Knowing your ‘afters’! EILEANOR DIXON explores the benefits and drawbacks of current grammar tests for UK schoolchildren.

How would you define ‘grammar’? Don’t worry if you find that question difficult. You may not have been taught much about grammar in school but you are still able to use it. According to Crystal (2017, p. 2) “[g]rammar is the study of the way we bring words together in order to make sense”, something we all do every day. So, why has the teaching and testing of grammar been introduced into primary schools, if we are able to use grammar without knowing much about it?

The national curriculum proposes to teach children terminology and the rules of grammar. Children are tested on what they have been taught via SPaG (Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar) tests at the end of Key Stage 1 (seven-years old) and Key Stage 2 (11-years old) (DoE, 2013). Children are given a 45-minute grammar test and a 15-minute spelling test (DoE, 2013).

The introduction of the new curriculum was prompted by an alleged decrease in literacy skills in school leavers. A skill survey conducted by the CBI in 2011 showed that “more than 40% of employers said they were not satisfied with the basic literacy of school and college leavers” (DoE, 2013). So, the aim of this new curriculum is to help children get a better grasp of the use of grammar in order for them, according to the then Education Secretary Elizabeth Truss, to “understand our language, and to use it properly, creatively and effectively” (Shepherd, 2013).

The introduction of the teaching of grammar has received a lot of positive feedback. Aarts (2017) claims that being taught knowledge about grammar is necessary for learning other languages. When a child has a good grasp of the components of English grammar (e.g. tense) they can then use this knowledge to understand how the same components work in a different language (Wyldeck, 2007, p. v).

Moreover, according to the government, the new curriculum has shown a rise in literacy standards of schools. In 2010, a third of children who had finished primary education were not “reaching the expected level”, however this figure has fallen to a fifth since the introduction of the new curriculum (DoE, 2015).

However, the way the children are tested on their knowledge of grammar has proved to be very controversial among parents, teachers and academics. A staggering 98.8% of head teachers who attended the national association of heads conference wanted to put an end to these tests (Sellgren, 2012).

So, what is so wrong with these tests that they have such an alarming amount of head teachers wanting to scrap them?

Firstly, many believe that the SPaG tests easily confuse the children (Michael Rosen, 2016). On the tests, children are asked to label words according to their grammatical function. This can be confusing because there are some words in English that can belong to more than one category depending on the context they are used in. Even university educated adults can be confused by this. In an interview about the SPaG tests, Minister Nick Gibb was asked a question taken from the Key Stage 2 tests and he did not get it right (Boult, 2016). Gibbs was asked to state whether the word ‘after’ was being used as a preposition or a subordinating conjunction in the sentence “‘went to the cinema after I’d eaten my dinner'” (Aarts, 2016). Gibbs labelled ‘after’ as a preposition, which it is in some contexts, however, in this context it was acting as a subordinating conjunction (Aarts, 2016).

Furthermore, these tests teach children that there is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ answer when it comes to grammar, but this is not always the case (Rosen, 2015). People’s use of grammar can change depending on who they are addressing and whether they want to appear more informal or formal (Rosen, 2013). Rosen (2013) demonstrates the flexibility of grammar by showing that either “was or were” can be used in the sentence “‘[i]f the Lord Bew statement … correct'” and it would still be grammatical.

Moreover, Rosen (2016) also argues that children should not be tested on grammar because no-one uses grammar correctly all of the time. Everyone makes typos and mistakes whether that be in writing or speaking. There is a whole job industry on checking and correcting people’s work before publishing it and there is also an industry which plays on the incorrect use of grammar (advertising-copy) (Rosen, 2016).  So, to teach children that they should use grammar correctly all of the time is not realistic nor believable (Rosen, 2016).

So, despite some positive reaction to the introduction of the teaching of grammar into the national curriculum, the way the curriculum proposes to test the children has received a backlash. Do you think there is an alternative to these much opposed SPaG tests?

EILEANOR DIXON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Aarts, B. (2016). Right and wrong answers in grammar tests. Grammarianism

Aarts, B. (2017, May 12). Change the tests, but don’t ditch grammar. Grammarianism.

Boult, A. (2016, May 3). Can you pass this grammar test meant for 11-year-olds. Daily Telegraph 

Crystal, D. (2017). Making Sense: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Department of Education. (2015). Record number of pupils in ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ schools. 

Department for Education. (2013). New grammar, punctuation and spelling tests will raise children’s literacy standards.

Myhill, D., Jones, S., Watson, A., & Lines, H. (2013). Playful explicitness with grammar: a pedagogy for writing. Literacy, 47(2), 103-111.

