Phonics is not a dirty word

By Kate Gurjian, Director, Time to Shine Australia

Phonics is a word that is often misused, misunderstood and abused. Despite what some might argue, it is a method of learning that has much to offer Australian children.

I am often asked why it is so important to teach children phonics, as opposed to learning words through prediction or as a whole word.

Sound is critical in the process of learning to read. Children need to hear, distinguish, isolate, rhyme and articulate sounds and words. Once they are aware of these sounds, they can ready the neural pathways in their brain for learning the connection between letters and sounds. This is the single most critical factor in learning to read.

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When a child can hear a sound, repeat that sound, recognise a sound in a word, and repeat a sound in a rhyme, they are on their way to learning to read. Although over-simplifying the very complex teaching of the alphabetic code, it is a starting point that offers more than what is currently being taught in our early years education.

The approach we are currently taking is a flawed one, and we have to ask ourselves the questions, ‘Why do we feel a three or four-year-old needs to be given flashcards of whole words?’ and ‘Why are we ‘hothousing’ children to read before they can sound?’ If we are really honest with ourselves, and have read the research, we would know the answer to the above questions.

In their first formal year of school, children should be immersed in phonemic awareness (understanding sounds), phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension. These five critical components are intertwined. But, they each must be taught explicitly and directly in a systematic order for children to have any chance of success in reading, spelling and writing.

So, why do I pull out one single word, ‘phonics’? I do this because it is the one piece of the puzzle of childhood literacy that is so often under debate, and so poorly understood.

Perhaps the reason for this difference of opinion is due to the fact that some children appear to progress with little support, when in reality more than 20% of children will become at risk in their learning due to ignorance by the ‘system’. Learning to read is not an area that we learn by osmosis. Children need to be taught which sounds correspond with which letters. English is a phonetic language; there are 26 letters, but over 44 sounds! Understanding this complexity will enable all children to be given thorough phonics instruction.

I assess more than 200 children every year in my private practice, and every year I see the same result: children from their first year of school, through to the end of primary, who have not been given an ordered approach to the learning of letter-sound correspondence – that being explicit phonics. Some children are therefore years behind in their reading, spelling and writing. They are ‘instructional casualties’. This is our fault.

English will not be learnt by chance. We must teach the alphabetic code well and directly. We need to recognise that phonics is not a dirty word, but a critical one.

About Kate – An individual approach that is helping students to shine

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In the world of literacy, Kate Gurjian describes herself as a disruptor. It was her unwillingness to sit by and watch children fail, and to challenge the status quo, that motivated her to establish Time to Shine, carving out a niche in the education of children.

Instead of tolerating poor teaching based on lack of empirical evidence and research, and management directives she disagreed with, Kate drew on her extensive experience as an educator to build a new education business.

“I will not stand idly by and wait for a child to fail, nor will I tolerate teaching practices that fly in face of proven science. So I decided not to move the behemoth that is the ‘system’ – instead I chose to do it myself,” she said.

Previously, Kate had worked as a primary teacher, early childhood educator, special needs practitioner, author, head of department and principal. This broad experience provided her with an understanding of what children need in effective literacy and numeracy learning for future success.

Time to Shine offers students, from the age of four to 14, direct and explicit instruction in reading, writing, spelling and mathematics, supporting children for whom learning is difficult. The approach emphasises individual attention, research-proven methods, and only utilises the programs that are based on scientific evidence.

“Knowing precisely where a child is in terms of weakness, matched with their strengths and interests, ensures we accurately develop an individual program tailored specifically to the child. The work I do is grounded in the children and their individuality. Henceforth, Time to Shine’s philosophy stands by what I value most: every child, no matter their background or ability, being given every opportunity to shine.”

Equality is also important to Kate, and she aims to ensure all children have access to high quality education.

“I ultimately advocate for the rights of the child and the education that must be made available to them,” she said.

Why book design matters

The design team at Oxford University Press might argue with the assertion that you can’t judge a book by its cover. A book’s cover can help tell a story, providing clues as to what lies within, drawing the reader’s eye and shaping their experience.

