Return phonics to the classroom
23rd August 2013

In today's Australian I arge the case for a greater emphasis on phonics when teaching reading.

IT shouldn't surprise that the University of Wollongong's Brian Cambourne is critical of Jennifer Buckingham's argument that for far too long teaching phonics and phonemic awareness has been absent from the nation's classrooms.

Cambourne, whose letter in The Australian yesterday took issue with Buckingham's Monday's opinion piece ("Bad teaching kills reading skills"), is regarded as one of the prime movers in Australia's adoption of the whole language approach.

This is an approach where children are taught to look and guess instead of being taught the relationship between letters and groups of letters and sounds.

In a 1988 publication titled The Whole Story Cambourne argues that learning to read is as natural and easy as learning to talk on the basis that "oral and written forms of language are only superficially different".

Reading, so the argument goes, does not have to be taught in a highly structured, systematic way as it occurs naturally as "the brain can also learn to process oral and written forms of language in much the same way".

Whole language involves immersing children in a so-called rich language environment where they are taught to guess unknown words by their context or by looking at related pictures and illustrations.

Wrong. As argued in Reading Through Tears, by Tasmanians Byron Harrison and Jean Clyde: "Speech is a universal instinctive process, everyone can speak. But reading is not a natural process, it is a learned process."

The reality is that reading, similar to learning how to write, is decidedly unnatural. As noted by the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, oral speech is "spontaneous, involuntary and nonconscious" while activities like reading and writing are "abstract, voluntary, and conscious".

That learning to read is not natural explains why the 2005 National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy concludes that successful reading programs involve "an early and systematic emphasis on the explicit teaching of phonics" and a "focus on direct teaching".

The emphasis on direct teaching is significant given the 2005 inquiry found that the prevailing approach to pedagogy in teacher training is based on constructivism even though there is "a serious lack of supporting evidence for its effectiveness".

Whole language advocates like Cambourne are also wrong to argue beginning teachers are taught a phonics and phonemic awareness approach during teacher training.

The 2005 National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy argues "there are significant opportunities for improvement of teacher education" on the basis that "beginning primary teachers are not confident about teaching specific aspects of literacy such as viewing, spelling and grammar and phonics".

A 2007 study by academics at NSW's Avondale College summarising national and international research analysing pre-service and in-service approaches to reading also concludes there is a definite lack of balance.

The researchers note there is a "mismatch between, on the one hand, what converging evidence-based research supports as effective early reading instruction and, on the other hand, the knowledge and skills which new teachers bring to the task of teaching beginning reading".

The Coalition education policy taken to the recent federal election states that remote schools seeking grants to improve literacy must commit to "direct, explicit and systematic teaching of phonics".

A significant problem, given the entrenched nature of the whole language approach championed by teacher educators like Cambourne, is that most teachers through no fault of their own lack the knowledge and skills to implement a phonics approach. 



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Return phonics to the classroom
23rd August 2013
In today's Australian I arge the case for a greater emphasis on phonics when teaching reading. IT shouldn't surprise that the University of Wollongong's Brian Cambourne is critical of...

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