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

By Robyn Ewing

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. 

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

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

  1. Greg Ashman says:

    Dear Robyn

    Thank you for a very thought provoking article. I was wondering if you could point me towards the evidence to support these claims:

    “An over‐emphasis on letter‐sound relationships can be very confusing for children learning to read.”

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

    I am sure that you will be familiar with the 2005 Rose review from the UK. Appendix 1 seems to be at odds with the second of these claims:


    Best wishes


  2. Robyn Ewing says:

    Many thanks for your comment Sue. We must find a way to value the teaching profession and our teachers’ expertise and hard work as they strive to meet the diverse learning needs of so many children.
    Best wishes

  3. Robyn Ewing says:

    Thank you for your comments Greg. As a start, it would be helpful to read the work of Stephen Krashen which is readily available online. I am happy to provide a detailed reading list if you’d like.
    best wishes

  4. Sue Beveridge says:

    Congratulations Robyn, the profession has worked long and hard at improving literacy outcomes for an ever increasing range of students engaging with a broadening array of text types. There is no “quick fix” as you so correctly indicate but the continual support of teachers through effective professional development and teacher learning.

  5. Ania Lian says:

    Dear Professor Ewing,
    Thank you for drawing our attention to some of the “new” things on the literacy landscape.
    I frequently wonder what happens to us after our PhDs are done. There we write about Foucault, Freire or maybe even Bourdieu, Latour or other French guys (but never Anne Freadman – too far off to the land of LOTE), only to remove the world and our roles in it from literacy definitions as soon as the worry starts creeping in that it may be too much, too soon and who can control it.
    It is worth noting that to reduce ambiguity and support the current curriculum, it would be worthwhile to engage the general capabilities and cross curriculum priorities in the wording of our definitions. This could help to make it easier for educators and re-service teachers to see the relationships. It would also allow us to see at the first glance that Five to Five and its little list of what counts are well and truly written by people who borrowed old stuff from the XIX century and brought nothing new or relevant with them. Nobody in the field of genre, clinical psychology, critical theory, corrective phonetics (another LOTE link), science or neuroscience could look at that list of 5 as helpful, telling or indeed even as a good list to begin with. Furthermore, our definitions and lists should continue to remind who we want our students to be. Should they be able to analyse? Or should they be able to “assert their authority in discursive situations (Anne Freadman)?. These are two very different perspectives: one about performing a job without stakes, another one about agency. Should they be able to “comprehend” or – well, how can we link “comprehension” and agency, or is comprehension neutral? Should they be able to know lots of words, and if so are words the building blocks of thoughts, expression, and texts? Where do we look for evidence of our beliefs? Just because we see it, it does not mean that that “gaze” was not taught and is pure. As for phonics etc,, voice is a stream (that’s why some of us born elsewhere have an accent in English). And once again my experience from LOTE tells me that modelling and explaining does one thing: denies students’ agency. So learner as power to generate more power (play n habitus) could be a good way to “change the way we look at things”. Personally, rather than collect evidence about practice, we need to focus on collecting evidence about the object of our teaching. In order not to take too much space, I will conclude with Freadman:
    “But asserting authority over a discursive situation is not, by and large, what we teach our students in a foreign language classroom. We teach them – implicitly, to be sure – to be submissive, to bow to the law of a language which they may never master: their errors and the restrictions on linguistic scope that define them as students will always leave them in a position of non-mastery vis-à-vis their interlocutors.” (1994, p. 21, Freadman, A. (1994). Models of genre for language teaching. The 1994 Sonia Marks Memorial Lecture. University of Sydney)

    with sincere regards
    Ania Lian

  6. Jennifer Buckingham says:

    Professor Ewing is correct that reading and literacy are not the same. However, learning to read proficiently is an essential precursor to becoming literate in the broader sense.
    The FIVE from FIVE project focuses on how children become proficient readers. It is a free and accessible resource to provide up-to-date information for busy teachers, parents and policymakers about sound, methodologically valid research findings on the teaching of reading,
    The five essential components of effective reading instruction are not at all ‘simple’. Indeed, they are each highly complex and interdependent, which is why it is critical for teachers (and of course, teacher educators) to be well-informed about the research.
    A literature review of the evidence base underpinning FIVE from FIVE is provided as a free download on the website http://www.fivefromfive.org.au. It includes high quality, rigorous studies published up to 2015. On pages 27 and 28, it notes the importance of comprehension skills identified by Professor Ewing — questioning, making inferences and predicting.
    I invite and encourage all who are interested in effective reading instruction to read the publication and peruse the website.

