Education Minister Brendan Nelson's announcement that the federal Government will undertake an inquiry into the teaching of reading is a critically important opportunity for the whole country, but especially for those concerned with the educational prospects of disadvantaged Australians.
School attendance levels are terribly low in many communities and the social and family circumstances in which many students live are poor. But an enduring conundrum of indigenous education in remote communities is this: why are we not getting better educational success from that proportion of children who do attend regularly and whose home backgrounds are stable?
Quality teaching and school leadership are standing items on the countless reform policy agendas in indigenous education that have been published in recent decades. But it may not be the commitment of teachers that is lacking; rather, the teaching methods that they are employing in the most basic of skills: literacy. From literacy, everything else follows. If we are not getting reading right, then children will struggle with underachievement.
Recently, one of the people responsible for urging this inquiry, Kevin Wheldall, a professor at the Macquarie University Special Education Centre, accepted our invitation to visit Cape York Peninsula to talk to us about the indigenous literacy crisis.
A crisis in the true sense: when we have a problem and we don't know what to do. We know our youngsters are underachieving dramatically in literacy. We as indigenous community members who are concerned about the future of our children can either leave it to the school system to continue to teach reading according to approaches that are not producing success – or we can take interest in the proposition from Wheldall and others who challenge the displacement of phonics in literacy teaching trends of recent decades.
Wheldall's argument is compelling. The top 25 per cent of students will succeed with reading no matter what is inflicted on them. The middle 50per cent will succeed with reading with good instruction, whether in "whole language" literacy teaching (immersion of the students in text) or phonics. The bottom 25 per cent will not succeed with reading without the basic building blocks of phonics being put in place. This bottom 25 per cent mainly comprises students with learning difficulties and those who come from disadvantaged, literacy-poor backgrounds.
It is because indigenous children from remote communities almost exclusively fall into this bottom 25 per cent that we in Cape York Peninsula are keenly interested in Wheldall's analysis. It makes sense to us: grandmothers in our communities often have greater functional literacy today (courtesy of phonics-based rote learning in the mission classrooms of yesteryear) than their grandchildren.
The middle generation, today's parents, often have not been functional enough to transmit this Aboriginal tradition of literacy to the youngest generation because their lives have coincided with the introduction of passive welfare and substance abuse epidemics in remote communities during the past 3 1/2 decades.
Nelson's proposed inquiry will at least subject the prevalent methods of teaching reading in Australia to objective analysis. And it will hopefully bring Australians up to date with the international research evidence. It is time to review whether the balance between the whole language and phonics approach, which most Australian teachers and schools say is their approach, is real or not – or whether, as Wheldall suggests, the gesture to phonics is just token.
When Wheldall spoke to educators and indigenous community representatives in north Queensland recently, he explained that the approach to reading instruction underpinning his MULTILIT program (Making Up for Lost Time in Literacy) is "non-categorical".
The method by which Wheldall teaches reading to students with some disability or learning impediment, such as dyslexia or Down syndrome, or students from disadvantaged or non-literate backgrounds, such as Aboriginal children, is the same as the one by which he teaches reading to advantaged students. As Wheldall puts it: effective instruction is effective instruction.
Wheldall's contention about a non-categorical approach to the teaching of reading challenges prevailing assumptions and approaches to indigenous literacy in a fundamental way. Whereas Wheldall contends that there is nothing distinctive about the way in which Aboriginal children will learn to read, many programs are premised on the assumption that there must be something different involved in teaching reading to indigenous youngsters.
Various "culturally appropriate" theories about indigenous learning have been developed and adopted in recent decades. It is not known what research supports these categorical approaches to indigenous education, but the ongoing crisis in indigenous literacy is surely testament to their efficacy.
Nelson's inquiry must put the spotlight on this very question: does the evidence and research support a categorical approach to the teaching of literacy? Or should instruction that is effective for all children also be the means of instruction for indigenous children?