Thursday, 24 November 2016

Why is a Phonics Check a good idea in Australia?

 Image result for skills check

This week, the Centre for Independent Studies released a report authored by Dr Jennifer Buckingham, arguing the case for a Phonics Check at the end of Year 1 in all Australian schools. The rationale behind this call lies in the underwhelming engagement of (a) states/territories and their education sectors and (b) Faculties of Education in taking seriously the recommendations of the 2005 National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy (NITL). The reasons for this resistance are largely ideological and have been discussed elsewhere on this blog. If Australia was a high-performer with respect to literacy outcomes, then we would not be having this debate. We could all content ourselves with the knowledge that whatever it is that early year’s teachers are doing, it is working, so there is little need for us to interrogate their knowledge or practice. However that is not the case. 

Where is the evidence that reading performance in Australia is problematic?

In addition to PIRLS data on low literacy levels of Year 4 students in Australia, we also have Australian Bureau of Statistics data on poor literacy rates in this country. NAPLAN results have been flat-lining since 2008 and it is estimated that 40,000 15 year-olds (1 in 7) do not achieve baseline proficiency in reading, a failure rate that is echoed in the Industry Skills Council of Australia's 2011 report No More Excuses, which cautions that low language, literacy and numeracy (LLN) skills threaten our capacity to compete economically as a first-world industralialised nation (p.1):

Literally millions of Australians have insufficient LLN skills to benefit fully from training or to participate effectively at work.

The situation looks as if it could be getting worse, not better: the LLN performance of Australian students has, over the past decade, worsened in comparison to other OECD countries. 

So – we have multiple sources of evidence that we are under-performing, and our situation may be getting worse rather than better. 

Teacher educators have had more than ten years to be pro-science and show leadership in engaging with the recommendations of the NITL, however progress remains glacial and highly uneven. I suspect many of them hoped the NITL would simply go away if they didn’t talk or think about it. Perhaps the hope was that so-called Balanced Literacy would appease/fool enough politicians and policy-makers and then any remaining attention could simply be deflected to school funding debates.

Ironically, in the meantime, many schools continue to engage with pseudo-science and non-evidence-based approaches, which rarely if ever seem to be called out by education academics.


How could a Phonics Check be helpful?

Many stakeholders who are concerned about children’s unnecessary academic under-achievement and ultimate failure are on-board with the evidence that a Phonics Check is an appropriate intervention to raise awareness about, and address:
  • Uneven knowledge on what effective phonics instruction actually means (incidental Vs analytic Vs synthetic - they are all different and not equally effective).
  • The fact that teaching below the word level in a systematic way helps children to learn and apply critical de-coding skills that we all need in order to be effective and efficient readers.
  • The role of effective phonics instruction at the outset in setting the overwhelming majority of children up for academic success – not just those who come from linguistically enriching home environments, with shelves groaning with often-read books.
  • The role of accurate and timely feedback on student learning to inform and influence teacher practices.
  •  The importance of getting early instruction right, rather than applying costly band aids after the fact, when early instruction has not been optimal, as per Dr Misty Adoniou’s perplexing suggestion that rather than a Phonics Check, we should wait until failure is deeply entrenched at Year 4.
  •  The importance of rigorous translation of research evidence into classroom practice. We don’t need more evidence in this space; we simply need more on-the-ground application of the rich body of evidence sitting at our feet.
The quality of what transpires in classrooms is not simply a matter for the judgement of teachers in the classroom, their employers, or their unions. If we applied this lack of logic and accountability in medicine, there would be riots in the streets, and banner headlines in our newspapers. We expect medical practitioners and their educators to engage with evidence and to ensure it is translated into practice. Patient safety and wellbeing is rightly placed above doctors’ ideological preferences and egos.

Why is it then that children’s educational wellbeing is not placed above the taboo of talking about uneven quality in teacher education and practice?

(C) Pamela Snow, 2016

Friday, 18 November 2016

Could better reading instruction save lives?


There has been enormous media coverage in Australia (Victoria in particular) in the last week about the latest round of riots in a youth detention facility.  I am not in a position to identify the no doubt complex chain of events and background circumstances that led up to these riots, however it is worth noting that:

·         Victoria has a strong history of policy leadership in youth justice. We have a unique "dual track system" that enables (indeed encourages) magistrates and judges to sentence 17-20 year olds to youth detention facilities, rather than sending them to adult prisons, as occurs in all other Australian states and territories, and indeed in most jurisdictions in the developed world. When I have mentioned the dual track system to overseas conference audiences, I see eyes widen and heads shake in wonder. That is because these colleagues recognise that sending young people to adult prisons accelerates rather than slows their progression into serious, recidivist criminal activity, and removes them from prosocial influences such as education and vocational training. 
·         Victoria has the lowest youth detention rate in Australia. This means, however, that those young people who are in custody are the most complex in terms of trauma exposure, child protection involvement, histories of school suspension and expulsions, and low academic achievement. Research by my group also shows that some 50% (conservatively estimated) of young offenders in Victoria have a previously undiagnosed language disorder, and there is an association between severity of offending and severity of disorded language skills. Language disorder was also more common in those young people who entered youth justice via a period of Out of Home Care on Child Protection orders. In a more recent study we conducted in NSW, 87% of the youth offender sample had experienced school suspensions and expulsions. As a means of changing their life trajectories, I think we'd have to agree that these approaches deserve a giant "FAIL"
·         Some 80% of the young people at Parkville Youth Justice are on remand. This means they have not been found guilty of current charges in the Children's Court and so are less likely than sentenced counterparts to engage in education and offender rehabilitation programs. The system needs to be better resourced to do a better job.
·          Given the time it takes many cases to be heard in the Children's Court, the remand period may exceed the ultimate sentence, meaning that these young people are then "discharged" from a volatile, unpredictable, and stressful environment, back into the community - another volatile, unpredictable, and stressful environment. 
These are just a few of the reasons that media commentators and armchair experts should not be leaping to simplistic solutions that play to the well-loved "tough on crime" old jukebox favourite. If punitive approaches worked (which they do not), we would not need to be having this debate. 

