Calling a truce on the Reading Wars

By Greg Whitby, 29 August 2018


Weekly Column from the Executive Director of Schools, Diocese of Parramatta

Unlike walking or talking, learning to read is not a naturally acquired skill. It is however a necessary skill for young people to acquire. The debate about how best to teach young people to read is one of the biggest issues in education. It is commonly referred as the ‘Reading Wars’ with phonics warriors on one side and whole language ninja on the other.

Recently, the Australian College of Education (ACE) hosted a great debate bringing academics and practitioners together to argue whether teaching phonics in schools was sufficient for early literacy. While no-one disputes the importance of phonics (decoding words based on sounds of letters), phonics is only one piece of the reading puzzle. Our approach to reading must be the same as our approach to schooling: there is a no one-size-fits-all approach.

Given that each child begins school at different starting points and with different learning needs, teachers need to ensure that the approach is more than a single strategy – in other words, a focus on phonics as well as helping students to make meaning from what they are reading is essential. It’s like driving a car – we need the skills to handle a car and to understand the road rules but we also want to be able to enjoy the driving experience. When it comes to reading, if we only focus on the technical side (phonics), we make it much harder for students to enjoy the pleasures that comes from making meaning from what they read.

When teachers don’t use an integrated approach that includes phonics, word fluency, vocabulary and comprehension, they aren’t maximising the opportunities for success. Ask most young boys and they’ll tell you that reading isn’t a great adventure – it’s seen as a chore, like brushing their teeth. If you haven’t seen the program Gareth Malone’s Extraordinary School for Boys on ABC TV a few years back, it’s well worth the watch on YouTube.

Gareth Malone, spent two months at a typical UK primary school to re-engage boys with reading and writing. Describing himself as a non-educator but a life-long learner, Gareth did what good teachers do: he looked for experiential learning opportunities that linked reading to activities the boys enjoyed doing. He tapped into their need for adventure and built on their natural curiosity. While it was challenging, the school saw a change in the boys’ attitudes towards reading and a lift in results.

Making meaning from words is the great adventure of reading. When teachers focus on a single strategy such as phonics, we miss making words come alive.

Greg Whitby

Executive Director of Schools – Diocese of Parramatta


Greg Whitby is the Executive Director of Schools - Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta
Read Daily
* indicates required