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What is literacy and why is it important? 

Literacy encompasses more than just reading and writing; it extends to understanding and interpreting language. It’s a foundational skill that empowers individuals to communicate, comprehend, and engage in society effectively. This includes access to knowledge, economic prospects, social connections, and participation in democratic processes. It is beyond being able to decode written words; it involves critical thinking, interpretation and the ability to analyse and evaluate information.

Navigating the complexities of the education system can be a daunting task, especially when it comes to identifying the most effective approach to literacy. Fortunately, ongoing research in the field of literacy provides us with valuable insights, significantly enhancing our understanding of how best to teach reading and writing. Then why are there so many inconsistencies?

What are the main approaches to teaching literacy in Australia?

Within the realm of literacy education, several approaches have gained prominence, including the Whole Language Approach (WLA), Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP), and Balanced Literacy (BL), each with its nuances and derived methodologies. There has been a shift in the recent years from a Whole Language Approach (WLA) approach to a Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) and Balanced Literacy (BL) approach. In this article we will be discussing these main approaches for teaching literacy specifically rather than language learning.

1. Whole Language Approach ( WLA )

The Whole Language Approach (WLA) promotes the concept that language should be viewed as a complete system. It emphasises teaching children to recognise whole words by sight and using context rather than relying on phonics for decoding.

Emerging in the 1800s and coming into prominence in the 1980s, largely due to the efforts of politician Horace Mann, Whole Language Approach (WLA) advocates for learning language in context. It encourages students to understand texts by applying their existing knowledge and using cues from their surroundings, instead of focusing on phonics or breaking down learning into smaller segments.

The approach prioritizes practical applications and immerses students in environments rich in literature. Mann also cautioned against the practice of teaching children to phonetically sound out words, arguing that it could divert their attention away from understanding the meaning of the words.

2. Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP)

Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP), on the other hand, offers a structured literacy teaching approach that teaches children to break down words into smaller phonetic components. It emphasises the explicit instruction of the relationship between letters (graphemes) and sounds (phonemes) whilst incorporating phonological awareness activities like blending and segmenting sounds in a systematic format. Recognised for its evidence-based foundation, Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) addresses the cognitive processes essential for reading. You may have heard of programs like MultiLit, Minilit, Sounds Write, and Little Learners Love Literacy that are based off an Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) approach.

3. Balanced Literacy (BL) 

Balanced Literacy (BL) attempts to merge the philosophies of Whole Language Approach (WLA) and Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP), aiming for a middle ground. This means using Whole Language Approach (WLA) approaches and embedding phonics into their teaching. However, defining this ‘balance’ can be challenging, and critics argue that, in practice, it often leans more towards ‘whole language’ principles. The concern lies in whether children’s foundational literacy skills are sufficiently developed; without a solid base, students may struggle to advance.

4. Reading Recovery (RR)

Reading Recovery (RR) is a literacy intervention approach that was developed to aid struggling readers in their early schooling years. It employs individualised instruction, with each student receiving personalised 1:1 lessons from a trained Reading Recovery (RR) teacher, lasting 30 minutes per day for 12-20 weeks. During these sessions, students engage in reading familiar books with the slow introduction of new books, as well as writing tasks such as assisted story construction.

They also listen to new books and attempt to read them. There is some emphasis on letter identification, sound segmentation (breaking the sounds up in words), and phonemic awareness (identifying individual sounds in words) tasks. However, there is limited targeted intervention on phonological awareness skills, which are fundamental pre-literacy skills.

Other shortcomings noted include the use of repetitive and familiar books, leading to children memorising specific words instead of employing their phonological awareness skills. Additionally, selected books offer visual cues, allowing children to guess the correct word rather than utilising their phonological awareness abilities. Furthermore, there is insufficient evidence supporting the long-term effectiveness of Reading Recovery (RR), thus has become less and less popular.

5. Other literacy approaches 

Other approaches include:

  • Multimodal literacy, which utilises digital technologies and multimedia platforms to improve literacy skills, such as websites, videos, social media posts, advertisements, and interactive digital media.
  • Literacy across the curriculum, where literacy skills and strategies are integrated into all subject areas, not solely English classes. This method entails embedding explicit instruction in literacy skills and strategies within subject-specific lessons.

Additionally, it’s crucial to acknowledge that schools might incorporate multiple approaches to literacy. For instance, a school could offer instruction in ‘sight words’ while primarily adopting a Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) approach for teaching literacy. The rationale behind integrating ‘sight words’ could be to enhance orthographic abilities (identifying patterns of specific letters as words such as diagraphs ‘sh’) and overall reading fluency.

Does the literacy approach matter?

The choice of literacy approaches holds significance as they impact students’ reading and writing skills differently. A typical developing student can still master literacy using a Whole Language Approach (WLA), however evidence-based methods, backed by research, are more likely to foster positive literacy development outcomes. Since students’ needs vary, effective literacy approaches should be tailored to address these individual needs rather than expecting uniform progress with the curriculum.

