Expert Q&A: Phonics and early reading instruction

In our latest expert Q&A we talk to Greta Rollo, who leads the Primary Early Childhood and Inclusive Research team at the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), and ACER Research Fellow Dr Kellie Picker, about the place of phonics in early reading instruction.

What are the key elements of good early reading instruction and where does phonics fit in?

The ‘Big 6’ key elements identified in research are:

  • oral language – hearing and using language
  • phonological awareness – the ability to hear the sounds and parts within language, including phonemic awareness, the smallest sounds that make up words
  • phonics – connecting the sounds or phonemes to the letters of the alphabet or group of letters that is used to represent it
  • vocabulary – high frequency words through to subject-specific words
  • fluency – accuracy, rate and expression in reading connected text
  • comprehension – understanding what we read

Each element of the Big 6 interacts with and impacts the others in reading and writing.

Oral language learning involves broadening spoken and receptive vocabulary which underpins all learning. Vocabulary is developed by hearing and using an increasing number of words in an ever-widening range of contexts and in increasingly specific content areas. This also contributes to phonological awareness, an awareness of the key features and sounds of English language, for example rhyme, sentences, words and syllables.

A key feature of phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, involves hearing and manipulating the individual sounds in spoken words, for example, knowing that the /d/, /o/ and /g/ sounds go together when they hear the word ‘dog’. It is linked with phonics because phonics requires students to map the individual sounds (or phonemes) they hear and say to letters they read.

Performing this ’decoding’ skill fluently (at an accurate, appropriate rate, with expression) demonstrates and supports comprehension. When students can decode print using skills in phonics, they can link what they read to their understanding of the information, ideas, feelings, and thoughts that are communicated to achieve comprehension. At this point, students can move from learning to read, to using their reading skills to learn new things.

What is a ‘constrained skill’ and how do constrained skills relate to the teaching and learning of phonics?

Constrained skills are skills that, once learnt, do not need to be taught again, as they have been ‘mastered’. Whereas unconstrained skills can be taught and continue to develop and improve across a lifetime. Phonics is sometimes described as a constrained set of skills. Teaching phonics skills in a systematic and explicit manner helps ensure children quickly master the relationship between the 26 letters of the English alphabet and their most common sound.

Added to this, the use of a systematic teaching sequence where sounds are taught in groups (s, a, t, p, i, n) is ideal when teaching students to read and write different words (for example at, in, sat, pin, tin, pit), supporting learning to read and write as quickly as possible.

As the 26 letters of the alphabet can be used in different combinations to represent the 44 sounds of English and some letter combinations are more common than others, it’s important to teach these letter patterns in a systematic way that supports reading and writing. For example, common ways to represent the long ‘A’ sound are day, main, take, steak; less common ways are in the words eight and hey.

The teaching and learning of phonics in the early years of school is essential for literacy learning and is therefore considered a high impact teaching strategy which, when combined with the other elements of the Big 6, contributes to students becoming proficient readers.

Can phonics support early identification of struggling readers?

Yes, it can! For students who do not understand the relationship between English letters and sounds, being unable to articulate the sounds that letters and different letter patterns make limits their ability to decode words for reading (and encode words for writing).

Mapping letters and sounds and blending the sounds together to read words must happen fluently for students to easily comprehend what they read. If reading continues to be slow and effortful, the underlying issues might be attributable to problems with phonemic awareness and/or phonics.

In the early years of schooling, assessment of phonics and phonemic awareness can help teachers pinpoint the origins of the problem, so they can develop a plan to help address the specific learning needs of the student.

On the other hand, students who can easily decode but struggle with comprehension may benefit from work in areas such as vocabulary or morphology, as well as being taught a range of comprehension strategies, rather than phonics.

Which states and territories in Australia currently mandate the assessment of phonics?

Phonics is part of the Australian Curriculum in Reading and Viewing and is therefore taught and assessed around Australia. Mandated phonics assessments have been instituted in some Australian states in response to growing concerns that some students are not identified early enough as having reading difficulties.

South Australia was the first state to implement a Year 1 phonics screening check – a 40-word assessment of phonics in 2017, adapted from the UK phonics screening check. New South Wales adopted the same assessment in 2021 and Tasmania in 2022. Victoria enhanced its English Online Interview (EOI) with the addition of items resembling a phonics screening-check added to the 4 EOI assessment modules in 2023 and at the same time mandating the use of the second assessment in Year 1 that same year.

Can you talk about some recent projects ACER has been involved with that examine the place of phonics in early literacy education?

ACER has led the development of teacher interpretation and training tools for the South Australian Phonics Screening Check since its inception in 2017. In Victoria, we led the redevelopment of the EOI and interpretation materials.

ACER is also involved in revising the Victorian Literacy Teaching Toolkit to support teachers of students with learning difficulties, which requires some focus on phonics. We have delivered training for teachers in the interpretation of this assessment around Victoria.

We are currently revising the PAT Early Years frameworks and assessments to include a more detailed focus on phonics and phonemic awareness as well as a more engaging interface. ACER is also developing phonics and phonemic teaching resources for the PAT Teaching Resources Centre for release later this year.

Why do you think discussion around phonics attracts controversy?

Research into how we learn is constantly evolving and advances in the science of learning and the science of reading continue apace, informing evolving educational policy and practice.

Like all research, evidence for specific approaches such as phonics is developed and refuted, resulting in the accumulation of evidence over time and greater specificity in the effectiveness of different approaches. Such research is subject to evolving political and ideological influences.

At different points in history, phonics has been a victim of strong marketing and bad press that at times has reduced discussion of early reading to an ‘either/or’ debate. Over time, practitioners and policymakers have come to a more robust, considered understanding of the evidence and the need for teachers to use practices and strategies shown to improve learning, consistent with the best current understandings, which is why phonics has re-established its place alongside the other elements of the Big 6 in early reading.

Greta Rollo and Dr Kellie Picker will both be presenting at Research Conference 2023. The theme of the event – which runs from 3-4 September at ICC Sydney – is ‘Becoming lifelong learners: Improving the continuity of learning from birth to 12 years’. You can explore the program and register by clicking on the link.