What Australian parents need to know about the reading wars

Let me tell you a story.

Many years ago, there were two great armies. One army consisted of starry-eyed dreamers who believed in a whole language approach to teaching reading. The other army was made up of drill-em-and-kill-em phonics obsessives who mostly had a commercial interest in selling phonics programmes. These armies battled and skirmished until, one day, academics and bureaucrats negotiated a settlement. “Best practice involves a balance of approaches,” they proclaimed. And thus the sensible, pragmatic, utterly reasonable and measured ‘balanced literacy’ was born. And this is how we teach reading in Australia.

It’s a good story. It’s an uplifting story. But it’s a story nonetheless. And it is a story that has been manufactured quite deliberately.

Systematic synthetic phonics (SSP), the approach championed by those phonics obsessives, is supported by the best scientific evidence available. Despite the alternatives to SSP grabbing hold of words like ‘whole’ and ‘balance’, SSP is a complete approach to teaching early reading and not a dry worksheet shuffling exercise. Three English speaking governments have commissioned expert panels to review the evidence and SSP was broadly found to be the most effective by all of them (here, here and here).

Balanced literacy achieves its balance by adding in less effective whole language practices such as the three-cuing system (searchlights), asking students to memorise large numbers of sight words and incidental rather than systematic phonics teaching.

Typically, children’s readers are not chosen on the basis of which grapheme-phoneme correspondences they have learnt but on the basis of various approaches to ‘levelling’ books, often based on factors such as sentence length. This can lead to a frustrating early reading experience. Given that much early reading instruction is outsourced to parents, this frustration will play out in the family home.

Balanced literacy appears to have been influenced by Reading Recovery. This is a one-to-one intervention originally designed to mitigate the worse effects of whole language teaching. Latterly, it has added elements of phonics. I have written a number of posts about the relative ineffectiveness of Reading Recovery (e.g. here and here) and it seems to have influenced the current New South Wales L3 programme.

I believe that the story about balanced literacy has been constructed by those who are committed to alternatives to SSP, whether these are proponents of whole language or Marxism-inspired critical literacy. By muddying the waters, the methods that sit at the foundation of many careers can persist in the face of overwhelming evidence.

There is evidence of a deliberate attempt to paint a negative view of SSP in the minds of politicians. In 2009, there was a proposal to run a trial in Australia of Multi-Lit, an SSP programme. One whole language advocate suggested flooding the relevant minister’s office with emails making use of ‘framing theory’. The idea was to associate Multi-Lit with ‘failure’ in the minister’s mind and to coin the term ‘readicide’ to describe it.

So don’t accept the stories you are told at face value. Evidence supports SSP. ‘Balancing’ it with ineffective whole language practices serves only to weaken the teaching of reading and increase the number of children with reading difficulties.

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27 Comments on “What Australian parents need to know about the reading wars”

  1. Thanks Greg – added to the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction here:
    http://www.iferi.org/iferi_forum/viewtopic.php?f=8&t=852&p=1589#p1589

    • Hi Debbie,
      What happened to our comments in Timothy Shanahan’s Blog post?

      If it is not for a number of my US friends I would call US, the land of Ostriches where professors,teachers and researchers bury their heads in the ground rather than answering questions raised.

      The topic above is exactly what we had discussed on. The illiteracy level in Australia, NZ, UK and US will not come down until these educators accept the fact that the problem is not in Phonics but in the way it is being taught.

  2. Jen says:

    Hi Greg, Thanks for another well informed piece of writing! Can you please clarify what SSO is that you refer to in your document. Thanks, Jen

  3. Mike says:

    “Drill and kill” is one of the stupidest phrases to appear in education debates, and that’s saying something. I’ve often thought it should be countered by those of a traditional bent with something like “drill for skill” – equally vapid, but at least somewhat more accurate.

  4. monkrob says:

    You will upset those early primary teachers.
    I read a tweet the other day that asked: “What gives a secondary Physics teacher the right to comment on early reading instruction” or something to that effect.
    I wonder who they were referring to?

    In primary school they learn to read, in secondary school, they read to learn.

  5. Yes, Greg write about whatever you believe to be right.

    I teach kids who have disengaged from learning to read. These are the struggling referred to by Nancy Hennessy: “We still don’t have the capacity nor the will to change what it is that we are doing with reading early on and so consequently unless we make those significant changes we are not only going to lose the dyslexics but I am also concerned about these other children; these other struggling readers.”

