AATE Response to Teaching Reading
The Australian Association for the Teaching of English cautions against remedially orientated, strongly intensive phonics reading programs being imposed on all students, the likely outcome of the sort of testing of children proposed by the federal Minister for Education today.
Such a development is not in the best interests of the nation's children as it will severely limit the professional capacity of teachers to make informed judgments about teaching approaches appropriate to their individual students in a particular school context. As international research has consistently shown a 'one-size-fits-all' model of the teaching of reading does not work.
The Teaching Reading report launched by Dr Brendan Nelson in Canberra today acknowledges " all students learn best when teachers adopt an integrated approach to reading” (p.11). It is critical that this statement inform the testing of literacy skills in Australia as well as the teaching.
Currently Australia ranks statistically second in the world only to Finland in reading scores because of a mixed method approach to reading. Those countries which have taken on phonics-only or intensive-phonics teaching are lower than Australia in reading scores.
The one country which performs better than Australia in the OECD is Finland which like us has a flexible curriculum and teaching methods that are determined locally. The Finnish education leaders, and experts in the OECD, nominate this flexibility and responsiveness to local conditions as the reason for the country's success.
Countries such as the US, with centrally mandated intensive-phonics instruction score much lower than Australia in reading. Indeed, the phonics-oriented US program "No child left behind" has recently been evaluated showing that student growth scores in reading are decreasing.
The regular testing regime recommended by the Teaching Reading Report concentrates on “decoding skills and word reading accuracy using objective testing of specific skills”(p.47). This focuses on a student's ability to recognise words rather than understand meaning. With this emphasis on the testing of literacy we risk falling into the same pattern as the US: teaching to the test rather than teaching for learning and consequently, perpetuating educational inequality.
We must not assume that remedial approaches will work for the whole classroom. Students who are competent readers will find this repetitive, constraining and dull. We do not want to see a reduction in the high standards of literacy our students are already achieving.