30 Years: Looking forward, looking back

A re-enactment of Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ 30 years ago

I lived to tell the tale.

July 4th is always a special day for me. Apart from the thought of lovely fireworks across America, it also marks the anniversary of my arrival in Australia. This year, it’s a big one. Thirty years have passed since I set up home here, armed with little else than a linguistics degree and a Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) qualification.

My TEFL experience had made me keen to get in front of students and teach, so I sought work in education, and it wasn’t long before I landed my first job in a specialist clinic in Sydney. I worked up to six hours a day, five days a week, providing phonemic awareness, reading, writing, and spelling intervention. It was heaven. I carried on this work at a speech pathology clinic next, and then moved south to Melbourne and established my own practice while I raised my girls.

During that thirty years, three major inquiries into the teaching of literacy took place in the USA, Australia and the UK. They all concluded that systematic synthetic phonics was a starting point superior to all other starting points and nothing has superseded that yet in terms of evidence.

Some pleasing new phrases have gained traction in education over the years, such as the science of reading, orthographic mapping, and cognitive load theory. There has been some very effective pushback concerning whole language and balanced literacy too.

Each country saw an upward trajectory in its reading scores from the time of the inquiries, but each country now also shows a slowing and a downward trend. For some visual representations of the OECD average in reading scores and how they match up to various nations, I recommend reading Dr Jennifer Buckingham’s An investigation of literacy instruction and policy in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

There have been other inquiries in other countries and some political will to help arrest a general decline in literacy, but based on my observations over the past three decades, I have formed some opinions about what went right, and what can go wrong. The graphics below will elaborate.

These aren’t exhaustive lists, of course, and are based on one person’s opinion and observations, but I hope they open up the conversation around how we, as educators, can continue to do our best for all learners. I certainly hope it won’t be another thirty years before the basic human right of literacy is a reality for the majority of children in this world.

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