Phonics is a way of teaching children to read that links the letters of the alphabet, syllables and words to their component sounds. And, (with loud trumpets!) it has finally made its way into the English curriculum for school children. It got there against a background of objections and other white noise resistance from the lunatic left wingers in the teachers’ unions aligned with the ALP, not to mention the academic educationists relied on by State government education departments who displayed blind faith in their “evidence-based” research even in the face of childhood illiteracy which resulted from the whole-word methodology. According to that theory, children don’t learn to read the little black marks on a page but absorb the knowledge by osmosis.
Now, it seems, not only is phonics acceptable, but evidence-based research from 2005 relied on by the Queensland Education Department “proves” that it is a valid method for teaching children to read. With two different results supported by “evidence-based” research, perhaps someone should enquire into just what passes for evidence in evidence-based” research in the social sciences.
The call for phonics to be employed in the classroom came from the common observation that at least two generations of children who had been taught by the alternative, whole word method, were leaving school and even university barely literate, unable to read anything more difficult than cartoons or write grammatically correct English. As phonics was the teaching method employed in Australian schools during the first seventy years of the twentieth century, and those generations were, on the whole, more literate, it can be safely assumed that, properly taught, phonics will successfully give children the power to read proficiently.
The big question, however, is whether those same school children who can now read properly, will be literate when they leave school? Unfortunately, the answer to that is no, and the reason is to be found in the Australian Curriculum. The explanatory material for the English literature content of the AC for each of years 1-10 in the AC English curriculum states:
The English curriculum is built around the three interrelated strands of language, literature and literacy. Teaching and learning programs should balance and integrate all three strands. Together, the strands focus on developing students’ knowledge, understanding and skills in listening, reading, viewing, speaking, writing and creating.
Those three strands, language, literature and literacy, and the six skills are the same objective of the curriculum for each of years 1-10. What, then does the AC understand by literacy? After all, it was the appalling standard of literacy, of reading and writing, that led to the call for phonics. But when we look at the AC’s explanation of literacy we discover that, because it includes just about every kind of communication, it is almost meaningless. A person would be literate if he could read the caption below a sports page photograph; it might even be sufficient if he could see the photo and describe in speech without being able to cogently express it in writing. The Australian Curriculum describes literacy as follows:
Students become literate as they develop the knowledge, skills and dispositions to interpret and use language confidently for learning and communicating in and out of school and for participating effectively in society. Literacy involves students listening to, reading, viewing, speaking, writing and creating oral, print, visual and digital texts, and using and modifying language for different purposes in a range of contexts.
So we find that in the AC, literacy has been replaced by communication when they are not anything remotely similar. The original idea of literacy, of a literate person, comes from the Latin word, literatus, which meant having knowledge of letters or being educated. That idea of being educated in letters, of being literate, has been altogether dumbed down, if not lost. The educationists even have a category of literacy called functional literacy; students are, therefore, never illiterate, merely functionally literate. (What you see is what you get?).
Thanks to phonics, students, hopefully, will emerge from school able to read the newspaper (if newspapers are still around). But the curriculum provides no material by which the student learns the difference between good and bad literature or even what it means to be good or bad, to be moderate around other people, to be temperate in the face of temptation or courageous in the face of danger. While moral virtue which a liberal education encouraged through literature is not a part of the AC, the curriculum does specify ‘creativity’ (sorry God) as an objective.
We must wonder, therefore, how Milton, or Shakespeare, Hobbes or Locke, or Wordsworth and Shelley ever became literate without the benefit of the Aussie curriculum. In fact, they reached those standards by reading the works of the greatest minds, what was once considered a liberal education, an education in books. Creativity in those days, the generation of something out of nothing, was a power reserved to God alone and was not available, either as a human power or as something to be taught in a caftan.
The best students learn to write by imitating the best writers until such time as their own unique style emerged. It is still the sincerest form of flattery, even if imitation of the best is largely missing from much of the AC English course for Years 1-12. And that is the problem. The curriculum is not English literature in a literacy sense; it is Aussie books with a bit of traditional literature added. And going by the standard of the material that AC recommends that students read, they will not be literate even if they read it all. Some may be better able to read than their parents – so the sports pages will need to upgrade – but they probably will not be able to read as well as their grandparents.
To put the whole issue into context, students whose level of literacy was inadequate when they left school would find the literature that they would usually be expected to read in a course on Western civilisation extremely taxing.
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