phonics and reading

There are definitely better ways to teach reading

Recent blog posts and articles in The Age have yet again stirred debates about the reading wars. We are writing this piece as a call for unity because we agree with the recent blog authors that there is no “perfect way” to teach reading. However, we know from both research and practice that are unequivocally better ways that are both more efficient and more effective for a diverse student cohort, including the most disadvantaged. 

Better ways to teach all students to read

Effective reading instruction involves using the most equitable and efficient teaching practices which result in the highest proportion of children in a class becoming literate. Such practices are informed by the most reliable evidence about the theoretical basis of a reading curriculum, its scope and sequence, and the pedagogies that are most effective. 

To teach reading equitably, teachers must be equipped to use practices that are designed to be beneficial for the most diverse student cohort, not just those in the middle of the curve or better. This is more socially just because it results in fewer children needing access to scarce intervention and support resources. 

To teach reading efficiently, teachers must be equipped to teach using methods known to have the greatest impact and provide the best support for all students to “crack the code” of the most complex writing system in the world, enabling them to move quickly beyond learning to read, into learning through reading. 

The reading wars stem from differences in beliefs as to how this is best achieved.

What are these differences?

Champions of implicit teaching argue that immersing a child in a print-rich environment in conjunction with using incidental instruction creates an environment in which children can learn to love reading. These champions emphasise that extracting meaning from text should always be the highest priority in any teaching moments. Some in this “camp” even argue that explicit and systematic instruction in reading subskills is harmful and can damage students’ potential love of reading while de-professionalising teachers. We have not yet found any empirical evidence to support these claims.

Champions of a structured approach, a group in which we count ourselves, promote the use of a carefully planned scope and sequence of reading instruction using practices supported by strong research evidence. They argue that reading is made of teachable subskills best taught explicitly with some skills being pivotal to the acquisition of subsequent skills and needing to be mastered first. The most common example is phonic decoding or “cracking the code” being a precursor to reading automatically and fluently to aid comprehension, along with developing strong vocabulary skills and background knowledge. This does not mean that decoding is all that is taught at first but is done in an integrated manner using a rich and varied range of books to build children’s background knowledge and vocabulary. These claims are supported by decades of international research and three national inquiries.

Which approach has the most evidence (with a capital “E”)?

There are different types of evidence and each approach above has an abundance of evidence to support it. However, the structured approach is backed by experimental and empirical research best suited to determining the effectiveness of a teaching practice in a classroom. Such research can also be further assessed through systematic reviews and meta-analyses, occupying the highest levels of evidence, meaning that confidence in the findings is higher.

Such research suggests systematic and explicit instruction in the reading subskills of phonemic awareness, decoding, and fluency are efficacious for teaching children to read more accurately and fluently in the early years. Research also indicates that students with learning difficulties and disabilities can master reading when they are provided early with systematic and explicit instruction, as opposed to incidental and implicit instruction, making this a more equitable approach to the teaching of reading. 

What does this evidence suggest?

It is important to support teachers by providing them with knowledge and skills through a framework that  supports teacher autonomy and decision-making to enable personalising of learning for students. However, the Four Resources model promoted in the recent blog is not the most helpful framework for reading instruction, nor does it have the most evidentiary support. 

The Four Resources Model rests on a conceptualisation of reading as a component of critical literacy, being a “mode of second guessing texts, discourses, and social formations”. The architects of the model argue that teaching reading relies on teachers selecting practices based on how they view students’ existing economic, social, cultural and linguistic assets for which the model maps a range of practices to use in response. We have not been able to locate any robust empirical research that affirms the Four Resources model as a theory of reading, or as a framework for teaching reading. 

The Cognitive Foundations Framework on the other hand, is an empirically-grounded and practical model for supporting teachers’ decision-making about instruction and support. It provides teachers with a clear map of students’ areas of strength and weakness in reading subskills. Such mapping provides teachers with a clear path to personalising teaching by identifying what individual students know and what they need to learn next to become skilled readers.

Figure 1: The Cognitive Foundations Network

Source: Graphic from Hoover and Tunmer (2019)

Our research and practice highlights the importance of preparing teachers to use approaches that are systematic and consistent across classes and schools. Teachers and leaders knowledgeable in these are the cornerstone of developing skilled readers and can ensure 95%-plus students achieve foundational skills. 

Many teachers we have worked with speak of their regret when they think of the students in their former classrooms who did not successfully learn to read: children who they now realise could have become successful readers. 

A call for unity 

Every year that we spend debating is another year that many children do not receive the instruction they need to learn to read. This locks them out from all that education has to offer, entrenching deficit perceptions and economic disadvantage. 

We need to focus on what we all share: a strong desire to create skilled readers and find ways to enhance the community standing of teaching by ensuring that knowledge that belongs to teachers is placed in their hands before they arrive in classrooms. 
Let’s give them the full set of professional knowledge and skills they need to truly personalise teaching and ensure every child learns to read and succeed at school.

From left to right (top row) Kate de Bruin, Pamela Snow, (bottom row) Linda Graham, Tanya Serry and Jacinta Conway

Kate de Bruin is a Senior Lecturer in Inclusion and Disability at Monash University. She has taught in secondary school and higher education for over two decades. As a high-school teacher she taught English for years 7-12, ran reading intervention, and provided cross-curriculum support to students with disabilities and learning difficulties. Pamela Snow is a Professor of Cognitive Psychology in the School of Education at the Bendigo campus of La Trobe University, Australia. In addition to experience in teacher education, she has taught a wide range of undergraduate and postgraduate health professionals. Pamela is a registered psychologist, having qualified originally in speech-language pathology. Her research has been funded by nationally competitive schemes such as the ARC Discovery Program, ARC Linkage Program, and the Criminology Research Council, and concerns the role of language and literacy skills as academic and mental health protective factors in childhood and adolescence. Linda J. Graham is Director of The Centre for Inclusive Education (C4IE) in the Faculty of Creative Industries, Education and Social Justice at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Her research focuses on responses to students experiencing difficulties in school and with learning. Tanya Serry is an Associate Professor (Literacy and Reading) in the School of Education and co-director of the SOLAR Lab. Previously, she taught in the Discipline of Speech Pathology. Her research interests centre on the policy and practices of evidence-based reading instruction and intervention practices for students across the educational lifespan. Jacinta Conway is a highly experienced educator who has spent 19 working in classrooms and educational leadership, overseeing and implementing a range of interventions and support for learners, both in primary and secondary settings.  She currently works as a learning intervention specialist and consultant. Jacinta has a Bachelor of Education (Primary) and a Masters in Learning Intervention (Specific Learning Difficulties). She sits on the council for Learning Difficulties Australia.