  7. John Walker says:

    I’m going to be far less polite than other commentators, So, here’s a trigger warning!
    We’re told that ‘competent, experienced readers sample just enough visual information to feel satisfied that they grasped the meaning so far of whatever text they are reading ..’ and that ‘… teachers… already have a deep understanding of the repertoire of strategies and approaches…’
    Good grief! We had all this from our professors in UK for years. And where did it get us? By 1997, the OECD concluded that over 51% of adults were illiterate or poorly literate – mostly as a result of professors like Robyn Ewing peddling Frank Smith’s and the Goodman’s nonsense and dressing it up in academese to give it authority and make it sound reasonable.
    This is pompous and pedantic nonsense. Has this professor ever seen a class of four and five-year-olds ‘sampling’ text and bringing all ‘their past experiences and knowledge of the language’ to it. This is cloud cuckoo land.
    What’s more hundreds, possibly thousands, of students are likely to be taken in by this rubbish because they haven’t yet entered the classroom and don’t know any better.
    And, as for quoting Krashen at Greg Ashman: Krashen has never drawn the distinction between the spoken word, which everyone in their own language learns naturally, and writing, which is not learned naturally and has to be taught. This professor also does not seem to be aware of the difference between the primary and secondary learning. Neither does she seem to understand that the writing system is an invented system to represent the sounds of the language. No expert on writing systems would deny this fact!
    My advice to all of those would-be teachers and teachers out there is to not put thy trust in professors who wouldn’t know what a good quality phonics programme looked like if was sitting in front of them. Seek out the people, like Jennifer Buckingham, Greg Ashman and Alison Clarke (of Spelfabet) and read carefully what they have to say.
    Finally, remember this: if a child can’t decode (read), they will never be able to ‘sample’ or enjoy a text. Teach them to read!

  8. Robyn Ewing says:

    Thanks for your comments John. It’s disappointing and rather sad that you feel the need to cast aspersions on my character, knowledge and experience. Having been an early childhood and primary teacher and a literacy educator, working with children learning how to read and write and with experienced and early career teachers for nearly forty years, I am very confident about the comments I have made. Too often we underestimate what young children understand and can do. Further, I have always acknowledged that decoding is one component of the reading process. I did not discount the five key skills proposed in the FIVE from FIVE project. I have suggested that learning to read and learning to be literate is far more complex than decoding. Decoding should never be equated with reading. Learning to read is not a singular global skill that we acquire for life – it is something that must be worked at constantly.

  9. Georgina Mavor says:

    How many of those early childhood and primary school teachers followed up the learning trajectories in later years of the students they taught? The figures quoted from the OECD report also reflect high school students sitting in classrooms. They came from somewhere, they were presumably taught in early childhood classrooms. What happened? Do we say that for all of them their low levels of literacy were due to innate factors? Or do we acknowledge we didn’t get the teaching right? I am the parent of a child taught by a teacher who did not have a deep understanding of the repertoire of (evidence based) strategies and approaches. He was by no means alone and I am appalled that this situation continues to be fed with inaccuracy.

  10. John Walker says:

    Well, professor, perhaps you’d like to tell us when you last taught a class of kindergarten children, or Year 1, or Year 2, to read and spell. [I always include the two because, essentially they are two sides of the same coin.]
    And, I’m not especially impressed by your claim to authority – 40 years teaching and lecturing, etc – because I’ve actually spent longer than you have teaching and lecturing. What I am interested in is evidence that your approaches to the teaching of reading work. If such evidence exists, this would seem to be a good opportunity to direct your readers to it.

  11. Maralyn Parker says:

    I think it is relevant to disclose that John Walker is co-author of “a real phonic programme that teaches in simple steps how the sounds of the language are represented by the writing” that is currently being sold in the UK.

  12. Pat Stone says:

    Also relevant is that he rarely uses the word ‘read’ in relation to what he promotes, preferring or only feeling able to talk about spelling. In his comment here, ‘read’ is in brackets – telling. A search for an evidence base on the website of his phonics programme will show you that he calls spelling ‘literacy’ and states that spelling tests are a more valid assessment of reading than reading. I kid you not.

