Phonics Debate Transcript: Phonics in context is not enough
Tuesday 31st July 2018, Wesley Theatre, Sydney
Anne Castles, Jennifer Buckingham, Troy Verey, Robyn Ewing, Kathy Rushton, Mark Diamond
Good evening everyone and welcome. I’m Phil Lambert and I’m the National President of the Australian College of Educators. On behalf of the College and our event partner, The Centre for Independent Studies, welcome to the Phonics in Context Is Not Enough: Synthetic Phonics and Learning to Read debate. I’d like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the traditional land of the Gadigal people whose land on which this debate is being held. I’d also like to pay my respects to their elders, past and present.
I’d also like to welcome the Honorable Rob Stokes, New South Wales Minister for Education, and Mr. Tom Switzer, Executive Director of The Centre for Independent Studies. This evening’s moderator, Natasha Robinson, ABC’s National Education Reporter. As you can see from the incredible number of attendees that we have and the hundreds of people that tuned into the ACE website, we actually have over a thousand and a half people, in fact more than 1,000 viewing online and of course over 500 here this afternoon. It’s no doubt going to invoke a lot of discussion around the topic.
The Australian College of Educators is the longest serving professional association for the teaching profession in Australia. In May 2019, we will be celebrating our 60th anniversary, a significant achievement by any measure. The College was formed with the specific intention of elevating the teaching profession in Australia and providing all educators with the opportunities and avenue through which to influence and direct their profession. The College today more than ever is about your career and our profession. That is most definitely what this evening is all about. Providing a forum in which educators and other stakeholders can respectfully discuss the myriad of ideas, experiences, and practices relating to phonics and more broadly literacy and the ways in which the Australian education system needs to work collaboratively across all sectors, systems, subjects, and levels to ensure the best possible outcomes for Australian students.
We are fortunate this afternoon to have secured some of the leading educators, academics and professionals working in the phonics and reading arena in Australia. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the debaters who have given their time freely for their effort and preparation to make this debate already such an overwhelming success. I’d also like to make it clear that while there are many different opinions on phonics, how it’s taught, its impacts in effectiveness, this evening has been specifically designed to invoke discussion, not argument. The debate has been structured not as a win-lose outcome, but rather as a way to present different views, opinions, and indeed evidence. The best possible outcome from this evening for the College will be for people to leave having broadened their understanding or possibly firmed their understanding and opinion regarding phonics, and to ensure that educators through it are able to provide policy makers and stakeholders with balanced and informed commentary into the development of education strategies at a state and national level.
One final comment prior to introducing Minister Stokes to formally open this evening, I’d like to encourage all of you attending this evening and those watching in real time on the ACE website to consider joining the College — The Australian College of Educators. ACE is an important and significant professional association within the Australian education landscape. The College is the only non-partisan non-industrial organisation delivering services, support and representing the entire education profession in Australia. The College is driven by its members and is focused on ensuring educators from all systems, sectors, subject areas and levels are able to shape their profession and influence education in all possible ways. For information on membership and the benefits of being part of the College please make sure you visit our website.
Now, onto some formal duties, the Honorable Rob Stokes was elected to the New South Wales Parliament in March 2007 as the member for Pittwater. Throughout the course of his parliamentary career, he has held numerous positions including Minister for the Environment, Minister for Heritage, Minister for Planning and most recently from January 2017, Minister for Education. He’s doing a fabulous job. Rob has an impressive list of qualifications, including holding a Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Laws, Master of Laws, Doctor of Philosophy Law, Diploma of Biblical Studies, Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice, and is a Solicitor of the Supreme Court of New South Wales.
Since his appointment as Minister for Education, Rob’s raised questions regarding the continuation of NAPLAN, challenged the dominance of the STEM orthodoxy in Australia, and announced plans to declutter the New South Wales curriculum. Rob is committed to working with the teaching profession to drive significant reforms and progress. Also, today we’re having Natasha Robinson and I’ll introduce her later, but right now I’d like to invite a Rob to speak. Thank you, Rob.
Thanks, Phil. Thanks, ladies and gentlemen. I too want to acknowledge the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation and pay my respects to elders past and present and to acknowledge Aboriginal people who are in the room with us or who are participating online. Can I also acknowledge the wonderful co-sponsorship of both the Australian College of Educators and The Centre for Independent Studies in hosting this debate. Looking out at the number of people who are here tonight, it is obviously an issue that evokes great interest and passion within the teaching profession.
Indeed, when I was asked if I wanted to come along and provide some opening remarks my instant defensive thought was, “No, I’m doing my hair tonight.” I wonder if Archduke Ferdinand felt the same way when he was asked to speak at the Sarajevo town hall. Look, this is an important debate and that’s why it’s thrilling to participate because it challenges different orthodoxies in the way in which we go about the miracle of teaching reading and literacy more broadly. I love the idea of challenging and testing orthodoxies. That is what education should be all about. We should be discussing dangerous ideas and we should be engaging in robust debate.
As Phil has said, this is a robust debate, but it should be in no sense pugilistic because this is ultimately about what is truly one of the miracles of the education system, that acquisition of literacy skills. And we know that literacy is the currency of communication. It’s the rhetoric of relationships that builds civilisations. There is nothing really more foundational and it’s so exciting when I consider that so many of the debates in education are about peripheral matters that don’t really matter a great deal, that we get tonight to debate something that goes to the heart of what education is all about.
So, it is certainly a thrilling contest to witness and I certainly wish all the participants the very best of luck in articulating their various positions. I want to also add a point of some caution however, in relation to this debate. This debate is ultimately about our young people and how they best acquire literacy skills. It should not be in any sense devolved into some proxy about how we might test what great teaching looks like.
I always instinctively get nervous about the idea of trying to develop quantitative tools to measure teaching practice because teaching, like communication itself, is a relational profession. We might as well ask about how to measure what a great father or a great mother looks like, as we might ask to develop quantitative tools to ask what a great teacher looks like. The role of teaching is far more profound and it goes beyond any simple quantitative measure.
That is not to say however, this debate does not matter for the students and that is where our focus should be. I know that that is ultimately where the focus of the participants of the debate truly is. So to conclude, I thought perhaps to paraphrase the words of Bertrand Russell, who once said that the essence of the liberal outlook lies not in what views are held. Rather than being held dogmatically, they should be held tentatively, ready to be reviewed in light of better evidence. Ladies and gentlemen, all the best.
