TEACHER'S OPINION: We're teaching kids to read the wrong way. It needs to change.

For decades, we’ve been teaching kids to read using outdated and ineffective methods.

Many people are shocked to hear this, especially since most kids finish school knowing how to read, right? Sure. But that doesn’t mean their pathway was as straightforward as it could have been. And sadly, many get left behind in the early years – their confidence suffering for years to come.

But, it doesn’t have to be this way. 

It has been well established by cognitive scientists and educational researchers the world over that the most effective way to teach reading is through explicit, systematic phonics instruction. 

Yet, many educators weren’t informed about this research in their teacher training. In fact, they were taught methods which directly contradict the research.

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Why? Predominantly because of publishing companies (and authors) who stood to profit from encouraging old, outdated practices. And as a result, millions of children around the world have been taught using incorrect methodologies. 

These methods involve an approach to reading instruction known as ‘balanced literacy’, which focuses on exposure to rich texts and instilling a love of reading, rather than explicit instruction of letter sounds in words. Under this approach, early reading materials might, for example, encourage children to guess words using pictures or context clues. 


What’s wrong with instilling a love of reading, you may ask? Of course, we want our kids to love reading! I agree. But, it’s pretty hard for a child to love reading if they can’t read in the first place.

Until recently, a balanced literacy approach has been the dominant approach to teaching reading across Australia, the UK, the US and New Zealand. 

In the US, a staggering 68 per cent of fourth-grade students are reading below grade-level standards. 

In Australia, approximately one million Australian children are at risk of reading failure – approximately one in four students –  and a much larger percentage are not learning to read as fast or as effectively as they could. 

Back when I was a first-year Kindergarten teacher, I felt outrageously ill-equipped for the task of teaching kids to read.

At university, most of our time was spent creating endless lesson plans. But how to actually teach the fundamentals? That was left for me to pick up on the job.

I remember following a program where we introduced a new letter each week. We’d make cute crafts - R is for road, 'M is for monster', 'S is for snake'. Lots of fun, but could my kids really read these advanced words? No. 

Our readers were full of predictable sentences: I can see a helicopter. I can see a train. 

It looked like reading. It felt like reading. But let’s be real: it was guesswork, based on pictures.  

Only a couple of months into my teaching career, I was exposed to the world of explicit phonics instruction. I am forever grateful, it changed the trajectory of my teaching.


Even at its most basic level, it just made sense. We weren’t teaching guesswork. We were providing children with the tools they needed in order to unlock the English language. I systematically taught my children to decode (read) and encode (spell) words using letter-sound knowledge. We worked with decodable words and decodable sentences, gradually building upon previously taught sounds.

Fast forward a few years, I was leading a team of Kindergarten teachers as an Assistant Principal, helping them to implement explicit phonics instruction. Many were brilliant, experienced teachers, and yet none of them had taught their kids to read this way. And, my goodness, they were amazed by the results.  

Fast forward again, and I have now left the classroom to support teachers full-time in implementing these evidence-based strategies.

So, what now?

The tide is certainly beginning to turn. Emily Hanford’s ‘Sold A Story’ podcast is currently taking the educational world by storm. And for good reason. It exposes the reading myths that have held educational systems around the world hostage for far too long. 

Policymakers are beginning to listen too. The new English curriculum in NSW has done away with predictable texts in Early Stage One (the first year of school) and now includes explicit phonics instruction. 

But controversy remains.

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Many teachers remain suspicious of this so-called ‘Science of Reading’ movement. Perhaps because it challenges the status quo, perhaps because its advocates can be quite outspoken and combative in social media groups, or perhaps because they’ve seen decent results from the balanced literacy approaches of the past.


While it’s true that many children will eventually learn to read using these methods, it will be slow, they won’t build strong, lasting connections, and at least 25 per cent of children will be left behind.

When considering the argument for introducing phonics, it’s helpful to remember the story of 'The Tortoise and The Hare'.

The hare memorises words and uses pictures to help it read. It uses a lot of guesswork, and sometimes it’s right.   

The tortoise learns letter sounds and how to decode words. It focuses on sounding out each individual word. 

It’s probable that the hare will have a quicker start, similar to how students in Kindergarten might appear to be progressing at a faster pace by relying on memorisation and guesswork. 

But the tortoise will gain momentum. As time passes, the tortoise will become capable of comprehending an increasing number of unfamiliar words. It will also develop effective techniques that it can utilise throughout its lifetime.  

The tortoise wins the reading race. We need to help our kids to do the same!  


Tamsin Milledge is a former Assistant Principal and co-founder of The Hive, an online platform of educational resources for teachers. Her free digital handbook, Phonics & Beeyond, has had over 60,000 downloads worldwide. Follow her at @MrsLearningBee

Feature Image: Supplied/Canva.

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