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Lost for words: why the best literacy approaches are not reaching the classroom

What’s happening with literacy in Australia? Image from

It seems barely a week goes by without some commentary on falling literacy standards in Australia. Recently, Western Australian Labor MP Alannah MacTiernan weighed into the debate and laid the blame for falling international test scores at the feet of academics and bureaucrats.

As part of a re-emerging debate on “whole language” and “phonics” approaches, in a recent op-ed MacTiernan described the successful transformation of one school and attributed its success to a phonics program.

Phonics is a “bottom up” approach to literacy learning that focuses on learning sounds and letter patterns and building skills in these areas before students move onto reading whole texts. Whole language approaches also recognise phonics knowledge is requisite for literacy learning, but teaching is “top down” and moves from the meanings of words and text down to the phonics of those words.

Undoubtedly, MacTiernan, like every academic, bureaucrat, parent and teacher in the country, only wants the best for Australian children.

If it works in one school then why not all of them, right?

But Australia’s scores in international literacy tests aren’t dropping because the students who sit those tests don’t know their sounds. They are performing poorly because they cannot comprehend what they are reading. They have poor vocabularies and cannot follow sentences that employ more complex language structures. They cannot read between the lines.

Our low-achieving students – both on international measures and the home grown National Assessment Program, Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests – share one, very telling, common characteristic. They don’t speak “school English”, or Standard Australian English, at home. They may speak a language other than English, or Aboriginal English, or a creole, or “bogan” English – the kind where words like “youse” feature.

But it’s not school English; it isn’t how the teacher speaks and it certainly isn’t what international tests or NAPLAN reward. So, it is the school’s job to teach school English to ensure everyone gets equal access to the learning that happens at school. And this is where we come closer to understanding why we have that growing achievement gap in Australian schools.

The number of non-Standard Australian English speakers in schools has grown over the years, and Australia’s education system doesn’t cope well with “non-standard”.

Many teachers struggle with these learners through their own limited understanding of how the English language works. This is in no way an indictment of teachers’ own English language skills, nor of their capacity to teach students well. My observation of Australian teachers is that they are extraordinarily skilled at managing the learning process. What they do in the classrooms works wonderfully for most learners.

However, they are less effective with the students who write “I seen that at the movies”, or “My sister go to shopping on a car”. All teachers can correct those errors but far fewer can explain why they’re wrong to the students.

Explicitly and effectively teaching children what’s wrong with this sentence doesn’t always come easily to all teachers. Flickr/

Typically teachers come from middle-class families with homes that were simply an extension of school. Mum and Dad spoke like their teachers, read the same books as their teachers and had similar life experiences and expectations as their teachers. They have a good grip on Standard Australian English which comes naturally to them. But they don’t know how it works, and they usually cannot make their intuitive knowledge explicit to those who don’t have it.

Some in the community may be outraged that many of our teachers lack this explicit knowledge of language, and already there are murmurs about literacy tests for teachers in training. The aim of these tests is to ensure that all teachers will know their past from their perfect, and their coordinating conjunctions from their modal verbs.

But that outrage, and those tests, miss an important point - being able to name parts of speech does not automatically convert to improved reading comprehension, any more than knowing your sounds does. The answer lies in the conversion of that teacher knowledge to effective student learning.

Each year, by popular demand, I deliver a workshop to about a dozen schools. It’s called “10 things every teacher should know about the English language”. The first nine include the usual suspects: verbs, phrases, clauses, sentences and I throw in a couple that are less well known: reference, ellipsis and theme.

But it is the tenth that is the most important. Every teacher should know that the purpose of language is to communicate; that it changes according to whom you are talking, why you are talking and what you are talking about. Therefore, all our teaching about language must be done in context and in the course of achieving real outcomes.

These days most Australian teacher education faculties teach language knowledge. In the best faculties, trainee teachers learn to teach language explicitly through beautifully written children’s literature.

Unfortunately these graduates are sometimes instead required to implement a commercial phonics program, where no books are read, no rich vocabulary is learned, no stories are written and lots of stencils are coloured in.

The “phonics versus whole language” debate is pointless, and it is distracting. Our failing students know their sounds, they can even read simple sentences. Their diet of bland and meaningless home “readers” with their repetitive sentence structures and controlled vocabulary has ensured this.

Such books teach our low-achieving students from non standard English speaking backgrounds nothing about how “school English” works and do not set them up for success in national and international literacy tests.

What these learners need is good literature, and teachers who have a strong understanding of how the English language works which they can convert to meaningful teaching.

Armed with better language knowledge and explicit instruction, we could see all schools lift the bar when it comes to literacy, not just the one in MacTiernan’s example.

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