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Year 1 phonics tests will only work if how phonics is taught is changed

The federal government’s plan to introduce literacy tests for all Australian pupils in Year 1 will only improve children’s reading skills if accompanied by a more systematic approach to the use of phonics, according to Adelaide educator Jenny Allen.

Allen, who is Director of REM+ Tuition in Tranmere, runs specialist programmes for pre-school and dyslexic children, and has successfully used phonics to teach children in Adelaide how to read for more than 16 years.

“Phonics programmes in schools go too fast for many children, and there isn’t sufficient assessment along the way,” said Allen, “and this means that children who get behind end up being overwhelmed and fail to progress. Too often school reading boxes ignore phonics hierarchy, which means that young children are being asked to read words like ‘swimming’ before they’re confident at reading ‘cat’.

“Although the government’s plan for a nationwide Year 1 literacy assessment is a step in the right direction, this needs to be backed up by a complete change to the current approach of schools to teaching phonics.”

The plan to introduce assessments of children’s literacy and numeracy skills in Year 1 was announced in January by Education Minister Simon Birmingham, and the tests are expected to be accompanied by a renewed emphasis on teaching phonics. However, this will only prove beneficial if the current approach undergoes a significant overhaul.

“The way children are being taught to read in schools is not effective and changes to the system are needed if these new assessments are to be meaningful and produce positive outcomes," said Allen.

“What will be done to help the students whose performance is judged to be below the required standard? When children are found not to be able to decode basic phonetic words in Year 1, what measures will be put in place to assess their working memory, for instance, or their auditory processing ability?

“Unless teaching takes into account that a young person’s brain needs to be taught to read, and that it doesn’t happen simply by osmosis, we will continue to find that too many Year 1 students don't have basic phonetic decoding skills. However, the current approach to teaching phonics does not allow them sufficient time or the appropriate support to catch up, and so it is hard to see how tests alone will change this.”


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