As you can guess I’m not elsewhere doing my hair. I’m here with Rob looking forward to listening to the speakers. To introduce the speakers and the moderate for the discussion I have the great pleasure in welcoming to the stage Natasha Robinson. Natasha is the ABC’s National Education Reporter. She has a background in writing on national affairs, particularly indigenous affairs, law and immigration, and international crime. Natasha is a Sir Owen Dixon Chambers Law Reporting Award winner and Kennedy Awards finalist. We’re very grateful for Natasha for contributing her time and expertise this evening. Can you join me in welcoming Natasha?
Thank you very much, Phil. Thanks for our really lively and stimulating introduction from Minister Stokes tonight. Some housekeeping matters first up. It’s my job to moderate the proceedings this evening. We have several speakers and I’m sure that a lot of you have something to say, so I’ll get the housekeeping matters over and done with first up. I’d like to remind you all that this is a scholarly debate and the presentation of views will be based on evidence, expertise, and experience. It’s not a competitive debate. No team will officially be declared victorious. The persuasiveness of the arguments will be up to you personally to decide.
To ensure each speaker tonight is given the appropriate voice and for the sake of all audience members, we’d ask you first up to switch your phones to silent or turn them off. You might like to keep them on silent if you’re on Twitter because we do have a hashtag. You’re welcome to contribute to tonight and you’re welcome to tweet throughout the evening. The hashtag is #phonicsdebate. The speakers, as Phil’s mentioned tonight, are giving their time and providing the expertise free of charge. We’d like this to be a respectful discussion and we’d like all speakers to be acknowledged positively for their willingness to present tonight and for contributing to the success of tonight’s debate.
So for the format, I will introduce each of the speakers and then I will briefly introduce them again before they come to the lectern. Each speaker will have five to seven minutes to make their case. After all of the speakers have finished their presentations, there’ll be time for questions. I’ll come back to this again once we get to that point. But during the Q&A session we’re asking that speakers please keep their question to the point. Otherwise, it will be of course taken as a comment. Now, to welcome and introduce the speakers. Firstly we have the affirmative team and they’ll be speaking in favour of the proposition tonight that Phonics in Context Is Not Enough: Synthetic Phonics in the Teaching of Reading.
The first speaker for the affirmative team, arguing that “Phonics in context is NOT enough”, is Distinguished Professor Anne Castles. Professor Castles is the Deputy Director and the Reading Program Leader of the Australian Research Council Centre for Excellence in Cognition and Its Disorders at Macquarie University. The Centre is a hub for collaboration among world-leading institutions to conduct and disseminate scientific research on cognition, including reading development and teaching. Professor Castles is also President of Learning Difficulties Australia. She has published widely and influentially in prestigious academic journals on reading development and reading difficulties. Her most recent paper co-authored with colleagues from the Universities of Oxford and London is titled “Ending the Reading Wars: Reading acquisition from novice to expert”. It has been described by renowned cognitive scientist Professor Daniel Willingham as ‘a remarkable achievement. I’m sure many of you will have read it.
The second speaker for the affirmative is Dr. Jennifer Buckingham, who is a senior research fellow heading up the education policy program at The Centre for Independent Studies. She’s also the CIS’s director of the Five From Five Project. The Five From Five Project aims to provide teachers, principals, teacher educators, parents, politicians, and policymakers with information about the best evidence on how children learn to read and the most effective teaching strategies. The Five From Five Project objective is to reduce the number of children who leave school unable to read to proficient standard. Dr. Buckingham’s doctoral research was on effective reading instruction for struggling readers. Last year, as I’m sure many of you know, she chaired an expert panel appointed by the federal government to provide advice on the introduction of a year one literacy and numeracy check. She’s since been working with a number of state governments and non-government school authorities on developing literacy policies and trialing and implementing a year one phonics check.
The third speaker for the affirmative is Mr. Troy Verey. He’s an instructional leader at Marsden Road Public School here in Sydney. He has teaching and leadership experience in English and Australian schools for over 10 years. In 2016, Mr. Verey was honored with the Liverpool Principals Network Director’s award for his contributions as a teacher in an executive role at Marsden Road Public. He’s a strong advocate for using evidence-based teaching and a knowledge specific curriculum to overcome social inequity. His professional interests focus on shifting the culture of education from one based on ideologies to one based on scientific evidence and his current projects include developing teacher curriculum, content knowledge, cultivating evidence-based pedagogy, and improving assessment practices in literacy and numeracy. He’s also a current member of the Liverpool Local Aboriginal Education Consultative Group.
Now for the negative teams. The first speaker for the negative is Professor Robyn Ewing AM. She’s a Professor of Teacher Education and the Arts at Sydney University’s School of Education and Social Work. She’s also a former primary school teacher. Professor Ewing’s teaching research and writing include a focus on early language and literacy development, professional teacher learning and the role that the arts can play in transforming student learning. She has a strong commitment to innovative teaching and learning at all levels of education. Professor Ewing’s also chair of the academic board for the Australian Film, Television and Radio School Actors. She’s a board member of WestWords and an honorary associate at the Sydney Theater Company. She’s also a past president of the Australian Literacy Educators’ Association and the Primary English Teachers Association of Australia.
The second speaker for the affirmative is Dr. Kathy Rushton. Dr. Rushton has a strong interest in the development of language and literacy, especially in socio-economically disadvantaged communities and for students learning English as an Additional Language or Dialect. She’s an experienced EALD and classroom teacher having worked in primary and secondary settings and with adults learning English. Dr. Rushton is a lecturer in the School of Education and Social Work at University of Sydney. She also provides professional learning for teachers, especially in the areas of literacy and language development. Her current research projects are on the impact that teacher professional learning has on students’ literacy and language development and on the confirmation of student identity and the impact that that has on wellbeing, literacy and language.
