Monday, September 18, 2017


New phonics test will do nothing to improve Australian children's literacy

Misty Adoniou, University of Canberra

Minister Birmingham released a report today recommending that all Year 1 students in Australia complete a phonics test. The panel responsible for the report has recommended that Australia adopt the Year 1 phonics screening check that has been used in England since 2011.

What is phonics?

Phonics is the process of matching sounds to letters. It is an important skill when learning to read and write in English. There are two main approaches to teaching children phonics - synthetic phonics and analytic phonics.

Analytic phonics starts with taking a word that children know the meaning of, and then analysing it to see how the sounds in the word match the letters we see within the word. So five-year-old Emma will learn that her name starts with the sound “e” which is represented by the capital letter E, followed by the sound “m” which is represented by the two letters “mm”, and ends with the sound “u”, which is represented by the letter a.

Synthetic phonics starts with letters which the children learn to match with sounds. The meaning of the words are irrelevant, and indeed, inconsequential. The theory is that the children should master letter/sound matches first before trying to attend to meaning.

Which phonics method is better?

There is no evidence that one phonics approach is better than the other. In England, the US and Australia, there have been major inquiries into reading and all have concluded that systematic and explicit phonics teaching is a crucial part of effective reading instruction. But none have found any evidence that synthetic phonics approaches are better than analytic phonics approaches, or vice versa.

All inquiries have concluded that whatever phonic instruction method is chosen, it should be one part of a suite of skills children should have when learning to read.

What is the phonics test?

The phonics test is based on synthetic phonics. The children are given 40 words on a computer screen, with no context. The words are not put in a sentence, or given any meaning. This is deliberate, and an important feature of a synthetic phonics approach, as the children must show they are not relying on meaning or prior experience with the word in order to successfully decode it.

To this end, 20 of the words the children are given are nonsense words, like “thrand”, “poth” and “froom”, to ensure they are not using meaning to decode the words.

Why are we introducing it?

Minister Birmingham is concerned about the numbers of students in Australia who are struggling with literacy. The decline in literacy standards of Year 9 students is very concerning, and he is right to be looking for solutions. But the solution will not be found in this phonics test for six-year-olds.

As the test has been has already been in use for six years in England we are fortunate to be able to learn from their experience. A major evaluation of the test conducted by the Department for Education in England found that the test is not delivering improvements in literacy capabilities, and in fact, is delivering some unwanted side effects, like class time being spent learning to read nonsense words rather than real words.

Numerous other recent studies of the implementation of the phonics test in England provide valuable information that allow us to test the claims for the test against research evidence.

What does the research say?

Claim: The phonics test has improved reading results in England since its introduction.

Evidence: Year 1 children in England are certainly getting better at passing the phonics test. Over the past six years, pass rates have increased by 23%. This means around 90% of Year 1 children in England can now successfully read nonsense words like “yune” and “thrand”.

However research has found that the ability to read nonsense words is an unreliable predictor of later reading success.

And so far, the phonics test in England has not improved reading comprehension scores.

As the test only tests single syllable words with regular phonic patterns, it is not possible to know how many English children can read words like “one”, “was”, “two”, “love”, “what”, “who”, or “because”, as such words are not included in the test. This is unfortunate because these are amongst the 100 most common words in the English language, which in turn make up 50% of the words we read everyday - whether in a novel, a newspaper article or a government form.

“Yune”, “thrand” and “poth”, on the other hand, make 0% of the words we read.

Claim: The phonics test will pick up children who are having reading difficulties. Birmingham has stated “the idea behind these checks is to ensure students don’t slip through the cracks”.

Evidence: Research in England has found that the test was no more accurate than the teacher’s judgement in identifying children with reading difficulties. Teachers already know which children struggle. As researchers, teachers and principals have all said - teachers need more support in knowing how to support those struggling children.

Claim: The phonics test will provide detailed diagnostics to support teachers to make effective interventions. The chair of the panel recommending the test says that the phonics test will drill into the detail of phonics to establish what children know.

Evidence: A thorough analysis of the test’s components found it fails to test some of the most common sound/letter matches in English, and indeed screens for a very limited number of the hundreds of sound/letter matches in English. They found that children can achieve the pass grade of 32 from 40 with only limited phonic knowledge.

Other research found the test fails to give any information about what the specific phonic struggles of a child might be , or whether the struggles are indeed with phonics.

These limitations mean the check has negligible diagnostic or instructional use for classroom teachers.

Learning lessons

Australia is in the fortunate position of being able to learn from the research that has been conducted since the implementation of the phonics test and mandatory synthetic phonics teaching in England. The lesson is clear. The test is unable to deliver what was hoped. Australia should look elsewhere for answers to its literacy challenges.

Already state Education Ministers have begun to let Birmingham know that they will not be taking up the offer of the national phonics test.

This may be an issue where Australia is able to overcome its intellectual cringe, and act on the research evidence rather than old colonial ties.

Misty Adoniou, Associate Professor in Language, Literacy and TESL, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Developing Literacy in the Secondary Classroom


This week I received our latest book.

Let me share some insights about this publication.

