EDUCATION: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Dr Nelson's new inquiry into school literacy
, November 20, 2004
Calls by 26 senior academics for a Federal inquiry into the learning of reading in schools has provoked fierce opposition from teacher unions and the ALP, reflecting the impact which "progressive education" has had on Australian schools since the 1960s.
Dr Brendan Nelson, Federal Minister for Education, announced that he would hold an inquiry, after receiving a letter signed by prominent educationalists, including Professor Kevin Wheldall, director of Macquarie University's Special Education Centre, and Max Coltheart, professor of educational research at Macquarie.
The proposal was criticised by the Australian Education Union, which called it "ad hoc". Labor's Education spokesman, Jenny Macklin, said, "An inquiry will just put off the date in which we get the extra teachers, the extra support for our teachers, into our schools."
The Federal Government has long been concerned at the low level of literacy and numeracy among primary school children.
In July 1996, Federal and State ministers for education agreed to develop national benchmarks for use in reporting minimum acceptable standards of literacy and numeracy achievement, in support of the national goal, that "every child leaving primary school should be numerate, and be able to read, write and spell at an appropriate level."Failure
However, the 26 educators suggest that these have largely failed.
Education Minister Dr Brendan Nelson says statistics show nearly a third of students do not meet national standards of reading by the time they reach Year 9 at school.
The 26 educators suggest that the failure is due to the use of the "whole language" method of teaching children to read, rather than phonics.
The "whole language" theory is based on the idea that children will learn if they are given a rich literacy experience, and do not need to be explicitly taught the mechanics of reading.
This approach to reading often uses the "whole word" approach, sometimes called the "look-say" method, which requires young children to memorise a large number of words, to understand sentences.
Critics of this method argue that it seriously disadvantages children from backgrounds where they have a limited vocabulary, and ignores the importance of spelling, in favour of improvisation.
Phonics is based on breaking down words into sounds, so students learn to read by associating sounds with letters, and can then build up more complex words.
At the heart of this debate is the fundamental difference between traditional and progressive education.
Dr John Reyhner of North Arizona University pointed out last year, "There is an educational and political battle going on between proponents of a phonics emphasis in reading and a whole language emphasis. This battle is going on in newspaper editorial pages, in state legislatures, and Congress."
One problem in sorting out which method is better is that teacher unions and education bureaucracies reject the use of standardised testing to measure reading skills and comprehension.
One of Australia's foremost educational thinkers, Dr Kevin Donnelly, wrote: "The worst excesses of progressive education can be found in 'whole language' (used to teach literacy instead of phonics) and 'fuzzy maths'. The result, as discovered three to four years ago, is that approximately 25 per cent of students were leaving primary school unable to read and write.
"Many students cannot repeat their times tables or carry out the simplest forms of mental arithmetic."
In some parts of the United States, where "whole language" methods were seen to have failed, and been replaced by a strong phonics-based reading program, comparative results have been obtained.
An Arizona parent organisation reported: "In Houston, Texas, in the fall of 1991, eight inner-city elementary schools switched to such a program after having tried a total whole language style program for many years. The reading scores in these schools had dropped to the lowest point they had ever been in 20 years of testing.
"During the first year of an intensive phonics program, one district school's scores on a state reading test rose an astonishing 48 percentage points. Almost 98 per cent of the third-grade students were reading at or above grade level and their scores are among the best in the city. All of the other schools showed major improvements and today all eight schools are showing performance levels that match more prosperous schools in the system."
Dr Nelson is expected to announce the composition and terms of reference of his inquiry within a fortnight.
Its outcome has the potential to correct the mistakes of the past, and shape the quality of children's education for years to come.