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Spelling out some problems for Gonski

By Chris Nugent - posted Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Ian Keese (ACE 2/12/13) wrote: Under the current Minister, factual evidence is increasingly unimportant – perceptions seem to be all that matters. In an interview for Sky News, Minister Pyne claimed that a recent study rated Australia 27th among English speaking countries in both literacy and numeracy. This goes against all the evidence from any of the respected studies, and in fact it was just one study into primary school spelling.

Few people know it, but the biggest problem with the Gonski-Coalition plan actually dwarfs all of its possible future achievements and it will render them close to valueless. The Gonski-Coalition plan simply does not address the desperate need for an Australia wide radical reform in basic literacy teaching. The teaching of primary level spelling for example, would be only one of about half a dozen vital issues in such a reform, and here are some details.

With or without the Gonski billions, the Coalition's new administration must deplore the eradication of English spelling skills from primary literacy Australia wide.


Since especially the early 1980s, government literacy curricula throughout Australia have been oriented towards actually eradicating correct spelling from the testing and teaching of basic English at all levels. Impossible though this seems, no other conclusion is possible. Consider only the 3 points below to start with.

  • Australian education authorities last formally surveyed the spelling-for-age skills of our school students in 1936 a distance of 11 entire primary school generations.
  • Our Australian National Primary School Literacy Survey in 1996 was the first such survey in a period of 21 years. It did not contain a spelling test.
  • Our National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy in Australian Schools in 2005 did not even attempt to investigate or comment on the spelling skills of Australia's school students. It had been the first ever such national literacy inquiry in the history of Australian literacy teaching.

Australian authorities simply don't test spelling any more: some proof

Until the 1982 advent of whole language literacy teaching methods in our schools, the basic procedure for giving a simple English spelling test had remained unchanged for centuries. The teacher presented each test word in a simple instruction (such as "John went to buy his lollies: write buy") and then the student had to write down the test word correctly: and this completely from memory.

By contrast, the modern whole language method for the survey testing of student spelling stands at a point between absurdity and blatant dishonesty. Over the past 3 decades, the record of Australian government efforts to survey primary student spelling skill is highlighted by the following examples from spelling test surveys.


1996 spelling test words: YEAR 3Victorian LAP survey 1996 spelling test words: YEAR 5 Victorian LAP survey
crashed crashed
looked looked
liked liked
wanted wanted
couldn’t couldn’t
threw threw
missed missed
tied tied


I have not made any mistake in reporting: Yes, in 1996, in the state of Victoria the very same survey test of only 8 (former 'infant school') spelling words was given to children in both years 3 and 5. Even then, the students were not required to write the words from memory: they had only to encircle the correctly spelt word from a set of four alternatives provided. e.g. lookt looked lookd lukt

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About the Author

Chris Nugent is a retired specialist teacher. He is the author of Planned Illiteracy in Australia : The Very Clear Evidence.

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