Back Two Bay Six. (Phonics solves everything!)

Posted: October 1, 2013 in Education, Politics, society, Uncategorized

By allowing state curricula to be hijacked by so-called experts pushing experimental learning techniques such as ‘whole language learning’, governments have left many young people with little grounding in spelling, grammar and punctuation.

Christopher Pyne. Press Release. April 4th 2011.

Christopher Pyne knows a lot about the education system. He attended a private school for his entire school career and then obtained a Bachelor of Laws at Adelaide University. This expertise qualifies him to take a more “hands on” role as Minister for Education. He advocates a back to basics approach to Education.

As someone who has taught in secondary schools for a number of years, the phrase “back to basics” disturbs me for a number of reasons. The first is that there seems to be some sort of assumption that the “basics” have been abandoned. The second is the fact that what we mean by basics is never actually defined in any meaningful way, and usually it’s subtext is  that you don’t actually need much in the way of funding, because all you need is a blackboard, some chalk and as many kids as can be squeezed into a room to make a success of it.  And finally, the fact that almost as certainly as night follows day, two years after advocating the “back to basics” approach, the same politicians will be  either lamenting the fact that students don’t do enough sport in school or else they aren’t being taught a number of things, such as values, how our Parliamentary system works, how to apply for a bank loan, or all the Kings and Queens of England.

“You’re just not covering what’s important,” says the man at the barbeque, “I was talking to my nephew the other day and he didn’t know about Simpson and his donkey.”

“Which bit?” I ask, “The bit about him plonking people on the back of his donkey for a couple of weeks before dying in a war to protect British interests? Or the bit about him being an illegal immigrant and a staunch trade unionist?”
End of conversation.

Phonics – it’s a discussion that rares its ugly head every few years, and I’ve discussed this with a number of primary teachers and I’m yet to find one that isn’t using it, along with a range of other strategies when teaching students to read. They all agree that teaching grammar, punctuation and spelling is important. There’s some disagreement on how much formal grammar needs to be taught. All agreed that teaching the concepts of nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, as well as sentence structure was necessary, but some didn’t think that the inability to identify an “adjective clause of time” would necessarily prevent a Grade 5 student from being able to write clearly and concisely.

Of course, as a secondary school teacher, my objection to the notion that students just need to be taught phonics and all will be well, stems from the rather obvious objection that ‘phonics’ doesn’t start with an “f”. And I’m not just making a silly point. Most of the poor spelling I come across stems not from the fact that kids don’t spell words the way they sound, but because they do. And they spell the words the way they sound to that kid. “His rely pist and his gonna cum ova get u back.”

My second point = that the “basics” is never actually meaningfully defined – may seem strange to some of you. It’s the 3 R’s, right? (Notice that only one of them actually starts with the letter ‘R’). But for most students these are learned to an adequate level in primary school. Yes, people will cite studies and surveys with shock horror statistics, like nearly half the population are below average, or that the students in China are outperforming ours in PISA tests. But every survey will show you that most students read, write and handle numbers at or above the expected level.

The idea that all students should be spending their school day being drilled in the three “R”s for thirteen years is, of course, absurd and nobody is seriously advocating it. But what then is meant by a “back to basics” approach? More help for students who are below the expected level? Research into students falling behind to discover what they have in common? Or just larger class sizes and more “chalk and talk” instruction? Never mind that explicit lecturing is one of the least effective ways of teaching. (See Pyramid)


As for technology, I’m sure that we’ll have the idea that students don’t need access to computers and that they’re just a way that teachers avoid actually “teaching”  is one that I’m sure that we’ll have pushed from various quarters. No-one, of course, will suggest that politicians or journalists don’t need computers. Back in the nineteenth century, nobody had a computer and everyone learnt to read and write just fine. Not true, but statements nearly as ridiculous will go unchallenged. How technology is being used in schools and how poorly its potential is being realised is a whole discussion in itself. But schools are starting to grasp the possibilities. There needs to be a massive increase, not just in the technology, but in helping teachers use it more effectively.

Finally, I look forward to Christopher Pyne’s pronouncement some time next year that schools are failing to cover a very important area. He’s already announced that the History curriculum is far too “left-wing”,  and that he’ll fix that. But I expect something more. Perhaps, it’ll be a horrified realisation that some students leave school never having studied Shakespeare. Perhaps, it’ll be the shocking knowledge that not all students know where Albania is.  Whatever, I expect that schools will be expected to forget what they see as the priorities, and put more time into something else.

  1. momshieb says:

    Oh, my.
    I had been hoping that things were better in other countries, but it seems that we are all being subject to the same nonsense. The politicians continue to control and shape education, while the educators simply try hard to play catch up.
    Basics, indeed.

  2. Vicki says:

    Christopher Pyne needs to spend some time either observing or better still as an adult volounteer helper in a primary school classroom and he will find that teachers are very skilled in utilising a variety of teaching methods across the curriculum. To guide student learning in literacy some chalk and talk is fine to allow an overview of the current focus but I found that the best learning happens in small fun activity groups, small teaching/reading groups and/or one on one teaching with students experiencing difficulty in particular areas. Having accomplished readers helping their peers (the mentors need to be prepped) is very effective.
    Christopher Pyne is all huff and puff and, it seems to me, merely wishes to throw his ideological weight around because he can.

    • Chipperfield says:

      Maybe Christher Pyne was listening to. RN last week ans heard that 50% of Tasmanians are functionally illiterate amd innumerate. Sounds like basics are exactly what need to be addressed, but heck, maybe it is only in Tassie!

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