No. There isn’t one perfect way to teach reading

Learning to read is foundational. The importance of literacy in the first years of schooling is not in question. Students’ oral language interactions in the early years of schooling, their engagement with print and digital texts and experiences recording their ideas in writing are important for their lives in and out of school. The teaching of phonics and phonological awareness are fundamental and essential elements in learning to read and to write. Both elements form an integral part of the Victorian Curriculum: English, which guides Victorian educators in their planning and teaching. 

This post is in response to recent damaging reports that have re-ignited the age-old argument that there is a literacy crisis and the best and only way to attend to it is the use of a ‘phonics first’ approach which prioritises synthetic phonics.The intensity of the argument has increased of late, with blame landing squarely at the feet of early years’ teachers, with the residue reserved too for those who prepare teachers for their role.

Pieces published in The Age and other publications over recent weeks have added fuel to the ‘literacy wars’ fire. On February 16 it began in The Age with Results came really quickly: How one tiny Victorian school turned literacy around’ by Adam Carey. This was quickly followed on February 19 with ‘Follow Science in Teaching Kids to Read’ by Dr Nathaniel Swain and more recently on March 21, Dr. Tina Daniel echoing ideas presented by Swain and Carey, with her opinion piece,Dud teachers? In Victoria, it’s the lack of phonics that’s the problem’. There are commonalities across these articles – the implication that teachers do not know how to teach; the need for commercially-produced programs; and the view that literacy is merely a set of discrete skills. We disagree with each of these points. 

What we know is this – phonics and phonological awareness are integral components of writing, as well as reading and oral langauge. Students in the early stages of literacy learning draw on the reciprocity between reading and writing to assist the identification of sounds in words which can be matched to letters and written down. The teaching of phonics and phonological awareness should be undertaken in an explicit and systematic way. This is not disputed by researchers, or teachers, nor the wider education community. But the way in which phonics and phonological awareness are taught remains a contentious issue. And the loudest voices in the argument are often those who lack the experience of teaching in mainstream early-years classrooms. 

The term ‘science of reading’, based on research positioning reading in the cognitive realm, is increasingly used in these debates. Some states (currently SA and NSW) have aligned themselves to this science of reading approach. They have prioritised the use of decodable texts and commercially-produced phonics programs. Victoria has been criticised for failing to adopt the same prescriptive ‘phonics first’ stance. We feel The Age’s education editor Adam Carey feeds into the Victoria bashing narrative. He cites Fahey, from the Centre for Independent Studies, whose background is in economics and policy. Fahey suggests Victoria needs a ‘wakeup call’ because they have ‘dragged the chain on the national reform agenda around reading instruction.’ As education editor, Carey could have cited numerous experts, from Australia or overseas, who have researched in the field of reading comprehension and would have added value to the discussion. 

NAPLAN is often woven into discussions about phonics. So we point out that  Victoria, without a prescriptive phonics program have enjoyed great success. Victorian teachers should be celebrated. They are given agency to draw upon a range of well-researched strategies to teach literacy and create their own program to address their students’ diverse needs. Recent NAPLAN results have confirmed that Victoria has done exceptionally well in national results for reading. Victoria outperformed New South Wales on NAPLAN, for both the students who require extra support in literacy and for those achieving above the standard. Differentiated teaching is reflected in these NAPLAN results, because good literacy teachers know that every child has different learning needs. We know the variable in education is the child, the teaching of reading is not an exact science.

The approach taken at Melbourne Graduate School of Education in initial teacher education programs and in professional development of continuing teachers is based on a framework initially developed by Freebody and Luke (1990). This framework recognises the place of the systematic and explicit teaching of phonics within a comprehensive view of literacy, one which includes comprehension, knowledge of how different texts are organised and constructed and critical thinking about the content that is being read. It also recognises that the reader does not come to the text as a ‘tabula rasa’. Rather, they bring with them cultural, linguistic and textual knowledge, which help them to read the text.

Australian students are diverse. They bring varied but rich knowledge and skills to their literacy learning. In response, teachers need extensive knowledge of the way language works, they need knowledge of pedagogical practices, and they need to know what each student can do and what they need to do next. Teachers need to be afforded agency to use their knowledge to cater for the diverse learning needs. Teachers are professionals.

Public debates must acknowledge the complexity of early literacy, the successes experienced as well as the challenges encountered. The quest for comprehensive and effective literacy practices, which differentiate to meet the needs of all students, can only be addressed if the complexity of literacy is recognised. Teaching is more than science.  It is also a craft and an art. Fundamentally, it involves teachers’ intellect and criticality to be responsive to students’ needs. We applaud the teachers and the students who engage in these complex practices each day.

From left to right: Dr. Martina Tassone, Dr. Helen Cozmescu, Bree Hurn and Dr. Linda Gawne are part of the Primary Language & Literacy Academic Teaching Team at Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne.

Decodable or predictable: why reading curriculum developers must seize one

Despite the promise to ‘improve clarity’, ‘declutter’, and remove ‘ambiguous’ content, the new draft curriculum has left teachers guessing when it comes to when, and how, to use texts in the first two years of school. The requirement for teachers to choose between two types of texts remains in the proposed new curriculum, revealing a lack of understanding by the curriculum developers about the purpose and structure of each text. 

In the first two years of school, children require many opportunities to practise their phonics skills, which is achieved by reading decodable texts. Predictable texts, in comparison, are incompatible with phonics instruction and do not support beginning readers to master the written code for reading. Once the code has been established, children can move on to a broader range of reading material. If ACARA’s objective for the proposed curriculum is to provide ‘a clear and precise developmental pathway’ for reading, then references to predictable texts, and any reading strategies that require children to guess words from pictures and context, need to be removed from the current content descriptions where learning to read is the focus. 

Research we recently conducted revealed that there is confusion among teachers on how to use different types of texts in beginning reading instruction, which the current review of the national curriculum does little to address. While the draft curriculum signals a win for those advocating for more emphasis on systematic phonics instruction, the continued reference to predictable texts, and the associated whole language strategies known as the three-cueing system, is seen as a missed opportunity to align all reading related content to an established body of scientific knowledge. 

The Australian Curriculum National Reporting Authority’s (ACARA) chief, David de Carvalho claims that the draft curriculum English “allows teachers to choose a range of texts” to support the development of critical reading skills while also promoting the broader motivational and literary aspects of reading. However, rather than providing choice, the continued lack of guidance and clarification about when and how to use each text serves only to keep teachers guessing. Ironically, ‘guessing’ is one of the strategies that beginning readers must default to when trying to read words from texts that are not instructionally matched to the classroom phonics program. The features and structure of predictable texts, the earliest readers in many levelled reading systems currently used in Australian classrooms, promote memorisation rather than decoding and encourage beginning readers to guess words from pictures and context. Research has repeatedly shown that these strategies are not sustainable in the long term and that it is poor readers who are most disadvantaged when pictures are removed from the text and the capacity to memorise words reaches its limits.  

