Back to basics will not work

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Last week, Jennifer Buckingham of the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) released a report calling for an early phonics check in Australia similar to the one that takes place in England. Some commentators immediately dismissed the idea on the grounds that CIS is a right wing think-tank. Yet if you look at the report it makes a very good point: since the introduction of the check in England in 2012 (following a large pilot in 2011), Year 2 reading scores have improved.

So the government introduced a phonics check with the intention of improving reading more generally and reading scores improved. Yes, I get that this is a correlation but I think it’s a highly suggestive one. Perhaps these scores would have risen anyway? We can’t rule it out. Perhaps we should run a randomised controlled trial in order to nail causation. Seems like a good plan to me. Is that what the critics want? No, they just want the idea to go away.

I think that improved reading scores are worth having and I think that, on the balance of probabilities, this is what a phonics check will do if introduced in Australia. So I’m backing it. And I hope the Australian Labor Party backs it too.

But it’s not enough.

In The Guardian, phonics check critic, Misty Adoniou, almost had a point when she stated that, “If the government wanted to panic and put its money somewhere, I’d suggest they put it into year four and put it into deep comprehension.” Clearly, the idea of somehow teaching children the skill of understanding things deeply is both absurd and dangerous; absurd because it reminds me of a spoof I once wrote about teaching children the general skill of being good at things, and dangerous because the heart sinks at imagining the kind of dreary close-reading activities that might be manufactured in the vain effort to achieve this goal.

And yet comprehension is a genuine problem that phonics does nothing to fix. You might be able to turn the letters of a word into sounds but if you don’t know what that word means or you don’t understand the context then that won’t help much. The phonics check might improve reading at Year 2 while doing little to affect the situation at Year 4 when comprehension becomes more important.

When we had the recent review of the Australian Curriculum, instead of cutting out the bloated and flawed general capabilities, the decision was made to cut content, especially at primary school. The logic was that this would create space for more reading and numeracy – a back to basics approach. History was lost in favour of a lightweight and retro social studies curriculum of the kind debunked by Kieran Egan back in 1980.

In this, we are following the example of the American “No Child Left behind” program that saw content excised from the elementary curriculum in favour of ever more guided reading and numeracy.

We should have learnt the lesson from the U.S. No Child Left Behind has not led to massive strides in reading ability because it neglected comprehension, just as the new Australian Curriculum does. Yes, plenty of reading comprehension strategies were over-taught in guided reading lessons but that is not the solution because they are, ultimately, of very limited value.

To understand what you read, the main thing you need is extensive, if not very deep, background knowledge. Which is exactly what you gain from studying science, history, music and all those other subjects that were diminished when the U.S., and then Australia, decided to go back to basics.

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One Comment on “Back to basics will not work”

  1. monkrob says:

    Wouldn’t it be awesome if Australia did a RCT of the phonics test to see if actually was causation rather than correlation.
    The whole world could benefit form what we discover.


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