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Online literacy tools help decode reading

Discussion (actually, heated debate) around literacy in Australia shows no sign of abating, as the pro-phonics and anti-phonics factions continue a spat that has lasted years – with the fresh stimulus of the Year One Phonics Check proposed by the federal government.

While most with an opinion are happy to leave the ‘whole language’ movement in the past, the degree of importance of phonics and the level of integration with other elements remains unresolved.

Academics have sparred over the proposed phonics test in essay form across platforms such as the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) blog and The Conversation.  These bouts have elicited passionate comment from phonics proponents, school teachers at the furnace of literacy education, not to mention disaffected, and occasionally irate parents, who feel their children have been let down by a wishy-washy approach to literacy. This clanging of academic pots reached a crescendo in 2017, as those invested in early literacy scrambled to influence the government’s position on the test and see the decision go their way.

A running theme from teachers and some academics has been that the year one phonics check implemented in the UK doesn’t show teachers anything they didn’t already know – yet, without widespread interviewing of year one teachers in England, it would be difficult to gauge just how useful (or useless) it had been. And actually, as the British government does seem to be flagging improvement in early literacy, many feel compelled to take note – including our own prime minister.

It seems there might be a point to the admittedly narrow test: It tells us only if early learners have a grasp on phonics, that is; have the cracked the linguistic code. For anyone who missed the furore, the phonics check involves testing year one students with pseudo-words, which are presented to children for decoding. As they are invented nonsense words (not taken from Dr Seuss books), children can only use a system of phonics to decode them – there is no contextual help and no recall possible. This gives teachers the starting point to teach that child under a grapho-phonemic approach.

With a general consensus that phonics is at least a part of a sound literacy education system, perhaps the next question is mode of delivery. Technological advancements are transforming delivery of education in all areas, and the challenges of differentiating literacy teaching are no different. For an industry view of literacy education in Australia; what the problems are, and possible solutions, School News spoke with literacy education experts.

Industry views

A balanced approach to closing the literacy gap

Paul George, general manager of Sunshine Books Australia, says the significant changes to literacy pedagogy over the last 40 years have been largely positive.  He says changes have been “focussed on gaining further understanding of the reading process and improving learning outcomes for students”.

According to Mr George, closing the gap for those who are not reading well must be the main priority.  He suggests balance is preferred over either “extreme” (all phonics approach or a whole language approach).

 He says explicit and systematic phonics instruction are imperative in the early years: “Children need the skills to be able to decipher words (decoding) but they also need to be able to construct meaning. Phonemic awareness and phonics are key building blocks to becoming successful readers. Equally important are comprehension, vocabulary and fluency. The Australian National Inquiry into the Teaching of Reading (report published in 2005) recommended an integrated approach to teaching reading that supports students’ development in all the above areas. This supported the US findings of the National Reading Panel Report in 2000, which also recommended an integration of phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary knowledge and text comprehension via explicit instruction.”

More on differentiation: how is a teacher to manage the immense spread of abilities in any given class? “Welcome to a teacher’s world!” was Mr George’s reply: “Individual assessment” is the first step, and must be ongoing.”

“Grouping children with similar learning needs for instruction and scaffolding their learning is the next part, then re-assessment.”  He says digital literacy resource allow teachers to “differentiate instruction so that students can work at their own level independently”.

According to Mr George using online technology aids can also assist teachers with other time-consuming tasks: “Online tools are making it increasingly easy for teachers to track student learning and also to assess and report.”

With 21st century students arriving with sophisticated tech literacy, he said it can be “harder to engage today’s students if you don’t integrate technology into your teaching- but easy if you do!”

Our brains are wired for spoken language

Celeste Musgrave of Jolly Discoveries attributes the decline in literacy achievement to two factors. She says the removal of phonics from the curriculum 35 years ago (recently reinstated) has left many teachers unable to conceptualise let alone teach the grapho-phonemic connection, and she feels universities are failing to equip new career teachers with “the knowledge of how to teach children to read and write”. 

A strong proponent of synthetic phonics, Ms Musgrave says literacy instruction needs to consist of phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, reading fluency, and comprehension. She said that all schools should implement synthetic phonics in the early years, owing to “a plethora of scientific research evidence available proving the benefits”.

She says the teaching of reading and writing must be systematic because “our brains were never wired to read and write print”. According to Ms Musgrave, our brains are wired to understand the spoken form of a language, therefore, “reading and writing does not come naturally and must be taught, unlike speech which is acquired by immersing children in spoken language”.

She added that vocabulary development assists with reading comprehension and “reading is not successful unless a child is able to comprehend what they have read”.

What is the role of technology for the 21st century learner? Ms Musgrave agrees that engaging the modern child can be a challenge with the hyper-stimulation of the modern world, and the increasing likelihood of often-unfettered access to tech devices. She says if devices are available, then using tech to the teacher’s advantage is the way to go: “an innovative teacher is able to design interesting lessons around technological devices – fun educational apps can be incorporated into the classroom during rotational group work as a means of consolidating previously taught concepts.”