And finally the third speaker in the negative team is Mark Diamond. He’s an educator of 30 plus years and the proud principal of Lansvale Public School Learning Community here in Sydney’s Southwest. Lansvale Public has a culture of excellence and it’s been identified by the Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation New South Wales as a consistently high performing school. Mark was previously the principal of Green Valley and Ashcroft Public Schools. He was an active partner and co-researcher in the Western Sydney University Fair Go Project and has been acknowledged by Western Sydney University as a Lead Learner for his contribution to the field of pre-service teaching and is a long-term participant on its external advisory board. Mark has also held the position of Instructional Leader Mentor through the Early Action for Success Program in New South Wales. He’s performed this role across five schools in Southwestern Sydney. He’s also a Principal Education Officer in the Priority Actions Schools Program.
Thank you to all of the speakers. I will now introduce the first speaker for the affirmative, Professor Anne Castles
Well, thank you to CIS and ACE New South Wales for hosting this event and giving me the opportunity to speak for the affirmative in this important debate. I’d like to set the scene by making two points right at the outset. The first is that no one on either side of this debate is proposing that teaching phonics is all there is to teaching children to read. To claim that anyone is suggesting this would be to set up a ‘straw man’. On the contrary, our argument is that phonics is an essential foundation in learning to read and should be taught systematically, but not that it’s sufficient on its own. The second point is that it’s incorrect to assume the children learned to read in the same way that they learned to speak and understand. Children are born with the ability to acquire spoken language simply through interactions with their environment, but we have no such predisposition for learning to read.
Presented with a library of books, a child will not usually spontaneously begin to derive meaning from the sets of curved lines and dots that make up the writing they see. Instead, reading is a learning skill that typically requires instruction, and our argument is simply that this instruction should include systematic phonics. So what do we mean by phonics? As most people here in the room would be aware, phonics is a teaching method. It involves explicitly teaching students the relationship between graphings or letters and phonics or sounds in an alphabetic writing system. Phonics programs are systematic when they teach these relationships in a structured and ordered manner, usually commencing with the simplest and most frequent mappings and then progressing to the more difficult ones. Phonics taught in context by definition cannot be systematic as there is little or no opportunity to control the nature or the extent or the sequence of the things that are being taught.
So why fundamentally do we argue that the systematic teaching of phonics is important? Well, the answer here is quite simple in a way because it falls out of the nature of our English writing system. Our alphabetic writing system is a code for sound. The letters on the page represent spoken language, so if we teach children phonics, we teach them how to crack the code. They can go from those squiggles and lines they see to a spoken word, W-E-N-T… ‘went’… and if that word is in their oral vocabulary, they can then get from the sound of the word to its meaning, which of course is the most important thing. If they have the code, they can do this independently without having the teacher tell them what the word is and without having to guess it. As well, the knowledge they have will generalise beyond individual words.
The child with the phonic knowledge to read ‘went’ will also be able to read ten, and wet, and net, for example. Now, of course, not all words in English, being a tricky orthography, follow standard mappings. Basic phonics will get the child a very long way. In contrast, our English writing system is not primarily a code for meaning. There’s no systematic link between the squiggles and the lines a child sees in words on the page and their meanings. So consider the words cat and cow. A child trying to figure out a systematic relationship between printed words and their meanings might first deduce that all words that begin with that C letter must be animals, but then they would see ‘cup’ and ‘can’ and ‘cot’ and realise that they were wrong. There is no code that links print and meaning.
So what this means is that teaching children to go directly from printed words to their meanings effectively requires them to engage in an arbitrary paired associate learning exercise and there’s no opportunity for generalisation beyond any particular word. So our basic argument is that it makes sense to explicitly teach children the code that our writing system actually represent — that between print and sound rather than expecting them to figure it out for themselves or having them trying to deduce some other code. Of course, you and I as skilled readers don’t need to translate printed words into their sounds in order to understand them. We can go directly from print to meaning, as is evident when we fluently read and understand texts with seemingly no effort and without laboriously sounding words out as do young children.
But we can do this precisely because we’re expert readers. We’ve built up detailed memories over an extended period of the written forms of words that we’re familiar with, and we’ve linked to those memories with knowledge about the words’ pronunciations and their meanings. And indeed research we’ve conducted shows that having children initially sound words out via phonics actually supports this process of building reading expertise. So to state this differently, going directly from print to meaning is the end point of learning to read and although we want all children to get there, it doesn’t make sense to start with the end point. An analogy would be to propose that we teach children to play piano by putting them in front of a Tchaikovsky score. On the contrary, we need to teach children the foundational skills that will allow them to make the most rapid progress possible towards becoming expert readers, and that includes teaching phonics.
My points above are supported by all the major cognitive theories of reading. Without exception these theories proposed two mechanisms by which skilled readers can go from print to meaning, one indirectly by the words’ sound and one directly to its meaning. These two mechanisms are also represented in two distinct neural pathways in the brain. And most importantly, research shows that when printed words are first encountered, even by adults, they’re read and understood via that indirect pathway, via their sound. As familiarity increases, the words begin to be recognised and understood directly. Teaching phonics supports the development of the very cognitive and neural processes that we know underpin skilled reading. In summary, the evidence base is clear in showing that the journey towards children forming strong links between print and meaning starts with them forming strong links between print and sound. So let’s ensure all children get the best possible start in this journey and open up the world of books to them by teaching them phonics explicitly and systematically. Thank you.
Thank you very much. Next up we have the first speaker for the negative Professor Robyn Ewing.
Good evening, everyone. Thank you very much for the invitation to participate in this scholarly discussion. My colleagues and I have what we as far as we can work out at least 100 years cumulatively of working in education, working with children, helping them learn to read, working with teachers, and working with pre-service teachers. I left my walking stick in the car. We certainly agree that learning to read, learning to be literate, is about children’s life chances and that teachers and parents are well positioned to help children very much on that journey. We also agree that phonics is an important part of learning to read, but our position is that meaning comes first, that phonics is not enough to meet the individual needs of each child.
We also want to state very clearly that we have a very complex definition of what it means to read, and that it is about bringing meaning to text and constructing meanings from text, and texts in the very broadest sense. So we don’t agree that reading is a set of discrete hierarchical skills, but they are linear, that they’re technical, and that you need to start with the simplest. We actually feel that it’s very important to bring all of the sources of information together for reading to happen and once a child learns to read, it’s almost like an epiphany when they bring all of those sources of knowledge together. They bring their understanding of the semantics of the meaning that they’ve gained right from birth. They bring their understanding of the way grammar works in their particular mother tongue and they bring their understanding of the letter sound relationships. There’s a whole range of strategies that need to happen alongside each other and they need to be meaningfully integrated.