  13. John Walker says:

    I feel I ought to disclose that Robyn Ewing is paid by her university to dispense advice on the teaching of reading. So what? If I was the author of a set of readers published by the Oxford University Press, would that have induced you to write your remark? I doubt it! I never hide who I am or what I do. The Department for Education In England has included the Sounds-Write training in its list of recommended programmes and its Ofsted report on our training is posted on our website, unexpurgated and for all to see. It declared that the training was ‘outstanding’, by the way.

  14. David Hornsby says:

    John, I’m disappointed by the tone of your comments. It’s important to have rational, respectful debate.
    Now, just two brief points:
    (1) If your approach is so successful, can you explain why England is so far down in international comparisons?
    (2) English spelling is more influenced by morphemes than phonemes, which is one of its strengths. For example, when we understand that meaning is central, we understand why there is a ‘g’ in ‘sign’ (it belongs to the same ‘meaning family’ as signal, signature, significant, etc. There’s a ‘w’ in ‘two’ because it belongs to the same ‘meaning family’ as twin, twice, twenty, between, etc. Phonics is important, but meaning is required to make phonics work. For example, no-one can read the word ‘wind’ on its own and sounding out won’t help. Does it rhyme with ‘find’ or with ‘sinned’? Meaning is REQUIRED to make phonics work. Synthetic phonics approaches emphasise the least helpful cueing system in text and downplay the importance of the most helpful cueing systems. We need a comprehensive approach that allows young learners to use EVERYTHING they know about language, not just sound. Why restrict young learners to one cueing system? A teacher’s core job is to make learning easy, not difficult. Allow young learners to use all the information available to them.

  15. John Walker says:

    Hi David,
    I’m not sure what exactly it is you find irrational and disrespectful about my comments. I thought that you Aussies liked a bit of plain-speaking.
    However, to answer but a couple of your points:
    Our approach is enormously successful and we have empirical evidence to support it, though there are many different phonics programmes here and some of them are very poor indeed. Many schools in England also labour under the long-standing legacy of several decades of whole language and mixed methods approaches. The confusions that abound from this are going to take a long time to clarify.
    As is the situation in Australia, many ITT programmes in English universities are led by whole language advocates who haven’t read the research and have very little knowledge of what a modern phonics programme looks like. Most have never even taught or attempted to teach phonics.
    Yes, the English writing system has a morphophonemic structure. That doesn’t mean that you start teaching it by talking about how ‘sign’ is cognate with ‘signature’, etc. – good luck with explaining that to a beginning reader!
    Here’s how:the English alphabetic code works:
    Spellings, comprised on one, two, three or four letters, are used to spell sounds from left to right across the page;
    Sounds can be spelled in multiple (but limited) ways – for example, [ n ], [ nn ], [ kn ], [ gn – ‘gnash’, ‘gnaw’, ‘reign’, oh, and ‘sign’], [ pn ], [ne ];
    Many spellings can represent more than one sound – [ i ] on ‘sit’ or ‘kind’.
    If children are to learn to read successfully, they need to be taught the code – how all the sounds in English are spelled – and they need to be taught the three vital skills needed to be able to use the knowledge they have: segmenting, blending and phoneme manipulation.
    All of this takes three years on average, at the end of which most children are highly proficient readers and spellers.
    Is anyone suggesting that meaning isn’t important? Of course not! It’s an old chestnut that anti-phonics people like to bring up. If a child reads the sentence ‘The wind left dust on the mat’ and they read the spelling [ i ] in ‘wind’ as /ie/ (to rhyme with ‘tie’) and not /i/, their brain would be saying ‘wind?’ (as in ‘kind’) and registering that it doesn’t make sense. But, if they’ve been taught that the spelling [ i ] can be /ie/ and it can also be /i/, they simply make the substitution. This is exactly what mature readers do when they come across a word in their reading they have never read before but have in their spoken vocabulary.
    Far, from emphasising the least helpful cueing system, phonics is the only game in town as a first step to reading or writing a word, because if a child can’t decode, they can’t read and, if they can’t read, they can’t understand any text.
    In the words of one of the experts on the world’s writing systems Peter Daniels: ‘Writing differs from language, though, in a very fundamental way. Language is the natural product of the human mind – the properties of people that make it possible for everyone to learn any language, provided that they start at a young enough age – while writing is a deliberate product of the human intellect: no infant illiterate absorbs its script along with its language: writing must be studied.’ I’d add ‘taught’.
    You can read what else I have to say on the issue of decoding, comprehension and muddled thinking here: http://literacyblog.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/decoding-comprehension-and-muddled.html