Text types

It is not so much choice that teachers require to meet the instructional needs of children, but the knowledge about how to use different texts for different purposes. Research has identified two sets of processes involved in reading proficiency: language comprehension and decoding. While literature facilitates the development of language related skills such as vocabulary and comprehension, and decodable texts scaffold children’s mastery of the alphabetic code, predictable texts contribute very little once children commence formal reading instruction. A clearly articulated curriculum would facilitate teachers’ ability to determine when to use a particular text for a particular purpose. 

Survey on teachers use of texts

The results of our research draw attention to this issue of how teachers use different types of texts to support beginning reading development. We surveyed 138 Western Australian Pre-primary and Year 1 teachers because we were concerned that the guidance on approaches to reading instruction and text types in the current curriculum was ambiguous and confusing. 

Teachers were asked about the approach they used to teach phonics, the type of texts and the strategies they used when teaching reading, and their beliefs about decodable and predictable texts. In Western Australia, teachers are directed by the Department of Education (DoE) to use systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) and, in our study, 93% of the teachers reported that they taught phonics using a SSP approach. 

On the basis of this approach to reading, we expected an equivalent number of teachers to use decodable texts. Surprisingly, a majority of teachers (56%) reported using both predictable and decodable texts to support children’s reading development. Of the teachers who only used decodable texts (25%), all but two used a range of strategies more suited to predictable texts. 

As expected, teachers who only used predictable texts (18%) used prompts associated with these texts, but they also used strategies more suitable for decodable text such as asking children to ‘sound out each letter’. This could be confusing for children when reading a text that doesn’t include words that can be read using current alphabetic knowledge.  Predictable texts feature high frequency (e.g., girl, where, as) and multisyllabic words (e.g., doctor, balloon, helicopter) that reflect common and relatable themes for young children, rather than words that align with a phonics teaching sequence. 

Fluency and texts

Two-thirds of the teachers in our research agreed with the statement that predictable texts promote fluency. This belief possibly accounts for the fact that so many teachers used predictable texts despite using a systematic synthetic phonics approach. While there is some evidence to suggest that predictable texts facilitate the development of fluency, the relationship is not well understood. 

When children first apply their knowledge of phonics to decodable texts, fluency does initially appear to be compromised.  Learning to read is hard work, and it takes at least two years of reading instruction before children reach a level of proficiency where they are able to apply their skills to the broader curriculum, or to what is commonly known as ‘reading to learn’. 

In contrast, the repetition of high frequency words and the predictive nature of words and sentences in predictable texts gives the impression that children are reading fluently as they memorise sentences that can be recited both while reading, and in the absence of the text. While alluring to teachers, the promotion of these strategies compromises the development of the alphabetic knowledge required for reading a complex orthography such as English, and as such should not be prioritised over careful and accurate decoding, despite the temptation to do so! 

A lack of fluency when learning a new skill is evident in many areas of learning, yet it seems to be less well tolerated in beginning reading instruction.  One possible explanation for this is the dominance of whole language reading theories, upon which the idea that learning to read is as natural as learning to speak has been promoted. This has resulted in the proliferation of a range of instructional reading strategies that are no longer supported by research, but as our research showed, continued to be used by classroom teachers.  It is our contention that the continued use of these strategies is a direct result of the ambiguity evident in the curriculum documents. It has simply not kept up with the research and will continue to act as a barrier to effective implementation unless clarity around the use of texts is provided. 

Which books, and when?

Children learn about the correspondence between speech and print by being exposed to books from an early age. At the pre-reading stage, prior to knowing that letters can also represent print, and that there is a predictable relationship between them, children benefit from being read to from a wide range of books, including children’s literature that features predictable text. There are many great examples to choose from, including well known classics such as Brown Bear, Brown Bear, and We Went Walking. 

When teachers read books with rhythmic patterned language, children begin to understand that each printed word on the page represents a spoken word. This helps children to understand the segmental nature of speech, a valuable first step in their reading journey.  The predictable texts currently used by teachers to meet Foundation and Year one curriculum objectives, while far less engaging than children’s literature, are more appropriate for children who are at this stage of their reading development because they do not require children to actually use their knowledge of the alphabet to read. While teachers can, and should, continue to read children’s literature, including books with predictable text and rhyming patterns to children beyond the preschool years, there is no instructional value in using ‘levelled’ predictable readers to support children’s development once formal reading instruction has commenced. 

When children enter the alphabetic stage of reading, they must transition from being read to, and joining in, to becoming the reader of the text. During this stage, children benefit from text that supports decoding as a primary strategy for reading. Decodable texts have a specific purpose: to scaffold children’s mastery and application of the alphabetic code in reading. Once children have mastered the alphabetic code, the reading of natural language texts, with more diverse vocabulary and complex language structures, should be encouraged. It is crucial from this point that motivation for reading is maintained. 

The disconnect between the use of text and the teaching approach being employed as well as the inconsistent use of strategies to support children when reading evident in our research can be seen as a direct result of the requirement in the curriculum to use both decodable and predictable texts. It is likely that without a change to the current curriculum, this will continue to be the case. 

DISCLOSURE: Simmone Pogorzelski is a product developer for MultiLit Pty Ltd which develops decodable readers, and other reading materials.


Cheatham, J. P., & Allor, J. H. (2012). The influence of decodability in early reading text on reading achievement: a  review of the evidence. Reading and Writing, 25(9), 2223-2246. doi:10.1007/s11145-011-9355-2

Ehri, L. C. (2005). Learning to read words: Theory, Findings, and Issues. Scientific Studies of Reading,   9(2), 167-188. doi:10.1207/s1532799xssr0902_4

Hempenstall, K. (2003). The three-cueing system : trojan horse? Australian Journal of Learning Disabilities, 8(2), 15–23.

Mesmer, H. A. (2005). Text decodability and the first-grade reader. Reading & Writing   Quarterly, 21(1), 61-86. doi:10.1080/10573560590523667

Pogorzelski, S., Main, S. & Hill, S. (2021). A survey of Western Australian teachers’ use of texts in supporting beginning readers. Issues in Educational Research, 31(1), 204-223.

