The Reading Wars – What’s the Story?

The Reading Wars – What Is It and What Can I Do Right Now?

The ‘reading wars’ have been a big topic of discussion in Victoria and around Australia. It refers to the war between a commonly used literacy approach called ‘balanced literacy’ and the latest evidence-based approach called ‘systematic and synthetic phonics’. Balanced literacy uses strategies such as guessing words based on pictures and context and not using explicit teaching of phonemes. The systematic and synthetic phonics approach is described in its name: it is a science-backed method that involves systematically teaching children letters and sounds, and helping them to synthesise words by blending these sounds together; the difference being that this approach is founded upon explicit instruction.

Why are the reading wars still happening?

These wars have continued for a number of reasons, including the Department of Education providing “contradictions in it’s own advice”: not providing a clear stance on supporting the science of reading. Opposition education spokeswoman Jess Wilson said “The ‘choose your own adventure’ approach to teaching reading in Victorian schools is failing students”.

Melbourne Archdiocese Catholic Schools are now moving to an explicit instruction approach based on this evidence, and in some schools who have independently adopted this approach, they found that “the growth was significant”. A prompt for one school to make this move was noticing that with a balanced literacy approach, there were always some students “who didn’t improve”, and found it was “obvious” that explicit instruction was a preferred choice. This is backed by research that shows that while balanced literacy approaches work for some but not all students, explicit teaching of systematic and synthetic phonics is an approach that works for the majority of students, and is supported by the findings of three separate national enquiries into the teaching of reading (USA :National Reading Panel – 2000; Australia: National Enquiry into the Teaching of Literacy – 2005; UK: The Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading- 2006).

This is an exciting move to see happening across Catholic schools in Victoria. As a speech pathologist, it can be disheartening to see children even in high school struggle with literacy as their primary school’s balanced literacy approach didn’t work for them. These students can become self-conscious of their reading and spelling and can withdraw from participating in class and are reluctant to complete school work. The hope is that this change from Catholic schools will continue to put pressure on the government and the Department of Education to mandate evidence-based literacy instruction to all schools in Victoria.

What can I do right now?

Often parents are unaware of the reading wars and the best literacy teaching approach when enrolling their child into a school. What parents can do to support their child include:

  • Ask prospective schools about what literacy program they use and whether it is balanced literacy or systematic and synthetic phonics
  • Look for positive signs in your child’s current literacy program, such as:
    • Home readers being ‘decodable’ (only including letters and sounds that your child is explicitly taught)
    • Sounds and letters being taught directly and explicitly
  • Practicing sounding out words and then blending the sounds together during reading and spelling practice (e.g. ‘say the sounds and read/write the word’)

If you are concerned about your child’s literacy skills, early intervention is best! First, talk to your child’s teacher, and if you need further advice or support, reach out to the SPELD website and confidential advisory phone line ( Speech pathologists can conduct robust literacy assessments and support children with literacy difficulties. Dee Wardrop services offer this support. Contact our admin team to find out more about our services if interested

Quotes contained in this post refers to news articles from the following sources :

Article Links:

The big change coming to the way Catholic school kids are taught (22.2.2024):

One in three could be left behind without revolution to end reading wars (11.2.2024):

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