However, there is more to book design than producing an attractive and effective cover. The layout and design within can also make a significant impact on the reader, enhancing the content and reflecting its quality and identity.

In the lead up to the announcement of the 2017 Australian Book Designer Association (ABDA) awards on Friday, the team has provided their thoughts on why design, both internally and externally, is so important.

  • “Book covers convey ideas, give an independent identity and represent a book’s worth before the reader has had the opportunity to read the content page.”
  • “The design supports the content, subtly emphasising things like meaning, tone and feel, and providing visual cues for the reader.”

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  • “Subconsciously, design confirms the narrative and underlying themes of content by applying a context. Content is positioned and framed in such was that it signifies and suggests ideas.”
  • “Excellent design enables content to be read, ordered, navigated and extracted with ease. Through colour, hierarchy, composition and considered font choices, readers are guided in such a way they can focus on retaining knowledge without the frustration of becoming lost during the journey.”

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  • “The internal design of the book needs to be structured in a logical manner with clear, inconspicuous typography. This is especially important for educational books, with their hierarchy of information. The book not only needs to convey its contents to the students, but it needs to keep them engaged as well.”
  • “Book design matters more than you might think – the design supports the content, subtly emphasises things like meaning, tone and feel, can provide visual cues for the reader and something beautiful, textural and tangible to keep and covet.”

Three OUP books have been shortlisted for the ABDA awards: the Australian National Dictionary, Children, Families and Communities and Media and Society.

Find out more about the design of the Australian National Dicitonary, published in 2016, 28 years after the first edition on our blog.

 

 

The pitfalls of following the herd

Behavioural Economics: A Very Short Introduction author Michelle Baddeley talks to ABC Radio National Life Matters program about ‘Why we herd and how it can harm us’.

In the interview, Baddeley discusses the tendency of people to blindly follow the herd, and the pitfalls of this behaviour, which might be at play in overheated housing markets and the extraordinary popularity of certain cafes.

Behavioural Economics: A Very Short Introduction is available from Booktopia.

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We need to manage the ‘underbelly’ of globalisation

The benefits of globalisation do not come without the need for increased responsibility and cooperation from the international community, according to The Pursuit of Development and Globalization for Development author Ian Goldin.

In conversation with Business Insider’s Paul Colgan,  Professor Goldin said governments needed to ensure that they managed the risks involved with globalisation effectively to mitigate risks, including inequality between those positioned to reap the many rewards of globalisation, and those who were not.

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“Globalisation accelerates the opportunities as well as the risks,” he said, citing changes to the employment landscape resulting from globalisation.

“Unless we can manage that, I think we’ll see the pushback that we’re seeing, this rising tide against globalisation. That would be a tragedy, because it would not only slow down the prospects of growth and development, but also of dealing with the big problems, like climate change, like pandemics, like cyber attacks. All of these things require more cooperation and more understanding of what other countries are doing and how we’re going to work together, not a withdrawal from this international system,” he said.

Professor Goldin said that changes in employment, resulting from the rise in robotic technology and machine learning, could create a significant divide in opportunity and wealth among those who lived in vibrant urban centres and those in rural areas, such as has occurred in the wheat belt in America or the areas to the north of London in the UK.

Ian Goldin was the founding Director of the Oxford Martin School from September 2006 until September 2016. He is currently Oxford University Professor of Globalisation and Development.

The Pursuit of Development and Globalization for Development are available from Oxford University Press.

Oxford Word of the Month: May – Smashed avo

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noun: a cafe meal typically consisting of a thick slice of toast topped with chopped or mashed seasoned avocado.

THE STORY BEHIND THE WORD OF THE MONTH

The term smashed avo, a popular breakfast item found on cafe menus, is Australian in origin. The first published evidence appears in 2011 (though avocado on toast certainly appeared on menus before this) and usage has increased significantly in the last two years. A spike in evidence in October 2016 reflects a new use of the term as a cultural symbol.

