What does 'authentic text' really mean in the Australian curriculum?
When the words predictable texts were removed from the Australian curriculum in 2022, supporters of structured literacy cheered very loudly. For years, arguments against the inclusion of predictable or levelled text were met with the response, "But it says in the curriculum that children should be using them," and you'd think that having those words removed from the curriculum would be the end of the discussion, but no. The reason that this discussion isn't over is that the words predictable texts have been replaced with the words authentic texts, and the use of this word authentic has caused quite a bit of confusion amongst teachers, leaders, and systems.
On the one hand, people think that authentic texts are books, like picture books and nonfiction texts that you would find in the school library. Other people, however, think that the term authentic text is a replacement for the term predictable text. As a result of this differing of opinion, the hope for removal of predictable and levelled texts from our early years classrooms has not occurred. And while individual teachers may wish to make the move away from predictable or levelled texts, many systems and principals are still hanging on, and this is a real problem. There, of course, are several reasons why continuing to include predictable texts in our early reading instruction is not a good idea, and I'm going to unpack three of them for you today.
The first one and most important one is that predictable or level texts require children to guess at unknown words. When we don't know the code of the text we're reading, our only strategy is to look at the picture, think about what makes sense, and guess the word that should be there. Now, this may involve looking at the first letter and thinking about what other words start with that letter, having a look at the picture and thinking what makes sense and this is called three queuing. It is an extremely ineffective, inaccurate, and inefficient method of decoding or lifting words from the page. Early levelled texts are designed to encourage the use of every strategy except sounding out using phonics knowledge, which is the complete opposite of the recommendations about how we help children become strong readers.
The second reason that it's a bad thing to use predictable or level texts in early reading is that it legitimizes the use of benchmark reading assessment. After all, if the children are reading levelled texts, why not assess them with a levelled text assessment? Now, I spoke about benchmark assessment in episode number seven, and you can have a listen about why it's so hard to give up these long-valued assessments that we've come to rely on. The thing is, they don't actually mean anything. So have a listen to that episode for more information.
The third and final reason that I'm going to outline today is that including level text in our instructional repertoire means that it makes it harder for us to move away from a site word driven approach to teaching reading.
For too many years, we've drilled children in sight words because that's how we thought we could help them achieve on the benchmark assessment because they couldn't sound out the words, so if we teach them a bunch of sight words, they'll be able to achieve a higher level of accuracy on the benchmark reading assessment.
Now, our focus in early reading instruction needs to be on helping students learn about the alphabetic principle and developing the skills to lift words from the page using code knowledge. This is established through research over many, many years, over many, many studies. There is no argument amongst reading researchers about this point anymore.
Don't get me wrong, though. Some irregular high-frequency words in the mix are necessary for students to be able to read sentences and texts. I mean, after all, words like is, was, the, has, and, are, are all needed to make that happen. It's pretty hard to write sentences without those common verbs.
The second benefit of including a small, and if you could see my fingers right now, I have my thumb and my pointer finger quite close together. A small number of irregular high-frequency words in learning is that it helps children learn to understand that we actually have quite a high degree of variation in our language. The English orthography is what's called opaque or pretty dense, and that means there's lots of variables that go on.
We don't want children thinking that the English language is only ever regular. That we have a one-to-one correspondence between the letters and the sounds that we use. So learning the word is, helps children learn that the letter <s> can be used to represent the /z/ sound. It can also be used for /s/, and that the letter <z>, when they get to it in the code, in the scope and sequence, is also used for /z/. So this very gentle setting up of what's called a set for variability is a useful thing. We don't want to give a false impression of how our language works.
However, this learning is done in the context of our work with decodable text, not a standalone activities and never, ever, ever, ever, write this down, as whole words or global shapes because that's not actually how we read words, and again, that's really well established in the research evidence.
What does the Curriculum have to say?
Version nine of the Australian curriculum defines authentic texts as real living or natural language texts which may entertain, inform or persuade. And this fits with the definition of books we would find in the school library. That would be rich picture books that would be non-fiction texts on a range of topics.
