Progress or politics??

27 02 2013

On a sleepy Sunday summer afternoon the federal government announced its new thrust in its “Building the Education Revolution campaign – a $1.1b school literacy plan that will be a three-year intense focus on reading in years F-3 and states will be required to sign onto it as part of their education funding agreements.

“What this would do is take a system-wide approach for every child, every school,” Ms Gillard said.

“There will be constant monitoring and incentives against outcomes.

“What we’ve said about our school funding reform is we want to set the goals, the aspirations, the targets for education we want everybody to have the information, you, me parents, teachers, communities.”

Sadly, but predictably, all the commentary has been about whether the federal government has the right to interfere in something that is essentially the states’ jurisdiction rather than whether what is proposed is actually going to benefit the students and ensure that they develop the essential literacy skills required to read and interrogate both print and digital texts. (Ironically, it was the Federal Government’s declaration that it cannot interfere in states’ business that put paid to any meaningful outcomes of the School Library Inquiry.)

However, Barbara Combes has written the following on behalf of The Hub…

In the Federal Govt’s new literacy plan there is no mention of resourcing or the inclusion of the library and the benefits afforded to schools by having a well stocked fiction section run by a professional TL, despite a Govt Inquiry 2 years ago into school libraries which essentially agreed that this was a good idea. Of the states, only NSW mandates a TL in every school. Other states are well down the path of ‘independent public schools’ which means inequity across the public sector when it comes down to staffing and resourcing.

In response to particular points, she writes

Teachers will maintain a ‘running record’ on the progress of each student to ensure no student slips through the cracks. This would include regular diagnosis of student progress throughout the year.

Most schools already do the diagnostics – when they can fit it in between the NAPLAN testing and teaching an Australian curriculum that is so chock-a-block full that the school day probably needs to be extended by several hours and even going to school on Saturday! In fact NAPLAN and teaching to the test has become a fact of life in Australian schools simply because it is a requirement for funding/extra resourcing. This is not an educational reason for testing as the NCLB   (No Child Left Behind) discovered. Teaching to the test is transitory, while teaching reading is an ongoing process, particularly when teaching kids to move beyond the concrete (a word = a thing) to the conceptual (a word = a concept, idea, relationship, a nuance). ie. teaching kids to read for meaning and information. So a concentrated effort to teach the mechanics of reading during the early childhood years will not translate into effective readers, since the concrete learner according to Piaget and others begins transitioning around Year 3. Reading for meaning is an ongoing process and requires access to a variety of fiction and nonfiction resources to entice the reader – whether they are still developing or moving into the conceptual phase. The reason many students’ literacy levels actually decline over time from Year 3 – Year 9/10 (NAPLAN results) is because they don’t read, they don’t read for meaning and they are unable to focus for sustained periods of time. Checking up on whether teachers have filled in the paperwork is not going to translate into effective teaching either – they will be too busy doing the paperwork!

Read what the experts say about NCLB here.

Schools will set out in their reading plan how they will teach reading, including through phonics and phonemics, and what methods they will use to identify students at risk of falling behind.

What the Federal Govt is talking about here is teaching the mechanics of reading ie. getting students to a point where they can recognise the symbols on the page as words. This is actually very difficult for many students especially those who are kinaesthetic and aural learners which includes indigenous students. So multiple methods actually includes more than phonics (a way of teaching people to read by teaching them to recognize individual sounds, instead of whole words) or phonemics (the study of the phonemes of a language; phonemes –  an individual speech sound that makes one word different from another. For example, thebandfinbillandfill‘) which means essentially the same thing. Since few teachers are reading specialists, they will require extra PD that include multiple methods that goes beyond immersion and phonics, the 2 most commonly used methods to teach reading that have been used during the previous 4 decades.