It’s not sufficient just to privilege learning the sound letter relationship at the beginning of this journey. In fact, the journey begins way back when a child is born and you start treating that baby as the meaning maker. You talk to that baby. You have a conversation right from birth as if they’re going to talk right back to you. Guess what, they do. Because the research that has happened now that can record what happens within minutes after a child is born and that talking, that meaningful relationship begins, demonstrates that they begin to mirror back using their face, trying to copy what that adult is doing,
So, right from the beginning, things like oral language play and shared story and substantive conversation, are really important. In fact, one of the most strongest predictors of a child’s success with reading is just that, that shared reading in the home, that number of books in the home, the opportunities to read and share a story with an adult or caregiver or with an older peer. So we need to start with rich, meaningful language play. We need to help children understand the purpose and joy of reading right from the beginning and engage them right from the word go. And we need to start sharing stories that are rich and authentic. One of our huge concerns is if children are not allowed to engage with rich and imaginative text right from the beginning, if the focus is on so-called decodable, or contrived texts that don’t make sense beyond the sentence level, and that is hugely concerning because children need to make the link with their own lives.
They need to talk about the relationship between what they’re hearing, when they’re being read to, and they need to engage with possibilities beyond their own particular context. Young children really want to engage right from the beginning with the huge complexities of who they are and how they fit into this world. So let’s not downplay the importance of giving them those opportunities by integrating what we do with meaning, phonics and syntactic knowledge right from the beginning. The other thing that really concerns us is that, associated with just thinking about synthetic phonics, is this idea that all children who are six need to have a phonics check in which they are asked to read 40 words, 20 of which are pseudo words. That’s hugely problematic if you accept the definition that reading is about making meaning. It’s not just about re-coding, coding from sound to letter. It’s about making meaning.
It’s about decoding and going beyond that to make sense of you’re reading. We’re really worried that bringing another test, it’s called a check but it’s really a test, bringing another high stakes test for six year olds when the British research has shown that that’s not a good thing to do for such young children. It’s not going to really be helpful and anyway where it has been used in England. It is not necessarily improved children’s reading. It’s not improved their comprehension. It’s improved their opportunity to pass that test over the six years that it’s been introduced and it’s going to disadvantage our EALD children. It’s going to disadvantage out children who can already read because they will be looking for those words to make sense.
I’m being told that I must stop now. I’m just going to go back to what I said right at the beginning. Meaning must come first if we are truly talking about what reading is about. Teachers need to meet the needs of the individual child and we need to trust them as experts in helping children learn to read.
Thank you very much, Robyn. The second speaker for the affirmative is Dr. Jennifer Buckingham.
Good evening, everyone. I’m going to start by reiterating for the team speaking to the proposition, it’s not arguing that phonics is the only essential skill for reading. The project I run is called FIVE From FIVE because it emphasizes the five essential components of reading and all of the sub-skills that lie beneath those essential components. However, phonics is fundamental to reading development and it is the most contested and that’s why it is the topic of tonight’s debate. Accurate and fluent word reading is the route to comprehension or ‘meaning making’. Proficient decoding is the path to fluent reading. Teaching phonics in context — that is, in a way that is not sequential, systematic and explicit — is not enough to ensure all children gain this fundamental skill. Longitudinal studies have repeatedly found that a child’s ability to decode is a strong predictor of their reading level. One recent study found that decoding and listening comprehension together accounted for 96% of variation in reading comprehension.
The authors wrote, “Without adequate levels of decoding, oral language comprehension skills cannot be engaged to allow the comprehension of a written text.” Teaching children to decode fluently using phonics is not teaching them to bark at print. In a journal article last year, Professor Kate Nation wrote, “There’s clear consensus and abundant evidence that in alphabetic languages like ours, phonological decoding is at the core of learning to read words.” This evidence comes from research with sound empirical or experimental methodologies that use valid measures of reading ability. Children who have learned to unlock the alphabetic code early can read independently more quickly and are more likely to enjoy reading and therefore read a greater number and difficulty of text, increasing their vocabulary and their comprehension and their engagement with literature. Written English is a more complex code than other alphabetic languages. Many children will not work it out without effective instruction. Effective instruction is systematic and explicit. Teaching phonics ‘in context’ is not.
The basis of teaching phonics in context is the notion that students can only learn phonics well if teachers start with meaningful texts rather than isolated letters or sounds. The phonics in context approach is based on the disproven theory that novice readers are making direct connections between print and meaning in the same way that skilled readers do. As Anne has explained, this isn’t the case. Because of its flawed understanding of reading development, phonics in context promotes flawed models of teaching. Children are encouraged to use multi-cueing strategies to identify and read words. They’re told to use the context of the sentence and the grammatical position of the word as the first cues to what the word might be. Multi-cueing guidelines often encourage children to look at the pictures in a storybook to help read the words. Only as the final strategy is it suggested that children look at all of the letters in the word.
Unsurprisingly, studies have found this to be an inefficient way of reading. Good readers use phonological decoding, struggling readers use these other cues to try to eventually arrive at the correct word. A British research team that’s undertaken several meta-analyses of reading instruction recently wrote that, “Putting semantic and syntactic cues on par with phonics for word reading is little better than guessing, since they often lead to learners producing words other than the target.” The meaning of a word is of course dependent on the context in which it is used. However, knowing what that word is in the first place requires adept phonological decoding. Some people offer heteronyms, words that are spelled the same but have different pronunciation and meaning as proof that context is the primary cue for word reading and therefore phonics should only be taught in context.
For example, one document asks, “How does one know how to read the word spelled W-I-N-D without the context of the sentence? Is it wind or wind?” Clearly, context is important here to apply the correct pronunciation and infer the meaning, but phonics allows the reader to narrow down the possible options to just two amongst thousands of four-letter words. Without knowing phonics, it could be pretty much anything at all. International literature reviews found systematic, explicit phonics instruction to be more effective than non-systematic methods such as whole language, which spawned phonics in context.
Expert reviews in Australia and in England considered evidence from a wide range of research and concluded that synthetic phonics was highly effective. An analysis conducted in England after synthetic phonics was mandated in 2005, found the adoption of synthetic phonics had led to significant improvements in reading, particularly among children with the greatest risk of reading failure. That is, children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those who are from non-English speaking backgrounds. Studies of high performing primary schools have found that high quality synthetic phonics was a common factor.
