Phonics debate heats up

I’ve noticed an increase in activity on Twitter from academics and teachers who do not support Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) and/or the proposed Phonics Screening Check (PSC). This isn’t a coincidence. The release of PIRLS 2016 data and the meeting of education ministers both took place in the last week, giving proponents of SSP and the PSC much to feel positive about, and giving SSP and PSC opponents much to worry about.

PIRLS 2016 shows Australia is letting down the neediest

Make no mistake, SSP and PSC advocates are most concerned about the ones at the bottom. They understand that, through a combination of factors, most students will learn to read to an acceptable level no matter the approach taken. It is the ones at the bottom, usually suffering from high levels of disadvantage or dyslexia, that need high quality, phonics-based instruction to stand a chance of learning to read.

PIRLS 2016 data reveals that Australia is doing well. We had significant gains, which should be celebrated. Positive results are hard-won and hardly ever attributed to teachers, so my hat goes off to them. But the data also shows that many students are still being left behind. Most of the gains came from students at the top; small gains were made by the ones at the bottom.

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The data shows that the Mathew effect continues to strengthen – those that have much continue to gain much; those who have little continue to gain little. The gap is widening and this rings alarm bells for SSP and PSC supporters. We need to take action now to ensure all students, not just the ones at the top, are given appropriate instruction and support to learn to read. Make no mistake, if students have basic code skills, their reading comprehension will improve too. Many will tell you otherwise; don’t believe them.

The PIRLS 2016 data only strengthens the argument for a PSC and adoption of evidence-based teaching practices. That will make SSP and PSC denialist very nervous indeed.

Education ministers are warming to SSP and the idea of a PSC

The battle to convince education ministers has been very real. AARE has published many articles that are anti-SSP and anti-PSC (examples here and here) and the Australian Education Union has been vocal in their opposition. The authors of the AARE blogs are very well-known and well-respected members of the education community. No doubt they would catch the eye of our education ministers who ultimately need to make the important decision on whether or not to back the federal government’s proposal.

Federal minister Simon Birmingham has been very vocal in his support of evidence-based teaching methods, “Really there shouldn’t be a philosophical argument about the way in which children learn to read… it should be about following the evidence.” (source).

He has been a supporter of evidence for a long time and now it seems a few state education ministers agree with him. Susan Close of South Australia has already implemented a trial of the PSC in her state. Tasmania’s Jeremy Rockliff and New South Wales’ Rob Stokes have also offered support for the proposal. Rob Stokes comments that “with comprehensive evidence now proving the efficacy of synthetic phonics, NSW government supports early phonics checks in schools.” (source).

Like with any controversial proposal, it’s hard to win people over let alone those in power. Vocal support for the PSC from education ministers will worry those who do not favour SSP and the PSC. SSP has been historically unpopular, but the tide is beginning to turn. Those in power are beginning to see beyond ideological preferences and rhetorical arguments looking instead to evidence to inform their decisions. I welcome this as all advocates of this important reform will. I sit at ease knowing my state of NSW supports the proposal. All we have to do now is wait.


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