From left to right:

Simmone Pogorzelski is currently completing a PhD on the role of decodable texts in early reading development at Edith Cowan University (ECU). Simmone is a sessional academic in the School of Education at ECU and works as a product developer for MultiLit. Susan Main, PhD, is a Senior Lecturer in Education at Edith Cowan University in Western Australia. Her teaching and research interests include preparing pre-service and in-service teachers to teach children with diverse abilities, including evidence-based approaches to literacy instruction, managing challenging behaviour, and using technology to facilitate learning. Janet Hunter, PhD, teaches and researches in the area of literacy education at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia.  Currently, she teaches both in-service and pre-service teachers.  Research interests focus on the development of teacher professional knowledge and how teachers can support students who are failing to make adequate progress in literacy development.

A Brief History of ‘The Reading Wars’

The so-called ‘Reading Wars’ have a long history within reading education. They began as a series of competing pedagogies, ‘Method A’ versus ‘Method B’ arguments, which were hotly defended and/or attacked by advocates and adversaries within the professional bodies representing reading education and resurface regularly, often fueled by media’s tendency to polarise the debate.

In the 1950s (when I began teaching) these debates involved a choice between two pedagogies, one based on a ‘look-and-say’ or ‘whole word’ based on visual-recognition-of-word-shapes principle, the other based on a transform-the-visual-signs-to-speech-sounds principle or ‘phonics’.

The debates about these two pedagogies can be traced back to a German educator, Professor Friederich Gedike.

who in 1779 wrote an essay in which he argued that reading instruction should go from whole words to the parts of these words, i.e. the letters. Since that time the debate between whole-to-part advocates and part-to-whole advocates has been a recurring feature of reading education. 

In the modern era this debate was re-ignited with the 1967 publication of Chall’s classic volume, Learning to Read: The great debate. Although Chall renamed the two approaches as ‘code-based’ versus ‘meaning-based’, reading pedagogy was still framed as an either/or choice between two theoretical options. By ‘code-based’ Chall meant the part-to-whole process of transforming the visual display to sounds and blending these sounds together to make words. By ‘meaning-based’ she meant the ‘whole-to-part’ process of accessing meaning directly from the visual display without first accessing sound.  Despite the renaming of the issue, it was essentially a continuation of the ‘look-say’ vs ‘phonics’ debate. By the seventies and eighties this code-based vs meaning based debate had morphed into a series of variant strains of the same dichotomy such as ‘literature-based’ versus ‘skills-based’, ‘implicit’ versus ‘explicit’, ‘holistic’ versus ‘fragmented’ and ‘top-down’ versus ‘bottom-up’. 

The term ‘whole-language’ as a variant of ‘meaning-based’ first appears in the literature in 1992 in a Canadian publication, Whole Language Evaluation for Classrooms by Oran Cochran. It quickly spread to the USA where ‘whole-language’ versus ‘phonics’ became the main way of describing the issue. However, the term ‘whole language’ doesn’t appear in the Australian reading community till around the mid-nineties.

Such a long history means that today’s teachers are heirs to a long tradition of (often acrimonious and unhelpful) debate about pedagogical methods, which are presented either as bi-polar opposites, or positions along a bi-polar continuum of some kind. It’s as if the field of reading has, for a long time, suffered from something analogous to serious bi-polar disorder.

From the late nineties to the present time these dichotomies seem to have coalesced into something more complex. They are no longer perceived as ‘debates’. Rather they seem to have assumed the stature of ‘wars’. 

Thus, we now have the so-called ‘reading (or literacy) wars’. Instead of debating the pros and cons of a simple bi-polar dichotomy, the profession seems to be immersed in an all-out ‘take-no-prisoners’ war often led by psychologists and other experts in related disciplines standing outside the classroom.

The use of this military metaphor first appeared in an article entitled, From a ‘Great Debate’ to a Full-Scale War: Dispute over teaching reading heats up,by Robert Rothman in the 1990 edition of the journal, Education Week. It was quickly picked up by a Californian grandmother named Marion Joseph. She claimed to be concerned that her grandchildren were being denied access to becoming literate because Chall’s research was being ignored by the Californian system. With the help of a Californian superintendent, Bill Honig, she mounted a relentless media campaign using the term ‘reading wars’ to force the Californian government to mandate a phonics first program in public schools. This notion of ‘reading wars’ began appearing in the Australian context in the mid to late 90s and has ebbed and flowed since then. Most recently in Australia the ‘wars’ have been characterised as ‘synthetic phonics’ versus ‘balanced literacy’ although ‘balanced literacy’ has often been erroneously conflated with ‘whole language’.

A consequence of these ‘reading wars’ was the demand that only pedagogies, which are ‘evidence-based’, or ‘scientifically derived’ should be applied in the nation’s literacy classrooms. However, invoking ‘science’ and ‘evidence-based research’ as a way to reduce the theoretical confusion surrounding literacy education doesn’t seem to have helped much.There are quite distinct views of ‘good science’ and ‘good evidence’ held within the education research community. All that seems to have happened is that a new round of argument and debate about whose science and whose evidence should be considered, has begun

Such a state of affairs begs the following question: Why is reading education so pedagogically confused? The answer to this question lies in history as well as in different understandings about what reading is.

My research and the hundreds of research papers written on this topic have led me to believe that the notion of ‘teaching phonics effectively’ is contingent on how one defines, thinks, and talks about such concepts as ‘effective reading’ and ‘effective learning’. Until the community comes to some agreement on what these terms actually entail in the 2020s and beyond, the same theoretical squabbles will continue to plague education. Such theoretical arguments are not helpful for the teaching profession or the teaching of reading. To date, not enough attention has been paid to educators’ experiences and their evidence in helping children learn to read in classroom contexts.

Brian Cambourne is principal honorary fellow at the University of Wollongong and foundation patron of the Foundation for Learning and Literacy. He is a lifelong researcher of literacy and learning. He completed his PhD at James Cook University, was a post-doctoral Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Fulbright Scholar.


Australian Literacy Educators Association, Summary of the ALEA Submission to the National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy. Accessed at: 

Chall, J. (1967). Learning to read: the great debate. New York: McGraw Hill.

Cochran, O. (1992). Whole language evaluation for classrooms. Accessed at:

Ewing, R. (ed). (2006) Beyond the reading wars. A balanced approach to helping children learn to read. Primary English Teaching Association Australia, Newton.

Paisey, D. Learning to read: Professor Friederich Gedike. Primer of 1791. Accessed at:

Rothman, R. (1990). From a ‘Great Debate’ to a Full-Scale War: Dispute over teaching reading heats up,Education Week. Accessed at:

Snyder, I. (2008) The literacy wars: why teaching children to read is a battleground in Australia. Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

The Reading wars are over: Whole language vs. Phonics Accessed at: 

To cite this paper: Cambourne, B. (2021) A brief history of the ‘reading wars’ 

The cover image: George Hodan has released this “Child And Books” image under Public Domain license.

