From The Blog

Only NSW Makes Right Sounds on Learning to Read

FOUR years after the national inquiry into teaching reading, one Australian government has finally embraced the key recommendation that children be...

FOUR years after the national inquiry into teaching reading, one Australian government has finally embraced the key recommendation that children be taught the sounds that make up words as an essential first step in learning to read.

The NSW government has released literacy teaching guides incorporating the latest research evidence on the best way to teach reading.

The guides mandate that children from the first years of school be explicitly taught the sounds of letters and how to blend and manipulate sounds to form words in daily 10 to 20-minute sessions.

The guides set out key principles for teachers to follow in reading instruction, stipulating that phonics need to be taught to a level where children can automatically recall the knowledge.

They also debunk “common myths” about phonics that “have almost become accepted as truths”, including that “phonics knowledge is caught, not taught” or that having a sound of the week is an effective way of teaching.

Devised in response to the 2005 national review on teaching reading, the NSW guidelines were yesterday lauded as the benchmark for the rest of the country.

A bitter debate has raged for the past three decades over the teaching of reading, with the proponents of phonics pitted against those favouring the “whole language” method, which emphasises other skills instead of sounding words.

Whole language advocates encourage students faced with an unfamiliar word to look at the other words in the sentence, the picture on the page or the shape of the letters rather than by “sounding out” the word. The national review, released after an inquiry led by the late educational researcher Ken Rowe, was one of three large international studies in the past decade to examine all the evidence about teaching reading, including an earlier US report and Britain’s Rose report, completed in 2006.

All three reviews concluded the same thing, that teaching children phonics and how to blend sounds to make words was a necessary first step in learning to read, but not the only skill required.

The Australian inquiry was prompted by a letter from reading researchers and cognitive psychologists, many based at Macquarie University, concerned about the state of literacy teaching in the nation.

One of the signatories to the letter, Macquarie University professor Max Coltheart, yesterday said the NSW guides were entirely consistent with the recommendations of the reading inquiry and that “Ken Rowe would have been delighted”.

Professor Coltheart called on the other states and territories to follow NSW’s lead.

Jim Rose, author of the British report and now reviewing the English primary curriculum for the British government, praised the NSW guides for “establishing the essential importance of phonics”.

“It provides some firm guidance for principals and teachers rather than leaving them to reinvent reading instruction, school by school,” Sir Jim said.

The assistant principal and kindergarten teacher at Miranda Public School in Sydney’s south, Susan Orlovich, has already started using the guides in teaching her students. “For the first time, we have really clear materials and guidelines for setting up an early literacy program that’s integrated and balanced but ensures we also teach phonics and phonemic awareness explicitly and systematically,” she said.

Ms Orlovich said the guides had struck the right balance between teaching the skills necessary to sound out words and decode the alphabet, and comprehension with students being able to write their own words.

They also gave teachers strategies for students at different stages in recognition that some already understand the phonemic basis of language.

“Some kids can learn with whole language, and make those connections and do phonemic substitution, so if they know how to write ‘look’, they can write ‘book’,” she said.

“Some kids are able to make that substitution without being taught, but for other students, you need to teach them explicitly, make it visual for them.”

In an interview with The Australian during a visit to Australia last week, Sir Jim said the simple view of reading was that it had two dimensions, comprehension and word recognition.

While teaching sounds is often denigrated by the whole language side of the reading debate as a decoding skill unnecessary to be able to read, Sir Jim said it was essential children knew how the alphabet worked and that it was a code to be understood.

“It’s not just barking at print, although that is a stage you go through,” he said.

Professor Coltheart, said he understood the new national English curriculum being written would include extensive material on the teaching of phonics in the early years of school, including phonemic awareness in the first year.

“This alignment between the national curriculum and the NSW guides for teachers is going to be of enormous benefit for the state’s young children. I hope other states will be following in NSW’s footsteps,” he said.

Sir Jim said the reading debate was a false dichotomy and the two sides had more in common than the extremists were prepared to recognise.

“A picture has emerged from the research that is overwhelmingly clear; I can’t see any conflict, they’re closer than they admit,” he said.

“I don’t understand why they can’t accept good evidence that would enrich both sides.”

The NSW Education Department has produced two guides, one focused specifically on phonics and a companion guide on phonemic awareness, or the ability to hear and manipulate the sounds that make up words.

In response to the myth that phonics knowledge is “caught, not taught”, the guide says letter-sound correspondences are arbitrary and therefore difficult to discover without explicit teaching.

“Left to chance or inference alone, many students would acquire phonics knowledge too slowly or fail to learn it at all,” itsays.

Another myth debunked is that teaching phonics impedes student comprehension by having them rely too much on “decoding” rather than “reading for meaning”, resulting in students “barking at print” without understanding what they’re reading.

“Effective phonics teaching supports students to readily recognise and produce familiar words accurately and effortlessly and to identify and produce words that are new to them. Developing automatic word recognition will support and enhance students’ comprehension skills,” the guide says.

  • Justine Ferrari, Education writer
  • From: The Australian
  • September 29, 2009