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.

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.


Teaching literacy is more than teaching simple reading skills: it can’t be done in five easy steps

If we truly care about all Australian children and young people becoming literate I believe it is vital we understand and define the complexity of literacy.

The conflation of different terms like reading instruction and literacy is not very useful. While reading is part of literacy, literacy is a much bigger concept which is continually changing due to the ever-increasing forms of literacy that are developing.

Educators who specialise in literacy are currently working with the Australian Curriculum definition (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority) which defines literacy as encompassing:

…listening to, reading, viewing, speaking, writing and creating oral, print, visual and digital texts, and using and modifying language for different purposes in a range of contexts.

Literacy encompasses the knowledge and skills students need to access, understand, analyse and evaluate information, make meaning, express thoughts and emotions, present ideas and opinions, interact with others and participate in activities at school and in their lives beyond school….

Becoming literate is not simply about knowledge and skills. Certain behaviours and dispositions assist students to become effective learners who are confident and motivated to use their literacy skills broadly.

For example, the Australian curriculum’s definition of literacy thus far exceeds the ‘key skills’ addressed in the recently launched FIVE from FIVE project proposed by the Centre for Independent Studies. FIVE from FIVE is being touted, with much fanfare, as some all-encompassing way of teaching children to read. Evidence-based methods of how to teach reading differ markedly from such simplistic ‘solutions’.

Each one of the ‘five key skills’ (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension) listed by the FIVE from FIVE project is indeed an important skill. This is why they are already embedded in most teachers’ reading programs. In my experience there are few literacy educators who would deny the importance of phonics and phonemic awareness (identifying, thinking about, and working with the individual sounds in words) as needed when becoming literate.

However, these are not the only skills needed in helping a child learn to read. Any child being taught to read in a way that focuses solely on these skills will be short-changed. I believe that asserting that such a program is sufficient could be damaging to many children as it could lead to them disengaging from the literacy learning process.

Stop telling teachers there is a simplistic way to teach reading

Like many educators, I am fed up with the suggestion that teachers and principals, parents and policymakers are unaware of the importance of teaching these skills. Competent, experienced readers sample just enough visual information to feel satisfied that they have grasped the meaning so far of whatever text they are reading. They also bring their past experiences and knowledge of language to the information in a specific text and use prediction and questioning strategies to test and re‐test that they have understood the author’s purpose in a particular context. An over‐emphasis on letter‐sound relationships can be very confusing for children learning to read.

Australian teachers, principals, parents and policymakers already have a deep understanding of the repertoire of strategies and approaches that need to be chosen to suit the intellectual and learning needs of individual children. They know how important it is to make sure that all children learn to read for meaning and to enjoy the process.

Let’s talk about what is important

I agree with eminent Australian literacy educators and educational researchers Emmitt, Hornsby and Wilson who explain that the:

Three important sources of information in text are meaning, grammar and letter‐sound relationships – often referred to as semantics, syntax and graphophonic relationships respectively. Emmitt, Hornsby and Wilson (2013, p.3)

These sources, or cueing systems, work together simultaneously. Over‐emphasis on any one cueing system when learning to read is not effective.

Also, as teachers know, a rich vocabulary and fluency are significant but children need to be able to go beyond simple literal ‘comprehension’ of a text. They need to be able to make inferences and evaluate the importance of words within a text.

Teachers of reading today share rich authentic literary texts with their students. They know extensive research has demonstrated the importance of prediction and questioning strategies in learning to be literate.

One of the best ways for children to excel in reading comprehension tasks is for them to have the opportunity to interact widely with a wide range of books, selected by them, for enjoyment.

Children not only need to learn how to make meaning from text to carefully analyse the arguments or assertions in a text, to evaluate texts, but also how to create their own with confidence and creative flair.

There is no single recipe for literacy learning. The FIVE from FIVE project is yet another implicit criticism of the Australian teaching profession; and a good example of what we should not be doing by reducing the teaching of reading to five skills.

