Dr Jennifer Buckingham OAM’s op-ed ‘Literacy inquiry may be the intervention the ACT needs to improve its grade’, was first published in The Canberra Times, 9 November 2023.
She writes, ‘There have been countless inquiries into education, and specifically literacy, over recent decades that have overwhelmingly endorsed systematic synthetic phonics as the most effective instructional method for teaching children the letter-sound knowledge and decoding skills needed for reading.”
Read the full op-ed here [paywall] or see below.
Literacy inquiry may be the intervention the ACT needs to improve its grade
By Dr Jennifer Buckingham OAM
The Australian Capital Territory’s nation-leading education scores have long masked its under-performance in the classroom.
That mask is finally slipping and it’s a good thing for thousands of students across the region.
Last week, following the publication of an open letter exhorting education ministers to commit to improving literacy levels, Education Minister Yvette Berry confirmed the government would hold a long overdue literacy inquiry to “look at what we do in our schools to make them even better and address equity gaps”.
This was quite an admission given that the Territory’s high average NAPLAN scores have often been used to deflect any critiques of its education system, including the methods promoted to public schools around the teaching of reading.
In truth, the Territory’s NAPLAN scores are the byproduct of a predominately highly educated, English-speaking, urban-dwelling population. Analysis by the Grattan Institute has found that once that advantage is accounted for, ACT students record lower learning progress between Year 3 and Year 5 compared to the national average. This low performance alarm bell had been rung by researchers at The Australia Institute in 2017, which recommended the adoption of explicit instruction to boost learning outcomes.
The most recent NAPLAN test provided a further wake-up call, revealing that 27.7 per cent of Year 3 students did not reach proficiency in reading.
The ACT’s education system can and should be doing substantially better.
Whether a public inquiry is necessary is debatable. However, given the jurisdiction’s adherence to teaching ideologies and practices that have been displaced by the evidence around how young children learn to read, it’s a step in the right direction.
There have been countless inquiries into education, and specifically literacy, over recent decades that have overwhelmingly endorsed systematic synthetic phonics as the most effective instructional method for teaching children the letter-sound knowledge and decoding skills needed for reading. Yet, many educators and institutions remain wedded to “whole language” or “balanced literacy” approaches that tend to downplay the role of phonics and encourage practices (such as guessing from picture and meaning cues) and resources (such as predictive readers) that are not supported by evidence.
One of the key problems of the so-called “balanced” approach is a lack of structure. While proponents will argue that “one size does not fit all” and teachers need a variety of strategies to meet children’s “individual needs”, this typically results in a curriculum that is highly variable from school to school, where some children will thrive and others risk falling through the gaps.
The benefits of shifting to a system-wide approach can be seen in the case of the transformative work being done by Catholic Education Canberra Goulburn, in conjunction with MultiLit and the Knowledge Society, to embed evidence-based practice across schools.
MultiLit has been privileged to partner with Canberra Goulburn to roll out its classroom literacy programs across the majority of its 56 schools and provide training and resources for teachers to support effective program implementation.
MultiLit, which commenced life as a research initiative of Macquarie University more than 30 years ago, has developed these programs over many years, taking heed of the research around language and literacy acquisition, including the importance of explicit, systematic, and sequential teaching of core language knowledge and skills.
Three years in, the work is paying dividends. An Equity Economics report found that in 2019, 42 per cent of local Catholic schools were underperforming in Year 3 reading. By 2022, that was reduced to just 4 per cent.
And the benefits have extended beyond the numbers. When I visited Canberra Goulburn schools, I observed a confident and capable teaching workforce motivated by knowing that what they were doing in the classroom was working. Schools report that students are more engaged, and families have noticed the difference in their children’s attitudes to learning to read and their enjoyment of school.
As this inquiry takes its course, there are some steps that the ACT government and education officials can take immediately to support schools in adopting effective teaching practices.
They should start by mandating the Phonics Screening Check for Year 1 students, which has improved results in South Australia and NSW and led to shifts in practice.
They should closely scrutinise literacy programs, resources, and professional development promoted by the department to ensure that they are aligned with the science. Five from Five, a free education initiative of MultiLit, has co-developed the Primary Reading Pledge, which comprises a comprehensive list of evidence-based reading programs, interventions, and assessment tools.
Further, ACT authorities should continue to work closely with universities to ensure that initial teacher education programs are providing graduate teachers with the knowledge and skills they need to teach reading effectively. Universities, sadly, have continued to resist meaningful reform, so it’s imperative that the major employers of teachers across the country – the education departments and directorates – take a stand.
The ACT is currently a paradox: a seemingly high achiever that is struggling at the same time.
The gap in reading attainment is concerning but entirely preventable. This inquiry presents a significant opportunity for the Territory government to examine what works and adjust accordingly so that all students – regardless of background – can make the grade.