Seven things teachers agree on about teaching reading in Australia. Stop all the political haranguing over phonics

By Robyn Ewing

There is widespread agreement among educators and school communities about the importance of teaching phonics and other code-based literacy practices in early years classrooms. Why, however, is phonics instruction, one of the processes teachers use in helping children learn to read, so foregrounded by government policymakers and bureaucrats in Australia these days?  Why is one particular approach to the teaching of phonics, synthetic phonics, now being proposed as the ‘right’ way to teach phonics in Australia? And why do some influential cognitive psychologists believe they have all the answers when it comes to teaching reading, and appear to have undue influence over important literacy policy?

These questions are confounding teachers all around Australia. They talk about the research projects they find in their professional reading. Many follow discussions on blog sites such as this one. Others are participating in research in their own classrooms or within school/university partnerships. They then speculate about the motivation behind the “silver bullet” solutions they are being sold.

The groundswell of those wanting answers has grown as the roll out of new literacy teaching programs continues across states and territories. The looming imposition of a synthetic phonics test for all Australian six year olds is adding to teacher concerns. They are clear that another test is not the way to improve national standards.

I am continually asked: why are we are once again adopting UK policies and accepting as ‘evidence’ the Rose Report from the UK? This report recommended that synthetic phonics be the preferred method for teaching early reading in the UK, but the ‘evidence’ quoted in the report has been widely disputed, including in the UK, by highly respected literacy education experts. The way the report has since been used politically is of ongoing concern.

This was the impetus for the Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney to hold a symposium on The role of phonics in learning to be literate last week in Sydney in conjunction with The Australian Literacy Educators Association. The board and staff of the Primary English Teachers Association also supported the symposium. More than 140 educators attended to hear three presentations from expert literacy educators. The symposium created such widespread interest that we are holding a repeat on March 17th and another symposium in Melbourne on 5th May. It is clear that teachers and principals have both the energy and enthusiasm for ongoing professional learning in this critical area. Professional development must be tailored to the needs of individual teachers and schools. It should not be imposed by politically or commercially driven agendas.

Associate Professors Pauline Jones, Lisa Kervin and Dr Jessica Mantei (University of Wollongong) shared their emerging findings from their large research project, TRANSLIT. The project is investigating the nature of students’ literacy experiences at key points in schooling from foundation to senior secondary (preschool to school, primary to secondary school and so on). It is investigating how teachers teach ‘constrained’ skills including alphabet knowledge, word lists and phonics. These findings will be valuable for all teachers of literacy and for schools in developing their literacy programs and policies. The findings also will be useful to help those outside the teaching profession understand how isolated instructional experiences can be integrated into rich, engaging and meaningful literacy programs.

Former principal and lecturer, now literacy consultant David Hornsby reminded us that The Australian Curriculum: English defines decoding as including comprehension. Simply focusing on letter-sound relationships constitutes only recoding or moving from printed code to oral code. He demonstrated with many concrete examples why morphemes are required for phonemes to express themselves.  A number of practical activities quickly dispelled several myths about how English orthography works. If morphological awareness is developed in conjunction with phonics, children come to understand that English spelling represents meaning and that meaning determines how phonology works.

Emeritus Professor Marie Emmitt led the discussion about the importance of teachers having a sophisticated knowledge of sound-letter relationships and ways children learn phonics and use complex sound letter knowledge for spelling and word identification. Teachers need to ascertain what phonic knowledge children have already learned and determine what next will assist them in their reading and writing. Meaningful opportunities for learners are then offered to enable children to further develop phonic knowledge and to see it being used strategically in assisting with word identification, writing and spelling.

Teachers and principals shared issues they are currently experiencing with the teaching of literacy in Australia.

At this symposium there was widespread agreement that:

Learning to be literate is crucial for children’s life chances.

Children who struggle to become literate face spiralling problems throughout their schooling and into their life after school. Mastering 21st century literacy skills leads to a more socially active and fulfilled life.

Socioeconomic status has a big impact on how well children read

The continual handwringing about falling literacy standards in Australia overlooks this single most important influence. While investment in schools and investment in quality teaching are crucial, until our governments do something about the growing inequity in Australian society and Australian schooling they are ignoring the one thing that can make the most difference.

Children from disadvantaged or at risk backgrounds need a much higher level of support at school. Schools who have higher enrolments of disadvantaged children therefore need the best resources, policies, support staff and wide-ranging specialist help alongside ongoing fully funded professional development for their teachers.

Learning to be literate is a highly complex contextualised social practice – not a series of hierarchical skills

Teaching literacy involves complex processes. It cannot be reduced to a linear hierarchy of skills. Learning to be literate is a rich experience that transforms the way we look at the world. Teachers need to study deeply to gain the knowledge and understanding of a wide repertoire of pedagogical skills to teach literacy. They need to apply this knowledge and experience to design learning experiences that will meet the needs of individual children in particular circumstances in specific classroom and community contexts.