Rosen, M. (2013, April 5). The Spag test is a hoax. Michael Rosen

Rosen, M. (2015, November 3). Dear Ms Morgan: in grammar there isn’t always one right answer. Michael Rosen

Rosen, M. (2016, April 16). Why SPaG is nasty and dangerous. Michael Rosen

Sellgren, K. (2012, May 6). Heads oppose new punctuation and spelling test. BBC News.

Shepherd, E. (2013, May 20). Eleven-year-olds wake up to compulsory spelling and grammar test. The Guardian

Wyldeck, K. (2007). All you need to about grammar (2nd ed.). Glebe, Australia: Pascal Press.



‘Geck’, ‘chom’ & ‘thazz’! TIFFANY WOODWARD asks: ‘Are UK five-year-olds being taught to read through meaningless words?’

Since 2006, and the publication of the Rose Review on the teaching of reading and writing, the UK government has promoted the use of a literacy method, known as ‘systematic synthetic phonics. This is where children are taught the 44 sounds of English in a specific order – ‘d’ and ‘g’ before ‘ch’ and ‘th’, for example (Jolly Learning; Rose, 2006). Upon learning the sounds, the youngsters then face the challenge of blending them, to pronounce the words of English (Neaum, 2017, p. 2). The majority of educators seemed to understand the reasoning behind the promotion of this method. After all, the Rose Report (2006) was heavily based upon a multitude of research. In an investigation by Johnston and Watson (2005) in Clackmannanshire, children exposed to ‘systematic synthetic phonics’ had a reading age of more than three years above their actual age (Gibb, 2014). Clearly, teachers everywhere wanted their pupils to excel in this way. If the suggested method was to work best for the children, then this was what they would adhere to.

As we might expect, this ceasefire in the so-called ‘Reading Wars’ was relatively short lived. The introduction of a compulsory Phonics Screening Check (test) in 2012, has been strongly opposed by many, not only those teaching phonics (Gibb, 2014). The check assesses the phonic knowledge of children in Year 1, and requires them to read aloud 40 words (Richardson, 2014), which seems like a somewhat straightforward task. However, the checks have been criticised for a variety of reasons, from their extortionate cost (Clark, 2014, p. 13), to the negative influence that they are found to have on the confidence of young and fluent readers (UKLA, 2012).

For many though, the crux of the matter is that half of the words that children are presented with during these checks, are not real words. What are they, if not real words? They are non-words, or ‘pseudo’ words, such as “voo” and “spron” (Richardson, 2014), that children, age five, are expected to be able to break down into sounds, and then blend, to read the word aloud. Spending even a small amount of time in a Year 1 classroom, allowed me to experience the sheer weight that schools place upon learning these non-words. The Year 1 teacher that I observed, spent a significant amount of time practising these non-words with the children. It is difficult to see how rehearsing these non-words, solely in preparation for the checks, helps the children to become better all-round readers.

The check, described by the Department for Education (DfE) as a “short, light touch assessment” (DfE, 2013), is nothing of the sort, according to 87% of teachers questioned, all of whom disagree with their implementation. Ninety-one per cent of teachers questioned, claimed that the checks did not give them any additional insight into the children’s reading abilities (ATL/NAHT/NUT, 2012), which leads many to question whether the checks are fit for purpose. The teachers surveyed claimed that the non-words were a very confusing element for the majority of children, who, in an attempt to make sense of what they were reading, read words like ‘thend’ as ‘the end’ (UKLA, 2012, p. 4). These errors significantly affected their marks in the tests (UKLA, 2012, p. 4).

Of course, avid supporters of the checks refer to a range of advantages associated with their use. Gibb (2014), who claims that phonics should be used as “the sole method for teaching children to decode and identify words”, is one of a number of individuals, who consistently support the use of the checks. The DfE (2013) claim that one of the main benefits of early testing, is that children who might be struggling with reading can be spotted from their cohort at a young age. Teachers and support staff, therefore, will be able to implement the correct support and guidance, to help the child catch up with their peers, and essentially, “close the gap” (Grant, 2014, pp. 22-23).

It is understandable that the early identification of issues in reading, for children is essential to their successful development throughout the key stages. However, it is also important to recognize that the effects of these checks, on teachers, and more importantly, the pupils sitting them, have been negative. If the aim of teaching children to read using a systematic, synthetic phonics method, is to improve the early reading abilities of children, then why are these reading abilities being tested through the reading of words that are not real? Unless five-year-olds request to read Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’ (Davis, 2013, 29) every day, then it seems that the checks will not help them become better readers.

TIFFANY WOODWARD, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


ATL/NAHT/NUT (2012, July). Teachers’ and head teachers’ views of the year one phonics screening check.