Over 180 literacy educators voice their concerns over Dan Tehan’s expert task force on reading

This open letter voices the concerns of over 180 literacy educators on the composition (and implied terms of reference) of the “expert task force” created to advise the Australian Government on the teaching of phonics and reading.

In his press release of 15th October 2019, the Federal Minister for Education, the Honourable Dan Tehan, announced he had asked the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) to create an expert task force to do two things:

  • provide AITSL with advice on the inclusion of phonics in national accreditation standards for Initial Teacher Education (ITE); and
  • advise on how to ensure graduate teachers can teach the fundamentals of literacy through learning how to teach the five essential elements of literacy: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, reading fluency, comprehension.

Since the press release, further details have emerged about the function of the task force, which includes giving advice and resources to academics in ITE, informing them how to teach phonics and early reading.

The expert task force comprises:

  • Jennifer Buckingham – an AITSL board member, former researcher at the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) and Strategic Director for MultiLit (a provider of commercial synthetic phonic programs);
  • Lorraine Hammond – Associate Professor at Edith Cowan University, teaching courses in Direct Instruction, and President of Learning Difficulties Australia; 
  • Robyn Cox – Associate Professor at the Australian Catholic University and President of the Primary English Teachers Association of Australia (PETAA).  

The signatories of this letter have profound concerns about the task force and its functions for the following reasons:

Erroneous assumptions and narrow focus

  • the Minister’s announcement is premised on an erroneous assumption, which is that phonics is not being taught in schools and universities;
  • although five essential elements of reading are mentioned, the discourse appears to privilege phonics. In his press release the Minister mentioned phonics six times, reading twice and comprehension once, which implies the remit of the task force will be narrowly focused.
  • literacy education consists of more than the five essential elements referred to in the Ministerial press release.
  • the emphasis on reading and phonics appears to privilege one mode of language over others (e.g. speaking and listening, writing, viewing) and privileges only one aspect of reading (phonics), when NAPLAN data demonstrates that writing and higher order comprehension in upper primary and secondary years require attention.  

Composition of the expert panel (task force)

  • The educational perspectives represented in the task force membership are not balanced.
  • Two members of the task force have highlighted their bias in media releases in which they claim Initial Teacher Education providers have not taught students how to teach phonics.
  • One member of the task force has a vested interest in synthetic phonics, as a senior employee at MultiLit. We consider this may constitute a conflict of interest.
  • One member of the task force is an advocate of Direct Instruction, which may result in advice that privileges narrowly framed teaching methods.
  • One member of the task force has links with a conservative think tank (CIS), which brings into question the political neutrality of the task force.

Initial Teacher Education provider viewpoint and concerns

  • University Initial Teacher Education courses that are accredited by AITSL already must meet both the AITSL Program Standards, AECEQA and the Australian National Curriculum and have evidence of meeting the Graduate Teacher Standards.
  • The Australian National Curriculum includes phonics and the five essential elements of literacy.
  • Academics teaching into Initial Teacher Education programs/courses have both authentic classroom experience and high-level qualifications in the field, with many holding a PhD.
  • The imposition of narrowly prescribed methods, by an external body, is not conducive to professional dialogue.

As a collective we ask our Australian Education Minister, Dan Tehan, to consider the following as a constructive way forward:

  • review the composition of the task force with a lens of expertise in child/adolescent language and literacy development to include experienced practitioners who represent a broader spectrum of pedagogical approaches to teaching oracy, reading, writing and visual literacy;
  • minimise the potential possible perceived conflicts of interest;
  • work collectively with the various State and Territory Regulators of Initial Teacher Education programs to review the evidence presented by each Higher Education provider as part of the accreditation process;
  • acknowledge the work currently undertaken by all Higher Education providers who have nationally accredited Initial Teacher Education programs approved by AITSL;
  • restore confidence within the community about the quality of the Initial Teacher Education programs, that they are accredited, and quality assurance has been undertaken as part of the accreditation process.

The future

As a collective we share the minister’s views and goals regarding the enhancement of children’s literacy. We acknowledge the diversity of the school population and the need for our initial teacher educators to be able to differentiate the curriculum.

We also acknowledge that the role of a Graduate Teacher, although classroom ready, is indeed only at the Graduate level and that there is a need for all state and territory Ministers of Education to be committed to ensuring the continued professional development of graduate teachers as part of the professional standards as articulated by the Australian Institute of Teaching and School leadership.

Kind regards,

180+ concerned literacy educators
(Names attached) 

Dr         Helen Adam                 Senior Lecturer Literacy and Course Coordinator

Dr         Misty Adoniou              Associate Professor, University of Canberra

Dr         Jennifer Alford            Senior Lecturer, English as a Second Language and Literacy Learning

Prof      JoBeth Allen                 Professor Emeritus, Language and Literacy Education, University of  Georgia. International Reading Hall of Fame.

Prof      Richard Allington      Professor Emeritus, University of Tennessee.  International Reading Hall of  Fame.

Dr         John Andrews               Curriculum Advisor, Senior Curriculum Advisor Education Department of Victoria; Author; classroom teacher (retired)

            Roger Atkinson             Co-editor, Issues in Educational Research

Dr         Glenn Auld                    Lecturer, Faculty of Education, Peninsula Campus, Monash University

Prof      Caroline Barrett-Pugh   Early Childhood Studies

Dr         Pam Bartholomaeus      Lecturer, Rural Education and Literacy Coordinator of Secondary Initial Teacher Education Programs, College of Edn, Psychology & Social Work

            Wendy Bean                 Literacy Consultant, ALEA Principal Fellow. 

Dr         Eve Bearne                   Formerly University of Cambridge

Prof      William Bintz              Professor of Teaching and Learning, Kent State University

            Faye Bolton                  Literacy Consultant, Melbourne.

            Georgina Bonzos          Teacher (retired)

            Fiona Boylan                 Lecturer, Early Childhood Studies

            Elizabeth Broad            International Convenor, United Kingdom Literacy Association

Prof      Greg Brooks                 Emeritus Professor of Education, University of Sheffied U.K. International Reading Hall of Fame.

Dr         Nikki Brunker                School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney

            Lisa Burman                 Education Consultant, author

Prof      Cathy Burnett               Professor of Literacy and Education, Sheffield Hallam University

            Lynne Bury                   Ph.D. candidate, Literacy Consultant, Melbourne.

