Unlocking Literacy: The Case for Phonics in Every Classroom

Picture of David Stanley
David Stanley
Learning Difficulties, Reading, School, Literacy, Teaching, For Principals

In the heart of the ongoing "Reading Wars" in Australian education, the battle lines are long drawn, and now the evidence is clear – the key to unlocking literacy lies in the systematic and explicit teaching of phonics. In this article, we will delve into the critical importance of phonics in teaching reading, exploring the latest research, success stories, and the urgent need for a transformative shift in teacher training at the university level.

Almost 20 years ago, the Australian government’s National Enquiry into the Teaching of Literacy concluded that the then predominant whole-language approach to the teaching of reading is ineffective. And that evidence-based research about how children best learn to read points to the explicit teaching of phonics as the solution.

The Reading Dilemma:

Australia faces a daunting reading problem, with a third of our children struggling to read proficiently. The consequences are dire, leading to a cost of $40 billion over these students' lifetimes, not to mention the long-term societal impact. The so called Reading Wars, which have raged for over four decades, have left a trail of confusion, but recent research, like the Grattan Institute Report, points us in a clear direction – the structured literacy approach anchored in phonics.

The Grattan Institute's Call to Action:

The Grattan Institute's recent report, aptly titled "The Reading Guarantee," asserts that the whole-language approach, once championed in the 1970s, has failed many students. The remedy, according to the report, is the adoption of a structured literacy approach, with a pronounced focus on phonics, starting in the early years of education.

The report emphasizes a six-step "Reading Guarantee," urging schools to commit to a minimum of 90% of students becoming proficient readers. The guidelines propose specific teaching strategies, high-quality curriculum materials, and universal screening to identify struggling students early on. However, the linchpin of this guarantee is the incorporation of phonics into every classroom, setting the stage for a reading revolution.

Churchill Primary's Success Story:

The compelling success story of Churchill Primary School in regional Victoria serves as a beacon of hope in the reading landscape. This small, disadvantaged public school, facing alarming literacy rates in 2016, made a decisive shift in 2018. The catalyst for change was embracing a teaching style known as "structured literacy," rooted in the systematic teaching of phonics.

Year 5 teacher Halie McColl, reflecting on the transformation, expressed a sentiment shared by many educators: "For the first 10 years of my teaching career, I feel like I've failed the kids because I wasn't teaching them to read how they should've been taught to read." The move to structured literacy has not only elevated academic performance but has rekindled engagement among students and reignited the passion of teachers.

Phonics: The Science of Reading:

To understand the urgency of adopting phonics, we turn to the insights of neuroscientist Professor Stanislaus Dehaene. Learning to read, according to Dehaene, is a complex process that involves recognizing letters, connecting them to speech sounds, and ultimately deriving meaning. The brain undergoes a transformation, making the "letter box area" active, a crucial step in decoding written words

Professor Dehaene dispels the myth of whole-word reading, emphasizing that the brain processes every single letter and does not rely on recognizing entire word shapes. The key, he argues, lies in teaching letter-to-sound correspondence explicitly. Phonics is not just a method; it's a fundamental rewiring of the brain, and its impact is universal across diverse cultures.

University Training for Future Educators:

To ensure the success of the Reading Guarantee and the widespread adoption of phonics, the focus must extend to the training of future educators in university courses. The traditional divide in the Reading Wars, with some advocating whole-language approaches, has left an enduring mark on teacher training.

It's time for a paradigm shift. University courses for student teachers should prioritize the science of reading, with a strong emphasis on the role of phonics in literacy development. The curriculum must equip future educators with the knowledge and skills needed to implement structured literacy in their classrooms effectively.

The Grattan Institute's call for a nationally consistent Year 1 Phonics Screening Check aligns with the need for a standardised approach to teacher training. Prospective teachers should be well-versed in administering and interpreting such assessments, ensuring early identification of students who may require additional support.

Challenges and Opportunities:

While the call for phonics is gaining momentum, challenges remain. The autonomy of Australia's 10,000 schools, coupled with varying degrees of support for structured literacy, poses a hurdle. The Grattan Institute rightly highlights the need for more support for teachers to retrain and access ready-made lessons.
Addressing this challenge requires a collaborative effort from education departments, universities, and individual schools. Professional development opportunities, resources, and ongoing support are essential to empower teachers in implementing phonics effectively.

Phonics: A Path to Equity:

One of the most pressing arguments for the widespread adoption of phonics is its potential to bridge the equity gap in education. Disadvantaged students, who often face barriers outside the classroom, are further disadvantaged by poor reading skills. The Reading Guarantee seeks to address this by committing to proficiency for at least 90% of students.

By incorporating phonics into every classroom, we can ensure that all students, regardless of their socio-economic background, receive the tools they need to become proficient readers. Phonics levels the playing field, providing a structured and systematic approach that benefits every child.


The Reading Guarantee proposed by the Grattan Institute is not just a call for change; it's a call for a reading revolution. Phonics, with its roots in the science of reading, emerges as the beacon guiding us out of the Reading Wars' longstanding quagmire. The success of Churchill Primary School underscores the transformative power of structured literacy.

As we navigate the path forward, let us recognise the pivotal role of university courses in shaping the educators of tomorrow. It's time to prioritize the science of reading, with a strong emphasis on phonics, ensuring that every teacher is equipped to unlock the potential of every student. The Reading Guarantee is not just a guarantee of proficiency; it's a promise of a brighter future for all Australian children.