British schools minister Nick Gibb is urging Australia to embrace phonics as part of a national strategy to help children read.
He’s here to meet educators, teachers and politicians as the Turnbull Government moves to introduce literacy screening in Year 1 across the country.
Mr Gibb has toured a specialist literacy laboratory at Macquarie University in Sydney ahead of a meeting with federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham in Adelaide later this week.
Seven years ago, the UK Government embraced the explicit method of instruction known as phonics at a national level amid concerning national statistics.
Mr Gibb was the minister responsible.
“We were worried that one in three primary school students were still struggling with reading, the basic building blocks of an education,” Mr Gibb said.
“We wanted to make sure that schools were using systematic synthetic phonics in the way they taught children to read, because all the evidence from around the world showed that was the most effective way of teaching children to read.
“So we introduced this very simple check: children reading to their own teacher 40 simple words to make sure they were on track for Year 1 readers.”
The idea is being considered by Mr Birmingham, who has appointed an expert advisory panel to give advice.
Phonics highly political in UK amid ‘reading wars’
Mr Gibb’s tour is being hosted by the conservative think tank, the Centre for Independent Studies, which wants Australia to follow the UK example of more explicit instruction in schools.
The so-called reading wars have raged in the UK for more than half a century, and the phonics debate is highly political. The Conservative Government’s schools reforms have been controversial.
There is also debate in Australia over the best way to teach reading to children, and while phonics is part of the teaching methods employed, critics say it is mechanical and does not help with comprehension.
Anne Castles is the deputy director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders.
The Macquarie University-based centre runs a reading clinic that examines children’s cognition.
“The evidence is that a really key part of learning to read is learning the links between letters and sounds — what we might call phonics,” Professor Castles said.
“And what that allows a child to do is go from those unfamiliar squiggles on a page to the knowledge in their head, because they can sound a word out and get to its pronunciation.
“That’s really important for getting children started in reading. It’s not the only part of reading instruction, but it’s a really important key part and lots of the research tells us that.”
Calls for national conversation on phonics
Professor Castles said she supported moves towards more explicit instruction in our classrooms and said a national conversation about how reading is taught would be productive.
“Phonics is certainly not the only thing we should teach in teaching reading,” Professor Castles said.
“The controversy I think is because some people think that’s what’s being proposed.
“It’s just one very small part of reading instruction, but it’s a very important foundational part because that’s what gets children on the path to reading independently.”
Mr Birmingham’s expert advisory panel is due to deliver its report by the end of April.