So - what might help? 


It might help if we thought about the school-to-prison pipeline and the intervention levers that can be pulled "upstream" to improve the life prospects of young people who come from low-SES, vulnerable families and communities, and who have been subjected to the soft bigotry of low expectations* from an early age. 

While ways of effectively approaching the sad, complex, and often seemingly hopeless lives of young people in custody are as elusive as they are thin on the ground, we are not lacking in evidence about how to lift improvement in a key protective factor for vulnerable young people: making the transition to literacy

Children cannot succeed academically if they do not make this transition, and they need to do so in the first three years of school, to prevent a yawning canyon opening up between them, their achieving peers, and the rapidly increasing language and literacy demands of the school curriculum. 

Ironically, we do not need more research to know how to do a better job of teaching reading. We simply need to do a better job of applying the abundance of high-quality research that has been reported, replicated, and supported in three national inquiries (the USA, Australia, and the UK). My interactions with teachers, as well as research of which I am a part, affirms time and time again, that pre-service teacher education is not equipping teachers to teach reading in ways that are consistent with the recommendations of these national reviews

Consider this alongside the evidence that young people who are starting from behind when they enter school derive a disproportionate degree of benefit from explicit teaching of phoneme-grapheme links at the start of their reading instruction. It's time to take a serious look at the school-to-prison pipeline and the role of early years practices in protecting at least some children from this most dangerous of trajectories.


Could better reading skills save lives?


I'll leave the final word on this to Rod Morgan, the former Chair of the UK, Youth Justice Board:

It may be too much to say that if we reformed our schools, we would have no need of prisons. But if we better engaged our children and young people in education we would almost certainly have less need of prisons. Effective crime prevention has arguably more to do with education than sentencing policy” (2007).

(C) Pamela Snow, 2016


Saturday, 22 October 2016

Are poor reading skills the new black?

 Image result for being illiterate

It was a sunny Saturday morning today in my lovely home-town of Bendigo and I was out and about doing some errands, when my intrepid research assistant, Emina texted me, asking me if I had seen this piece on The Weekend Conversation touting the benefits of a Vocational Education and Training schemes for the nearly one-third of Australian 15 year-olds whose reading skills are below level 3 in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).  Having spent the better part of my morning reviewing Speech Pathology Australia's submission to the Royal Commission into the Child Protection and Youth Detention Systems of the Northern Territory (far more than one third of youth offenders have poor reading skills, but that's another story) I was already behind on the weekend's social media, and was grateful for the alert. The research in question appears to have been published via an in-house university report, rather than a peer-reviewed journal, which does arouse some immediate concerns. However I have had a quick look at the report, and will delve further into it in due course. In all probability, though, most readers of this morning's piece won't get any further than the piece itself, so it is worth unpacking the authors' claims. In fact, I am just as interested in what they don't say, as I am in what they do.

What concerns me about this morning's piece:
  1. There is no critical commentary about the fact that one third of 15 year olds in Australia have low literacy levels. Doesn't this speak of some kind of system failure?
  2. There is no acknowledgement that industry bodies in this country are despairing about the low language, literacy, and numeracy levels of the Australian workforce, as per this Industry Skills Council of Australia report (2011): No More Excuses
  3. No evidence is provided to support the conclusion that "It seems that not every teenager with low reading proficiency necessarily becomes an adult with poor reading skills". This implies that the authors tested the reading skills of these young people at age 25 and found that a significant proportion no longer had scores below the expected range. Just because young people are employed in low or unskilled jobs (which may or may not have a longterm future), does not mean their reading skills have somehow improved post-school.
  4. It is stated that "Those from the low proficiency group compensate for studying below bachelor-level VET qualifications by choosing courses that have good labour market prospects". The problem here is that we live in a technology and IT-based society in which unskilled jobs are vanishing, being replaced by jobs that require university level training, and by definition, better than average literacy levels (see Levy & Murnane, 2004). 
  5. The authors completely overlook the fact that with better literacy skills, these young people would have a raft of educational and vocational training options. Poor literacy at age 15 should not, in Australia in 2016, see one's employment destiny set in stone. 
  6. "For schools and education departments, the message is to not only ensure access to VET, but also to support young people in making good course choices. Early career counselling is a step in this direction". Is there not a message here for schools too that more emphasis on evidence-based early and remedial literacy interventions might be a good idea?
  7. These counter-intuitive results are derived from a sample with 75% attrition, and have not been replicated (as far as I can see, they have also not been published in a peer-reviewed journal). The authors are getting ahead of themselves.

There's a popular TV show in Australia about the advertising industry, called Gruen Transfer (no, I didn't know where the name comes from either, but if you look below in the comments, you'll be enlightened). One of its most well-loved segments is "The Pitch" - in which ad agencies are asked to create a TV ad to "sell the unsellable". I reckon they should offer future contestants "leaving school semi-literate".

Surely this is the stuff of satire?

Levy, F., & Murnane, R. J. (2004). The New Division of Labor: How Computers are Creating the Next Job Market. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

(C) Pamela Snow (2016)