  16. Ania Lian says:

    To me, when I look at the graphs in the document http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/5551/2/report.pdf Appendix 1 (pp. 77, 81), I ask myself, how are the graphs showing to teach kids reading differently than we would teach a chimp.? Can anyone see the cutting edge there? Anything new or exciting? A chimp can do lots of things humans can’t do and vice versa in terms of memory and its management. The graphs spell out Direct Instruction or at least do nothing to offer/show anything different. I am yet to see in those graphs what “proficient” means or what “comprehension” is and how is recognition linked to any systems in the brain doing the recognising. To me, the graphs reflect a 19th century model where “words have meanings” and we are here to learn those. Words do not come with meanings; meanings are entire networks we create in our brains – and this takes a long process by which we create complex language “knowledge”. Also, any second language learner knows that: dictionary does not come with meanings. In any case, could one give students words and argue that this is the process for learning to write poetry, stories, comedy sketches or any other form of communication? Stuff is missing in those graphs badly.
    We are all now told to look for evidence about practice, but I am not sure if we actually know what criteria we will be looking for to differentiate between good and bad. Those graphs are no reference. Also, the idea, as someone else suggested in this discussion chain, to look to phonics for some clues reminds me of that YT video when French comedian goes to a spy school to learn English and they go through: “I want to buy a hamburger” – they do this “repeat pls” a 100 times with no results. Sounds are not sounds; like any other forms of “data” that our brain processes, sounds do not come to us as ready-made shapes. And so whether phonics or writing, both skills need to be integrated into a bigger picture of literacy, they cannot be just little exercises we can do with chimps. Or to put it differently: what is the ontological basis on which we create these “truths”? This could be a god starting point of a literacy discussion, I think.
    As for learning spoken language being natural, we now know that deaf infants who do not sign from birth use sign language as if it was their second language. So much for reading being not natural. I tried to learn about sign language lately and learnt that sign language is not OBJECT=SIGN. It is a complex system requiring reading and engaging the left hemisphere, just as reading does. This could be one good path to follow up and learn more about.
    Lastly, I do want to draw attention to our vocabulary in this exchange. Some people mentioned the word teach. Sure, in a way we can justify it – but there is a reason why for at least 40 years research attempts to shift to supporting learning. The idea of doing teaching leads to lots of confusion.
    With best wishes
    Ania Lian, CDU

  17. Pamela Snow says:

    I have written a reply to this post on my blog, The Snow Report: pamelasnow.blogspot.com.au

  18. Samsara Soon says:

    As a parent of an 11yo who has much difficulty with spelling and reading, I am dismayed by the above argument. I wish that my son had access to evidence based teaching, I wish he had access to systematic and explicit phonics. I wish his teachers knew about synthetic phonics and did not teach him phonics embedded into the literacy program (analytical and /or balanced phonics approach). I wish he did not have reading recovery. Maybe then he would have not developed his bad habits – such as guessing the word from the first letter (he is very good as using cues such as context and pictures to make the rest up). I wish he had developed all the skills that the five from five are advocating. I don’t think it is a case of criticising teachers – we should be critical of the academics and universities that are not teaching evidence based approaches especially the ‘good phonics’ – lets say it again – systematic and explicit phonics (no not that embedded implicit stuff), stuff like a good synthetic phonics program. I don’t think the research states that literacy is only the five from five – no, but it is the foundation for developing all those other lovely literacy skills you talk about. Without a good foundation – “learn to read so you can read to learn” – you are pretty much up the creek without a paddle. Or for a parent thousands of dollars poorer for trying to help your child learn to spell and read with real evidence based synthetic phonics programs/therapy, to fill in the gaps and minimise the harm from current common teaching methods. I challenge you to go into the classroom and see for yourself the ‘cohorts’ of children who are being left behind – who all have less than adequate reading and spelling after experiencing ’embedded, implicit phonics’, even though they have been immersed in resource rich literacy experiences.. I challenge you to learn about the different types of phonics (analytical and synthetic) and try and find a school that teaches a good synthetic phonics program/approach and see the difference for yourself. The foundations are critical to develop greater skills, greater vocabulary, to make inferences and learn to love to read. It is hard to analyse and evaluate information, or develop these higher level skills when you have so much trouble reading and spelling. The reason for the fanfare – is because so many schools, teachers and educators still do not get it!

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