'Developing Literacy in the Secondary Classroom is an accessible and comprehensive guide to a wide range of topics relating to literacy, learning and assessment. Taking a learner-centred approach with discussion questions and activities that encourage reflection on key issues and topics covered in each chapter, this is a book that will appeal to teachers and researchers looking for a clear, well-referenced and very practical guide to the field.' Marcello Giovanelli, Senior Lecturer, Aston University.

Today's secondary classrooms are increasingly diverse places and skilled teachers need to be able to develop flexible teaching strategies that can be adopted to best serve diverse learners with divergent needs. This book provides teachers and pre-service teachers with practical guidance on many essential aspects of literacy teaching, and shows how research can be applied to teaching practice.

Key coverage includes:
  • The fundamental aspects of teaching reading and writing to adolescent learners
  • How to intelligently select and use literature with secondary students
  • Multi-literacies and the use of technology in Teaching
  • Assessment strategies for the classroom
  • Teaching techniques for developing reading comprehension




Tuesday, June 21, 2016


How should reading be taught in schools?

Misty Adoniou, University of Canberra

When my son was nine years old, he put aside the large Harry Potter novel he had been slowly, but enthusiastically, reading each evening and instead began ploughing through lots of fairly uninspiring books that he brought home from school each day.

It turned out the Year 4 teachers had devised a competition at his school - whichever class read the most books would be rewarded with an end of term pizza party.

The aim, I presume, was to motivate the children to read. It is ironic then that the effect was that my son stopped reading for pleasure and instead began reading for the numbers.

Reading is now increasingly being reduced to a numbers game in schools.

What level is your child at?

At pick up time, parents quiz each other about what reading level their child is on. Inside the school staff room, teachers are directed to have children on level 15, 20 or 30 by the end of the school year.

Six year olds are deciding whether they are good readers or not based on how many books they have ticked off on their take home reader sheet.

These levels are based on algorithms that calculate the ratio of syllables to sentences, or measure word frequency and sentence length.

The rationale is that these formulae can be applied to rank books on a scale of readability and thus guide teachers to match books with children’s reading ability.

There are two key problems with this numbers approach to reading. First, the algorithms are faulty. Second, publishers misuse them.

What makes a book hard or easy to read?

The missing variables in readability algorithms are the authors’ intentions, the readers’ motivations and the teachers’ instruction.

These are key omissions, and they seriously reduce the usability of the algorithms and the credibility of the reading levels they produce.

Fictional stories often use familiar and high frequency vocabulary, and many authors use relatively simple sentence structures.

However the use of literary tools like allegory and metaphor, along with challenging text themes, increases the difficulty of works of fiction in ways that are not captured in readability algorithms.

For example, readability formulae give Hemmingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” a reading level suitable for primary school students. They may be able to decode the words on the page but comprehension of the book is less likely.

The same formulae may rank a non-fiction book on dinosaurs, for example, as only suitable for high school students because of its uncommon vocabulary, lengthy sentences and multi-syllabic words.

Yet a child’s interest and familiarity with the topic, or a teacher or parent’s support and instruction, can make that non-fiction book very readable for younger children.

Reading schemes

As readability formulae are not always a good fit for books, the solution has been, instead, to write books which fit the formulae. And publishers have been very keen to supply those books.

These are the books that our children take home each evening. They are written according to the numbers - numbers of high frequency words, numbers of syllables, numbers of words in a sentence.

What is missing in those books is author intention and craft, reader engagement and interest, and teacher support and instruction.

Essentially, then, what is missing in these books is the very essence of reading.

What books should children read?

We have been using the reading scheme system for decades and we still have children struggling to read.

When we use these quasi books to teach reading, we are not adequately preparing them for real reading.

These books, written to fit algorithms, don’t build broad vocabularies in our children. They don’t teach our children how to read complex sentence structures or deal with literary language or read between the lines. In many cases, they turn children off reading altogether.

Children learn to read by reading a book that is a little beyond what they can already read. The gap between what they can read and what they could read is reduced when the child:

  • is highly motivated by the content of the book;
  • has existing background knowledge about that content;
  • is receiving good instruction from a teacher.

We don’t need books arranged in coloured boxes labelled with level numbers to teach a child to read.

Beautifully written pieces of children’s literature will do the job.

Books full of carefully crafted writing by authors whose intentions are to engage, entertain and inform.

Books that teachers can work with in the classroom showing how sounds work in words, and how words work in sentences to make us feel, see or think new things.

Beautiful books that parents can also buy and delight in reading with their children.

Why it matters

The way we teach children to read will fundamentally influence what they understand the purpose of reading to be.

When we teach children to read through schemes that tally their books, we teach them that reading is simply about quantity. If reading is about getting a reward of a pizza, then children are less likely to read for intrinsic rewards.

The claims made for well-written children’s literature are many and varied.

Reading books to your children brings you closer to them, can teach them philosophy and about world issues.

But they can do something else. They can teach our children to read.

The Conversation

Misty Adoniou, Associate Professor in Language, Literacy and TESL, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Thursday, April 21, 2016


FactCheck Q&A: does Australia have one of the most unequal education systems in the OECD?