Ms Musgrave is pleased to see that phonics is no longer “a taboo word” as it was when she studied education at university: “The whole language theory lasted for over thirty years and a fall in literacy skills amongst students was noticed world-wide.”

Training and systems key for success in literacy

Nicole Forrest, literacy specialist and presenter of Firefly Education’s Spelling Masterclass, listed two factors that contribute to effective literacy development. These were: establishing systematic synthetic phonics as the main approach to teaching spelling; and providing teachers with adequate training, support and resources to effectively implement this form of instruction. According to Ms Forrest, lack of teacher training and support can fuel debate around approaches to how spelling is taught.

She said, “while systematic synthetic phonics is the most consistently backed by evidence-based research, if educators are not confident in implementing the phonemic approach – its effectiveness can stumble in schools”.

What exactly is systematic synthetic phonics? According to Ms Forrest, “systematic synthetic phonics is the explicit teaching of how speech sounds are represented by letters and letter combinations. Instruction is intentionally pre-planned so that students progress from learning simple, broadly applicable sound–letter relationships to those that are more complex and unusual. The approach is closely tied to instruction in phonological awareness that includes syllables, rhyme and phonemic awareness.”

“Systematic synthetic phonics relies on explicit instruction. In a (very small) nutshell, findings suggest that novice and intermediate students learning new information (e.g. sound–letter relationships) require direct, unambiguous teaching to avoid ‘cognitive overload’. Learning to read and write using the alphabet is not innate – it requires explicit instruction.”

Ms Forrest’s perspective on management of multi-ability classes is that the trend to level students according to their ability can cause its own issues. She said, “teachers become thinly spread” and “students can be channelled into completing work that they ‘can’ do instead of being given the opportunity and challenge to tackle work that they ‘should’ be able to do for their age”.

She said, “Even within a single curriculum level, there’s plenty of scope for differentiation to support struggling students to reach the expected standard, while extending fast finishers with meaningful activities, without fast-tracking these students to work above their year level (which will only cause a knock-on effect for the next teacher to do the same). A well scaffolded program will include support and extension activities within a year level – so teachers do not have to resort to using resources from different year levels.”

And the role of technology? She says technology must enhance the pedagogy of any lesson or it shouldn’t be included. “For example, when practising the pronunciation of sounds spoken in Australian English, projecting a close-up video of someone slowly forming the sound with their mouth (and voice) is more effective than a teacher standing in front of a class where only the front row of students can see the shapes being formed with their mouth.”

In light of raised awareness and recent support for the year one phonics check, Ms Forrest says many schools want to adopt, or further enhance, a phonics approach and while educators are turning to digital solutions to achieve this, she said, “schools are recognising that simple repetitive practice and drill programs are not the only way to use technology in education”.

“Teachers are on the search for more meaningful uses of technology, where the teacher still remains at the heart of the learning.” 

Cracking the code crucial for proficiency

Michelle Kelly is general manager, schools and publishing at Modern Teaching Aids and she says for literacy education to be successful, students need to master different areas of reading and writing. “They need to learn the ‘code’, learn to make meaning, and learn to think critically, and a balanced approach to literacy teaching encompasses all three key areas.”

How can teachers achieve this? “The best teachers ensure that students are immersed in an environment that encourages literacy development. Today’s students are expected to be proficient in multiple ‘literacies’ including digital literacy, which can be supported by curriculum-aligned resources and programs across all media,” she advised.

Technology can also assist with the inevitable spread of abilities, according to Ms Kelly: “It’s about taking the fundamental best practice elements of teaching reading and overlaying it with the use of 21st century technology.”

“It’s vital to differentiate literacy instruction to support and motivate individual students at their own level,” she noted. She says this can be achieved via digital reading programs, through the creation different levelled reading groups in class, and individualised home reading practice so the level is just right for each learner.

According to Ms Kelly, in the early stages of reading, the best way to accelerate progress is to read more: “A connection between home and school is vital, giving students access to texts at the right reading level.”  She says audio narration can support young learners but advised an educator can decide when to use it, so programs should allow teachers to switch it on or off.

Digital tools allow for easy tracking: “Online comprehension quizzes and activities also provide engaging ways for students, parents and teachers to check progress. Data such as time spent reading a particular book, or the number of times a book is read, along with choices of books can be monitored by teachers to again reinforce the home/school links,” she advised.

Ms Kelly says the question of whether students are harder to engage because of technology is an interesting one: “Children are certainly bombarded with highly stimulating technology both in and out of school.  Many digital education resources work on a game-based methodology with rewards, avatars etc to engage children and keep them interested.” 

“Conversations with educators and parents suggests that there needs to be a balance between game-based learning resources and those that follow proven methodologies.”

She added that maintaining a primary focus on pedagogy over entertainment was key in their creative process: “We were deliberate in our decision to implement a pathway that reflected best practice in the teaching of reading – from guided and shared reading through to independent, complemented by a rich repository of supporting teaching resources and assessment.”

Suzy Barry

Suzy Barry is a freelance education writer and the former editor of School News, Australia.

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