One definition of insanity – usually attributed to Albert Einstein though others say it’s the brainchild of Alcoholics Anonymous – is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting a different outcome.

On that basis, the sensible and literate among us – who love reading and who want to make sure our kids and their kids and their kids’ kids love reading too – are going to have to change tactics when it comes to tackling the Whole Word/Whole Language ideologues.

After years of battles that seemed won by the phonics crowd, and by their research and empirical evidence, WW-ers still hold sway in far too many Australian schools, government bodies and, especially, university education departments.

How do they do it?

In late 2005, then federal education minister Brendan Nelson announced the findings of an inquiry into the teaching of literacy. He declared,” the Report strongly recommends the use of a phonics-based teaching method – founded on proven and evidence-based strategies – to give students the best possible opportunity to learn to read and write in the early years of schooling. The Report cautions against the exclusive use of the whole-language approach to the teaching of reading and finds it to be: “… not in the best interests of children, particularly those experiencing reading difficulties” (p.12 of the Report).”

Thirteen years later, there we were in early August, and a debate hosted by the Australian College of Educators and the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney pit three expert phonics advocates against three educators who argued that “phonics in context” – that is, a combination of techniques that, in practice, actually favour Whole Word approaches over phonics – is enough.

The atmosphere was tense, with 400 people in the audience, many of whom were barracking for the latter side. (Watch it here.) That’s in spite of the results of the influence of WW methods are in front of our eyes.

According to an excellent feature by Rebecca Urban in The Australian, centred on that debate, almost a fifth of Australia’s kids in Year 4 couldn’t achieve even the intermediate benchmark in reading. And “almost 44 per cent of Australians aged 15 and above are considered functionally illiterate”.

Such statistics – and these figures have been appearing in our newspapers for years, revealing growing and shocking decline – didn’t stop loud and supportive cheers at the debate when the NSW Reading Recovery programme was mentioned.


That programme, aimed at struggling readers in Year 1 was costing $50 million a year in NSW alone, and it didn’t work. It was deemed ineffective.

The NSW Government announced it was withdrawing funding in November 2017. Critics said the programme didn’t teach children phonological skills, but instead encouraged them to guess at words …  which is exactly what WW does.

So what on earth were those audience members cheering about?

Did they really cherish a programme that didn’t work?

Or because they agreed with the ideology behind it?

For that’s the nub of the matter; this is what this debate is really about. Left versus what is apparently deemed to be Right.

There are numerous angles and twists in the reading debate – from cognitive science findings to accusations that the phonics experts have commercial motives (they insist this is rubbish and if our teachers could teach phonics properly there’d be no need for their services) to arguments over “synthetic” phonics versus “analytic” phonics to whether early reading programmes should be about decoding first or meaning – but for this brief piece, I’ll focus on the politics.

From what I can see having watched and reported on this debate with growing incredulity since 2005, that is the real elephant in the room.

Phonics, taught in the method now known as systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) requires explicit teaching and that is on the nose with so many Australian educators who remain devoted to child-centred learning in spite of all the evidence that shows that teacher-led instruction is what delivers.

But they reject that kind of teaching as authoritarian, top-down, hierarchical and old-fashioned – yes, read, right wing – and claim a la Rousseau that it crushes a child’s natural curiosity, creativity and individuality.

Late last year, educator Faye Berryman told The Australian about how, 40 years ago, as phonics fell out of favour, she struggled to find simple reading books that would allow her to continue teaching the method: “Someone said to me once that phonics was right-wing. That is how ridiculous it had become; how could teaching children how to read and write be right-wing?”

Synthetic phonics is a systematic and sequential teaching method that allows children to get used to words being broken up into their units of sound. It allows them to decode all those mysterious lines and dots and curves on the page.

Once they get that breakthrough, they’re on their way, reading more and more, dictionary at the side (or, more likely, now online), teachers at the ready, parents too if they’re lucky, and so they gradually take on more complicated books and concepts.

