Phonics is not a dirty word

By Kate Gurjian, Director, Time to Shine Australia

Phonics is a word that is often misused, misunderstood and abused. Despite what some might argue, it is a method of learning that has much to offer Australian children.

I am often asked why it is so important to teach children phonics, as opposed to learning words through prediction or as a whole word.

Sound is critical in the process of learning to read. Children need to hear, distinguish, isolate, rhyme and articulate sounds and words. Once they are aware of these sounds, they can ready the neural pathways in their brain for learning the connection between letters and sounds. This is the single most critical factor in learning to read.


When a child can hear a sound, repeat that sound, recognise a sound in a word, and repeat a sound in a rhyme, they are on their way to learning to read. Although over-simplifying the very complex teaching of the alphabetic code, it is a starting point that offers more than what is currently being taught in our early years education.

The approach we are currently taking is a flawed one, and we have to ask ourselves the questions, ‘Why do we feel a three or four-year-old needs to be given flashcards of whole words?’ and ‘Why are we ‘hothousing’ children to read before they can sound?’ If we are really honest with ourselves, and have read the research, we would know the answer to the above questions.

In their first formal year of school, children should be immersed in phonemic awareness (understanding sounds), phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension. These five critical components are intertwined. But, they each must be taught explicitly and directly in a systematic order for children to have any chance of success in reading, spelling and writing.

So, why do I pull out one single word, ‘phonics’? I do this because it is the one piece of the puzzle of childhood literacy that is so often under debate, and so poorly understood.

Perhaps the reason for this difference of opinion is due to the fact that some children appear to progress with little support, when in reality more than 20% of children will become at risk in their learning due to ignorance by the ‘system’. Learning to read is not an area that we learn by osmosis. Children need to be taught which sounds correspond with which letters. English is a phonetic language; there are 26 letters, but over 44 sounds! Understanding this complexity will enable all children to be given thorough phonics instruction.

I assess more than 200 children every year in my private practice, and every year I see the same result: children from their first year of school, through to the end of primary, who have not been given an ordered approach to the learning of letter-sound correspondence – that being explicit phonics. Some children are therefore years behind in their reading, spelling and writing. They are ‘instructional casualties’. This is our fault.

English will not be learnt by chance. We must teach the alphabetic code well and directly. We need to recognise that phonics is not a dirty word, but a critical one.

About Kate – An individual approach that is helping students to shine


In the world of literacy, Kate Gurjian describes herself as a disruptor. It was her unwillingness to sit by and watch children fail, and to challenge the status quo, that motivated her to establish Time to Shine, carving out a niche in the education of children.

Instead of tolerating poor teaching based on lack of empirical evidence and research, and management directives she disagreed with, Kate drew on her extensive experience as an educator to build a new education business.

“I will not stand idly by and wait for a child to fail, nor will I tolerate teaching practices that fly in face of proven science. So I decided not to move the behemoth that is the ‘system’ – instead I chose to do it myself,” she said.

Previously, Kate had worked as a primary teacher, early childhood educator, special needs practitioner, author, head of department and principal. This broad experience provided her with an understanding of what children need in effective literacy and numeracy learning for future success.

Time to Shine offers students, from the age of four to 14, direct and explicit instruction in reading, writing, spelling and mathematics, supporting children for whom learning is difficult. The approach emphasises individual attention, research-proven methods, and only utilises the programs that are based on scientific evidence.

“Knowing precisely where a child is in terms of weakness, matched with their strengths and interests, ensures we accurately develop an individual program tailored specifically to the child. The work I do is grounded in the children and their individuality. Henceforth, Time to Shine’s philosophy stands by what I value most: every child, no matter their background or ability, being given every opportunity to shine.”

Equality is also important to Kate, and she aims to ensure all children have access to high quality education.

“I ultimately advocate for the rights of the child and the education that must be made available to them,” she said.

Why book design matters

The design team at Oxford University Press might argue with the assertion that you can’t judge a book by its cover. A book’s cover can help tell a story, providing clues as to what lies within, drawing the reader’s eye and shaping their experience.

However, there is more to book design than producing an attractive and effective cover. The layout and design within can also make a significant impact on the reader, enhancing the content and reflecting its quality and identity.

In the lead up to the announcement of the 2017 Australian Book Designer Association (ABDA) awards on Friday, the team has provided their thoughts on why design, both internally and externally, is so important.

  • “Book covers convey ideas, give an independent identity and represent a book’s worth before the reader has had the opportunity to read the content page.”
  • “The design supports the content, subtly emphasising things like meaning, tone and feel, and providing visual cues for the reader.”

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  • “Subconsciously, design confirms the narrative and underlying themes of content by applying a context. Content is positioned and framed in such was that it signifies and suggests ideas.”
  • “Excellent design enables content to be read, ordered, navigated and extracted with ease. Through colour, hierarchy, composition and considered font choices, readers are guided in such a way they can focus on retaining knowledge without the frustration of becoming lost during the journey.”

