Screen queen: An interview with Dr. Jennifer Buckingham

Tom Bennett interviews Australian phonics champion Dr. Jennifer Buckingham.

Dr Jennifer Buckingham is the Director of Strategy and Senior Research Fellow at MultiLit, a literacy programme provider and research unit in Australia. A prominent figure on the Australian literacy stage, she previously spent two decades at the Centre for Independent Studies, most recently as Senior Research Fellow and founder of the FIVE from FIVE initiative. She has published numerous reports and articles on reading instruction and has provided advice to state and federal governments on literacy programmes and the introduction of a Year 1 Phonics Check. Jennifer is a board member of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership. Jennifer’s PhD was in the area of literacy and social disadvantage, supervised by Professor Kevin Wheldall and Dr Robyn Wheldall. I caught up with Jennifer at the Literacy, Language and Learning conference in Perth, Australia, in April 2019, where we talked about her career, phonics, and the political landscape of Australian education.

TB: Thanks for speaking to researchED magazine. How did you get started?

JB: I started working at CIS at the end of the 1990s as a research assistant. And I was enormously fortunate in that I got to work with and under the mentorship of a fantastic social scientist and a fantastic social economist – Barry Maley and Helen Hughes. They really showed me the ropes in policy analysis. And they whipped my writing into shape. They and CIS founder Greg Lindsay were hugely influential on me.

I had a science degree and majored in psych so I already had stats training and the science background that was a good grounding. But it wasn’t until I started at CIS that I got exposed to ideas that were just really exciting but also a bit of a shock – I had not been exposed to any of that kind of thinking before.
Behavioural economics was a new idea for me, for example. I started working on a publication that was a statistical companion of 100 years of social and economic trends in Australia. I was using statistics that weren’t online at that stage – this was before we had internet in the office.

TB: However did we cope?

JB: It was brilliant. I am so grateful that I started without the internet because I had to go sit in the dusty old Australian Bureau of Statistics library and one by one pull a book off the shelf and find the data I needed to create the trend, but while I was doing that it exposed me to a whole lot of other stuff that I hadn’t been looking for and there are things in libraries that are just not online. Things that I came across and read that I would never read if I was starting out today. They’re just not there. They’re often tangential to what you’re looking for and sometimes influence what you’re doing.

So in the course of doing that statistical work, I was also keeping an eye on educational issues. What I noticed was that all of the talk at the time was around trying to improve the performance of girls: affirmative action, trying to get girls to take higher level subjects, do more science and so on. That was the narrative – girls were doing worse than boys. And when I looked at the statistics, it was the opposite. It was boys that were not succeeding in schools. It was boys that had higher rates of illiteracy. All of these trends, whether it was juvenile justice, whether it was suicide rates, no matter what I looked at, it was boys that were really struggling. I realised at that point that actually, like Thomas Sowell has written, that the statistics we were being presented with in popular media just weren’t necessarily the whole story and so I wrote a little book called Boy Troubles and it opened up this massive can of worms.

I was 24 I think when all of this happened, and there were lots of people who it turned out had been worried about this issue – particularly fathers who were watching their sons fall apart in the school system and not being catered for, their needs not being recognised, and they were devastated by it. They saw my books and articles as a lightning rod. That response led to a parliamentary inquiry into boys’ education so that brought it into the mainstream: this idea that, actually, boys might be having a bit of a bad time and why. And that then started me on the path to looking at literacy more. Because when I started to look at the reasons that boys’ literacy rates had been declining, it coincided with the change towards a ‘whole language’ approach to teaching reading.

TB: When did that happen?

JB: It peaked in the ’80s.

TB: Why was that narrative not already coming through from the data?

JB: I think the data were very clearly there, but again it’s about the culture of the time, and the culture of the time was concern about girls and if you tried to counter that in some way then that was heavily resisted for whatever reason, I can’t say why, but that was not the accepted story. And I think the fact that I was a young woman was helpful because I had no children, I wasn’t a man out there saying ‘What about the boys?’. The messenger shouldn’t matter, because the truth is the truth; but for whatever reason people are sometimes more willing to listen to one person than another. And at that moment they were willing to listen to me.

TB: Did you experience any resistance to your ideas?

JB: Oh yes, there was character assassination, and all that goes along with it. It was true that girls weren’t participating in science at a high level in maths and science, and that’s still a problem – and possibly will always be a problem. That doesn’t mean we don’t care about it, but I don’t think we can just solve it by trying to make it more attractive or ‘friendly’. I do think there are some differences in that area, in terms of interest, not ability: interest.

TB: So you were 24 when that happened? Social media wasn’t around at that time, so you couldn’t be swamped upon by a digital mob.