Clark, M. (2014). Whose knowledge counts in Government literacy policies and at what cost? Education Journal, 186, 13–16.

Davis, A. (2013). To read or not to read; Decoding Synthetic Phonics. Impact: Philosophical Perspectives on Education Policy (No. 20). 

Department for Education. (2013). The phonics screening check.

Gibb, N. (2014, 16 June). Phonics tests show progressive teaching is doomed to failure. Daily Telegraph

Grant, M. (2014). The effects of a systematic synthetic phonics programme on reading, writing and spelling.

Johnston, R., and Watson, J. (2005). The effects of synthetic phonics teaching of reading and spelling attainment: A seven year longitudinal study. The Scottish Executive Central Research Unit.

Jolly Learning Educational Publisher. Teaching literacy with Jolly Phonics.

Neaum, S. (2017). What comes before phonics? London, United Kingdom: Learning Matters.

Richardson, H. (2014, 28 January). Able readers damaged by phonics, academic says. BBC News. 

Rose, J. (2006). Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading (The Rose Report), Nottingham, United Kingdom: DfES.

United Kingdom Literacy Association. (2012). UKLA analysis of schools’ response to the year 1 phonics screening check.

Children should learn grammar but are the SPaG tests really the way forward? CHLOE BLAKE investigates

Grammar, it is claimed, is classed as being one of the things needed to know to succeed in English. If you have good grammar you can go far in life and reach your potential (Espinoza, 2016). But do we really need to put children through the new rigorous SPaG tests to prove that they know how to label the function of individual words in sentences?

SPaG tests (Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar) were introduced into the UK primary school curriculum in 2013. They assess children, aged seven and eleven, in an hour long spelling and grammar test.

The tests and associated learning are clearly being promoted by the UK government as beneficial to children’s writing skills. But they have left many teachers and parents very worried about their children’s wellbeing. Espinoza, 2016 (Education Editor for Daily Telegraph) claims that the tests have left even the bright children struggling and they are very demoralizing for the children.

Children are asked to point out the subordinate clauses, the adverbials, conjunctions, relative clauses etc., potentially quite tricky at that age when they haven’t been learning grammar for very long. Children are already able to use these grammatical constructions in their day to day life so what are the benefits of being able to point them out in a sentence?

Grammar can be very difficult to define. The linguist David Crystal (2017) defines grammar as “the study of how sentences work”. This is very similar to the UKLA’s (United Kingdom Literacy Association) definition –  “[g]rammar is the study of how we make sense in speaking or writing so that we can understand people who speak the same language as we do” (Reedy & Bearne, 2013). So grammar, in essence, is referring to the structure of sentences.

When children are using language in formal contexts in schools they are expected to use standard grammar. Standard English is classed as a dialect and is one of the many varieties used in English (Trudgill, 2000). There will be dialect variation across the UK but each child will be expected to use standard English when completing the test, putting pressure on children to know when to use their regional dialect and when to use standard English.

The government argue that because grammar involves the basic building blocks of language, being taught grammar in the classroom will mean children can reach their full potential in life because without it they will fall behind (Hudson, 2016).  Letts (2013) supports the explicit teaching of grammar in schools  stating that “[g]rammar is the coat hanger on which language can hang [meaning] – [i]t provides structure for sentences”. They support the government’s stance claiming that not only will children learning grammar help with job applicants but it will train their minds. Children learning grammar is important but is going to the extent of testing them via SPaG tests really necessary? Is there not a way of making it more fun for children?

According to Myhill (2010) there is little evidence to prove that teaching grammar to children helps their writing. Children learn grammar better and find it more exciting by writing stories. Not only does it help their writing skills but it helps develop a wide variety of others such as making sense of the world, understanding emotion and sequencing time (Bousted, 2016). This then helps their development of grammar by exploring other ways of writing. Surely learning through this way is more enjoyable for not only the children but the teachers as well? Can children not be tested on their grammar through their stories rather than through SPaG tests?

The government are setting the children up to fail in a sense. When it comes to grammar there isn’t always one correct answer. The SPaG tests don’t make this clear, for each question there is only one answer. This may leave children more confused later in life because they are having to be untaught something they have previously learnt (Rosen, 2015).

So, do children really need the extra stress of having these long and difficult, potentially demoralizing tests, when they can lean grammar in more of a fun and interesting way?

CHLOE BLAKE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Bousted, M. (2016, January 19). Take this absurdly difficult English test – and see why this generation of students will be alienated by education. Times Educational Supplement

Crystal, D. (2017). Making Sense: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Espinoza, J. (2016, May 9). Students reduced to tears over ‘hardest’ tests, Daily Telegraph

Letts, Q. (2013, May 12). Is good grammar still important? The Guardian.

