Does Australia need an assessment tool to measure literacy and numeracy achievement in Year 1 classrooms?

The introduction of a National Year 1 Literacy and Numeracy Check has been heavily criticised by the Australian Literacy Educators’ Association (ALEA) in a position statement. It says that there is an unreasonable over-emphasis on phonics in the new assessment tool.

ALEA accepts that the acquisition of knowledge about the relationship between sounds and symbols (phonics) is part of learning to read. However, the overemphasis on this one part of the process of learning to read is unreasonable, especially in relation to the costs associated with introducing a national assessment tool for use in Year 1 classrooms.

The new assessment is tool is based on the UK Phonics Check. However, claims that the phonics check in the UK has been extremely successful are not supported by evidence according to ALEA. Recent research questions whether it is valid and reliable and reported limitations related to its value and fit for purpose. The final evaluation by the National Foundation for Educational Research found no clear evidence of improvements in pupils’ literacy performance, or in progress as a result of the Check.

It says that an integrated approach to the teaching of reading is essential. While phonic knowledge is an important component in learning to read, teaching reading should also involve strong oral language, a wide receptive vocabulary and an understanding of the grammatical structures of English for reading and writing. The paper cites recent research by the Language and Reading Research Consortium on the failures of ‘simple models of reading’ and concluded that “no one measure of word recognition, listening comprehension, or reading comprehension is best. Reading is complex, and different assessments tap different things”.

ALEA sees some value in developing an agreed ‘light touch’ national literacy screen that encompasses all key aspects associated with student success in reading and writing to inform teachers and parents. However, it believes that the focus of attention and resources should be on developing appropriate, strengths-based intervention programs that are sensitive, timely, flexible and responsive to the individual child and their family context.

There is a wide range of evidence that supports claims that there are other factors that determine literacy success apart from knowledge of phonics. These include pre-school attendance; home environment including parental attitudes to literacy, and their interactions with children; and the provision of literacy rich environments including access to libraries. ALEA recommends funding of other reforms, including a free, high quality preschool experience for all Australian children; support for parents and families with children 0-8; programs to enhance the knowledge of early childhood educators and teachers working with those children and families.

ALEA also says it has concerns about potential detrimental effects from the implementation of what is an unhelpful screening device in the Australian setting. Instead, it suggests an analysis of ‘what’s working’ when capable teachers appear to ‘beat the odds’, enabling their students to attain high achievement in contexts of high disadvantage.

Eileen Honan, Jenni Connor and Diane Snowball, Measuring Literacy and Numeracy Achievement in Year 1, Australian Literacy Educators’ Association.

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