Ending the Reading Wars

Different teaching styles of reading & writing:

  •  Whole language—’The term whole language (Goodman & Goodman, 1989) is used to refer to a broad range of teaching practices that attempt to move away from teaching reading as a set of discrete skills.  Whole language emphasises having students read whole stories and novels, newspaper articles, and other real materials. It emphasises integrating reading with writing for real audiences and purposes. Word attack skills (such as knowing how a silent <e> changes the sound of can and cane) may be taught in whole language classes but usually only in the context of what students are reading.’ (Slavin, Educational Psychology, 1997).
  • Analytic Phonics—Uses picture, initial letter and context cues for word recognition, uses blending as a last strategy, gradually introduces the alphabet letter sounds to enable the initial letter to help with word identification. Key sight word list memorised visually; digraphs are rarely taught.
  • Synthetic Phonics—Teaches language through a code of phonemes (sounds) matched to a written letter (grapheme) or combination of letters. This is done before expecting the children to read and write. This approach is about learning individual sounds, how to blend these sounds to read words, segment the sounds to write words and identify tricky parts within irregular words that cannot be sounded. To ‘synthesise’ means ‘to blend’ so the focus is on blending with this approach.

Let’s go Beyond the Reading Wars…

Phonics is the basis of learning to decode our language and then we can introduce whole language concepts—let’s go Beyond the Reading Wars: How the Science of Reading Can Improve Literacy.

‘;,**My response to Mem Fox

Letter 1


Dear Mem,

One day if you have a chance, do you mind chatting with me about your experience with phonics?

I am a teacher who has seen the benefits that phonics can make. I first stumbled upon ‘Jolly Phonics’ ten years ago when teaching in the UK. I taught the program to ESL* children and was horrified that when I returned to Australia. The children here (native English speakers) were not as quick at reading and writing as the ESL children in the UK. Trust me, whilst you may think the ‘whole language’ approach is the only way, phonics does work! The whole language approach is only okay when a child has an excellent visual memory… and a cohort of students are not always like this!

Please take some time to call me and discuss this matter. I really have loved your books all my life. But I am interested to hear how you have decided that phonics is not important, especially if you have not taught it. Furthermore, since you are such a literacy icon in Australia—why do you keep publicising its lack of importance?

Please consider talking to me about this matter.


Jacqui Tarquinio

0403 594 826

*English as a Second Language


Letter 2


Hi Mem,

I grew up being read your beautiful books. I also grew up not knowing how to read and write until much later on … finally becoming a teacher. I am the product of the whole language approach and 40 years of age now.

I think it’s time you stopped making the divide between phonics and the whole language approach greater here in Australia. What you have to understand is, if children learn to decode early on, then they comprehend quicker; developing a deeper love of literature than just being read to or immersed in written language.

Surely, the building blocks of a language need to be given firstly before children are expected to learn to read and write? I have been teaching synthetic phonics now for over ten years and have so much proof that children become better readers and writers when they learn the basis of the English language… not to mention that they become aware of how our language is constructed to help them later with grammar.

You are such an icon here in Australia. I find it difficult when I read about the way you feel children should learn to read and write whole language style. I wrote to you a few years back and never heard from you (which I must admit was extremely disappointing).  

Maybe, just maybe it’s time you stopped fuelling the reading wars here in Australia. Have you listened to the ABC latest excerpt on ‘Phonics vs the Whole Language Approach’? I have attached it for you … ABC radio.  

Maybe it’s time we meet in the middle and think about how children deserve to learn to read and write (the easy way) then combining both methods later.  

I hope to hear from you one day.


Jacqui Tarquinio

(Phonics teacher Melbourne)