Education Minister says the reading wars have been won

Nov 29, 2020 by

The controversial year 1 phonics screening check will be compulsory in NSW public schools from next year after the state’s Education Minister declared the reading wars were over and phonics had won.

Sarah Mitchell also took aim at sceptics of a phonics-focused approach to teaching reading within university education faculties, telling university bosses that putting them in charge of aspiring primary teachers was like allowing anti-vaxxers to teach medical students.

Year 1 students at Oatley Public School use their knowledge of phonics to spell on their whiteboards.
Year 1 students at Oatley Public School use their knowledge of phonics to spell on their whiteboards. Credit:Rhett Wyman

“It is a crying shame that parts of the education community are so blinded by ideology they cannot bring themselves to accept the evidence in favour of phonics sitting right in front of them,” she wrote in an opinion piece for the Herald.

Results from this year’s trial of the screening check, in which students read a list of words so their teacher can assess how well they know their letter-sound combinations, found 57 per cent of the children did not meet the expected achievement level.

NSW will become the second state after South Australia to make the screening check compulsory. It has been advocated by the federal Coalition government since 2017 but resisted by most states and territories.

Ms Mitchell said making the screening compulsory was a signal that she expected phonics to be taught in every classroom. The check would identify which students needed extra help.

“The reading wars are bizarre because the evidence behind how reading should be taught is so one-sided,” she wrote. “Overwhelmingly, it tells us that phonics must be explicitly and systematically taught within a literacy program that also develops their language and reading habits.

“It’s time to declare the reading wars over.”

The battle over reading is bitter. Both sides agree phonics should be part of teaching students to read but advocates of a phonics-heavy approach say it should be prioritised, as many children cannot crack the code of written language without first knowing the relationship between letters and sounds.

Their opponents – advocates of balanced literacy – argue too much phonics kills the joy of reading, and teachers should focus on meaning. They say children should be taught several strategies to work out what the words say, such as using context or looking at pictures.

Balanced literacy is popular in many university education faculties, but decades of research by cognitive scientists – often at the same university – has found the ability to decode words through phonics is key to the early reading process.

“Instead of getting involved in debates about discredited reading pedagogies, university education facilities should focus on giving teachers the tools that evidence tells us will make the biggest difference in the classroom,” Ms Mitchell said.

“Vice-chancellors need to take a broom to these faculties and clear out the academics who reject evidence-based practice. A faculty of medicine would not allow anti-vaxxers to teach medical students.”

Last month, South Australia urged more states to adopt the check after its results improved from 43 per cent of students meeting the expected level in 2018, to 63 per cent this year. Tasmania is also expanding its trial of the check.

The assessment involves teachers spending five to seven minutes with each year 1 student to listen to them pronounce 40 words.

Some are nonsense words, presented as the names of monsters such as ‘flisp’, to check students genuinely know their letter-sound combinations and have not simply memorised the word.

Almost a third of the state’s public schools trialled the check this year. Only 43 per cent of the students tested met the expected level, which was answering 28 of the 40 questions correctly.

A review of the screening found 98.6 per cent of teachers found the information the check provided useful. Almost as many felt they benefited from the training they were given in delivering the assessment.

Jennifer Buckingham, head of strategy at literacy company MultiLit, said South Australia and the United Kingdom had seen significant improvements in literacy after the screening check was made compulsory.

“Each year the proportion of children achieving the threshold has increased because of the way teachers have adapted their instruction to ensure children are getting the decoding skills they need,” she said.

Robyn Evans, the head of the NSW Primary Principals Association, said research from Australia and overseas showed teaching reading effectively early in school was dependent on phonics and phonemic awareness.

“Our teachers are skilled at using a comprehensive suite of strategies but there are specific elements that need to be covered, and early success in reading is really powerful for predicting what happens later in life,” she said.

Teachers at Oatley Public School began using a phonics-focused approach four years ago, and said it had significantly improved the school’s reading results.

Source: Education Minister says the reading wars have been won

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