Learning to read is about making meaning. There are no easy, one size fits all recipes.

Learning to read is basic to being literate and learning to read is about making meaning. Knowing how to use graphophonic knowledge is important but it is only part of the process. Teachers need to use many different strategies to help some children become readers.

Rich literature, real texts should play an important role in any literacy program

Decades of research underline the importance of the time children spend listening to and sharing stories with loved ones. Telling stories, talking together linking the child’s own experiences, linking them with books, discussing visual images and playing with language are vital in helping children make sense of their world and their place in the world. This must continue in early childhood and classroom contexts. A wide range of authentic literature and real texts are thus vital elements in any literacy program.

Phonics and other code-based literacy practices are widespread in early years learning contexts in Australia. Where is the evidence that teachers aren’t using these strategies?

With all of the talk about basing our strategies and policies on evidence teachers are puzzled about why they are continually told via media articles or policy imposed by politicians that they are not teaching phonics. Teaching phonics is embedded in the teaching practices of Australian teachers and is required by the Australian Curriculum. Where is the evidence that they are not using these strategies?

Another test is highly problematic and will disadvantage our EALD (English as an additional language or dialect) learners as well as many in vulnerable situations

Bilingual learners who are just beginning to or become confident with learning to speak English may become anxious about such tests especially where they are expected to make sense of isolated words. It is also well established that such tests can also disadvantage those children who are more vulnerable. These kinds of tests can also be problematic for young proficient readers who expect the content of their reading to make sense. Being asked to read a list of words in isolation some of which are nonsense words can send a confusing message about the nature of reading.

The proposed Year 1 phonics test is not necessary. Any approach that singles out phonics instruction, and more recently, advocates for synthetic phonics specifically, and testing the recoding of words (some of which are nonsense words) distorts and distracts from the bigger picture of our need to continue to develop effective classroom literacy practices that meet the needs of all learners.

Future symposiums

The Role of Phonics in Learning to be Literate

When Saturday 17th March 201810.00am – 1.00pm (Registration from 9.30am)

Where Education Building The University of Sydney

Cost $110pp (GST Inc.) ALEA Individual Member $44pp (GST Inc.) ALEA Institutional Member $55pp (GST Inc.)

Register here for March 17th in Sydney


The Role of Phonics in Learning to be Literate

When Saturday 5th May 201810.00am – 1.00pm (Registration from 9.30am)

Where tba

Cost $110pp (GST Inc.) ALEA Individual Member $44pp (GST Inc.) ALEA Institutional Member $55pp (GST Inc.)

Register here for May 5th in Melbourne


Robyn Ewing AM is Professor of Teacher Education and the Arts at the University of Sydney. A former primary teacher she teaches in the areas of curriculum, English and drama, language and early literacy development. Robyn’s research has particularly focused on the use of educational or process drama with authentic literary texts to develop students’ imaginations and critical literacies. Her current research interests also include teacher education, especially the experiences of early-career teachers and mentoring; sustaining curriculum innovation; and the role of reflection in professional practice.

 Robyn was president of the Primary English Teachers Association from 2001-2006, is a past president of the Australian Literacy Educators Association (ALEA).  She is also a council member of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS), an Honorary Associate with Sydney Theatre Company, Board member of WestWords and Visiting Scholar at Barking Gecko Theatre. She enjoys working collaboratively with classroom teachers interested in innovative curriculum practices and has worked in partnership with Sydney Theatre Company on the teacher professional learning School Drama program since 2009. 

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

13 thoughts on “Seven things teachers agree on about teaching reading in Australia. Stop all the political haranguing over phonics

  1. Hello Robyn,
    I very much enjoyed your article. Comprehension and reading for meaning are considered important – and rightly so – in the teaching of reading, but I think there is a step missing that needs to come well before the phonics/graphing stage, and that is visualisation. I might be able to read and understand Swahili, but unless my mind is picturing, assimilating and associating the incoming data, I will be merely learning like Polly the Parrot. My big question is … Are teachers, or rather, should teachers be starting the reading process with bucketloads of oral language, vocabulary-building, face-to-face ‘Watch my mouth’ interactive conversational teaching (without apps, without worksheets) to bring visualisation to the front of the queue in the process of teaching children to read?
    Best regards, Ellie

  2. Robyn Ewing says:

    Thanks Ellie. I agree that providing many opportunities for rich oral language is of critical importance. Vocabulary building is essential too. Robyn

  3. PS My phrase ‘understand Swahili’ should be ‘pronounce Swahili’. I also think that nonsense words are a complete nonsense and should be avoided at all costs; ditto phonics tests.

