The Federal Government faces an uphill battle in convincing the states to adopt its proposed check of whether all Year 1 students have basic reading skills.
Education ministers will be briefed on the evidence supporting the proposed Year 1 phonics check today at their last meeting for the year.
Phonics is the method used to teach kids to read by learning how letters or groups of letters sound.
The phonics check is controversial among teachers, parents and peak education groups.
It is based on the phonics screening check used in the UK since 2012 and involves a five-minute exercise in which students are asked to read a series of simple words, followed by a series of nonsense words to demonstrate their understanding of sounds and letters.
NSW has indicated it supports a phonics check. South Australia is already running a trial, but Queensland is opposing the move outright.
Dr Jennifer Buckingham, a research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies, is a supporter of the test and recently chaired a federal government advisory panel that recommended it be introduced in all Australian schools.
“When the panel and I looked at the range of reading assessments that are in place in early years around Australia, we noticed that there was a deficit, particularly in the area of phonics assessment,” she said.
“There’s a huge amount of evidence that shows synthetic phonics to be the most effective way of teaching phonics.”
But some British experts are warning Australia against the screening check. One of them is Dr Paul Gardner, a British teacher-turned literacy academic.
Dr Gardner, now at WA’s Curtin University, described the British phonics screening check as part of an ideological war by conservative governments.
“The Australian curriculum is far in advance of the English curriculum, which I would say has been taken back to about the 1940s,” Dr Gardner said.
“England is not the model that Australia wants to emulate.”
Teachers furious over sidelining
The Australian Literacy Educators Association also warned that too much emphasis on synthetic phonics — where children practise sounding out letters and sounds — could be detrimental.
Its national president Beryl Exley — a Professor of English Curriculum and Literacy Education at Griffith University — is not in favour of the screening check.
“When there’s an overemphasis on something like synthetic phonics, it dilutes the emphasis on reading for meaning, reading critically, engaging with a wider range of texts and words that don’t necessarily meet those conformed patterns that synthetic phonics focuses on,” Professor Exley said.
The release of the Progress in International Reading Study this week put the phonics debate back in the headlines.
Australia improved its ranking in the PIRLS study by six places to now rank 21 out of 50 countries, but our lowest performers had not improved.
Supporters said this was why Australian children needed the UK-style test.
More than 100 reading researchers, speech pathologists, and parent advocates sent a letter to all education ministers this week urging the adoption of the test. And a group of parents of children with dyslexia have started an online petition of support.
But unions said teachers were furious that their expertise had been sidelined in the policy debate over phonics.
NSW Teachers Federation president Maurie Mulheron said teachers taught phonics in their classrooms every day.
“What’s happening in all these areas, NAPLAN online, robot marking, the push for synthetic phonics is that extremists are pushing … they’re imposing it on the profession, and the advice and expertise of teachers is being deliberately ignored,” he said.
Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham insists the Government’s emphasis on phonics and phonetic awareness was part of a balanced approach to literacy education.
“Really there shouldn’t be a philosophical argument about the way in which children learn to read,” Mr Birmingham said.
“It should be about following the evidence.”