Hudson, R. (2016). SPaG, a brief history of the teaching of spelling, punctuation and        grammar and the SATs tests.

Myhill, D. (2010). Living language, live debates: Grammar and Standard English. In J.   Davison, C. Daly, & J. Moss (Eds.), Debates in English teaching (pp.63-77). London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Rosen, M. (2015, November 3). Dear Ms Morgan: in grammar there isn’t always one         right answer. The Guardian.

Reedy, D., & Bearne, E. (2013). Teaching Grammar Effectively in  Primary Schools.       United Kingdom: UKLA.

Trudgill, P. (2000). Sociolinguistics: An introduction to language and society. United         Kingdom: Penguin.

UKLA. (2013). UKLA statement on teaching grammar

Tools or rules in schools? KATRINA KITNEY explores the pros and cons of grammar teaching.

Grammar is the backbone of English and all other languages. The importance of the explicit teaching of grammar, and whether it can or should be successfully taught in schools has been an ongoing debate for many years. So, what is the point of grammar teaching in the classroom and how are children assessed on their linguistic abilities? Does having a good knowledge of grammar, such as being able to identify word classes and dissect sentences, help you to use language ‘correctly’?

Most linguists view grammar as a “central component to language” and it is generally understood that an implicit knowledge of grammar is acquired through the exposure to language we have during childhood (Nelson and Greenbaum, 2013, p. 1). However, the UK government has decided that more emphasis should be placed on the explicit learning of grammar in UK schools as advised through the national curriculum, set out by the Department for Education. Although the government acknowledges that the acquisition of grammar does originate in speaker interaction at an early age, more emphasis is definitely placed on the teaching of “correct grammar” within classrooms (The National Curriculum, 2013, p. 9).  

In recent years, statistics have shown below standard results in English reading and writing tests for primary school children. In an attempt to monitor and improve these results, the UK government has introduced the so-called “SPaG” tests (short for Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar) into the national curriculum from May 2013. These compulsory tests for seven and eleven-year olds are another way of the government assessing children, but specifically a way to test children’s grammar, punctuation and spelling abilities. For a taste of what questions appear on the SPaG test, the questions range from identifying a word class or sentence type, to placing the right punctuation or choosing the correct affix for a word.

Since the tests were introduced four years ago, there has been some uncertainty around their effectiveness; a BBC News report stated that the new tests would lead to an even more specified curriculum and it is simply another way of “teaching to the test”. Unsurprisingly, many parents and teachers disagreed with the new assessments, concerned that it places more unnecessary pressure on pupils, who by age 11 are already “sick of a diet of practise SATs and drills” (Sellgren, BBC News education reporter).

Thomason and Ward (2009), suggest that grammar teaching would be more effectively taught if it were introduced as a “tool” that children could use to enhance their language abilities. Not all children are able to critically analyse texts, or find it difficult to identify an adjective from an adverb, but does this mean they aren’t able to produce a good piece of writing? Not according to Hillocks Jr and Smith (1991), who propose that grammar instruction does not improve students writing. They state that consistent research over a ninety-year period has shown that teaching grammar to students within schools has little or no effect (in Wyse, Andrews and Hoffman, 2010, p. 171).

Despite the controversy surrounding the introduction of the new tests, there are still benefits to the enforcement of grammar teaching in schools. Test scores have increased annually since May 2015, with 77% of students reaching the expected targets in May 2017, up 5% from May 2016 (Ward, 2017); showing an improvement in children’s grammatical skills. Furthermore, Crystal (2004, p. 24) suggests that the main advantage of learning grammar, is grasping the concept of meaning. The more capable we are of understanding grammar and how it works, the more we can express ourselves and observe how we (and those around us) use language.

Grammar is most definitely an important aspect of English (and any language) and I support any attempt to improve children’s grammatical abilities. However, I don’t agree with the government’s approach to enforcing tests on pupils as young as seven, who are already facing several more years in an education system where you are continuously tested and placed against targets. I believe that rather than enforcing grammar as an abstract set of rules, it could be more beneficial to teach children how to use grammar in context, allowing them to play and explore language and be creative within their writing.

KATRINA KITNEY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Crystal, D. (2004). ‘A twenty-first century grammar bridge’. In Davison, J., Daly, C. and Moss, J.  (2010). Debates in English Teaching. Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Department for Education (2013). The National Curriculum in England: Key Stages 1 and 2 framework document

Hillocks, G., Jr and Smith, M. (1991). Grammar and Usage. In Wyse, D., Andrews, R. and Hoffman, J. (2010). The Routledge International Handbook of English, Language and Literacy Teaching. Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Nelson, G., & Greenbaum, S. (2013). An introduction to English grammar. Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Sellgren, K. (2012, May 6). Heads oppose new punctuation and spelling test. BBC News.

