‘Wallpaper’ Spelling

July 27, 2006

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.’  


tongue firmly in cheek

July 23, 2006

Last Saturday The Australian featured an ‘interesting’ defence of critical literacy by conservative commentator, Christopher Pearson. He wrote enthusiastically that the aim of History in the school curriculum is to foster ‘the development of a speculative attitude towards the seeming certainties of the times’. A pretty succinct definition of critical literacy, is it not? Pearson appears to see such an attitude as somehow being a defence against the supposedly virulent influence of the ‘black arm’ band view of history.

It will not have escaped notice that The Australian (particularly columnist Kevin Donnelly and the editor) have been railing against critical literacy for some time now. Today, I had the following satirical letter to the editor published. It was largely cobbled together from language used in the paper over the last eighteen months.


I was most disconcerted to read Christopher Pearson’s reckless advocacy of the post-modern scam of critical literacy in the secondary history curriculum through students developing a “speculative attitude towards the seeming certainties of the times” (‘Let history be the judge’, July 22). The eminently reasonable Pearson has otherwise been a bulwark against the new age, politically correct mantras of faux-Marxist educationalists who appear determined to dumb down the curriculum and make relativism the order of the day.  

The recent example of students audaciously satirising the Howard government’s new industrial relations laws in an impertinent rock eisteddfod piece suggests that encouraging critical thinking in schools, rather than the acceptance of received wisdom, will lead to the political hijacking of the nation’s classrooms by the worst extremes of progressivism.  

One small step…

July 23, 2006

I don’t know if I was pushed or whether I willingly jumped into the blogosphere . There was certainly some encouragement, not least the example of others http://thisteachinglife.blogspot.com/  and the whole feeling that this is a whole mode of communication I know little about. The enthusiasm with which other English teachers have embraced blogging as a means of reflective practice is something I have found inspiring. In particular, the following reference to Freire in a US blog gave me real impetus to think about the role of writing in my own professional life.

Freire on writing
Just came across this passage in Freire‘s First Letter, in Teachers as Cultural Workers:

“If we think about the intimate relationship between reading, writing, and thinking and about our need to intensely experience this relationship, we might accept the suggestion that at least three times a week we should devote ourselves to the task of writing something. That writing could be notes about something read, a commentary about some event reported in the media, a letter to an unknown person – it doesn’t matter what. It is also a good idea to date and keep these writings and, a few months later, to critically analyze them.” (p. 25)

In this spirit I am going to post an extract from my contribution to a panel which launched the new Australian Association for the Teaching of English publication ‘Only Connect’: English teaching, schooling and community. http://www.aate.org.au/bookshop/bookshop.html

I hope this will capture something of my intentions with this blog. I want to use it as a site for what Rob Pope http://ah.brookes.ac.uk/index.php/staff/details/pope/ calls ‘textual intervention’- a way of critically and creatively working [a (re)reading] with popular discourse about English teaching and education generally in order to (re)write it. 

Much attention has been focussed on the English curriculum in Australian schools in the national media recent times.

With the first five statements quoted below I try to capture a sense of the immediate and broader context of the ‘warp’ (or is that ‘warping’?) of education in Australia. The final three depict something of the current ‘state of play’ in the public arena for teachers of English and literacy in

1. Imagine the World Cup if the education establishment ran it. Details of goals scored and penalties awarded would be censored lest the publicity upset poor players. And we would never know match results, because details of defeat would depress losing nations and turn them into failed soccer states. But these silly statements describe what has long occurred in our schools…..(NSW Premier ) Mr Iemma does not dare face the fact that knowledge is power and parents have a right to know how their children – and their teachers – are doing. The only way to do this is to report school performance on a range of objective measures, such as externally assessed literacy and numeracy results and exit exams, and to rank all schools from top to bottom. Doing this would offend ideologues who think an excellent educational outcome is for everybody to have similar results, especially if nobody knows exactly what they mean. Good. Kids are at school to learn, not to be kicked around by people with foolish theories.
(Editorial, The Australian, 15 / 6 / 06)

2. It is strange that although competition, success and failure are part of the real world, [supporters of outcomes based education argue] failure must be banned and students should not be streamed in terms of ability because, supposedly, given enough resources and time, all students are capable of success.
(Kevin Donnelly, in The Australian 15 / 6 / 06)

