According to the latest available NAPLAN data, the writing skills of Year 9 students have gone backwards over the past decade, with some students heading into high school with the reading competency of an early primary student.
To arrest this decline, federal and state governments have initiated programs based on systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) – an approach which teaches children to recognise letters (graphemes) and their associated sounds (phonemes).
While governments have pinned their hopes on SSP to lift literacy outcomes, many schools continue to face challenges in teaching students who have a diverse range of literacy skills, which can be a difficult, time-consuming task for teachers when using traditional methods.
Meanwhile, a number of renowned literacy experts continue to voice concerns that governments’ phonics push has put our schools on the wrong track, exacerbating the very problem they’re trying to fix.
‘Promised improvements not being seen’
Dr Misty Adoniou, Associate Professor in language, literacy and TESL at the University of Canberra, says the new Federal Government has the opportunity to learn from the Coalition government’s past decade of educational policy.
“Over the past nine years, five Federal education Ministers have loudly argued their ‘back to basics’ focus on phonics would ensure improved performance on the national literacy test. Turns out it hasn’t,” Assoc/Prof Adoniou told The Educator.
“National NAPLAN scores in reading have barely shifted, and in writing they have gone backwards. Why? Because Australia’s literacy problem isn’t that children don’t know their ‘sounds’. It is that they can’t read with comprehension and don’t write with complexity and creativity.”
Assoc/Prof Adoniou said investing in teachers is “a good lead for the new federal government to follow.”
“We need to shift the mantra from ‘back to basics’ to ‘towards complexity and joy’.”
Studies criticising SSP ‘not credible’
However, Dr Jennifer Buckingham, director of strategy at MultiLit and founder and director of the Five from Five project, says there is more than enough evidence to support SSP as an effective methodology for improving children’s literacy outcomes.
“SSP is increasingly being adopted in schools due to the large amount of strong scientific and empirical evidence from multiple disciplines supporting it as the most effective known method for teaching accurate and efficient word recognition,” Dr Buckingham told The Educator.
“Yet there are still occasional attempts to undermine its use. A recent paper by Wyse and Bradbury  that was reported to challenge the evidence for SSP is not credible for several reasons.”
The first reason, says Dr Buckingham, is that Wyse and Bradbury’s literature review draws on only eight studies selected “using an unorthodox process” and “ignores several highly relevant studies that contradict their conclusions.”
“Second, their survey used a questionable methodology is likely to have made the findings unrepresentative. Third, the authors demonstrate a lack of understanding of what SSP looks like in practice (a common problem among critics,” she said.
“Finally, their analysis of international assessments and curricula does not make plausible connections between policies and outcomes.”
‘Phonics is the foundation upon which future literacy skills are built’
Another formidable advocate of SSP is NSW Education Minister, Sarah Mitchell, who in November 2020, declared the reading wars over, with phonics as the clear winner.
In an op-ed published in The Sydney Morning Herald, Mitchell said the evidence behind how reading should be taught is one-sided.
“Overwhelmingly it tells us that phonics must be explicitly and systematically taught within a literacy program that also develops language and reading habits,” Mitchell wrote.
“Study after study shows that if phonics is not taught properly, student outcomes suffer across the board. Students with additional learning needs – particularly dyslexia – are further disadvantaged.”
Mitchell said numerous studies had also “highlighted the ineffectiveness of whole-of-language programs such as Reading Recovery” – which is why it is no longer supported by the NSW Government.
“This does not mean that phonics and authentic literature experiences are mutually exclusive. But it does mean they need to be sequential,” Mitchell wrote.
“Children won’t learn to read simply by being read to, or with only incidental teaching of letters and sounds. Phonics is the foundation upon which future literacy skills are built.”
‘Overreliance on phonics has created a deficit model’
Denyse Ritchie, honorary chair of literacy at Murdoch University and the principal of the THRASS Institute, says the significant change in early literacy teaching to the heavy reliance on phonics as ‘the reading strategy’ to the detriment of meaning, has left students learning in “a deficit model”.
“This phonics change affected both reading and writing,” Ritchie told The Educator.
“Although I am a strong defender of explicit teaching and phonics, the overemphasis of direct instruction approaches, the call for intensive linear SSP phonics and the call to abandon inquiry learning strategies have restricted our literacy teaching practice to be biased towards phonics at the expense of meaning for comprehension and creativity in writing.”
Ritchie says that for real change to occur, there needs to be stronger focus on professional development of the skills and strategies taught in a rich language and literacy learning environment.
“This is supported by explicit systematic phonics teaching including synthetic phonics, analytic phonics and phonics in context.”
‘The range of approaches in play cannot all be best practice’
Pamela Snow, Professor of Cognitive Psychology at La Trobe University’s School of Education and Life Member of Speech Pathology Australia, is hopeful that literacy outcomes will improve in tandem with an encouraging trend she has observed.
“Pleasingly, we’re seeing evidence of a ground-up move towards more explicit, code-based initial instruction, and an appetite among teachers for knowledge about the science of reading,” Professor Snow told The Educator.
“This momentum is only marginally matched, however, by obvious shifts in teacher initial education programs. Therefore, new graduates generally still aren’t equipped with evidence-based approaches to ensure success via mainstream instruction for 95% of students.”
Professor Snow says rather than an ongoing push for phonics education in schools, she would like to see “a privileging of knowledge” about the nature of the English writing system and the benefits of structured, explicit instruction to support all children’s early and ongoing success.
“There is way too much variability in how reading is taught, and logic dictates that the range of approaches in play cannot all be ‘best practice’.”
Look to Victoria
Assoc/Prof Adoniou pointed to Victoria as the one state which has improved its reading and writing results in NAPLAN, and attributed this success to the autonomy and resources given to principals instead of “profits to commercial interests”.
“Even though they alone endured an extended 2020 lockdown, in 2021 they outperformed every other jurisdiction in Year 3 reading and writing. Why? Perhaps because Victoria hasn’t mandated costly and ill-directed synthetic phonic programs that simply give profits to commercial interests,” she said.
“Instead, they give their principals autonomy and resources to invest in the professional learning they judge best for their current staff and students – and that may be professional learning in phonics, or comprehension, or critical reading, or spelling, or grammar or any of the other myriad of skills that work together to build effective and efficient readers and writers.”
Give it time
Meanwhile, SSP initiatives are going full steam ahead, with Western Australia the latest state to announce it will mandate the Year 1 phonics check in its schools, following NSW and South Australia.
Responding to critics of the phonics check, Dr Buckingham, who chaired the federal government’s advisory group on a Year 1 Literacy and Numeracy Assessment in 2017, pointed out that it takes time for changes in early years instruction to take hold and flow through into later years.
“There are numerous extenuating factors that can mediate the effects, including whether teachers have high quality professional learning and preparation that allows them to respond to the assessment,” she said.
“Nonetheless, there is good reason to believe that the Year 1 Phonics Check is doing what it was designed to do – assess decoding skills and provide guidance for instruction that will improve reading.”