THE READING DEBATE AND THE NATIONAL INQUIRY
A national inquiry into literacy and reading abilities has been announced by Australian Government Education Minister Brendan Nelson. The announcement was sparked by a letter sent to him by 26 academics, asserting that literacy levels in our schools are alarmingly low, that current reading methods are therefore failing, and that the main reason for this failure lies in the lack of solid phonics training in schools.
There has been no shortage of other academics, educators and educational commentators suggesting that the view expressed in the letter is narrow and based on an overly simple estimation of the issue. Why is it that experts, many of them working in broadly the same area and all of them concerned to see the best education in place for all Australians, can disagree so fundamentally? Let us step back and see what might lie at the heart of the disagreement.
In large part, the debate is between those who have done specialized research in a fairly narrow field and those who have to deal with its practical effects in the school or teacher education classroom. In this case, the specialists are saying that their research shows phonics training to be the main ingredient in developing high literacy levels, while the practitioners are tending to say this doesn't ring true with their experiences. While I would not wish to deny the validity of the claims of the specialists, claims based on substantial research, I speak here essentially for the practitioners. It is they who too often end up being scapegoated in these debates for their alleged ignorance of, or indifference to, the experts' claims.
Practitioners tend to be naturally suspicious of claims about 'foolproof' methods for effective teaching. Over the years, there has been no shortage of such claims in virtually every part of the curriculum. Some methods have come and stayed; others have come and gone. In either case, the test has been whether they work or not in the constrained reality of the average classroom. Something that non-educationists don't always understand is that the classroom teacher's daily lab is not as antiseptic as the labs of science. The daily lab, known as the classroom, is a complex mix of never-ending demands, wide ranging skills and readiness levels, and the raw human emotion of youth. Strategies that seem to work well in isolation from this can fall short, or at least be relativised, when confronted with it. Hence, we find the natural scepticism of the practitioner in the face of the methodological vendor.
There are two main reasons for this scepticism, one old and one new. The old one relates to the notion of individual differences. This is a concept that grew out of the vast array of research of the twentieth-century around issues of cognitive, social and learning development. Through this research, which has gone on to become the backbone of teacher education and the dominant conceptions of teachers' work, we came to understand why it was that the dominant pedagogy of the past was such a failure in so many cases. Students did not always fail because they were intellectually slow, but, sometimes, because the pedagogy was wrong for them. The classic cases of Einstein and Churchill as school 'failures' were brought forward to illustrate the profound truth that quite brilliant people could 'fail' if the pedagogy did not suit their own individual difference.
In a word, 'individual differences' suggests that each person is their own learner, with a disposition and preference for certain kinds of learning over other kinds. Hence, some people learn history best through memorising dates, places and events, while others will come to historical truth through the portrayals of books and movies, etc. According to the thinking of individual differences, the good teacher is one who provides a variety of methods in order to maximise the learning chances of each member of the class. It is a notion that rings true with anyone who has dealt with the practical complexities of the average classroom.
The new reason relates to intensive research done throughout the 1990s around the notion of 'quality teaching'. This research shows that, of all the factors that influence student achievement, it is the teacher and the teacher's competence that makes the biggest difference. Even students with a disability could achieve at a higher rate, in some instances, than those without a disability when the former were exposed to quality teaching and the latter were not. If disability could be shown to be a less important factor in learning than the quality of the teacher, then it is hardly plausible that any particular method, including phonics training, could be more important in reading development. What quality teaching research has shown in fairly convincing fashion is that it is theteacher, not the method, that makes the difference. In a word, it is the teacher who sets the sights high,
So, there is no question that training in phonics has its place in reading, as does much of the thinking behind the so-called 'whole language' approach which emphasises the importance of contextualised learning. Making cross-curricular connections for relevance, providing advanced reading opportunities for some and reading recovery for others, will all have their place. This is the kind of comprehensive teaching, based on the most solid educational research of the past century, which school systems tend to support. It is the way teachers are prepared through teacher education and how the average practitioner understands teachers' work.