Completely Biased

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

I'm sure you will have heard that the federal minister for Education, Science and Training has announced a review into the teaching of reading in Australian schools.

He has made statements about 'phonics' and 'holistic' methods of teaching. He has been critical of teachers and of teacher training.

Dr Nelson's statements seem to indicate that there is one right way to teach and that his inquiry will identify this. There are different approaches to the teaching of reading. In very simple terms, one approach teaches children to analyse sounds and decode words. This is called a 'phonics' approach. The 'holistic' approach emphasises the use of contextual cues and other information to derive meaning from printed material.

There are some academics who hold quite extreme views. At one end of the spectrum there are academics who argues that the only way to teach anyone to read is to break the language down into component sounds and teach students to 'decode' new words.

At the other end of the spectrum is a 'naturalistic' approach, where the proponents argue that students learn by 'absorbing' the ability to read if the environment is rich in words.

Another version of this question asks, "should we identify what bad readers can't do and fix it, or should we identify what good readers do and teach all children those skills?"

The debate about which is more effective has been going on for all of my teaching career. The debate tends to be between academics in universities. You rarely find teachers debating which one of the two methods is best. In fact, there is very clear evidence that both methods work for some children. There is no evidence that either method works for all children.

Teachers use whatever information they can get hold of, work out what their students need and use whatever methods will work.

Our teachers all use a combination of methods. The NSW syllabus incorporates aspects of both approaches. None of our students have failed to meet the National Benchmarks referred to by Dr Nelson.

I fear that Dr Nelson's agenda has little to do with children learning to read. I wonder if he will select a panel of 'experts' to conduct his inquiry who will find that there is only one way to teach. I wonder if only public schools will be examined.

Dr Nelson might need to know more about the teaching of reading. I doubt that he needs an inquiry, that will cost millions of dollars, to get the information. There is no shortage of excellent books and journals that can provide the information. All he has to do is read a few.

I'd rather see the money spent on providing resources for our most disadvantaged students. We don't need a political inquiry. We need government commitment to public education.

Robert Binns

That's been pasted from a local primary school newsletter.