JB: No, it was letters to the editor!

TB: So you developed an interest in literacy. Where did that take you?

JB: I worked on lots of different areas of education policy – school choice, school funding. Sometimes it feels like not much progress has been made in some areas; but looking back now, actually in many ways the situation we’re in now would have been difficult to foresee. Now, it’s largely accepted – in Australia at least – that there will be public funding for schools of all different types and that it will be needs-based to some extent, and that having a healthy non-government sector is a good thing, as long as you have a healthy government sector too.

You can’t have that competitive effect if one sector is thriving and the other one is not. And I think now we’re at the stage where the government school sector is pushing back against the non-government school sector – partly thanks to the publication of NAPLAN data providing evidence that many public schools are doing very well. And I say that not as someone who is picking a side, I just think that’s helpful for everybody. Compared to 10 or 15 years ago, there aren’t very many people now in Australia who are arguing that non-government schools should get no government funding. That’s just not a mainstream opinion anymore. They’ll argue about the amount but not the principle.

TB: FIVE from FIVE. Tell me about that, because that’s where I first came across you.

JB: FIVE from FIVE came about because I became very interested in literacy throughout all the other work that I was doing. I got the opportunity to do a PhD with Kevin Wheldall and Robyn Wheldall and again fell into a situation where I had these two incredible mentors. The experience was just fantastic. The school I worked with was great. They took a calculated risk in participating in the project but it had good results for everyone. If I have had any success, it’s because I’ve so fortunate, having these great people to help me along the way. So I got to work with Kevin and Robyn really closely and then from that I thought I can do something with this: combine the scholarship from the PhD with my policy work and strategic thinking.

FIVE from FIVE provides information and resources but not in a passive way. I seek out people who I think need to be aware of this evidence. FIVE from FIVE isn’t just about phonics – it’s about the five essential elements of reading instruction, of which phonics is one. But phonics is the least well understood and is the weakest link in a lot of classrooms. I have been arguing strongly to introduce the phonics screening check, which was a definitive policy that I could try to achieve, instead of just saying to governments, ‘Well I think that reading instruction should be better; I don’t know how you can make it better but that’s your problem.’ The phonics screening check creates the impetus for change in reading instruction. Quite early in the FIVE from FIVE project, I realised I was trying to sell a solution to a problem that people didn’t acknowledge existed.

TB: That’s interesting. Tell me about the context. So what did people think about literacy, and how was it being taught when you first started?

JB: I was saying, ‘This is effective instruction, all the evidence is there, this is what schools should be doing’, but all I got back was ‘We are teaching phonics.’ The response was either ‘We’re teaching phonics already’, or ‘No that’s not the best way to teach’. For the former, I thought, ‘Well, you may think you are, but the reading levels of your students indicate that you’re not.’ I didn’t really have a lot of direct evidence about what schools were and weren’t doing at that point; it’s not like I could sit in every classroom to see what was going on. But if I looked at the programmes the schools were using, the policies governments were pushing, the kinds of research literature that were popular, the books people were really latching on to, the articles they were interested in – it certainly wasn’t an evidence-based approach that was the one that seemed to be the most popular.

TB: So what was popular then?

JB: The ‘balanced literacy’ approach, which is neither one thing or the other. It can mean anything you want it to mean, but it usually means whole language with a bit of phonics on the side. It’s certainly not systematic or explicit. People thought that’s all you needed to do.

TB: Why did you think a phonics screening check was important?

JB: It would be a good way of demonstrating that there is a problem with phonics instruction, and would provide the catalyst to make some changes. I talked to lots of principals and teachers and I talked to everybody who would listen. There are principal surveys where most say they are not confident in the ability of graduates to teach reading and so they accept that it’s a problem; but I couldn’t convince them to publicly support something that would give them the data they needed to push back on universities who say they’re preparing graduates well but are not. The fear of data is a very difficult thing to counter and principals associations were worried about the pain that a low result on a phonics screening check might cause to them, and wouldn’t see it as short-term pain for a long-term gain.

TB: It’s like stepping on scales the first time and realising you need to diet.

JB: Yes, you need to know the extent of the problem, and then hopefully do something about it. Or to be able to push back on the people who need to do something about it.

TB: Do you think some people in the reading instruction community want to sabotage the use of phonics?

