Education needs to be informed by evidence

Innovation is always on the agenda in education but the COVID pandemic in 2020 made it a top priority. Many schools made a swift and more or less successful transition to online teaching. The schools that did this most successfully were largely those that were already high functioning schools, with strong collaborative teaching cultures and robust systems in place. The widespread adoption of technology for teaching was not a ‘disruptive’ force that changed the traditional stratifications in education systems.

This means that while much of the innovation during the COVID crisis was born out of the urgency to do something rather than nothing, over the longer term we need to think about innovation in a more analytical way. Most importantly, we must draw a distinction between innovation and experimentation. Not all seemingly bright ideas are good ideas – open plan classrooms and seating arrangements where students can’t see the teacher come to mind.

Education still needs to be evidence informed. Innovation is not an excuse to disregard everything we know about effective teaching and learning. Otherwise, doing something is not better than doing nothing.

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Everything you ever wanted to know about the Year 1 Phonics Check

The Year 1 Phonics Screening Check was introduced in all English primary schools in 2012. Since then, there have been substantial improvements in Year 1 and 2 students’ decoding skills as measured by the Check, and promising signs of improvement in standardised reading assessments in later years.

After several years of sometimes vigorous debate and consistent evidence-based advocacy from researchers, educators, and parent groups, the Year 1 Phonics Check is beginning to be adopted around Australia.

  • It has been implemented in South Australian primary schools each year since 2018
  • More than 500 primary schools have joined a voluntary trial in NSW in August 2020
  • An online version has been provided to all schools by the federal government in August 2020

It should go without saying (but apparently still needs to be said) that phonics instruction is one element of an effective reading instruction program, albeit an essential one. Students also need comprehensive instruction in the language and meaning aspects of literacy. It should also be self-evident that, just like any other assessment, the stated benefits of the check derive from the judicious use of the data to inform improvements in teaching practices.

The message about the educational value of the Year 1 Phonics Check is reaching policy makers, schools, and the wider community. Below is a selection of articles and reports that provide accurate information about the Year 1 Phonics Check — what it is and isn’t, why it was developed, and what evidence exists of its benefits for students and teachers.

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The grass is not greener on Jeffrey Bowers’ side of the fence: Systematic phonics belongs in evidence-based reading programs

Note: A revised version of this post has been published in The Educational and Developmental Psychologist https://doi.org/10.1017/edp.2020.12

 

A rejoinder to Bowers, J. S. (2020). Reconsidering the evidence that systematic phonics is more effective than alternative methods of reading instruction. Educational Psychology Review, Online first. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-019-09515-y

There is strong agreement among reading scientists that learning the phonological connections between speech and print is an essential element of early reading acquisition. Meta-analyses of reading research have consistently found that methods of reading instruction that include systematic phonics instruction are more effective than methods that do not. This article critiques a recent paper by Jeffrey S. Bowers that attempts to challenge the robustness of the research on systematic phonics instruction. On this basis, Bowers proposes that teachers and researchers consider using alternative methods. This article finds that even with a revisionist and conservative analysis of the research literature, the strongest available evidence shows systematic phonics instruction to be more effective than any existing alternative. While it is fair to argue that researchers should investigate new practices, it is irresponsible to suggest that classroom teachers use anything other than methods based on the best evidence to date, and that evidence favours systematic phonics.

Dr Jennifer Buckingham

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