teaching literacy in Australia

New research shows what makes a difference in teaching literacy and why ‘evidence-based’ is not enough

Public discourse about schooling generally assumes that it’s in crisis. The script goes something like this: There’s a problem and it’s big – really big! Test results show us Australia is going downhill and teachers need to be accountable. There are ‘evidence-based’ solutions but teachers are not using them. If they did, literacy standards would improve, test results would improve, and Australia would be among the best in the world again.

Well we have some good news and bad news for you.

The good news is our research, a long-term study of schools in communities in Australia experiencing high-levels of disadvantage, funded by the Australian Research Council, shows that teachers are indeed now implementing the ‘evidence-based’ local literacy agreements that they have been asked to implement and that their work includes a diverse range of research-informed approaches to literacy learning.

The bad news is despite the highly professional and caring use of evidence based methods by the teachers in the four schools in our study, the literacy levels for children from the most disadvantaged families remain persistently low.

The majority of teachers in our study were implementing their schools’ well-developed literacy agreements. They were not loyal to methods of the past or inadequately trained. They adopted recommended methods of evaluation and regularly assessed their students’ progress.

We used ‘fly on the wall’ type of research, which included regular and constant visits to the classrooms of the teachers involved, to study what was happening and try to work out why it was happening. I want to share with you some of our findings.

Use of common pedagogies

Teachers used what we call common pedagogical approaches. These often took the form of tightly scripted lessons, in which teachers, operating in good faith, implemented a range of literacy programs.
The cost of such cooperation is well documented in the research literature: teachers’ pedagogical choices (choice of teaching methods) are narrowed, and their professional autonomy is weakened. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as curriculum narrowing, and in the case of literacy, ‘fickle literacies’.

We observed numerous missed opportunities for learning due to:
• too much emphasis on only the kinds of skills that can be easily tested;
• narrow views of literacy constraining the purpose of literacy teaching and learning;
• a prevalence of models of teaching that assume students need to have mastered particular basic skills, or sets of skills, before they can move on to other more demanding tasks (which is not the case for many children). These models, called normative developmental models, can be rigid, repetitive and disengaging, however highly qualified, experienced teachers were expected to adopt them because they were part of the school literacy plan or agreement.
• deficit views about the capabilities of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. These are views that lead teachers to expect less of some children and make it less likely those children will be offered more intellectually challenging literacy learning activities.

These missed opportunities were an unintended effect of teachers trying to do what they believed was expected of them.

Use of uncommon pedagogies

We also encountered a smaller number of teachers who adopted uncommon pedagogical approaches. Their practices stood out from the more common practices of their peers because they were palpably different. These teachers incorporated the requirements of their school’s literacy agreements into an already rich repertoire of teaching practice.

We observed numerous ways in which these teachers supported literacy learning by:
• recognising the knowledge and experiences that students have, and connecting these to school learning;
• actively and positively connecting classroom practice to families and communities;
• designing learning tasks that were open ended and that demanded complex thinking and language;
• providing opportunities for students to think about significant personal and social issues, such as loneliness, hope and relationships, by engaging with relevant texts.

These uncommon pedagogical approaches led to much higher levels of engagement and success by students. They built on relationships, especially with families and helped to develop trust that in turn can contribute to learning at home and at school.

The importance of a teacher’s body of work

Barbara Comber, one of Australia’s foremost literacy researchers, has argued that we do not usually think of teachers’ practices as demonstrating a body of work, perhaps because it is so ephemeral and of the moment. Instead, teachers are assumed to translate theory into practice or implement policy. However, the uncommon pedagogies of the teachers we observed illustrated complex designs, that demonstrated their intention to keep learning about how to improve their work. These rich banks of knowledge and experience could well be considered their ‘oeuvre’ or body of work, in the sense of what they create across a career.

How might we support teachers to develop their oeuvre? What might the public discourse of schooling look like if it were to be based upon a deep respect for teachers, their knowledge and their understanding of the local conditions of teaching and learning?

Peter Freebody and Allan Luke, two other highly respected Australian literacy researchers, reminded us some time ago that:

‘it is not that some literacy teaching methods work and others do not. They all work to shape and construct different literate repertoires in classrooms…What do particular combinations and blends of families of practices work to produce? In which combinations and emphases do they work with specific communities of students? For what practices, places, times, and occasions do they prepare students? And for what political and ideological configurations?’

Understanding teachers’ work is vital to improving literacy in Australia

We need to change the script that blames teachers for low literacy levels by telling them how to do their job. Our observation of uncommon pedagogies is an indication of how doing a teacher’s job can’t be simplified into a set of ‘evidence-based’ methods.

Well-intentioned efforts to improve literacy in Australia should be built upon the understanding that the work of teachers is complex, situated in particular classroom with particular children, and dependent upon a range of factors including a teacher’s own body of work, relationships with students and their families, the local context, and the availability of opportunities for sustained professional development and dialogue.

The prevalence of common pedagogies is a sign that educational policy is working, it’s just not working in ways that address the problem it is intended to solve.


Deb Hayes is Professor of Equity and Education at the Sydney School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney. She is co-author of the book, Literacy, Leading and Learning (Routledge, 2017) with Robert Hattam, Barbara Comber, Lyn Kerkham, Ruth Lupton and Pat Thomson. Follow Deb on Twitter @DrDebHayes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At this symposium there was widespread agreement that:

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

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

Socioeconomic status has a big impact on how well children read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Future symposiums

The Role of Phonics in Learning to be Literate

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

Where Education Building The University of Sydney

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

Register here for March 17th in Sydney


The Role of Phonics in Learning to be Literate

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

Where tba

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

Register here for May 5th in Melbourne


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

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