Last year, 50 South Australian schools trialed a phonics test aimed at improving student literacy under a plan the Federal Government hopes to roll out to other states and territories by 2019.
The proposed test involves students learning how to decode words by sounding out their letters and is modelled on a controversial phonics check in the UK which asks students to read aloud 40 real and made-up words.
This week, Dr Jennifer Buckingham, a senior research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) and a council member of Learning Difficulties Australia, said the trial in South Australia shows that the test has strong benefits and no drawbacks.
“The SA trial sits atop a large pile of evidence showing that poor phonics instruction is a contributor to the large number of children who struggle to achieve even basic levels of reading ability,” Dr Buckingham said this week.
The year-one phonics check is an efficient way to identify the extent and the nature of the problem. Other states and territories have only two defensible options. They can ignore detractors, accept the evidence, and agree to implement the year-one phonics check; or run a trial and see the evidence for themselves. The risk is zero and the benefits are huge.”
However, Dr Laura Scholes, a research fellow in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) said phonics testing isolates skills that are not reading and is already part of diagnostic practice.
“As many teachers in the recent Year 1 Phonics Screening Check evaluation highlighted, they did not find out anything they did not already know,” she said.
“Rather than directing resources to a test that will potentially narrow the curriculum, resources would be better directed at supporting teachers to implement quality practices associated with learning to read.”
Dr Katherine Bates, who works for Western Sydney University and as an independent scholar, says a wide body of research supports phonics as a critical part of learning to read and the Year 2 fall out is well acknowledged, but this is only half the story when it comes to controversy over the phonics check.
“Teachers do and need to assess students’ skills in phonics. Standardised phonics assessments are part of teachers’, specialist support and counsellors’ assessment tools [and include nonsense words],” she said.
“However, literacy levels are still dropping. If NAPLAN hasn’t worked to improve literacy outcomes, why would a costly external phonics assessment be any different?”
Professor Beryl Exley, professor of English Curriculum at Griffith University and President of the Australian Literacy Educators’ Association (ALEA), said the phonics test risks becoming like NAPLAN.
“We’ve seen it happen with NAPLAN, where students’ results have been aggregated either by ACARA or the media, or sometimes schools themselves, to serve as a proxy for school effectiveness or teacher effectiveness,” Professor Exley said.
“This is a misuse of the data.”