Boomer sleeps in the crook of Callum Milkins’ neck while he plays video games, and snuggles up to his chin in bed. Parrots make affectionate pets, so Callum’s mother Melinda bought one three years ago to ease her son’s loneliness. Boomer has been a loyal friend, and his companionship is even more valuable now that Callum has quit school and spends most of his time at home.
Callum plans to look for a job but work can be hard to find in Lance Creek, a small town outside Wonthaggi on Victoria’s Bass Coast, and the 17-year-old has an extra hurdle: he struggles to read. That’s why he refused to return when classrooms reopened last year after the first COVID-19 shutdown. Callum, a stocky young man with brown curls and clear blue eyes, is softly spoken and looks at his hands when he speaks. He’s fascinated by astronomy and adores his pets: along with Boomer, there’s a lizard, dog and chooks. But there’s no mistaking how he feels about school. “It was like going to hell every single day. And getting tortured and then going home,” he says.
His mum understands: Melinda Milkins has watched Callum struggle for more than a decade. She doesn’t know what he’ll do next. There are few jobs for unqualified kids; TAFE requires a literacy test. She and Callum’s father Greg, who works in the building industry, have slowly readjusted their expectations for their son, from him being able to follow his dreams to a life in which he can have some independence and stay above the poverty line. Milkins, a nurse, has a sharp sense of humour and a tinkling laugh, but when she talks about her son’s experience her voice is thick with grief and fury.
She sensed something was wrong during Callum’s early years at primary school, as she watched him battling to recognise the words in his take-home readers. Teachers said he’d catch up, but he didn’t. By year 3, his anxiety about reading made school excruciating. “It started to affect his friendships,” Milkins says. “He couldn’t read or write or do the work very well. He started to get bullied because he was ‘dumb’. It snowballs: it’s not just that they can’t read; it affects every minute of their day.”
The school told her he was about six months behind, but when she had Callum privately assessed at age 11, his ability to sound out words was equivalent to a seven-year-old’s. He was diagnosed with a learning disorder.
“Callum needed evidence-based literacy and numeracy programs from the moment it was clear … he was having learning difficulties,” Milkins says. “The ‘wait and see’ approach is very damaging. By grade three he needed intensive intervention in all areas of literacy, which never happened.” She spent what she could afford on private tutors but by then, the gap between Callum and his peers was too big.
Milkins’ grief is for her son’s lost future. Her fury is directed at the school for failing to notice and address his problems earlier, and for refusing to use methods she believes would have made reading easier for her son, and kids like him.
There are many parents like Melinda Milkins, who blame the approach to teaching reading that’s preferred by most of the country’s primary schools for leaving their children behind. They say it ignores the science that points to the key role of phonics – the relationship between letters and sounds – in learning to read, and allows too many students to graduate from more than a decade of schooling without having mastered the most fundamental skill of all. But others – their opponents in the reading wars – say parents and scientists do not know better than teachers, and should not tell them how to do their job.
On the face of it, this debate is about phonics and whether students are taught enough about it. But it’s turned into something bigger – part of the culture wars. It’s become entwined with political identity, the polarisation of the left and right, and the psychology of tribalism. It reflects the tension between science, ideology and personal experience. It’s become about things that have little to do with young kids learning how to read.
While the adults argue, one in five 14-year-olds cannot read well enough, according to the 2019 NAPLAN results, a figure that’s barely improved over a decade of national testing. Amid calls from parents such as Melinda Milkins for Australia to do better, and as scientists and increasing numbers of teachers line up behind them, the reading wars are erupting again. States are swapping sides. Some education systems are rejecting long-standing positions, while others are doubling down on them. And the casualties of this emotional, bitter debate are kids like Callum.
