This week the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) released its revised Australian Curriculum for consultation. The many proponents of evidence-based early literacy instruction around the country had hoped that the revised curriculum for English would reflect and support the significant progress that has been made in our knowledge (and, in some Australian states, our practice) of the way early reading should be taught. The proposed curriculum fails in a critical aspect of this enterprise when it comes to the teaching of reading as part of the English curriculum document.
We draw particular attention to the continued inclusion of methods that reflect the ‘whole language’ approach to teaching reading – the approach that has led to thousands of Australian children not acquiring the all-important skill of reading in the first few years of school. The direction to teach phonics is obviously welcome but it is not credible to mandate this approach while retaining elements of instruction that undermine the most effective and efficient method of teaching reading – that is, a method firmly based on phonics in the first couple of years of schooling. Phonics instruction is an essential foundational element in the early teaching of reading and this should be done explicitly, systematically and synthetically. An amalgam of strategies intended to represent a ‘balanced’ approach to teaching reading is letting our young children down. If this is an attempt by ACARA to keep everyone moving forward together, it is a failure of leadership by the national body.
For example, the continuing inclusion of the use of ‘predictable’ texts in the early teaching of reading in the Foundation Year and in Year 1 is particularly troubling. As the revised curriculum document for English F-6 provides scope for using “texts that may be decodable and/or predictable” [emphasis added] it provides no clear direction to teachers in how the early phonic skills they are teaching should be consolidated in text reading. There is the problem; an ‘and/or’ approach is weak and misinformed. It leaves teachers potentially unsure about the most appropriate text to consolidate the phonic skills they are teaching. Not only is this confusing for teachers; worse, it is confusing for young children.
When students are learning to read they should be given a text type that matches the instruction in the classroom. If we agree that teaching phonics is the way to go (and the scientific research evidence overwhelmingly supports this approach) then providing decodable texts to students for the early stages of learning to read is not optional, it is essential. Conversely, predictable texts rely on the discredited ‘three-cueing method’ of reading, the language of which is also reflected in the curriculum as using “contextual, semantic, grammatical knowledge” to read words. This is not what we should be teaching. In fact, we know from research that it is the poorer readers who are most likely to resort to the methods advocated in the three-cueing method; it is the strategy of those who are struggling.
The Australian Curriculum is a very important document. While education is a state responsibility in our federated system, all states have to meet the standards of the national Curriculum as a minimum in the design of their own curricula. In this sense it is a master plan for what and how we teach in this country.
We have no wish to pour fuel on the fires of the ‘reading wars’. There is absolutely no need to revisit this well-trodden ground. The science is in on effective reading instruction. ACARA must not set this country back in its attempts to ensure that young children are given the very best start in learning to read. Federal Minister Tudge and a growing number of state education ministers and their departments are promoting evidence-based instruction. ACARA must not slow down the momentum that is building in this country to ensure that every child learns to read in the first few years of school.
We draw your attention to, and unequivocally support, the article written by Dr Jennifer Buckingham that was published in The Australian on April 30, 2021 and which we append to this letter.
We appeal to ACARA to consult with groups like DDOLL (Developmental Disorders of Language and Literacy which consists of well over 1,000 members who are reading scientists, teachers, linguists, speech pathologists, psychologists or parents), as well as the many groups of Australian teachers employing evidence-based practices to teach reading to review what has been proposed for this iteration of the Australian Curriculum.
Professor Max Coltheart AM DSc Hon DLitt (Macq) FASSA FAA FBA
Convenor, DDOLL network