Schools in Western Australia have used phonics programs to transform students’ under-achievement in literacy.

Hillcrest Primary School in WA reports fantastic improvement in its children’s reading age while a report claims that O’Sullivan Beach School, south of Adelaide, SA found children in Year R-2 had a reading age seven months ahead of their chronological age and a spelling age nine months ahead. 

Liz Ford, Hillcrest Primary School’s Associate Principal, said that, as the school’s literacy leader, she found no consistency in what children were taught.

“Up until that point teachers were using a variety of methods to teach children to read and write, none of which were working for them,” she says.

“Prior to the whole school literacy focus, our results in the National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy varied with many students falling below the expected level in both spelling and grammar.

“Over a period of 17 months, the reading age of students, using the Waddington test as a baseline, increased from a minimum of 21 months to 34 months in the older grades”.

“In 2016, all students were at, or above, the expected national level in spelling and grammar”.

“Teachers worked collaboratively to implement a phonics program through the school and it ensured effective transitioning between classes,” Ford says.

Ford jointly presented Hillcrest Primary School’s achievements at a phonics conference in London, to trainers and representatives from 20 countries. 

Rita Pinnock, a Year 1 teacher at Hillcrest Primary School, proudly says that children love the songs and movement when learning phonics and grammar.

“I found the step-by-step approach to learning letter sounds, blends and digraphs, learning letter formation and spelling tricky words greatly assisted children in learning to read and write,” she says.

“As our teaching is multi-sensory and active, the children learn through fun games and activities, as well as using the many written resources, such as the worksheets and books.

“I modify the program for every child, according to its needs, and let them learn at their own pace so that they are continually improving and moving forward,” she says.

Ford runs workshops for parents so that they can assist children at home.      

Two students, Daniel and Savvy, said that they liked to play ‘shoot the sheriff’ to see which child could say the words first and it helped them to learn adjectives, verbs and nouns.

Other children voiced their preference for the Kahoots quiz site where they had four options for a word to find which was the correct spelling. 

Professor Dale Willows, a world literacy expert from the Institute of Studies, University of Toronto in Canada, conducted a study on 500 children aged five and six years using a structured literacy program. 

The research showed that systematic phonics instruction proved effective and should be implemented as part of literacy programs to teach beginning reading as well as prevent reading difficulties.  

Her research study with 200 four-year old children showed that children in the early years could learn sounds very easily. 

Children in the structured phonics program, that had English as their second language, with very little English, learned sound patterns just as quickly as those that had it as a first language. 

Meanwhile, Ford is expanding the circle of her influence onto the world stage forming a network with educators from other countries.

“I am in contact with a school in Hawaii and a teacher in India and we exchange ideas about what we are doing,” Ford says.

She has found a solution to her school’s woes in literacy and is not about to let it go.