Literacy goes back to basics

A year-long inquiry supports the systematic teaching of phonics for all primary pupils, writes Geoff Maslen.

Australia. Australia will follow Britain and the United States in a back-to-basics drive to make all school children learn to read through the teaching of phonics.

A year-long inquiry into the teaching of reading by an independent committee chaired by Dr Ken Rowe from the Australian Council for Educational Research, has recommended that Australian primary schools adopt "systematic" phonics instruction. The report of the inquiry was released by the federal education minister, Brendan Nelson.

The 129-page report warns against the exclusive use of the whole-language approach where literature, writing and communication activities are used to teach reading, arguing that it is not in the best interests of children, particularly those with difficulties.

The inquiry found that in the early years of school, all children learn to read most effectively through an approach that explicitly teaches phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary and text comprehension.

The Australian inquiry follows the English review into the teaching of reading which advocated the use of synthetic phonics. Education Secretary Ruth Kelly endorsed the finding, saying synthetic phonics was central to learning to read and should be taught first "and fast".

The National Reading Panel in the United States has also pushed for explicit phonics programmes.

Welcoming the Australian inquiry's report, Dr Nelson said too many Australian children were not achieving even minimum standards in reading.

The result was that some 30 per cent of Australians left school functionally illiterate, having trouble with basic spelling, grammar and punctuation.

"At the moment, we've got a problem where unfortunately a lot of teachers have not been taught how to teach our children reading in the most scientific way," Dr Nelson said.

A national survey found university education faculties allocated on average less than 10 per cent of course time to teaching reading.

Dr Nelson suggested that trainee primary school teachers should learn to teach reading and be required to pass literacy tests themselves before they graduate.

But state education ministers declared the inquiry had been a waste of time as schools were already using a system of teaching reading with both phonics and the whole-language approach.

The New South Wales English Teachers Association said "a one-size-fits-all"

method to teach reading did not work. It said children in countries with intensive-phonics teaching had lower reading scores than Australia.

Among its 20 recommendations, the report said literacy teaching should continue through all years of schooling and in all areas of the curriculum.

It said programmes, guides and workshops should be provided for parents and carers to support their children's literacy development.

All schools should have a highly trained specialist literacy teacher to be responsible for linking literacy planning with classroom teaching and learning.

As more than 100,000 children change schools across state and territory borders each year, the report called for a "unique student identifier"

system. This would enable information on each child to follow them and allow their progress to be monitored throughout their schooling.

The report is available at Platform 13, letters 17

Long walk to freedom: children of salt workers must trek seven miles a day to their school in Naranpura, almost 100 miles from the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, for their primary education

amit davereuters

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