Phon­ics pro­vides best chance of suc­cess­ful start at school

The West Australian - - OPINION - Jen­nifer Buck­ing­ham Jen­nifer Buck­ing­ham is a se­nior re­search fel­low at The Cen­tre for In­de­pen­dent Stud­ies

Aus­tralia’s re­sults in in­ter­na­tional lit­er­acy tests have been de­clin­ing over a long pe­riod of time, while other coun­tries have ei­ther main­tained their per­for­mance or im­proved.

It is well-es­tab­lished that a stu­dent’s lit­er­acy achieve­ment de­pends heav­ily on their early progress in learn­ing to read, so it makes sense to look at the ef­fec­tive­ness of early read­ing in­struc­tion and to make sure that it re­flects the best and most up-to-date ev­i­dence.

One of the most con­sis­tent find­ings in ed­u­ca­tional re­search is the im­por­tance of phon­ics in teach­ing chil­dren to read. Phon­ics is the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the sounds in spo­ken lan­guage and the let­ters in writ­ten text.

Writ­ing is a code, and chil­dren need to learn to de­code words in order to be­come pro­fi­cient read­ers.

There is enor­mous vari­abil­ity in the qual­ity of phon­ics in­struc­tion, and plenty of rea­son to be­lieve that in many schools phon­ics is not be­ing taught well, mainly be­cause of a lack of un­der­stand­ing about how to teach it ef­fec­tively. This sit­u­a­tion is repli­cated in every Aus­tralian State and Ter­ri­tory.

It was for these rea­sons that the Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment pro­posed a Year 1 lit­er­acy and nu­mer­acy assess­ment. A model of early lit­er­acy assess­ment that has been suc­cess­ful is the Year 1 Phon­ics Screen­ing Check im­ple­mented in English schools in 2012.

Un­for­tu­nately, there is a lot of mis­un­der­stand­ing about the PSC and many of the ar­gu­ments against it are based on false premises.

The PSC has the po­ten­tial to re­duce the un­ac­cept­ably big num­ber of chil­dren who reach high school un­able to read so it is im­por­tant to set the record straight about it.

The PSC is not a NAPLAN-style test for Year 1. It is a brief, five to seven minute assess­ment of chil­dren’s abil­ity to read words ac­cu­rately us­ing their knowl­edge of let­ters and sounds. Chil­dren read a se­ries of words aloud to a teacher.

Un­like NAPLAN tests, the re­sults of the PSC are avail­able im­me­di­ately to teach­ers to iden­tify in­di­vid­ual stu­dent learn­ing needs and to eval­u­ate the strengths and weak­nesses of phon­ics knowl­edge in their class.

This al­lows teach­ers to tai­lor teach­ing and in­ter­ven­tions ac­cord­ingly with­out de­lay. Also un­like NAPLAN, Fed­eral Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Si­mon Birm­ing­ham has clearly stated there is no in­ten­tion to make in­di­vid­ual school re­sults pub­lic.

This means that con­cerns about stress on chil­dren are un­founded. The PSC sim­ply in­volves a child read­ing aloud to a fa­mil­iar adult — their teacher. Chil­dren should be read­ing aloud to an adult every day, so the only way it could be stress­ful for chil­dren is if teach­ers and par­ents make it so. The PSC is a very ef­fi­cient tool and does not du­pli­cate cur­rent as­sess­ments.

The “on-en­try” assess­ment sched­ule in WA, as in most other States, does not pro­vide suf­fi­cient in­for­ma­tion about chil­dren’s phon­ics knowl­edge.

Of course, phon­ics is not the only as­pect of read­ing. Vo­cab­u­lary and com­pre­hen­sion are also im­por­tant.

How­ever, a child’s abil­ity to read words us­ing phonic de­cod­ing (sound­ing out) is a strong pre­dic­tor of their later read­ing abil­ity.

There is good ev­i­dence that the PSC has had a pos­i­tive im­pact on read­ing in Eng­land. Scores have in­creased each year since it was first im­ple­mented na­tion­ally in English pri­mary schools in 2012. In 2012, 58 per cent of stu­dents achieved the ex­pected stan­dard, ris­ing to 81 per cent last year.

A ma­jor eval­u­a­tion of the PSC found that it had in­flu­enced im­prove­ments in teach­ing phon­ics.

Fur­ther­more, the pro­por­tion of stu­dents achiev­ing at the ex­pected stan­dard in Year 2 (Key Stage 1) read­ing tests also in­creased af­ter the PSC was in­tro­duced, with per­for­mance in the PSC in Year 1 strongly pre­dict­ing per­for­mance in the read­ing tests in Year 2.

It is not ap­pro­pri­ate to look at Pro­gram for In­ter­na­tional Stu­dent Assess­ment scores as an in­di­ca­tion of the PSC’s im­pact, how­ever, be­cause the chil­dren who have done the PSC have not reached PISA age yet (15 years).

Much has been said and writ­ten about phon­ics teach­ing and the PSC by in­flu­en­tial ed­u­ca­tors. It is our re­spon­si­bil­ity to en­sure we are all well-in­formed and con­tinue to de­bate the is­sues.

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