NSW goes full steam ahead with phonics – but does the research support it?

NSW goes full steam ahead with phonics – but does the research support it?

That children should be taught to read is universally accepted, yet, how teachers should go about this is a topic that has evoked as much passion as it has controversy.

On one side of the debate are those who believe that phonics – the use of sound-letter combinations to enable students to decode words – is the most effective way to teach reading.

At the other side are those who stress that effective reading education involves helping children to recognise an entire word rather than just sounding out fragments of it.

This long-standing debate heated up last week when the NSW Department of Education announced it would join South Australia in adopting a compulsory Phonics Screening Check in primary schools.

The assessment will apply to all Year 1 students in NSW from 2021 and be a compulsory part of the classroom.

The phonics screening check – a five to seven-minute assessment that tells teachers how their students are progressing in phonics – consists of 40 words which are delivered through a mixture of 20 real words and 20 pseudo-words.

The initiative is a major part of the government’s goal to lift the literacy outcomes of young people amid reports showing a worrying slump in this important area of students’ learning.

However, some prominent educators have voiced serious misgivings about the phonics push, which they claim has been a failure in other education systems, such as the UK.

The dissenting voices include David Hornsby – who has been a teacher, principal, university lecturer, author and literacy consultant for more than 50 years, Dr Misty Adoniou, Associate Professor in language, literacy and TESL at the University of Canberra and Professor Mary Ryan from Macquarie University's Department of Educational Studies.

‘Not supported by research’

Assoc/Prof Adoniou, said that while no literacy educator would deny that systematic and explicit teaching of phonics is a key component of learning to read, some might question why NSW Education Minister, Sarah Mitchell, is claiming that phonics must be taught ‘before moving on to other forms of reading instruction’.

“There is no research evidence that supports this claim,” Assoc/Prof Adoniou told The Educator.

Assoc/Prof Adoniou said all national research inquiries into reading, in the US, UK and Australia recommend that phonics be taught alongside other reading skills, such as vocabulary, grammar and comprehension. 

“A mandatory phonics check prioritises phonics over all the other skills. And it requires six-year-olds to read ‘pseudo words’ – words that don’t exist,” she said.

“In England, where the check has been used for nine years, there have not been any improvements in reading scores in their Year 6 SATs – England’s NAPLAN equivalent. It turns out that knowing your sounds and learning non-existent words in Year 1, doesn’t automatically convert to being able to read in Year 6”.

Assoc/Prof Adoniou said mandating a phonics check is an “easy way for a government to show action” but does nothing to address the literacy issues in Australia.

“The NSW government’s own research indicates the crisis is in secondary schools,” she said.

“But the solutions to a high school literacy crisis are more costly and complex than a five-minute sound check. When will we see a state or federal government imaginative enough to tackle the teaching of reading and writing in secondary schools?”

Mary Ryan is Professor and Dean of Education at Macquarie University, President of the NSW Council of Deans of Education and a Principal Fellow of the UK Higher Education Academy.

She is currently leading Australian Research Council funded projects in classroom writing and preparing reflexive teachers for diverse classrooms.

According to Professor Ryan, the Phonics Screening Check will be a “useful safety net” for teachers to check that all students are on track in their ability to match letters and sounds in words.

“However, we also need to ensure that students develop the other important reading skills and have access to engaging texts, so they want to read,” Professor Ryan told The Educator.

“Professional learning for teachers in differentiating phonics instruction and incorporating it explicitly and systematically into their broader reading program will be an important part of this initiative”.

David Hornsby, who has been a teacher, principal, university lecturer, author and literacy consultant for 53 years, said that when he was principal of a school, he expected his teaching staff to assess their students continuously.

"Continuous assessment data is essential for informing teaching. We understood that assessment is a continuous process, not an event on one day of the year," Hornsby told The Educator.

"Data from one assessment on one day of the year is useless". 

More important, says Hornsby, is assessing students' graphophonic knowledge continuously, in many meaningful contexts, including shared reading, shared writing and independent writing.  

"We need to know how they use their graphophonic knowledge, not just their ability to recode from the printed code to the oral code".

'Connecting spoken words to written words is the first task of literacy teaching'

Denyse Ritchie, honorary chair of literacy at Murdoch University, reading issues are more complex than just phonics. 

“Barking at print or reading words is not reading,” Ritchie told The Educator.

“I experienced hundreds of children that can read but cannot comprehend what they are reading because of a lack of vocabulary”. 

Ritchie said the lack of meaning and understanding of words is the reason many give up on reading or ‘seem’ to be failing.

“Oral language and vocabulary are essential elements in teaching early reading and writing. Connecting spoken words to written words is the first task of literacy teaching,” she said.

“Understanding that the squiggles on a page convey meaning is the magic of learning to read and knowing how to use those squiggles to convert spoken words to writing opens up a new and exciting world for learners”. 

Ritchie says that in order to help students achieve this, educators must teach the written code using the full range of skills and strategies needed to comprehend the code – not just phonics. 

“Comprehension, understanding what we read, is the outcome of decoding and is dependent on interrelated skills strategies. Understanding the meaning of the words we are reading or using in writing is paramount to literacy success”.