  4. Ania Lian says:

    Dear Robyn
    I just think that we need some freshness in literacy: we’ve been locked in the same paradigms and the same for decades, while the world (not the literacy world) is discovering new ideas, concepts and forms of evidence we could draw on to diversify and find a way out of stagnation. We need new insights to look at things differently.

    In this regard , let me mention my own attempts in this direction, to inspire movement. Reading for Emotion with ICT Tools Chen, W. et al. (Eds.) (2017). Proceedings of the 25th International Conference on Computers in Education.
    New Zealand: Asia-Pacific Society for Computers in Education
    very best wishes
    ania lian

  5. KATE Gurjian says:

    I am saddened to read, yet again, your view with your ‘team’ of people sending such mixed and convoluted messages to vulnerable teachers.
    Synthetic phonics is not the only way to learn to read but it is the sure first sign of what was missing when children are found struggling or at risk. How do teachers who have NEVER been adequately trained in phonics instruction at uni ever get their head around measuring a child accurately? Should we still use the debunked Levelled readers, whole langauge and multi cueing system to teach reading? No
    Take a good look at each and every research regarding the overwhelming evidence to support teacher knoweldge, skills and identification of children at risk in learning to read. The phonics CHECK. Not test, is the first part: not only part, to ensure teachers get it right.

  6. Tarin McElroy says:

    Here here! Sickenly ignorant, at the expense of these poor kids. At what point will the education system respect and take guidance from empirical, scientific evidence. It’s inexcusable that there has been clear, scientific evidence that indicates direct, systematic instruction in synthetic phonics is the best method for literacy instruction (and incorporating the big 5). It is harmful to none, but crucial for some and useful for many. That can’t be said for current methods of instruction.

  7. Nick Ross says:

    Two points.

    Point one – I’m all about professional dialogue in education, however, saying this article is ‘sickeningly ignorant’ is far from true. It’s based on The article explicitly says in the first sentence that “There is widespread agreement among educators and school communities about the importance of teaching phonics and other code-based literacy practices in early years classrooms.” The article does not argue for phonics not be used in teaching children to read. Far from it. Perhaps you might need to re-read the article for meaning?

    Point two – Kate Gurjian, I also think you may have missed some of the points of the article. Some of the things you are arguing for are in the article (see point one). As a teacher, I don’t feel ‘vulnerable’ and nor do I feel like the article sends ‘mixed and convoluted messages’. We all know that the Phonics Check will become another NAPLAN. Where is the evidence that teachers aren’t doing a good job with phonics already? The commercial products that are being delivered to schools are making a mint out of this push …. and I also feel like it should be pointed out that you run a tutoring company called ‘Time to Shine’ and your website says that you use “researched evidence-based programs. These include Spelling Mastery, MultiLit, Ants in the Apple, MLATS, Maths Mastery, Little Learners Love Literacy, Jolly Phonics, just to name a few.” You charge $400 for a 90 minute ‘English Assessment’. Just saying …

  8. Robyn, apparently simple solutions appeal to government policymakers and bureaucrats as much as they do to the rest of us. So don’t be surprised if saying “There are no easy, one size fits all recipes” doesn’t get a positive response. You need to put policy proposals to government in a politically palatable form. This is not to say policymakers and bureaucrats are all stupid (I used to be one), but the political process favors simple, quick, cheap answers to complex questions. So if you don’t want political haranguing over phonics, then tell politicians clearly and simply what should be done. Tell them how it will benefit them in the short term, as well as benefit the community in the long term.

  9. Gloria Latham says:

    Well done to all. It’s so important that these realistic and proven ideas about phonics instruction get shared and spread!

  10. Olivia K says:

    Thank you Robyn,
    Having spent the last decade working in the US with underserved urban schools and students in special education I am grateful for your article that addresses the heart of the matter. So much hoopla surrounds the focus on synthetic phonics, as if this will be the cure all for every child. A simplistic response distracts us from the bigger questions, such as how to address the increasing gap between the experience of one child and that of another and the importance of building relationships between teachers and their students and finding a way to expose children to literacy rich environments. Scientific evidence supporting this can be found below:


  11. Rosie Charles says:

    Hi, Robyn. So pleased to see you are tirelessly continuing to promote sensible, grounded teaching of literacy skills. Never ceases to amaze me that ‘inexpert’ experts, particularly in government, are always isolating and over-emphasising this one necessary skill of many that denies the true essence of reading, comprehension and literacy. Keep up the good fight!

  12. John Saunders says:

    Nice to read a research-informed, balanced perspective! Thank you Professor Ewing!

  13. Rowan Freeman says:

    Thanks for your article, Robyn. It was refreshing to read an informed, articulate and unbiased response to children’s reading.

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