JB: There has been a shift in the language that’s used around reading instruction. Because there is all this evidence, those who want to teach in a different way know they have to say they teach phonics; they know they have to say they’re using explicit instruction. But they twist it, so that those terms have lost their precise meanings. Everybody says that they’re doing explicit instruction, but most of the time they’re not. Or they say they teach phonics, but often that means pointing out some letter sounds while they’re doing guided reading. That kind of thing is not systematic. There’s also so much going on in the reading debate that’s not even about reading. It’s just about tribalism – this tendency to pick a side and then just stay on that team and oppose everything the other team does. That’s what I find so frustrating. For example, because some unions disagree with me on school funding and school choice they will oppose my views on reading simply because they have decided I am the enemy.

TB: ‘If we disagree about one thing, you must be bad, so we must disagree about everything.’

JB: Right. The attitude is, ‘Because we don’t want to agree with you on that, we are then going to – by default – back the team that is opposing you.’ So, you get into this completely unproductive situation where there’s no willingness to seek any common ground. It’s a ‘my enemies’ enemies are my friends’ kind of deal. All you can do is try to work around people who oppose you on that basis, rather than work with them even though that is what I would rather do, and I do try.

TB: What are the basic principles of FIVE from FIVE?

JB: We named it FIVE from FIVE because the evidence is so strong around the five key elements of reading instruction that came up most consistently in research about the teaching of reading. As I said, phonics is obviously just one of those, but that’s where I can see the biggest impact being made, if you can get that right. Schools that do get it right establish fluent decoding in those first couple of years of school, which allows them to put their heart and soul into everything else later. Because you don’t need to keep going with phonics forever, it’s called a constrained skill; once children have learned it, they’ve learned it. It’s become part of their reading reflex, it’s how they read now.

TB: It’s the times table of reading.

JB: You don’t need to revisit it once it’s established. The other part of the FIVE from FIVE is ‘from about the age of five’, so when kids start school, and we’re focused on the early years of school. Of course we acknowledge that pre-school and early years of education is important, but it’s from about age five that you can affect the learning progress of 100% – or as close to 100% as possible – of children. Pre-school attendance in Australia isn’t universal, so it’s very difficult to have any impact at the policy level, because all those centres are doing their own thing, and also the evidence isn’t quite as strong in terms of the most effective instruction methods. The other thing that FIVE from FIVE does that is different to other projects is that we try to work at three levels of influence. At the policy level, where I think we have probably been most effective, at the teacher and school level, and then at the teacher training level, which I have left till last. That’s the hardest one. I have a report coming out on preparation to teach reading in initial teacher education courses in July.

TB: Teacher training/prep seems to be a vital place to change things.

JB: Teachers can’t teach what they don’t know and it’s terribly unfair to send them into classrooms without that knowledge. The other important place is at the school level. We run events like the phonics roadshows, and interact with teachers using social media. We try to publish in places where teachers will read it. But there’s little point having teachers knowing what they need to do if policy is working against them. There are growing numbers of teachers trying to do the best thing in terms of instruction and collecting great data, but they have education departments telling them to do something different or judging them against measurements that completely contradict what they’re trying to do. For example, requiring teachers to send in levelled reading numbers when levelled readers encourage predicting from pictures and context cues, and are not a great measure of decoding skill.

It’s taken a while to get to that pinch point and this is a relatively new problem; the policy is contradicting the practice, and vice versa. But it’s still progress on where we were even five years ago.

TB: Is the situation getting better?

JB: In schools, yes, it’s slow but significant. Policy is also improving. But in universities, it’s still pretty bad.

TB: Why? Tribalism?

JB: Yes; it seems that a lot of the academics who have taken an evidence-based approach have just been gradually pushed out.

TB: Still?

JB: It’s still the case that you take your career in your hands if you try to change that culture. Within some education faculties, the overriding philosophy is still an adherence to whole-language, socio-cultural models of reading and if you try to bring science into it, either you’re marginalised into special education (and there’s lots of good people in special education) or out the door. I’ve seen it happen to people that are passed by for promotion, gradually had their hours reduced, all that kind of thing. It’s terrible. And it’s why organisations like MultiLit and CIS are so important.

My experience on the AITSL board has given me even greater insight into the difficulties of policy change, and who are all the people who have a say in whether or not something becomes policy. There are so many. I was surprised to hear from Stanislas Dehaene today that there’s a French phonics check, and that’s brilliant. I feel quite certain that if we didn’t have a federation in Australia, we would have a phonics check. We have a system of government where each of the states decides what they want to do. And they are typically very risk- averse, in terms of doing anything particularly new, and so if one won’t do it….

TB: Isn’t that an opportunity for one state to be bold and stand out, perhaps?

JB: Well it’s risky to do things differently. If you change something at the national level and it doesn’t work, then everybody’s in trouble, which is a plus side of federation. And that’s what’s wonderful about South Australia: they’ve implemented the phonics check, and they’re seeing some really great results from it, and I hope that within a year or two other states might follow.