It’s such an epiphany that all these decades later, I can still remember that coalescing moment as a five year old. Suddenly, I could read Dick and Dora on my own. I got it! Then I was off and from then on, there was no stopping me as a reader.

But at the ACE/CIS debate, one teacher on the panel poured scorn on a decoding reader called The Tot and the Pot as the others on his team scoffed at the idea that children should be limited to such basics. No-one on the SSP side is saying that and that’s certainly not what happened to me – nor, I bet, to any other baby boomer who learned reading when the phonics method ruled in the classroom.

Victorian teacher Greg Ashman, author of The Truth About Teaching,

explains that the WW-ers have survived because “they have an extraordinary ability to redefine their positions. They say they’re teaching phonics, they’ll say no Australian teacher doesn’t teach phonics, but it’s lip service. It’s word games, a smoke screen. It’s not teaching synthetic phonics.”

This wilfulness makes me think of the 19th century Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis who first realised that women were dying in childbirth because of something spread by the hands of their doctors in hospital. In 1848, Semmelweis stipulated that instruments and doctors’ hands had to be washed in a chlorine solution. Deaths dropped dramatically. But resistance to Semmelweis’s theory of infection was strong. Over 12 years later, his colleagues were still rejecting his principles – and thousands of women were dying.

This all seems astounding and incredible today. And while we’re not talking about mortalities here in this reading debate, we are talking about one of the most essential tools for surviving and thriving in a civilised society.

Cognitive scientist Anne Castles, for the pro-SSP side, stressed in the ACE/CIS event: “No-one on either side of this debate is proposing that teaching phonics is all there is to teaching children to read … [but] if we teach children phonics, we teach them how to crack the code [of the alphabet].”

We may get more clarity soon. The federal government has launched a push to test phonics skills at Year 1 level. South Australia is first cab off the rank. It probably won’t surprise you to learn though that many entrenched educators have criticised the proposed checks, saying they are unnecessary and a burden on the pupils.

More like a burden on teachers who may be exposed.

“The checks will out the teachers who’ve been pretending to teach synthetic phonics,” says one passionate SSP advocate.

La Trobe University’s Pamela Snow, a psychologist and trained speech pathologist, says that most of our teachers are of an age which means they learned reading by the Whole Word/Whole Language method themselves. And that’s also what they were trained to teach during their university teaching courses.

She speculates to me that the debate is on-going because of the “inability [of educators] to engage with the cognitive science. They haven’t necessarily studied cognitive science or learning theory”.

As Castles said in the debate, it’s incorrect to assume that children will learn to read in the same way they learn to speak. They’re born with the ability to acquire spoken language simply through interactions with their environment. “We have no such predisposition for learning to read. Reading is a learned skill that requires instruction.”

Many of the SSP advocates I speak to, like Snow, trace our huge and growing literacy problem back to the time of the John Dawkins’ Higher Education reforms of 1988 onwards, when the teacher training colleges were absorbed by universities and their Sociology departments. Says Snow, “There were all these ideas about critical theory, critical literacy, relative truth, and that teacher-centred learning was wrong.”

So how will the systematic synthetic phonics side win given logic and evidence haven’t managed to prevail?

The pro-SSP Multilit people, led by Emeritus Professor Kevin Wheldall and his wife Dr Robyn Wheldall – I should say here that over the years I’ve covered the reading wars, they have become friends – are currently having their early literacy programme MiniLit tested in a study funded by Evidence for Learning as part of Social Ventures Australia. Melbourne University’s Graduate School of Education is involved as is the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.

Results are due next month, September. “It’s an independent evaluation and it’s a randomised controlled trial which is the gold standard for scientific investigation,” says Dr Wheldall.

Rigorous and convincing evidence-based studies are one good tactic in this battle.

Ashman says another strategy is to educate all the state education ministers so they truly understand the phonics position. He also says social media is a terrific boon because, for the first time, teachers can avoid the gatekeepers and can compare methods, chatting with colleagues about what’s working for them.

Robyn Wheldall adds that they also need to educate the influencers around the ministers as well: “We need to inform and educate the advisors.”

