We all know the interests and enthusiasms of the education departments of Australian universities. If in any doubt, take a look at the programme for upcoming AARE conference and you will find lots to do with the politics of identity, gender and equity and relatively little on reading*. All these issue are important, of course, but our education system is not really designed to effectively address them. Reading, on the other hand, is at the core of education and so we might hope for a little more interest. Yet in our schools of education, reading has largely morphed into ‘literacy’, a word that acts as a vessel to contain pretty much anything you like.
If someone criticises this focus, they are likely to be told that they don’t know anything about what happens in early reading classrooms. They are likely to be asked for evidence that reading is not being adequately taught.
It would be hard to survey enough Australian classrooms to generate evidence of this kind and that’s one of the reasons why I favour a phonics check like the one that exists in England. Even without reporting individual school result, which I think would be unnecessary, the broad figures would tell us something about the state of systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) teaching.
Until such a check takes place, it is worth looking at some proxies. One of these is the knowledge teachers possess around reading instruction. If a teacher knows the difference between a grapheme and a morpheme then that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are teaching SSP and teaching it well. However, if they don’t know the difference between a grapheme and a morpheme then it doesn’t seem plausible that they could be teaching SSP at all.
A new paper seeks to answer this and other questions by surveying the confidence and knowledge of final year education students at a range of Australian universities. It makes for pretty grim reading. Students highly rated their ability to teach reading while also displaying huge gaps in the required knowledge.
“As a group, preservice teachers demonstrated a substantial discrepancy between their general confidence to teach early reading and spelling, and their content knowledge of this area, leading to the conclusion that few preservice teachers had sufficient expertise to be effective teachers of early reading and spelling”
Despite a low return rate for the surveys, these findings are in line with previous, less ambitious studies (e.g. here).
I think it is reaching the point where universities need to start offering some proof of efficacy. For too long they have been relying on an absence of direct evidence in this area as evidence that they are doing a good job.
*The small number of references to reading are interesting. One session on the ‘simple view of reading’ looks quite good but a different session seems to be anti-phonics. There is also the launch of an anti-SSP book that was taken apart by Alison Clarke here.