    The struggling readers are the kids who disengage from reading because they are confused. They are confused because they are not being taught phonics correctly.

    A little logic will tell us that if these kids had been taught properly in the first place they will need no intervention. Remediation works because these kids had not been instructed properly in the first place.

    • Mike says:

      There is a certain caricature of “bad phonics teaching” that seems to be widespread among the whole-language crowd (at least as far as I’ve been able to judge on The Conversation and similar forums). To the best of my knowledge – and I know plenty of primary school teachers – it’s largely nonsense. The refrain of “they teach EXACT sound-letter correspondence! This is what happens when you let the pro-phonics people take over!” would be laughed at (or deeply resented) by 99% of Kindy/Stage 1 teachers, in my view.

  6. Tunya Audain says:

    Drill & Kill — The Byword Of The Anti-Phonics Camp

    As far as I can find, and Debbie would probably be able to correct me, the first time “drill” was used as a term to deride the phonics style of teaching was done by John Dewey in 1898 in his paper, The Primary Education Fetich. (That’s the same as “fetish”.) It wasn’t the first time methods of teaching reading came under scrutiny and dispute.

    Dewey states in his paper: “Methods for learning to read come and go across the educational arena, like the march of supernumeraries across the stage. Each is heralded as the final solution . . . “ He goes on to state that reading materials were unappetizing and lacking “relevancy to the child’s mental needs.”

    Here’s the “drill” part: “The endless drill, with its continual repetitions, is another instance of the same evil. Even when the attempt is made to select material with some literary or historic worth of its own, the practical outcome is like making Paradise Lost the basis of parsing lessons, or Caesar’s Gallic Wars an introduction to Latin syntax. So much attention has to be given to the formal side that the spiritual value evanesces. No one can estimate the benumbing and hardening effect of this continued drill upon mere form”.

    One point I would alter in Greg’s little story about when he characterizes the phonics group as being “commercial”. My study of these two approaches clearly establishes for me that the whole-language people were also very much into the commercial angle of the enterprise, and in fact, the remediation that was required for those students who failed to read via w-l approach also became an expensive subtrade to be called upon.

    • Greg Ashman says:

      Let me be clear – I am not attempting to characterise the pro-phonics groups as commercial. Instead, I am pointing out that this is a common trope used to attack them. Note that I do not come out in favour of the argument made in that passage.

  7. SSP advocate in a sea of WL proponents says:

    Our assistant regional director (EQ metro) openly shunned the phonics check in front of hundreds of Queensland principals at a principal and leadership conference recently. It was made very clear by her – quote “Who said phonics is the answer anyway? “

  8. Jane says:

    Come on parents…Time to contact Slater & Gordon….

  9. Hi Everyone,

    The issue here is surely how to hold people in authority to account for what they promote when there is plenty of research evidence to show what needs to be taught explicitly and systematically (for example, the alphabetic code and the phonics skills for decoding and encoding) and plenty of evidence to show that multi-cueing word-guessing (the heart of whole language and the Reading Recovery intervention programme) will damage at least some children’s reading reflex and future reading ability.

    With the advent of the internet there is a great deal of information via informative blogs, such as Greg’s, which always include links to important findings – and other sites, academic and generally informative. Everything is evidenced in this reading debate.

    Further, what educationalist with any amount of common sense could speak against teaching the most complex alphabetic code in the world explicitly and thoroughly? And why on earth would they speak up against a universal phonics check – the same check for all to inform the teaching profession of just what is happening in our infant schools across the world where English is taught?

    I would like us to consider how best we can act collectively to do something about the state of play in all schools teaching English for reading and writing.

    It is surely time for the next steps.

    I call upon the bloggers, and the researchED community, to do more than talk amongst themselves about the importance of science informing teaching. If you know that we have a long way to go to ensure what children receive by way of foundational literacy is not simply ‘chance’, then what can we do next? We must surely do something big, collective and noticeable?

    Otherwise, it’s as if we just like the sound of our own voices (we like writing about it).

