Attacks on Australian English teachers and their teaching of spelling continue unabated in The Australian today.
Judith Wheeldon, formerly principal at two exclusive Sydney girls’ schools, has rushed into the ‘debate’, implying that teachers are morally negligent because they have failed in their duty of care by not teaching spelling well enough.
Wheeldon cuts to the chase when she says that good spelling is crucial to a child’s life success. No teacher is going to disagree with that. However, Wheeldon is surprisingly reckless in basing her claim that Australian teachers are failing our kids in spelling on the results of the Education Australia Assessment (EAA), which hardly constitutes rigorous educational research.
In fact, the EAA is a ‘competition’ that some students in
Australia and Singapore paid to enter and many did not. It is simply not the case that 9% of Singaporean students achieved above average result compared to 1% of students in NSW. These figures apply only to those students who chose to compete: 110,000 in
Australia and 10 000 in Singapore.
Before labelling Australian teachers as negligent, critics such as Wheeldon and journalists at The Australian might have asked Professor Peter Knapp to explain how representative the cohorts who chose to compete in the EAA were of the entire student populations of each country, and how his data can be said to have any sort of equivalence. In the absence of this sort of information, no valid conclusions about student learning and teaching methods can be made. In particular, Knapp and others certainly should not be promoting the idea that Australian schools are failing. Nor should they be using the competition results to perpetuate misleading ideas about the sort of teaching and learning that is actually taking place in Australian schools.
Australian teachers are well aware of the importance of valid educational research to good teaching practice. It is therefore dismaying that such an eminent educator as Judith Wheeldon has joined with Knapp in criticising Australian teachers on the basis of the unscientific data produced from a writing competition.
Moreover, Wheeldon perpetuates the furphy that the grammar and spelling of people over 55 are inevitably better than that of younger people. This ubiquitous but nostalgic notion has not, to my knowledge, ever been confirmed by research. To the contrary, in the past Australian studies of the relationship between levels of literacy and recency of education have indicated that the more recently an individual went to school, the more likely he or she is to be literate.
Perception cannot be allowed to replace fact in these matters. Knapp and Wheeldon have been put forward by The Australian as ‘experts’, yet each presents a narrow, apparently ill-informed and distorted picture of how spelling is taught in Australian schools. The NSW K-6 English Syllabus, for example, contains all of Wheeldon’s strategies for the effective teaching of spelling and more.