Instead we should be investing in more teachers to work with the children who need more intensive support. Our public schools should be appropriately funded to provide rich authentic resources and ongoing teacher professional learning. These are the things that will make a difference.


EwingRobyn Ewing is Professor of Teacher Education and the Arts at the University of Sydney. She teaches in the areas of curriculum, English and drama, language and early literacy development. She works with both undergraduate and postgraduate pre-service and inservice teachers. 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. She has been published widely in this area. Her current research interests also include teacher education, especially the experiences of early-career teachers and the role of mentoring; sustaining curriculum innovation; and evaluation, inquiry and case-based learning.

 Robyn was president of the Primary English Teachers Association from 2001-2006 and is immediate past president of the Australian Literacy Educators Association (ALEA) and former vice president of Sydney Story Factory.  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 West Words and Visiting Scholar at Barking Gecko Children’s Theatre. She enjoys working collaboratively with classroom teachers interested in innovative curriculum practices. 

What’s new about dyslexia?

A learning disability may be thought as a kind of ailment, difficulty, trouble, condition, even an illness in the eyes of some (with, sometimes, special gifts notwithstanding), and as such a special education teacher is a type of clinician.

Special education teacher as a clinician

We have a dictum in clinical medicine that states that we use treatments because they work, and not necessarily only because they make sense, and, as a corollary, we do not use them if they do not work, even though theory says they should work (change the theory!).   Nonetheless, it is fun to have theories and it is useful to have them as a way, at least, to devise new treatments (hoping that they will work). And, clinicians are commonly interested in the causes of the illness or condition they work with. In the case of developmental dyslexia, and unlike the situation in the 80s and before, many scientists have become interested in dyslexia and its causes, and many theories have emerged, some of which may now be contributing to new ideas for treatments.

Theories and new ideas about dyslexia

Everyone intuits that reading comes through the eyes (unless you are reading Braille), and therefore the visual system could be implicated in dyslexia. As it turns out, based on more recent research, the visual system may indeed be dysfunctional, although it is not clear to what extent the visual problem contributes to the reading difficulty. Some recently published scientific papers show that manipulating the way visual information is provided during reading improves the success rate. Other articles show that playing some action games on your computer or handheld device improves reading ability. Still others have failed to demonstrate significant visual problems in dyslexia and have discarded this as a fundamental explanation. The truth must exist somewhere in the middle, and at least one explanation may be that not all dyslexics are the same.  A convenient and ecumenical hypothesis would be that several systems contribute to learning to read and to reading (not entirely the same thing), and that mixes of deficits in all of these systems are needed for the clinical problem to emerge. In that case, helping out any one of the systems may be enough to get the problem somewhat taken care of.

A majority of researchers (whom the visual fans consider to be a mafia because they are powerful nowadays) are more inclined to blame the language system as the primary cause of dyslexia and pooh-pooh any visual explanation.

Phonetics and dyslexia

There are oodles of data showing some form of language problem in dyslexics, most of which having to do with phonology. Phonology is the study of the sound-structure of a language, and dyslexics have problem playing with language sounds (as in pig-latin and rhyming, for instance), which suggests that they do not know them well enough. However, phonology itself is a complex concept that contains sub-parts, which begs the question as to what part of phonology is involved. Some researchers, including this writer, believe that phonology can be subdivided into phonological grammar and phonetics, which are somewhat independent from each other in principle and in the brain systems that support them. The phonological grammar is the part of phonology that has to do with what sounds go together legally in a particular language (for instance, in English no word has the structure “lc” at the start, but “cl” is allowed, e.g., click, clack, clock). It appears that dyslexics are capable of learning these types of grammatical rules.

On the other hand, they are bad at speech perception, and, in one study, they even showed difficulty distinguishing a natural language from a machine-generated one. As this part of phonology, phonetics, implicates perception, rather than only the cognitive aspects of language, it is reasonable to suggest that dyslexia may originate from the dysfunction of very low level acoustic processors in the brain, soon after a sound first impinges on it at the brainstem, just in from the inner ear.

