Literacy Educators Coalition

This is how Australian teachers are taught how to teach children to read: not just phonics

There is a lot of misinformation out there, as well as ill informed commentary, about how we prepare teachers to teach reading and writing in Australian schools today

Of course you have heard the argument that teachers do not teach phonics any more and worse, that many early career teachers do not even know how to teach phonics.

So as a teacher of preservice teachers I will start by telling you for at least the past 15 years there has been overwhelming advice from probably hundreds of research projects and inquiries that a comprehensive approach to the teaching of reading should be taken. Rest assured this approach very emphatically includes the explicit teaching of phonics. However phonics are just part of the picture.

National Inquiry into the Teaching of Readin in 2005 recommended:

that teachers provide systematic, direct and explicit phonics instruction so that children master the essential alphabetic code-breaking skills required for foundational reading proficiency. Equally, that teachers provide an integrated approach to reading that supports the development of oral language, vocabulary, grammar, reading fluency, comprehension and the literacies of new technologies.

While the evidence indicates that some teaching strategies are more effective than others, no one approach of itself can address the complex nature of reading difficulties. An integrated approach requires that teachers have a thorough understanding of a range of effective strategies, as well as knowing when and why to apply them.

Our teaching of literacy education to preservice teachers across Australia is based on this approach.

We teach preservice teachers how to teach students:-

  • phonological awareness through the reading and writing of meaningful text
  • to write persuasive texts, and narratives, as required by NAPLAN.
  • to understand the grammatical structures of our language.
  • to read between the lines so they can infer and interpret hidden meanings in texts.

What annoys me about the tired old argument of ‘whole language versus phonics’ is it is framed as a “them versus us” battle. A whole language approach is presented as “modern, progressive and child centred” and phonics is seen as “old-fashioned, reactionary and teacher-centred.”

In the classrooms where we teach Australia’s future teachers we don’t waste time on such nonsense. Instead we spend our time teaching our preservice teachers to teach a range of students using a range of strategies that will work in today’s complex and demanding world.

We teach them about critical literacy, the use of new technologies in literacy classrooms, the importance of grammar, the use of literature, multiple literacies and multimodality, and the importance of teachers doing classroom based research.

Teachers today must be able to cope with a diverse range of abilities and experiences.

Imagine this classroom of six year olds (it would not be uncommon):

  • Some are skilled in using touch pad technologies, all have their own iPads
  • Some have never read a traditional fairy tale, but can tell you who is winning on The Block or MKR
  • Some have been read to every night since they were in the womb, have their own bedroom libraries, and bring new books to school regularly to share
  • Some are newly arrived in Australia. Not only do they not speak English, their parents have limited English, and they have spent so much time in refugee camps they cannot read and write in their own languages either.

It is our job to provide teachers with the skills, knowledge and understanding to develop lessons that help all these children learn to read.

This is not simple work, and cannot be achieved through a ‘magic bullet’ approach.

Though many commercial ‘synthetic phonics’ programs (programs that offer a set way to teach phonics) promise exactly that these days. They are sold as quick fixes to teaching children to read. But mostly they ignore issues related to catering for a wide range of student abilities in one class and are often written by people who have never worked as trained teachers.

I promise you we don’t encourage our nation’s future teachers to grab a program off the shelf in the hope it will work for them. We teach our preservice teachers the elements of ‘systematic, direct and explicit phonics instruction’, but we refuse to endorse, promote or market commercial programs.

That said, many advocates of ‘synthetic phonics’ have links to particular programs that are sold to schools, teachers, and parents.

For example, Dr Norman Swan often reports on problems with current approaches to literacy education in his health report forum on the ABC.

He also endorses programs such as Phonica.

One of the authors of a recent article in The Conversation  pushing a synthetic phonics approach is also the developer of materials called spelfabet   that she sells to teachers and parents to support this approach. This association was acknowledged by the publisher.

Above all, as teachers of teachers, my colleagues and I strive to provide future teachers with strategies based on “findings from rigorous, evidence-based research that are shown to be effective in enhancing the literacy development of all children”

We do this not only because we ourselves are passionately committed to high quality research, but because government accreditation processes for teacher education courses demand it of us. Put simply if we presented ideas packaged in a commercial program as the “right” way to teach reading our courses would not be ( and should not be) accredited as providing quality teacher education.

The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) has set standards and procedures for teacher education. It tells us

Standards and Procedures reflect high expectations of initial teacher education. The stakeholders are united in their belief that the teaching profession and the Australian community deserve nothing less. There is an expectation that those entering teaching will be a diverse group of highly literate and numerate individuals with a professional platform from which to develop as high quality teachers.

Our high expectations of the teaching profession stop us from selling commercial programs, or teaching teachers to believe there is one “right” way to teach reading. We believe our children deserve much more.


Acknowledgement – The ideas in this paper were produced in consultation and discussion with members of the Literacy Educators Coalition. For further information about this group please go to their website at





Dr Eileen Honan is a Senior Lecturer in Literacy and English Education at The University of Queensland.