And Snow simply advocates maintaining the rage: “We’re not going away. We’re continuing to hold a mirror up, pointing out the logical inconsistencies.”

The best of luck to them in this new stage of the battle, and to Australian kids. For this is what’s at stake for the latter.

In a 2018 paper, Anne Castles, who is also Distinguished Professor in the cognitive science department of Macquarie University, began with a concise and lethal description of why reading matters: “Learning to read transforms lives. Reading is the basis for the acquisition of knowledge, for cultural engagement, for democracy, and for success in the workplace. Illiteracy costs the global economy more than $US1 trillion annually in direct costs alone (World Literacy Foundation, 2015). The indirect costs are far greater because the failure to attain satisfactory literacy blocks people from acquiring basic knowledge, such as understanding information about hygiene, diet, or safety.

“Consequently, low literacy is a major contributor to inequality and increases the likelihood of poor physical and mental health, workplace accidents, misuse of medication, participation in crime, and welfare dependency, all of which also have substantial additional social and economic costs (World Literacy Foundation, 2015).”

Now I was brought up in what was then a left-wing home and there’s not one thing in what Castles says above that my parents and we siblings would have disagreed with.

Reading is everything. It lifts people out of poverty. It gives people power over their lives, their health, their education, their prospects, their imagination, their future.

Interestingly, intriguingly, confoundingly, the propagandists for Whole Word or what is now called, misleadingly, “phonics in context”, always push the importance of the home environment and how parents are responsible for encouraging a rich reading environment to supplement what is happening at school.

Hello? Have they been to Struggle Street lately? This rich environment is the very thing that will often be missing from the home of a child whose parents are dueling with poverty and juggling jobs to do their damned best to stay afloat and keep their families fed. Then there are the families, affected by drugs, alcohol or depression and hopelessness, where the kids are left to drift.

These are the very children who could find a way out of their circumstances if they only knew how to read – taught at school by teachers experienced in systematic phonics.

Surely that is far more important than politics?


We read for enjoyment but we also read to understand ourselves and our world. In a new book, lawyer Adam Wakeling throws light on the Pacific War Crimes Trials with Stern Justice, to published early next month by Penguin Random House. Unlike the 1946 Nuremberg trials, these trials between 1945 and 1951 – which pursued the war criminals of the Japanese armed forces, with the last execution held in 1951 – have been mostly forgotten but they represented the “first time Australia had taken an independent role in the enforcement of international law”.

Wakeling is forensic in his recapitulation of historical events but he also has an excellent and merciless eye for detail. Hard to forget Captain Hoshijima Susumi (in the centre of the above photo, with his defence counsel, courtesy Australian War Memorial 133913) who had been the commandant of the Sandakan POW camp.

An engineer by training and known for his arrogance and responsibility for countless deaths, Hoshijima seemed to go out of his way to inflict cruelty on his hapless prisoners and once hit a man so hard in the face with a stick the prisoner lost his eye. He went to the gallows, having defiantly protested his innocence, in a white silk shirt, grey riding breeches and polished leggings, giving “a cheeky grin”.

Twenty-seven per cent of western Allied prisoners died in captivity to the Japanese because of brutality, starvation, torture and execution compared to 4 per cent of those held by the Germans and Italians. As Australia heard stories of nurses being marched out to sea and shot and of their soldiers being used for bayonet practice in Papua amongst other barbarities on the Sandakan death march and on the Burma Railway, there was “violent anti-Japanese feeling” and “public opinion ran strongly against anything resembling leniency, and many voices in the popular media were quite keen on revenge”.

However, there were other calls, Wakeling writes. One MP who had been held prisoner in Changi, Adair Blain, argued about the responsibility of teaching the former enemies to live in peace with Australia. Then Attorney-General and Minister for External Affairs Herbert Vere Evatt, who guided the Australian government, maintained the trials had to be driven by “profound feelings of justice”, not revenge.

Given revulsion over the Allied atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the book makes fascinating reading all these decades later and Wakeling is masterful in his sensitivities as he chronicles Japan’s transition to peaceful democracy.