What does study of the brain have to say about these questions and debates?

Well, the study of the brain is a treacherous as the study of anything else, in that the scientist is prone to find things she can think of, and more rarely discovers things she did not suspect; she is also limited by the tools she has at her disposal. Most brain scientists who study dyslexia nowadays look at the function of the brain while the dyslexic is carrying out a language task.

For this, functional imaging with a magnetic resonance imager is used (like the one your physician uses to diagnose the cause of a headache, for instance, but used in a different way). First, the look is already biased, because language is emphasized (with rare exceptions in the field). Second, the look is biased, because it focuses on the function of the cerebral cortex (the highly folded rind containing most of the brain cells, or neurons, covering the cerebrum, which has grown out of proportion in human beings). It tends to miss the deeper parts of the brain, and misses the brainstem altogether, where more of sensory and perceptual experiences are processed.

There are clearly differences in the ways the brain functions when faced with a language task in dyslexics compared to good readers. For instance, the processing that should be mostly mediated by a given region of the cortex, is displaced both to other regions in the same hemisphere of the brain and to the other hemisphere, which means that the language circuits are altered. Areas that should be quiet during the task are not quiet, and those that should be highly activated are less activated, or not activated at all.

What do these differences mean?

We know that dyslexics read differently already. If the brain tests don’t show it, there is something wrong with the brain tests. Further, the tests have to go beyond showing differences which we already know exist. They have to tell us about mechanisms, the knowledge of which might help us with diagnosing dyslexia earlier, earlier at least than a child’s ability to read, even speak. This is because in dyslexia, as with other developmental cognitive conditions, early diagnosis promises better prevention and treatment. Another potential use of this kind of brain research would be to help us to differentiate among different types of dyslexia, presumably with different treatment approaches, which the reading tests alone may not be able to do. Finally, an altogether different type of scientist is looking for fundamental causes.

What are the genetic and environmental elements that predispose a child to dyslexia?

Some progress has been made in this regard, although I must say that progress has tangibly slowed down in the past couple of years. In order to discover a so-called dyslexia risk gene, it is important to examine literally thousands of people, and this presents a logistical problem for researchers. Some risk genes have been found and confirmed in more than one study (this is important). These genes, interestingly, point to pathways involved both in the structure and function of brain cells (neurons). They involve both neurons in the cerebral cortex and neurons in the deeper structures noted above. In some cases, the neurons may be noisy and unable to represent fine sound distinctions.

This is potentially very exciting, but still too early to make a great deal of. Potential outcomes of this research, if it pans out, would be medications that decrease the neuronal noisiness.

However, it should be stressed that the best therapy in this case would be to quiet down these neurons together with exposing the child to special education. It is not different from what I tell my patients with attention deficit disorder: “Look, this medicine will make your brain more suitable for learning in the classroom and while reading, but it won’t learn for you; you still have to study!

 More is coming

There is a lot more about dyslexia research, and one of the most exciting parts of it is that it dovetails nicely with biological research on other learning and developmental disorders. So, there are lots of people working to make things better. Moreover, there are lots of people making sure that the research is good.

In the end, what we want to do is to diagnose the risk earlier and plug the young children into programs that will lessen the impact of whatever negative neurobiological burden they were born in, while at the same time spending more time developing their particular genius.


Professor Albert M. Galaburda is currently in Australia and will be presenting at the  The Learning Difference Convention in Sydney on 6th & 7Th August at Rosehill Gardens Racecourse.


al Professor Albert M.Galaburda

Professor Albert M. Galaburda Harvard University USA, is the Emily Fisher Landau Professor of Neurology and Neuroscience Harvard Medical School Co-Director of the Mind, Brain, and Behavior Interfaculty Initiative Harvard University Chief, Division of Cognitive Neurology.