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When you don't got your 3 literacy basics right you don't got 'ardly nuthin' right

By Chris Nugent - posted Friday, 17 October 2014

For at least basic literacy teaching, this week's Australian curriculum review was totally justified in its criticisms of the 2012-14 ACARA curriculum farce. Since its inception, ACARA's curriculum provisions for the teaching of all three of the 'literacy basics' have been ludicrous to the point of profound embarrassment. Very simple (word count) analyses revealed that ACARA's primary English curriculum rigorously avoided even mentioning (1) basic read-aloud skills (2) basic alphabetic or ' phonic' skill and (3) English spelling. Yet when a student is 'down' in any one of these basic skills then literally everything else that's literate suffers too.

Whenever any primary English curriculum scarcely even mentions the three vital literacy basics, it is certainly not talking about them. Much less is that curriculum able to help any teacher to teach them. Consider five statements:

  • Students who cannot read-aloud usually cannot read at all.
  • Students who cannot spell correctly cannot produce quality in written English expression.
  • Students who have not properly learned their phonics are forced to guess as to the pronunciation of far too many new words.
  • Habitual guesswork in basic sounding-out activity or 'reading' skill does invariably degenerate into habitual 'stresswork'. To summarize: guesswork is stresswork.
  • No school student or teacher deserves a curriculum that does not carefully guide the testing and teaching of basic read aloud skills, phonics and spelling for at least the duration of primary education.

Accurate phonic skills and accurate spelling skills have been the bricks and mortar of all competent written English since before the time of Chaucer. Yet within Australia, neither read aloud skill nor phonic skill has ever once been governmentally surveyed in order to determine the simple "age level" expectations that teachers might expect of their students: not even once in over a century. And the national Australian test record for the 'age level' spelling skill of our students is definitely not much better: the most recent nationwide testing for the 'age level' spelling skill occurred all the way back in 1936 a distance of 11 entire primary school generations. My facts are verifiable.

Just how important is mastery of the alphabetic or phonic principle? Let me give you some idea. I know for example, the 'phonics' of Italian and can read every word that exists in that language but I often need a dictionary to find out about word meanings. I also know the phonics of Spanish, Latin, Samoan and Ancient Greek but I still need dictionaries to look up meanings. There is never any stressful uncertainty about how I might pronounce new words in any of these languages. I never need to guess, simply because I know my phonics.

In all of these languages then, the mastery of the alphabetic principle alone enables me to actually know the pronunciations of all new words without error. In this sense, a thorough knowledge of only the mere phonics within each language enables me to actually 'hear' all of its new words accurately (whether I've previously heard them spoken or not) but with my eyes only. However, many opponents of carefully preplanned phonic teaching programs quite erroneously insist that written English too 'unphonetic' to be tested and taught systematically.

Both the curses and the blessings within written English lie in the observation to the effect that whilst written English is definitely not phonetic, it definitely is predictable. This means that it does follow a large number of quite reliable and predictable rule patterns for pronunciation. Literally every competent reader or speller has learned these predictable rule patterns either as a set of responses to direct teaching or as an incidentally assimilated byproduct of his reading experiences.

All basic perceptual and recall processes of a consistent type in the reading of written English require a mastery of these predictable rule patterns or they simply cannot exist as reliable processes. Regardless of any preferred ideological persuasion, it is the responsibility of literally every literacy teacher to at least test systematically in order to ensure that literally every student knows these rules.

All students who don't know the rules must be taught them, and teachers must have to hand a supply of appropriately designed materials to teach them with. Every student who doesn't know the regular and predictable rules that do occur throughout written English, fails decisively at least in his spelling but usually also in his reading. And most such materials should be made scot free and downloadable by education departments everywhere.


Ultimately, the quality of our education systems will rise or fall with the quality of our three simple 'literacy basics'. For these reasons alone, I estimate that the 2014 Curriculum Review was at least 30 years overdue. ACARA stands guilty as so very capably charged. It's time to stop all criticisms of the Review and get on with the job of implementing the recommendations.

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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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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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