There’s a lot of fake news about synthetic phonics. So what is it? Synthetic phonics is so-called because teachers build up phonic knowledge from the smallest units — letters and sounds — which are taught in a direct and carefully planned sequence to help them come to grips with the alphabetic code. As Anne noted, this is not an understanding that children are born with. This new phonics knowledge is then embedded in the context of meaningful words and sentences with regular revision, practice and assessment. These pedagogical approach methodically develops and fortifies the neurological connections necessary for fluent decoding. Sometimes, making and reading pseudo words is included in synthetic phonics programs for valid instructional and assessment reasons.
Anyway, I think nonsense words are unfairly derided. Many wonderful books and poems are full of made up words. Think of Spike Milligan, Dr. Seuss, JK Rowling and CS Lewis, just for a start. How tragic if we’d never got to hear Noni and John sing the Ning Nang Nong song on Playschool! Synthetic phonics does not restrict children to the phonics sequence. It’s complemented by the words children see in their environment and in books, and is adjusted to students with different levels of ability. Teaching synthetic phonics does not necessarily mean buying a program and it doesn’t mean that teacher’s professional judgment is sidelined. Phonics instruction is sometimes referred to as a ‘back to basics’ approach. This is an unfortunate mischaracterisation. The last 40 years has produced an enormously complex, yet remarkably consistent volume of research of reading from all over the world and it’s continually evolving.
Synthetic phonics instruction reflects the cutting edge of our knowledge of how children learn to read and how to ensure that all do. Too many children have missed out on learning to read because of the rejection of that knowledge. Thank you.
Thank you, Jennifer. The second speaker for the negative will be Dr. Kathy Rushton.
“‘Twas brillig, and the Slithy Toves. Did gyre and gimble in the wabes; all mimsy were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe. Beware the jabberwock, my son. The jaws that bite, the claws that catch.” Meaning comes first. Phonics is not enough to meet the individual needs of each child. I have five points I’d like to make in time. They will be decoding, context, language development, poverty, and the power of story. In his letter to the ministers of education last December, Professor Max Coltheart mentioned that decoding comes first. We think that meaning comes first and the poem that I read you by Lewis Carroll, of course they’re nonsense words. They’re in context, a context that can make sense. We feel that that’s what children should be able to do. Read texts from the very beginning and the beginning is, as Robyn said, at birth. That has meaning for them because meaning is what makes people want to tell stories, talk to each other, or read.
The context for that reason is the most important. Decoding is not converting letters on the page to spoken words. It happens in the head. It’s silent reading. Anyone who’s seen at university doesn’t read the textbook out loud to the tutor. We read for ourselves and we try to make meaning of the text. We’re always challenging ourselves with words we don’t know in new concepts, but we can predict the meaning of some words from the context. We can use our prior knowledge of the subject matter, visual knowledge and knowledge about grammar to predict what the text is about. Phonological knowledge is essential, but we’ll see that the English language, it doesn’t get you very far. Whereas children as young as two might be saying daddy wented or mummy goed, which means they’ve learned how to form the past tense in English. Now they’re doing it incorrectly because they haven’t learned about irregular verbs, but teachers, we can handle that later on.
They bring that to attest their reading and if they’re not lucky enough to have a parent or carer that can do this with them, I think that’s what I want to be doing with four and a half year olds in kindergarten, is bringing them that sort of experience. Now I’m going to quote a Reading Recovery teacher. Yes, there are still some of them out there. She said, “Marie Clay says you can only read what you know about. If I’ve put a bit of quantum physics down in front of you, you’d revert to sounding out letters, not reading for meaning. You’d try to decode, and so it works with little kids learning to read. Like it’s so screaming obvious, that if they aren’t reading about stuff they’ve got the concept of, about their own experiences, they haven’t got a mindset for what they’re reading, so of course they’re not going to read for comprehension. They’re just going to decode words. That’s a waste of time.”
From the very start, languages developed in context through interaction and that is how literacy develops as well. Our colleagues on the other side of the debate have noted the importance of vocabulary and comprehension, but it’s not something that can be left for later. It needs to be what’s happening first, so the motivator for reading or speaking is making meaning. From the very youngest, children want to make a request, make a command, make a comment, or play with words, and they do this in a context where they responded to, as Robyn said earlier. So this is what we want to see happening in school as well. Professor Coltheart in the same letter to ministers talked about a wide range of factors which present serious challenges to literacy and academic success.
But I don’t think there’s factors, I think there is a factor. It’s implied by Gonski and confirmed in the late Professor Tony Vinson’s work in the Dropping Off The Edge reports. He noticed that there were a cluster of factors, the physical ones are most obvious, food insecurity, impairments like otitis media that can interfere with schooling, but less obviously in the work of Basil Bernstein are those children who come to school with an elaborated code that reflects the language of the school. The children who come to school with a restricted code, that they’re using at home, are further alienated and restricted by a pedagogy that focuses on phonics at the expense of language development. Older students who struggle with reading and literacy usually have another one inadequate strategy for reading — sounding out — because they need more support with comprehension and oral language development.
In the report Through Growth to Achievement published in March this year, it says laying the foundations for learning we should provide a seamless transition into school and engage parents, carers and students in their learning. So how to do this? Making meaning through the power of culture and story. One last quote. “The children taught to read at the mission house are much attached to books, consider it a severe punishment to be deprived of them, and prefer the present of a new one to almost anything else”. That’s from Penny Van Toorn, ‘Writing Never Arrives Naked’. It’s a quote from William Watson in 1839 and he was talking about the Warajeri children from Western New South Wales, nearly 200 years ago, what they wanted was to read. I would hope that what we provide is an opportunity for teachers to develop a pedagogy that helps children want to learn to read, meaning comes first. Phonics is not enough to meet the individual needs of any child.
Thank you very much, Kathy. The third speaker for the affirmative is Troy Verey.
Tonight we gather to affirm that phonics in context is not enough for our students to learn to read because phonics in context leaves reading to chance. Jennifer and Anne have summed up the extensive body of research about learning to read. It is the premise that children need explicit instruction in the five essential keys of reading — phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension — in every classroom, every day. We must use instruction methods that are explicit, systematic, and sequential. This is especially important for teaching phonics which unlocks the alphabetic code. It sets a strong foundation for future reading success. We cannot let children drift along using invented strategies to read. Put simply, don’t leave reading to chance.