    • Mike says:

      …Further, what educationalist with any amount of common sense could speak against teaching the most complex alphabetic code in the world explicitly and thoroughly? And why on earth would they speak up against a universal phonics check…

      Pardon me, but you’re conflating two somewhat different propositions here.

      WIth your first assertion I heartily agree, and always have. But I think it’s quite legitimate to question whether the proposed phonics check is the appropriate way of addressing the problem. Why? Because if the history of standardised tests in the Oz education system (of which NAPLAN is only the most recent incarnation) is any guide, then the teachers will teach to the test rather than teaching phonics in its proper context. And given the fact that the proposed check will be presenting the kids with random words to test phonemic awareness, it is easy to visualise a situation where 6-year-olds (and even 5-year-olds) will be drilled for weeks on end on eks, obs, duts and lufs rather than buns, pots, pans and cups. Surely I can’t be the only one who thinks that this could be seriously disorienting for kids at that age. And it’s pointless to say “the teachers don’t have to worry about the test, if they’ve been teaching phonic properly the kids will be fine”. That, I’m afraid, displays a profound misunderstanding of the institutional paranoia that habitually grips schools over standardised tests.

      In my view if would be far preferable for proper phonics teaching to be “checked” by means of a proper school inspectorate making random visits to schools. Needless to say this would be furiously opposed by the union, and of course there is the danger that such an inspectorate would check for all the wrong things (as seems to have happened with Ofsted in England for quite a while), but better this than yet another band-aid, massively expensive standardised test which ultimately does more harm than good.

  10. Hi Debbie, I concur with what you have written.You said: “We must surely do something big, collective and noticeable?”

    I teach 2 to 5 disengaged kids in a year on a one on one basis.I ‘interview’ them during class and after they leave school as well. (I teach only up to grade 3).

    I have learned from these kids that they shut-down or disengage from learning to read because they have been confused with the way the teacher has taught them in kindergarten and in grade one.

    I have a blog on all that I have learned from these kids. I write on FB and LinkedIn. Tell me Debbie, how to do something collectively. I am sure willing to do whatever we can for the future of kids all over the world.

    Read my post this morning at: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/discourse-dr-selznick-part-ii-why-kids-shut-down-1082017-michel?published=t

  11. Debbie, we have to seriously ask ourselves as to why, despite scientific evidence that phonics is the better way, (I can vouch for that from my personal experience) why has the illiteracy level remained the same for the past many decades. I believe the rate is the same during the whole language period as well as during the Phonics teaching period.

    • Maria says:

      I incorporated phonics in my ESL ( English as a Second Language) at high school level with beginner learners, including those whose first language did not have a Roman alphabet. They picked up English reading and spelling relatively quickly and were able to go on to study VCE successfully within a few years of arriving in Australia. I moved to incorporating phonics because of the slow learning rate I experienced in my earlier teaching years using more of a whole language approach. With the latter, only the brightest students learned quickly. Why? Because they figured out the phonics for themselves. I know this because I began to question them, and keep track of progress. After speaking to the faster learners, I began to add in some phonics with weaker readers, and found they progressed faster. Yes, these students are older learners, but it seems to me that it won’t be that different with younger learners. I was taught somephonics during my own education but I must say that phonics is taught less rigidly and less out of context these days. It is better presented in more realistic and relevant stories and reading passages. It seems to me that whole language approach is a cope out on actually teaching’ reading and spelling. It is more of a sink or swim approach. Go back four or five decades and kids dropped out of school to go to work as early as age 12. Of course literacy levels would be lower. Now that education to age 16 is compulsory, you’d expect literacy levels to be much higher. But it isn’t. So what has changed? For one, the method of teaching language learning. The same can be said for mathematics. In the end memory is important in learning. In a way or another, to be successful, one must internalise (dare I say memorise?) a lot of knowledge. So why do we associate that with such a negative connotation?

      • I am all for phonics and believe it is the best way to teach kids. I have used phonics successfully with the disengaged students who come to me for tuition.

        However, I believe this ‘war’ between phonics and whole language is still going on because there has been no marked improvement in the reading level. This is because phonics is taught wrongly as you would have seen in my post in LinkedIn.

        Teachers teaching phonics add a vowel sound to consonants which confuse about 20% of kids who are predisposed to shutting down when things are confusing.

        Teachers teach long and short sounds of vowels without telling kids that there are other sounds of vowels.

