Just what I didn’t want to read! Old-School plan to give literacy a lift… ‘Hmm’, so that’s the answer. No, it’s not!

Having read, and digested the Herald Sun’s (April 17, 2011 p18-19) special report, ‘Old School plan to give literacy a lift’, I’ve felt the need to respond, and I’ve chosen my space to respond to this one…

Teachers may find articulating ‘whole language’ challenging, as it’s not a term ‘bandied’ about in our profession. It’s said, but always requires clarifying even to those ‘within the know’. What you will hear is teachers discuss a ‘balanced’ literacy program. So what does this mean? A ‘balanced’ literacy program recognises the need to provide a ‘varied diet’, a collection of experiences, and explicit teaching for young learners.

Young learners require different approaches within their whole program of instruction to ensure their individual learning needs are met and deep understanding is achieved. This is possibly the best descriptor for ‘whole language’ I can articulate.

Teaching phonics is important within a ‘balanced’ literacy program. The teaching of phonemes, graphemes, consonants, short vowels, rimes and phonograms are essential for children to understand, and use our alphabet, and are… documented learning outcomes in our state curriculum. Victoria has a lot to be proud of!

To teach a program which places greatest or total emphasis on phonics, will not give ‘literacy a lift’ in my opinion, balance will!

We often use the term ‘barking at print’, and this refers to a child which can read aloud fluently, but has very little understanding of what he/she has read. This I see as a huge problem, as parents with aspirations for their children to be wonderful readers, can see fluent ‘reading aloud’ as achievement, the ‘holy grail’, and the harder the book, the bigger the words, the better.

These parents are often presented at a later stage of their child’s schooling with a student achieving lower than expected comprehension levels. And this begs the question, why do we read?  You can answer this for yourself, reflect! I’m hoping here, that you’re thinking about the importance of deep comprehension, the pleasure reading can give, developing a love of language, or to learn about and understand our world! Decoding is a skill, comprehension is the goal.

I have responded to this article because I am passionate about literacy acquisition.

Cheers Nina


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28 responses to “Just what I didn’t want to read! Old-School plan to give literacy a lift… ‘Hmm’, so that’s the answer. No, it’s not!

  1. nina davis

    Hi Mark,
    I decided when I started writing my blog that I would accept all comments as long as they were suitable to post. This is the first negative comment I’ve received and it’s a beauty! Not sure why Homeschooling Parent became so personal though? However, that’s not my problem.
    Having said that, I’ve taken her comment on board and corrected a couple of mistakes. Generally, in other forums I’ve found the Home School fraternity to be very supportive. I even subscribe to a number of their web sites. I think Homeschooling Parent’s comment is more a reflection of her beliefs about schools and their purpose in general.
    Thanks for the support. I hope Homeschooling Parent revisits to read these comments. Hope your term has started well.
    Cheers Nina

  2. Nina, you are gracious in your reply to homeschooling Parent.
    Simone you are right to pick someone up for what might be deemed a personal attack on the web.
    To call someone a “lazy borderline illiterate teacher” on the basis of a few grammatical or spelling errors is in my opinion going too far. I was angry when she inferred that by correcting errors as you indicated that you were being dishonest in some way – as if correcting errors were attempts to just cover them up rather than make perfect.
    I fear this parent has in fact done a great disservice to the many parents who choose to home school their children for a variety of reasons – and not always as disgruntled parent from schooling. I do know of a few parents who home school who would be embarrassed by such comments.
    The vast majority of the community choose to send their children to school – be it in public, religious or independent schools. I suggest that most parents are reasonably satisfied with the outcomes of schooling as delivered by dedicated teachers I know I am as a parent. Of course improvement in schooling is always being sought by all parties.
    Shame on you homeschooling parent – your comment does little to advance the debate.
    Mark Walker

  3. @homeschooling parent
    your comment is harsh and almost a personal attack. A blog is a personal space for a person to share their own thoughts and opinions, which Nina did passionately, and readers, like you, CHOOSE to click on the links and read. Blogging is a new genre of writing and while grammatical features should be used and posts edited before posting, there are always going to be errors. Writing on a blog in no way can reflect on the calibre of a teacher. Your choice to use asterisks to emphasise *teacher* seem to indicate a dislike for teachers in general. I can assure you that to attain a 4 year university degree, one has to be above borderline literate, but more importantly PASSIONATE about teaching children and learning. It’s a shame that you have used this post to express your obviously misguided frustrations rather than comment on the topic of the post.
    Good luck with your home-schooling.

