“The pen is mightier than the sword,” as the old saying goes, and it’s true. Those who master literacy are empowered in many areas of life, including study, day-to-day communication, and public discourse. A robust literacy foundation is a great starting point if our goal is to maximise the teaching of young people.

However, literacy rates in Australia have been lagging in recent years compared to global standards. Christine Wan, Co-owner of C3 Education Group, has experienced the foundational literacy gaps firsthand in her decades teaching the school curriculum. 

“By the time some students come to us in their high school years, they haven’t even mastered basic grammar. And educators don’t have time to constantly check students’ grammar — that should be done well in advance, in the younger years. So, where have things gone wrong?” she asks.

Whole Language and Its Limitations

A combination of factors is at play here, but the most significant is due to the ‘guessing game’ way that we have all learned to read, called “whole language” learning.

Whole language became the dominant literacy teaching method in the 1970s, so there is a generation of people who have learned to read this way. It centres around learning words and language in context. For example, a child will learn “dog” by repeatedly being shown the word alongside a picture of a dog to create an association.

While intuitive, this approach fails to support struggling readers, including those with dyslexia or other learning challenges, who benefit more from structured, pattern-based learning. The shift away from whole language to phonetic learning across Australia seeks to address these shortcomings.

What is Phonetic Learning?

Phonetic learning is an evidence-based literacy approach that focuses on the relationship between sounds and spelling in the English language. At schools which have adopted this method, it is already showing promising results.

Early learners who learn about the different sounds of letters and letter combinations can then decode them to read, write, and comprehend words, even ones they’ve never seen before. For example, a child will learn to read the word “dog” by breaking it down into its sounds: /d/ /o/ /g/. Instead of image association, they are taught each sound associated with the letters D, O, and G, so then blend them together to pronounce “dog.”

Christine often likens this technique to a puzzle or game, where once you have learned the sounds, you now have the building blocks to tackle new words. This can be a more empowering way to learn.

Hurdles to Overcome

As with all big changes, while the move to phonetic learning is for the best, there are some growing pains on the journey to rolling this out across the country.

One challenge is that many schools are still working with outdated resources. While a large amount of funding is being pooled into updating the textbooks, worksheets, posters, etc., to align with the new curriculum, the size of the task means that it will take several years before every school is on the same page.

Another obstacle is the varying levels of exposure that teaching staff have to phonetic learning. Changing teaching methodologies is a significant adjustment, and if teachers are not well-versed in phonics or lack the necessary resources and training, their ability to deliver the curriculum with assurance and clarity may be compromised.

Revising the curriculum is financially and logistically challenging, and it will take effort and collaboration between teachers, policymakers, education centres like C3, and parents to make it a more seamless transition for students.

Setting Students up for Success

Despite the challenges, there are definitely some positives. Some early learners will adapt easily to the change, and some struggling readers will be given the chance to learn in a new style that might improve their comprehension and confidence.

Knowledge is power, and in understanding the country-wide challenges, parents have an opportunity to ensure that their children are abreast of the turning tides. If you think your child might be struggling, Christine advises that now is the time to act.

“Time is of the essence. It’s good for parents to intervene before they get to a point where it is like, ‘I didn’t realize that my kid was that far behind’ and then it becomes a constant game of catch up,” she says.

Christine notices that it’s not often until NAPLAN test results are received that parents realise that their child is behind, when the literacy gap becomes apparent. This insight led Christine to develop the signature early intervention program offered by C3: the Mindful Readers Program.

“It’s a resource that parents can use in a very self-explanatory way. It’s affordable and students can do it from home,” explains Christine.

Programs like this create more immediate access to quality education, which is particularly important in light of the new literacy curriculum. When educators, parents and carers are well-versed in phonetic learning and have all the resources and support, they’re equipped to help ensure a smooth learning transition for all little readers.