The Non-Conversation

With Australia’s general election looming on Saturday, it is certainly worth debating one of the few policies put forward by the ruling Coalition government: the offer of over $10 million to fund a voluntary phonics health check similar to the UK’s compulsory phonics screen.

While I suggest it is worth debating, that’s not what is happening over at The Conversation. Instead, The Conversation has published an article critical of the Coalition’s promise which, at the time of writing, provides no opportunity to comment. – less of a conversation and more of a lecture.

So what are the arguments against spending a relatively modest amount of federal funding on a voluntary check? Let’s take a look.

“The government would be better investing its millions in initiatives that support an approach to teaching that targets inequality, as well as supporting students at the intermediate benchmark to develop the skills to rise to the high benchmark.”

Really? How do we do these things? It’s not clear. In contrast, it is pretty clear how a phonics screen would work – it would alert us early to children who are struggling to decode.

“The proposal to fund a voluntary online open-access phonics “health check”… assumes teachers aren’t assessing children’s early reading knowledge and skills. This is wrong. Early years teachers implement a range of ongoing checks, including phonics checks… an independent inquiry into the UK phonics screening check found 94% of participating teachers said that the phonics check did not provide any information on individual children which they did not already know.”

We have plenty of evidence that many teachers in Australia lack the knowledge to teach phonics. It may be the case that 94% of participating UK teachers said the phonics check provided no new information, but only 58% of students passed the first phonics check, despite teachers saying they were teaching phonics, so we have to treat such self-reports with some scepticism.

The problem is that ‘teaching phonics’ is a slippery term that is not well understood. A teacher who asks children to analyse the sound made by the first letter in a word may well think they are teaching phonics, particularly if their own training was deficient.

“Australian teacher educators must abide by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) Program Standards, which states all literacy teacher educators teaching in accredited initial teacher education programs are required to teach the Australian Curriculum: English… The Australian Curriculum: English devotes a whole substrand – phonics and word knowledge – to teaching phonics.”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t really matter what it says in the standards or the Australian curriculum, it matters what teachers know and what children learn.

It’s a shame nobody can make these points over at The Conversation.


5 thoughts on “The Non-Conversation

  1. Karey says:

    A requirement for the teaching of a phonics should be a no brainer for progressive parties, as its absence has worst impact on most disadvantaged groups.

  2. Mitch says:

    “Comments are open for 72 hours but may be closed early if there is a high risk of comments breaching our standards.”

    Huh? Who determines that and what criteria??

  3. Pingback: Where next for Labor education policy? – Filling the pail

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