    • nina davis

      Hi Simone,
      Thank you for your support. I think Homeschooling Parent may lack faith in teachers and the school system. I would add here that I have completed a number of subjects at a Masters level attaining Distinctions – LOL. Academic writing is a genre itself. This is my reflection place which I share with others. It was never intended to be an academic piece. That will be my book. Thanks for the support. It is appreciated.
      Cheers Nina

  4. Homeschooling Parent

    “If you find my writing emotive, I’ll be pleased, as literacy and the young learner is my passion.”

    …but not proper punctuation or verb tense, apparently. I followed your link here from a comment you left on another blog, and I am aghast at your poor literacy skills. Commas and quotation marks are not meant to be sprinkled around at random as pretty decorations, and verbs must agree with subjects.

    Lazy borderline-illiterate “teachers” like you are precisely why we have resorted to home-schooling our children.

    What a disgrace.

    I have taken a screen capture of you post as it stands now, as I fully expect that your first instinct will be to try to cover up your embarrassing mistakes. I will use it as a teaching tool for other home-school parents. I think this is what your teacher-preacher class calls “a teachable moment”.

    • nina davis

      Dear Homeschooling Parent,
      I am reflecting. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I am not a scholar, just a teacher in search of good practice. If you read back through my blog you will see that taking time to edit and check is my focus this year. I always appreciate comments, negative or not. Reflection is important to me. I will take time to check my writing before posting.
      Cheers Nina

  5. Melanie hutchinson

    Hi Nina,
    Have been discussing this just this week- how my definition of whole language has evolved and my understanding of word work has deepened. Short bursts of directed and strategic word work set amdist passionate reading and deep comprehension- and plenty of reading to build fluency- can all be nicely “balance.” i love literacy and teaching reading as I continue to be a learner…

    • nina davis

      Hi Mel,
      Hope the weather in NYC is warming up. So nice to see your comment here! I certainly value your expertise in this area, and I’m still a learner as well. Being a learner enables me to take on and trial new ideas in my quest to improve my practice. Searching and reseraching ‘best practice’ has enabled me to construct my understanding of ‘balance’.
      The comments I’m receiving ‘here’, by email, twitter messages etc support and reflect the sincerity of our profession to provide the best literacy education for all students.
      Cheers Nina

  6. nina davis

    Hi Marianne,
    This post of mine has certainly provided discussion, which is wonderful. I’ve had many emails from educators and the general community sharing their thoughts, such as yours. However, not everyone is comfortable sharing in this public space.
    Fostering a love of reading and writing is my aim. As we know, some children are ‘wired for literacy’, and others find the journey a struggle. My role is teach and encourage, as all children have a right to read/write, know the joy of reading and the wonder of being able to express their ideas, without fear!
    Cheers Nina

  7. Interesting – I always find the complexity of language enormous. I am on a learning journey and I’m certainly no expert in this area . Certainly, I must say that I believe in a balance of whole language and phonetics. Learning to read should be meaningful and in a context that children can gain understanding. Our challenge as teachers is to encourage their DESIRE to read for meaning and gain deeper understanding. Thank you all for your thoughts and comments.

  8. So what do you do for a 7th grader at 80% fluency reading aloud but >20% comprehension?

    • Spend time on getting 80% comprehension! Go deeper not wider. I’m an excellent reader and can read a medical journal fluently – I wouldn’t have a clue what it is about! I’d spend hours on vocab, meaning and definitions and talking about the book to gain deeper understanding.

    • nina davis

      I’m actually responding with a comment left on this post by Marianne,
      ‘Spend time on getting 80% comprehension! Go deeper not wider. I’m an excellent reader and can read a medical journal fluently – I wouldn’t have a clue what it is about! I’d spend hours on vocab, meaning and definitions and talking about the book to gain deeper understanding.’ Marianne
      She has answered this so well.
      Cheers Nina

    • Teaching comprehensions skills is one area where our school has had much success and we have used the work of people like Debbie Miller here. Just google her. If you need any resources or would like to see this work in action please contact me through Nina.