My teacher training about reading, it left reading to chance. Until recently, the teaching of reading in my school left reading to chance. We didn’t know the science behind reading, but with key changes to our teaching practice we now make sure every child at our school, irrespective of their background, culture or economic status, will be most likely to achieve reading success. We now stand by the statement we don’t leave reading to chance. I spent four years at university doing my initial teacher education. Of the 32 subjects I studied, only three of them were about reading. Three subjects. How could reading, the basis of learning and a predictor of future health, career and welfare, be such a small part of teacher education? Within those three subjects, I was taught one main thing. I was led to believe the optimal conditions for reading simply involved learning as being in an active social role in a similar fashion to the way in which children learn to speak. Put simply, I was taught very little about the science of reading and a vast amount about philosophical beliefs of reading.
It was then by chance that I learned about the place of synthetic phonics in learning to read. In 2009, fresh out of university, I taught in London. At that time, the Blair Labour government was determined to raise the standards of reading in the first years of primary school. It introduced the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics, giving children the key building blocks they need to understand and read. This would lead to better fluency and comprehension success. It did not leave reading to chance. I began teaching systematic synthetic phonics and I haven’t looked back. I’ve put in many hours to develop my understanding of the science behind reading. Surely the best practice for reading should have been developed during my initial teacher training. However, I now know if novice readers are explicitly and systematically taught phonics they are most likely to achieve reading success. For my students, I no longer live reading to chance.
As of today seven out of ten 15 year olds are unable to read at an age-appropriate level. How can we continue to teach using whole language philosophical programs, which are meant to improve reading, and believe that it’s best for our students? Of the 30% that are literate students, how many have access to private agencies such as tutoring centres to achieve their reading success? How can we leave reading to chance? There is one school of many that have bucked the politically popular trend and ideologies of reading. It’s a school like many others in New South Wales that have a diverse range of cultures, backgrounds and life experiences. That is my school, Marsden Road Public School. We are situated in Liverpool, Southwest Sydney. As a community, we represent 57 different cultural backgrounds. Eighty nine percent of our community comes from a language background other than English. One in five of our students have been through the refugee experience and 76% of the community identify as low social economic status. For the children of Marsden Road, more so than many other children, reading cannot be left to chance.
Up until recently we have used reading programs that involve teaching phonics in context and what were we seeing? Most of our students could read simple and predictable text, but most of them went and hit the year four reading slump. Most of our students could achieve proficiency in Year Three in our plan, but could not maintain that in Year Five. Our data showed we were leaving reading to chance. It challenged our teaching, our ideologies and left us with numerous questions. To answer these questions our principal steered us towards the reading research and we engaged with an expert literacy consultant that knew about the science of reading. We learned, which has been summed up by Anne and Jennifer today, if our students gain the alphabetic code early through systematic synthetic phonics, they become fluid accurate readers earlier, increasing reading volume and in turn improving vocabulary and comprehension. We learnt: use the science of reading and don’t leave reading to chance.
So how does my school abide by the statement, don’t leave reading to chance? The teaching of reading begins on day one of kindergarten. Our students engage with explicit phonological awareness learning. Once they begin and have that strong foundation in phonological awareness, we begin to engage with the basic aspects of the alphabetic code. Every day for 30 minutes they are explicitly taught systematic synthetic phonics. Once our students have this beginning understanding of taught phonics, we introduce decodable books. Once they demonstrate enough skills with those decodable books they read more challenging books appropriate to their learning. This is all repeated from kindergarten through year two. Each set of taught phonemes builds upon our students’ current schema of the alphabetic code. In three years, our students learn to decode the English language. They learn the 44 phonemes and 200 most common graphemes.
I’m sure you’re wondering when does the real reading happen? When do our students gain meaning from reading? Because we teach the five essential components of reading — phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension — it happens all the time. In the early years of school, instead of overloading our students with learning to read and reading to learn at the same time, we do the heavy lifting for our students and read to them. They learn how to improve their fluency. We explicitly teach vocabulary and develop strategies for comprehension. In the later years, most of our students have learned the alphabetic code and we can spend more time on reading to learn. They deal with their academic vocabulary through reading, comprehend what they read, and are less likely to encounter texts that are challenging. We don’t leave reading to chance.
The opposition calls on us to teach phonics in context. They have explained that phonics in context is enough, but I’m not talking about what is enough. I’m not talking about not leaving reading to chance. I’m talking about children needing explicit instruction in the five essential components of reading in every classroom, every day. We must use instructional methods that are systematic and sequential. This is especially important for teaching phonics, which unlocks the alphabetic code. We cannot let children drift along using invented strategies to read, put simply don’t leave reading to chance.
Thank you very much, Troy. For the final speaker for the negative, we have Mark Diamond.
Thank you for this opportunity, colleagues. Using meaning is not confusing, as Jennifer Buckingham said. It leads to ideas. There is a radical notion. Many of us believe ideas are fundamental to learning. Meaning comes first. Phonics is not enough to meet the individual needs of each and every child. Troy is determined that we embrace his chosen approach based on facts. Well, I must say Troy, whose facts? I accept your body of small data in your context, but surely we must rule upon a more comprehensive sampling than Marsden Road. Now governments national reading review in ‘05 stated that no one approach of itself can address the complex nature of reading difficulties and an integrated approach requires that teachers have a thorough understanding of a range of effective strategies as well as knowing when and how to apply them. Additionally, Adomiou in 2014 found English is the most irregular of the alphabetical languages with a phonological consistency of only 12%. By year five, children encounter 27 new words each day that cannot be decoded using phonological strategies. A thorough platform for reading, I think not.
Our opponents state that mastering the 44 sounds of English will allow young learners to free up working memory for higher order cognitive tasks. Their cookie cutter mentality fails to provide a foundation of fertile ground necessary for richer learning to germinate. At Lansvale, a high value-add public school according to CESE, we insist on teaching phonics in context as part of an authentic, balanced approach to literacy. It’s on the public record that we grow students across strands of literacy between year three and five at nearly twice the national rate. Interestingly, two-thirds of our parents are in the lowest quartile of socio-economic advantage. I’ve been an effective instructional leader for 15 plus years now, lifting a commercial product off the shelf and implementing it en masse is not instructional leadership.