It began when columnist Bernard Salt wrote an article on ‘the evils of hipster cafes’, commenting:

I have seen young people order smashed avocado with crumbled feta on five-grain toasted bread at $22 a pop and more. I can afford to eat this for lunch because I am middle-aged and have raised my family. But how can young people afford to eat like this? Shouldn’t they be economising by eating at home? How often are they eating out? Twenty-two dollars several times a week could go towards a deposit on a house. There. I’ve said it. I have said what every secret middle-aged moraliser has thought but has never had the courage to verbalise. (Weekend Australian Magazine, 15 October)

Despite the humorous tone, the comments caused a furore in the press and social media, prompting headlines such as ‘Home dreams on toast’, ‘Your smashed avo guide to investing’, and ‘On smashed avo as a social good’. The reaction exposed the generational fault line between older Australians who had access to free education, could afford to buy their own home, and receive tax breaks, generous pension and superannuation entitlements, and their offspring who struggle to save while paying high rents and HECS debts, and who will not receive the same benefits in retirement. The deep resentment felt by the younger generations towards Salt’s ‘middle-aged moralisers’ was encapsulated in the headline: ‘Baby boomers have already taken all the houses, now they’re coming for our brunch!’

In response a number of inner-city cafes dropped the price of smashed avo (renamed on one menu the ‘Retirement Plan’), a bank advertised home loan rates with the slogan ‘Have your smashed avo and eat it too’, and the issue was raised in federal parliament. A member of the House of Representatives noted that to ‘put down a deposit on a typical house in Footscray … you would need to forgo about 38,000 coffees or 150 years’ worth of weekly smashed avocado brunches’.

It will be interesting to see how long smashed avo remains linked with the issue of housing affordability. Perhaps until cafe regulars prefer something else for breakfast?

Smashed avo will be considered for inclusion in the next edition of the Australian National Dictionary. It was shortlisted for the Australian National Dictionary Centre’s 2016 Word of the Year.

What do aid agencies need to do to get serious on changing social norms?

How Change Happens

It is one of the big questions of our time: how should we react to the rising tide of nationalism and populism (not just in the UK and the US, but also in India and the Philippines)? The issue gives rise to the question of how aid agencies should best engage with social norms – the deeply held beliefs of what is natural, normal and acceptable – that underpin a lot of human behaviour, including how people treat each other and how they vote.

It’s quite common to hear progressive types (in which category I include Oxfam, for which I am a strategic advisor for Great Britain) to worry that while they have been busy having conversations on the evidence on this or that intervention/project, or the case for this or that policy change, they have ignored the tide of disillusionment with politics-as-usual that underpins the rise of populism. We need to engage the public in a wider conversation aimed at encouraging progressive norms, or opposing exclusionary ones.

Fair enough, but what strikes me in such conversations is just how much would need to change for that to become reality. What would a ‘guide to shifting norms’ cover? Here are a few thoughts.

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There doesn’t seem to be much evidence on how to change norms, such as what lies behind the increasing acceptance of the rights of people with disabilities, the age at which we deem childhood to end, or even why dog owners routinely pick up their pooches’ pooh in my local park, something that was unimaginable a generation ago? How do deliberate attempts at change interact with the forces of demographic, technological or cultural change that also help drive norm shifts? This is one area where we really do need more research, both historical and current.

One of the areas of research I have come across is on violence against women, and a fascinating paper that showed that independent feminist movements are one of the strongest explanatory factors behind progress in this area. A Filipina activist memorably described the best way to change laws and policies on gender rights as being like cooking a rice cake – you need simultaneous heat from the top (via the machinery of the UN) and heat from the bottom (from women’s movements).

Up until now, a lot of work on norms has revolved around legislative change, whether through international laws and conventions, or at national level. One way of looking at the current populist backlash is that such a legal approach has overreached – the laws on issues such as racism or hate crimes have become so removed from the actual norms inside people’s heads that they are prompting a backlash, like that against ‘political correctness’. We need to find other, non-legal ways to close the gap.

We also need to involve more people from the disciplines that really ‘get’ norms – those that delve inside people’s hearts and minds, like psychology and anthropology, rather than the current intellectual dependence on economics, law and political science, which seem to have an impoverished understanding of what goes on inside people’s heads.

