On balance


There has been a renewed focus on phonics assessment and instruction in Australia this year, particularly in the state of Victoria where I live and work. Here are just a few examples:


Phonics versus balanced literacy: How one tiny Victorian school turned reading around (theage.com.au)


NSW phonics check: Almost half of year 1 students do not read as well as they should (brisbanetimes.com.au)


Phonics literacy technique not in the bag for Victoria despite national curriculum push (theage.com.au)


7NEWS Melbourne on Twitter: "Victorian primary schools are going back to basics when it comes to teaching young children to read. Thousands of students have taken part in a trial to assess the impact of intensive phonics. https://t.co/5zYfOfGqUb @JackieQuist7 #7NEWS https://t.co/os3oVBFHPB" / Twitter


Phonics advocacy in the media is of course welcome and overdue, but surely it is time for a complete alternative to be articulated. It's regrettably understandable that some system and school leaders and teachers complain, tune out, or incorrectly assume phonics (i) is all that is being proposed or (ii) should be emphasised above other elements of English and literacy instruction. The importance of phonics instruction in giving students access to the literate world cannot be understated, but there is so much that can and should take place alongside that work.


My view is that phonics instruction in the early years should only take up about 25% of our instructional time in English because the available evidence indicates 20-30 minutes of high-quality phonics instruction is sufficient for most students. The remaining 75% of our time is critical and should be getting just as much air time. I’m referring to having a focus on:

  • Reading and discussing a broad range of high-quality texts and topics (including rich literature) to build oral language, knowledge, vocabulary and reading comprehension

  • Oral reading fluency routines

  • Handwriting and typing instruction

  • Sentence-level writing instruction, including grammar and punctuation

  • Process (planning and revising) writing instruction

  • Genre writing instruction

  • Time to compose

Many argue that there is a focus on phonics in media and policy because that is the area that is most contested or misunderstood. The contested aspect is probably correct, but do we really understand, teach, or prioritise the other elements of English/literacy as well as we could or should? In our school systems, do we really have agreement on how to best promote oral language development, or teach vocabulary or reading comprehension? Do we really know how to select texts for decoding practice as opposed to fluency or comprehension instruction? Do we really agree on what a high-quality dialogic reading lesson looks like? What about the various components of writing instruction? Of course, there are many examples of outstanding English and literacy instruction in our schools. The issue is about achieving consensus, consistency, quality, and rigour at scale, to ensure equal opportunity.


Aside from phonics, many other aspects of English/literacy can be indistinct or indefinable when we drill down into school curricula and instructional practices. I’m saying this as someone whose core work in my own school and other schools is to do exactly that, or to ask:

  • What are we teaching?

  • Why are we teaching it?

  • Where/when are we teaching it?

  • How well and how often are we teaching it?

  • How effective are we being in teaching it? How do we know?

I would argue that fleshing out the components of effective English and literacy instruction, including phonics instruction, is the antithesis of ‘back to basics’ as it is being coined of late. We are seeking to understand and contextually apply the best bets from vast bodies of research that are historical and current. Adherence to fundamental research and practice principles is essential, but we are not proposing a return to pre-1970s teaching, or a narrowing or oversimplification of what should be taught.


We can overemphasise phonics instruction, just as much as we can underemphasise it. It’s also important to note that the necessary gains from improved phonics instruction are likely to reach a point of plateau. Phonics, importantly, takes students a certain distance, but it is knowledge and language building primarily through high-quality texts that takes them the remaining distance. Media and policy dialogue doesn't currently reflect this.


Separating out core literacy skills instruction from English/literature instruction, and reading and writing instruction across domains, has been helpful for us in my school to ensure clarity on what will be taught, when, why, and how. Speaking and listening and reading and writing are built into all subjects, and they are underpinned by foundational core literacy instruction. Word-level reading and spelling, handwriting, and reading and writing fluency give our students access to curriculum and instruction in each domain, including English. The image below illustrates how we have conceptualised the various components.


A week of English and literacy in our Prep-2 classrooms includes the following:

  • 30 minutes of phonics instruction daily

  • 10-15 minutes of oral reading fluency (word, sentence and text-level reading practice) daily

  • 10-15 minutes of handwriting/writing fluency (letters, words, and sentences) daily

  • 5 hours of reading and discussing rich English texts with embedded vocabulary and writing instruction

  • 2 hours of reading and discussing rich Humanities texts with embedded vocabulary and writing instruction

  • 2 hours of reading and discussing rich Science texts with embedded vocabulary and writing instruction

  • Language rich lessons filled with questions and discussion, including scaffolding and extension techniques for language promotion

  • Language focus in other subjects (e.g., use of Maths vocabulary, explaining thinking using full sentences)

A week of English and literacy in our 3-6 classrooms includes the following:

  • 3 x 30-minute morphology-based spelling instruction lessons

  • 10-15 minutes of oral reading fluency daily

  • 10-15 minutes of handwriting instruction daily/as required

  • 6-7.5 hours of reading and discussing rich English texts with embedded vocabulary and writing instruction

  • 3 hours of reading and discussing rich Humanities texts with embedded vocabulary and writing instruction

  • 2 hours of reading and discussing rich Science texts with embedded vocabulary and writing instruction

  • Language rich lessons filled with questions and discussion, including scaffolding and extension techniques for language promotion

  • Language focus in other subjects (e.g., use of Maths vocabulary, explaining thinking using full sentences)

Of course, high-quality explicit, systematic phonics instruction is worthy of discussion, it's just not the only aspect worthy of discussion. Of course, it is essential that we ensure sufficient time is allocated to phonics instruction if we want the vast majority of students to succeed with word recognition, but what else are we spending our time on and with what effect?


For a long time Balanced Literacy has been pushed as the solution, but it is time for a thorough rethink. In that approach, balance has become generalisations and indistinctness, rather than care and precision, which of course is what balance requires. Balance does not mean simply that everything is included somewhere in the mix if we go looking for it. Balance is the situation in which the different elements have the correct proportions. Balance means that our curriculum reflects all the essential components of English/literacy instruction, with the prominence, time, and content that each component warrants, and that we use high-quality instructional materials and explicit and responsive pedagogy to enact it.


I believe it’s high time we deconstruct (in order to reconstruct) what it means to teach the various components of English and literacy in more evidence-informed ways, in contemporary Australian classrooms. The phonics solution is only one (very important) piece of the puzzle. Those other components, while perhaps not as controversial, are equally muddied as we currently try to do everything, everywhere, all at once.



5,736 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All