The Literacy Debate

Abstract: The literacy debate is raging again in Australia. Federal Minister David Kemp threatens to withhold funding from schools that do not participate in literacy tests. As said in earlier articles, instead of focusing on literacy, it makes more sense for children to become fluent in spoken language. Children grow up with the predominantly visual languages of TV, video and computergames. Even more important in future will be fluency in the non-verbal languages of multimedia.

A. Literacy Tests

The literacy debate is primarily a debate about how government funds should be spent. As such, the debate is about more than just literacy, and touches areas such as taxation. The Australian Government is currently looking at changing the taxation system. Quintessence has made submissions to studies into Internet Commerce by the Taxation Department and by the Federal Parliament's Joint Committee into Public Accounts (see this month's article Tax, the Enemy behind our Backs (B). In these submissions, Quintessence warns that the current Australian Government's plans on tax and on education are not likely to prepare Australia for the bright future as claimed.

Plans to introduce a more indirect way of taxation have been discussed intensively in the Australian media over the past few years. The literacy debate that is currently raging, has a more recent background. Recently, David Kemp, federal Minister of Education threatened to withhold funding from schools that do not cooperate in certain literacy tests. On the TV program called '60 minutes' (Channel 9, Sunday 6.30 pm 13 September 1997), David Kemp went public with the debate. This program must certainly have offended many people who are educated with the whole-language method or other methods than phonics. The program seemed to imply that people educated with such methods were illiterate. The program was clearly lobbying for a return to the old-fashioned phonics method.

The program based its conclusions on some controversial tests and on some further assumptions. Since that time, these tests have been widely criticised in the media. Unfortunately, most commentators seem to accept that there is a literacy problem and they merely argue about the size of this problem and the accuracy of the tests. But instead, one should first question the validity itself of such tests. Tests that focus on things such as spelling are clearly biased towards the old phonics method. They test things such as spelling, rather than the broader understanding of language that the whole-language method tries to achieve. It is like testing an airplane pilot for knowledge on road signs! If one wants to go back to phonics and teach the rules of spelling, punctuation, etc., then it is easy to develop tests that show deficiency in such areas. To draw any wider conclusions from such tests is a questionable practice, to say the least.

B. The Basics: Phoney Phonics?

Behind the phonics lobby is the wrong idea that literacy constitutes the basics of learning. Quintessence has rejected such nonsense in many earlier articles, a good example of which is the article The New Fluency. This article also goes into detail about differences between the various methods. Unfortunately, so many years after this article was written, few things seem to have changed. The 60 minutes program did not reveal any new positions. The footage shown was rather confusing too.

In the program, David Kemp said something like "children who do not have literary skills at Grade 3, are not going to get them at Grade 5". Was David perhaps confusing literacy with fluency? It is indeed more difficult to get language fluency the older one gets. But this applies to pronunciation, not spelling! There is sufficient evidence that people can successfully learn to read and write English as a second language, even when they can barely do so when they start to learn it as adults. They have more lasting problems with pronunciation than with spelling! Many families involved in natural learning quite successfully postpone emphasis on reading and writing, in order to concentrate more on spoken language fluency at younger ages. Many schools are successfully adopting methods such as the Six Hats of Edward de Bono, which has a high content of spoken interaction.

Also in the program, David Kemp was reading a book to his son. Did he make his son read out words broken up in syllables? Did he spell out words? Did he make his son write down words? No, what David was doing seemed suspiciously close to the whole-language method that was so vigorously attacked in the program. So, is David Kemp a hypocrite, or is it just that he does not know what he is talking about?

Then, there was a sequence that was supposed to show the "right" way of teaching (i.e. phonics). It went as follows: The teacher says a word. The children spell out letters univocally. "Arr" - "Aaay" - "Geeh" - "Haitch" - "Tea". This was supposed to refer to the word "right". There was not a single hesitation that this was the "correct" spelling. Why didn't the children pick the letters of the word "write" or of the word "rite"?