Thomason, T., & Ward, G. (2009). Tools, not rules. Durham, CT: Eloquent Books.

Ward, H. (2017, July 4). Sats: 61 per cent of pupils reach expected standard in three Rs. TES

Fronted adverbials & subjunctives. Do children really need to know how to describe the nuts and bolts of grammar? AIMEE KERR discusses the SPaG tests.

Did you find it problematic when you left primary school not knowing what a fronted adverbial is? Grammar is something relatively indescribable by the average adult. So why are we asking our country’s 11-year-olds to do just this? The recent introduction of SPaG (Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar) tests in 2013 has raised serious concerns and sparked a debate, despite the tests being younger than the children subjected to them. There are varying opinions as to whether formal assessment of the skills required by these tests are necessary for children in Key Stage 2.

The tests were introduced into the curriculum to “raise children’s literacy standards” and the Department for Education (DfE) (2013) explains that they, “are in line with the international best practice”. The DfE was informed by the Bew Review (2011), an independent review of the assessment system we were giving to our 11-year-olds. The review was largely concerned with there being no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers. Instead the mark to be given in any assessment was to be based on a judgement of children’s writing. The SPaG tests do exactly what they say on the tin; they test for spelling, punctuation and grammar, something the UK government feels improves the writing abilities of children. However, are there ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers for grammar as argued by Lord Bew? Even if there are, does explicitly teaching children rules of grammar benefit them?

Michael Rosen, writer, broadcaster, and political columnist, reports in The Guardian (2015) that the, “evidence-free assumption” that there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers to grammar is shown to be wrong. He states that the 2016 SPaG test suffers from ‘terminology-itis’ and it requires children assuming that there is a universal agreement on grammatical terminology. Even linguists have no concrete assumptions on what is a standard grammar, arguing that it is constantly changing. Children are even being tested on something experts believe doesn’t exist – the subjunctive (e.g. ‘If I were to know about grammar…’). If it were to exist, would it even matter? I’m sure the majority of people do not think about using a ‘subjunctive’ when writing emails. Why are we teaching and testing children on something so archaic? When considering whether decontextualised teaching of grammar is beneficial, The United Kingdom Literacy Association (UKLA) explains that, “[r]epeated studies such as Andrews et al. (2006) have shown no evidence that grammar teaching out of context has any beneficial effect on reading and writing.” (2013). Sellgren (2012) on BBC News argues that the money spent on these tests is being wasted and that it would be used more effectively on teacher training.

There are those that believe these tests are the new way of boosting our children’s  literacy skills, allowing them to excel at writing and, later in life, help them better their chances of greater employment opportunities. Wiens, CEO of, has potential employees take a grammar test before being welcomed to the company. He aligns himself with Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves (2003), explaining that he has, “ “a zero tolerance approach” to grammar mistakes that make people look stupid” (Wiens, 2015). Truss has an incredibly prescriptive approach to people who mix up their ‘it’s’ and ‘its’, saying they “deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot, and buried in an unmarked grave” (Truss, 2003, pp. 43-44). Wiens believes that people who mix these up deserve to be passed on, despite them being perfectly qualified for the job. Sounds a little harsh. This argument is one main reason Elizabeth Truss, Secretary of State for Education and Childcare 2012-2014, introduced SPaG tests to the curriculum. She argued the 45-minute grammar test will improve literacy skills so that employers won’t, “bemoan the poor literacy of so many school and college leavers” (DfE, 2013).

There are some positive insights into teaching grammar, though later on in Key Stage 3. Myhill, Jones, Watson, & Lines (2013) found that, when in context thanks to real world examples, grammar teaching does improve students’ writing by as much as 20 per cent. This not only begs the question as to how we should teach grammar, but also when we should teach grammar.

The debate goes on. Is grammar teaching necessary? If so, when should we start teaching children? How should we teach grammar? While grammar is a fundamental aspect of language, it is the methods used to teach children grammar that have the most impact on their learning. I believe SPaG tests are unnecessary, as context and grammar go hand in hand, something government ministers seem not to understand. As for companies refusing to employ someone due to a misplaced apostrophe, is this really the worst thing someone could have done to make them unemployable?

AIMEE KERR, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Andrews, R. C., Torgerson, S., Beverton, A, Freeman, T., Lock, G., Low, G., Robinson, A., & Zhu, D. (2006). The effect of grammar teaching on writing development. British Education Research Journal, (32)1, 39-55.

