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Experts sound off over phonics test

Whether kids, parents or teachers like it or not, phonics tests will be introduced for year one students. Nationwide.

Education minster Simon Birmingham considers them essential to detect reading difficulties early on. In an interview with Sky News in late January 2017, he said, “Left until a child is in year three and getting on to being eight or nine, if there are problems that haven’t been identified until then, intervention becomes so much harder”.

Birmingham believes this is key to lifting our woeful literacy results in standardised tests like NAPLAN, TIMSS and PISA.

Though he has been advised to implement phonics testing by an expert panel, not everyone agrees it’s necessary. Dr Misty Adoniou, associate professor of language, literacy and TESL at the University of Canberra, is one.

What the phonic?

Put basically, phonics is the way we map sounds to symbols in English. For example, pronouncing dog by sounding out each letter: d-o-g.

The proposed phonics test will be of the synthetic variety. This phonics style mandates that children learn all letter sounds before they learn to read and write.

Twenty words will be presented to the children, 10 of which are real, like ‘cat’. The other 10 are made-up words, like ‘doil’. Assessors will see whether the children can read the words by sounding them out.

Unproven efficacy

Adoniou doesn’t think Australia’s shoddy literacy results come down to poor phonics. Instead, she said the reasons for this are “complex”. They include cognitive factors like speech pathologies, as well as external ones like the child’s home environment, or whether English is their first or second language.

Additionally, she advised that most states already test year one literacy.

What’s more, a UK phonics test, on which the planned Australian one is based, showed only short-term reading improvement: by high school, there was no difference in reading ability between the children who undertook the phonics test and those who didn’t.

With Birmingham’s phonics test panel comprising people from special needs education backgrounds, such as speech pathology, Adoniou feels their approach “pathologises reading”.

She thinks the test money – around $20 per child – would be better spent on intervention. “It’s a waste,” she lamented. “It distracts from the task at hand.”

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