In all the heat about the population debate and the congestion in Sydney and Melbourne, there’s one thing that might help cool tempers and tensions, and that’s a plea for pavement politeness.

I’m not pointing the finger at any race, or any age-group, nor am I dog-whistling about immigration given how clueless some Australians now are about footpaths, but I can state, fairly, that if you were mostly brought up in Australia and if you are of a certain age, you will know how to walk along a pavement.

I was inspired to write this after trying to meet a friend at David Jones at 4pm on a recent Friday. It was like trying to part the Red Sea.

I also remember an elderly couple in Dusseldorf once stopping me as I walked along their German pavement, forgetting that they drive on the right and so I should walk on the right instead of the left. They gently but firmly enlightened me.

So here are the rules for here.

Keep to the left.

Overtake on the right.

Walk in a straight line and at a good pace, or even a brisk pace. Keep your elbows and bags tight to yourself.

Here’s what you don’t do.

Walk three abreast.

Walk three abreast and at a speed of approximate 0.5km an hour.

Walk three abreast looking at your phones so you don’t notice people trying to get past you.

Walk two abreast but with great big bags on your backs which thwack into people as you turn this way and that to admire the shops or talk to each other.

Walk singly, but in such a meandering way that it means that – mystifyingly  – it’s almost impossible for anyone-else to get past you.

And so on.

As the city congestion gets worse – and until our politicians and big end of town can work out that things are getting dire and not because Australians are inherently racist or age-ist – we are starting to behave like any animals who are pushed into more and more overcrowded situations. We’re snappy, snarly, ready to take offence quickly.

I’m willing to bet that better pavement behaviour, especially at peak periods, would do wonders for civility and our natural sense of hospitality.

A friend recommends that whoever is responsible for our pavements should start drawing lines down the middle so people at least know what side to walk on.

It’d be a start.


Here’s a reality check on our new reality. Last month, for this blog, I wrote about David Graeber’s new book Bullshit Jobs and a few other authors who had decided to challenge the rise of BS and BS-speak in the business world.

Given we now live in the age of the activist CEO – same sex marriage, diversity, Male Champions of Change etc – I didn’t think it such a stretch to ask, when I posted that blog on my LinkedIn page, whether we could find some straight-speaking CEOs to spearhead a campaign against BS and all its enervating effects.

This was especially in light of Business Bullshit author André Spicer’s plea to return to plain English: “The aim would not just be bullshit-spotting. It would also be a way of reminding people that each of our institutions has its own language and rich set of traditions which are being undermined by the spread of the empty management-speak.

(My italics.) “It would try to remind people of the power which speech and ideas can have when they are not suffocated with bullshit. By cleaning out the bullshit, it might become possible to have much better functioning organisations and institutions and richer and fulfilling lives.”

Think of it. Better functioning organisations there for the asking if we just cut out BS.

For this campaign, I was thinking of someone like Brian McNamee, soon to return to CSL as chair having been its very successful CEO for over 20 years before leaving in 2013. Possibly outspoken advertising man/environmentalist Geoff Cousins.

This last blog got over 200 views when I also posted it on my LinkedIn page and that’s with my paltry few connections, and I received several good comments in person and email.

But here’s something intriguing. Not one person who saw my suggestion on LinkedIn ever engaged with my challenge or even raised it.

So, here we are in the 21st century, and we can easily imagine CEOs speaking up for diversity and same sex marriage, but we cannot seem to visualize a CEO who might be brave enough to say “No more!” to BS speak and BS jobs and BS in general, all of which we know exist and in crushing, mile-high dung piles.

Doesn’t that tell you something about the truth of our times?


How do we ever escape the form-filling, constant logging-in and bureaucracy that seem designed to ensnare us, while allowing our captors – digital empires, lawyers, even theatres that won’t let us buy a ticket until we’ve created an account and given them every basic detail of our lives – to go free.

This is a clip about releases from one of my favourite films, Ghost Town, with Ricky Gervais, which is now, courtesy of our digital rulers, impossible to buy as a DVD even though it was only made in 2008: