Year 1 phonics check: will it help or hinder students’ literacy?

Year 1 phonics check: will it help or hinder students’ literacy?

A scientific study published last year critiqued the ongoing battle between phonics and a ‘whole language’ approach as too politicised. In publishing their study – titled: ‘Ending the reading wars: Reading acquisition from novice to expert’ – the researchers hoped their findings would finally put the debate to rest.

However, a number of academics and educators on both sides of the “reading war” continue to dig in on their respective sides.

Dr Jennifer Buckingham is a former senior research fellow and head of the 'FIVE from FIVE' Literacy Project, which promotes phonemic Awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension as “the five essential aspects of reading from the first year of school”.

In a report by the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), titled: 'Focus on phonics: Why Australia should adopt the Year 1 Phonics Screening Check', Dr Buckingham said a Year 1 Phonics Screening Check for Australian schools would have substantial benefits at a relatively low cost”.

“It would be a ‘circuit-breaker’ policy that would demonstrate how well phonics is being taught across the country and in individual schools and supply the impetus to drive improvements in teaching,” Dr Buckingham wrote.

“At the student level, the check will provide early identification of students who are struggling and need intervention or further specialist assessment.”

However, Meadowglen Primary School principal, Dr Loretta Piazza, is one principal who has serious misgivings about the plan.

“What Jennifer Buckingham is publicly advocating does not align with current Victorian Education Department policy regarding how we teach literacy,” Dr Piazza told The Educator.

Dr Piazza said that if Dr Buckingham’s thinking is permitted to take root, the nation faces “jeopardising years and years of wonderful and successful literacy teaching and learning” in its schools.

“Many principals are very concerned that the integrity of our work in literacy, which is based on evidence, strong research and proven practices, will be eroded if people like Jennifer Buckingham continue to be vocal in their views and provide counsel to the politicians,” she said.

“At the centre of reading and writing is ‘meaning’, which brings a richness and authenticity and demonstrates how teaching is truly a craft. This must be where we put our energy and refuse to be distracted by the purporters of synthetic phonics.”

David Hornsby has been a teacher, principal, university lecturer, author and literacy consultant for 52 years. Hornsby is disturbed by the current push towards what he calls “robotic, mechanical, joyless, methodologies which are one-size-fits-all recipes for turning kids off learning”.

“One of the hardest things to understand is the recommendation of the synthetic phonics advocates to use the test at the end of Year 1,” Hornsby said.

“Why? As principal of a school, I insisted that assessment was a continuous process, not an event held on one day.”

Hornsby said that if teachers wait until the end of Year 1, “they have just wasted two years”.

“Teachers test phonics knowledge daily, from very early in the Prep year. If proponents of the phonics test would also like continuous assessment of phonics knowledge, why would they still insist on the test being used on one day toward the end of Year 1?” he said.

“It would only tell teachers what they already know from two years of testing.”