Bew, P. (2011). Independent review of Key Stage 2 testing, assessment and accountability. DfE.

Department for Education. (2013). New grammar, punctuation and spelling test will raise children’s literacy standards.

Myhill, D., Jones, S., Watson, A., & Lines, H. (2013). Playful explicitness with grammar: a pedagogy for writing. Literacy, 47(2), 103-111.

Rosen, M. (2015, November 3). Dear Ms Morgan: in grammar there isn’t always one right answer. The Guardian.

Sellgren, K. (2012, May 6). Heads oppose new punctuation and spelling test. BBC News.  

The United Kingdom Literacy Association. (2013). UKLA statement on teaching grammar. UKLA.

Truss, L. (2003). Eats, shoots and leaves: The zero tolerance approach to punctuation. London, United Kingdom: Profile Books.  

Wiens, K. (2012, July 20). I won’t hire people who use poor grammar. Here’s why. Harvard Business Review.

Does a ‘one-size-fits-all approach’ work when teaching young children to read? ELEANOR HEATON investigates synthetics phonics screening checks

In 2007, England introduced synthetic phonics lessons in primary schools following the suggestion of the Rose Review (2006) which claimed success in this style of teaching after a study in Clackmannanshire (Scott, The Guardian). Then in 2012, this systematic synthetic phonics style of teaching was adopted nationally (Sellgren, 2013) and continues now to be the main way children are taught to read. Pupils are educated to recognise phoneme and grapheme relations separately and then they are taught to blend these together to read a word (Lyle, 2014, 69). For instance, the letters (or graphemes) <c> + <a> + <t> when pronounced as their individual sounds (phonemes) /k/ + /æ/ + /t/ should be blended together to make /kæt/. According to Lyle (2014: 69) “[i]t assumes that simple decoding is all that is required in reading and aims to teach the sounds of individual letters and the 44 phonemes of English”. The Rose Report resulted in drastic changes to the reading scheme. This impact causes a great deal of controversy on how children should effectively learn to read.

The Rose Report (Rose, 2006) stated that the Searchlights model which sculpted the current reading scheme, and first used in 1998 (Dean, 2013, p22-23) must be scrapped and be replaced by the Simple View of Reading model (Glazzard and Stokoe, 2013, p47-48). The Searchlights model placed a clear emphasis on phonics, but also how the knowledge of context, grammar and graphic/word recognition should be reinforced too (Education Skills Committee, 2004-05). It implied that decoding and comprehension complemented each other, and that a variety of strategies can be used to teach children how to read (Education Skills Committee, 2004-05). It should not rely solely on phonics (Education Skills Committee, 2004-05). However, Sir Jim Rose stated in his report that decoding and comprehension are two distinct skills and should be taught separately (which is shown in the simple view of reading model) and that phonics should be the only focus when teaching how to read. UK Education secretary at the time, Michael Gove, stated that phonics is the most successful way of teaching children to read and the government argued children must be drilled with one single approach that focuses on phonetic correspondence.

Therefore, to test a child’s ability to read, the government introduced phonics screening checks in 2012 which requires year 1s to read aloud 40 words – 20 real words and 20 made-up (pseudo words) ( With their knowledge of phonics, they should be able to individually decode each of the words ( The argument behind using pseudo words is that they are new to children and if they can decode these words they can decode any unfamiliar words ( Also, using a mixture of words can highlight if a child needs extra help. The government screening check teacher training video ( demonstrates pupils reading aloud each word presented to them in isolation. At times they do appear to be put under unneeded pressure whilst they are examined to correctly pronounce a word. Whilst it may seem acceptable to judge a child’s reading ability to the government, I and many others disagree with this ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Not all children learn to read at the same pace so why should they be tested the same and feel judged and criticised if they fail the test. Furthermore, some words do not follow the rules of phonics (e.g. ‘who’ and ‘was’) and are not spelled the way they sound ( This can add even more confusion to a child when tested in this way.

Despite the government’s efforts to convince us all that a systematic synthetic phonics approach is the best, there are still people who favour a whole word approach. This requires children to learn large numbers of words and not break them down into smaller units (Walker-Gleaves and Waugh, 2017, p51). They can then guess a word if they are unsure by using other words in a sentence as a clue and rely on context (Walker-Gleaves and Waugh, p51). Those who support the whole word approach state that it does not ‘drill’ children in letters and it makes reading more pleasurable and authentic (Willingham, 2015, p76). This focuses more on comprehension than isolated words in tests, but it can also be criticised that this way takes longer, and it is not practical with one teacher in a class of 30 pupils.

