New Study Undermines Case for a Year 1 Phonics Test

A new study comprehensively refutes the claim that phonetics is little used in teaching reading in Australian schools. It shows that the large majority of teachers in Australian primary schools use a combination of methods in teaching reading, including phonetics.

The study shows that the large majority of teachers in Years 1-2 and 3-4 use both “reading and comprehending whole texts” and “phonetics and decoding”. In Years 1-2, 73% of teachers place equal emphasis on both methods and only 13% place greater emphasis on whole texts and 14% put greater emphasis on phonetics. In Years 3-4, where students are more mature readers, 62% of teachers put equal emphasis on both approaches, and there is greater emphasis on whole texts with 34% of teachers adopting this approach.

There is little difference between school sectors in the use of whole text and phonetics in teaching reading. In Years 1-2, 74% of teachers in public and Catholic schools give equal emphasis to “reading and comprehending whole texts” and “phonetics and decoding” compared to 67% of teachers in Independent schools. Nearly one-quarter of teachers in Independent schools give greater emphasis to phonetics compared to 13% of public and Catholic school teachers.

The differences between school sectors are even smaller in Years 3-4 where 63% of public school teachers, 64% of Catholic school teachers and 58% of Independent school teachers giving equal emphasis to whole text and phonetics. One-third of teachers in all sectors give greater emphasis to whole text in Years 3-4 and very few give emphasis to phonetics.

The study shows some differences between advantaged and disadvantaged schools in the teaching of reading. Teachers at the most advantaged schools were more likely to favour “reading and comprehending whole texts” when teaching Years 3–4 students than teachers at less advantaged schools. Thirty-nine percent of teachers working in the most advantaged schools reported placing greater emphasis on this approach to reading in Years 3–4, compared with 29% of teachers in the least advantaged schools

Teachers’ approach to teaching reading also significantly differed in accordance with the amount of experience teaching at their current year level, but only in Years 1–2. Teachers with higher levels of experience teaching were more inclined to place equal emphasis on “phonetics and decoding” and “reading and comprehending the whole text” when teaching students to read than teachers who had been teaching Years 1–2 students for less than three years. Two -thirds of teachers with less than three years of experience favoured an equal emphasis compared to 75% of teachers with 3–7 years’ experience and 77% with more than 7 years’ experience. More experienced teachers were also less likely to favour a greater emphasis on reading and comprehending whole texts with this age group.

There was some variation in teachers’ approach to teaching reading based on the proportion of students with a disability in their class, but only with younger students. In Years 1–2, teachers of classes with at least one student with a disability were somewhat more likely to favour an increased emphasis on “phonetics and decoding” when teaching their students to read, although the majority of teachers still favoured a more balanced approach to teaching reading. For instance, 16% of teachers in classes with more than 10% of students diagnosed with a disability and 15% of those with at least one student with a disability reported favouring phonetics and decoding, compared with only 11% of teachers with no students with diagnosed disabilities in their class.

The study also shows that the large majority of teachers in primary schools also adopt a combination of methods in teaching maths. This finding also undermines the case for a Year 1 test of numeracy to be considered by national education ministers.

Most teachers favour a balanced approach to teaching mathematics in Years 1-2 and 2-3, and spent time discussing and solving mathematical problems as well as teaching students mathematical rules, facts and procedures. Fifty-five per cent of teachers in Years 1-2 and 63% in Years 3-4 favoured a balanced approach. The proportion of teachers who favoured “talking about and solving mathematical problems” was greater in Years 1–2 (36%) than Years 3–4 (27%). Only one in ten teachers in grades 1-2 and 3-4 reported a preference for “learning rules, facts and procedures”.

There was more uniformity in teachers’ approaches to teaching maths than there was with teaching reading, with few school, teacher and class characteristics making a difference to their approach to teaching.

A majority of teachers in each school sector reported taking a balanced approach to teaching maths in Years 1-2 – 54% in public schools, 58% in Catholic schools and 54% in Independent schools. However, teachers in Independent schools were more inclined than public and Catholic school teachers to favour an emphasis on “learning rules, facts and procedures” – Independent school teachers 14%, public 9%, Catholic 7%. Conversely, they were less likely than other teachers to favour an emphasis on “talking about and solving mathematical problems” – 37% of public school teachers favoured this approach compared with 35% of Catholic school teachers and 32% of teachers at independent schools.

Teachers working in advantaged and disadvantaged schools did not significantly differ in their approaches to teaching maths in Years 3–4. Similarly, no significant differences in the teaching of maths were reported by teachers with different levels of experience. Also, teachers did not differ in their approach to teaching maths depending upon the number of children with disabilities they had in their class.

More testing is not the answer to improving literacy and numeracy. We have had extensive national testing for the past 25 years under NAPLAN and its state predecessors. It has not led to significant improvements in student achievement, mainly because resources have not been directed to those most in need. National education ministers should look to overhaul the new Gonski 2.0 funding model which will leave public schools, which enrol over 80% of disadvantaged students, under-resourced and the vast majority of private schools over-resourced.

Trevor Cobbold

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