So, you begin a Bachelor of Education (P-12) course at Victoria University in Melbourne. As part of your first year course, you complete the unit, Literacy Across the Continuum 1. For this unit, you are assigned the textbook, Literacy in Australia: Pedagogies for Engagement and begin to read it. What will you learn?
In Chapter 1, you will be introduced to three models of learning: The ‘industrial model’, the ‘inquiry model’ and the ‘critical model’. The industrial model is about skill building and it is really bad:
“The ideological perspective in the industrial model is meant to create a workforce that is compliant, punctual and accountable… there is a push to create uniformity across schools… a driving force that keeps many schools attached to an industrial model is the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN)…
The industrial model for education focuses on standardisation and having students in an ‘assembly line’. Therefore, literacy materials are standardised with an emphasis on skills.”
So there is a kind of conspiracy to impose the industrial model on schools using NAPLAN. This approach is illustrated by the fictional Ms Day:
“Ms Day implements a prescriptive literacy program that focuses on discrete skills in the reading process… Ms Day has students read from a decodable text that emphasises the rhyme pattern of -at. Students read such sentences as ‘Up went the cat. The cat saw a rat. The rat sat on the mat.’ Reading and writing instruction from this viewpoint concentrates on sounds, letters and direct comprehension of text in a sequential order.”
Ms Day is teaching this curriculum because she appears to be beholden to a publishing company. And it’s really bad because Ms Day cannot take into account her students’ prior experiences.
By contrast, the inquiry model is much better. Rather than focusing on ‘compliance and accountability’, the inquiry model focuses on real life, is tailored to individual students’ needs and includes things like dioramas and wiki pages. However, before we settle on the inquiry model, we should also be conscious of the critical model which, ‘raises questions about power, gender, social structures and identity’ in a way that has something to do with learning to read.
Following this discussion of the available alternatives, the authors suggest, ‘Six guiding principles for teaching reading and writing in the twenty-first century’ which are: Literacy practices are socially and culturally constructed, Literacy practices are purposeful, Literacy practices contain ideologies and values, Literacy practices are learned through inquiry, Literacy practices invite readers and writers to use their background knowledge and cultural understandings to make sense of texts and Literacy practices expand to include everyday texts and multimodal texts.
The authors do at least acknowledge that there is a debate over the best ways of teaching the decoding element of reading. However, they frame this as a choice between a ‘prescriptive approach’ that often ‘requires a commercially-produced reading program’ and their preferred ‘integrated approach’ with a less ‘systematic and explicit focus’ that uses ‘authentic pieces of literature’.
The textbook does mention the use of phonics a few times (there are two entries in the index) and there is a chart of phonemes. However, this is presented as just one of a number of decoding strategies. Sometimes, phonics is presented as the use of onset and rime and at other times, it is presented as a way of examining the first or last letter of a word. The author’s favoured inquiry model means that letter-sound correspondences cannot be taught in a logical sequence because they need to be taught as they arise in ‘authentic’ text which is often selected based on student interest. The authors also endorse Kenneth Goodman’s view that there are four cueing systems that are used for decoding: graphophonemic (phonics), pragmatic, semantic and syntactic. On the use of semantic cues, the authors write that, “When faced with unfamiliar words, teachers encourage readers to consider the context in which the word is being used”.
This is the kind of strategy used by poor readers to guess words they cannot actually decode. As Professor Timothy Shanahan points out, this is a little like trying to teach golf by teaching people the head movements of bad golfers.
We cannot know how much reference is made to Literacy in Australia in the Literacy Across the Continuum 1 course. Teacher education is something of a black box. All we can easily analyse from a distance is course descriptors and assigned reading (although in many course descriptors the assigned reading isn’t listed). However, it is all highly suggestive.
Promoting multiple-cueing strategies to trainee teachers is not quite the same as promoting blood-letting to trainee doctors, but it’s not far off. We will know we are a profession when we take a more evidence-informed approach to training new entrants.
In the meantime, if you are a trainee teacher, or you have recently trained, then I would be interested in seeing your course materials, particularly if you think they conflict with what you have now learned about the available evidence. You may send them to me anonymously and I doing so, you may help shed further light on the inside of that black box.