Dr         Glenda Cain                 Senior Lecturer; Literacy Coordinator

            Phillip Callen                 Education Consultant, SA

            Sharon Callen               Education Consultant, SA

Dr         Jon Callow                   Senior Lecturer, University of Sydney

Prof      Brian Cambourne AM    Principal Fellow, University of Wollongong.  International Reading Hall of Fame.

            Terri Campbell              Literacy Consultant, Director Campbell Consultancy

            Kelly Carabott               Assistant Lecturer, Faculty of Education, Monash University.

Dr         Liz Chamberlain Senior Lecturer in Education

Dr         Denise Chapman          Lecturer, Faculty of Education, Monash University.

            Helen Chatto                Primary School Principal  

Dr         Julian Chen                  Senior Lecturer

            Keay Cobbin                 Education Consultant

            Robyn Coleston            Education Consultant, New York

Prof      Barbara  Comber       Research Professor, School of Education, University of SA. International Reading Hall of Fame

Prof      Phillip Cormack         Adjunct Research Associate Professor, University of SA

            Christine Cougan          Teacher

            David Crawford             Former English teacher

Prof      Ken Cruikshank            School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney

Prof      Wendy Cumming-Potvin      Associate Professor

Narelle Daffurn      Sessional academic, PhD Candidate; MEd Learning Support – Reading Difficulties. Experienced Senior Teacher.

Prof      Susan Davis                  Central Queensland University

            A.J. Dempster               Master Teacher, ACT

Dr         Michael Dilena              Formerly Director, Learning Language and Literacy Research Centre, University of SA and Hong Kong Institute of Education.  Now University of  Hong Kong.

Dr         Madeleine Dobson        Lecturer and Course Coordinator of Early Childhood

Prof      Henrietta Dombey         Professor Emeritus, University of Brighton, UK. International Reading Hall of Fame.

Dr         Clare Dowdell               University of Plymouth, UK

Dr         Jennie Duke                  Sessional Academic and Inclusive Education Consultant

Prof      Carole Edelsky              Professor Emerita, Arizona State University

Prof      Warwick Elley               Emeritus Professor of Education, University of Canterbury, NZ

            Bronwyn Elliott             

Prof      Marie Emmitt                Emeritus Professor Australian Catholic University

Dr         Angela  Evangelinou-Yiannakis  Lecturer and Honorary Research Fellow

Prof      Robyn Ewing                Professor Emerita Robyn Ewing, Sydney School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney.

Prof      Beryl Exley                    Course Convenor, ALEA Life Member. 

            John Farvis                   Literacy Consultant, New York

Dr         Julie Faulkner               Senior Lecturer, Monash University.

            Judith Fellowes             Reading Recovery Tutor, Victoria

            Janet  Fellowes             Language and Literacy Consultant

            Julie Fitzpatrick             Teacher

Prof      Bev Flückiger                Professor in Education, Griffith University

Prof      Alan Flurkey                  Professor of Literacy Studies, Chair Dept of Specialized Programs in Education, Hofstra University, New York.

            Narelle  Furminger         Classroom teacher; literacy leader.

Prof      Susanne Gannon          Associate Professor, Western Sydney University

Dr         Paul Gardner                Senior Lecturer, Literacy;  UK Literacy Association Ambassador for Australia.

Prof      Robyn Gibson               Associate Professor, School of Education and Social Work, University of  Sydney

            Shani Gill                      Teacher

           Libby Gleeson AM         Writer

Prof      Yetta Goodman            Regents Professor, Emerita, University of Arizona; Past President International Reading Association; Board Member of other major professional literacy organisations.

Prof      Kenneth Goodman        Professor Emeritus, College of Education, University of Arizona; Past President of National Council of Teachers of English;  Board Member of other major professional literacy organisations.

Dr         Deborah Goodman       Professor of Literacy Studies, Hofstra University, NY. 

            Mardi Gorman              Literacy Consultant; PETAA Board Member

Dr         Alison Grove O’Grady   Program Director Combine Degrees, University of Sydney.

            Patrick  Hampton          Primary Program Coordinator

Prof      Jane Hansen                 Professor Emeritus University of Virginia.  Member of Reading Hall of Fame.

Prof      Colin Harrison              Emeritus Professor of Literacy Studies in Education, University of Nottingham.  Past President, United Kingdom Literacy Association. Member of Reading Hall of Fame. 

Prof      Jerome Harste              Distinguished Professor, Culture, Literacy and Language Education, Indiana University.  Member of Reading Hall of Fame.

Dawn Haynes Literacy consultant

            Christina Holly              Lecturer, Diversity and Inclusion, Primary and Secondary Education           

Dr         Jessica Holloway          DECRA Research Fellow, Australian Research Council, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

            David Hornsby              Literacy Consultant, ALEA Principal Fellow, author, ex-principal.

            Penny Hutton                Session Lecturer University of Sydney; Professional Learning Consultant PETAA

            Danny Hyndman           Education Consultant

Prof      Jenny Jay                     Associate Professor for Early Childhood Studies

Prof      Moss    Julianne            Professor Julianne Moss, Deakin University

Dr Anne Keary Lecturer, Faculty of Education, Monash University

            Olivia    Karaolis            University of Sydney

            Katrina Kemp               President, Australian Literacy Educators Association, Sydney North

            Tony Kennedy               teacher 

            Bushra Khateeb            Deputy Head of Primary; Primary Curriculum Coordinator, Islamic College of Melbourne

Dr         Lisbeth Kitson               Lecturer, English and Literacy Education, Griffith University 

Dr         Bree Kitt                       Lecturer, Language and Literacy, School of Education and the Arts, CQU.

A.Prof   Marianne Knaus            Associate Dean, Early Childhood Studies, School of Education, Edith Cowan University

            Barbara Kneebone        Primary teacher (retired)

Prof      Stephen Krashen          Professor Emeritus, University of Southern California

            Margrete Lamond         PhD candidate, Monash University

Dr         Gloria   Latham             Honorary Senior Lecturer, University of Sydney; former Literacy lecturer, RMIT University

Prof      Carol Lauritzen            Professor Emerita of Education, Eastern Oregon University

            Joy Lawn                      Freelance children’s literature expert

            Narissa Leung               Education Consultant 

            Alison Lockhart             Sydney School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney

Dr         Kaye Lowe                    Read4Success

            Janet  Lyon                   Secondary English teacher;  teacher of students diagnosed with dyslexia.

Prof      Mary Macken-Horarik    Associate Professor, Language and Literacy Education, Australian Catholic University

            Susan Mahar                Literacy Educator, Melbourne

            Tim Mahar                    Concerned teacher (retired)

Prof      Jackie Manuel               Associate Professor, School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney

Prof      Richard Mayer             Distinguished Professor, Cognition, Perception and Cognitive Neuroscience.