Elias Dahrie is a bright-eyed, cheeky six-year-old whose tongue pokes through the corner of his mouth when he concentrates. He’s allowed Good Weekend to sit in on his remedial reading session on one condition; that when the bell rings for lunch, he does not miss a second of playtime. We’re in an enclave off the main year 1 classroom of his western Sydney school, where READ is spelt out in huge letters against the window, and one of many laminated posters paying homage to words says, “Reading is dreaming with open eyes.”
With his feet dangling from a small plastic chair beside Reading Recovery teacher Maree Grainger, Elias reads aloud from a picture book about Bobby Brown’s cat, which is hiding, stretching and “pawing”. Grainger stops him. “Pawing? What does a cat do?” she asks. “Purring,” Elias replies. He reads further, before misreading a word beginning with “c” as “cushions”. “Does that look right and make sense in the story?” Grainger asks, pointing to a picture of Bobby under a blanket. The tongue peeks out again, and Elias corrects himself. “Covers,” he says.
Here, at Mother Teresa Primary in western Sydney’s Westmead, educators teach children to read using the word’s meaning as their guide. This is known as balanced literacy, which is embraced by those in the debate who don’t approve of a phonics-focused approach.
Three more laminated signs on the walls of Elias’s classroom highlight the strategies teachers want students to use as they decipher storybooks. “Does the word look right?” says one. “Does it sound right?” says another. “Does it make sense (is that what’s happening in the picture)?” says the third. Children are taught the sounds made by letters in the alphabet – the basics of phonics – but these are given no more emphasis than the other strategies on Grainger’s reading room wall, such as using context to figure out the meaning of words. Disciples of this approach argue phonics is of limited value because English doesn’t obey its own rules. “If you [only] teach kids to sound out words, you are giving them a promise that English just can’t keep,” says Mother Teresa principal Liz Devlin.
Balanced literacy has been favoured by most Australian primary schools and university education faculties for decades. It’s a spin-off from the “whole-language” approach, which was based on the view that experienced readers recognise an entire word rather than break it into parts, so beginners should be taught to memorise whole words, too, beginning with the simplest and gradually learning more, and using the words they know in a sentence to work out those they don’t. Critics of this approach – those who advocate for a more thorough embrace of phonics – say children are left to guess.
Australian students were taught a rigorous form of phonics in the 1950s and ’60s. In the “liberated” ’70s, that approach was considered too harsh, and as educators embraced the idea that children drove their own learning, phonics was ditched for the whole-language strategy. In the 2000s, when government inquiries in Britain, the US and Australia reviewed evidence and found sounding out words was key to learning to read, basic elements of phonics were added to the whole-language method, and the resulting hybrid was dubbed “balanced literacy”. It allowed whole-language advocates to bat away critics by saying they do teach phonics, even though they don’t teach much of it.
Devlin does not want to be dragged into the reading wars, but wouldn’t use a phonics-heavy approach at her school. “It’s robotic,” she says. “Yes, ‘I know my phonics and I can decode words.’ But you might ask that child, ‘Where did you go [in the book]?’ and they have no idea, because they haven’t been thinking about the story. You can teach kids to chant tables, but if that’s all they can do …”
Oatley Public School in Sydney’s south, however, takes a very different approach. During literacy class one Friday morning, 1M is breaking words into syllables. “Tel-e-phone,” the children say in chorus. “Rhino-cer-os. Mag-ni-fi-cent.” They’re learning they letter-sound combinations in the English language, and are tackling polysyllabic words. “What does every syllable need to have, Charlotte?” asks teacher Jade Mieszkuc. “Yes, a vowel! That’s a really important thing to remember when you are writing, as well.”
The students write words on their mini whiteboards, a modern version of the slate, and read them out. “In-ter-est-ting,” they chant. “Look at that word interesting,” says Mieszkuc. “Interest is the base word. Who can tell me what the ing is? Good girl! Ing is the suffix, well done.” They’re asked to write the word “rescue”, and hold up the results for Mieszkuc to see. “Good,” she says. “We can make that ‘u’ sound with a few different digraphs. In ‘rescue’, it’s ue.“
They break into song. “We’re adding y to words, we’re adding y to words, we are making adjectives by adding y to words,” the students sing to the tune of The Farmer in the Dell. Assistant principal Lauren Edwards, who is watching the class, leans over and mutters under her breath. “They really stick in your brain, these songs.”