What those disciplines could help us do is completely rethink our approach to ‘power analysis’. Although we pay lip service to ‘power within’ in terms of people’s sense of individual rights and agency, the kind of power analysis we use to design our projects and campaigns usually reverts straight back to the formal power of money and political influence.

A ‘power within’ analysis would look at the moments in people’s lives when norms are formed or reformed, and the crucibles that forge them. I suspect that would lead us to give priority to three arenas in particular: the family, faith organisations, and early years education As Aristotle said, “Give me a child until the age of seven and I will show you the man”.

Action

How to put this knowledge to good use? Engaging seriously with norms would require different research, different messages, and different partners.

Firstly, it would mean moving beyond the standard approach to trying to persuade the public by amassing a pile of statistics and evidence (memorably satirised by an Australian critic as ‘bad shit; facty, facty’ papers). One Oxfam leader suggested: ‘start with the emotion, then follow up with the evidence’. Guiding or influencing emotion and narrative is a whole skill in itself, and would require its own brand of evidence in terms of testing to identify the narratives that actually succeed in getting through to people. We do that in fundraising, and a bit in campaigns, but we have to become more imaginative on our narratives and more rigorous in our testing of them.

We also need far more engagement with faith organisations, parents (especially mothers) and early years teachers. Our traditional partners (media, civil society organisations and academics) could also play a role, perhaps more in changing norms rather than in their initial formation, but this would definitely entail a big shake-up of our partners. One example from Oxfam’s current work is the Female Food Heroes TV programme in Tanzania, which works to change norms around the roles of women in agriculture. Elsewhere there is evidence of the impact of soap operas on gender norms. More of that please!

Beyond the individual, societal norm shifts are often linked to critical junctures such as the impact of war on women’s rights. Getting serious about norms would mean developing the ability to sense and respond to such moments as windows of opportunity.

OUP author Duncan Green is in Australia to promote How Change Happens

Oxford Word of the Month: April – Thongophone

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noun: (also thongaphone, thong-o-phone) a percussive musical instrument formed by a series of hollow PVC pipes of varying lengths, the ends of which are struck with a rubber clapper such as a thong.

THE STORY BEHIND THE WORD OF THE MONTH

In a 2014 posting on the video-sharing website YouTube a man can be seen playing the theme song from popular television series Game of Thrones on what is captioned as a ‘thongophone’. What immediately stands out is that the musician plays the instrument with a pair of thongs, traditional Australian footwear otherwise known as flip-flops, jandals, slides, or slaps. The thongophone looks something like a pipe organ, and the thongs are used to strike the open ends of the pipes to produce low resonant sounds. The novelty of the instrument is apparent in one of the first pieces of evidence for the term:

What’s a thongaphone? I hear you ask. For those who can’t make it to the Merry Muse, I’ll describe the thing. It looks like a cross between a xylophone, a giant set of pan pipes and a plumber’s nightmare and when hit with thongs provides a tuneful bass line. In fact, considering it’s fashioned from PVC piping, it’s surprisingly melodious. (Canberra Times, 4 February 1990)

Much of the evidence for this term highlights the peculiarity of the instrument, its makeshift nature, and its appearance as a do-it-yourself instrument at school events. The earliest reference so far located comes from a 1990 newspaper article in the context of a Circus Oz performance. In this instance the word takes the form thong-o-phone, one of a number of variant forms.

The evidence indicates that the term thongophone is originally Australian, although the instrument itself can be found in South-East Asia, including Papua New Guinea. Another clue to its Australianness is the use of the word thong for the rubber sandal acting as a clapper. While the word thong is also used in North America for this kind of footwear, it is ubiquitous in Australian English and culture. In other varieties of English, thong usually means a narrow strip of leather (or other material), a skimpy bathing garment, or a style of underwear like a G-string.