Dr         Clare McBeath              Publisher, Issues in Educational Research

Prof      Jill McClay                    Professor Emirata, University of Alberta

            Mary McDonald            Primary teacher (retired) 

Dr       Lorraine McDonald        Honorary Fellow, ACU; Literacy Consultant, PETAA/ALEA

Dr         Kelli McGraw                Lecturer, Queensland University of Technology.

Dr         Pam McIntyre              Author; honorary senior lecturer in literacy RMIT University, former lecturer in literacy at the University of Melbourne.

            Anne McNamara           Former Early Years and Primary Teacher, Ex-President ALEA, Curriculum Consultant ACT.

            Deb McPherson            Chief Education Officer, English, NSW Dept of Education (retired) Geringong, NSW.

Dr         Margaret Merga            Senior Lecturer

Dr         Richard Meyer              Regents’ Professor, Department of Language, Literacy and Sociocultural Studies, University of New Mexico.

Prof      Kathy Mills                    Research Professor, Literacies and Digital Cultures, Institute for Learning Sciences and Teacher Education, Brisbane.

Prof      Julianne Moss               Deakin University

            M. Murphy                    Teacher

Dr         Amanda Niland             University of Sydney

            Karen Nociti                  Lecturer, Early Childhood Studies

Dr      Annemaree O’Brien       Lecturer, Language and Literacy Education, University of Melbourne

Dr         Joanne O’Mara             Associate Professor in Language, Literacy an Literacy Education

            J. Oksiss                      Teacher

            Alayne Ozturk               Senior Lecturer, Head of English, Kingston University

            Jo Padgham                 ALEA Principal Fellow, Fellow Australian Council Educational Leaders. ACT

Prof      Judy Parr                      Professor of Education

            Sandra Parsons            Lecturer, PhD Candidate, School of Education, Edith Cowan University.

            Carol Pearce                 Literacy Consultant, Junior Primary Principal (retired), University tutor (Language and Literacy, English)

Dr         John Pollock                 Formally Associate Professor of Language and Literacy, RMIT

Dr         Debbie Powell              Associate Professor Emerita, Language and Literacy, University of Northern Colorado, Wilmington

Dr         Jacqualine Rankine       Curriculum Development;  Teacher (retired)

            Reading Recovery         Dr Catheryn Sale


            David Reedy                 Literacy Consultant

Dr         Jennifer Rennie             Senior Lecturer, Acting Professor, Monash University; Associate Editor Australian Journal of Language and Literacy.

            Denyse Ritchie              The THRASS Institute

            Amelia Ruscoe              Lecturer

Dr         Kathy Rushton              School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney

            Jennifer Ryan                Teacher

Dr         Jo Ryan                        Senior Lecturer English and Literacy Education, Faculty of Education and Arts, ACU

Tim Ryan Former early years literacy teacher; Language and Learning in the Middle Years tutor; Principal; New York based educational consultant

Dr         Carmel Sandiford         Senior Lecturer, Language and Literacy Education, Melbourne Graduate School of Education. 

Dr         John Saunders              Honorary Associate, University of Sydney; Director of Education & Community Partnerships, Sydney Theatre Company.

            Yvonne Sawers             Senior Lecturer, Coordinator Primary Program

            Johanna Scott              Teacher (retired); Educational Publisher

Prof      Janet Scull                    Associate Professor, Associate Dean Education, Monash University

            Jan Senior                    Lecturer, Literacy Education, RMIT;  Literacy Consultant.

Dr         Cheryl  Semple             Lecturer, Literacy Education, RMIT (retired) 

Dr         Steve Shann                 Adjunct Assistant Professor, Secondary Literacy, University of Canberra.

            Julie Shepherd              Literacy consultant, Victorian State Director ALEA 

Prof      Runar Sigporssan         Professor of Education

Dr         Sharyn  Silver                Formerly Senior Lecturer English/Literacy ACU.  17 years in NSW DET in senior positions.

Prof      Michele Simons            Professor Michele Simons, Dean of Education, Western Sydney University.

Prof      Alyson Simpson            Professor Alyson Simpson, Potts Point, NSW.

            Diane Snowball             Literacy Consultant, Past-President ALEA

            Brenda Stewart             South Coast, NSW.

Prof      Madonna Stinson          Associate Professor, School of Education and Professional Studies, Griffith University

            Deb Sukarna                 Literacy Consultant, ex-principal.

            Michelle Tham              Teacher

Dr Angela Thomas Senior Lecturer in English Education, University of Tasmania

Dr         Anne Thwaite                Lecturer, Language Education

Lyn Tonkin Former Teacher and Principal; Teacher educator at UniSA in Language and Literacy Education; Member and Executive Member of ALEA; Literacy Consultant Singapore, PNG, Philippines and Solomon Islands.

            Christine Topfer            Australian Literacy Educators’ Association, Principal Fellow.

Dr         Deborah Towns OAM    Academic researcher; teaching experience in primary, secondary and                                                     tertiary.

Dr         Eseta Tualaulelei           University of Southern Queensland

            Tracy Tunney                Classroom teacher

Dr         Jan Turbill                     FACE, University of Wollongong. International Reading Hall of Fame.

            Rita van Haren              ACTATE Executive Officer

Dr         Lisa van Leent              Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Education, Queensland University of Technology.

Prof      Renate Valtin                International Reading Hall of Fame.  Berlin. 

Dr         Maureen Walsh             Previously Professor of Literacy Education, ACU; Honorary Professor, University of Sydney.

            Lorna Ward                   Independent Literacy Consultant

            Janelle  Warhurst          ALEA member

Dr         Craig Whitsed               Senior Lecturer, School of Education, Curtin University; Visiting Fellow University of Groningen.  

Dr         Sandra Wilde                Hunter College, City University of New York (retired)

            Lyn Wilkinson               Senior Lecturer, English, literacy and Language Arts, Flinders University for 25 years. 

            Stephen Willy                Education Consultant

            Cait Wilson                   Literacy Consultant   

            Lorraine Wilson             Literacy Consultant, author

Lesley WingJan Teacher (retired), Literacy Consultant

            Mary-Anne Wolpert       Affiliated Lecturer, University of Cambridge

Prof      Annette Woods             Faculty of Education, Queensland University of Technology

            Alan Wright                   Education Consultant, author

Dr         Katina Zammit              Deputy Dean / Senior Lecturer, English Pedagogy, Curriculum School of Education, Western Sydney University. 

            Roger Zubrinich            Former English teacher;  Lecturer;  Coordinator professional writing TAFESA; Former Advisor to South Australian Government ministers. 