Oatley uses an approach known as systematic synthetic phonics (SSP). It aims to ensure students have a thorough knowledge of not just the sounds of the alphabet, but of different letter-sound combinations. I, they learn, can appear as igh (as in “fight”) or ie (as in “tie”) or i_e (as in “like”). They are taught these in an order drawn from research from educational psychologists, and students blend the sounds to work out what the words say. Critics say it’s a rigid approach that leaves no room for student individuality or teacher freedom. Advocates say it works, particularly for kids who find reading hard.
This approach aims to give a thorough understanding of how words are built, using more engaging classroom methods than the rote-learning drills of the 1950s. If everyone was taught this way, advocates argue, fewer students would be arriving at high school with the reading level of a seven-year-old. Synthetic phonics is the kind of program Melinda Milkins wishes had been available for Callum.
“You’ve got some kids [about 5 per cent] who can get by with very little phonics instruction,” says Daniel Willingham, an internationally renowned educational psychologist from the University of Virginia in the US, whose research backs the importance of phonics in early reading. “You’ve got some kids who would really benefit from more, but they’re so strong in other aspects of oral language that it bolsters them, and they end up doing okay. Then you’ve got kids at the other end, and for them phonics instruction makes an enormous difference.”
Up to 20 per cent of Australian students end up needing extra help to read, although that varies between schools. Some say this is to be expected; others say it’s not good enough, and that the figure should be closer to 5 per cent.
When Edwards, who is in charge of years 1 and 2 at Oatley Public School, was approached by her principal about trialling a synthetic phonics program, she worried it would bore stronger readers and give teachers little room to individualise their approach. But “our EALD [English as a second language or dialect] team was really pushing it,” she says. “A lot of the kids in year 3, who were being referred to learning support, were struggling with phonemic awareness.” Her colleagues worked hard to persuade her, arguing that even children who picked up reading easily might not know their letter-sound correspondences well enough. A more thorough understanding would make them better writers and more confident readers, and would stop kids falling victim to the year 3 slump – when texts become more complicated, books feature fewer pictures, and teachers realise even some of their stronger readers have been making educated guesses.
Books from the 16th and 17th centuries advocated phonics; the 18th century then favoured whole language. The pendulum has swung between them ever since.
In the end, Edwards was won over “by the results I was seeing in the room”. Now, her only students falling behind are those with diagnosed learning difficulties. Edwards has enrolled her own son at Oatley for its synthetic phonics reading program. “It does challenge your thinking,” she says. “It’s different to the way things have traditionally been done. It’s been quite a journey for us, we had to really unlearn and relearn.”
Writing developed as code for spoken language, and reading involves deciphering it. Codes differ; the Japanese kana systems use symbols to represent syllables, while Chinese characters correspond to meaning and sound. English uses alphabetic notation, but as a hotchpotch of mainly European languages it is one of the more complex of its kind, with 26 letters, 44 sounds and more than 200 letter combinations to represent sounds.
Debates about how to teach reading have raged for 500 years. Books from the 16th and 17th centuries advocated phonics; the 18th century then favoured whole language. The pendulum has swung between them ever since.
Phonics dominated the 1950s and ’60s, and became synonymous with rote learning, rigid rules and cane-wielding teachers (some adults even associate phonics with trauma). It was jettisoned in the 1970s, when the notion of a teacher presenting information to students was replaced with the belief that learning comes naturally to students under the right conditions, and that a teacher’s job is to create those conditions. Students would learn to read, they believed, if they were immersed in words and stories.