Sue Thomson, Australian Council for Educational Research

The Conversation is fact-checking claims made on Q&A, broadcast Mondays on the ABC at 9:35pm. Thank you to everyone who sent us quotes for checking via Twitter using hashtags #FactCheck and #QandA, on Facebook or by email.


Excerpt from Q&A, April 18, 2016.

We have one of the most unequal education systems in the OECD. – Writer and social commentator Jane Caro, speaking on Q&A on Monday April 18, 2016.

As the debate around public and private schooling in Australia rages on, writer and social commentator Jane Caro told the Q&A audience that Australia has one of the most unequal education systems in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Is that right?

Checking the source

When asked for sources to support her assertion, Caro referred The Conversation to a 2015 report published by the Australian Council of Educational Research.

The report analysed results from the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) among countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and noted

the general relationship between the overall level of schools’ educational resources and the resources gap between socioeconomically advantaged and disadvantaged schools. Where resources are high, the gap tends to be low, and where resources are low, the gap tends to be high.

The OECD analysis also showed that, contrary to the general pattern, Australia has a high level of resources as well as a high level of inequity in the allocation of those resources. Australia’s overall level of schools’ educational resources is above the OECD average, yet it is ranked fifth among 36 participating countries in resource disparity between advantaged and disadvantaged schools.

Caro also sent The Conversation an article published by the Save Our Schools organisation titled OECD Report Highlights Education Inequity in Australia, and the PISA 2009 results report published by the OECD.

You can read her full response here.

What the data shows is that Australia is not the worst or nearly the worst when it comes to equality and our education system. In fact, currently we’re roughly on par with a lot of developed nations.

However, it is true there is a great deal of evidence that Australia’s education system is very unequal. The level of equity is not getting better and if anything, it is getting worse.

What do we mean by ‘unequal’?

The best tool for understanding how equal or unequal the Australian education system is compared to other OECD education systems is the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Equity in PISA refers to how well students do on cognitive tests according to their socioeconomic background (SES).

Socioeconomic background is measured in PISA by taking into account parental occupation and education, access to home educational and cultural resources, family wealth, and books in the home.

According to PISA’s measure, “unequal” means there are large differences in the outcomes of high SES and low SES students. In other words, it’s when kids from wealthy or well-off households consistently get better test results than kids from poorer families.

In the 2000 PISA report, Australia’s performance in PISA reading literacy was indeed referred to as “high quality – low equity”. In other words, Australia’s achievement was higher than the OECD average but in terms of equity, Australia was below the OECD average.

In reading, in particular, Australia continues to fall into the category of high-quality - low or average equity.

In mathematics and science – subjects that less likely to rely on parental involvement and resources than reading literacy – this is not the case.

In these subjects, Australia falls into the high-quality - high-equity quadrant.

‘Among the worst’?

While Australia’s performance in PISA reading literacy has been classed as low equity, Australia’s level of equity was not particularly different to that of many other OECD countries. New Zealand, the United States, the United Kingdom, Belgium, France and Germany (among others) were also classed as low equity when it came to reading literacy.

Saying we are “among the worst” may stretching it a bit – but this is splitting hairs. The data supports the overall point that Caro was making: Australia does have a schooling system that is not equitable.

Based on data from PISA:

  • There is a gap of about 2.5 years of schooling in mathematical literacy between students in the highest SES quartile and those in the lowest quartile.

  • Low achievement is strongly associated with low SES. In both mathematics and reading literacy, low SES students comprised about 45% of all low performing students while students from the second lowest quartile accounted for a further 29%. Just 10% of students of low performers were from the highest SES quartile.

  • Australia shows a high level of variation in reading literacy performance due to SES differences between schools

  • A recent re-analysis of the PISA 2012 data found that a socioeconomically disadvantaged student in Australia was six times more likely to be a low performer than an advantaged student. After taking account of several other factors influencing school performance such as gender, immigrant and language background, family structure, urban or rural location, pre-primary education and grade repetition, a socioeconomically disadvantaged student is still five times more likely to be a low performer than an advantaged student.

  • While all Australian schools report adequate educational resources, schools with a large proportion of low performing students report much lower levels of these resources than schools with a large proportion of high performing students.

  • Between 2000 and 2009, Australian secondary schools became more differentiated in reading achievement. That differentiation became more strongly linked to the average socioeconomic context of the school.

Verdict

Australia might not have the most unequal educational system in the OECD but there is good evidence that our schooling system is not equitable. – Sue Thomson


Review

This is a fair analysis. Underpinning the PISA-based findings are above-average segregation in Australian schooling and marked social and school sector inequalities in upper secondary education (as reflected in ATAR scores). – Richard Teese.


Have you ever seen a “fact” worth checking? The Conversation’s FactCheck asks academic experts to test claims and see how true they are. We then ask a second academic to review an anonymous copy of the article. You can request a check at checkit@theconversation.edu.au. Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible.

The Conversation

Sue Thomson, Director, Educational Monitoring and Research Division; Research Director, Australian Surveys Research Program, Australian Council for Educational Research

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Friday, April 1, 2016