Image by Adobe Stock

Here’s what Australian parents think about teaching phonics to pre-schoolers

Phonics remains one of the most controversial literacy instruction topics debated in Australian education. Early childhood prior-to-school settings have not been immune to the phonics debate, usually centered on the first years of formal schooling. Media, policy makers, academics and teachers views often dominate the phonics debate, but parents and carers of young children also want to have their voice heard on this highly contentious topic.

Explicit systematic phonics instruction, including commercially produced phonics program use, is occurring in the prior-to-school years; in some cases with children as young as 2 years of age. This formal approach to phonics does not always fit within the play-based pedagogies advocated by early childhood literacy researchers and teachers in the prior-to-school years.

As a former preschool teacher I was aware of the value of parent-teacher partnerships in supporting children’s literacy education. This motivated my investigation of parents’ perceptions of phonics in prior-to-school settings. In previous research I revealed perceived parental pressure reported by early childhood educators as a reason for including more formalised phonics lessons and commercial phonics program use, with very young children before they start school.

My research project

My survey research investigated the literacy beliefs of parents whose children attended prior-to-school settings including early learning centres attached to schools, community based kindergartens and long day care centres. The survey focused on parental beliefs about phonics in preschools and their expectations of literacy learning in early childhood.

Parental beliefs about phonics

The increase in formalisation of narrow literacy practices continues to create tension between those who favour either adult-led phonics practice or child-initiated play. Just as researchers, politicians and teachers are divided on their views about appropriate phonics instruction, parents also report different views about the level of importance placed on phonics and how phonics should be taught. Overwhelmingly, nearly all parents reported that phonics was important and wanted phonics taught in the prior-to-school years, but not necessarily through explicit, systematic, synthetic methods.

I found many parents expressed concern about task-orientated, narrow teaching approaches and a synthetic phonics first and fast method. These are is similar findings to a previous UK study.

Over 90% of parents in my study reported the belief that the best way for children to develop alphabet letter and sound knowledge is through play-based learning, as the following parents described:

Clair: I truly believe that children attending kindergarten* should be playing…the idea of a kindergarten implementing a literacy program is absurd.

Tamara: I believe that phonics instruction has no place in a pre-prep* context…I’m incredibly concerned by the pressure applied to children to learn phonics.

Dana: My child is so happy at kindy* and I’m not sure he would be if it was too structured and literacy based. If he shows an interest though of course I would have no problem with this (structured phonics).

*Kindergartens, kindy and pre-prep are Queensland’s terms for the years prior to formal schooling. Pseudonyms have been used.

Phonics in early childhood

Parents agreed with research that a child’s alphabetic knowledge is one of the precursors for later reading success. Children’s experiences with alphabet letters and sound learning can vary as phonics can be taught in different ways.

The most common phonics methods are synthetics, (a specific method of teaching sounds and building up to reading words) analytic (breaking down a word into parts if you don’t know the word) and ‘blended’ methods (a mix of synthetic and analytic approaches depending on the teachers’ literacy lesson intensions). Commercial phonics programs often follow synthetic phonics methods with explicit teaching of isolated letter-sound relationships, which are then blended to form words.

The use of commercial phonics programs and synthetic phonics teaching methods are on the rise in Australia. However, an over-reliance on one method for teaching phonics has been critiqued in the research literature.

The issue with synthetic phonics and commercial phonics program use in the prior-to-school years, with children aged five years and younger, is that academic literacy learning should not be separated from play. In other words, with children aged birth-to-five, phonics should be supported, but through contextualised and play-based learning. Contextualised learning occurs when a child’s immediate interests are taken into consideration. For example, when talking about letters in the child’s own name, or the name of the child’s family and friends.

Nearly all parents in my research did not want 2, 3 and 4 year old children sitting down as a whole group, in front of a teacher, responding to flash cards or rote chanting songs.

What do parents want?

  • A large number of parents want early childhood teachers in the prior-to-school years to begin teaching phonics, but insist instruction should occur through meaningful play-based experiences, rather than teachers supplying worksheets and using commercial phonics programs. Only a small number of parents agreed commercial phonics programs should be used in the prior-to-school years.
  • There was disagreement between parent responses over whether learning all or some alphabet letters and sounds in preschool were important. Around to-thirds of parents believed if children knew their alphabet letters and sound in preschool, they will read more easily when they start school.
  • I further found over one-third of parents wanted early childhood teachers to focus more on reading and writing with children, ensuring children could name all 26-alphabet letters before starting school. However, there were also a third of parents who did not share this view, and were against preschool teachers focusing on learning to name, or label, all alphabet letters in the prior-to-school years.
  • There were also differences in some responses between parents who chose to send their children to school-based early learning centres, long day care centres, and community based kindergartens. Parents whose children attended school-based early learning centres were more likely to place a higher importance on phonics and name writing, than parents in stand-alone long day care centres and community based kindergartens. Parents of children in school-based early learning centres were also more likely to want teachers to use commercial phonics programs.
  • Many parents wanted teachers to support children in learning to write their name. This view is consistent with research on children’s name writing as a way of supporting early phonics learning in preschools.
  • Parents also supported their child’s phonics learning at home. Over 70% of parents reported they engaged in shared reading of alphabet books with their children. Half of the parents reported providing their children with access to TV shows and technology that specifically supported alphabet learning, such as Sesame Street and alphabet apps. They also purchased alphabet colouring in books for their children as a way of encouraging familiarity with the English alphabet letters.

A parent-teacher shared view on phonics

Positive relationships between early childhood literacy rich play environments and explicit phonics learning can occur when appropriate adult support and literacy materials are made available for children in meaningful contexts, such as adults drawing attention to letters and sounds in children’s own name and shared picture book reading.

Policy makers, academics and teachers are not the only big players in the phonics debate. Parents want their views heard – ultimately this debate is about their children. Parents are the children’s first and primary teachers so it is important that we understand parental views on phonics, because beliefs impact on the types of literacy practices children experience.

Parents want phonics in preschools, but emphasise the importance of play. A shared parent-teacher understanding and positive partnerships can ultimately support children’s literacy development.


Dr Stacey Campbell is a lecturer in early childhood at Queensland University of Technology. Her research focuses on early childhood literacy, phonics, teacher and parent beliefs and practices. Stacey completed a mixed-methods PhD in code-related literacy and phonics whilst working as an early childhood lecturer at Macquarie University. In addition to her PhD, she has a Masters degree in children’s literature and two teaching degrees, one in early childhood birth-to-eight and another in primary school education. Stacey also has over 10 years experience as an early childhood teacher in both the prior-to-school years and early years of school.


Stacey presented her paper on parental perceptions of phonics at the 2018 AARE conference this week.