‘Wallpaper’ Spelling

The attacks being made on what certain sections of the national media like to derogatorily call ‘progressive’ methods of teaching continue unabated.

Today journalistic attention fell on spelling. In a report headed ‘Singapore kids spell better than Aussies’, The Australian’s education writer breathlessly exclaimed, ‘The “wallpaper method” of teaching spelling by sticking words on the classroom wall for children to absorb is failing in Australia.’ http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867,19925378-2702,00.html

Readers of this story on the web might have wondered, ironically enough, whether an alternative headline might have been, ‘
Singapore subs spell better than Aussies’, as the journalist concerned was given the byline ‘ucation writer’. [The Australian’s coverage of educational matters has been so hyperbolic over the last two years that it is hard to credit it with the sort of sense of humour that would have made this a deliberate mistake.] 

The basis of this story was data from an ‘assessment’ run in
Australia by Educational Assessment Australia (EAA), which involved more than 110,000 Australian students and more than 10,000 Singaporeans.EAA director Professor Peter Knapp http://www.unsw.edu.au/news/pad/articles/2004/aug/New_name_for_ETC.html was quoted as attributing unfavourable differences in the results of Australian and Singaporean students in Years 3 and 5 to the teaching methods used. According to Knapp, a long time critic of the whole language approach to literacy, Australian teachers are negligent in their teaching of spelling, as they place too much emphasis on teaching it in context. According to Knapp, Australian teachers ignore drill and memorisation in favour of “the wallpaper approach”, which requires “children [to] absorb the spelling of words through reading them and saying them or looking at them on a classroom wall.” Today’s piece encapsulates all that is wrong with a good deal of the reporting of educational issues in this country. While Professor Knapp was willing in a follow-up radio interview to acknowledge that this data did not stem from educational research, the education writer for The Australian did not let the intricacies of equivalence, population, sampling and so on get in the way of confirming the ‘hypothesis’ that non-traditional methods of teaching (ie constructivism and whole language) are failing Australian students.Further, Professor Knapp’s overly general comments about Australian syllabuses indicate how decontextualised ‘data’ can be used to create misleading and simplistic understandings of the curriculum and teaching.According to Knapp, there is a lack “of anything explicit [with regards to spelling] in our syllabus documents”. This will be news to NSW teachers, as the English K-6 Syllabus places emphasis on students:

  • developing a range of spelling strategies
  • learning to spell with teacher guidance
  • achieving stated outcomes which explicitly describe what they know and do as they learn to spell
  • developing graphological and phonological processing skills.

What this means in practice can be instructively understood by taking just one element of the direction provided to NSW teachers in the English K-6 Syllabus with regards to the teaching of Spelling. The following relates to writing in Stage 3:WS3.11 Spells most common words accurately and uses a range of strategies to spell unfamiliar words.Spelling• spells needed words correctly with effective strategies for attempting and checking unknown words• uses knowledge of word meanings as a spelling strategy• consistently makes informed attempts at spelling using a multistrategy approach• uses knowledge of word parts, eg prefixes, suffixes, compound words, to spell unknown words• uses knowledge of base words to construct new words• uses visual and phonological strategies such as recognition of common letter patterns and critical features of words• checks own attempts using a dictionary or spell check• recognises most misspelt words in own writing and uses a variety of resources for correction• uses a thesaurus to find synonyms when writing• demonstrates an awareness of the limitations of spell check features in word processing programs The gap between the reality of the NSW Syllabus and the ridiculing of teachers who supposedly adopt a so-called ‘wall paper’ approach – an immersion strategy? the building up of a wordbank? a vocab list? – at the expense of all others, highlights the fact that this report is another bewildering attempt by some in the public arena to create a sense of crisis in Australian education.  

Wayne Sawyer’s chapter, ‘Just Add ‘Progressivism’ and Stir: How We Cook Up Literacy Crises in
Australia’, which appears in the newly-released AATE publication Only Connect, http://www.aate.org.au/bookshop/bookshop.htmlhas a good deal to say on this topic. (At this point I should declare that I also contributed to this publication.) Sawyer’s extensive bibliography indicates just how soundly based in research his historical perspective is. Sawyer concludes that the current ‘debate’ about standards is actually a ‘smokescreen’ for the leveraging of a shift in control of educational policy away from state governments to the federal government.  

Most tellingly, Sawyer warns that the current focus on appropriate and inappropriate teaching strategies, and talk of a ‘crisis’ in education only serve to draw community attention away from the real area of need in literacy in this country. He identifies this as the need for public policy that addresses inequality. The groups shown consistently to be most disadvantaged in Australian literacy testing are: boys relative to girls; students from low SES backgrounds relative to students from high SES backgrounds; NESB students and Indigenous students relative to the rest of the population. 

Today’s report on spelling highlights another concerning trend in international education: the commercialisation of schooling. 

An interesting element of Professor Knapp being drawn into comment on what is and what isn’t working for Australian students is that EAA is part of a larger commercial enterprise. EAA is a not-for-profit business unit of New South Global, the international education and training consultancy arm of the

University of
New South Wales. EAA obviously has a key PR role in promoting the expertise of New South Global, as well as a ‘community service orientated’ corporate identity. The message that ‘things are crook’ in Australian schools obviously does no harm when EAA ’products’ are marketed to parents and students in a most reassuring way: “a valuable tool that provides a comprehensive diagnostic assessment of each student’s strengths and weaknesses including their comparative performance within the school, state and territory or country. ICAS is the only assessment program in
Australia that can track individual student performance and progress over each year of schooling from Years 3 to 12.” http://www.etc.unsw.edu.au/for_students_parents/icas 

The Australian media has to date largely ignored the growing interest of the business sector in the education of our young. Today’s report highlights that there is a US –like trend in this country towards opening the field of educational testing to a range of commercial products and services. The renowned American educator Denny Taylor 

http://books.heinemann.com/authors/702.aspx graphically illustrates the deleterious consequences this has had for teaching, learning and educational research in her homeland in ‘Teaching Reading and the New World Order’, her contribution to the AATE publication English Teachers at Work As our political masters seem intent on taking as down the same rocky path as the US, certain commentators might pay greater heed to the words of Professor Geoff Masters, Chief Executive of the Australian Council for Educational Research, which were published in The Australian on November 22, 2005: ‘Whatever the motivations of those who claim that education standards are plunging, that our schools are failing… there is no support for these claims in international evidence.’Master’s words stand in stark contrast to the bleak picture of education in the
US painted in the New York Times editorial of July 19, 2006: ‘[this] country should stay focused on the overarching problem: on average, American schoolchildren are performing at mediocre levels in reading, math and science.’  


One Response to ‘Wallpaper’ Spelling

  1. paul says:


    If the “attacks” are anything like we conservatives do in the states, then they are mostly limp wristed, compared to what they should be.

    If you want an example of a “Progressive” school system, look at my beloved former hometown of Detroit. Per student the govt spends more than any other area in the State of Michigan…over a 30 year period this amounts to over a billion (yes I said billion) dollars….The Left has ruled Detroit since the early ’80s…..so what have they accomplished?

    An adult illiteracy rate of 47% total population…

    A High School Student drop-out rate of just over 50% before said students reach the 9th Grade.

    If Austrailia is following “our” example, G-d help you all.


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