Acknowledging and respecting that children are capable and confident learners, Professor of English Curriculum and Literacies Education at Griffith University and experienced classroom teacher, Beryl Exley, says we don’t need a phonics-first and nationally mandated synthetic phonics check in the early years.
These young people have interests, familial language experiences which may or may not be English, and by and large, some prior interactions with print, albeit to varying degrees. These children have already started their apprenticeship in learning to read, they have listened and learnt, discovered and experimented, and amassed an incredible repertoire of understandings about language-in-use across the modes of communication in a handful of years.
The world is full of parents who have marvelled at their child’s capacity to fathom the language of communication in their first few years of life, and to continue that journey into breaking the code of written text in the early years of school alongside sharpening their skills with making meaning, using the texts that they read, and being critical consumers. It is important to recognise that children’s uptake of reading occurs at different rates, depending on their capacity, experiences, and the relationship between their learning and self-efficacy.
I am critical of approaches that insist on ‘phonics-first-and-only’ for all children. I recall the experiences of a young child by the name of Alicia who was drilled with the ‘Ants on the Apple’ ditty in her formative years and was taught that the letter ‘a’ says /a/ (as in ‘at’) and that the letter ‘c’ says /k/ (as in ‘cat’). With real life experiences of learning that ‘a’ can also say /u/ (as in ‘up’) and ‘ci’ says /sh/ (as in ‘ship’), it’s no wonder that the version of phonics Alicia was receiving was confusing. The current push from the Birmingham appointed Panel of Experts to implement a nationally mandated synthetic phonic check will do more damage than good. Any practices that disregard the young people as individuals with histories and different starting points when they commence school, as having a myriad of experiences with language-in-use, including its peculiar sounds, forms and functions, is to do these young people a disservice. Instead, I advocate for practices that take as their starting point the whole child, and from there plan learning and teaching experiences that build their competence and confidence with learning to read and reading to learn.
Explicit instruction in phonics must be a part of these learning and teaching experiences, but phonics does not need to be ‘first-and-only’ and instituting a national mandated synthetic phonics check means that that the fuller repertoire of learning to read skills are not given the required attention.
Professor Margaret M Clark OBE (2018) from Newman University in the United Kingdom identified that 89 per cent of head teachers and 94 per cent of teachers who took part in a large scale independent national survey reported that the national synthetics phonics check didn’t tell them anything they didn’t know. On the matter of using synthetic words such as ‘braits’, ‘zued’ and ‘splue’, these same cohorts each recorded an 80 per cent negative response. Similarly, Associate Professor Misty Adoniou from the University of Canberra provided a detailed account of the issues with the proposed test items and implications for implementation in the EduResearch Matters blog hosted by the Australian Association of Research in Education. Both documents make for riveting reading.
Some media commentators have mispresented the Australian Literacy Educators’ Association’s (ALEA) advocacy for a balanced approach to the teaching of reading. To be clear, the ALEA Literacy Declaration sets out the following: “There is a need for explicit instruction in letter sound connections (phonics) and word analysis skills; this should always occur within genuine literacy events and in contexts meaningful to the student.” This is also the approach supported in the Early Years Learning Framework and the Australian Curriculum: English. To do otherwise will be to undo the philosophical position inherent in these foundational documents.
Beryl Exley has taught in schools for 11 years, and in teacher education for 17 years. She is a Professor of English Curriculum and Literacies Education at Griffith University. She is the National President of the Australian Literacy Educators’ Association and immediate past Chair of the International Development in Oceania Committee.