Reading and writing are reciprocal skills. Beautiful rich classroom talk is the bridge between them. 1V’s experience with the powerful book Ish. Miss V will have read this quality text provoking deep thought and analysis amongst her six year olds. Aliyah says, “I think the character in this book is acting the way he does because he’s jealous of his brother. What do you think Kingston?” “Well Aliyah I’d like to take your idea and build upon it. Ramon is jealous, but this happens all the time in families, there is a fancy word for it.” Chelsea pipes in with, “Yes, it’s called sibling something, my nan says it.” ”I respectfully disagree with you all,” says Andrew, “I think Leon is a bully and he’s just sulking because he treats his family so badly.”
Miss V finally gets a word, “So you think this book tells a story of relationships and feelings.” Then she suddenly says, stop. Sorry children. No more time for talk, it’s 9:30, it’s time for? You guessed it, synthetic phonics. This interruption is incongruous, conflicted, and it’s not going to happen at Lansvale Public School, let me tell you. Synthetic phonics as an approach artificially peels the application from the social experience that is real reading.
To being a great teacher, one must first be a true learner. Teachers learn best when they are gifted with the time and space to reflect on practice. It’s vital that we generate a culture of trust and purpose amongst teams of teachers. We will not dumb things down for teachers and arrogantly expect them to sing from the same hymn sheet. It’s disrespectful to the profession, demoralizing and dangerous. Teachers are highly talented and professional. They flourish just like their students when they’re invested in and participate in active learning using methods such as spirals of inquiry. Teachers respond as poorly as their students to games of ‘guess what’s inside my head’. I’ve never yet met a teacher who we’ve generously invested in did not embrace accountability on behalf of children. Show me the money.
A disturbing view of this argument surfaces when we look at the positions of many of our opponents in this debate, those who have a vested interest in commercial products for sale versus those who pursue complex understanding. Simply put deepening pockets versus deepening understanding. Active committed teachers exploring (this is a scholarly debate) a wide diet of peer-reviewed research versus sale pitches selling products not tested by anyone not selling them. Let’s be blunt, we could rename this argument, teachers versus retailers. The teaching of reading needs to be removed from the economic sphere or vice versa. Let me ask, would this debate even be necessary in Finland or in Singapore? As a profession we refuse to allow members opposite to dictate and/or drive the debate through a fear of or back to basics mantra. We will not dumb down a rigorous rich and relevant approach to teaching and learning that has us on track in preparing kids for a big brave world.
We create lifelong learners at Lansvale. We are very close to state average performance according to NAPLAN. We get approximately 14 students into the various selective schools annually and places like Westfield Sports, Newtown and Campbelltown Performing Arts and the Con. We create well rounded champions of the future. We are most proud that a number of ex-students approach us annually to do practicum at Lansvale for their chosen course of study in teaching. I think you can see that their path of learning through curiosity and engagement has been a path well traveled. It has not merely been a journey of fundamentals and basic skills in attempt to get reading right. Teaching and learning is something elegant, often messy, but it remains a beautiful endeavor. Please don’t let members opposite make it robotic, mistrustful and mechanical.
In summing up I’d just like to read you a decodable text, the tot and the pot. The tot is on the mat. The tot can see a pot. The tot is not on a mat. The tot can get the pot. I think this is the complication. The pot is on the tot. Pam can see the tot and the pot. Pam can get a mop. The tot is on the mat with Pam. Hands up, who wants $7000 for this as opposed to $7000 for this? Thank you ladies and gentlemen.
Thank you very much to all of the speakers. We’re going to have Q&A session now. I’d just like to remind you of some of the ground rules of the Q&A session. I know a lot of you have a lot to say, but please make sure you are asking a question. Please keep your questions respectful, brief and to the point. You can direct your question to a particular speaker and after that speaker has answered the opposing side will have the opportunity to respond. If you don’t nominate a speaker to respond I’ll offer each side the opportunity to respond to that question in turn. There is a few microphones around the room, so just be patient while the microphone comes to your direction. Could I open the floor for our first question please?
Audience Q & A
Female Audience Member:
Thank you very much for this evening and thank you to those people that have given up their time freely. To have such a huge audience means that this is incredibly important. I have a background in education and a university qualification times three that not once told me the importance of the first stages of learning to read in kindergarten. We’re not talking about birth. We’re not talking about exposing children to understand how wonderful stories can be. I ask the negative team: did you misinterpret the debate topic? I say that respectfully and I ask that because all three speakers in the first two instances spoke about exposing babies to stories, we all know is so incredibly important. We all know meaning is incredibly important. We are talking about teaching explicit synthetic phonics from kindergarten here in New South Wales. Negative team, did you misinterpret the debate title?
No, we did not misinterpret the proposition. Our argument is that phonics is not enough. That it is vitally important that all of the other strategies are taught in concert if children are really going to learn to read. Explicit synthetic phonics instruction is not the answer. Everyone seems to be searching for a simple recipe that all children who are exposed to it will learn to read. Children learn to read in different ways. There isn’t a one size fits all. Phonic knowledge on its own whether it’s taught synthetically or in context is not enough. You heard that phonic knowledge is only going to help you with 12% of words. You heard that you can’t decipher the word by itself without it being in a context. It doesn’t make sense by itself. You need the meaning as well, the morphemic knowledge alongside it.
Thank you and for the affirmative team, would you like to respond?
Very briefly, I’ll just say I’m not sure how many times we can repeat this, but we also are arguing, or we accept, that phonics alone is not enough. We have not argued that children should learn phonics first and you lock all the books in a cupboard until they’ve learned all their letter sounds. That’s absolutely not what we’re talking about. I’m not quite sure how we could have made that more clear than we did. What we were talking about tonight, and tonight’s debate topic was, ways of teaching phonics. We know that phonological decoding is an essential aspect of learning to read, but the way that it’s taught is under a lot of debate and is contested. So we were talking particularly about the ways to teach phonics to make sure that all children are able to unlock the alphabetic code, which then allows them to make meaning from what they’re reading.
Thank you. Other questions? Yes sir.
