sound in sugar. And so on.

It is a plan that all makes sense to children, and to adults once they understand the strategy. And with this approach, there are no 'irregular' words. The word 'laugh' is made by three sounds, l – ar - f, and the 'l' sound is made by the letter L, the 'ar' sound is made by the letters A+U and the 'f' sound is made by the letters G + H. And so it goes on for all words.

Here is another example of how this works at the coal face. Recently I sat with a friend's child who is six years old, in Year 1 at a good school. He is very bright, has excellent oral language, eats and sleeps well and has been read books since he was born. His school report is excellent and he has been at school for 1 ½ years now.

I showed him the CVC words, cat, bit, sat, pan, ham, men, mop, fun and asked him if he could read them. He looked and said, "I only know 'sat' because it is a sight word." He couldn't read any other words.

When he showed me his writing, there was only a row of letters but no words and he couldn't spell the word 'sat'. I knew his teacher was still using the 'whole language' approach.

If this child had been taught phonics, he could have read and spelt all of these words and probably used that knowledge to read words like catch, cattle, caterpillar, pancake, panda, panic, hamburger, handle, hammer, and satellite, because he could decode the first syllable. This child may or may not be taught systematic phonics next year; it's all a matter of chance. He may fall behind and either fail or academically underachieve all through school.

This is not good enough when the information and scientific evidence is available. It is not fair to that child or any other child in a country as good as Australia. It's not fair to his teacher either as she would enjoy knowing how to teacher her students to read and write in a much more effective way. Young primary teachers want access to this information.

Let's not allow politics and egos to get in the way of something so easily possible to improve Australia's children's reading standards. It's not about getting teachers with higher ATAR scores, or about funding, or anything else other than this one issue and it's well over due to allow our children to be taught by the best beginning reading teaching approach.

The Year 1 Literacy and Numeracy Screen, with its phonics component, is the single best and most cost effective initiative to improve Australian children's reading outcomes.

When the Education Ministers meet on 8th December, I really hope they will all decide to implement Literacy and Numeracy Screen test in all States for all Year 1 children.

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To support the test, sign the petition by clicking here. You can also join the campaign by following the Say YES to the Phonics Screening Check Facebook page.

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About the Author

Jo Rogers is an experienced primary and special education teacher who has been teaching synthetic phonics since 1968.

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