“It was part of the – in many ways understandable – anti-establishment, anti-traditional power structures zeitgeist,” says Pamela Snow, a professor of cognitive psychology in the School of Education at Melbourne’s La Trobe University, and an advocate of a phonics-based approach. “Holus-bolus, teaching faculties threw out everything they used to teach on how language worked and the linguistics teachers needed to know. As a whole it’s never come back.”
While that was happening, other disciplines joined the debate. Scientists – psychologists, neuro-scientists, speech pathologists – began researching the cognitive processes involved in reading. When they applied an evolutionary psychology lens, they found that while humans have evolved to learn to speak languages by listening to them, reading is different. Contrary to the deeply held beliefs of many parents and educators, the vast majority of children will not learn to read simply by being read to.
“We’ve only been doing it as a species for 6000 years,” says Snow. “Our brains have not evolved to read. It’s a biologically unnatural thing to do, which means children will need instruction, in the same way as they need instruction in algebra or calculus.”
In the mid-1980s, psychologists developed what is now a widely accepted theory which proposes that a child’s reading comprehension depends on two things. The first is an ability to sound out words, which is also known as decoding. It helps that English is less of a rule-breaker than many think. Scribes of past centuries wrote phonetically, but pronunciation has changed; our ancestors, for example, used to pronounce the g in “gnat”. About 50 per cent of words are decodable, and another third violate only one letter-sound rule, says Snow. “When teachers understand this, and know something about word origins and structures, they can help students to see and understand patterns in English,” she says.
The second is knowing what words mean. That requires wide vocabulary and general knowledge, which is one reason why talking and reading to children are so important, and why the children of educated parents have an advantage. If an Australian child was asked to read about gridiron, she might be able to sound out the words “scrimmage” and “quarterback”, but would have more trouble understanding the text than her US peers.
Children who can decode and understand words will find reading easier, the research says. And the more they read the more readily they will recognise words, allowing them to focus more on what the words mean. They can fall back on phonics to decode unfamiliar words, just as adults do.
“Our brains have not evolved to read … children will need instruction, in the same way as they need instruction in algebra or calculus.”
But the children who struggle with one or both elements will be left behind. This leads to the Matthew Principle, a Biblical reference to the rich becoming richer and the poor poorer. As their peers race ahead, these struggling kids will still be wrangling basic books and simple sentences. They might become anxious about reading. They will learn less. One study estimated that a child in US fifth grade who is among the top 10 per cent of readers encounters two million words a year in the books they read outside school, while a child in the bottom 10 encounters just 8000.
If wealth, attention and nightly books were enough to grow a reader, Zara Bortolin should have been an expert within a few years of beginning school. Her parents read to her from birth. Her mother, Vanessa, is an accountant who retired when Zara, now 11, was born, and her father, Franco, spent many years running a multimillion-dollar signage company. They live in a renovated terrace in Sydney’s inner west, with white and dove-grey interiors worthy of a home decor magazine. But Vanessa, a poised, elegantly dressed woman in her early 50s, realised something was amiss five years ago when her daughter left a six-year-old’s birthday distraught. “Zara just froze,” she says. After some maternal sleuthing, she discovered the girls had begun reading to each other during the party. Years of frustration, confusion and interventions followed. Nothing worked.
Zara’s school was not worried, and said she’d catch up. But two years ago, when Zara was in year 4, Bortolin lost faith and spent $1000 on a private assessment. Her daughter had dyslexia, which describes students at the bottom end of the reading bell curve, but there’s no official point at which someone becomes dyslexic. Since then, the Bortolins have spent at least $20,000 on private tutors specialising in phonics. Zara’s reading has improved, although she has still not caught up. “Imagine those parents who don’t have the money [to pay for tutors],” says Bortolin. “It saddens me to think of those children.“
Bortolin is right to be worried. Snow studied the literacy skills of young people in juvenile jails and found high rates of undiagnosed language disorders. Like Callum Milkins and Zara Bortolin, many of these kids struggled to read when they began school. Their literacy progress stopped at year 2 or 3 level. But they didn’t have mothers who lobbied for them, or parents who could afford to hire private tutors. Most were in out-of-home care and had left school by year 8, usually via suspension or expulsion.