        Teachers do not inform kids that many of the consonants have more than one sound. This confuse kids prone to shutting down.

        Yes, teach phonics but teach it in the proper way and illiteracy rate will come down.

  12. Jo says:

    …all for highlighting the need to teach phonics and to teach it well so that the issues such as those that Lugman Michel highlights are not perpetuated…BUT…can we focus on how phonics knowledge helps people to ‘decode and recode words’ which is not ‘reading’ as such. We need to be clear when we are talking about decoding and comprehending, ala The Simple View of Reading. Reading – as Kate Nation said – is not that simple, and it is not just about applying phonics knowledge to ‘say’ words.

  13. Some years ago when this argument was active in the UK I heard a radio discussion on the subject. They had brought in some experts with differing views: Reading Recovery, whole-word reading, synthetic phonics, a teacher who had her own method, OG (and probably some more!). They went round and round all claiming their system was best and that they had never had a failure. I listened and realized that they were actually all right – because they were all experts – all people at the top of their field who knew how to fill in the gaps when materials didn’t quite meet student needs. The trouble is though, that not all teachers are at this level and nor is it realistic to expect them to be so when it takes years of training and experience – plus the extra something that few possess. Systems for teaching reading, and reading intervention, need to be effective no matter who the teacher is – or teaching assistant, volunteer or parent. That is why I have spent 20 years working with Units of Sound – a literacy intervention that works with all types of student and all types of teacher. It can be found in every type of education setting from independent schools to prisons.

    Another factor here is that too often literacy intervention in schools is rationed because of the cost of specialist teachers and small groups. But that’s a subject I need to write more on another day…

    • In Dr. David Kilpatrick’s book ‘Equipped for reading success’ on page 3 he says “A third example is a study by researchers at Florida State University. They showed how the most severely reading disabled students could reach grade level- and stay there- using a surprisingly brief intervention program. These examples question the inevitability of widespread reading failure.”

      The question that needs to be asked is as to why in the first place these kids needed intervention. From my experience of teaching such kids it is simply that they had shut down because they were confused.

      (Note: Don’t be surprised to see my name in the acknowledgement pages of the above book and his next book “ Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and overcoming Reading Difficulties”.)

    • Regarding intervention please allow me to quote Jack Shonkoff: “Getting things right the first time is better than trying to fix them later when they weren’t right the first time, trying to adapt to something that was not developed in the best way at the time when it was supposed to be developed. If children don’t have the right experiences during these sensitive periods, for the development of a variety of skills including many cognitive and language capacities, that’s a burden that those kids are going to carry. The sensitive period is over, and it’s going to be harder for them. Their architecture is not as well developed in their brain as it would have been if they had had the right experiences during the sensitive period. That’s the sobering message.

      But there’s also a hopeful message.., the sensitive period says, “It’s not too late to try to remediate, and you can develop good, healthy, normal competencies in many areas, even if your earlier wiring was somewhat faulty.” But it’s harder. It costs more in energy costs to the brain. The brain has to work at adapting to kind of earlier circuits that were not laid down the way they should have been. And from a society’s point of view, it costs more in terms of more expensive programming, more specialized help. So I think the best way to think about this is to say that prevention is better than treatment, and earlier is better than later, but it’s never too late, in most cases, to get kids back on track.

  14. I maintain a blog as a guide for parents of disengaged students. There I have said how I teach kids who come to me without being able to read a single sentence in English. I wean them within 4 months of one hour lessons 3 times a week. I teach them phonics and ask them to memorise 5 Dolch words each time they come to class.

    I don’t understand why Joe says that phonics is not reading. Phonics is to help us to read unfamiliar words. But once we have seen and read a word it becomes a sight word. This means we will be able to read it just by looking at the word. When we come to a new word, say, coconodum we cannot read it by sight and therefore use our phonic knowledge to decode that word. When we see that word subsequently we do not have to use phonics to decipher that word as we automatically will be able to read that word. Incidentally, there is no such word as coconodum; I coined it just to tell readers here that the only way to have read that word is by using phonics.