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  • “The internal design of the book needs to be structured in a logical manner with clear, inconspicuous typography. This is especially important for educational books, with their hierarchy of information. The book not only needs to convey its contents to the students, but it needs to keep them engaged as well.”
  • “Book design matters more than you might think – the design supports the content, subtly emphasises things like meaning, tone and feel, can provide visual cues for the reader and something beautiful, textural and tangible to keep and covet.”

Three OUP books have been shortlisted for the ABDA awards: the Australian National Dictionary, Children, Families and Communities and Media and Society.

Find out more about the design of the Australian National Dicitonary, published in 2016, 28 years after the first edition on our blog.



The pitfalls of following the herd

Behavioural Economics: A Very Short Introduction author Michelle Baddeley talks to ABC Radio National Life Matters program about ‘Why we herd and how it can harm us’.

In the interview, Baddeley discusses the tendency of people to blindly follow the herd, and the pitfalls of this behaviour, which might be at play in overheated housing markets and the extraordinary popularity of certain cafes.

Behavioural Economics: A Very Short Introduction is available from Booktopia.

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We need to manage the ‘underbelly’ of globalisation

The benefits of globalisation do not come without the need for increased responsibility and cooperation from the international community, according to The Pursuit of Development and Globalization for Development author Ian Goldin.

In conversation with Business Insider’s Paul Colgan,  Professor Goldin said governments needed to ensure that they managed the risks involved with globalisation effectively to mitigate risks, including inequality between those positioned to reap the many rewards of globalisation, and those who were not.

In pursuit of development

“Globalisation accelerates the opportunities as well as the risks,” he said, citing changes to the employment landscape resulting from globalisation.

“Unless we can manage that, I think we’ll see the pushback that we’re seeing, this rising tide against globalisation. That would be a tragedy, because it would not only slow down the prospects of growth and development, but also of dealing with the big problems, like climate change, like pandemics, like cyber attacks. All of these things require more cooperation and more understanding of what other countries are doing and how we’re going to work together, not a withdrawal from this international system,” he said.

Professor Goldin said that changes in employment, resulting from the rise in robotic technology and machine learning, could create a significant divide in opportunity and wealth among those who lived in vibrant urban centres and those in rural areas, such as has occurred in the wheat belt in America or the areas to the north of London in the UK.

Ian Goldin was the founding Director of the Oxford Martin School from September 2006 until September 2016. He is currently Oxford University Professor of Globalisation and Development.

The Pursuit of Development and Globalization for Development are available from Oxford University Press.

Oxford Word of the Month: May – Smashed avo

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noun: a cafe meal typically consisting of a thick slice of toast topped with chopped or mashed seasoned avocado.


The term smashed avo, a popular breakfast item found on cafe menus, is Australian in origin. The first published evidence appears in 2011 (though avocado on toast certainly appeared on menus before this) and usage has increased significantly in the last two years. A spike in evidence in October 2016 reflects a new use of the term as a cultural symbol.

It began when columnist Bernard Salt wrote an article on ‘the evils of hipster cafes’, commenting:

I have seen young people order smashed avocado with crumbled feta on five-grain toasted bread at $22 a pop and more. I can afford to eat this for lunch because I am middle-aged and have raised my family. But how can young people afford to eat like this? Shouldn’t they be economising by eating at home? How often are they eating out? Twenty-two dollars several times a week could go towards a deposit on a house. There. I’ve said it. I have said what every secret middle-aged moraliser has thought but has never had the courage to verbalise. (Weekend Australian Magazine, 15 October)

Despite the humorous tone, the comments caused a furore in the press and social media, prompting headlines such as ‘Home dreams on toast’, ‘Your smashed avo guide to investing’, and ‘On smashed avo as a social good’. The reaction exposed the generational fault line between older Australians who had access to free education, could afford to buy their own home, and receive tax breaks, generous pension and superannuation entitlements, and their offspring who struggle to save while paying high rents and HECS debts, and who will not receive the same benefits in retirement. The deep resentment felt by the younger generations towards Salt’s ‘middle-aged moralisers’ was encapsulated in the headline: ‘Baby boomers have already taken all the houses, now they’re coming for our brunch!’

In response a number of inner-city cafes dropped the price of smashed avo (renamed on one menu the ‘Retirement Plan’), a bank advertised home loan rates with the slogan ‘Have your smashed avo and eat it too’, and the issue was raised in federal parliament. A member of the House of Representatives noted that to ‘put down a deposit on a typical house in Footscray … you would need to forgo about 38,000 coffees or 150 years’ worth of weekly smashed avocado brunches’.

It will be interesting to see how long smashed avo remains linked with the issue of housing affordability. Perhaps until cafe regulars prefer something else for breakfast?

Smashed avo will be considered for inclusion in the next edition of the Australian National Dictionary. It was shortlisted for the Australian National Dictionary Centre’s 2016 Word of the Year.