Male Audience Member:
Thank you very much for your presentations, ladies and gentlemen, I enjoyed it. We now know from fMRI scans and neuromagnetic imaging that words proceed from the visual cortex through the cingulate gyrus to the left occipital temporal lobe, and when it’s processed, it’s processed in 150th of a millisecond after the first of the word appears on the retina. After 300 milliseconds it goes to the left temporal pole and the Broca’s area for learning, for the matching up. Has your team done any research on what actually happens in a brain when children are learning to read?
Who would like to respond to that? Kathy, would you like to respond to that?
No, absolutely none. I’m not a scientist. I’m a school teacher. What I’ve done is watched children struggle. In response to your comment and the comment from the back, I’ve taught kindergarten and I know from my experience and also from what I was taught when I became a teacher, what it is that happens and it happened before I got to meet the child. It happened in the home. I think that’s acknowledged by the other team about the development of language and vocabulary that it precedes development of literacy. What concerns me the most is that the children who are disadvantaged ended up reading the pot and the tot and they never get Oliver Jeffers, if what we are going to give them are decodable texts. So we need to help them learn how to read in context with those rich opportunities that we don’t give them before they get to school. That’s what concerns me and no I’m not a scientist, I’m a school teacher.
Yes. Well I’ll take the point about the brain. There is some very valuable neurological research going on and neuroscientific research. I tend to agree with the other side. I think that research is valuable, but we can have this discussion aside from that. What I would like to pick up on is the point about vocabulary. I think it’s a very important one because obviously what we know and what both sides agree on is there’s a huge amount of variability in the kind of oral language exposure that children get from different backgrounds.
So we know that some children from disadvantaged backgrounds come to school with an enormous deficit in essentially their language and their vocabulary because they haven’t had the opportunities that some more privileged children have. What I would argue is that teaching systematic phonics is the great equaliser because what you can do in a relatively short space of time is give kids the tools to be able to go out and read what they want for themselves and build their vocabulary. That is the way that you can bridge that word gap in a way that’s much more successful than us trying to teach children vocabulary as teachers. So I think that’s an important thing to bear in mind.
Thank you Anne. Our next question.
Female Audience Member:
Hi, it comes a little bit on the back of the gentleman’s question over there. Thank you very much both sides. This is addressed to everybody., I feel like I’m hearing about what’s being done to children. I’m wondering if any of you have talked to children about how they might find the best ways to learn reading and how that might influence your work?
Should we hear from Troy on this one?
Look, you’re more than welcome to come visit our school, time permitting. Our kids love learning phonics early because they have short, small wins regularly so they can access text quickly. The excitement in the classroom is just amazing. I don’t know how to describe it. We had some visitors last year that came to visit some of our students learning their synthetic phonics and they just blow them away. They know the fact that after a short vowel double consonant in two syllable words, that you usually have le at the end like apple. This is in kindergarten. They’re amazed with language and they want to learn more. We talk about morphology with the kids. We talk about etymology. They want more. Once they start it just keeps going. I can’t sell it more than what the kids tell us.
Thanks, Troy. Mark?
Look, I walked out of school today as kindergarten on the verandah, were dressed up in pilot hats and Ray-Bans. They had barcode and scanners. They have little boys on telephones and they were simulating an aircraft flight. I went up to phone and said, “You’ve got $100 in your hand and what is that for?” He said, “I’m flying to Cronulla and when I get there, I want to buy a gelato.” The richness of the playful experience that’s at the basis of literacy and numeracy acquisition was enacted there and then. Explicit and systematic is absolutely mandatory, but significant and relevant is even more important. I’ve read the research and I haven’t got the same brain theory research that you do Lyle, but I’ve heard Nathan Wallace talk about the biggest predictor in success in life is the amount of words said from mother to child in the first 1000 days of their existence. So they’re laying down a platform for meaningful, experience based learning.
So I’d like to throw the challenge at Jennifer actually, if I’m welcome to come to Marsden Road where I have honorable good friends working hard, making a difference, doing their personal best, taking an approach, I’d love to come and see synthetic phonics in action on balance and make my mind up myself. I challenge Jennifer to come to Lansvale and see a more balanced rich approach in action and judge for yourself, Jennifer, the potential merits of teaching phonics in context.
Thanks Mark. That sounds like a very productive exercise. Thank you so much to everyone tonight for your attention and to coming along and participating in such an important discussion. I’d like now to introduce Tom Switzer. He’s going to close the evening for us tonight. Thank you, Tom.
Thank you very much, Natasha and thank you to the Australian College of Educators and thanks to all of you for being a great audience this evening. Thank you very much. As Natasha mentioned I’m the executive director at the Centre for Independent Studies, CIS is a public policy research organisation. We’ve existed for more than four decades and we’re primarily committed to promoting the principles of classical liberalism. So, individual choice, a limited democratic government, productivity enhancing reform, reading, literacy, numeracy, all that. As well as, and this is important, we stand for open and civilised debate that speaks beyond that rampant polarisation and that toxic polarisation that all too often characterises the public discourse, not just in Canberra, but in many parts of the Western world. I think we’ve had a great debate here this evening on phonics.
Two of my favourite quotes about the rules of debate, I think they’ve been met here this evening. The first rule is by the great 19th century British liberal John Stuart Mill who said, “He who knows only his own position knows little of that because only when you know the strength of your opponent’s arguments can you possibly rebut it.” The second great quote I think for debate is the great American 20th century liberal Sidney Hook who said, “Before you impugn someone’s motives, even if they may be legitimately impugned, first answer their arguments.” I think they’re very important rules for debate and discussion, especially in these polarising times.
I want to thank both schools of thought, the affirmative side, Anne, Jen and Troy. I also want to take this opportunity to thank the negative side led by Robyn, Kathy and Mark. I want to thank the New South Wales Minister for Education, Rob Stokes, for his great opening remarks that really set the scene here for this evening. Thank you, Minister. Thank you to our co-sponsors, the Australian College of Educators. Thank you also to the host and the moderator of tonight’s proceedings, the distinguished journalist from the ABC, Natasha Robinson. Finally, let me thank all of you. I know there were a few interventions here and there, but look, I think all things considered you behaved extremely well, very politely and extremely fairly. So thank you all, and let’s do it again. Thank you so much and enjoy this evening.