Phonics Checks


The SPEAKER: Yes, I would like to hear the answer, too.

The Hon. J.A.W. GARDNER (Morialta—Minister for Education) (14:29): I thank the member for Waite for his question and for his absolute concern for all our students across South Australia and ensuring that this is a key building block of literacy upon which so much of a student's educational success, and indeed success in life and ability to conduct transactions successfully in the modern world, is built. Getting literacy right is critical.

The house is aware that last year we undertook the year 1 phonics check for the first time in our South Australian schools. There was a trial the year before, and I acknowledge the former government's role in that. The year 1 phonics check data was released, I note with the encouragement of the opposition, two weeks ago. There were challenges identified. Each of our students was expected to try to identify 40 words, 20 of which were real words and 20 of which were made-up words, to see if they could decode the way the words were constructed. A short check of five to 10 minutes was done one on one with teachers.

The benchmark set in consultation with expert advice was 28 words out of 40. Regrettably, fewer than half our students across South Australia met the benchmark. That does sound like a significant challenge, but it is a wonderful opportunity because this means that more than half our students are identified. Some of these students were identified prior to that by their teachers and their schools and were already working on the interventions necessary.

A range of teachers have reported when I visit schools that, yes, it was good to be able to identify and pick up that extra student who had been presenting as if they could read very well, whether it be because they were guessing words successfully or had other techniques that would do okay for the year 1 texts but would hit them later when the texts got more complicated, when reading got more complicated. If they can't decode the words, that is where they struggle. This is particularly important for students with dyslexia and other learning difficulties.

The checks rolled out in all schools in the government system in South Australia. I am pleased to advise that the Catholic and independent systems have taken the licensing that we have extended to them. Most of those schools will also roll it out. I am very pleased to say that across our education department it has been taken up with some enthusiasm. Earlier this week, I had the absolute privilege of speaking to 1,500 principals, leaders, literacy leaders and teachers from across our public school system at the Convention Centre at the Literacy Summit 2019.

The buy-in from our leaders from our schools, who are so focused on doing everything they can to ensure that our early-year students are given every opportunity in life, was tremendous to see. We had a great reception from some of the keynote speakers, who came from interstate and overseas to lend their views. I make the point that one of our local expert stakeholders, Sandy Russo, the CE of the SPELD organisation for children with learning difficulties, said, 'It was a fantastic event, with such a positive vibe.' She drew my attention to comments from Professor Pamela Snow, visiting South Australia this week, who said, 'South Australia is doing something very special, and people around the country and the world will be watching us.'

Dr Jennifer Buckingham said earlier this week, 'South Australia is showing the way in implementing evidence-based reading instruction.' But I think that one of the key things, the thing that made me feel the best about this conference, was a comment from a teacher, who wrote, 'Really enjoyed the keynote this morning at Literary Summit 2019. Feeling confident our school is on the right path and inspired to get back and share further learnings from today. Hashtag #inspired.'

That's terrific. The education department is supporting our schools with TRT to ensure that, after the phonics check, those students who are struggling can have the interventions provided. We are providing teachers in schools with expert advice on best practice. There is a lot of work to do, but it is so important to get this right, and our schools and our teachers are doing that work.