“The Matthew Principle really applies to these kids,” says Snow. “We often see a real kicking-in of behavioural problems by middle primary. Once you get into grade 3, there’s a shift from learning to read, to reading to learn. The kids make their presence felt through disruptive behaviour. They fall further and further behind. If there’s any intervention at all, it’s behaviour-related and often quite punitive.”
There are literacy teachers in juvenile prisons, but by then it’s too late and too stressful. “It’s a terrible time and a terrible place,” says Snow. “The gaps are mind-bogglingly huge. I don’t see how these young people could engage with the academic curriculum with the gaps they’ve got in language and literacy skills. We’ve let the time go by, we’ve let the gaps grow bigger and bigger. At a system level, we are complicit in their failure.”
“The kids … fall further and further behind. If there’s any intervention at all, it’s behaviour-related and often quite punitive.”
In 2018, the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) and the Australian College of Educators NSW hosted a debate in Sydney between the main sides of the reading wars: teaching phonics systematically and explicitly, versus doing so in the context of meaningful sentences. It was passionate and fiery. Mark Diamond, the principal of Lansvale Public School in Sydney, described synthetic phonics as artificial and at odds with real reading. “We will not dumb things down for teachers and arrogantly expect them to sing from the same hymn sheet,” he said. “It’s disrespectful to the profession, demoralising and dangerous.”
There were hundreds of people in the audience that night, and another thousand watching online. US educational psychologist Daniel Willingham was among them. “I was shocked,” he says. “We have some of the same issues in the United States, but I think it’s more extreme in Australia.” La Trobe University’s Professor Snow, however, believes the conflict is no worse here than in the rest of the English-speaking world.
The battle can be vicious. Last year, the Australian Literacy Educators’ Association, which supports balanced literacy, apologised and retracted claims made at one of its conferences. The comments had accused executives at Multilit, which sells synthetic phonics programs to schools, of trying to further its commercial interests “in support of a class agenda aligned to extreme political views”.
When the NSW Minister of Education, Sarah Mitchell, declared the reading wars over and phonics the winner last November, and compared phonics sceptics to anti-vaxxers, there were real tears from some on the balanced literacy side. A few principals defied an unofficial ban on criticising their employer by taking to Twitter in opposition. On the normally genial Facebook sites used by teachers to share knowledge, debates raged between those who swore by synthetic phonics, and those who saw the announcement as part of a creeping tide of pedagogical oppression.
Reading had become an unlikely proxy for political identity. The CIS, a conservative think tank, has long wanted more phonics in classrooms, as have the federal Coalition parties and The Australian. Some now regard supporting phonics as a right-wing political act, just as concern about climate change is linked with the left. This frustrates Snow. “Ironically, what drives me is the social justice imperative of getting all children across that [literacy] bridge and not using instructional principles that will leave many children behind,” she says.
Some of the conflict comes from deep ideological divisions within education. Phonics involves lots of what’s known as explicit teaching; standing in front of a class, delivering information. For some, that’s a betrayal of their strong, career-defining belief in child-centred learning.
“Ironically, what drives me is the social justice imperative of getting all children across that [literacy] bridge and not using instructional principles that will leave many children behind.”
Teachers and students have also become collateral damage in a stand-off between academics, in what Snow calls a “massive knowledge translation failure”. Most education faculties support balanced literacy, while most cognitive scientists and psychologists prefer phonics. “[Educators respond to scientists pushing phonics by saying], ‘You’re not a teacher, you’ve never taught a class of kids how to read, what could you know?’ You could argue fault on both sides. Why aren’t the faculties of education saying, ‘Thank you so much, this is important and we’ll use it?’ Why aren’t the faculties of psychology making more of an effort to cross the ditch?”