It takes a minister who has the strength to listen and act. In South Australia the education minister at the time said, ‘I’m hearing two different sides to this, so I’m going to run a trial, and I will make my own mind up based on that trial.’ The current education minister backed it and has been a great advocate. And to me that bi-partisan approach seems the obvious way to go about it. But it’s getting over that lack of momentum sometimes in governments that’s the challenge.

TB: In the UK it was driven by exactly that – an informed minister who was prepared to go where the evidence led him.

JB: Definitely. Here, it’s very difficult, but to make things happen you just have to put up with the critics – sometimes it’s disheartening but there have been enough little victories to sustain and keep going.

TB: Do you have hope for the future of reading instruction in Australia?

JB: Definitely. Through doing the phonics roadshows I’ve seen schools doing some really remarkable things – not just with phonics but across the reading curriculum. Since FIVE from FIVE started, I’ve had schools contacting me saying, ‘We’ve been following what you’ve been saying, reading the literature, changing our practice, and here are our results’, and that’s just fabulous. Many of these schools are lifting literacy levels among the most disadvantaged children in Australia. Their facilities are often limited, but they’re doing the best with what they have. In a school I visited in Western Sydney in which almost all children are from non-English speaking backgrounds, I sat in a Year 3 class to see the downstream impact of high-quality early years teaching. The conversation in the Year 3 class was astonishing. They were articulate, their vocabulary and the depth of analysis was incredible. It’s not just theory, this is actually working and there are so many examples to draw on.

TB: So Southern Australia has adopted the phonics check. How long has that been going on, and is there any data coming out of that?

JB: Yes, South Australia’s pilot found that a minority of children achieved the benchmark. That was, in itself, useful information. It showed that even though most of those schools said they taught phonics, most of the children didn’t know phonics well. The other important information from that trial was that teachers liked the check. They said it provided data or information that surprised them, that they thought the children would do a lot better than they did, and that they found it easy to administer, easy to interpret and found it useful in terms of changing their practice. And the kids enjoyed it.

TB: And seeing small incremental steps of success. Kids love that. ‘Oh I’m good at something.’

JB: Yes, most children will learn to read eventually, even if they don’t have great instruction, but there’s a huge opportunity being missed by waiting instead of teaching. They could’ve read a lot sooner; they could’ve been learning while they were reading, their vocabulary could have been growing. The best thing is to give them more structure from the beginning.

TB: So, what’s next for you?

JB: I’m moving from CIS and I’m going to be working for MultiLit, which is the company started by my PhD supervisors, and which I’m really looking forward to.

The role is director of strategy and senior research fellow. MultiLit came out of Kevin and Robyn seeing a need for an evidence-based intervention programme for students struggling with reading. Individual intervention in schools is always expensive because it’s labour intensive. So they developed small group instruction because research was showing that you could, for a lot of children, get the same effect in a small group as you could in one-to- one intervention, at a lower cost to schools and potentially help more children. People kept asking for comprehensive whole-class programmes, so a programme for initial reading instruction was next. These programmes take years to develop because they are so heavily researched and evaluated.

It would be ideal if all teachers came out of their teacher education with the knowledge to become expert teachers of reading. In the meantime, though, MultiLit fills a need. But even for expert teachers, a well-designed programme can be a great help, they don’t have to create all their own resources so they can focus on teaching, and they get their weekends back.

TB: We re-invent the wheel a lot in education. Wouldn’t it be great if teachers were guaranteed to get that in teacher training? I speak to a lot of teachers who realise years later that they weren’t trained well.

JB: There are principals in Australia that would rather hire a PE teacher to teach early primary than someone who has done a whole lot of literacy study at university because they don’t have to un-teach the bad information they’ve learnt at university before they can start training them in the best way to teach.

One thing that is really helpful is the evidence-based movement, of which researchED is at the forefront. I’m very pleased to have been involved in that from fairly early days. And actually FIVE from FIVE was incubated at the first researchED in Sydney. I went along to that with the idea for FIVE from FIVE, and talked to lots of people there. They convinced me that it was possible to do a project like that. In lots of little ways we all influence and support each other.

It’s a matter of gaining critical mass. This applies to both FIVE from FIVE and researchED. You don’t have to convince everybody – that’s an impossible task. You just have to gather enough people so you’re not seen as a fringe group that’s trying to fiddle with things around the edges. You need to have enough people on board that there can be some change that’s going to stick, rather than a one-off blast and then everyone goes back to the way things were.

TB: Jennifer Buckingham, a pleasure to speak to you.