Since both phonics and whole word styles of teaching can have its pros and cons, why not adopt a new method based on a combination of approaches when teaching children to read? Could this be the solution to suit everyone? As the Searchlights model previously suggested, it is possible to teach children with a variety of strategies (‘cues’) where comprehension and phonics complement each other. The current methods focus directly on a one-size-fits-all idea and the same phonics screening checks to test different children on their different reading abilities can seem unfair. Phonics should not be the only method to teach literacy skills.

ELEANOR HEATON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Dean, G (2013). Teaching Reading in the Secondary Schools, Second Edition. London: Routledge.

Glazzard, J and Stokoe, J. (2013). Teaching systematic synthetic phonics and early English, Northwich: Critical Publishing Ltd. Phonics.

Great Britain, Parliament. House of Commons, Education and Skills Committee. (2005). Teaching Children to Read: Eighth Report of Session 2004-05, London, United Kingdom: The Stationery Office.

LCP. Phonics Screening – Why Use Pseudo Words?

Lyle, S. (2014). The Limits of Phonics Teaching. School Leadership Today, 5 (5). 68-74.

Scott, K. (2010, January 19). Phonics: lost in translation. The Guardian.

Sellgren, K. (2013, June 5). Phonics Test: ‘accurate but unnecessary’.

Rose, J. (2006). Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading.

The Understood Team. (2017). Decodable Words vs. Sight Words: How They Compare. Understood. 

Walker-Gleaves, C and Waugh, D. (2017). Looking After Literacy: A Whole Child Approach to Effective Literacy. London: Sage.

Willingham, D. (2015). Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do. San Francisco: Wiley.

Is compulsory synthetic phonics the way forward? LUKE STOKOE engages with ‘The Reading Wars’

Controversies around how to teaching literacy skills to young children have often been labelled ‘The Reading Wars’. The debate was reignited in the UK in 2006 when the Rose Report recommended the teaching of synthetic phonics in schools, begging the question, is this the correct choice and is the war finally over?

Michael Gove would suggest yes. In 2013, in his role as Minister for Education, he claimed that “systematic, phonics instruction by a teacher is the most effective and successful way of teaching children to read”.

Synthetic phonics is the practice of teaching children to read multiple new letters and sounds together by blending – pronouncing them as a unit, not individual letters (Johnson and Watson, 2014). An alternative would be the whole word approach to reading, which encompasses remembering the shape of a whole word and its pronunciation.

Under the current synthetics phonics scheme, children are taught phonics over the course of Year 1, (aged 5-6), with further learning supplementing the government’s “Letters and Sounds” programme in Year 2.

There are many reasons that synthetic phonics is favoured by the government, including claims of faster progress and outperforming non-phonics classes. It allegedly also boosts the abilities of students when dealing with unknown words, as the sounding method taught in phonics allows them to pronounce it correctly more times than not, the first time they see a word (Krashen, 2002).

However, the main argument raised against synthetic phonics is not the idea that people should “learn to read by reading”, as was suggested by Goodman (1982) relating to the comprehension hypothesis, which states that any skill is learnt via practicing that skill. The central complaint against compulsory synthetics phonics teaching is that the children are not taught to read in context and are expected to only read one word at a time even though experts like Rumelhart (1976) would suggest otherwise, stating that reading is a “simultaneous, multi-level interactive processing”. This effectively means that reading is not reading without some meaning being attributed to the word, it is simply decoding (pronouncing). The issue concerning parents and teachers alike is not only angst as to whether this system will kill children’s love of reading before it has even developed, by making learning to read boring and too complex, as suggested by Michael Rosen (2012). Rather, the final nail in the synthetic phonics coffin is the compulsory, national tests that accompany the programme.

The tests were rolled out nationally for the first time in 2012. They consisted of children being asked to pronounce 40 words, half of which are so-called ‘pseudo words’ (invented words), that has met with substantial opposition from teachers. The pass rate in 2012 was 58%, which rose to 80% by 2016, as reported by Adams in The Guardian (2016).

Encouraging, yes, but all that may display is that teachers are now better equipped to teach to the tests.

All told, the vitriol and contempt with which the two main sides of the debate refer to one another’s arguments is counter-productive. The idea that only one method should be used to teach children to read is flawed, with Michael Rosen (2012), stating, “One size fits all typically fits no one”. One academic opinion supporting this idea, provided by Willingham (2015), is that perhaps a mixture of these main methods would be beneficial to more pupils. Surely, all anybody wants is for children to succeed? If so, why not seek to create as fair and accessible a system as possible?

LUKE STOKOE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Adams, R. (2016, September 29). Phonics test results rise again but poorer pupils lag behind. The Guardian.

