The uses and abuses of educational research

What follows is the complete discussion of the spelling research by Bissaker and Westwood quoted in The Australian last week. Given the seeming determination of this august journal of record to create a sense of ‘crisis’ in education in Australia, it will come as no surprise that the measured language in which the authors of this study discuss their findings does little to support the interpretation provided by the journalist concerned. The first sentence of the researchers’ Discussion is particularly telling.    A reference is: Westwood, P. & Bissaker, K. (2005). Trends in spelling standards, 1978-2004. The Australian Educational and Developmental Psychologist, 22, 65-78. 

 Discussion  The results from this study suggest that we should not be unduly concerned at this time about the overall standard of spelling exhibited by students in South Australian schools. As the graph (Figure 1) indicates, there are no indications that spelling standards have declined significantly since the previous testing in 1993; and there are even signs that spelling performance in the early and middle primary school years is somewhat better now than in 1993. While standards in the primary years have not quite returned to the level of 1978, they are moving closer to that level. 

The reason for the slight improvement in the primary years is not immediately clear. One is tempted to point out that by the mid 1990s most countries using whole language methods were swinging back gradually toward a more balanced approach to literacy teaching. A ‘balanced’ approach includes the best features of whole language practice together with some explicit teaching of phonics, spelling and comprehension skills (e.g. Freppon & Dahl 1998; Hoffman & McCarthey 2000; Pressley 1998; Reutzel 1999). The extent to which teachers in South Australia followed this trend to a more systematic teaching of spelling in the past seven or eight years is not known at this time. The introduction of the School Entry Assessment and the Literacy and Numeracy Assessments (LAN), together with additional professional development options on literacy in the early years, may have supported some teachers in their understanding of essential links between early language and literacy development and success in spelling. Within some of the in-service training workshops for teachers in South Australia over that period there has been greater emphasis placed on the value of teaching young children phonic strategies for reading and spelling ― for example, through the intensive training sessions introduced for teachers using the phonics-based THRASS program (Davies & Ritchie 1996). If there has been a return to more direct teaching of spelling skills in primary classrooms, the test results from the lower primary years obtained in 2004 would give some support to the value of such an approach.  

In the secondary school years spelling standards have remained remarkably consistent over the period 1978 to 2004. However, it is important also to point out that this finding may, in part, be a feature of the test material. While spelling ability grows quite rapidly during the primary years from age 6 to 12 years, by age 13 years most students have acquired their ‘basic’ spelling skills and their core spelling vocabulary (Westwood 1999). From that age students are usually simply adding to their vocabulary the new terms arising in specific school subject areas, from world news, and so forth. In other words, for the average student, spelling growth tends to plateau at about 13+ years, and it is difficult to construct spelling tests that will provide adequate differentiation and separation at each successive age level. This difficulty in test design is immediately evident if one studies the norm tables for students in the age range 13.5 years to 16 years.  Where some small deviations from the general curve of spelling growth have occurred in 2004 (Figure 2), it is likely that they reflect slightly biased sub-samples of students at these particular age levels. It is possible, by chance, for students of higher or lower ability to be over represented in a particular sample. Although schools were asked to provide data from all age and ability levels there is no way for the researchers to ensure that results from any particular age group are a true representation of the normal distribution of ability. To deal with these very slight deviations from the curve in Figure 2, the line has been smoothed manually when developing the norm tables for the full age range 6 to 16 years. For this reason, a few of the mean scores shown in Table 2 above may not be identical with the figures provided in the norm tables.  

Finally, it is important to remark that at each age level there were students who were remarkably competent spellers. For example, we found a female student of age 11 years 6 months and a male student of age 11 years 8 months who both scored 70 words correct out of 70 in SAST Form B. There were several students in secondary school age range who scored maximum possible marks in both forms of the test. However, at the other end of the scale there were students across the age range that were struggling to spell even the simplest of words in the tests. These students do require additional instruction and support if they are to improve, and it is hoped that schools will use SAST and other methods of assessment to identify students falling in the bottom 10%.  

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