Teachers, too, are divided. Many graduate from university thinking balanced literacy is the only approach. Some have spent decades watching it work for most students. They’re offended by criticism from non-teachers. “So much of this is about the psychology of tribal behaviour,” says Snow. “If I was to decide tomorrow that I’ve been wrong for the past 20 years, and on reflection whole language is the right approach, I’d have to let go of my tribal relationships. But I wouldn’t necessarily be welcomed on the other side. I’d be in no man’s land.”
But some teachers are asking questions, particularly those who teach upper primary and watch students struggle when texts become harder. Samantha Donnan, a Sydney primary school teacher, graduated from university lacking confidence in how to teach reading. While working in primary schools, she was trained in Reading Recovery, a balanced literacy program which was once promoted in NSW public schools, but has been disendorsed by the state’s department of education since 2018 (it’s not banned, however; schools can pay for it themselves). It’s still widely used in Victoria. At the time, Donnan loved it. “You had a great deal of support,” she says. “You’d teach behind a screen, and people would critique you. You had trainers who loved what they did and were rigorous in their approach. I felt like it was working.”
But it didn’t work for her own primary school-aged children. So Donnan typed “how do you teach children to read well?” into a search engine, and discovered the research on reading science. Eventually, she quit her job to become a private literacy tutor. Donnan believes a grassroots shift to a more phonics-based approach is underway. “We have to continue the shift,” she says. “We can’t be upset by the hard conversations. We can’t have kids in year 7 reading like they’re in year 3.”
Since 2017, the federal government has been pushing for states and territories to screen year 1 students to assess how well they know letter-sound relationships. It involves each student reading a list of 40 words to their teacher for about five minutes. But the Commonwealth doesn’t operate schools, and states often ignore it unless money is at stake. Only South Australia agreed, and began the state-wide check in 2018. NSW held a voluntary trial last year, and about a third of primary schools took part. Almost 60 per cent of students did not meet the expected achievement level, so NSW will make the screening check compulsory in public schools in 2021. If students are tested on phonics, the minister, Sarah Mitchell, hopes schools will pay more attention to teaching it. Tasmania is also trialling the check.
After its own internal battles, the NSW Department of Education has also abandoned the balanced literacy programs it promoted to hundreds of schools, and has swung behind a more phonics-focused approach. The NSW Education Standards Authority will follow suit in a new early-primary syllabus. But it’s unclear what this will look like, and how much freedom public schools will still be given to decide their own approach.
Some already create their own mix of phonics and balanced literacy, although phonics researchers say halfway programs are less effective. “The written English code is complex and to be confident that all children master it, we need to teach it in a way that leaves no children in the no-man’s land of not understanding,” says Snow.
“We have to continue the shift. We can’t be upset by the hard conversations. We can’t have kids in year 7 reading like they’re in year 3.”
The debate rages in private schools, too. The Catholic Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn have begun phonics programs this year, while the Catholic Education Office of Parramatta firmly supports balanced literacy.
Victoria has no plans to introduce the phonics check, and its schools are free to choose their own reading programs. Balanced literacy programs such as Reading Recovery are popular with many, including Callum Milkins’ school. The Victorian government says it’s on board with phonics, but it’s unclear whether that means a light-touch or more intensive approach.
None of this helps Callum. He’s still enrolled at his high school, but he won’t go back. His parents are upset about that, but “we cannot force him to go to a place that is causing trauma and harm,” says Melinda Milkins. A job would give him self-worth and independence, but she can’t think of many in IT, his passion, that don’t require strong literacy skills. “We feel his opportunities have been limited due to deficiencies in his schooling.”
As for Callum himself, in explaining why he quit school, he says while he can read and understand basic words, he struggles when they get more technical. “Your teachers get mad at you because you haven’t finished your work, but you don’t know what to do. I’ve been going for what, 12 or 13 years? I’ve had enough.”
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