The Weekend Australian's front page article A Decade of lost action on literacy reports on Australia's poor performance in a recent international reading test. According to the PIRLS results 25 per cent of year 4 children in Australia failed to meet the standard in reading for their age.
The paper version of the Australian has a cartoon placed at the beginning of the article. The picture shows a female teacher with an annoyed look on her face and assuming an aggressive pose. Her fists on her hips while standing over a sheepish looking boy sitting at his desk. In the middle ground there is an adult male and female looking through the classroom door.
The female figure says, "Is the kid a slow learner?"
The other observer then replies, "No but the teacher is."
The first comment is designed to blame the child by giving him the label - 'slow learner'. The second comment blames the teacher.
What is even more interesting is that the electronic version of the article (see the link above) completely leaves out this very derogatory cartoon. Quite possibly, it may have been a copyright issue or maybe the editor realised that it was demeaning to a mainly dedicated and self-sacrificing group of people.
What did the newspaper replace the cartoon with?
Now this is worth a thoughtful look. The photo shows a teacher in the foreground with his back to the viewer and facing a large group of students sitting in regimental rows of single desks with heads bent over their work. Presumably this is a test situation but the question is, "Why did they choose this particular photo to go with the article?"
The second attempt to blame the victim employs another label - "Whole Language". The implication being that the drop in our reading results is because teachers have been using a 'whole language' approach. Whole language was a term that became popular about three to four decades ago but few Australian teachers embraced this as their only approach to the teaching of reading. Can you even find a single teacher still using a whole language only approach today? How long will they keep using this label as an excuse? If you did a word frequency count of all articles in Australian professional journals over the last 15 years you would most likely find that the term 'phonics' or 'phonics instruction' has a high count while the term "Whole Language" is hardly ever mentioned.
Even though the teaching of phonics is essential it is not sufficient for reading progress through school. Phonics teaching by itself is a very simplistic response to a very complex learning process. There is more to reading than what you see. An emphasis on phonic instruction as the panacea for all reading difficulties can lead to a situation whereby children can word call with little or no comprehension. This debate continues in the United States where similar arguments are often used. Some eminent researchers in the US claim that some phonics only approaches are driven by vested commercial interests. Obviously it is very simple to market a phonic teaching package rather than invest in ongoing training of teachers in effectively teaching the reading process. Recognised research reports advocate for a balanced approach to reading instruction, this includes the US National Reading Panel, Australia's Nelson Report and prominent researchers such as the late Michael Pressley.
Low scores for reading in year 4 support the notion of a well recognised year 4 slump. This is not only a problem in Australia but can be seen in other English speaking countries including the US and England (see my Book). This is a complex problem - many children, who appear to read well in the lower primary or elementary grades begin to exhibit difficulties in reading around this year 4 period. At this stage the language in books becomes much more complex with less illustrations to assist comprehension. In the lower grades books are often levelled to match children's individual reading ages and many children tend not to acquire new and challenging words. During the year 4 stage more complex non-fiction genres are introduced and children are expected to read to comprehend. This requires the explicit teaching of reading comprehension skills with practice over an extended period of time. Reading problems begin to manifest in year 4, particularly in schools where little emphasis is placed on comprehension in the lower grades.
The situation is that if education systems continue to place more emphasis on word level skills and neglect training teachers to implement a balanced approach that includes reading comprehension, they will face a very slippery decline in reading performance.