Post modern clap trap rules in schools

  • by: Alannah MacTiernan
  • From: The Australian
  • October 24, 2013 12:00AM

IT is a scandal that Australian education is being held to ransom by a few hundred academics and mid-ranking bureaucrats who prioritise their own careers over the literacy of our children.

The public is rightfully perplexed as to how Australia can pour so much money into education and yet keep hearing that our general literacy is declining.

The anecdotal evidence from employers and universities about poor literacy levels is verified by research. The result of the latest Progress in International Literacy Study showed Australians have the lowest literacy levels of the English-speaking nations surveyed.

And we had more than twice the percentage of students performing "below low" than Canada and the US. What is going wrong?

Quite simply, the academic institutions and state educational departments are largely controlled or influenced by those with career attachments to the "whole language" methodology.

It focuses on reading being acquired naturally, as with speech, rather than being taught systematically as a code to unlock sounds and structures. Phonics is not given the central focus and children are encouraged to guess words based on the context or pictorial clues.

While there are students who can learn to read in this way, many do not. It is an approach that particularly fails kids from lower socio-economic and Aboriginal backgrounds. It also appears to disadvantage boys.

There is overwhelming scientific support for the alternative approach of highly structured direct instructions of skills associated with decoding writing. This is the method that most Australians older than 45 would understand, as it was how they were taught to read.

For the past eight years, I have been deeply involved with Challis Primary School Cluster in Armadale, an outer suburb of Perth, and I have personally witnessed the transformation that can take place when courageous teachers take on departmental orthodoxy and embrace the science.

The big percentage of children in the Challis catchment were assessed in the very first round of Australian Early Development Index I 2005 as having an "above-average level of development vulnerability".

The reading achievement for children at Challis had remained steadfastly well below the state average.

Committed teachers tried every approved method to improve the educational achievements but not only did the kids start school disadvantaged, every year the gap between their attainment and the state average widened.

Then the principal started to investigate what science was telling us about how children actually learned. She read with excitement the seminal 2006 British Independent Review of Teaching and Early Reading, which found that a vigorous program of phonic work needed to be embedded in the curriculum, and saw the British National Literacy Strategy that was developed from rigorous inquiry.

She approached a first-year pre-primary teacher who agreed to try this "new" method - that class outperformed all the other pre-primary classes at the school.

Gradually, Challis persuaded and inspired teachers to embrace this way of teaching, returning and deepening their understanding and skills on the way.

By 2011, they had turned around the traditional disadvantage and, at the end of the pre-primary year, the gap between Challis children and the state average had closed.

By the end of last year, the pre-primary children had surpassed the state average.

The Australian government's National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy found in 2005 that literacy instruction should be "grounded in the basic building blocks of reading" - namely the set of integrated sub-skills that include letter-symbol rules, letter-sound rules, whole-word recognition and the ability to derive meaning from written text.

It did not support the "reading is magic" philosophy.

The inquiry chairman, Ken Rowe, observed three years later that he regretted that, despite the clear direction of rigorous research, very little had changed because "higher-education providers of education and those who provide ongoing professional development of teachers, with few exceptions, are still puddling around in post-modernist claptrap about how children learn to read".

One of the reasons I decided to run for federal parliament was to confront this problem.

To me, it is immoral to allow so many Australian children to be victims of a failed educational fad. We are not just failing to teach these kids to read - we are destroying their confidence as learners. We teach them to hate school.

We are also setting up this country to be a loser in the globally competitive market.

It is time for federal intervention. The states have shown an inability to address this problem. Securing our future as a clever country depends on it.

Alannah MacTiernan is the Labor federal member for Perth.