Lost for words: why the best literacy approaches are not reaching the classroom

Lost for words: why the best literacy approaches are not reaching the classroom

Phonics is a “bottom up” approach to literacy learning that focuses on learning sounds and letter patterns and building skills in these areas before students move onto reading whole texts. Whole language approaches also recognise phonics knowledge is requisite for literacy learning, but teaching is “top down” and moves from the meanings of words and text down to the phonics of those words.

Undoubtedly, MacTiernan, like every academic, bureaucrat, parent and teacher in the country, only wants the best for Australian children.

But Australia’s scores in international literacy tests aren’t dropping because the students who sit those tests don’t know their sounds. They are performing poorly because they cannot comprehend what they are reading. They have poor vocabularies and cannot follow sentences that employ more complex language structures. They cannot read between the lines.

Our low-achieving students – both on international measures and the home grown National Assessment Program, Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests – share one, very telling, common characteristic. They don’t speak “school English”, or Standard Australian English, at home. They may speak a language other than English, or Aboriginal English, or a creole, or “bogan” English – the kind where words like “youse” feature.Lost for words why the best literacy approaches are not reaching the classroom

But it’s not school English; it isn’t how the teacher speaks and it certainly isn’t what international tests or NAPLAN reward. So, it is the school’s job to teach school English to ensure everyone gets equal access to the learning that happens at school. And this is where we come closer to understanding why we have that growing achievement gap in Australian schools.

The number of non-Standard Australian English speakers in schools has grown over the years, and Australia’s education system doesn’t cope well with “non-standard”.

Many teachers struggle with these learners through their own limited understanding of how the English language works. This is in no way an indictment of teachers’ own English language skills, nor of their capacity to teach students well. My observation of Australian teachers is that they are extraordinarily skilled at managing the learning process. What they do in the classrooms works wonderfully for most learners.

However, they are less effective with the students who write “I seen that at the movies”, or “My sister go to shopping on a car”. All teachers can correct those errors but far fewer can explain why they’re wrong to the students.

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