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Your Path to Literacy: Science of Reading vs Whole Language

Your Path to Literacy: Science of Reading vs Whole Language

| Tutoring | Learning Framework


Basic literacy is a cornerstone of your child’s education. Let’s look at the two big models used in Aussie schools – Whole Language and Science of Reading and uncover the truth behind the reading wars.

Decoding the Reading Wars: Why Science of Reading is the Seeds of Knowledge Way to Teach Reading and Literacy

There’s been a lot of talk in the media lately about the decline in reading skills across Australian schools. The Grattan Institute’s recent national reading report, The Reading Guarantee: How to give every child the best chance of success, found more and more of our children falling behind. As many as one-third of children do not read properly and, as a result, struggle at school.

I’ve noticed this personally as a tutor. More and more parents are seeking a supplemental reading program to help their children learn to read at a very basic level. A systematic failure has crept into our national approach to teaching reading. It comes down to old models and discredited ideas – but it’s a surprisingly easy to get students reading not just well, but with enthusiasm and joy.

Let’s look at how to turn an early reading struggle into a lifelong love of reading.

What is Whole Language Instruction?

Whole Language Instruction is based on the idea that reading is easy and natural – that children are biologically wired to pluck meaning from text as easily as they learn to speak.

It also works from the principle that no word is divorced from its context, so it cannot be taught outside of a piece of text.

It also believes readers determine meaning for themselves through their own experiences.

As a teaching technique, Whole Language encourages children to work out words for themselves through a mix of context cues and prior exposure. Most of the explicit instruction given to little learners is in the form of ‘sight words’ – high-frequency words that children memorise whole.

Whole Language approach classrooms will typically have lots of books and time spent working on reading comprehension through exposure, not instruction.

While a classroom brimming with books and lots of reading time sounds fantastic, it has some substantial drawbacks.

Words are treated as unique entities, unrelated to one another in sound and meaning. Often, kids are left guessing the word from pictures, and mistakes are easy to make and can have lasting impacts.

Reading is treated as a brute force tool, with the quantity of reading considered more important than its quality. It also does little to support children with learning difficulties or those from diverse backgrounds who already have another language (or two!) with which to contend.


girl reading book on couch

Reading should be a lifelong passion children love – not a skill set taught through brute force approaches.

Enter the Science of Reading

The Science of Reading is a multidisciplinary area of research that studies literacy as a whole. It covers psychology, especially developmental psychology, linguistics, cognitive science and neurology, and working with data gathered by educators across standard and special education models.

The aim is to examine how children develop literacy, with a long-term aim of improving reading.

Critically, it has allowed us to prove conclusively that reading is not as natural as learning to speak. It’s a complex skill that can take years of explicit reading instruction to perfect. Just dumping kids head first into reading is akin to dumping them head first into deep water – some will work out a way to swim, but plenty will just sink instead. We’re seeing that definitively in the overall decline in our children’s reading ability.

The Science of Reading has identified six key areas that all children should be explicitly taught. When these elements are explicitly taught, it’s referred to as a Structured Literacy Approach, or sometimes a Balanced Literacy Approach. They’re much the same, especially in an Australian context.

The Six Pillars of the Balanced Literacy Approach

Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness is simply the knowledge that words are made up of sounds. Learning how squiggles on paper become actual words is a fundamental first step. It teaches children that you can break down a written word into the same sounds they make when speaking.


Many of us may understand phonics as sounding out words one letter at a time. A more systematic phonics approach goes beyond individual letters and instead looks at ‘phonemes’ – individual sounds found in spoken words – and teaches children how they are written. Direct phonics instruction gives kids the tools to decode the weirder words they will encounter that aren’t easy to sound out letter by letter.


Fluency is the ability to read accurately at speed. It’s a straightforward concept that still benefits from explicit instruction. Achieving fluency can require a lot of guided practice, often by reading aloud with a supportive adult.


Vocabulary is also a simple element that takes time and care to develop. It requires children to be exposed and clearly instructed in the meaning of new words, preferably as they appear naturally and not as ‘sight words’ to be memorized in isolation.


Comprehension is a child understanding the words in front of them. Students learn to read not just to work out each word when reading, but how those words relate to one another, and the story they tell together.

Oral Language

Oral language is not so much the last concept as an overarching one. It encourages children to connect the spoken word to the written. A love of reading often goes hand in hand with a love of language as a whole, and toddlers who are playful speakers often become enthusiastic readers. This aspect also connects how important explicit, spoken instruction is through the whole teaching of reading.


little boy reading

Good foundational reading instruction requires acknowledging and accepting how hard it is to teach students to read.

The Benefits of Balanced Literacy versus Whole Language Approach

The English language is complex. As a written language, it’s full of contradictory spelling, strange word structure and a vocabulary ransacked wholesale from at least three other languages – and plenty of others besides! Good foundational reading instruction requires acknowledging and accepting how hard it is to teach students to read.

Whole Language throws kids in the deep end. It gives only the most passing attention to the foundations of reading and expects them to deduce phonics rules independently.

Plenty of our little learners manage, more as a testament to the skill of early primary teachers than the effectiveness of a Whole Language approach. But a significant number of our children are struggling. Their reading difficulties aren’t their fault. They deserve a better approach.

The Science of Reading and Balanced Literacy approaches directly address this.

They teach a clear phonics component that allows children to fluently read words they have never seen before.

It gives them the tools they need to extract meaning and make vital connections between the vocabulary they hear in spoken English and the words they see on a page.

It treats their reading experience as something valuable, to be nurtured and guided rather than left to chance.

How We Beat the Reading Wars at Seeds of Knowledge

At Seeds of Knowledge, we take a strong, evidence-based approach to reading.

We teach using the elements found in a balanced literacy approach. We teach children to read with explicit, clear literacy instruction tailored to each child’s reading level.

We teach phonics, we focus on critical fluency and comprehension, and we seek to foster confidence and joy through a supportive, guided reading and writing program.

We do more than just encourage academic reading achievement. We don’t just teach students how to read – we teach them to love it.

The greatest outcome is a joyful reader who is confident and happy in their learning.

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