The reading wars are over – and phonics has won

Sarah Mitchell:

Of all the debates in education, none are quite as absurd as the reading wars. On the one hand there are those who advocate for a phonics-based approach to reading instruction in the early years – making sure children understand sound-letter relationships so they can read words accurately without guessing from the context or pictures.

On the other hand are those who advocate a “whole of language” approach, saying the best way for children to learn whole words is to encounter them in meaningful contexts – meaning kids should be immersed in authentic literature from the get-go.

The reading wars are bizarre because the evidence behind how reading should be taught is so 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.

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.

Study after study highlights 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. 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.

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