Phonics is of foundational importance

In the realm of Australian education, the mandate to follow the Australian Curriculum English underscores the foundational importance of phonics instruction in schools. Contrary to misconceptions, the notion that teachers can opt out of teaching phonics is debunked by the curriculum’s clear directives. However, navigating the landscape of reading instruction entails more than simply mastering phonics. It encompasses a multifaceted approach that addresses the diverse needs of learners, including those with complex learning requirements or multilingual backgrounds.

All schools are legislated to follow the Australian Curriculum English, which mandates the teaching of phonics and word knowledge from the foundation year onwards. In the Australian Curriculum English, the teaching of phonics commences in the foundation year and continues through to Year 6 where students apply phonics to increasingly complex words. The claim that teachers can opt out of teaching phonics is not true.

“Contrary to misconceptions, the notion that teachers can opt out of teaching phonics is debunked by the curriculum’s clear directives.”

Phonics has a genuine purpose

Learning to read in English is enormously complex for all students, and more so for students with complex learning needs or students who speak multiple languages. Phonics is only one of the reading skills that must be mastered. Students also need high level comprehension skills to make meaning from the full range of subject areas texts they’ll meet in the primary and secondary years of schooling. Another essential reading skill is being a critical reader, such as being able to discern fact from fiction, and deciding how to respond to texts they don’t agree with. The important point is that phonics, comprehension, and critical reading need to be developed concurrently so that the phonics learning has a genuine purpose. The concurrent development of reading comprehension and critical reading is also a requirement of the Australian Curriculum English. It doesn’t make sense to delay comprehension and critical reading skills until a child has mastered phonics.

The teaching of reading must be more than skilling and drilling phonics exercises, or reading the little introductory phonics texts about ‘the cat that sat on the mat’ or ‘the frog that fell off the log’. Teachers also introduce whole texts to children to build understandings of how stories, information texts and persuasive texts work, including the vocabulary that is used, and the different ways of constructing sentences. This is called the balanced approach to teaching reading and this is where teachers can choose texts that motivate students and engage them as readers.

Quality teaching is taking place

The balanced approach to the teaching of reading throughout the primary school years is working. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released a ten year report on teaching in Australian schools at the end of 2023. That report found that holistically, over the years of schooling, the teaching of reading in Australian schools is high performing, “with mixed outcomes for older school students and equity challenges”. The overall reading performance of Year 4 students has improved considerably from 2011 to 2016, as indicated by the Progress in International Reading Study (PIRLS), and the reading performance of Year 3 and 5 students in the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) improved over 2008-2011. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), also conducted by the OECD, found that Australian students who attended two years of early education and care prior to commencing school “performed 17 score points higher in reading than their peers who had not, even after controlling for socio-economic background”. Teachers are making a difference to students’ reading outcomes.

The OECD report provides hard evidence of the quality teaching taking place in many Australian classrooms over the last ten years, alongside the importance of a high quality early years learning experience, all of which deserve greater recognition from politicians and the media.


Professor Beryl Exley is an experienced classroom teacher and lecturer with the School of Education and Professional Studies at Griffith University. Her research interests are in English Curriculum, enactment of teacher knowledge and pedagogic rights for a range of stakeholders. She is a past National President of the Australian Literacy Educators’ Association (ALEA) and is a proud ALEA life member.

4: Quality Education
UN Sustainable Development Goals 4: Quality Education