    • If it were me, I’d engage in a study of research-based practices that have been shown to improve comprehension, do some action research, and study how my efforts were working. Sounds simple–I know we “all” do that–but honestly, I find that what we call “research” is wildly varied in terms of scientific basis and intellectual rigor anymore. Most of us test our hunches out by applying strategies and solutions that don’t have a great base behind them, and this is why it’s important to study what we do. None of us can be sure that anything we try will work for the kids we serve, in my opinion. When we implement new approaches, I think it’s important to gather different forms of evidence that can help us determine whether or not our efforts are really leading to improvement.

      • nina davis

        Hi Angela,
        I hope ZGPorter reads your comment as it answers his/her question well. So what do you do for a 7th grader at 80% fluency reading aloud but >20% comprehension?
        I agree, as an educator, action research, gathering data, and developing a deep understanding / pedagogy are crucial to the delivery of, and understanding of ‘best practice’. The collection of evidence to determine if our efforts are leading to improvement (so well said), is something I’ve taken from your comment to reflect on. Once again thanks for commenting, and it’s great to have your expertise here! I love the fact that even though we are in different countries, the same debates / educational discussions are happening! Cheers Nina

  9. Every couple of years, it seems as if we go through another round of the phonics vs. whole language debate in the US as well. I often find that when disagreements break out and particularly when they become contentious, it’s common for people to be using the same words in very different ways. The danger of relying on our own perceptions, experiences, and opinions too heavily is that often, the meaning we’ve established for certain practices isn’t accurate. Unless we engage in deep study using credible resources, what we learn to do and how we apply it often leads to less than desirable results. This is how very powerful practices often end up getting an inappropriately bad rap. I’m watching this happen in response to common misperceptions about assessment and rubrics and really awful practice.

    I think that whole language gets a bad rap from those practitioners who totally botched it because they didn’t seek understanding of what it truly was and how to do it well before they dove in. Same goes for phonics or comprehension instruction or guided reading or anything else.

    Imagine if we handed surgeons scalpels and told them to operate before they had accurate diagnoses, conducted any research, or got any real training. I imagine we’d be looking at a whole lot of malpractice. If this happened often enough, people would begin blaming scalpels for the damage done and encouraging quality surgeons to give up the practice.

    • nina davis

      Hi Angela,
      Always appreciate and value your comments, experience and ideas. I totally support everything in your comment. Love the final reference to the surgeon and the scalpel. So appropriate!
      The comment / question below is challenging me: ‘So what do you do for a 7th grader at 80% fluency reading aloud but > 20% comprehension? HELP! Need to reflect and construct an answer. Any thoughts? Or a comment… ?
      Cheers Nina

  10. As an international teacher preparing to move back to Melbourne next year I cannot believe the phonics conversation is still going round and round. it makes me dread coming home slightly. In my first 2 years of teaching in Australia the school I worked at used the SWELL program and while all my students learnt to read, I looked back at those grouped classes and can’t help but cringe. To go off track a bit but I think the biggest problem we have in education today is that the most innovative, conceptual, knowledgeable teachers enjoy their jobs too much and do not take the step up into leadership positions, which unfortunately takes them away from the students. The dead wood needs to go, particularly those in the media who do nothing more than scare-mongering.

    • nina davis

      Hi Simone,
      My little post here has caused quite a stir. Emails local, across Australia and overseas. When I read that article, I just couldn’t believe how ‘out of touch’ these experts were, excluding Mem Fox.
      Today’s opinion piece was shocking as well. But that’s media, and there is certainly a lot of scare mongering in todays and Saturday’s articles. Fear not your return to Australia, there are fantastic ‘things’ happening in our education system. Thank you for your comment, it is greatly appreciated!
      Cheers Nina

  11. Hi Nina
    I have been teaching for years and have never heard the phrase, “barking at print,” before. Oh yes – I know exactly what it means of course…just never heard it described that way. It’s brilliant because that is exactly what it is.
    I agree with your article – well said. I would add in the element of discussion though – that until chldren are reading independently, comprehension skills should be developed through verbal skills…discussions, shared reading, teacher sharing of books, questioning, games, insights, opinions etc.