For instance, if a student struggles with blending sounds to form words, they require additional practice in that specific area. The importance of literacy approaches extends to ensuring students establish strong foundational skills; otherwise, they risk falling behind, which can adversely affect both their learning progress and attitudes towards learning. While there may be slight variations between programs, as long as there is adherence to a Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) approach, the differences are unlikely to be significant.

Providing evidence-based literacy approaches is crucial for children with specific learning impairments (e.g. dyslexia), intellectual disabilities, and other neurodivergent conditions. These children often face unique challenges that can impact their ability to acquire literacy skills. By implementing evidence-based approaches, educators and specialists can tailor instruction to meet the individual needs of these children and maximise their potential for success.

When does it stop mattering which approach is used?

Once your child has developed the ability to read and write proficiently and actively participate in the learning curriculum, they have achieved the goals of literacy acquisition. At this point, they will transition from the stage of ‘learning to read and write’ to ‘reading and writing to learn.’ While this transition typically occurs around grade 4, it begins earlier and extends beyond this grade level

How does this relate to the Victorian State curriculum?

Schools are mandated to follow the Victorian State Curriculum, yet the implementation of this curriculum can vary significantly. The Department of Education provides a list of recommendations on initiatives and programs. Among the recommended approaches and gaining increasing popularity is the ‘Science of Reading’ approach, which incorporates Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) teachings. The approach encompasses five critical sub-skills: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

Another factor to take into account when discussing literacy skills is the shift from the phase of “learning to read” to that of “reading to learn.”

“In grades K–3, children are in the process of learning to read, while in grades 4–12, they transition to reading to learn” (Chall, Jacobs, & Baldwin, 1990; Chall and Jacobs, 2003). However, it’s crucial to recognise that this transition isn’t strictly delineated. Children continue to develop their reading skills beyond Grade 4, and they also utilise reading as a means of learning before reaching this grade level. This research underscores the importance of establishing a strong literacy foundation to empower children as independent learners amidst this evolving learning process. 

What to ask your primary school about literacy approaches 

If you’re unsure about the literacy approach used at your school, it’s advisable to ask your teacher. If they cannot provide a clear answer, consider reaching out to the learning coordinator or the school’s leadership team for clarification. If terms like “synthetic phonics” or “phonological awareness” are mentioned in the response, your school is likely following a more evidence-based approach.

The role of Speech Pathology in literacy

Speech Pathologists (SP) are adept at assessing and addressing literacy concerns focusing on phonological and phonemic awareness skills essential for literacy. Speech Pathologists offer targeted interventions that prioritise these foundational elements. Their scope also extends to reading fluency, vocabulary, language, reading comprehension, meta-cognitive strategies and written language skills such as grammar, sentence structure, and organisation.

By addressing these areas comprehensively, Speech Pathologists help individuals develop well-rounded literacy skills that are crucial for academic success and lifelong learning. 

Speech Pathologists base their interventions on a foundation of research, ensuring that their approaches are evidence-based and effective. Speech Pathologists have also played a significant role in literacy research, contributing to the body of knowledge on effective literacy interventions and advocating for evidence-based practices. In particular, Speech Pathologists have advocated for the Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) approaches to be taught in schools, which emphasises systematic instruction in letter-sound correspondences and phonics rules. Speech Pathologists caution against the inefficacies of programs like Reading Recovery (RR) and Whole Language Approach (WLA).

By staying informed about the latest research and best practices in literacy instruction, Speech Pathologists ensure that they can provide high-quality, evidence-based interventions that meet the needs of their clients and promote literacy success.


The journey through literacy education is multifaceted, with various approaches offering different paths to the same goal: proficient reading and writing skills.

As we continue to rely on robust research and evidence-based practices, it becomes clear that a deep understanding of phonological processes and structured instruction plays a vital role in developing strong literacy foundations. For parents and educators alike, staying informed about these methodologies and their implementation within curricula like Victoria’s is crucial for supporting our children’s literacy development.


  1.  Chall, J., & Jacobs, V. (2003, Spring). The classic study on poor children’s fourth-grade slump. American Educator, 27(1). Retrieved from http://www.aft.org/newspubs/periodicals/ae/spring2003/hirschsbclassic.cfm
  2. Five from Five. (2022). PP15 RE-BRAND. Retrieved from https://fivefromfive.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/PP15-RE-BRAND.pdf
  3. Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority. (n.d.). English Curriculum F-10. Retrieved from https://victoriancurriculum.vcaa.vic.edu.au/english/english/curriculum/f-10
  4. Victorian Department of Education and Training. (n.d.). English Literacy Resources. Retrieved from https://www.education.vic.gov.au/school/teachers/teachingresources/discipline/english/literacy/Pages/default.aspx

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