3. Many parents…would prefer to know where their child is ranked against classmates and whether they are winners or losers.
(Kevin Donnelly in The Australian, 17 / 6 / 06)

4. One bright child from a poor background might still thrive in any government school but when there are clusters of impoverished students, they tend to drag each other down.
Research prepared for the nation’s education ministers, obtained by The Australian, warns that schools with the poorest students have half as many top performers as schools with the wealthiest students.
(Justine Ferrari, The Australian, 6 / 7 / 06)

5. Much of the education debate in these pages in the past year has focussed on how subjects such as English and history have been dumbed down at the school and tertiary levels. Theory, political correctness, outcomes-based education: take your pick. At the school level, outcomes-based education is attacked as drowning teachers in hundreds of vague and faddish learning outcomes that are impossible to teach and report on to parents. Outcomes-based education’s anti-academic and anti-competitive ethos is also condemned.The impact of theory – ranging from critical theory, where Shakespeare is on the same footing as Australian Idol, to postmodernism, feminism, marxism and constructivism – has also been criticised as ideological and misdirected.
Kevin Donnelly,

6. Well firstly I’d say to …critics, Alan, and I’d also say to the Premier, Bob Carr, just go out to the Exodus Foundation in Sydney, in Sydney’s west near Ashfield, and just spend a little bit of time – just one hour with Reverend Bill Crews. Because when he’s not feeding the poor or keeping drug addicts alive or counselling prostitutes, Alan, out the back of the Church, we’re co-funding with a Macquarie University programme, where Bill’s got a bus going out and picks up kids that have spent five years in Australia’s education system, in New South Wales public schools, who cannot read a single word Alan, not a single word.In fact one child said “I didn’t realise it’s the black stuff you read”. And Alan, within six months they take those children, with a team of volunteers, from nought to reading a piece of poetry they’ve written to an audience when we go to the Graduation. So I say to Bob Carr, just get out of your office, get out there and just spend a bit of time with them and if you think there’s no problem – I think any sensible person will be convinced there is.

(The then federal Minister for Education, Dr Brendan Nelson, interviewed by Alan Jones, 2UE, 1 / 12 / 04)

7. Whereas literature was once read for the joy of reading and for its aesthetic and moral influence, a critical literacy approach asks students to deconstruct texts in terms of power relationships. In the words of a
Queensland curriculum document, education is no longer about accepting received knowledge; instead, students are taught that “knowledge is always tentative” and how to “deconstruct dominant views of society”. (Kevin Donnelly, The Australian, 26/5/05)

8..…the post-modernists who have dominated the teaching of English and the arts in Australia have distorted the curricula across the country to such an extent for the past three decades that students have to regurgitate… nonsense when they sit for exams… Now, to the almost unanimous applause of parents, John Howard has called the bluff of tenured academics and challenged them to explain the merit of the garbage they have been promoting in the guise of education.
(Piers Ackerman, The Sunday Telegraph, 23 / 4 / 06)

