On Thursday 24th November 2016, a report entitled ‘Focus on Phonics: Why Australia Should Adopt the Year 1 Phonics Screening Check’ was released. The author of the report, Dr Jennifer Buckingham, is a senior research fellow and director of the Five from Five reading project at the Centre for Independent Studies. This report aimed to outline ‘the rationale for introducing a Phonics Screening Check in Australian schools, provides a detailed explanation of its development, implementation, and results in English schools, and proposes recommendations for a Phonics Screening Check policy for Australia’ (2016a, page 2).
At the same time, an article by Dr Buckingham appeared in The Australian newspaper. In this article, Dr Buckingham states ‘Documents produced by peak organisations such as the Australian Literacy Educators Association and the Primary English Teaching Association Australia show they do not support explicit, systematic phonics instruction’ (2016b). She also suggests that: ‘It is difficult to explain precisely the resistance to such a well-proven method. However, it seems to stem from a combination of ideological attachment to social theories of literacy, a rejection of the primacy of scientific evidence on how children learn, and vested interests in entrenched reading programs’ (2016b).
The Australian Literacy Educators' Association (ALEA) and the Primary English Teaching Association (PETAA) declare that these statements are inaccurate representations of the views of both professional associations.
The assertion that ALEA and PETAA publications show that we do not support explicit, systematic phonics instructions is simply not true. We agree with Dr Buckingham’s statement in her report that a high-quality literacy program includes Phonemic awareness, Phonics, Fluency, Vocabulary and Comprehension (2016a, page 5). We also agree that effective phonics instruction should be explicit, systematic, and sequential (2016a, page 7). However, ALEA and PETAA argue that this instruction should always occur within genuine literacy events and in contexts meaningful to the student. Our assertion that phonics instruction should be taught in meaningful contexts should not be conflated with the concept that phonics instruction, as Dr Buckingham suggests, is random and ‘ad hoc’ (2016a, p.8). Moreover, Dr Buckingham fails to account for evidence in the research literature that supports the effectiveness of approaches to early literacy teaching that differ from the one she is promoting (for example, Freebody, 2007, Gunn & Wyatt-Smith, 2011, Louden et al. 2005, Paris & Luo, 2010).
Both PETAA and ALEA are committed to supporting teachers as they deliver the Australian Curriculum: English, and as they enhance students’ literacy capability as described in the Australian Curriculum. This support extends beyond the first years of school. The associations do not reject any evidence on how children learn, including evidence provided by those who support the type of phonics instruction Dr Buckingham advocates. We do reject, however, claims made about our associations and our members that are inaccurate and ill-informed.
The publications and resources developed for teachers by ALEA and PETAA are evidence-based, drawing on data collected by researchers working collaboratively with Australian teachers in Australian classrooms. These resources are framed based on an inclusive view of English language and literacy education and research reflecting the rich diversity of the training, experience and expertise of our members and of the educational contexts in which they work. Our associations have no vested personal, professional or commercial interest in any one approach, program or type of resource.
ALEA and PETAA are both committed to providing access for our members to the latest research, evidence-based teaching practices, strategies and resources. Our professional organisations are also committed to advocating for our members in the context of current English and literacy education debates, and providing informed and balanced contributions to a respectful public conversation about the English language and literacy development of Australian students.