    Many writers write and say that dyslexics (slow readers) are bad at comprehension. But, that is not a correct statement. A dyslexic initially is focused in trying to figure a word and reads a sentence labouriously using his memorised Dolch words and phonics. Of course he does not comprehend. But that does not mean he has bad comprehension. I have had students reading a passage three times and unable to answer comprehension questions. The same students could, however, answer all comprehension questions from similar passages when I read the passage to them just once. In time when the kid has learned his phonics for deciphering new words and has build enough sight words and reads fluently he has no problem with reading or comprehension.

    I have been teaching shut-down kids for more than ten years on a one on one basis and my students have all done well in school. Perhaps Kate Nation should have a discussion with me.

  15. Hi everyone,

    On August 13th, Mike wrote this:

    “WIth your first assertion I heartily agree, and always have. But I think it’s quite legitimate to question whether the proposed phonics check is the appropriate way of addressing the problem. Why? Because if the history of standardised tests in the Oz education system (of which NAPLAN is only the most recent incarnation) is any guide, then the teachers will teach to the test rather than teaching phonics in its proper context. And given the fact that the proposed check will be presenting the kids with random words to test phonemic awareness, it is easy to visualise a situation where 6-year-olds (and even 5-year-olds) will be drilled for weeks on end on eks, obs, duts and lufs rather than buns, pots, pans and cups. Surely I can’t be the only one who thinks that this could be seriously disorienting for kids at that age.”

    My response:

    I totally agree with Mike that this is a concern – nevertheless, we have to appreciate the benefits of a global phonics ‘snapshot’ assessment at this point in time – and we need to educate teachers not to provide a diet of pseudo-words in an attempt to get better results in the phonics check.

    If children are given a diet of pseudo-words, one of the first dangers is that these words are made up of ‘illegal spellings’. That is spelling patterns which are not normally seen in real words. This legitimises spelling patterns that we do not want children to have floating around in their heads! The English spelling system is complicated enough with the variations of letters and letter groups in real words without adding further letter combinations even if they can be readily decoded.

    One of the second dangers of using a diet of pseudo- words is that time is wasted that could be better spent on using real decodable words and the meanings of those words when they are ‘new’ to the children can be taught. Thus, lots of explicit vocabulary enrichment and language comprehension can be included in the phonics provision by a focus on the new real words and their meanings.

    A third danger of the phonics check is that because it is a decoding check and not an encoding check (spelling), that teachers may skew the balance of their provision towards decoding to the neglect of spelling. Having said that, in reality many teachers I have observed fail to distinguish clearly enough whether their children are practising spelling in the main (sound to print often through mini whiteboard work) or reading in the main (often games using a combination of read and pseudo-words).

    This problem largely started when a game called ‘Treasure Chest’ was introduced in the official guidance document, Letters and Sounds, in England back in 2007. This introduced the notion of children using pseudo-words as part of their phonics practice. Because Letters and Sounds was brought out by the, then, Department for Education and Skills, publishers and manufacturers, and people who provide free or cheap online resources, produced a plethora of ‘games and activities’ based on pseudo-words. Following the introduction of the phonics check in England, even more resources have been produced mentioning the advent of the phonics check.

    Can this scenario be reversed? Only by teacher-education – continuing professional development.

    If Australia is to introduce a similar phonics check to England, teachers must be educated that they don’t need to use pseudo-words for their phonics provision – and the reasons ‘why’ for this. Pseudo-words are fantastic for use in assessment.

    To be honest, their use to provide plenty of phonics ‘sounding out and blending’ practice will also raise children’s blending skill. Have no doubt that there are benefits from sheer quantity of practice of applying alphabetic code knowledge and sounding out and blending plenty of words.

    But, a rich-content, systematic, cumulative phonics programme should, arguably, include such a substantial bank of cumulative new words – many of which are ‘new’ to the children’s oral language – and cumulative sentences and texts – that neither teachers nor children should need to practise with pseudo-words.

    The phonics programmes that I have written or advised upon do not include pseudo-words but they provide masses of ‘new’ words and therefore include plenty of vocabulary enrichment and language comprehension. Again – this is surely about teacher education – how to evaluate and compare phonics programmes or phonics provision – to identify when this is somewhat shallow with perhaps plenty of ‘fun games and activities’ but not much language learning going on in the scale of the time spent on phonics.

    In conclusion – I highly recommend global uptake of a phonics check – but alongside information to guide the teaching profession along the lines mentioned above.


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