The existence of two earlier Australian terms for makeshift musical instruments that also end in –phone (lagerphone and Fosterphone) is another pointer to the thongophone’s Australian pedigree. The combining form –phone denotes an instrument using or connected with sound, as in megaphone and xylophone, and ultimately derives from Greek phōnē, ‘sound, voice’. The lagerphone is another improvised musical instrument made by loosely fitting rows of beer-bottle tops to a pole, which is then struck to create a jingling sound. This term goes back to the 1950s and the instrument is commonly found in Australian bush bands. A more recent instrument is the Fosterphone, which is a cardboard beer carton drummed with the hands to create a percussive sound. The term is derived from a blend of the proprietary name Foster’s Lager and lagerphone, with evidence from the 1980s. Thongophone is also likely to have been modelled on lagerphone.

The relative ease of making this instrument from different lengths of PVC pipe, with a cheap pair of thongs as clappers, makes the thongophone a favourite with children. Its novelty and deep resonant percussive sounds see it continue to pop up at festivals and workshops across Australia:

It’s hard not to have fun when you’re banging out a rhythm on a wheelie bin or discovering funky bass riffs on a thongaphone. (Warwick Daily News, 30 March 2011)

Even the Australian Chamber Orchestra is aware of its musical possibilities, here in collaboration with Sydney schoolchildren:

[Richard] Tognetti and ACO musicians will help music teacher and cellist Rachel Scott include students in on a composition for strings, xylophones, chimebars and thongaphone… . (Sydney Southern Courier, 24 May 2011)

 Australia’s thongophone—destined one day for the concert hall?

 Thongophone will be considered for inclusion in the next edition of the Australian National Dictionary.

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Government seeks input into nationwide phonics assessment and numeracy check

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The Federal Government has called for feedback to inform the development of a new nationwide phonics assessment and numeracy check.

A questionnaire on the Department for Education and Training  website is the next step in the staged implementation of the checks, announced by Minister for Education and Training Simon Birmingham in late January.

The assessments of Year 1 students’ literacy and numeracy skills aim to identify students who are behind so they can be targeted with interventions to prevent an achievement gap from widening. It follows three significant national and international reports in 2016 that revealed Australia’s education performance had plateaued or declined.

The questionnaire will inform an Expert Advisory Panel, consisting of principals, teachers, speech specialists, academics and researchers, which will report to the Education Council in mid-2017.

It asks respondents their opinions on the potential benefits of the checks, ways of maximising their effectiveness, the challenges associated with their introduction and the use of the information gained through the checks in the classroom.

The questionnaire is open until 17 March, 2017, and any persons interested have been asked to respond.

Celebrity activism: do we really need another hero?

In Media and Society (6th ed. pp. 380–382), we discuss the pervasiveness of celebrity activism, particularly in recent times, considering social media’s ubiquity. Celebrity activists, including celanthropists (celebrity-philanthropist) and other cause endorsers and advocates locate themselves under multiple ‘issue’ banners. Some of these include humanitarianism, feminism, and political activism. Such celebrity engagement is not a new phenomenon. Now, though, it seems that connection to a cause is almost an expectation of celebrities as a method to leverage individual celebrity ‘brand(s)’. However, the explosion of celebrity activists providing opinions on various social, economic, environmental, and cultural issues, and pursuing charity and aid as self-interested pursuits can be problematic.

Critiques of celebrity activism include that it oversimplifies issues when celebrities lecture the public by assuming authority about complex matters, and that such activism tends to centre on the celebrity and their brand while diverting from substantive issues. By reflecting on some examples of celebrity activism aimed at counteracting the success of Donald Trump during the latter stages of the 2016 American Presidential campaign, we can briefly contemplate these critiques of celebrity activism in political and media landscapes.

We saw many politically motivated speeches, memes and videos by celebrities become ‘viral’ during the US election campaign. Some celebrities spoke out in the mainstream media, while many also regularly took to their social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to discuss politics. Further, they often spoke about the candidates personally – Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton, in particular – in both positive and negative ways. Often, sharing opinions and having these opinions re-shared on social media amplifies the celebritisation of politics. Whether such activism achieves its intended political goals may be questioned. However, what can’t be disregarded is the way these uses of social media and celebrity attract mainstream media attention. This, therefore, reinforces the perception of celebrities as effectual activists, and the tools of social media as politically valuable ones.