If you want proof that phonics is confusing, especially in English try to work out what this word spells – ghoti.*

 Children learn to read by reading and we need to revisit the work of Marie Clay in Reading: the patterning of complex behaviour; Brian Cambourne Language, learning and literacy; Don Holdaway in The Foundations of Literacy and Ken and Yetta Goodman in What’s Whole in Whole Language.  Perhaps we should send Gillard, Garrett, Abbott and Pine and all their advisers a copy of Beyond the Reading Wars edited by Robyn Ewing.

Schools and school systems will provide parents and carers with simple learning methods they can use at home to support their child’s reading. For example, parents could get a list of basic teaching tips or access to interactive digital resources.

Better Beginnings, an initiative from the State Library WA indicates that getting parents involved with reading and public libraries is paying great dividends.

Access to digital resources requires careful thought and implementation. The digital divide is alive and well in Australia – access both physical and cognitive is still an issue. Research shows that kids need to have really good ‘traditional’ reading/literacy skills (reading, writing, listening, viewing & understanding) BEFORE they can engage meaningfully with text on screen. There are major issues here with eye fatigue, distraction and poor focus, and establishing a reading habit that is predicated by the technology. This habit is superficial, and based on recognising hyperlinks and headings.

Reading from the screen is different. Current forms of digital media behave nothing like ‘books’ or ‘libraries,’ and cause users to swing between two kinds of bad reading. Networked digital media does a poor job of balancing focal and peripheral attention. We swing between two kinds of bad reading. We suffer tunnel vision, as when reading a single page, paragraph, or even “keyword in context” without an organized sense of the whole. Or we suffer marginal distraction (Liu, 2009).  Online literacy or screen literacy requires a new skills set to match a new paradigm.

Digital reading may ultimately prove antithetical to the long-term development, reflective nature of the expert reading brain as we know it (Wolf, 2009).

Digitized classrooms don’t come through for an off-campus reason, a factor largely overlooked by educators. When they add laptops to classes and equip kids with on-campus digital tools, they add something else, too: the reading habits kids have developed after thousands of hours with those same tools in leisure time. Educators envision a whole new pedagogy with the tools, but students see only the chance to extend long-established postures toward the screen. We must recognize that screen scanning is but one kind of reading, a lesser one, and that it conspires against certain intellectual habits requisite to liberal-arts learning (Bauerline, 2009).

Screen literacy skills are closely related to good traditional literacy skills. Students need to be literate before they can ‘read’ information on the screen. Even students with good literacy skills “miss” information on the screen (Corio, 2008).

My addiction to the Internet’s gush of information means that, word for word, I read more than ever, but I understand less (Keilman, 2009).

A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that the Net, with its constant distractions and interruptions, is turning us into scattered and superficial thinkers. People who read text studded with links, the studies show, comprehend less than those who read words printed on pages. People who watch busy multimedia presentations remember less than those who take in information in a more sedate and focused manner. People who are continually distracted by emails, updates and other messages understand less than those who are able to concentrate. People who juggle many tasks are often less creative and less productive than those who do one thing at a time (Carr, 2010).

Computers are not compensatory, they are complementary. Students require good traditional literacy skills to use computers effectively and efficiently. Reading is about mechanics (deconstructing code), making meaning (understanding), analysis and synthesis (reconstructing meaning). Reading from the screen is different. It represents a new reading paradigm that requires different skills from print (Combes, 2012).

The more students read fiction the better their skill development beyond the mechanics ( PISA, OECD, 2000).

Perhaps some of the billion should be spent on giving every parent with a child from 0-8 a copy of Reading Magic by Mem Fox, and institute both a written and practical national test on its contents!  Parents who fail will have their children taken away from them – just as schools who fail will have their funding taken away.

There will be more opportunities for parents and community members or organisations to volunteer in classrooms and share their love of reading with young children.

A major issue here is duty of care when we have volunteers in the classroom who also need managing and police clearances. Children may read but they may not particularly enjoy reading. A love of reading is not measurable and a contradiction to the previous insistence on a stringent testing regime. Kids won’t develop good ‘traditional’ literacy skills (rather than reading skills which are but one part of the equation) if they do not have access to a wide range of resources and an environment that encourages reading across ALL levels of schooling.