The makers of the 60 minutes program were clearly blinded by their prejudice and the above example shows how phonics reinforces such prejudice. The whole exercise was phoney, it was staged, practiced in advance. Such spelling exercises aim to create robots that do not think, they suffocate children's minds.

C. Phonics is inferior

Apart from focusing on the above test results, the program made some vague references to the situation in California, as if people in California were happily returning to phonics. But what is actually going on in California? Many families opt for homeschooling and the fastest growth is among those who prefer natural learning, not phonics. Of course, Quintessence does not advocate any single method. The practice of enforcing a single method upon all goes hand in hand with school. Instead, we believe in optionality!

What should be clear, however, is that if different methods are allowed to co-exist, some will turn out to be more efficient than others and phonics in many respects lacks in efficiency. Such a lack in efficiency is in part caused by the path that phonics takes when language is processed in the brain. It sometimes looks like phonics wants to fly from Sydney to Tokyo by insisting the best route to get there must include stop-overs in Los Angelos and London. This is discussed in more detail in appendix A.

The phonics method is clearly inferior in preparing children for future demands, when one looks at the transformation of society over the past decade or so. Computers are widely used in business and few will send out a letter without passing it through a spell checker. Voice recognition software with a claimed accuracy of over 95% (after customizing) is available for under $100. At present, the World Wide Web seems more about graphics than text. One can only expect future technology to change things even more dramatically. Videophony seems the natural successor of telephony. Who still needs skills in spelling words?

Whatever way one looks at the arguments put forward by the phonics advocates, at closer inspection phonics turns out to be inferior. In the end, it appears that the phonics method is so favored by conservatives, because it is something of the past. Conservatives like phonics, because they want to go back to the past. So, look around and see the present, and shake off this conservative rhetoric! Envisage future times and embrace optionality!

Appendix A: Messing up Children's Brains

Babies are very much into multi-sensory perception. They smell, they taste, they listen and they look. They love to be cuddled and rocked. They are constantly discovering their own body.

Some 'Hot-house' educational methods try to force babies to ignore most of this. Such methods try to teach children who are barely one-year-old to read words. School continues with such practices as children get older.

To understand the danger of such methods, one must look at the way information is processed in the brain. Take the word dog. Most children's perception of what a dog is will start with the impressions they get in early childhood, e.g. barking noise, a licking tongue that's wet, sharp teeth and paws with nails, rapid and heavy breathing, a penetrant smell, four hairy legs, a wigly tail, etc, etc. All these different impressions are spread out over different senses and together they make up what constitutes a dog.

Similarly, the sun is a visual image that moves during the day, but the sun also gives heat and light. One cannot smell the sun, but one can smell flowers in spring and, in time, one will make the link between spring and the sun. A tree is a visual image, but one can also hear the wind blow through the branches and the leaves, and one can climb into trees.

A parent may throw a stick in the air, saying that the stick once was part of the tree. The dog chasing the stick is a sequence of images that a child can easily grasp. But to explain that the stick was once part of the tree and that the light of the sun was necessary for the tree to grow its branches, all that requires understanding of somewhat more abstract concepts.

Before they can speak, children may already have a visual image of, say, a house. When children learn to speak English, the word house will be a sound. Some methods use 'flashcards', i.e. a card with an image of, say, a house is shown to an infant, while the word house is simultaneously pronounced as a sound. Some overzealous methods will even show flashcards with the word HOUSE written on it to babies who cannot even speak. Babies, who hardly see much difference between such cards in the first place, will see even less differences between the combinations of letters that make up words. Such methods present children with associations that are artificial and fabricated. Natural Learning will prefer associations that children make naturally, such as in the above example of the dog.

School is full of such artificial practices. At school, children are taught that house is a sequence of letters, i.e. visual symbols to be read out or written down. Children may spell out the word house as Haitch - Ohh - You - Ass - Eehh. The question is, can children still keep track of what it was all about in the first place, i.e. the house? School likes to concentrate on 'difficult' words, such as paralysis, perpetual and resolute. But children have little idea what the words mean. By contrast, the example of a house is easy, as the children may still see a picture of a house with walls, windows, doors and a roof.