The foundation content descriptors include that students read to decode and process words to construct meaning using written and visual print and non-print text. Now, that whole thing there's a little bit confusing to me, and sometimes it sort of doesn't all make sense, but the thing that is critical here is 'decode'.
Another content descriptor says that 'students use developing phonic knowledge and that they monitor meaning using context and emerging grammatical knowledge', so we're not throwing meaning out with the bathwater here, meaning is absolutely used. It's used to understand text, it's not used to lift words from the page.
The argument that students should be reading level text simply does not hold up to scrutiny when we consider these words using developing phonic knowledge. The students don't have the code knowledge to sound out levelled texts, so they can't possibly use their developing phonic knowledge because they don't have it yet. Levelled texts are full of words that are chosen for every reason other than the code knowledge they contain.
The other clue about what children should be reading comes from the achievement standard itself, and in foundation, it says they read words including consonant, vowel, consonant words, and some high-frequency words and the words some there is included. So when we look at the levelled text, and if you've got them in your classroom, go and have a little look at the sorts of words that are included. I can tell you now most of them are not going to be consonant vow consonant words. They're going to be words that have much more complex phonic structure.
At no point in any of this does the Australian curriculum discuss any other strategy than using word structure with our phonic and morphology to lift words from the page. There is no mention of a range of strategies or anything related to three queuing that those levelled texts are designed to encourage. The use of levelled text for our beginning readers is simply incompatible with what the Australian curriculum is asking for in the content descriptors and the achievement standard.
But wouldn't it be great if we could just ask the person who wrote the Australian curriculum version nine updates what they meant by authentic texts? Well, listeners, that's exactly what I did. Now I have known Jasmine Shannon, who you may know from the Reading Science and Schools Facebook group. I've known her for quite a number of years now, and we've worked together in the Northern Territory Department of Education, and we've stayed in touch over the years.
I spoke with Jasmine, and I asked her, what does that even mean? And she said, in no circumstances was the word authentic intended to mean predictable or levelled. Authentic means the books you find at the library, the rich picture books and the non-fiction books on a range of topics. Until children can decode them for themselves, we take on the role of the decoder, and we read out loud to them.
The final part of this discussion is to answer the question about when might children be able to read levelled texts, and Jasmine and I discussed this as well, and we are of one mind and on the same page. Basically, the answer is when they can, and what that means is there are some prerequisites that students need to have achieved before we even think about putting a levelled text in front of them. The first one is they have to be able to blend multi-syllable words. They need developed phonemic skills. If they are still sounding out consonant vow consonant words C, A, T, cat, and that's where they're up to, they are not ready for anything beyond a decodable, and if they're not blending words at that level fluently and beginning to build some automaticity around that, they probably shouldn't have big, long decodables either.
So they have to have well-developed phonemic skills. They also need to have knowledge of the full alphabetic code. So they need to know about the alternate spellings, they need to be able to use these automatically, they need to know about, common suffixes and prefixes, and in the suffixes, they need to know about suffixing conventions. So if we want to turn hope into hoping, we have to drop the E and add the I N G, those things need to be explicitly taught so that when they read, they're not saying H O P ing and, in fact, they really need to know about the doubling rule as well, where there's a single short vow we need a double consonant teaching all of this in year two and even year one, if students are ready for that, means that they're going to be well equipped to manage a book that doesn't have everything be the most obvious decodable structures ever.
So, if you are fighting the good fight in your school, that authentic texts in the curriculum doesn't mean levelled text, please know that you are on the right track. I bet there are a number of people kind of breathing sighs of relief right now. There are many common sense reasons why the term authentic text in the curriculum doesn't mean levelled or predictable text, but if they aren't getting you very far, just say, "Because Jasmine Shannon, who was on the team who actually wrote that part of the curriculum, said so!" I can tell you right now, that's what I'll be saying into the future.
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