    From following your blog – I am sure you are already doing that. Written comprehension of text may only come later, but true understanding skills come from when children are little – and are enhanced and then entrenched by a whole and ‘balanced’ literacy program.

    Thanks for the post.

    • nina davis

      The old way of teaching was for some children endless worksheets with little accountability. And I agree, oral discussion is essential. Thinking deeply about a text, and I like to think I foster this in my students. Thanks for the comment. I sent my post to the writer of today’s opinion piece in the Herald Sun. I could be in for some interesting feedback. Thanks for commenting, it’s always appreciated.
      Cheers Nina

  12. nina davis

    Hi Jo,
    Thanks for this great comment. I’m reflecting! I am trained in THRASS and teach using THRASS in my classroom. Much of the phonics teaching in the past, was via worksheets, not engaing and with little assessment/ accountability. This would be my fear. However, having said this we are accountable to our stakeholders.
    This article seemed to be claiming that we’re not teaching phonics etc, and we most certainly are. I feel it was giving the public the wrong message. Once again thanks for commenting and sharing within this space. It is greatly appreciated!
    Cheers Nina

  13. jo rogers

    Dear Nina
    I’ve been teaching 40+ years now, the last 20 years privately teaching children who are struggling to learn to read and write in school. The balanced approach you mention is whole language plus phonics at the END. This is not children leave effective for many if not most primary children to learn to decode words to read or endcode words to spell. That’s why 20% to 30% of intelligent children leave primary illiterate/semi illiterate. It’s all about the ORDER – teaching letters of the alphabet, and the 44 sounds in words (all words can be and are ‘sounded out’) THEN comprehend within language. Teachers who teach phonological processing of text, always teach the subskills using explicit and systematic teaching (so all the kids ‘get it’) THEN link in with ‘whole language. There is no barking at print – but the children ALL learn to read and write – which is better than illiteracy or under-achievement, which I can tell you is what most parents EXPECT schools to teach their children at the very least.

    • Jo,
      You write with much passion about this debate which in many ways I like but some things do need to be challenged so that a debate moves forward with informed views.

      So challenge I will –
      what source are you quoting when you say 20 – 30% of intelligent leave school illiterate or semi literate because I have been in the teaching workforce in schools also 40 plus years and have never turned out that percentage of students at a school or classroom level illiterate or semi literate and I am on record about a balanced literacy program [refer my comment to this post as an example of this].

      There is a sequence of skills for students to learn – all be at different rates.

      My schools data has shown that when we explicitly teach phonetic and comprehension skills from prep to year 6 [note the balance of these 2 changes] their reading skills zoom. We did have barkers in print at the end of year 2 as measured on Statewide tests before we introduced the explicit teaching of comprehension starting in Year Prep. We have 2% of students who still struggle with literacy as measured on NAPLAN and have intervention plans in place. That data is freely available on the schools website and both state and national government websites.

      I continue to challenge many articles which quote data without a source but realise that many articles in newspapers really have a political agenda [yours aside] best served by paying out on schools and teachers.

      Thanks Mark

      • nina davis

        Hi Mark,
        So pleased you replied to Jo. I’ve been trying to find Jo’s statistics myself and hadn’t managed to locate them. Would like to know where this data came from? Not in any Australian literature I can find.
        Cheers Nina

  14. Spot on as usual. You echo my words to parents when asked do we teach phonics on prospective parent tours. Yes and much more is my reply – our results have really jumped when we agreed that a 20 % comprehension – 80% phonic ratio was about right for lots of children which is reversed by years 4-6. We cannot leave comprehension till grade 2 or 3 as we once did – otherwise we get barkers at print.
    Keep the faith.

    • nina davis

      Hi Mark,
      I’ve received some interesting comments. What a great reply you give prospective parents. Yes, we do teach phonics but a whole lot more! This article seemed to be stating that this wasn’t happening in our classrooms, when I believe there is actually a focus on phonics within our planning. We just teach so much more than this. Hope you’re having a great holiday.
      Cheers Nina

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