One of the viral videos during the Trump campaign featured Hollywood royalty, Robert De Niro, declaring: ‘I’d like to punch [Trump] in the face’. In another of the key anti-Trump videos, celebrities such as Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. used humour to mock their own fame in an to attempt to encourage people to vote. Since Trump’s election, Meryl Streep, also a member of Hollywood’s elite, took the stage of the 2017 Golden Globes to accept a lifetime achievement award, and used her time to discuss Trump, without actually naming him, but drawing attention to Trump’s behaviour in imitating a disabled journalist, and how this might be indicative of his future leadership style.

Each of these instances of celebrity activism received varied reactions. De Niro’s allusion to violence was considered troublesome, the ‘shit ton’ of celebrities in the Ruffalo campaign were regarded as incompatible with everyday Americans, and Streep was rebuked for misusing and misunderstanding her privilege to allege that those in the room at the Golden Globes ‘belong to the most vilified segments of American society right now’. This last critique represents perhaps both problems raised above: the distraction of celebrity (in this case drawing attention to Streep herself), and the oversimplification of issues. Streep’s statement about the vilification of celebrities failed to recognise the distance between elite ‘outsiders’ such as celebrities and the sectors of American society less able to protect themselves from condemnation and marginalisation because of their absence of wealth, status and power. None of the celebrity activism resulted in Trump’s defeat, due to a myriad of other concerns and forces at play in democracy, although it’s worth considering what such activism that resulted in mass media attention did achieve. Does the attention it brings signal that many people feel alienated from traditional politics?

Celebrity activism, as noted, can be controversial for several reasons. However, celebrity political activists can sometimes articulate what others cannot by using their privilege to speak up and out in mainstream and online media cultures to mass audiences. Therefore, even for this reason alone, there can sometimes be a place for celebrity activism in the quest for social and political change in the current cultural climate. Celebrity activism thrives during this time of dissatisfaction with traditional politics, and it is unlikely that this will be the last election that celebrity activists take to the stage to perform supporting roles.

9780195597240Sarah Casey  works at Griffith University and is an author on the sixth edition of Media and Society (2016).

Beware the Drop Bear

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It is large and predatory, ambushing its prey from above. It targets tourists and finds Vegemite repellent. It is the mythical Australian drop bear.

‘Drop bear’ was one of 300 terms added to Oxford Dictionaries’ free online dictionary of current English.

OxfordDictionaries.com described the drop bear as, “A mythical marsupial resembling a koala, said to live in trees and attack people by dropping on to their heads from above.”

The entry includes the example of usage, “someone told him that he needed to put Vegemite behind his ears to ward off the drop bears”.

So, where did the myth of this fierce marsupial, supposedly repelled by the scent of Vegemite, come from?

According to the Australian National Dictionary Centre, in 1980 Nancy Keesing provided the first recorded mention of the drop bear. She suggested the term emerged in the Second World War period for the benefit of gullible American servicemen.

As the new entry in OxfordDictionaries.com reveals, the legend is showing no signs of fading.

Earlier this year, Tamworth Regional Council approved the idea of giving a previously unnamed road the name ‘Drop Bear Lane’, while some of Australia’s most respected cultural and environmental organisations and companies have warned tourists of the dangers of walking through forested areas where the drop bear lives.

An official page of the Australian Museum describes the drop bear, or Thylarctos plummetus as:  “a large, arboreal, predatory marsupial related to the Koala.”

“Bush walkers have been known to be ‘dropped on’ by drop bears, resulting in injury including mainly lacerations and occasionally bites.”

The South Australian Government Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources warned travellers of the risks of the drop bear, while a National Geographic study revealed international tourists were most likely to be targeted by the ferocious marsupial.

For the full record of drop bear in Australian English, see the Second Edition of the Australian National Dictionary.

Visit OxfordDictionaries.com to find out about other words in its latest update, including ‘yas’, ‘haterade’, ‘fitspo’ and ‘craptacular’.