School teaches children to spell out words, before the children even understand the meaning of the words. Then, school teaches children the equivalent of the word in other languages. Children learn how to write the word, how to translate it, how the word is spelled out in another language. But they can hardly pronounce it in that other language, let alone use it in a conversation.

By contrast, to learn a foreign language, it is much better to have conversations with native speakers. In the Natural Learning method, there is a much more direct link between the word and what is referred to. Take the example of the French word maison. At school, children are taught how to spell it right in French. But what kind of associations are children supposed to have made in the process?

If children spell out the English word house, they may link the sounds of these letters back to the written word house. This written (i.e. visual) word house is subsequently linked back to a sound. This sound is then linked back to pictures, photos, stylised drawings and other visual images of houses in their textbooks. What makes things extra difficult is that these links cross between visual processing and audio processing several times. Children who are clever may skip some links and make direct links between the sound of spelled out letters and the sound of the spoken word house. Or they may skip some other links and make direct associations between the written word house and pictures of houses. But few children are able to read without using inner speech. School rarely develops talents such as a photographic memory, speed-reading, perfect pitch, the ability to visualise situations in a simple cartoon drawing, etc. School teaches conformity and discipline, and whatever school teaches on a concept such as house, it takes many links before one gets to anything like real physical objects such as stone walls and glass windows, or the sound of a closing door and the smell of a chimney. At school, children live in an artificial world that is deliberately stripped from any real-life experience.

Appendix B: Natural Learning

Natural Learning is an educational method that avoids many of the problems associated with school. In the debate between the phonics and whole-language methods, natural learning is even further away from phonics. The whole-language method claims it is better to concentrate on meaning, but natural learning will argue that any school method is too remote from reality. Natural learning argues that children learn best when confonted with real-life experiences.

As discussed in the article above, Minister David Kemp was reading to his son in an effort to improve literacy in Australia. Ironically, in doing so, he seemed closer to whole-learning than to phonics. Natural learning argues that even such reading is artificial. Why use prefabricated stories? Why not make up your own story? The spontaneity is a huge bonus. It gives children the example of being creative.

One step further and one can question the practice of telling fairy-tales. Why tell stories about things that do not exist, that are fantasies, that may well distort a child's perception of how the world works? Some parents will argue that it is far better to discuss events that have occurred during the day, or plans for tomorrow. In the end, what children appreciate most is attention. Reading from books is a cheap way of compensating for the lack of attention parents give to their children, after going out to work, do shopping, sending children to school, etc. How much more valuable by comparison are conversations in which children can express their feelings to their parents.

Some parents make the deliberate choice to be with their children as much as possible. That way, they have ample opportunity to have such conversations. They do not have to use books or make up stories. Instead, each conversation is in itself a poem, made up instantly and spontaneously, a song, yes a symphony, each word linked to the other, spoken at the pitch and tempo that best fits the situation. Add gestures, some fancy footwork and you've got all the ingredients of a complete musical. What to the outsider may appear as dull family life, is in fact a continuous development of creative talents. In this approach, there is no reason to set aside specific times for learning to speak, telling stories or for debating. There is no clock that governs such an approach. Instead, participants work out when is the best situation for what kind of contact.

Ironically, the outsider who is not familiar with such an approach may conclude that there is no education taking place at all. Most people are still convinced, unfortunately, that learning is what occurs when children sit at desks, pen in hand, face hidden behind a large pile of books, etc. And sadly, many people fall into this very trap when they - after much agony at school - opt for homeschooling, without being used to be together as a family. They triumphantly throw all the books out of the window and vow that the children will do no more school exercises. After a while, the kids get bored and sit on tricycles all day or in the tree next to the house. Nobody talks in such a family, the children scream and the dog barks. When the neighbours complain that the children are descending to animal status, the parents look up in surprise and say: What we are doing is called natural learning! The next day, to keep up appearances, the children are sitting outside while mother is spelling out words: Ass - Sea - Haitch - Ooohh - Ooohh - Al. The children, who are finally getting some attention, are all smiles: This nat'ral learn'n is reely fun, Mum!


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