Goodman, K. (1982). Language, Literacy and Learning. London: Routledge.

Johnston, R and Watson, J. (2014). Teaching synthetic phonics in primary schools. London: Sage Publications Ltd. 

Krashen. S. (2002). Defending whole language: The limits of phonics instruction and the efficacy of whole language instruction. Reading Improvement, 39(1), 32-42.

Rose, J. (2006) Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading: Final Report

Rosen, M. (2012, May 3). My thoughts on the Year 1 phonics screening test. Michael Rosen Blog.

Willingham, D. (February 2015). And the victor in the reading wars is… Times Educational Supplement, pp. 24-28.

How easy is it to read ‘bread’ and ‘bead’? LUKE EDWARDS explores synthetic phonics.

The teaching of literacy skills to UK children has been the subject of a long running debate. Literacy is obviously a key part of learning as it sets a foundation for children in later life. However, in the past the different teaching methods could be confusing, with a child being taught one method in one school which is vastly different to that of children in a neighbouring school.

This is why the UK government proposed ‘synthetic phonics’ as its main literacy method. Lyle (2014) explains that learning to read using a phonics method is about looking at the sounds (or ‘phonemes’) that letter combinations make. English itself contains 44 phonemes. The Dyslexia Reading Well provides a full coverage of these phonemes. This is the UK government’s approved method of teaching as it is more quantifiable than other methods – it is easier to test and therefore teachers can work out pupils’ reading level. It is also allegedly easier to learn and memorise 44 phonemes than learn via reading in context which requires a child to learn the shapes of whole words based on context and prior experience.

Synthetic phonics is primarily aimed at five-to-seven-year-olds though there is some degree of vocal ‘play’ before this age. This would involve games, singing, alliteration and other language play (Johnston & Watson, 2014). Then in Year One they begin being taught phonics to its full extent. The teaching starts with looking at words, segmenting them to understand the different phonemes involved. This is also done the opposite way,  phonemes being blended together to form whole words. These practices are then applied to reading and spelling (Johnston & Watson, 2014). After this children are taught ‘digraphs’; whilst this sounds daunting, a digraph is simply a pair of letters representing a single speech sound.

At the end of the digraph stage they have learnt all the phonemes taught in the current guide. They will then learn the alternative pronunciations of some phonemes (Johnston & Watson, 2014). This involves the differences in the pronunciation of words such as ‘bread’ and ‘bead’. These words both have the /ea/ phoneme followed by  a /d/. This is one of the key issues with phonics teaching as it confusing for children to learn the irregular forms of words (Lyle, 2014, pg. 70). This is compounded by the quantity of irregular sounding words the English Language has developed and adopted over its life.

There are many compelling views from both sides of the phonics debate. Some researchers and academics such as Sue Lyle, Andrew Davis and Michael Rosen object to a solely phonics based approach. Lyle (2014) believes that reading and understanding words in context is more important to children’s learning than learning the pronunciation. Davis appreciates some of the key arguments in favour of the phonics method but disagrees with it as a sole method.  He states, similar to Lyle, that he is against the “imposition of text decoding outside of ‘real’ reading contexts” (Davis, 2013, pg. 14). He also has a chapter dedicated to the statement “letter sounds and decoding is not reading” (Davis, 2013, pg. 19) again giving weight to the idea that there are other important aspects of reading aside from phonemic spelling. Michael Rosen’s (2013) blog which also follows the opinions of Lyle and Davis in the idea that phonics is not truly reading.

In his report, that is one of the key studies that led to the implementation of phonics teaching , Sir Jim Rose (2006) suggested that the older methods risked “paying insufficient attention to the critical skills of word recognition” (Rose,2006, pg. 36). The phonics method provides a set outline of how to teach a large class all at once rather than a teacher having to attempt one to one reading with 30 children which is a somewhat daunting task. The phonics approach is also quantifiable, as mentioned above, and there is currently a test in place that tracks a child’s understanding of phonics.
So in the UK, currently the phonics approach is prevailing. What are your thoughts and experiences of learning to read and write? Although it may be an easier way to teach a full class in a measurable way, is phonics truly learning to read?

LUKE EDWARDS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Davis, A. (2013). To read or not to read: decoding Synthetic Phonics

Dyslexia Reading Well. ‘The 44 Phonemes in English’.

Johnston, R and Watson, J. (2014). Teaching synthetic phonics in primary schools. London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Lyle, S. (2014). The limits of phonics teaching. School Leadership Today 5 (5), 68-74.

Rose, J. (2006). Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading: Final Report 

Rosen, M. (2013) Phonics: a summary of my views. Michael Rosen