Reversing the 'four year slump' in literacy

Reversing the

Across Australia and in New Zealand, as student literacy outcomes show questionable progress, phonics education is on the rise.

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.

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”.

Meanwhile, in New Zealand, teachers are defying longstanding education policy on literacy and using phonics programs to help improve student outcomes in this important area.

According to Denyse Ritchie, co-author of successful teaching practice THRASS, how to teach literacy best has always been a contentious topic, with many trying to “polarise” teachers into a particular ‘way’ of teaching.

“Reliance on phonics or reliance on whole word visual memory (referred to by many as whole language teaching). Both processes are important and necessary for learners to competently acquire reading and writing skills,” Ritchie told The Educator.

“Unfortunately over the past twenty or so years phonics has been visibly neglected, although not ignored, in favour of other reading strategies.”

Ritchie says simple letter sound or initial sounds phonics has been taught in the early formative years but beyond letter sounds, phonics is rarely taught in favour of sight words and whole word recognition and visual learning strategies.

“Research evidence shows that learners struggling with reading and spelling clearly lack an understanding the Alphabetic code and the essential phonics patterns of digraphs, trigraphs and quadgraphs,” Ritchie said.

“We now have clear evidence that teaching phonics beyond letter sounds expedites a learner’s ability to decode at the word level which facilitates and supports comprehension acquisition and aids in learning to spell which in turn supports written expression.”

Ritchie said it is difficult for educators and education systems to ignore the evidence and research around phonics teaching.

“With this driving rise in phonics teaching we must now be cautious that we don’t tip the scales too far towards phonics teaching in favour of and at the expense of neglecting other teaching strategies,” she said.

“We must aim for a balanced literacy approach.”

Sadly, says Ritchie, balanced literacy teaching has not been evident in Australia’s schools for decades.

“Clearly if things are not balanced then they are unbalanced which leads to a deficit which must be addressed,” she said.

“Phonics is the deficit that must be addressed in literacy teaching now. Having a balanced literacy approach enables teachers to truly differentiate for their learners.”

Ritchie said THRASS will be highlighting the importance of teaching phonics not just in early years, but as an ongoing strategy in literacy teaching across the grades.

“There is a disturbing amount of reference to and evidence of what is termed the ‘year four slump’ where we see a significant downhill trend in literacy attainment at this stage,” she said.

Ritchie said this is due to “unsustainable” phonic knowledge taught in the early years and the learning of new words for spelling and decoding, which is left to the learner where the common learning strategy is using only visual memory strategies.

Ritchie said change will only happen when teachers feel knowledgeable and confident to challenge their own teaching practices and debate teaching and learning strategies from a position of knowledge. 

“With this knowledge they will provide the best learning environment possible for each child,” she said.


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How principals can deliver a ‘whole school’ literacy approach