These quotes might collectively be said to capture something of a deeply conservative, or neo-liberal ‘voice’ in education in this country, which is presently creating an obvious but nonetheless clever narrative. This narrative is possessed of great psychological power. It is replete with the sort of archetypal themes Christopher Booker (2004) has identified in his recent exhaustive (if not exhausting work), The Seven Basic Plots.We see that the narrative harks back to the epics of ancient civilizations in setting up what Booker calls the ‘Overcoming the monster’ plot. The neo-liberal monster is a nebulous multi-headed beast that at once encompasses tenured left wing educational ideologues [extract 8]; lunatic post-modernists [extracts 5 and 8]; hippy-trippy or new-age teachers, who just want students to feel good about themselves and don’t care if they are illiterate [extracts 1, 2, 5 and 6]; ineffectual educational bureaucrats [extracts 1, 2, 5 and 7], as well as inept teachers (in their failing public schools) [extracts 4 and 6]. In this narrative, fearless individuals (typically educational outsiders) are banding together in a holy ‘culture’ war for the hearts and minds of the country’s children and their parents [extracts 2, 3, 5 and 8], with nothing less than the future of the nation being at stake.The authors of this narrative are taking the moral high ground by emphasising how they are, to use Booker’s phrasing, in ‘conflict with the dark power, and therefore central to the movement from ‘shadow into light’. Their’s is a noble struggle, which is easily understood and recognised by any ‘right thinking’ person as it obeys the familiar rules and disciplines of a major international sport [extract 1], rather than the sinister post-modern, New Age and Marxist gobbledegook of educational bureaucrats [extracts 5 , 7 and 8]. The neo-liberal narrative is written to emotionally appeal to the ‘mums and dads’ of Australia by creating a sense of crisis in order to inculcate fear and mistrust, typically supported by a hyperbolic but very telling anecdote [extract 6] rather than any substantial reference to objective data or the airing of a counter view. This shuts down serious consideration and open discussion of what is really happening in schools. In turn, the neo-liberal narrative is able to draw on what Booker calls notions of ‘Tragedy and Rebirth’. Hubris (in the form of the extremes of progressive education and postmodernist relativism) will be followed by Nemesis (a return to ‘common sense’, and an emphasis on ‘high standards’ and tradition) and hence it is promised that a state of balance will be restored by neo-liberalism, after decades of left wing educational extremism and social engineering.(As an aside, a very particular irony can be identified in all of this. It will not have escaped notice from the quotes I have provided that neo-liberals are very keen to write themselves and their political heroes into their educational narrative in a very post-modern way [extracts 4, 6 and 8]. As authors they make themselves characters, blurring the distinction between creator and created. They– and this is common to politicians, journalists and commentators – portray themselves as crusading figures, the protectors of students and bewildered mums and dads across the nation, who are striking a blow against the extremes of the educational ‘monsters’ who have held the nation in thrall over many decades.)I n a very real sense, then, the neo-liberal narrative of education is a grand-narrative. It appropriates and transforms the Enlightenment narrative of reason freeing the world from superstition and producing a universal knowledge. The neo-liberals position themselves as the inheritors of both the scepticism of received wisdom and the fearless pursuit of the ‘truth’ that characterised the Enlightenment. Where the Enlightenment promised that reason would free the world, we see the neo-liberal educational narrative positing that ‘common sense’ must be used to free parents and children from the stranglehold of rabid educational ideologues and their jargon and ‘fads’ [extracts 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 and 8], as well as corrupted public education systems and institutions which are beyond redemption [extracts 4 and 6]. This will allow traditional and ‘natural’ social hierarchies to once again be clearly delineated and maintained, and those who are ‘winners’ in the game of life to be rightfully acknowledged and rewarded [extracts 1, 2 and 3].

In this neo-liberal educational narrative I see a bleak and unpalatable vision of society.  How has it come to pass, I wonder to myself, that supposed educational experts and informed commentators can be seriously making the  claim that our education system should work from the premise that some students should not – and will not – experience success, and parents (and I am one myself) will accept this, as we want to know whether our child is a ‘winner’ or ‘loser’ [extracts 1 and 2]. (I don’t want my children being labelled and ranked. Nor do I want others’ labelled and ranked. I want rather to know how I can help my children to be happy within themselves and to achieve their own dreams and aspirations.) Why is it now acceptable for a journalist in a national newspaper to suggest that social and economic disadvantage is an indicator of a failure of character, and that HSC test scores somehow prove this [extract 4]? The logic of Donnelly and others writing for The Australian appears to be that the labelling of our children and their schools as ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ means that those of us who are parents are then able to determine whether we are winners or losers ourselves, apparently based on the fact that our degree of success in life is best measured by whether or not we have the requisite financial wherewithal and the moral fortitude to make the necessary choice for our children and send them to a prestigious private school.

The imperative of the times is that we all, from the perspective of our own teaching contexts and belief systems, stop to consider the story neo-liberals are currently telling about education in Australia. Individually and collectively we are faced with a stark choice. Each of us must ask: do I stand in opposition to the neo-liberal narrative, or is it one I want to help write? For, the fact of the matter is that none of us has the freedom to remain neutral. As Australian sociologist John Carroll (2001), drawing on the work of Frank Kermode, has stressed, ‘a feature of archetypal story is that it compels those who come under its thrall to bring its logical completion’ (p.15).  And where is the neo-liberal end point and do we want to get there?