How will this initiative really get more parents or volunteers in the classroom?  It doesn’t create more hours in the day or a greater interest in working with children in those who do have the time.

Schools can hire community engagement experts to organise parent workshops, helping build their skills and understanding of reading and literacy.
Improvements in early years reading would be included in schools’ annual reporting, and schools will be asked to share information about successful strategies.

This requires funding and as we have observed from both sides of politics, when it comes to money to make sure things happen (eg, the Australian Curriculum), it is up to the schools to find it, especially for professional development which is often being done in teachers’ own time.

 I do not profess to be a reading expert, since the literature on this subject indicates that reading is a highly complex activity.

We humans were never born to read. We learn to do so by an extraordinarily ingenuous ability to rearrange our “original parts”. Each young reader has to fashion an entirely new “reading circuit” afresh every time. There is no one neat circuit just waiting to unfold. This means that the circuit can become more or less developed depending on the particulars of the learner, e.g. instruction, culture, motivation, educational opportunity (Wolf, 2009).

 Junior NAPLAN???

Some facts:

46 % of Australians don’t have the literacy and numeracy skills required to participate effectively in modern society. Our perceptions of our skills can be at odds with the reality. People facing literacy difficulties compensate in other ways.  We reward having higher literacy. Not explicitly, but it’s inherent in the system (Bailey, 2010).

Literacy and numeracy problems can be directly linked to healthcare issues, workplace safety, equity and access to work. Poor literacy exerts a serious negative drag on the overall GDP per capita of a country. The correlation between poverty and literacy is irrefutable (PISA, OECD; Bailey, 2010).

So when literacy levels dropped in the European countries after the PISA 2000 report on literacy, what did they do? Norway and Finland built libraries and began examining what was happening in libraries in schools. Ireland began putting TLs in socially disadvantaged schools to see if they made a difference. The results have been mind blowing!

Australia needs to look further afield than the American system which is built on testing (which requires a high level of reading and comprehension/interpretive skills ie. making meaning from text which is conceptual) which punishes kids who have reading difficulties and teachers who are apparently not performing, even when they lack the resources to do anything different. TLs are specialist support teachers whose role is to help teachers design curriculum that supports literacy and information literacy outcomes across the curriculum in all schools. They select resources in a sustainable manner that support curriculum outcomes for students who may be operating at many different cognitive and social levels. They provide a space (physical and virtual) where students can explore, relate and enjoy a range of reading materials for both recreational and informational purposes.

All levels of Govt, at state and federal level from all sides of politics, need to look carefully at education and the changes currently being implemented. Looking closely at the research might be a good place to start. Education and our kids are our future – they will determine whether Australia stays the lucky country or the smart country.

While Barbara may back away from being an expert in teaching little ones to read, it has been my job to do this for over 40 years, and I’ve had articles and books published on the topic, so I’ve taken the liberty of adding some personal comments.  They are in red. (Barbara Braxton)

Academic Tom Worthington has his say here, with links to some critical reports…

Educational consultant Mal Lee points us to this important article The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education

Jack Waterford, Editor-at-Large of The Canberra Times has this opinion piece in which he states

It is the illiteracy and innumeracy of our politicians, not our schoolchildren, that ought to be the real worry.

*ghoti fish  Think about the sounds of ‘f ‘ in ‘enough’; ‘o’ in ‘women’; and ‘ti’ in ‘nation’.




3 responses

27 02 2013
Cathy Corbitt

Well said! I appreciate the time you have taken to produce this thorough analysis and opinion.

27 02 2013

Lots of good info here. Pick out points for media release that will speak to parent voters.

What’s happened in Ireland ????

27 02 2013
BookChook (@BookChook)

“A love of reading is not measurable” – sadly, the bureaucratic penchant for quantifying education has meant that both teachers and teacher librarians are neither expected nor encouraged to develop a love of reading. Yet if kids LOVE reading, and are supported to read what they enjoy, many of the interventions and labels become unnecessary.

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