Evidence for Learning: Phonics


A summary of the research evidence on phonics in the Australasian context.

The Teaching & Learning Toolkit focuses on impact; it presents an estimate of the average impact of phonics on learning progress, based on the synthesis of a large number of quantitative studies from around the world.

This page offers a summary and analysis of individual Australasian studies on phonics. In contrast to the Toolkit it includes studies which do not estimate impact, but instead investigate the implementation of interventions and how they are perceived by school leaders, teachers and students. This information is valuable for school leaders and teachers interested in finding out more about particular examples of phonics interventions that have been delivered in Australia and New Zealand.

This Australasian Research Summary was generated by Melbourne Graduate School of Education in 2016. 

Phonics is an approach to teaching reading, and some aspects of writing, by developing learners’ phonemic awareness. This involves the skills of hearing, identifying and using phonemes or sound patterns in English. The aim is to systematically teach learners the relationship between these sounds and the written spelling patterns, or graphemes, which represent them. Phonics emphasises the skills of decoding new words by sounding them out and combining or blending’ the sound-spelling patterns.

There is strong empirical evidence in support of phonics for the development of literacy, with phonemic awareness (an individual’s ability to hear, identify and manipulate phonemes) being the strongest predictor of reading capacity. Teaching and learning interventions using phonics-based methods tend to have a positive impact on students literacy skills, with the greatest gains occurring in the early years of schooling. Furthermore, phonics programs have been effective in assisting students with learning difficulties and those vulnerable to reading difficulties in English (e.g., students for whom English is an additional language or dialect).

A number of studies found in the review found phonics-based interventions to be successful in improving literacy skills. For example, Fried, Konza and Mulcahy (2012) used systematic and explicit phonics instruction to improve the literacy outcomes of primary school students, finding that while most students made significant improvements, these gains were greatest for younger students. Nevertheless, a phonics-based intervention has been found to be associated with a significant improvement in high school students’ literacy performance (Hempenstall, 2008).

Phonics interventions also appear to benefit students who face additional barriers to developing reading and writing skills. For example, McDougall, Evans and Spandagou (2009) found that a phonics-based intervention dramatically improved the literacy skills of Year 1 students from a non-English speaking background. Furthermore, a phonics-based intervention was shown to improve the literacy outcomes of a student with autism (Stylianakis & Little, 2013). Relatedly, Cologon (2013) argued that phonics strategies should be used to teach reading to students with Down syndrome.

Although phonics is a central part of how literacy is taught in Australia (Donnelly & Wiltshire, 2014), many researchers have argued that there should be greater emphasis in Australian schools on teaching phonics and phonemic awareness (Westwood, 2009; Nayton, 2013; Donnelly & Wiltshire, 2014; Moats, 2014). They maintain that, despite the overwhelming support for phonics, alternatives such as the whole-language method (learners deduce words and meanings based on context) continue to be used in Australian classrooms. The key criticisms of alternative literacy methods are that these methods have less empirical support (Moats, 2014; Nayton, 2013) and promote guessing by learners (Tran, 2011).

There appears to be confusion amongst educators as to how literacy should be taught. Interviews with early childhood workers highlighted that while they believed phonics to be important, they varied significantly in how they taught phonics and literacy (Campbell, 2015). Mahar and Richdale (2008) had similar findings with pre-service teachers, who felt unprepared to teach phonics despite high levels of theoretical knowledge. However, observations of reading recovery teachers showed that they used phonics-based methods, even though these were not included in the reading recovery manual and the teachers did not often recognise these methods as being related to phonics (Serry, Rose, & Liamputtong, 2014).

Johnston (2012) examined phonics-based instruction in Scotland and non-phonics approaches in New Zealand and found that non-phonics approaches tend to lead to quicker word recognition and faster reading of simple texts. However, these approaches were also associated with more instances of reading failure and poorer reading comprehension, which supports the use of a phonics-based approach to literacy.

In an attempt to combine phonics and other approaches, MacGregor (2014) suggests that rhyming songs and poems, and other interactive games can still be used to teach phonics and reading, claiming these techniques will improve literacy and foster a love of learning. Relatedly, Jolly Phonics, a private phonics program for early years, uses play-based learning. While parents and teachers have expressed their happiness about student improvement as a result of the program (Polkinghorne, 2013), there is no data to support these claims of improvement.

Campbell, S. (2015). Feeling the pressure: Early childhood educators’ reported views about learning and teaching phonics in Australian prior-to-school settings. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 38(1), 12 – 27.

Cologon, K. (2013). Debunking Myths: Reading Development in Children with Down Syndrome. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 38(3), 142 – 164.

Donnelly, K., & Wiltshire, K. (2014). Review of the Australian Curriculum: Final Report. Canberra, ACT: Australian Government Department of Education and Training.

Fried, L., Konza, D., & Mulcahy, P. (2012). Paraprofessionals Implementing a Research-Based Reading Intervention. Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 17(1), 35 – 54.

Hempenstall, K. (2008). Corrective Reading: An Evidence‐​Based Remedial Reading Intervention. Australasian Journal of Special Education, 32(1), 23 – 54.

Johnston, R. S. (2012). Is it disadvantageous for children to learn to read using a phonics approach? Learning Difficulties Australia Bulletin, 44(1), 13 – 16.

Louden, W., & Rohl, M. (2006). Too many theories and not enough instruction”: perceptions of preservice teacher preparation for literacy teaching in Australian schools. Literacy, 40(2), 66 – 78.

MacGregor, B. (2014). Using alternatives to worksheets in early childhood settings. Educating Young Children: Learning & Teaching in the Early Childhood Years, 20(2), 29 – 31.

Mahar, N. E., & Richdale, A. L. (2008). Primary Teachers’ Linguistic Knowledge and Perceptions of Early Literacy Instruction. Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 13(1), 17 – 37.

McDougall, M., Evans, D., & Spandagou, I. (2009). Teaching phonics and sight words to Year One through the medium of working with words’ and games’. Special Education Perspectives, 18(1), 35 – 46.

Moats, L. (2014). Systematic, not balanced’, instruction. Learning Difficulties Australia Bulletin, 46(3), 9 – 12.

Nayton, M. (2013). Improving achievement: what does the research tell us?. Learning Difficulties Australia Bulletin, 45(1), 18 – 20.

Polkinghorne, J. (2013). Why the renewed interest in Jolly Phonics in South Australia? Learning Difficulties Australia Bulletin, 44(2), 13 – 15.

Serry, T., Rose, M., & Liamputtong, P. (2014). Reading Recovery Teachers Discuss Reading Recovery: A Qualitative Investigation. Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 19(1), 61 – 73.

Stylianakis, C., & Little, C. (2013). Implementing a multilevel literacy program for a child with autism. Special Education Perspectives, 22(1), 7 – 14.

Tran, F. (2011). Guessing words from context is not reading. Learning Difficulties Australia Bulletin, 43(2), 6 – 9.

Westwood, P. (2009). A sound beginning for literacy: three cheers for New South Wales. Learning Difficulties Australia Bulletin, 41(3), 10 – 12.

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Phonics, analytic* phonics, synthetic phonics, phonemic awareness.